Paper Plane Reviews

A Book Review Blog

Category: Non-fiction

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey

I vaguely remember picking this up as part of a sale on Wordsworth Classics, along with Wings of the Dove. After the disappointment that I had with my last classic pick, I was hoping that the unusual subject matter of opium would hook me better than Henry James would.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is an account of Thomas de Quincey’s experiences with opium. Addicted after he treated himself with laudanum as a painkiller, he decided to recount the surreal visions that it caused him.
I was actually looking forward to reading Confessions of an English Opium-Eater because what’s a more stereotypically Victorian drug than opium? I figured it would be interesting or at least a laugh. That is if it ever got there. I got through the updated introduction and part way through his explanation of how he got hooked on opium, and I had to stop because I was literally falling asleep at my desk trying to read it. He’d start talking on a point and go on a completely unrelated tangent that is of absolutely no interest to the reader. Like when he stated that he was first introduced to opium as a painkiller, he wraps that bit up nice and quickly, only to whinge for several pages about how another author slandered him and his opium usage. And it just wasn’t a fair representation. And it’s not like the other guy can talk, considering that he also uses opium. Stuff like that, that would just drag the pace to a complete snail’s crawl. I know that my pledge when I started this blog was to complete books if at all possible, but there comes a point where it just isn’t worth it.

I wanted to like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but the only thing I find myself able to recommend it for is as a sleeping aid. 1/5

Next review: Sorcerous Rivalry by Kayleigh Nicol

Signing off,
Nisa.

Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games by Dani Cavallaro

Continuing with my non-fiction streak, I settled on Anime and the Visual Novel, if only for the novelty of finding an academic-style text focusing on anime, as well as the comparatively obscure genre of computer game that is the visual novel. Being fond of both of these media, I thought I could hardly go wrong with something that looked at them with a bit of critical thought.

Anime and the Visual Novel focuses on a set of visual novels that have had subsequent anime adaptations, analysing how the animated adaptations have dealt with the problem of condensing a game with the core feature of branching narratives into a singular cohesive narrative. Additionally, the text also discusses particular narrative tropes and themes that are common to the visual novel medium and how those themes affect both gameplay and adaptation into a singular narrative.
This is kind of an odd book to discuss. As it’s more of an academic text in style and focuses on such a niche subject, it’s one of those books where you can tell more or less instantly whether it will be to your taste or not. The arguments presented here are fairly solidly reasoned, with a nicely varied set of primary texts to draw upon. So if that tickles your fancy, then you should be fairly well served by Anime and the Visual Novel.
That’s not to say that it’s without flaw, and there are two main issues that I could potentially see putting readers off. Firstly, there is some of the vocabulary used. A problem that a lot of academic texts have is that they couch themselves in overly-complicated language and syntax in order to make themselves more highbrow, when simple words could have expressed their point in a clearer, more succinct way. Anime and the Visual Novel is unfortunately not an exception to this rule. It is the first time I’ve had to consult my dictionary in months, and most of the time there was a far simpler term that could have been used in its place that would have made the point more accurately. So that’s one part of the language that could be off-putting. The other aspect of the iffy language is perhaps a more personal bugbear, but there is something intensely irritating about seeing texts repeatedly being called “yarns” throughout the book. First of all, it all but proves that this was written by someone fairly new to the whole academia bit, because there is no way that a seasoned academic would refer to anything that wasn’t textile-based as a “yarn”. Hell, I was taught that in my first year of university, Cavallaro should have no excuse. Second, a yarn in the slang definition is specifically a long, rambling and usually implausible story, which is an entirely unsuited moniker for visual novels. While a visual novel may have multiple endings to experience, thus lengthening the amount of time spent replaying, this only increases the need for the story to be tightly-written and plausible within its own world. For Cavallaro to refer to them as yarns only diminishes the medium that they are trying to celebrate.
The second issue I have is with, of all things, the proofreading. Whoever edited this needs to be sacked, because my copy was absolutely littered with punctuation errors. Comma-splicing, missing spaces between words and extra words that should have been deleted pre-publishing, it was all in there. I could possibly forgive one or two errors, but this was a handful within more or less every chapter, enough to make me annoyed at paying money to interpret someone’s rough draft. If I couldn’t get away with it in uni, I’m sure as shit not letting someone get away with it when money is being exchanged. It’s just not professional.

A solid set of essays analysing a wide range of well-received visual novels and their anime adaptations. Somewhat marred by a reliance on a vocabulary that is far too complex for the subject being discussed, and a series of punctuation errors throughout the text that is honestly just sloppy. For a fan of either medium discussed, I would say that there’s a fair chance you’ll like it if you can keep the above flaws in mind. 3.5/5

Next review: The Mammoth Book of Angels and Demons edited by Paula Guran

Signing off,
Nisa.

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want & Piero

I return to a non-fiction title because I wanted something a bit different, and thought that with an introductory title I could find out whether the subject as a whole was something that I could see myself reading into more. Aesthetics sounded close enough to my prior studies that certain concepts would be less obtuse, but unfamiliar enough to still be interesting.

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide provides a brief history of the development of aesthetics as a philosophy. It covers a period from the Roman Empire to the late 20th century, looking at philosophers ranging from Plato to Nietzsche to Baudrillard.
Introducing Aesthetics really needed to be longer. At 171 pages that are about half the size of the average paperback, and around half of each page dedicated to illustrations, there’s only really enough room for the barest of explanations of each concept that is discussed. And considering that over 2000 years of thought is being covered, that’s really not enough space to adequately cover the material that it wants to cover. While you do get a general idea of how and why art has moved from having a singular objective Subject to a fragmented sense of self that can never be in possession of the entirety of a scene’s contexts, it’s not an especially clear route at times.
In addition to that, I wasn’t all that fond of the art style used for the illustrations. It’s an odd style that is kind of half-caricature, and instead of quirky it just kind of came off as ugly. In addition, whenever there were reproductions of particular artworks, the quality of the print wasn’t particularly great.

While a general idea can be gotten from reading Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide, there is just too much material that the author is trying to cover in too few pages. I wouldn’t mind looking into the subject of aesthetics again, but with perhaps more room to explore and expand concepts. 2.5/5

Next review: Anime and the Visual Novel: Narrative Structure, Design and Play at the Crossroads of Animation and Computer Games by Dani Cavallaro

Signing off,
Nisa.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain

As you can probably tell by just glancing at my blog that I have a tendency to read fiction over non-fiction. Not necessarily because I dislike non-fiction, but perhaps because I am pickier about the topics that I read about in the non-fiction “genre”. While I’m willing to maybe pick up something unfamiliar in a fictional frame, there’s a part of me that remembers all the dense and incomprehensible textbooks from university that presupposed a certain level of prior knowledge whenever I glance at the non-fiction section. This time though, I decided to bite the bullet, and settled on a subject that I at least have experience of.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking focuses on the role of introversion and extraversion in society, particularly focusing on the obsession that Western cultures have with extraversion. With such a focus on charisma and the ability to sell yourself in the workplace, Quiet discusses the ways that introverts can use their more understated talents to get ahead, and why being the loudest person in the room doesn’t guarantee that you’re the best person for the job.
As is probably obvious, I am firmly in the introvert camp, and so was hoping that this might give me some insight into promoting myself better without having to change my core antisocial nature. While I may have a ways left to go, Quiet was certainly an interesting starting point. Starting with the origins of what Cain refers to as the “Extrovert Ideal”, she then looks into how this focus of extraversion can lead to disastrous results, how introverts can flourish in business by relying on innate strengths, when it is appropriate to act in an outwardly extraverted manner and how the two personality types can benefit from each other. Admittedly, a lot of the points in principle seem kind of obvious to me, having experienced a lot of this firsthand, but the psychology and neuroscience behind it is fascinating. Like, it’s not especially surprising that introverts are risk-averse compared to extraverts’ more high-risk, high-reward attitude, but the fact that this is down to how each personality-type processes dopamine, amongst other things, is really interesting. And if you wanted to look further into a specific aspect of the overall subject, Cain has provided a detailed list of works that she has cited, so if she doesn’t go into quite the level of depth that you would like then she’s provided the means to do further research.

While Quiet more or less affirms things that introverts are already aware of, it does go into the reasons behind why introverts behave the way they do, and it provides a springboard for further study if the subject interests you. 4/5

Next review: Go Get a Roomie Volume 1 by Chloe C.

Signing off,
Nisa.

Just a Geek by Wil Wheaton

I’ve had Just a Geek on my reading list for some time now, but I have only really felt my interest in Wil Wheaton flare up more recently after getting back into Geek & Sundry’s output again, specifically Critical Role and Tabletop. Since I was mostly familiar with Wheaton’s work from around 2012 onwards, I was looking forward to reading about his work from before then.

Just a Geek is a collection of essays centred around entries that Wil Wheaton made on his personal blog wilwheaton.net, focusing on the entries between the website’s inception in 2001 and the book’s publication in 2004. In these essays, he focuses mainly on his struggles as an actor famous enough to be too recognisable for throwaway commercials but no longer famous enough to pull in huge crowds, as well as his complicated love-hate relationship with Star Trek and the community surrounding it.
It’s kind of weird reading Just a Geek since most of my impression of Wheaton’s work is from since he became something of a geek icon in more recent years. I didn’t really see anything of Star Trek beyond the original series until I started dating my husband just over 7 years ago. By then, Wheaton had pretty much moved on from being “that guy who used to be famous when he was a kid” to someone who worked a little bit in all kinds of fields. I mean, I think the first thing I watched that featured Wheaton in the cast was Teen Titans, so to think that for years he was Wesley Crusher in the eyes of the world is a bit surreal really. As such, it was an unexpectedly sober reading experience, trying to mesh the charming persona that I had seen on Tabletop with the frustrated impotence of some of the early blog entries that are included here. There is a word that I had heard in my experiences on the internet called Sonder, the definition of which is as follows:

“The realisation that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own – populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness – an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might only appear once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.” 

While it mainly applies to random people who may cross your path only once, I do think it has more general applications. With Wheaton, it was something of a shock to hear him talking about just how depressing it could get with regards to wasted career opportunities, auditions that went to flavour-of-the-moment actors, and the difficulties balancing work and family life, because while he does come across as a lot more genuine than a lot of actors, you do get the realisation that there is a lot more under the surface than perhaps you want to acknowledge when watching something silly and fun like Tabletop. And maybe you get to see the shape of how his life continued, to the point where the 2010s come along and he seems to be in a much better place, though still looking enviably baby-faced. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I appreciated just how much Wheaton admits to his audience here. It’s a brave thing to do, especially for someone so inextricably linked to the near-universally disliked Wesley Crusher.

An interesting and touching collection of essays that focuses on his difficulties with his prior child star status and his growing investment in blogging and writing. His style is incredibly readable, with a lot of charm and personality. Also kudos has to go to him for focusing on some tough subjects that most people would try and gloss over. 5/5

Next review: Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Signing off,
Nisa.

Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking

This is a bit of a departure for me, having not read a book of essays since I was in university, and even then never in their entirety. But Loud Hands is something of an exception: both a birthday present from my younger sibling and a subject that is very close to my heart, it is a collection of essays concerning self-advocacy in the autistic community. As such, it was with only a smidgen of guilt that I bumped it up my reading list.

Loud Hands is a collection of autism self-advocacy essays, written exclusively by autistic writers. They span a range of topics within the spectrum of self-advocacy, from the origins of the larger autistic community, to the injustices suffered at the hands of our more ignorant neurotypical peers, to the language used in the disability rights movement.
I kind of knew from the start that I would like Loud Hands, as it’s pretty much preaching to the choir. Essays riffing on the idea that autistic people are valuable assets to society and should be treated as such. What about this would I not like? My main worry was that it wouldn’t be different enough from the information that I had already found and read on the Internet. That was largely assuaged by the actual content; while I had found a fair amount of the subject matter already, the pieces included went into a lot more detail and even covered some new material. The fact that it covers a fairly wide range of topics makes it a pretty comprehensive guide to the topic. This doesn’t make it a perfect resource though; I do have one main complaint that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly. My main issue with it is that it’s very US-centric. While the broad issues are international, some of the essays do focus on specifics such as the American Disability Act, the Judge Rotenberg Center and assumes the widespread adoption of ABA therapy in schools. These issues, while relevant to disability rights, do make it feel a little distant for me as an autistic person who has no intention of ever living in the States. It would have been nice to have more of an international perspective to the essays. But otherwise it’s a pretty solid effort and essential reading for someone thinking that they might be Autistic or neurotypical allies.

A solid read that covers a wide range of topics in surprising depth. Necessary reading for those interested in Autism and its community. 4.5/5

Next review: Kai-Ro by Graham Marks

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

The Prince was one of those books that I would have eventually gotten around to reading, but thanks to the intervention of my boyfriend I decided to give it a read now, seeing as he seemed to like it so much. Am I glad that I bumped it up the list then?

Seeing as this is more an instruction manual of sorts, I have no real synopsis for this. For those of you who don’t know, this is essentially a guide on politics, written with prospective rulers in mind. It has also forever linked Machiavelli’s name with the archetypes of the intriguer and, in some cases, the agent of the Devil. And that’s kind of sad, because pretty much everything that he wrote down here makes a lot of sense. For instance, when discussing whether it is better for a leader to be loved than feared, a lot of criticism seems to be targeted at his answer of:

“One would like to be both one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” 

The only part of that line that I knew of before reading this was the “better to be feared than loved”, which seems a lot harsher without the context; it’s pretty clear that a combination of the two qualities is the ideal here, but from a pragmatic stance it’s good to know which quality you can get away with not having should that ideal be out of your reach. Weirdly enough, it actually reminded me of some of my favourite teachers when I was younger; while they were fun and interesting, the thing that made me respect them and listen to them in the first place was the knowledge that they would not put up with any bad behaviour from me. The whole book is kind of like that. While I can see where the whole “ends justifies the means” perspective can be derived, I would say that the book is more an instruction manual focusing on lessons regarding pragmatism and learning to rely on your own wisdom/judgement/skills instead of the wisdom/judgement/skills of everyone around you.

So yeah, my review of this is pretty short and actually more of a defence for Machiavelli’s less-than-stellar reputation. Really, I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in politics, anyone who wants to work with people one day and anyone who is trying to write anything like epic fantasy or other fiction genres involving politics. If you’re interested in the context or history of the writing of The Prince, I would recommend the Penguin Classics version, or any version with annotations, as they are very interesting. 4/5

Next review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Signing off,
Nisa.

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