Book Review: “Kingdom of Souls” by Rena Barron

Kingdom of Souls has been hyped all year by HarperCollins and was released a couple of weeks ago. I liked the snake designs in the early promotional art (perhaps a silly reason to buy a book) and pre-ordered it. Did it live up to the hype?

*Please be aware this review contains some spoilers.

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“Magic has a price—if you’re willing to pay.

Born into a family of powerful witchdoctors, Arrah yearns for magic of her own. But each year she fails to call forth her ancestral powers, while her ambitious mother watches with growing disapproval.

There’s only one thing Arrah hasn’t tried, a deadly last resort: trading years of her own life for scraps of magic. Until the Kingdom’s children begin to disappear, and Arrah is desperate to find the culprit.

She uncovers something worse. The long-imprisoned Demon King is stirring. And if he rises, his hunger for souls will bring the world to its knees… unless Arrah pays the price for the magic to stop him.”

The first thing I noticed was this book was written in the present tense. The damn present tense! If I’d known, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Even though other books written in this style such as Divergent and Girls With Sharp Sticks turned out to be great, I don’t voluntarily buy books written in this style as I find it annoying. No matter, I thought, you’ll get used to it.

Things I Liked

  • There were many good points to Kingdom of Souls. The culture was written beautifully; Barron used inspiration from West Africa, and the use of a desert environment, tribes, and witchdoctors was a welcome change to the usual fantasy settings we see.
  • Though Arrah wasn’t the most interesting character I’ve ever come across, she did have self-doubt and fear that made her real. I’ve come across too many female main characters who are forever fearless and witty even in dire situations, so it was nice to see Arrah reacting to her environment in a realistic way.

Things I Didn’t Like

  • Unfortunately, this list is longer. There were many things in this debut novel that didn’t make sense. Apparently, Arrah gives up ten years of her life to perform magic. Nobody seems to notice that she jumped from 16 years old up to 26 years old overnight, not even her sort-of boyfriend, servants, or her own father.
  • The shoddy writing style. Some descriptions were written with flair while others fell flat. Forgivable for a first novel, but this was represented by the same agent who got one of my favourite books of all time, The Queen’s Rising, on the shelves, so I’m wondering what kept the agent hooked.
  • A white person is referred to as being “cursed with pale skin that is sensitive to sunlight.” Umm, OK? Racism is bad, guys, no matter who it’s against.
  • The unneeded romance. Many people seem to think a teenage character NEEDS a romantic interest. With everything going on and the despair all around, it felt silly at times to suddenly drop everything for heart-pounding near-kisses from her cardboard cut-out character boyfriend.
  • The choppy pacing. Some scenes happened lightning-fast whereas other times there were pages and pages where nothing of interest happened.
  • There were too many characters to keep track of. I often had to stop and remember who was who. They didn’t have their own voices or personalities, with the exception, perhaps, of Arrah’s grandmother. For this reason, I didn’t feel affected when characters died or were in mortal peril.
  • The double standard on victim-blaming. A male character is raped (tricked by a demon into thinking it’s someone else) and is constantly blamed for it. Rape is rape, and if the same thing had happened to a female character, no doubt the writer would have handled it very differently.
  • The overall dark tone of the book. I’m a lover of dark fantasy, but there is often a tone of despair and no hope at all in this novel that made me unmotivated to keep reading.

All in all, I wasn’t a fan of this one. I’ve come across a couple of debut books now where I’ve just thought “meh.” Maybe it’s my own fault for falling for the hype that these big companies push. Two stars for Kingdom of Souls, which was a real slog to get through towards the end.

2stars

 

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A Trip to Hokkaido: Cool Weather, Ramen, and Warnings of Bears

I’d never been to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, before. My husband Ken organised a two-night stay in Sapporo and a bunch of activities for us to do. Hokkaido is much cooler than the rest of Japan, and its largest city, Sapporo, is home to the annual Snow Festival in February and the nationally popular Sapporo beer.

We went in September, of course, so no snow for us, but at an average of around 21 degrees Celsius every day, it was a gorgeous break from Tokyo’s scorching summer.

We got a free KitKat on the plane!

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What struck me about Hokkaido the most was how friendly the people are! Everyone had a big smile on their faces and went out of their way to help us out. In contrast to Tokyo, where people sort of keep to themselves and blanch at the thought of talking to strangers, I felt welcome in Sapporo.

The First Day

We started with some miso ramen in Chitose Airport, since our flight was in the morning and we arrived at lunchtime. Lucky me, they thought the piece of pork I got was too small so I got one extra!

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We ventured into the city, Ken taking care of everything so I could just stroll and enjoy the sights. Of course, the train station didn’t look much different from Tokyo’s, but in a way that was nice. I felt safe while at the same time exploring a new place.

Our hotel was a business hotel, simple and cute, but in a fantastic location – within walking distance of Sapporo Station and all the fun nightlife things to do there.

In our first day alone, we managed to visit the famous Clock Tower…

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Take a peek at the park and its Autumn Festival… 

And, of course, explore the downtown area. We managed to do an hour and a half of karaoke for only 600 yen each! If you find yourself in Sapporo and want cheap karaoke, it’s called Karaoke Heart Beat.

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The Second Day

On the second day, we took a train up to Otaru and rented a car to Shimomui Kaigan, a pretty cape on Hokkaido’s west coast. Though we bumped into a tour group, it was still quite quiet compared to the madness of Tokyo’s crowds, and we could enjoy the rocky beach comfortably.

Ken’s sharp eyes even spotted a cute little lizard basking on the wooden fence!

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After getting back, we felt we needed to explore more, so we took a side path up a hill and came across a lighthouse. Unfortunately, I don’t know the name of it.

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I liked the lighthouse so much that I decided to draw it!

We wanted to go farther, but the sign was somewhat off-putting…

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After, we went to the Nikka Whisky Factory.

The story of Nikka Whisky is really cute; Masataka Taketsuru visited Scotland to learn about how whisky was made. While living there, he met a shy Scottish girl called Rita who he ultimately married. She joined him in Japan and supported his dream of becoming a whisky producer. She settled into her life in Japan and made friends with the people there. Eventually, they found success in Hokkaido. Their love story is inspiring.

The factory itself also had a lot of information on Scotland, which was wonderfully nostalgic. We got our share of souvenirs from the shop there, too.

The Third Day

Our flight wasn’t until 9:00pm on our last day, so we still had plenty of time to look around before we had to fly back to reality. We visited Hitsujigaoka, or “Sheep Hill,” to find a statue of William Smith Clark, an American professor and colonel in the American Civil War, who coined the phrase “Boys, be ambitious.”

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There was a small Snow Festival museum where we could see past designs for the festival. It’s really amazing that they could make such intricate shapes with just snow. 

After, we went up Mt. Moiwa on a ropeway. Since we didn’t want to pay extra for the nature car, we walked up to the top (only took about ten minutes – well worth going up for free). We even managed to spot a shy little squirrel on the way. There were some nice views on the top and the weather was perfect for light hiking. 

Lastly, we managed to fit in a visit to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory! Hokkaido is well known for its white chocolate biscuits and it’s a common souvenir to take home.

Though we only arrived an hour before closing time, there was still time to have a look around. The outside area was very pretty, inspired by Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. We got souvenirs, of course, and even managed to see some of the workers producing the famous little biscuits.

We managed to get a LOT done in just three days, and it was a wonderful trip. Maybe one day we’ll be able to visit in the winter and witness the wonder that is the Snow Festival. For now, though, I’m glad we went in summer and enjoyed the comfortable weather.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander was another recommendation from my Mum, who is a real book nerd. Somehow, the TV show (now on Netflix) had passed me by until now. A novel about Scotland and time travel, you say? Gimme, gimme!

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“1946, and Claire Randall goes to the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank. It’s a second honeymoon, a chance to learn how war has changed them and to re-establish their loving marriage.

But one afternoon, Claire walks through a circle of standing stones and vanishes into 1743, where the first person she meets is a British army officer – her husband’s six-times great-grandfather.

Unfortunately, Black Jack Randall is not the man his descendant is, and while trying to escape him, Claire falls into the hands of a gang of Scottish outlaws, and finds herself a Sassenach – an outlander – in danger from both Jacobites and Redcoats.

Marooned amid danger, passion and violence, her only chance of safety lies in Jamie Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior. What begins in compulsion becomes urgent need, and Claire finds herself torn between two very different men, in two irreconcilable lives.”

Our main character, Claire, is a war nurse vet on her second honeymoon with her husband, from whom she’d been separated for years. During their trip to the Scottish Highlands, she accidentally falls through time, awaking in the 1700s and unable to return.

What I noticed first was the sheer length of this book. At over 280,000 words, it’s much longer than the average first novel. I found that the first quarter was fairly slow, yet still interesting enough to keep my attention. Outlander is beautifully written, with a perfect blend of witty dialogue and breathtaking descriptions.

I enjoyed exploring Scotland, first in the ’40s and then in the 18th century, from the charming castles to the heather on the mountains. Even if the story moved slowly at first, Gabaldon’s gorgeous writing style kept me hooked.

What I like most about this book is that it’s very historically accurate. Though of course featuring fictional characters, Gabaldon did her research. I’d recently got done watching Braveheart only to find it lacked much historical accuracy at all, so Outlander was a pleasing contrast.

By the second half of the book, I was fully invested. Claire is tangled up in the dangers and politics of the time. Jack Randall, obviously the main “baddie”, is a totally evil and corrupt redcoat, and Gabaldon is exceptionally gifted at making us hate him! Jamie was my favourite character (I am definitely not alone on this), from his honour and bravery to his affectionate use of the word “Sassenach” (English person) when referring to Claire.

Another thing I adored was the use of Gaelic! The language of my childhood is rarely used in books or TV, yet is used frequently throughout the story. Now I’m watching the TV show too, and it’s pure nostalgic bliss to witness its use.

The last quarter of the novel was so explosive and packed full of action and passion that my rating went from four stars to five. Immediately after turning the last page, I whipped out my phone and ordered the next novel in the series, Dragonfly in Amber.

If you love historical romance, Scotland, and excitement, I highly recommend Outlander!

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Get Outlander on Amazon UK
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I Absolutely Hate Competition

I’m a big fan of the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate games. Many people suggested I go to a local tournament where I could improve and not have to suffer through the downsides of online input lag.

At the tournaments (I attended three), I lost far more than I won. My enthusiasm quickly evaporates. After a few losses, I tilt, then I don’t try. Why bother, when I know I’m going to lose anyway?

The fact is that I despise competition.

I feel humiliated when I lose, and guilty if I win. Why make someone feel that all their hard work has gone to waste by snatching a win from them? What have I done to deserve that? Yet when I’m the one who’s losing, it’s like a confirmation that I’m a failure. I left the last tournament in tears, leaving the victorious winners behind with a heavy heart, accepting I’ll never improve at such a fast-paced competitive game.

So I quit Smash. And my life is a lot better for it.

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Does that mean I’ll miss out on things in life? I don’t work hard on this blog because I hate competing against other websites. Every day, I feel like quitting my dream to be a fiction writer because the competition has never been fiercer. I don’t play any sports or PVP games because I despise going against a fellow human.

The fact is that I’m a lot happier working with people instead of against them.

I know I’m using video games in many examples here, but stay with me. There’s another game series, Monster Hunter, where players connect online to fight together against the in-world monsters. A cooperative game, players give each other advice and items to beat the monsters and clear quests. Although Monster Hunter isn’t my favourite game of all time, I always left feeling happy and satisfied – exactly how you should feel after playing a game. There was no PVP competition; in fact, we united to defeat enemies together.

If you hate competition, it might just be because you’d rather work with people instead of against them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. This world is too full of competition, and not only in sports and games but in everyday life – job interviews, selling products, even love. Who has time for all that? I’m working towards building others up, not tearing them down. So should we all.

A Day in “Coedo” Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture

Just half an hour from Ikebukuro is Kawagoe, a town in Saitama that is affectionately nicknamed “Coedo” or “Little Edo” for its resemblance to the Edo era. Many old buildings and landmarks untouched by war and fire still stand, and it’s a lovely place to visit for a day trip.

Unlike other hotspots like Senso-ji Temple and Kyoto, Kawagoe didn’t have many foreign tourists at all. Saitama, the prefecture just north of Tokyo, is often overlooked by visitors, but I recommend Kawagoe for its peaceful atmosphere.

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Though a bit of a trek from the station, the attractive part of town is worth the walk. The cute buildings and the shouts of stall staff hard at work gave the streets a nostalgic atmosphere.

The Time Bell is a must-see; its chime is one of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan.

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On every street, there was something to do or see, whether it was coffee, ice cream, or traditional toys to take home.

Walking around was thirsty work, so we stopped for a Coedo beer. Right opposite is a unique-looking Starbucks if you prefer coffee.

After exploring, we stopped for some food. My husband managed to bypass all the expensive touristy places and found a charming hole-in-the-wall ramen shop run by a little old lady. She had money all over the wall from visitors from various countries, and she only served one dish: shoyu (soy sauce)-based ramen, a signature type of noodles for this region.

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This delicious and hearty bowl of ramen, plus a small bowl of rice with a little umeboshi plum, came to just 500 yen!

We also went to visit some temples, though I didn’t take any pictures aside from the enormous torii gate.

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If you ever get the chance to visit Kawagoe, please do! It involves some walking, but it’s a really beautiful and peaceful area without the crowds you get at some other places.

A Short Break in the Japanese Countryside

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a town in Nagano Prefecture called Okaya. I lived there from 2014 to 2016 and hadn’t been there since, so it was great to be able to go and hang out with my friend and get some fresh air.

I love Tokyo, but stepping off the bus into the quietness of Okaya “city” was peaceful. There were so few people! I went to a nearby shop to browse the clothes and ended up finding some amazing deals, such as a skirt for just 200 yen.

The old man at the cashier wasn’t the usual moving-at-the-speed-of-light-to-serve-you-as-fast-as-possible like you’d see in the capital, but he slowly and carefully cut off the tags and input the amounts in the till at his own pace. I, with nothing to do except kill time to wait for Alex, found myself smiling as I watched him take his time.

I had a cold while I was there so unfortunately, I couldn’t really smell the fresh air, but I saw the sky, heard and saw frogs, and enjoyed the peace of few people. And this was festival week; it was actually crowded for the area at the time!

Though we didn’t go to the festival in the evening when it kicked off properly, I watched Alex try his hand at a shooting game.

Alex’s house was a twenty-minute walk from his station, and trains from Okaya only went every hour or so. There were houses, rice fields, and amazing views of the hills. I found myself gushing like a city girl seeing grass for the first time.

I was only there for two nights, so I didn’t get to do or eat everything I wanted, but it was a wonderful time nonetheless. I got to catch up with old friends I hadn’t seen in years and have a short break from the business of Tokyo. Next time, I hope I can stay for a lot longer.

My First Japanese Manga Comic: Tsubaki-Chou Lonely Planet

Over my years of living in Japan, I’ve been asked many times if the reason I like this country is because of anime (cartoons) or manga (comics). This is a common reason for people to visit Japan. Even if you’re not into these things, it’s likely you’ve watched some anime in your lifetime, whether it be Dragonball, Pokémon, or Sailor Moon.

I always answered “no.” I watched Death Note when I was a teenager and was crazy about Pokémon as a kid, but they weren’t the reasons I decided to live in this country.

I studied Japanese at university and often pick up new words and phrases during my time living here, but I never really got to a higher level of Japanese. I can’t read newspapers or novels and I wouldn’t be able to pass any JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) level higher than intermediate. As an English teacher and writer, I don’t need any language test qualification so never really had the motivation to study.

Manga comics were always intimidating. How would I be able to read an entire book in Japanese? How would I navigate the seemingly complicated up-down left-right reading style? Despite seeing thousands of manga books in shops and whatnot, I never picked one up.

I get bursts of motivation to study, however, and bought Tsubaki-Chou Lonely Planet for 400 yen in a book shop.

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It sat on my shelf for ages, but I don’t like having books and never reading them. I forced myself to study the first two pages, taking notes of words I didn’t know. It took a while. Then my husband let me read it to him. There was furigana above the kanji (sort of pronunciation guides) so it didn’t take as long as it would have if it had been a manga aimed at adults.

After about a quarter of the way through, I got used to how to read it and started enjoying the story. Not worrying too much about understanding every single word, I read it on the train and finished it in just a few days.

The Story

Fumi Ono is determined to help her father get out of debt and applies to be a live-in housekeeper. When arriving at the house on Tsubaki Street, she’s amazed to find the writer who lives there isn’t a friendly old man as she’d expected, but a slightly strange, young, grumpy person who turns out to be Kibiki, the writer.

At first, they don’t get along. Kibiki-sensei is grouchy and doesn’t seem happy to have the young Fumi around. However, their relationship develops.

This reads like a typical romance in Japan but it was touching nevertheless. Lines like “you live here, so you’re my responsibility. I will protect you” tugged on the heartstrings. The story was really funny, as well; their bickering and the art style portraying shock or discomfort had me giggling.

Fumi is a cool character. She’s 16, polite, hardworking, and determined to be independent. When a local panty snatcher steals her underwear from where it’s hanging, she fiercely tries to confront him herself, before Kibiki-sensei shows up to help.

I think I consider myself a fan of manga now. I learned many new words and my reading speed has improved. I’ll definitely be buying the next installment of this light-hearted romance.