ARC REVIEW: The Album of Dr. Moreau

Thank you to Tordotcom and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of the eARC

This novella was amazing. I 100% requested it because of the amazing, Warhol-style pop-art cover, but wow this book is just as wonderful inside as it is on the outside.

A douche of a music producer is dead, and the suspects are all the members of the band he managed. But this isn’t a regular boy band. Each other members is unique in an entirely different way… they’re all humanoid animals. Bobby the ocelot, Matt the megabat, Tim the pangolin, Devin the bonobo, and Tusk the elephant all make up the hit boyband known as the WyldBoyZ and now everything is at risk with Dr. M’s death. Not only that, but the investigating detective, Luce Delgado, only has 24 hours to figure it all out before the feds get involved and potentially cause even more trouble.

This novella is a fast paced, locked-room murder mystery full of twists and turns that kept me guess right up until the big reveal. Every major player is incredible sweet and fully developed, drawing you to their side with ease. Not to mention the anthro aspect of each of the boys is such a neat idea and done so wonderfully. This isn’t a “furry story”, but the furry part of my brain was on cloud nine reading about these characters. I wish there was more because I loved it so much, but it’s the perfect length for what the story was and I’ll definitely be purchasing a physical copy come May because wow. I loved this so much.

NON-FICTION REVIEW: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Murakami Haruki is best known for his quiet magical realism, and he brings that same careful hand to this non-fiction book of testimonies regarding one of the most horrifying acts of violence to strike Japan.

True crime fans may or may not know of the Japanese death cult known as Aum Shinrikyo that was responsibly for the horrifying serin gas attack on the Japanese subways back in March of 1995. It was a horrible event that could have been much worse had their plan gone exactly as they had planned. To most, 27 deaths from something like this doesn’t seem like much at all, but the hundreds of people who were injured and that are affected to this day is something that I don’t think many people – especially North Americans – truly comprehend.

Murakami Haruki does an amazing job with the care he put into interviewing the victims of the attack who agreed to step forward and be a part of this book. Their testimonies (while repetitive due to the similar nature of their routines) are so human and heartbreaking, especially when they speak of collegues and friends who died, of the PTSD they suffer, of the rage they feel on behalf of their family members. It is fascinating to read about so many people be so nonchalant about the event and then the contrast against those who are upset about what happened. It’s been three years now since Asahara Shoko (the founder and leader of Aum) was executed as per his death sentence, but it has been on a long time since 1995. I know that reparations are still owed to the victims even to this day. Their suffering continues on even though the source of that pain is finally gone from the world.

I think Underground is an important read to consumers of true crime. It is a very humanizing and humbling read that reminds you that these victims are real people who went through a very real and traumatizing event. It’s easy for us to look at the numbers and not think much of a domestic terrorism attack like this, especially when next to other death cult numbers (such as Jonestown at 909 deaths), but that doesn’t make the event itself any less significant.

I recommend to take this book slowly, reading a testimony or two at a time before setting the book down again, but I recommend it all the same.

REVIEW: re:ZERO ~ Starting Life in Another World 1

As the world awaits for more SAO, Crunchyroll ads seem to be doubling down on promotion for the latest season of re:ZERO. I decided to give this series a try because of all of the Crunchyroll ads across social media. It got me curious. Not to mention how obsessed the anime side of the internet is with Rem. I’m a sucker for an isekai these days, so I jumped right into it.

re:Zero follows Subaru as he is just randomly thrust into a fantasy world while walking home from the store. In the real world he had no goals, no friends, no aspirations. He was constantly cutting class to watch anime or work out and has done nothing with his life. Now in a strange world and armed only with a small bag of snacks, Subaru learns very quickly that something strange is going on. As he offers to help a beautiful girl find a lost item of value, things become an anime version of Groundhog Day, and every time Subaru is killed from biting off more than he can chew, the day starts over in the exact same way it began.

While I loved the premise and the murder-mystery Groundhog Day (or Mystery Spot if you’re a fan of Supernatural – season 3, episode 11, by the way), I found this first volume really struggled with pacing issues. The story doesn’t move fluidly and some of the lengthier parts just felt unnecessary. The translator did a great job of getting the sass and the silly jokes to land properly in English, but despite the entertaining factor in his character, I still don’t know if I like Subaru as the protagonist. He’s funny, sure, but I feel like his growth as a character is going to take a lot longer than it should. I’ll probably continue to the series out of curiosity since Rem and Ram didn’t show up in this volume, but I find myself debating on just watching the anime without reading the books.

REVIEW: JK Haru is a Sex Worker In Another World

Note: This novel is basically hentai and involves heavy amounts of sexual violence as well as gaslighting, physical abuse, gore, violence against sex workers, and toxic relationships

JK Haru is a Sex Worker In Another World was a title I just stumbled across and thought I’d give it a go out of curiosity. I’m often really curious about the depiction of sexual content out of other countries, especially when the countries aren’t as liberal as we are here in Canada, so I was intrigued by the concept of a light novel involving sex work. Especially as an isekai novel (meaning the character is from the “real world” and is transported into a fantasy land).

I won’t lie when I say this wasn’t exactly a good read. I’m not sure if it’s a translation issue or if the writing was originally choppy and disoriented, but the other possibility for why I wasn’t super into it was it felt like it was less of a novel about a sex worker and more of a hentai on paper… I might not have minded that so much had the content not including a huge amount of sexual violence and humiliation towards the girls who worked in the brothel. Maybe the “story” would have worked better in an adult manga or as a straight-up hentai animation series, but there was a lot lacking in terms of depth.

What I will say though, is that it did have some pretty great lines targeting the misogyny of isekai fantasy series and fantasy in general. It also talked a lot about toxic relationships and the value of self-worth while also being pretty sex positive when it came to the fact that Haru was a sex worker and she didn’t feel bad or guilty about her job – in fact she likes and excels in it which is nice to see.

The best line was most definitely from one of Haru’s internal monologues, “A person’s worth is decided in ways that they can’t do anything about. All you can do is decide how you’ll live your life regardless of your worth.”

Will I continue reading this series? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Also probably not. But it was at least a fast enough read that I don’t regret giving it a go.

Murakami Double Feature: Piercing & Audition

Note: both of these works by Murakami Ryuu contain intense levels of violence, gore, self-harm and references of sexual trauma and child abuse.

One of the most well known Japanese horror films is Audition from the incredibly director Miike Takashi. To be perfectly blunt (so excuse my language here), that movie is one hell of a mind-fuck that is not only confusing but so incredibly nasty, I don’t ever recommend it to anyone even though it’s a move that completely captivates me. A few years ago, I found out that this classic of a film was actually based on a book by “the other Murakami”, the twisted mastermind, Murakami Ryuu.

However, Audition wasn’t the first book of his that I read. Late in 2020, I read through Piercing during a 12-hour shift at my day job, and absolutely fell in love with it. Adapted into a film more recently (but far too white and far too different to be worth watching, save your time for better movies), the only thing I knew about Piercing is that it was graphic. But wow did that book hit me in ways I was certainly not expecting. Both Piercing and Audition are incredibly intense books but I’m so pleased to have finally read them. Now to get onto the reviews!

Piercing is about a man struggling with violent urges from his childhood that are once again plaguing him as an adult and about a young sex worker unable to manage her childhood trauma. As both find themselves in a situation where they are equally trying to kill each other, the realisation of being cut from similar clothes leads to a strange ending that will not be what one expects.

The graphic violence in this book borders on extreme that may be off putting for many readers, even ones who enjoy horror. Murkami’s horror is on a different level than most to say the least.

Given how short this book is (and the same goes for Audition) I don’t want to give too much away, but when it really boils down to it, Piercing is a story about broken people. Both lead characters have been abused, the trauma of their youth bleeding into their adult lives. As the cat vs cat (because neither of these people are the mouse) game continues onward over the course of the night, the realisation hits just how much their individual trauma resonates with the other’s. To me it was a book about accepting your baggage as much as accepting that you can’t be responsible for other people’s baggage. It’s a complex narrative that I felt really hit the nail on the head when it comes to trauma and dealing with trauma in unhealthy ways. As horrible of a visual this novel gives, I felt uplifted by it. As weird as that sounds…

Audition is a very different novel when compared to Piercing. It’s quieter, softer around the edges, while still addressing the harsh violence that comes with unhealthy trauma processing. It follows a man who misses his deceased wife, who’s son suggests he settle down again. Though middle-aged, he follows his skeezy friend’s idea to hold a fake audition to find a refined young woman to settle down with.

It’s not his fault that things go sideways.

Fans of the film will be familiar with the gruesome torture scenes, the implied sexual violence, and of course, the piano wire. But much of what Miike put in the film doesn’t actually occur in the book, and I would probably be more likely to recommend the book to people within my circles than I would be to recommend the movie.

The flashback sequences of what Asami went through, the visits to her apartment and the restaurant where he were. Visceral scenes that are signature to Miike’s film style that were entirely made up. While the film is somewhat non-linear and full of drug induced hallucination scenes, the book is more linear and straight forward (and also far less graphic until the infamous ending). That being said, I found the film added far more to Asami’s character, making her more alluring while also more terrifying. The book, while more palatable and easier to follow, felt like it was missing some greater threat while it built up to the ending. I felt it needed more to really suck someone in.

That being said, as a huge fan of the film, I am incredibly happy I was still able to read the source material in English. It’s a must read for fans of the movie.

Murakami has a very distinct style that is visceral and gut-wrenching while somehow simultaneously being quiet and tender. He writes messy stories about messy people, most of them just wanting to live their lives as best they can manage. He reminds me of Chuck Palahniuk in some ways if I’m being honest. I really hope that as 2021 continues, I’m able to read more of his translated works (especially Coin Locker Babies since Miike was in talks to adapt that one before the project was cancelled).

ARC REVIEW: The Membranes

Thank you to NetGalley and Columbia University Press for providing me with a copy of the eARC

I’ve always had a love of Asian novels, but the translated works I’ve read over the years have been primarily (if not entirely) originally written in Japanese. I’ve wanted to expand my reading consumption to other Asian countries, and when I stumbled upon this novella on NetGalley, I figured, “What the hell.”

Note: trigger warnings for non-consensual gender reassignment and child molestation

Originally published in China back in 1995, Chi Ta-Wei’s novella The Membranes is a complicated story about what it is to be alive, to be human, and to what the freedom to live as one wants truly means. The dystopian world created almost 30 years ago touches on a lot of what is happening today and translator Ari Larissa Heinrich did an incredible job bringing this complex story to English readers.

I know very little about what the queer cultures (or lack there of in some cases) are like in the majority of Asian countries, but I know that it tends to be frowned upon at the very least and criminalised at the most. The fact that this was published in 1995 was so mind blowing to me given what little I’ve heard about censorship rules. Books have been criminalised and banned for far less than the blatantly queer content that fills the pages of this novella. Topics such as lesbian/wlw relationships and gender reassignment surprised me but it was fascinating to read them knowing it came from a Taiwanese writer.

I want to discuss the gender reassignment aspect of this novella, but as this English translation isn’t out until June, I plan on writing a deeper blog post about it closer to the official release.

While slightly triggering to me as a trans person, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to picking up a finished copy upon release.

ARC REVIEW: In The Wild Light

Thank you to Penguin Teen Canada for providing me with the eARC.

If you know me, you know how excited I was for this book. If you’re new here, let me tell you about just how wonderful Jeff Zenter’s books are. The Serpent King changed my life in ways I never thought a book could and Rayne & Delilah reminded me there is validity in anger while peace in move on. Goodbye Days is a story to help grieve. Jeff’s books will shape and change you for the better. So, yes, being able to review this book months in advance means the world to me.

Note: trigger warnings for drug abuse, drug-related death, and attempted assault

In The Wild Light follows Cash as he is rushed into a difficult choice to follow his best friend to an intimidatingly prestigious private school miles away from home, or stay with his terminally ill grandfather and therefore rob his friend of her chance to become the world-changing scientist she is sure to be with the help of this academy. When both of their lives have been ravaged by parental drug abuse, it’s not easy for Cash to accept what he considers a “hand-out” from his genius friend, Delaney.

Since this book doesn’t come out until August (can you say, “Happy birthday to Lucien”?!), I won’t go into too many details about the contents of this book, but I will say it will break you just as much as Jeff’s other books have (or will if you’re yet to read them). As I usually do with books that make me cry, please allow for a vulnerable moment here. 2020 was rough with pandemic life, and 2021 is proving to still be tough on many of us. One thing that In The Wild Light really struck a chord with me on was Cash’s feelings of “leaving his grandpa behind”. Pep has cancer and while Cash is given the chance of a lifetime to really become someone, that means leaving the only father he’s ever known mostly on his own.

So what does that have to do with pandemic life?

My 98-year-old grandmother means the world to me. She’s a cheery, church going Welsh woman who doesn’t have a bone in her body not full to the brim with love. Pep reminded me of her a lot with his wit and his compassion for others of all sorts even being in the deep south. I haven’t seen my grandmother in almost a full year and I used to see her three times a week growing up, and even as an adult, I’d have dinner with her at least once or twice a month. I miss her a lot even when we can talk on the phone, so Cash’s feelings hit home for sure.

In a funny way, I think this is the perfect book for these times, even with the tinges of loss. People are losing their loved ones right now, but as long as we express our love towards those people we’re missing, it’s better than nothing. Right? This is a book about doing what’s best for yourself, pushing past the impostor syndrome and the fear of failure and allowing the room for growth to breathe.

I miss my friends right now. I miss my family. But if I just keep moving forward and doing my best, I’ll get to see them again. In The Wild Light reminded me of that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve made myself cry once again.

You’re the worst best, Jeff Zentner.

MANGA BINGE REVIEW: One Piece [ part two ]

I kicked off 2021 the right way by immediately reading through volumes 11 through 20 on One Piece because oh boy do things get emotional.

The majority of this ten volume stretch is finishing up the plot with Nami, seeing her officially joining up with Luffy, Zolo (Zoro? What are we officially calling him? Translations are weird sometimes), Ussop and Sanji. This arc had me on edge the entire time with how insane the fights were and Luffy getting himself into so much trouble, it was stressful! You know it’s good writing when the story has you thinking the main character might die and there are still over 900 chapters to go.

But of course, we move on with everyone in top form (well… mostly…) and head for the Grand Line at last! Map in hand, Luffy and the crew are excited to make their fortunes and fulfill their dreams. We get to spend a volume or two here and there on mini-adventures that feed into the next arc with the Baroque Works as our latest big-bads. The smaller adventures are fun and lighthearted for the most part, while still being equally as full of kindness as the rest of the chapters.

And then we get to the next big character.

Chopper.

All I knew about Chopper was that he was a reindeer of sorts and was sometimes cute and sometimes weirdly buff. I was also under the impression that he was meant to be more comedic relief in the series, so when his backstory comes about, I was honestly in tears. This little reindeer who happened to eat a Devil Fruit has been hunted and bullied his whole life as a freak of nature but when he was shown kindness by a doctor on his island, Chopper learned that all he wants to do is help take care of people. He just wants to do his best to make sure everyone is okay and it was such a touching few chapters, I’m getting teary just thinking about that little goofball, battered and bloody, holding a mushroom he thought would help his friend. So when he joins the Merry Go crew, I was so excited.

The last few volumes I got through are the beginning of the end of this arc with the Baroque Works as they try to conquer a desert island suffering from lack of water. With Princess Vivi devastated, she and the Merry Go crew are doing their damnedest to help the island and restore it to it’s original glory. We finish with Ussop and Chopper kicking major bad-guy ass but next up it’s Sanji’s turn to tear it up and I can’t wait to continue on with this series. It’s gonna be a hell of a good time!

ARC REVIEW: Nothing But Blackened Teeth

Thank you NetGalley and Tor Nightfire for providing me with the eARC

The second I saw this book’s cover floating around on social media, I just knew that I needed to get my hands on it. Not to mention that I’m a sucker for Japanese horror, so a haunted house thrill ride in Japan? Count me in.

Note: trigger warnings for intense gore

Nothing But Blackened Teeth is the story of a group of five “friends” (I use the term very loosely here) as two of them are getting married. Faiz and Nadia are set on having a borderline sacrilegious wedding ceremony in a haunted house so when the trust-fund friend, Phillip, fronts the money for everyone to go to a decrepit old mansion in the middle of nowhere, Japan, it’s all perfect. When the story’s narrator, Cat, presents a main source of tension and her friend, Lin, as well, things go from zero to one hundred really fast. This is a house that yearns for blood.

After reading this novella in a single sitting, though, I found myself a touch disappointed. Perhaps I went in with my expectations set to high but the weirdest thing about my mixed feelings is that I want both more and less out of it.

Cassandra Khaw has a meticulous style that is flowery and explicit simultaneously. In some places, she has the most on-point descriptions of yokai, ghosts, and gore. In other’s the wordiness detracts from the story, the terms requiring google definitions (and this from someone who thought he had a pretty large vocabulary…) to understand what was being said. I loved the descriptions of the house itself and of the ghost, but what was majorly lacking was context. What happened to Cat that locked her away? Why is Nadia so hateful towards her? Why does no one like Lin if he seems just as successful as Phillip? How are any of these horrible people friends?

I’m all for messy people being messy, but the depth was lacking and the book turned into more of an 88-minute horror film one watches with friends while drunk and everyone tries to guess who dies first simply to move things along.

Will I read more of Khaw’s work? Absolutely. Sadly this one was just most of a miss from me.

REVIEW: The Blackstone Ritual

What’s a better feeling than choosing to support an debut indie author in the early days of 2021? That was my thought going into The Blackstone Ritual, book one in Swearigen Durham’s Tales of the Bardenwood series. The book came out last autumn and I was very excited to get my hands on my copy.

The story follows Arden Ford, a small town prankster, as he starts going through strange changes that reveal he is a magical key known as a Thorn. When his small town is attacked by a band of murderous barbarians, Ard is pushed onto a quest that very much might get him killed. But that’s a risk he is willing to take to avenge those he cares about.

This book came out, as I said, towards the end of 2020, but there is something instantly nostalgic about not only the setting but the writing style as well. As a huge lover of vintage fantasy, especially unknown titles discovered in the basements of tiny used bookstores, The Blackstone Ritual would definitely be in good company. To continuing with this unhelpful review of hyperspecific associations, this book is honey-glazed chocolate chip pastries eaten in the French countryside, this book is the original Hobbit video game, this book is classically animated not-Disney film.

Durham’s writing style gives the impression of cross-level reading. The way The Hobbit can be found in the adult section of a bookstore as well as the middle-grade section. I would put his style in line with classic authors such as Tamora Pierce (specifically with the Song of the Lioness quartet) and Mercedes Lackey (specifically with the Elvenbane trilogy co-written with Andre Norton). He doesn’t dumb anything down for readers as I sometimes find with fantasy geared towards YA or MG levels, but also doesn’t bog down the reader with info-dumping like so many adult fantasy books. It’s an accessible read with goofy, kind characters and plenty of action.

If you’re looking for a bit of fun and an indie author to support, I definitely recommend checking this book out.