Frommers – Japan Day By Day

*Review originally written in 2012 based on a free copy provided by Amazon – Buy it here
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If you’ve ever owned or browsed a Frommer’s Day By Day guide before (or indeed any of the similar publications from Lonely Planet, Time Out et al) then you’ll know what to expect here- an informative, highly detailed, highly useful guide split into a myriad of sections with plenty of imaginative tips, photographs and ideas for any type of traveler from conservative to seasoned, from expensive to cheap. As to expected from a guide like this, the writing can hardly be called entertaining, but is fluid and usable for when you decide or need to dip in to any particular topic. What does stand out though is the focus on local knowledge translated over for those who need to know- the writers obviously know Japan and have a good idea about what the reader/user may want.
Wise Content
Content-wise we have the usual introduction and sections on accommodation, tourist hotspots, dining, museums, travel tips etc etc, as well as some more unusual selections, but what has always been the highlight of the Frommer’s Day by Day series are the Day By Day areas- ready-made plans for either those travelers who (critically) don’t want to think outside the box or (realistically) want to see as much as possible in one particular day. These are well thought out and are the focal point of the guide rather than something tacked on like many other guides and range from ‘Best Of Japan in 1 (or 2 weeks)’ to ‘Best of Tokyo in 1 (or 2, 3) day (s)’. There are also chapters on the major towns, sights, culture and most of these come with a single page map showcasing the area and the nearest subway station. In addition to this we get an extremely handy (though hardly comprehensive) pull-out map of Japan, with the central areas of Tokyo and Kyoto on the other side. I would advise bringing a map of any area you plan on visiting before getting there if possible because although Japan is fairly easy to get around, it can be very overwhelming.
Thanks to a friendly layout, high budget glossy finish, and the knowledge of the writers this is arguably the best guide on Japan on the market though some may find it too large to carry around all day or off-putting due to the scale of content. My advice would be to use this is a guide to create your own ideas and plans, scribble some notes, leave this at the hotel, and take off on your own!

10000 Zombies

*Based on a free copy provided by Amazon – buy it here
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I was hoping for a lot more from this- more coherent stories for example, but given that there are thousands of different ways to open and close your tale, as well as all the good stuff in the middle, it would be difficult to make any of them coherent. This is just a bunch of easy fun wrapped inside a few thousand rotting corpses. The zombies are impressively detailed and kids will spend hours creating their favourite characters and possibly delving into their own dark imaginations to produce their own fevered stories of blood and chaos. Wisely the illustrations are given a page all of their own so that there is a full page impact, while the stories appear on the other leaf. Each creation is split into three so if you turn the top third of a page you will be decapitating one monster and giving birth to a new one- likewise with the legs and torso. So, obviously this isn’t the sort of book you will pick up and read through, it’s more of a game, partly like those ‘you open the door- turn to page 49’ books of my youth.
Parents shouldn’t worry that there is anything too graphic or offensive or terrifying here, it’s all good clean gruesome fun- the sort which kids lap up. Horror ‘maestro’ Alex Cox narrates while we get a foreword from undead metal legend Rob Zombie, so chances are that is geared more towards ‘adult’ zombie fiends rather than the youngsters. It’s cheap and worth a look if your child is showing an interest in the dead side of life.
Have you read 10000 Zombies? Let us know in the comments!

Atmospheric Disturbances

*Based off a free copy provided by Amazon – by it here

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I was drawn to this both by the Hitchcockian blurb and the reviewer comparisons to Murakami, but when you make comparisons to two of the greatest, chances are you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Similarities to the film-maker and the author are lip service at best, and non-existant at worst. There are moments of course, but these are more from the overall plot and idea rather than anything specific in the contents. I’m sure there is an engaging plot here somewhere, but it’s so crushed under the weight of science, ideas, ideals, and pseudo-philosophical talk about nothing that you feel that you’re unwrapping a diamond ring style box only to find a ‘screw you’ sign inside.

The story opens with a man whose wife has lately vanished, but who has apparently been replaced by a loveless doppelgänger. Instances of the past relationship are seemingly just as loveless. Details dribble in concerning a plot which revolves around a good old fashioned crazy patient and a secret conspiracy-type quest. There is a journey, both literal and figurative, and eventually twists are revealed. It’s more a Cronenberg style approach showing a descent into madness through ploys and devices but it somehow feels even less engaging than this description.

Galchen is a clever woman- in fact she may be the smartest woman in the world, but most importantly she wants to tell us this. She has clearly spent at least 5 years in school learning things such as languages, sciences, and geography. Not many of us can say that. Under my cleverly veiled wit I’m sure some of you will have noticed that I’m making fun of the author’s approach- there is little or no attempt to hold a hand out to the reader and say ‘I’m in charge, follow me and I’ll reward you’. Rather, the approach is ‘ I am your teacher, I am better than you, what I am saying is Gospel (not that you’ll understand it) but it doesn’t matter anyway because you are an inferior sub-species’. So it seems.

The fact that this is written as a dissertation rather than a novel is what truly killed the experience for me. Each chapter has a cryptic teaser and usually a hypothesis, list or some other scientific device which has no place in a work of fiction. I kept reading, expecting this novelty to stop or at least make a positive impact, but with each passing page, with each deeper step into nowhere, I felt like I was back in the GSCE triple science room copying notes from a blurry overhead projector while a bored, suicidal, and probably drunk teacher read porn from behind steamed up glasses. If these memories spark a flame of desire in your soul, then by all means pick up this masterpiece and enjoy, or if you think you need more intelligent books in your collection then give it a go. For everyone else drawn to this for the same reasons that I was, there is no Hitchcockian suspense, wit, skill, or bravado, nor is there the gifted, lyrical storytelling or off-beat characters and bizarre fun of Murakami.

The Happets – Play With Colours

*Originally written in 2011 based on a free copy provided by Amazon – buy here
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My daughter is still too young to read or even be very interested at looking at a book for too long, but it is never too early to let your child get used to the idea and touch of a book. In that case a book should be bright, colourful, and preferably have something extra to spark and hold their interest. Play With Colours (The Happets) meets all of the criteria- the wrigi is big and bold, and the illustrations are very colourful. As for the added extra, we have a felt/cloth poking from each page which the child can feel, tug,and squeeze. Each page depicts a different character, each character is colour coded, and each pop-out cloth matches the design of the character it represents so your child can learn to understand colours and matching.
Once older your son or daughter will want to know what the words mean and what the story is. At the moment my daughter likes to watch my mouth when I sing, but will only stay on my lap for a page or two of reading, even with a variety of funny voices employed. This book basically gives a description of each character and their favourite things, all linked to their core colour. Whatever the character says they like, such as a blue kite, will be shown on the page so you can point at each item and repeat what it is. Each page then is a repeat of the one before, but with a new creature, colour, and likes, but each description ends with a fun ‘THAT’S ME!’ which you can shout together.
My only warning is that the book seems to be made of extra tasty paper- my daughter loves to chew this one more than any other, but once that phase passes this will be a great book to share. For reading time that is, not tea time.
Have you read this book? Let us know in the comments!

Undead – Kirsty McKay

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Scaring Children

I am an advocate of bringing horror to the younger generation. I’ve given reasons for this elsewhere, but basically a good dose of blood and guts keeps the doctor away. I didn’t come to this book with a high expectation- when I was young and wanted some scares I typically went to the adult section, not the teen one as teen literature is (or was) too often watered down or flooded with convenient and topical issues of the day. Thankfully McKay’s Undead is neither watered down, nor riddled with forced topics from parents’ groups, media, or publishers. Yes it is still aimed at a younger audience – no explicit swearing, sex, or unnecessary violence, but we do get some shocking moments, strong building of tension, and lots of zombie mayhem.

Chew The Bones

The premise is good, and explores another avenue of the classic situational zombie convention. Be it a shopping mall, your own home, or on a bus during a school trip, zombie fiction usually follows the same format but can be given effective twists if the writer is inventive enough. Here we find a small number of misfits barricading themselves in their school bus when the outside world drops dead and decides to chew on some lovely young bones. This leads to some obvious clashing between the pretty one, the outcast, the nerd and so on, and how they must overcome their differences to keep each other alive. This never truly feels contrived, although it does feel necessary at times in order to drive the plot forwards.

Shocking Revelations

We follow the group as they try to escape and struggle to work out what has happened –  this leads to some shocking, and some not so shocking revelations. Naturally we end on a cliffhanger and the hope of a sequel. As previously mentioned there is a lot of zombie fun, but this is more in the action vein rather than being explicitly gory. There are plenty of moments which would work well on film as jump scares, and we get a few unsavoury characters to darken the mixture. There is one sad and shocking scene involving some new characters introduced halfway through, so credit to McKay for having the confidence to stick it in- usually such an event would be quickly and happily rectified, but not here.
The story is gripping, McKay writes with panache and strives to avoid the usual cliches and pitfalls of the genre, giving an exciting tale with fully realised (if typical for the market) characters, and she doesn’t back down when faced with the pressure of giving the readers a happy, Hollywood ending.

Have you read Undead? What age do you think it is appropriate to introduce children to horror media? Let us know in the comments!

Buy It Here!

The Invention Of Everything Else – Samantha Hunt

*Originally written in 2008 based on a free copy provided by Amazon

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Samantha Hunt’s debut shows an assured talent in the making, a writer unafraid to take the reader on a journey with few answers, focusing instead on fragments of history and moments of daunting emotion. Her style will clearly infuriate some readers – the time frame, the narrative, and indeed the narrator leap from one chapter to the next without warning to the extent that it may take a few paragraphs of a new chapter before you work out who is speaking; A forewarning then to anyone expecting a light read. If you are interested in the subject, in science, in biographies (even fictional ones), or in Tesla himself, then this is a no doubt intelligent and thought-provoking book which you will get enjoyment from, although much of that enjoyment will be drawn from the relief of trawling through some startling problems just to reach a passage of interest.

The Invention Of Everything Else is a semi-fictional history of Tesla, one of the greatest minds the world has ever known, and the people he comes into contact with at various points in his life. We witness his successes and failures, his emergence and withdrawal, his youth, his old age, and some sort of ending. Wrapped around this is the tale of Louisa and Walter- a father and daughter team whose own losses and inspirations have a way of mirroring Tesla’s. Most of the story is based in reality, which is always more fantastic than magic and myth as Tesla alludes to at several points, before twisting this notion on it’s head and introducing an element of time-travel towards the end. Presumably the point is that if Tesla brought the mystical and the impossible into reality via science a hundred years ago, why not in the modern age should we refuse to accept the possibility of time travel? Of course, nothing is straight-forward here as Tesla is presented as a man of limitless invention and foresight, but whose ideas sometimes failed disastrously; add to this some lesser known inventors and crazies and we get the impression that while many things may be possible in the future, a mind like Tesla’s is unique.

There are some brilliant characters here, screaming to get off the pages but unfortunately many of them are treated too sharply and shortly that we never truly get a grasp upon them, their thoughts, their motivations. We get within touching distance of these people but they are thrust away from us just before we make a genuine connection. If I was reading between the lines I might say that this was intentional, that it reflects the true nature of these characters’ lives in that they too are left cold and uncertain by the people they meet- but there isn’t enough evidence to prove that Hunt intended this.

The narrative is at times too jarring to make this as comfortable a read as it should and could have been. Like previously mentioned, we are made to work for our rewards- a fact which some readers will not respond to, while others may relish. There is an interesting tale here of the varieties and charms of human nature, of the toils and triumphs one can achieve, and of the irony that the human brain may not yet be powerful enough to house equal amounts of perfection in knowledge, humour, confidence, social skills, and that human culture may not yet be developed enough to accept brilliance readily, innocently, without envy, and as something we should all aspire to. Hunt is a reader to look out for and with a little more refinement and polish her next novel could be something to make an aspiring world proud of.

Have you read this book, or are you interested in Tesla or the genre? Let us know in the comments!

Book Reviews – The Maze Runner – James Dashner

*Note – originally written in 2009 based on an unpublished advance copy provided free by Amazon.

The Maze Runner is another in a recent run of teen oriented novels which will likely be adapted for the big screen. Presumably the first part of a wider story it is full of intrigue, action, and suspense, and most importantly does not treat the target audience like a fool. There is violence, there is gore, there is an invented slang bad language so that censors and parents do not worry, and there is a rich heritage of novels which this pays respect to without simply foraging for ideas, from Lord Of The Flies, to Battle Royale. The book is set in an unspecified, dystopian future. A boy wakes with no memory of who he is and finds himself brought by a lift to a massive enclosed town called The Glade. He is the latest in a long line of boys who it seems came to the mysterious place the same way, though none of the other people seem interested in helping or answering him. He is expected to follow their rules explicitly, but as more strange events begin to occur our hero sparks a revolution which could claim or save them all. Their town has been around for quite a few years, most of the boys have spent a large part of their lives there and none of them can remember anything from before. They have arranged their society in a strict fashion with rules, jobs, and a government which is all they have to protect them from disorder and from the horrors which lie outside. The town is surrounded by a Maze which must only be investigated during the day – at night it becomes infested by half machine, half animal creatures known as Grievers which will hunt and kill remorselessly. Their only hope of escape lies in solving the maze – unfortunately the maze has a habit of shifting and modifying itself every night.

Aside from the Lost like mysterious plot, the author creates a good amount of suspense – there are many cliffhangers and set-pieces which ensure we will begin the next chapter to see what happens. Like Thomas, we only know so much and we have to follow him blindly to work out the answers to mysterious questions – why is everyone so afraid of the maze, who created the Grievers, why do certain characters hate him, how can they escape and what will they do if they can? Dashner has a gift for suspense, his characters are bold, his writing is swift and clever, and the plot is engaging thanks to the many teasing questions and revelations. As I read the book I felt it would be better suited to a high budget kids TV show, although as children’s television is in a sorry state it would be unlikely that anyone would ever take a gamble on something as expensive and probably controversial as this. The episodic nature of the book would ensure kids of all ages would be tuning in every week – I certainly would if the direction and acting were sound. As it stands this is a rip-roaring read which should capture any young reader’s imagination and leave them heartily anticipating the next installment.