Saturday, January 30, 2021

Book Review: Venus in the Blind Spot

Venus in the Blind Spot 
by Junji Ito
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A terrifying collection of Japanese stories. These graphic novel short stories are all classics in Japan; and I can definitely see why.
I had two struggles with this book of stories:
1) Forgetting to read right to left. It's a bit odd as the pages flip right to left (like English books); but the pages themselves are read right to left (not left to right as most are used to). So I had to keep reminding myself. I think I'd have preferred the book was bound 'backwards' where you read back to front as then I wouldn't have been so likely to forget which place to start on each page.
2) Some of these stories are burned into my brain. Like weeks after having read some of the early ones I'm still seeing them and remembering them. Given how much I read; and that I'm generally not awesome at details, it disturbs me how ingrained a few of these are on my brain. The only things that truly ever stick in my brain like that normally are terrifying or horrific. Although I suppose it supports my thought that this is an intense horror collection!
Please enjoy some quick notes/words about each story:

Story #1 - Billions Alone
Well that was truly scary. Like disturbing scary. Love it! (please don’t judge me, lol). This is so creepy to read while on lockdown from a pandemic (March 2020). It could be the story of the virus; if instead of getting sick you got sewn together dead... *shudder*

Story #2 - The Human Chair
I can barely concentrate on this story because I’m still thinking about the first...
Yep if I was home alone I’d be freaked right out. The chair I sit in at home is a laz-y boy and so it’s large and cushy like the one in this story. Even with my husband home I have shivers down my back reading this one. So well done.

Story #3 - An Unearthly Love
More disturbing than creepy I think... although the more I consider the story the creepier it becomes.
These first 3 stories are all amazing so far. Now it may also be that my husband playing a creepy video game with creepy music is enhancing the experience... I’m not very smart some days (lol!)

Story #4 - Venus in the Blind Spot
Not nearly as scary as the other stories so far. Interesting perhaps but feels out of place with the other 3 so far. Although it does have a great title.

Story #5 - The Licking Woman
There is something deeply unsettling about this one. It’s got an ick factor for sure; but also just feels too close to how humans do transmit disease. Especially in our current covid world.

Story #6 - Master Umezz and Me
I’m definitely missing something here. Perhaps because I don’t know manga tropes?

Story #7 - How Love Came to Professor Kirida
I feel like this was missing a critical piece but of something. Yet I can’t quite figure out what that might be...

Story #8 - The Enigma of Amigara Fault
No word of a lie I am shaking after reading this one. If you are claustrophobic in any way at all this story is an absolute nightmare.
My main two fears are generally spiders and water (yes all water, but especially dark lakes and the ocean). I think climbing into a mountain-side rock hole might have just shot near the top. *nervous laugh*

Story #9 - The Sad Tale of the Principal Post
You know an artist and writer are good when in four pages, just four pages of panels they can make you shiver. There's a whole other story to be discovered in these four panels; and we will never know what it was...

Story #10 - Keepsake
Maybe it's because I cannot have a child of my own; but I did not find this story nearly as disturbing as some of the others. It's creepy and icky to a certain degree; but not quite as shiver inducing as many of the other stories are.

A fantastic collection of translated 'illustrated' short stories. What do you call a graphic novel when it's not novel size? I honestly don't know.
If you like horror, are interested at all in a taste of Japanese culture, or love good ol' black and white artistry then this collection is for you.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Friday, January 29, 2021

Book Review: Four Profound Weaves

The Four Profound Weaves
by R.B. Lemberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very complex first person narrative with deeply personal sentiments woven in. R. B. Lemberg gives us an OwnVoices story from the perspective of someone trans. We are dropped into a fantasy world with multiple cultures and beliefs with varying magic interspersed between. Four Profound Weaves is the type of book you could write entire English papers on given its depth, subject matter, and complicated core two characters.
While a wonderfully put together book; I personally found the writing style a bit challenging. It was repetitive in places and yet much too vague in others.

First Person POV
There are advantages and disadvantages to a first person narrative as used in Found Profound Weaves. While on one hand we get a deeply personal perspective from the characters and have an opportunity to experience their thoughts and true feelings; we also loose a lot of context and description of the world around us. Especially when the author writes like Lemberg and leaves out the details about the world that a normal person living their life wouldn’t “explain” to themselves. This technique often used in teen novels cheapens the first person narrative to a degree but also helps give context and description to the reader. It’s a difficult balance to find for any author; and for me Lemberg goes too far into the true personal thoughts of the characters and I felt like I didn’t really ever understand the fantasy world they live in.

Personal Insights
The huge benefit of the POV of our two main characters, however, is that we truly feel and know their most intimate thoughts. This allows Lemberg to share with the reader a lot more about how someone trans thinks and feels. There are revelations in here that feel so personal and yet are very insightful to someone on the outside like myself (I am a bisexual female). If you want to truly appreciate an OurVoices novel and learn something new I would highly recommend diving into Four Profound Weaves.
”I did not fit among women, among men.
Even far from home with only myself for company, I did not fit.”

Fantasy and Magic
The reason why this didn’t resonate for me is that I wanted to know so much more about the cultures, magic, and set-up of this fantasy world. In such a short novel we are given so little to truly give the reader more than a notion of what this world encompasses. I know there is a whole collection of books set in this world to search out and read; but I just craved more each time I learned a new perspective or use of the magic. Lemberg has setup a fantasy world with my personal favourite type of magics; ones that have consequences. Not only draining strength of the user, but also misfiring or causing unintended harm. Near the end of the book more of this is seen and understood but I wanted so much more and struggled to stay engaged without this larger context at times.

This is a special story given its insights into the thoughts and feelings of someone trans. As a fantasy book it lacked a certain detail and context I personally crave. There is a lot of potential in this fantasy world; and even for our two lead characters to continue telling us their stories. If the narrative were slightly different and more depth given to the actual fantasy world I think I would have loved this. As it stands now I struggled in places to keep going. I’m glad I did as the ending is wonderful and I do think there is something special to this book. Definitely one of those try it out and see if you like it books; especially if you want an OwnVoices trans representation. I’m confident anyone will find something to think about from the thoughts our characters share with the reader. Kudos to Lemberg for giving such a huge personal chunk of themselves over for the reader to experience and understand.

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

Book Review: Once and Future Witches

The Once and Future Witches 
by Alix E. Harrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My high expectations have been upheld and more! Our trio of witchy sisters is perfect. The romance, the fear, the heartache, physical and mental torture... the list goes on. Add to that mini retellings of famous fairy tales or fables, twisted versions of nursery rhymes or songs that are used to chant spells, AND some of the best LGBTQ+ representation (that didn’t feel forced or faked at all); and you get one of my fave books I’ve read in the last 2 years. This stand-alone novel by Alix E. Harrow is a brilliant work of literature that brings so many believable, yet unique, elements together from our world and sets us in a world where the magic works.

If I were to have one teeny tiny criticism of The Once and Future Witches it could be that it ignores that Paganism and/or Wicca exist as religions in our world. Although I suspect Harrow did this in order to simplify the difference between a religion in our world and the actual magical calling in her own. Obviously the spells that Witches perform today are more prayers than anything as they do not have instant success like those in the book. As a solo practitioner of Wicca for more than 20+ years I respect her decision to disregard the magical arts as known in our world and make hers clearly a layer of addition that is fictional.

The Writing
I could probably give you 1000 words on just the magicalness and relevance of quotes in this large novel. Looking at my notes it appears I highlighted more quotes in Harrow's novel than I have in all the books I've read for the last two years! I'm not a big highlight person on my Kobo (and never in a print copy; then they are written down elsewhere or a sticky stuck in to flag quote). So for me to have highlighted so many is very telling. My personal favourite among them all is this:
"Maybe magic is just the space between what you have and what you need.”
This could easily be a movie or limited series (like 8-10 episodes would be perfect). I seriously hope someone like Amazon or HBO is looking to pick this up immediately! I can even imagine some of the actors to be cast. What was weird however was my constant fixation on Giancarlo Esposito (who is POC) as being Gideon Hall. Our evil bad guy has to be a white male. Due to the time period, the racism and sexism invoked means our bad guy can be no one other than a white male. Maybe it's because I just finished watching the Mandalorian; but I couldn't get Esposito as the lead evil out of my head (lol).
Our three sisters elegantly 'fit' into the stereotypes of Mother, Maiden, Crone; and yet at the same time any of them could play any of the three in theory. This we see the fluidity of the female as she ages. The supporting cast really makes a difference here too. While our three women are all caucasian; we have some lovely supporting characters that are POC and the disparity in class and status is well represented. I do wish that there had been more of a certain character or two but it's a large book as it is and I think it balances out nicely.

Clever Re-tellings, Songs & Nursery Rhymes
I've read a lot of retellings of fairy tales, myths, and children's stories over the years. Few are as well done as this. We encounter little stories like Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, and others that are well known. However they are twisted a bit to give us new outcomes or morales. And so that they fit nicely into the core story Harrow is telling us.
There are also little spells at the beginning of each chapter. Each is a snippet of a commonly known nursery rhyme, song, or lyric. For example one of that is slightly twisted is:
"May sticks and stones break your bones, 
And serpents stop your heart. " 
Below that there are instructions about what ingredients are needed for the spell. It's really quite clever and these precede each and every chapter. They were one of my favourite little things.

As my first read for 2021, I have to say that, I'm afraid now that nothing else I read this year will measure up. Although I'm sure that won't be the case; but you just never know.
For anyone who like stories about witches, Salem burnings, magic, women/feminism; but also for those who have a faint interest or desire to read some interestingly spun historical fiction that has real magic.
Without a doubt Alix E. Harrow has become one of my favourite new writers of the last decade and I look forward to many more wonderful stories from her. To date she has written just two books that are both elaborate fantasy stand-alones. This is a refreshing change to a genre that has long been bogged down by unending series, or ones that go for 10+ books and are difficult for new readers to get into. A perfect starting point for someone wanting to try a more modern fantasy story without engaging in a huge time commitment (~550 pages).

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

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