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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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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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.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Misery” by Stephen King

I love Stephen King, and Misery was the next on my list. It was very similar to Gerald’s Game, which I loved.

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“Paul Sheldon is a bestselling novelist who has finally met his number one fan. Her name is Annie Wilkes, and she is more than a rabid reader—she is Paul’s nurse, tending his shattered body after an automobile accident.

But she is also furious that the author has killed off her favorite character in his latest book. Annie becomes his captor, keeping him prisoner in her isolated house.”

Boy, was I in for a ride. We’re catapulted straight into the confusion and deliriousness that was Paul Sheldon’s accident, the mad pain of his shattered legs, and the feeling of utter entrapment as the crazy Annie Wilkes gushes over Paul’s writing, rages over his murder of her favourite fictional character, and punishes his ‘bad’ behaviour. This isn’t a slowly-but-surely, maybe she’ll let me go soon before realising something is wrong; no, this is a full-on, immediate, she’s crazy and I’m never getting out of here scenario.

I adored this book, which had me by the throat for the few days it took me to finish. Stephen King’s poetic delivery of mad ramblings, clever metaphors, and references to memories and private jokes are just a step above other writers. I usually detest things that are too popular (I didn’t watch Game of Thrones until 2019) but I’m definitely a King fan (maybe not his number one fan, though…)

Some hilarious quotes that had me chuckling:

“Her temper had apparently gone on vacation. But… it could arrive back unexpectedly at any moment, bags in hand: Couldn’t stand to stay away! How ya doin’?

“No phone call to the ambulance service: ‘This is Annie… I’ve got a fellow here, looks a bit like King Kong used him for a trampoline.’”

“And what then? A kamikaze dive out onto the back porch? A great idea. Maybe he could break his back, and that would take his mind off his legs for a while.”

Annie was a truly terrifying character. She wasn’t just insane, but unpredictable, remorseless, yet still human; an excellent recipe for a King villain. I can’t say much more without having to add a spoiler warning, but her acts and Paul’s reactions and trauma were flawlessly written. I think this might be my favourite King story so far.

Five stars for Misery!

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Book Review: “Norwegian Wood” by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese author who, so I’ve heard, is one of the most famous and well-loved writers in the country. At writers’ club, my friend Jennifer handed me a copy of Murakami’s first novel, Norwegian Wood (“Norway no Mori” in Japanese), and said, “give it a try” with a smile.

81lnnTBF8dL“Toru, a serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. As Naoko retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. 

A magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, Norwegian Wood blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love.”

The story follows Toru Watanabe, a young college student who reconnects with an old friend from school, Naoko, with whom he shares a sad past: his best friend and Naoko’s boyfriend, Kizuki, committed suicide at seventeen. They’re both desperately trying to move on, moving from Kobe to Tokyo to move somewhere they know nobody.

I loved the writing style in this book. It read very much like an autobiography, sometimes with Stephen King-like digression, with minute details that were somehow pointless yet fascinating at the same time. What did it matter what he was wearing that day or the fact that the drink he chose from the vending machine was a Pepsi? Yet it gave the story much more depth, like Toru was really talking to me about the sad events of his college days.

Toru himself was nothing really special. He was quiet, often not articulating how he felt, was average-looking, had a simple schedule. And yet I felt inexplicably drawn to this unremarkable man and his unremarkable life.

Though at times I found the plot slow and sex was mentioned far, far too much in painfully unnecessary detail, the story touched me very deeply. A black cloud seemed to hang over the whole thing – Toru’s dorm, the apartments and bars he visited, the characters we met. Almost everyone was messed up mentally some way or another, no one more so than Naoko, who sometimes got so bad she heard voices and couldn’t put pen to paper to write to Toru.

I’m glad I’ve lived in Japan long enough to understand many of the subtle cultural differences. The way people speak to each other, their behaviors, and even a mistake someone made (buying cucumbers instead of kiwi fruit; in English, it doesn’t make much sense, but in Japanese, cucumber (kyuri) and kiwi fruit (kiwi) sound very similar, thus potentially explaining the mistake). That gave it a more realistic edge that I’m glad I could experience.

I finished the book feeling depressed and a little frustrated. I personally disliked the final scene, seeing it as a bit strange that after everything, two characters found that cause of action to be best. Many other readers, such as on Goodreads, also mentioned that they disliked it. Usually, I’d give a book three stars for the reasons listed above, but I know in my heart I’m not going to be able to forget this book easily. Not the descriptions, not Toru’s melancholy nor the poignant memories, nor the quiet romance of Naoko.

I give Norwegian Wood four stars out of five, but now I feel I have to watch a comedy to feel better after such a heavy tale.

4stars

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Book Review: “An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

I went on a book buying spree quite recently, and An Ember in the Ashes was a highly-rated (“On twelve best book of the year lists”) release from 2015. I picked it up after finishing We Rule the Night. Though I didn’t think that much of the new cover, it was said to be a gritty fantasy and I looked forward to diving in.

*There are some minor spoilers in this review.

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“Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
 
Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.
 
But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.
 
There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.”

Laia lives with her grandparents and brother. As Scholar people, they lead cautious lives under the iron fist of the Martial Empire. During a raid, where soldiers ransack homes and make arrests, Laia’s grandparents are killed and her brother arrested for treason by a Mask, deadly warriors who are trained from childhood to be ruthless killers.

After tracking down the rebel movement, the Resistance, for help, Laia is sent off on a dangerous mission to spy on the Commandant of Blackcliffe, a large Martial city and home of the school that trains Masks. Meanwhile, Elias, the Commandant’s son and in his final year of Mask school, is desperate to escape the life of murder and cruelty that is set out before him.

There was some great writing in this novel, keeping the pages turning. Laia’s weeks as a slave were believable and sympathetic; she desperately wants to save her brother and is willing to put up with pain, torture, and death to carry out her mission for the Resistance. Elias was likable; he was tired of killing, confused about his feelings for his best friend, and longing for a peaceful life away from the brutish path of a Mask.

That being said, this book was riddled with fantasy cliches and tropes. The two main female characters are show-stoppingly beautiful (of course). There isn’t a love triangle, but others have described it as a square: both of our main characters have two people interested in them. A double triangle?

We have an evil empire, an equally evil emperor who for some reason is really far away, Hunger Games-esque “Trials,” and a battle-hardened female character who is “not like other girls,” is tough as nails and can beat anyone she likes into a pulp, and is also drop-dead gorgeous. There’s also a prophecy, of course, that intertwines the fates of both our MCs. However, this wasn’t a horrible book. Though the tropes where there, they didn’t really want to make me stop reading.

I found some of the magic creatures to be a bit underwhelming. There was a group of sand creatures that attacked Helene and Elias (I can’t remember the names of them) and I couldn’t stop giggling when the king of these creatures said his name was Rowan. Then he sort of disappeared and we never saw him again. He might come up again in the next book, I suppose.

All in all, I did enjoy An Ember in the Ashes but I do not think it deserved all the hype it got. Though it was well written, the characters didn’t really interest me enough to buy the next novel in the series, so I probably won’t be reading it. I give this book three stars out of five.

3stars

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “We Rule the Night” by Claire Eliza Bartlett

I was drawn to We Rule the Night for its gorgeous cover. I recently went through a spree of buying paper books and this hardback had been sitting on my shelf for a couple of weeks. This novel got me through some long train journeys.

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“Seventeen-year-old Revna is a factory worker, manufacturing war machines for the Union of the North. When she’s caught using illegal magic, she fears being branded a traitor and imprisoned. Meanwhile, on the front lines, Linné defied her father, a Union general, and disguised herself as a boy to join the army.

They’re both offered a reprieve from punishment if they use their magic in a special women’s military flight unit and undertake terrifying, deadly missions under cover of darkness.

Revna and Linné can hardly stand to be in the same cockpit, but if they can’t fly together, and if they can’t find a way to fly well, the enemy’s superior firepower will destroy them–if they don’t destroy each other first.”

Inspired by Soviet women who bombed the Nazis in World War II, We Rule the Night focuses on a group of women, namely, two characters called Revna and Linné. Revna is in the army to get her family back to regular-class citizens; her father was sent to prison for stealing factory scrap to make her prosthetic legs. Linné is the opposite – she’s desperate to fight for the Union, so much so that three years prior, she disguised herself as a boy to join the men’s regiment.

Linné is a tough girl, but she doesn’t have the Mary-Sue stereotypes that many ‘tough girl’ characters do. She comes off as brash and harsh but it’s because she can never think of the right things to say. Flying terrifies her. Revna, who just wants to protect her family, hates how everyone seems to think she’s fragile and needs help because of her disability. Her use of Weave magic enables her to fly, and she loves being in the plane.

I enjoyed this book very much. The prose was smooth, the action scenes explosive and exciting. Revna and Linné fought hard for the Union, their own goals the same but their motivations very different.

We didn’t see much of the Union apart from the army base and Tammen, Revna’s home city, and didn’t find out much about their enemy in the war, the Elda. Perhaps there are more books coming, or maybe it was left to the reader’s imagination. A reason for the war itself was never explained (or if it was, it wasn’t memorable) and I was left curious to know more about the Skarov, the intelligence officers everyone seemed to be afraid of.

That being said, too much of an info dump would have given the story unnecessary fluff. Though I was left wanting to know more, I was very satisfied with Revna and Linné’s story and how they fought to survive against impossible odds.

We Rule the Night is a dystopian fantasy, containing magic and technology, though the general vibe has you feeling like it’s set in the ’40s – rations, factories, and wooden planes for war. I loved this; it was an original world packed with living metal that responded to emotion, unique kinds of magic, and a country fighting for its freedom.

This exciting page-turner gets four stars!

4stars

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How Reading Can Help With Anxiety

When I was a child, I had anxiety pretty badly. I’m the type of person who worries about absolutely everything, and even as a little girl I always worried about things that could happen, or might happen, and what to do if they happened.

In Year 3, we were shown a video about fire safety. After that, for months (or maybe it was years), I’d wake up in the middle of the night, smelling and seeing imaginary smoke, and had to check the entire house for fire before I could go back to sleep.

Even now, I get night terrors.

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I used to get stomach pains, too, and eventually, my mother took me to the hospital to see if there was something wrong physically. Whenever I had a panic attack, sometimes coupled with hallucinations, she and Clarky, her best friend, would say to me in this sing-song way, “dooooooon’t panic.” Anxiety, or whatever it was, was never considered or diagnosed, so I never took any medication for it.

I’ve no idea if I have anxiety now, but I still worry about e v e r y t h i n g.

I also read a lot as a kid. I was extremely shy, so I didn’t go to friends’ houses that much, instead mostly playing video games and watching TV with my brother or reading. I read a lot of books as a kid (though looking back, I wish I’d read more). Now, I try to read as much as I can, purchasing paperbacks and hardbacks rather than ebooks. Now the stress of adult life can get to all of us, and I find the only thing that keeps it at bay is reading.

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It takes around an hour to get to work by train, and I often take a book to read during the commute. Getting into a good story helps push the worries of work, money, and health to the background. Video games and movies can’t do this as easily because they don’t require as much concentration, and it’s easy for your mind to wander. But few things make me happier than finding a great story to read on the train.

Even when I arrive at my station and I have to put the book away, I’m still thinking about the story, what’ll happen next, and enjoying the afterglow of reading in general. It makes my own worries feel smaller, reminding me that there’s a world out there beyond my own worry bubble.

If you or someone you know has anxiety, encourage them to read! In a generation of smartphones, Netflix, and social media, it’s not easy to crack open a book. But I can promise that diving into a novel you love will help, even if it’s just a little bit.