Book Reviews: The Last Stack

Over my month-long break before starting university, I visited the library thrice, borrowing a grand total of 19 books. As someone who had been reading electronic books for years, it took a while for me to adjust.

By the time this is posted, I would’ve started school, and will have a lot less time to just sit down with a proper book. I’ll probably revert to reading electronic books, unless there’s a specific title I can only find in the library.

(Update: It’s now early September and I’m about to start week 5 of university. All books have been returned. I read the last 2 in this list digitally. I want to say I’ll miss physical books, but I know I don’t.)

I digress. Here’s a compilation of reviews for my last stack of physical books.

1. The Third Hotel


Alternative title: Final Girl
Rating: 3.5 stars
Favourite quote: “But maybe a person became even more themselves when away, liberated from their usual present tense and free to lie.”
Read this if you like: Horror movies, ambiguity

Clare’s husband, a horror film buff, died in an accident a while ago – but they had already booked two tickets to a film festival in Havana. Clare flies there alone, and spots her dead husband in a suit she’s never seen. She decides to tail him. What follows is an exploration of her childhood and marriage, interspersed with interesting trivia about horror movies.

This was my first encounter with a horror book, though I wouldn’t say it was particularly scary. It was, however, very unsettling, especially the tidbit about the fingernail clipping – I will be thinking about that for weeks to come. 

(Update: I finally stopped thinking about it! Until I read my own review. I only have myself to blame.)

Without spoiling things, a multitude of themes was explored within the 212 pages, with the most prominent being grief. Yet, as the (unreliable) narrator went about Cuba, sometimes it felt like the author was just writing whatever came to mind. Ultimately, it made for a book that was frayed at the edges – an interesting read, but not a particularly enjoyable one.

2. Impractical Uses of Cake


Alternative title: ?
Rating: 4 stars
Favourite quote: “No one in Singapore could be faulted for not having the capacity for poetry, Sukhin thinks, feeling a sudden indignation on behalf of all the students he’s ever heard say, ‘I don’t get it,’ – the Romans took concrete and made the Pantheon; in Singapore, we just keep making more and more of these things.” (A sentence with a hyphen AND semicolon AND quotation marks? So satisfying.)
Read this if you like: Local context, grumpy guys, VERY slow burn romances

Sukhin, a grouchy 35-year-old man who teaches English literature at a local junior college, finds a cardboard box at a HDB void deck. He learns that his JC sweetheart, Jinn, is living there of her own accord. Sukhin has to navigate a world he never knew about, all while dealing with personal woes – and simping for the girl from his past.

The main character Sukhin reminded me a lot of my secondary school English teacher, which kind of terrified me a little. Just a little. After we got to see his soft side, I definitely warmed up to him though (all it took was a manic pixie dream girl type).

I loved the 3 characters that were featured throughout the book, but I felt like I didn’t quite connect with them enough. I only knew some of Sukhin’s thoughts; not his reasons for those thoughts. Jinn was also interesting, and I wished I’d learnt more about her.

I would’ve thoroughly enjoyed this story even if it was set in any other country. I probably would’ve enjoyed it more if the social issues were tackled in a more meaningful way.

3. Slaughterhouse Five


Alternative title: So It Goes (I’d suggest the title ‘Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt’, but that makes it sound like one of those contemporary books with italicised font on its cover.)
Rating: 3 stars
Favourite quote: “My God – what have they done to you, lad? This isn’t a man. It’s a broken kite.”
Read this if you like: Classics, war stories, some sci-fi, slightly absurd dark humour

Billy Pilgrim’s a prisoner of war in WWII. Or he’s a successful optometrist with a wife he doesn’t love. Or he’s a museum exhibit in an alien world where people never really die. He’s basically time-travelling in snippets throughout the whole book.

I’m not sure how to start with reviewing this confusing little book. It didn’t help that I only had the time to read it in 10-minute snippets, making everything feel even more disjointed. I’ll try my best anyway.

This book isn’t for everyone – it certainly isn’t for me, but I forced my way through it “because it’s a classic”. I don’t regret it because I grew to love the main character Billy Pilgrim, but I was just too tired and confused to analyse all the messages. Even so, I’m learning to love off-kilter books, and I believe that this anti-war novel helped bring me one step closer.

4. Exit West


Alternative title: Something about doors idk
Rating: 2.5 stars
Favourite quote: “…who had seen what happens to people who surrender, as her former city surrendered to the militants, and who thought that the young people with their guns and their knives and their fists and their teeth were entitled to use these things, and that the ferocity of little was sometimes all that kept them safe from the predations of the big.” 
Read this if you like: Untold stories about refugees

Nadia – a free spirit – and Saeed – a traditional man – meet in a class and begin seeing each other. Previously they’re able to meet with a few restrictions in place, but as war breaks out in their country, the couple decide to pretend they’re married to flee their unnamed Middle Eastern country through magical doors. 

I loved how the book detailed the terrifying experience of being a refugee, alongside a newfound romance. You hardly read fictional stories about ordinary people as refugees, but those are the stories that need to be told. 

Still, if not for the important subject matter, I would’ve stopped the book about halfway through, because as much as I appreciate good prose, everything in this book was written in long, unnecessarily drawn-out sentences, with too much punctuation, akin to this sentence, which just made the book a slog to go through.

5. Recursion

PHOTO CREDIT: INSTAGRAM/@SEEKINGDYSTOPIA (The book not being completely set on the table kind of annoys me.)

Alternative title: False Memory Syndrome (I’m not very good with this alternative title thing)
Rating: 4.5 stars
Favourite quote: “…he thinks perhaps there’s a reason our memories are kept hazy and out of focus. Maybe their abstraction serves as an anesthetic, a buffer protecting us from the agony of time and all that it steals and erases.” (My actual favourite quote contains spoilers, so I picked the next best one.)
Read this if you like: Time travel, science fiction

Helena, a neuroscientist whose research revolves around memories and memory loss, accidentally makes a “memory chair” that allows others to return to past memories – and change the future. Barry, a detective, receives a few reports of people with False Memory Syndrome, a “disease” where people encounter vivid memories of an alternate life or previous timeline. I can’t continue this description because it contains spoilers, but I think you know where this is going.

Let me begin this review by saying I’m averse to anything related to time travel. I don’t care about glitches, alternate timelines or ruining the future. If you made me choose between a time travel book and literally any other book, I’d pick the latter. I only read this book because I’m on a mini mission to read books with familiar covers.

However, I’m also a sucker for the idea of fate and meeting in another life. That, combined with characters you want to root for and a complicated story that was explained so well, got me good. Hence the 4.5 star rating (I deducted 0.5 stars because the book went on for too long, and that’s just too much time travel for me).

The book was exciting but not that thrilling, so I don’t understand why all the reviews I’ve read made it sound like Blake Crouch gifted us all with something completely revolutionary. But it did make me hate time travel a little less. Maybe I’ll finally get around to watching the Groundhog Day musical now.

(Also, I’m not sure why I created a separate blog post for my physical books. I think I just liked the title “The Final Stack”.)

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