August 2014 “Real Book” Month

All posts tagged August 2014 “Real Book” Month

Battle Royale – Koushun Takami

Published October 11, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Koushun Takami’s notorious high-octane thriller is based on an irresistible premise: a class of junior high school students is taken to a deserted island where, as part of a ruthless authoritarian program, they are provided arms and forced to kill one another until only one survivor is left standing. Criticized as violent exploitation when first published in Japan – where it then proceeded to become a runaway bestseller – Battle Royale is a Lord of the Flies for the 21st century, a potent allegory of what it means to be young and (barely) alive in a dog-eat-dog world. Made into a controversial hit movie of the same name, Battle Royale is already a contemporary Japanese pulp classic, now available for the first time in the English language.

What did I think?:

My sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads bought me this book as a gift as I had been wanting to read it for a long time after watching the Japanese film which has become a cult classic. I read it as part of my August Real Books challenge and was so glad that I finally managed to get round to it as it’s quite a powerful read and stayed with me a long time after I had finished. When The Hunger Games series came out it was compared to this as the premise is very similar i.e. a group of teenagers killing each other until one remains (the victor). But believe me, Battle Royale is a hell of a lot darker and is probably not a young adult read.

Before the story begins the author provides a list of the 42 students that have the misfortune to be chosen to participate in a government experiment that will lead to 41 of them being killed. I have to admit I was slightly nervous at this point due to the fact that they were all Japanese names and I was worried that I would get a bit muddled and not be able to remember whom each character was. The story opens with all 42 classmates who are on a bus on a study trip. Fairly soon, we see this is not the case as each classmate one by one passes out. When they come round they are sat in a classroom and Shuya, who seems to be our main character at this time notices that all of his classmates have a strange metal collar around their necks including himself and when he tried to remove it it will not budge. A man enters the classroom wearing a badge which Shuya notices that means he is affiliated with the government. He informs the confused and groggy students that they are all here today to “kill each other,” and have been selected for the “Program.”

“a battle simulation program conducted by our nation’s ground defense forces, instituted for security reasons. Officially known as Battle Experiment No 68. Program. The first program was held in 1947. Fifty third-year junior high school classes are selected annually to conduct the program for research purposes. Classmates in each class are forced to fight until one survivor remains. Results from this experiment, including the elapsed time, are entered as data. The final survivor of each class (the winner) is provided with a lifetime pension and a card autographed by the Great Dictator.”

Obviously this doesn’t go down too well with the students, and two of them are killed before the “game” officially begins. Let me just warn you that this book is incredibly gory and definitely not for the weak of stomach. It’s probably the most violent thing I have read and yet I couldn’t help myself turning the pages, curious to find out what would happen in the end. Each student is given a pack chosen randomly containing food, water, a compass, a map of the island they are on, and the inevitable weapon. Unfortunately, each weapon differs and depending on the pack they were given, it could contain a rifle or a kitchen fork. Hmm, makes the death scenes slightly different, I suppose? The collars round their neck are also of great importance. First of all, some of the areas of the island will be forbidden at certain times and if a student happens to be in that area at the forbidden time, the collar round their neck will explode. The collar cannot be removed, will explode if it is tried to be removed and is a way of tracking the students by the organisers so they are aware of their whereabouts at any given time. There is also a time limit on the collars, and if no-one is killed within twenty four hours all collars will explode and there will be no winner. Let the “game” begin….

I did enjoy this novel and thought the translation provided by Yuji Oniki was excellent. Each chapter is fairly short which made me want to read on further and I liked how at the end of the chapter an ominous little sentence was provided telling you how many students remained. I was surprised that I didn’t get confused over the mass of Japanese character names, and loved that I got a little insight into a few of the characters personalities, despite some of them being incredibly warped. As I’ve mentioned before, the story is extremely violent and some of the death scenes wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film so if you’re a bit sensitive to that kind of thing, this book is probably not for you. For me, I’m really glad I read it, the novel is graphic, compelling and quite hard to put down. I can definitely see why it has become a bit of a pulp classic and urge those interested to see the film as well as reading the book.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

 

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The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

Published October 8, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul merchant, a member of the ruling caste of Pashums. Hassan, his servant and constant companion, is a Hazara, a despised and impoverished caste. Their uncommon bond is torn by Amir’s choice to abandon his friend amidst the increasing ethnic, religious, and political tensions of the dying years of the Afghan monarchy, wrenching them far apart. But so strong is the bond between the two boys that Amir journeys back to a distant world, to try to right past wrongs against the only true friend he ever had.

The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies.

A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years, The Kite Runner is an unusual and powerful novel that has become a beloved, one-of-a-kind classic.

What did I think?:

I can’t believe I have only just got round to reading this fantastic novel. I’ve had it on my TBR pile for so long, and have actually read the authors two other books without having read his debut and arguably most famous work. The story involves two friends Amir, the boy from the rich side of the tracks and Hazara who lives in poverty with his father as Amir’s fathers servants. The boys are of a similar age and are brought up to play together although it is instantly obvious with whom the power lies in the friendship. Hazara worships the ground his friend Amir walks on and even though he is not given the same opportunities, would do anything his friend asked of him. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Amir, and he takes advantage of his elevated status on a few occasions. On the worst occasion (don’t worry, no spoilers here for those that haven’t read the novel), Hazara is involved in a terrible incident and Amir stands by and does nothing. This turns out to be a mistake that will haunt Amir for the rest of his days, even as he grows up and moves to America, forging a successful career for himself in writing. When an opportunity arises for Amir to redeem himself (although perhaps too late?), he seizes it, rescuing Hassan’s son from a terrible and unimaginable future with some familiar faces.

This book has absolutely everything I consider a great novel to be: drama, tension, heroes and villains and bags of emotion. This is set against a war-torn Afghanistan crumbling as the monarchy is abolished and hopeful for a new start as the Taliban regime is implemented. I love a book where I can have the opportunity to learn about different cultures and customs and everything feels so authentic, as if the reader is smack bang in the middle watching everything unfold around them. Some reviews have criticised the character of Amir as being selfish and spoiled, and yes, of course he is, but it is his efforts to try and right a wrong carried out years ago that redeem him in my eyes and give him that flawed, imperfect and “normal” feeling I love in a character. The father-son relationship between Amir and his Baba was also really intriguing which I enjoyed analysing as the story went on. This is truly a very emotional read, and at parts, I actually had to put down the book and take a few breaths before I continued and when finished, I was emotionally drained but strangely satisfied. There is obviously the horror of war in a way that a lucky Westerner like myself would find hard to understand but I felt almost grateful to the author for bringing it to my attention, reminding us that we are fortunate in so many ways. Beautiful and unforgettable, I think this novel will haunt me for a while and I fully intend to re-read it at some point. My only question is: why on earth did it take me so long to read it in the first place?!

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

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Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – Cordelia Fine

Published October 3, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

A vehement dismantling of the latest pseudo-scientific claims about the differences between the sexes.

Sex-based discrimination is supposedly a relic of the distant past. Yet popular books, magazines, and even scientific articles increasingly defend continuing inequalities between the sexes by calling on immutable biological differences between the male and the female brain. Why are there so few women in science and engineering, so few men in the laundry room? Well, they say, it’s our brains. Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and education, Delusions of Gender rebuts these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, help perpetuate the status quo. This book reveals the brain’s remarkable plasticity, shows the substantial influence of culture on identity, and, ultimately, exposes just how much of what we consider “hardwired” is actually malleable, empowering us to break free of the supposed predestination of our sex chromosomes.

What did I think?:

In my other, non-blogging life, I work as a scientist and every so often you’ll see a review popping up on my blog about a non-fiction book I’ve read that has more than likely been science-y. I’m also a firm believer in gender equality and women’s rights so Delusions of Gender seemed like the perfect mix of science and feminism which encouraged me to pick it up. I found it to be a fascinating read which I learned a lot from and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the differences between our two genders. The book is divided into short chapters with intriguing titles such as “Why You Should Cover Your Head with a Paper Bag if You Have A Secret You Don’t Want Your Wife to Find Out,” “Sex and Premature Speculation,” and “Gender Detectives.” With titles like these you may want to read this book already but let me assure you that the author backs up the humour in her writing with clear facts, possible theories and very strong evidence that lends a note of seriousness into why exactly we still have gender inequality in a modern, 21st century society.

You’d think we’d have come a long way in achieving more rights for women since say, the nineteenth century yet consider this point that the author makes in the introduction. An English clergyman called Thomas Gisborne wrote a manual called “An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex,” and noted that things such as legislation, political economy and the conduct of government should be assigned to men as they have “the powers of close and comprehensive reasoning, and of intensive and continued application.” Whereas, females enjoy “powers adapted to unbend the brow of the learned, to refresh the over-laboured faculties of the wise, and to diffuse the enlivening and endearing smile of cheerfulness.” Ladies, I hope you are extremely insulted right now. But then Fine encourages us to move forward 200 years and look at The Essential Difference written by Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge University psychologist who states “the female brain is pre-dominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.” Hmm… sounds pretty much the same thing as what Gisborne was trying to say in the nineteenth century?

Throughout the book, Cordelia Fine investigates how different males and females really are. Are we all so hard-wired into our gender that there is no wiggle room in terms of qualities we should possess? Is it really a man’s world? Is it absolutely pointless for a woman to even consider a top level management job as it requires stereotypically more aggressive characteristics that for a woman is considered unattractive? I did enjoy the way that the author discredits work carried out by Baron-Cohen, and theories from the author of A Female Brain, Louann Brizendine that seem to want to put males and females in their own little boxes. For example, the assumption that a woman can use more areas of the brain than a man i.e. multi-tasking, was an experiment based on only 14 brains and the conclusions weren’t even statistically significant? In this way, a lot of experiments dealing with differences between the sexes have used just a few subjects, or made scientific “guesses,” depending on what their own stereotypical views were.

This is a brilliant and fascinating book, injected with a little bit of wit and sarcasm which I always appreciate in a non-fiction book and which I think is needed when dealing with this subject which can sometimes be a little bit touchy. I don’t think Baron-Cohen or Brizendine will be amongst her fans if they ever read it but I really enjoyed the way she picked apart neurosexism and shone a light upon the shadier areas of gender research. Oh, and you don’t need to be a scientist to read or enjoy this, it’s very accessible without being patronising.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

The Shock Of The Fall – Nathan Filer

Published October 2, 2014 by bibliobeth

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What’s it all about?:

‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

There are books you can’t stop reading, which keep you up all night.

There are books which let us into the hidden parts of life and make them vividly real.

There are books which, because of the sheer skill with which every word is chosen, linger in your mind for days.

The Shock of the Fall is all of these books.

The Shock of the Fall is an extraordinary portrait of one man’s descent into mental illness. It is a brave and groundbreaking novel from one of the most exciting new voices in fiction.

What did I think?:

I picked up this book at the Hay Festival last year, immediately attracted by its beautiful cover art and intriguing premise. I’ve only just got round to reading it now as part of my “Real Book” month in August, but it was definitely worth the wait. The story is voiced by Matthew Homes, who at 19 years old has been formally diagnosed with schizophrenia although his problems seem to stem from childhood, when he lost his older brother Simon who also had special needs in a terrible accident that Matthew feels to blame for. As a child when Simon was still alive, Matthew felt like his own needs were pushed to the background, as a lot of attention was focused on his brother, and understandably felt slightly resentful as a result. Now Simon is dead, once again Matthew’s needs are not being met as his mother sinks into depression whilst being fiercely over-protective of the son that remains and his father seems vacant and unreachable.

The book chops and changes much like Matthew’s state of mind between the days immediately before the accident and the events afterwards. At one time, Matthew manages to live independently, renting a flat with a friend for a short period. Following that, he lives there alone checked up on by his ever faithful Nanny Noo, a stable person in his life that brings him shopping and keeps an eye on him as well as treating him like a “normal” person. However his mental state begins to deteriorate to such a point that he won’t even answer the door to her, is missing appointments and is not taking his medication. The mental health authorities become increasingly concerned and he is institutionalised for his own safety. Many of his hallucinations and other manifestations of his condition involve his brother Simon and it is obvious that he still has a lot of unresolved issues and guilt about his brother’s death. Realising this, Nanny Noo buys him a typewriter and it is a wonderful tool for Matthew to use to get his feelings down on paper, no matter how rambling and incoherent they might be, as the reader sees his illness progress.

Another way in which this book was so special was the variety of font used which really made certain things pop out to me as the reader. Also, the illustrations and little diagrams (like the Homes family genogram) were a beautiful and unique way of telling the story. Nathan Filer has a background of working in the mental health profession and his knowledge of schizophrenia and the ins and outs of the profession in general makes this novel slightly bitter-sweet but infinitely readable. I actually cannot believe this was his debut novel and it truly deserves the distinction that comes with the Costa Novel of the Year prize. I’m looking forward to what he comes out with next and this time, I definitely won’t wait as long to read it.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

 

 

August 2014 – “Real Book” Month

Published August 1, 2014 by bibliobeth

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I am a lover of “real books.” Oh yes, you remember the things…with actual pages? Not that I don’t love my Kindle or admire its convenience especially on holidays, but there’s just nothing like the feel, smell and satisfaction of enjoying the real thing. Sigh! Anyway, before I get carried away, I’d like to tell you about the plan I have for the month of August, attempting to reduce the amount of books I have in my house – which are starting to take over by the way! So here are the books I will be attempting to get through this month…

Do No Harm: Stories Of Life, Death and Brain Surgery – Henry Marsh

The Shock Of The Fall – Nathan Filer

Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference – Cordelia Fine

The Kiterunner – Khaled Hosseini

Battle Royale – Koushun Takami

The Vanishing Witch – Karen Maitland

The Private Blog Of  Joe Cowley – Ben Davis

Season To Taste or How To Eat Your Husband – Natalie Young

Kindred – Octavia E. Butler

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – Brenda Maddox

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

How To Build A Girl – Caitlin Moran