Book Review: Tokyo (Mo Hayder)

Mo Hayder is an English (female) thriller writer, who would have to be one of the strongest writers out there working in the thriller field. Her stories contain enough darkness to warrant the horror label, but they are written as thrillers – so would reach a wider audience. (Think Silence of the Lambs and you know what I mean.)

I’m not sure how she does it, but I find myself torn in two directions when reading any of her work. Her characterisations and narrative skill are so strong that I’m instantly sucked into the plot and get carried all the way through like a conveyor belt – and yet the places that such stories take me are so terrifying that by the end of the book, I can’t bear the thought of reading another one of her books.

It’s not just me. I lent this book to a friend of mine at work who is also into horror and is comment afterwards was, “I think I’ll go read some children’s books for the next two weeks.”

However, despite the fact it took me two hours to physically get my breathing back to normal after finishing it, I believe Tokyo is the best novel I’ve read all year so far – and is likely to be the best one all year as well. Hayder herself describes the story as a psychological thriller that combines Silence of the Lambs with Empire of the Sun with Lost in Translation. That probably sums it up.

A mysterious young woman named Grey (we’re never told whether this is her first name, last name, or not really her name at all) arrives in Tokyo with barely any money to spare. For some reason which we are not initially told about, she is obsessed with the Nanking massacre of 1937 – a true life event in which Japan invaded China and brutally massacred around 300,000 Chinese. Grey has reason to believe that there was a particular atrocity committed during the massacre that was filmed – but only one copy of this film exists – and it is in the hands of an aging Chinese professor working in Tokyo.

The professor refuses to share the film unless Grey does some spying for him on a certain Japanese gangster – so she gets drawn into the underworld of Tokyo, by working as a hostess in a high-class club. From here, the book develops a split narrative: Grey’s exploits in Tokyo, and the increasingly dangerous circles she moves in and, most fascinating of all, the Chinese professor’s narrative (taken from his diaries) of days in 1937 leading up to the invasion of the Japanese.

We already know in the Chinese story that something horrific is going to happen, and there’s a growing sense of menace in the Japanese story as well – so the two start to converge together like a giant pair of scissors till we arrive at one of the most truly disturbing and yet moving endings I have ever come across in a story.

All in all, this story is so horrific that I can think of very few of my friends that I would recommend it to. But if you can stomach it, it is a phenomenally well-constructed piece of fiction. I also find it fascinating from another perspective as well, but that involves some major spoilers on my part. You can either stop here or continue reading below if you’re interested.

5 out of 5

 

***SPOILER ALERT***

I have always believed that the best horror stories take things that are horrible in real life (things that we perhaps prefer not to talk about or think about) and then exaggerate them so we can’t ignore them. A classic example is the school bullying that takes place in Stephen King’s Carrie.

In the case of Tokyo, Mo Hayder has captured the horror of abortion – I’m not sure that she intends to make any political statement about it, but she certainly touches on it. As Grey’s back story unfolds we find out that, as a naive teenager, she became pregnant. Not knowing any better, she attempted to cut the baby out of her stomach – not to kill it, but because she thought it might live and be able to escape from her parents. But, as Hayder’s prose so painfully captures, there is a certain age when an unborn child is counted as a foetus (in which case, nothing will be done to save the child’s life) and when it is counted as a baby. And Grey’s child was extracted on the foetus side of that timeline, and so for the rest of her life, she is haunted by her dead daughter, wondering where she is, and if she will ever forgive her mother.

There are many, many stories related by mothers who have had abortions that describe the psychological trauma they have gone through years after the event – forever haunted by a child that they did not know. It doesn’t happen to every woman who undergoes an abortion, but it happens a lot more often than we hear about. I can’t help but think that the story of Grey – over-exaggerated with the horrific twist of her being the one that extracted her own child – is a nod to these stories.

Whatever the origin, it’s the aspect of the tale that will continue to haunt me the most.

Book Review: Blockade Billy (Stephen King)

I said earlier on this blog that I’ve been trying to read some more Stephen King and I thought that what I would do is go back to the beginning of his published work, but also try and stay on top of his published work from 2010 onwards. So to that end, I sought out the very slim volume of Blockade Billy, which was put out in early 2010, after King’s rather massive Under The Dome. This is perhaps not the best book to start with if you’re embarking on a journey of reading Stephen King.

The story is a narration by an ageing ex-baseball player (to Stephen King) of an incident that occurred when he was playing for the New Jersey Titans baseball team in 1957. Short of a catcher, the team managed to get hold of William “Blockade Billy” Blakely, who came in to help them out. The young man was an excellent baseball player, but after he joined them, increasingly disturbing things started to happen on and off the field.

I can’t really say any more because it’s a very short novella and anything more would give the entire story away. As someone who’s not very knowledgeable about baseball, I must confess that I was scratching my head over some passages trying to work out what they meant. But the overall story made sense to me, and I thought it was an enjoyable little tale, with a suitably shocking ending. (Enjoyable is probably not the word, but you know what I mean.) Not worth the $25-$40 that I’ve seen it selling for in the stores, but worth the $5 on the Kindle store if you’re a King collector.

If you’re only a casual dabbler in the man’s work, you can probably give this one a miss altogether.

3 1/2 out of 5.

 

Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien)

This is my second read-through of The Lord of the Rings. My first was just before the Peter Jackson films came out, and so I was racing through the books trying to finish each one before the film came out. If you’d asked me back then, I would have said that it was a bit like trying to read a fantasy adventure crossed with the King James Bible. Quite slow and ponderous. I mean, what was Tolkien doing? He’d take two pages to describe the landscape, then when the action came, it’d be over in two paragraphs!

But now that I’m back to reading it again, I’m a little bit more understanding of what he is doing. I also made a point of reading a couple of the Appendices first, rather than waiting till the end. If you approach his story armed with a knowledge of the history and background of the place, then his story comes alive – he really is giving us a zoomed-in view of a year in Middle Earth – an eventful year, but one that is part of a much broader sweep of history that has gone before it.

I think that’s what I missed the first time. I wanted action and adventure and for the story to get to the end. (And if you want that, the Jackson films have cleverly recrafted the story to provide all this.) However, what Tolkien provides is a much different experience. In real time, almost, day by day, he is recounting what happened to his characters and he will not be rushed. He is not interested in where the story is going, but the journey itself. Thus, the landscape and the history are important to what he is doing.

So if you take a deep breath and read it slowly, the richness of the world starts to come alive. (And I can’t help but wonder how strange this would have been to the original readers.) We’re kind of used to having hundreds of fantasy worlds, all with maps in the front of the books, strange names and their own rules. But I’m not sure how many of those existed when Lord of the Rings was first created.

The theme that seems to recur most often in the first book (apart from impending doom) is this feeling of ancient civilisations disappearing, to be replaced by new ones. Was this something Tolkien saw happening in England (a country where many ancient civilizations have settled and mixed together)? I don’t think we’ll ever know completely, and that’s probably okay. Will look forward to seeing how the other two volumes hold up.

4 ½ out of 5.

 

No New Books / DVDs / Music

It’s something that’s been running around my head for a few weeks, but I’m on the verge of making my 2011 New Year’s Resolution to give up buying new books, DVDs and music for a whole year.

Why?

It’s a bit complex, and in no particular order, but this is my thinking:

1) It consumes an awful lot of my thinking. I’m not particularly worried about the money side of it – I don’t blow that much of my budget on said books, DVDs and music – but it is the thing that I most think about buying.

2) I find myself immensely more interested in getting a new something-or-other, than the actual things I own. So Book X on the shelf in a bookstore seems 10 times more exciting than Book Y that I own and still have to read – even if Book Y is one of the greatest books ever written and has rave reviews. I can’t help but thinking that this interest in new things is a polite way of saying that I’m constantly discontent. Something that I’m a bit concerned about.

3) Recently, in my thinking, I’ve been getting concerned with those in society and around the world who are living in poverty. While I don’t think we should all give up our possessions and become dirt poor (I think God has blessed us in Australia with many great material things, which we can be thankful for), nonetheless, there does seem something fundamentally wrong about constantly wanting to get new things, when other people struggle to have any things to start with.

4) There’s a couple of big projects I want to work on in 2011 that require some time and energy – time and energy which I normally fill with the pursuit of new stuff. I’m curious to know whether I would be able to find more energy if I put my energies into that, rather than surfing the internet for new stuff to consume.

 

Anyway, I’m just thinking about the idea of it at the moment. I’ve got another 10 or 11 days to decide whether I do want to do it or not. Still pondering. Mainly pondering whether I can possibly do this without giving it up. But I like the idea.

Review: Kids Flag Page

I don’t often get asked to review something, so I was very excited when Family Matters – an American organisation that promotes the works of Dr Tim Kimmel, author of Grace Based Parenting and other books – asked me to review one of their new products: the Kids Flag Page.

Quite simply, the Kids Flag Page is for parents who have woken up one day and discovered that their kids are not robots. Do you know what I mean? If you’ve had kids, you’ll know that for about the first year or so of their life, it’s not too hard to work out what they want. They’re either hungry, they need their nappy (diaper for the Northern Hemisphere folks) changed or they want a cuddle.

Now fast-forward a couple of years and you’re having a massive fight with your 3-year-old over whether you put her pajamas on first or whether you brush her teeth first. You can’t see that it makes a difference. Your toddler is on the floor in tears. What have you done wrong?

Even assuming that you work out what’s going on with that child, then things get more complicated if you have other children. All of a sudden, all the tricks that worked for #1 don’t work for #2 and who the heck knows what’s up with #3?

Into the midst of all this chaos steps the Kids Flag Page. With the cute subtitle – The Operating Manual That SHOULD Have Come Wtih Each Of Your Kids … But Didn’t – this kit brings parents a step closer to understanding what’s ticking away in their child’s minds.

The concept is fairly simple – this kit is designed to tell you your child’s Country. Not their country of birth, but rather their personality type country. Are they from Control Country, Fun Country, Perfect Country or Peace Country? These correspond more or less to the commonly known personality types from many other books: Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholy, Phlegmatic. However, I don’t know about you – but I find Control, Fun, Perfect and Peace a lot easier to remember.

The kit contains a game board and 36 motivation cards. The idea is that you sit down with your child and go through all 36 motivations, which are in the form of little statements like: “I Make People Laugh: It’s easy for you to make people laugh and everything is funny.” Or “I’m One Of A Kind: You love being different. You’re glad you’re not like anyone else.” With your child’s help, you sort the cards into three piles: Always Like Me, Sometimes Like Me, Never Like Me. Then, from there, they take the first two of those piles and work out what is their favourite motivation, and their next five favourites.

From here, parents can quickly work out a numerical score which will tell them what Country their child belongs to and their Adopted Country (which is their next most dominant personality). You can then put stickers on a “flag page” for your child, so they can see exactly which country they belong to.

There’s a 100+ page book by Tim Kimmel that comes with this, which then breaks your child’s personality down into further detail and explain more about the motivations. It also offers illuminating information on what kind of child you get when you combine two Countries (because most children will be a hybrid of their home country and their adopted country).

Most importantly, Tim provides an introduction to his concept of “grace based parenting”, which he has laid out in other books. This is so you’ll not only know what type of child you have – but also a strategy for parenting that child. I actually found this explanation of GBP to be one of the clearest he has given. While  the practicalities of it all aren’t gone into in great depth – the kit points you in the direction of Kimmel’s other books for this – the concept comes across pretty clearly: grace based parenting is a fine balance between being flexible and being firm. A parent who never budges on anything will squash their child, especially given the concept that’s now been explained that every child has a unique personality. However, a parent who is permissive and gives in on everything, will create a child with no boundaries who doesn’t know how to function properly.

So with that in mind, the book that accompanies the kit aims to explain what things to be flexible on with each personality and what boundaries need to be carefully maintained to stop the excesses of that personality type going overboard.

On the whole, I think the Kids Flag Page is a great idea. Because it’s in the form of a game that you play with your child (rather than a book that you read about your child, it shows your child that you are actively interested in understanding and appreciating them. (A great thing for any child.)  The only catch with this is that the kit is designed for children age 6 and up. If you’ve got children under the age of 6 (and my oldest daughter, who we made a flag page for, is only 4), you can still create a flag page for them, but it’s not really something you can do with them.

But each kit comes with enough stickers and flag pages to make three flags, so you can easily make one now by doing your best guess on the motivation cards, and then try it again in a few years when your child is old enough to work through the cards by themselves. I’m certainly looking forward to trying it with my daughter in a couple of years’ time.

One other benefit of this kit is that the book comes with study questions, so if a bunch of parents wanted to buy a kit each, they could meet and discuss their children over the course of a few weeks, which would be a helpful thing.

My only quibble with the kit, which is an issue I took with Kimmel’s book Grace Based Parenting is that I feel the book is a bit light-on in constructing a Biblical defense of its parenting style. I have nothing against Kimmel’s concept of grace based parenting – it’s very similar to the way we parent our children, and I’m really happy with the type of kids they are becoming. But I often find that the books which are promoting a more heavy-handed, “It’s my way or the highway” type parenting, often do so with Scripture prooftexts on every paragraph. By comparison, some of the ideas in this kit sound like they were borrowed from a mixture of popular self-help books.

But this is a minor detail, and will only really cause upset to those people who like to see a large quantity of Bible references throughout their Christian books before they’ll take the advice seriously. For anyone else – especially parents who want to have a close connection with and understanding of their children in their formative years – I recommend giving it a go.

Another drawback, which I just discovered, is that I don’t think this kit is available in Australia yet. I had a check around the web and it seems to be only available in America and Canada. If you visit the Family Matters website, you can order it in one of those countries, but they don’t seem yet to ship to Australia. However, if enough of you ask your local Christian bookstore, I’m sure some will arrive soon.

UPDATE: Family Matters has informed me that they will be able to post to Australia. In their words:

Just a note about the product’s availability for Australia, if the Aussies go to the website and place an order, we will be able to ship it to them.  Our software will not properly calculate the shipping, so they will simply leave their information and we will contact them via email to coordinate shipping, but we are definitely willing and able to send resources Down Under!  In reality, Australians may pay a similar rate to ship products as Canada because tariffs and taxes are so cumbersome for Canadians.

FREE GIVEAWAY! In the meantime, Family Matters have very kindly offered to give away a complimentary kit to someone on my blog. So if you’d be interested in receiving a Kids Flag Page, leave a comment below, and I’ll get my four-year-old to draw a name out of a hat on Sunday 13 October.

For more information about the Kids Flag Page and to see a video where Tim Kimmel explains how the product works, click here.

Book Review: How To Do A Great Job And Go Home On Time (Fergus O’Connell)

This book would probably be a bit difficult to track down, because the publishing house is not so large and it’s in the UK. Certainly, I haven’t seen it for sale in too many bookstores. But if I could, I would make this book a compulsory read for everyone who works a white collar job. It’s that good.

Fergus O’Connell has a very simple idea: at work, we need to stop trying to be magicians and start trying to be a Duke of Wellington. A magician is someone who  tries to pull rabbits out of hats. In other words, someone who says “yes” to everything and will kill themselves to deliver what they said. But a Duke of Wellington is someone whose word is dependable. If they say they’re going to do something, they do it.

This book doesn’t necessarily have a lot of time management techniques, though there are a few – but is most concerned with your mindset towards work. Because no matter how much you plan, you will continually sabotage your plans to get out of work on time if you are driven by things like: fear of what other people will think, guilt that you aren’t doing a proper job, a lack of self-esteem if you don’t say “yes” to everything.

So this book’s greatest strength is cutting right to the chase on why we tend to get workaholic and giving good tips on how to plan, how to get agreement with your managers on what you will do, how to say “no” – a very important chapter – and other things related to the psychology of trying to have a work/life balance.

I doubt there will be anything ground-breakingly new in this book, but if you work through it carefully and thoughtfully (and it is meant to be worked through, not just read) and you have the courage to implement Fergus’ suggestions (and it will take courage, believe me), this book just might change your life.

4 1/2 out of 5.

Book Review: Conspiracy 365 – March (Gabrielle Lord)

Here we go – it’s now March and Callum Ormond is still on the run. He’s successfully escaped the horrendous fate awaiting him at the end of February but has managed to get himself into yet another scrape. This book is possibly the most relentless one yet, with far-fetched escape after far-fetched escape.

What’s amusing (and also raising the tension) is that Callum is only ever a step ahead of both the cops and the crims – so he really is on the run from absolutely everyone.

My favourite set piece in this one is a chapter involving a snake venom laboratory.

***SPOILER WARNING***

It’s not often you get a main character smash open a glass cage of death adders, get bitten, and then have to race against time to get to the antivenom room. I was pretty impressed. What with sharks in January and lions in February, the natural world has really got it in for this kid.

***SPOILERS OVER***

The book climaxes with Callum attempting to steal the mysterious Ormond Riddle, escaping by the skin of his teeth, and then doing his best to escape town. I think definitely a change of location would be good for all of us. (Though my prediction is that this series will end up in Ireland, the place where Callum’s dad went in the previous year, and came home sick.) But we shall see…

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Conspiracy 365 – February (Gabrielle Lord)

And it’s only getting better as Conspiracy 365 continues into February. Our 15-year-old hero, Callum Ormond, managed to get himself out of the oily scrape he found himself in at the end of January, but things only get more confusing. There’s now a girl thrown into the mix – but can he trust her? Mysterious doppelgangers, an illuminating stained glass window, more chases, and – get this – he finds himself at the zoo in the lion’s cage.

It’s starting to get a bit exhausting, all this running around (in January, Callum was hiding out in a house, but now he’s taken to storm water drains, which – believe me – is as dangerous as it sounds). But Gabrielle Lord is slowly teasing out the mystery of what happened to Callum’s father, and what the mysterious drawings mean. It’s this mystery that drives Callum (and us, the readers) to keep on reading.

And, of course, it all comes to a head in another cliff-hanger climax involving a train and a tunnel. Need I say more? Just as much fun as the first one, but at this pace, we could lose steam as the story progresses. We’ll see. I’m certainly wondering what Callum is going to do once the winter kicks in…

4 out of 5.

Book Review: Conspiracy 365 – January (Gabrielle Lord)

And now for something completely different … not sure why I decided to pick this up – I think it’s a combination of my love for serialised stories and it’s a nostalgic throwback to the types of books I used to consume in large quantities from my local library when I was a teenager.

This is a new series by Australian crime writer, Gabrielle Lord, for young adults with an interesting premise – it takes place over the course of a year from 1 January to 31 December (thus the title of the series is Conspiracy 365) and broken into twelve volumes, one for each month. Also interesting is that it’s on a publishing schedule of coming out one volume per month, so you can’t actually buy anything more recent than the May volume at this stage. I’m not sure how well it’s selling amongst young people, but I think these kind of publishing stunts are great fun, and I wish they’d do them more often. (It reminds me of how much I enjoyed reading Stephen King’s The Green Mile back in the 90s, which came out serialised in six episodes.)

So what’s the story in this one? It reminds me very much of 24 for teenagers. 15-year-old Callum Ormond is walking along the street on 31 December when a man runs up to him and tells him that he has to hide from “them” for 365 days till 31 December next year. Before we find out any more, an ambulance pulls up, some guys jump out, inject the mysterious man and drag him away. All Callum knows it that it is something to do with his father who returned from a trip to Ireland the previous year and died. In his last days, his father wasn’t able to speak, but left him with some mysterious drawings.

Once that happens, it’s on for young and old. Over the course of the next 31 days in January, Callum gets shipwrecked in a sabotaged tinny that leaves him floundering in shark-infested waters, has continuous run-ins with his Uncle Rafe (his father’s unpleasant twin brother), gets himself kidnapped by a criminal gang, gets framed for attacking his uncle and sister, goes on the run from the law and ends up literally up to his neck in trouble as 31 January comes to a cliffhanger ending.

You have to suspend an awful lot of disbelief with this story – especially the fact that Callum really wouldn’t say anything to his Mum about what was going on, but when I was 15, I was completely prepared to suspend that disbelief, so I can still do it now. I’m not suggesting any adults out there would want to read it, but if you have young teenage boys, they’re going to love this series. And certainly I’m going back for more. Where else do you get sharks, two groups of criminals and mysterious drawings in less than 200 pages?

3 ½ out of 5.

Book Review: Boundaries (Henry Cloud and John Townsend)

The premise of this book is rather simple, but has very far-reaching consequences – in life, some things are our responsibility, and some things are other people’s responsibility. We need to have clear boundaries in our lives so that we’re quite sure what is in our court and what is not.

For example: If you find yourself with an acquaintance or friend who is always pushing you around and calling the shots in the relationship – and you find yourself giving in all the time, and resenting it – you both have boundary issues. Your friend has an issue with respecting the boundaries of others by always trying to get their own way. You have a problem with boundaries, because you’re scared of putting up a boundary of saying “no” to your friend, in case something bad will happen.

The book is laid out in a fairly straightforward way – the first half sets out what boundaries are, and what they should look like, and then chapter by chapter, the authors take us through some of the outworkings of boundary problems in various areas of life. The kind of topics are: People who are grown adults, but still feeling under the thumb of their parents. Parents learning how to enforce boundaries with their toddlers. Friends learning to set boundaries with each other. Husbands and wives learning how to set boundaries to work out where loving your spouse ends and putting up with a selfish person begins. Work boundaries – knowing the difference between doing a great job and becoming a workaholic because you can never say no to your work colleagues or bosses.

As someone who struggles with being a people pleaser (ie my natural instinct is to say “yes” to anything anyone asks me), this is one of the more important books I’ve read this year. If you have no trouble saying “no” to things, then this may not be for you. But if you have ever felt like you’re giving and giving and you’re exhausted, it may be that you have trouble saying “no”. In which case, learning about boundaries will be really helpful. I certainly wish I’d been thinking about this stuff several years ago.

The only real concern I have with the book is that, being written by Christian psychologists, they are trying to emphasise the Christian part as much as possible by putting lots of Scripture references in the book. I’m not against Scripture references, but often the book feels like it’s trying to stretch Bible verses to fit their boundaries model, rather than fitting the model to the Scriptures. Of course, I think this is done in all sincerity – if I was to ask Cloud and Townsend, I’m sure they, in all seriousness, think they’ve handled the Scriptures correctly. I’m not so sure.

With many of these books written by psychologists that you can pick up at Koorong or Word, I’d be more happy if they just said, “Look, these principles aren’t strictly found in the pages of the Bible. But we’re comfortable that they don’t disagree with the Bible, and they’ll provide a useful framework for how you can relate to others.”

But that aside, I think the advice in this book is great, and will affect many, many portions of your life. Pretty much, if you answer “yes” to either of these questions: Do I always feel like I’m giving and I’m resenting it? or Do I have trouble saying no to people and it’s overwhelming me? then I can guarantee you’re going to get a lot out of this book.

4 out of 5.