Spoiler-Free Book Review: “The Light at the Bottom of the World” by London Shah

I pre-ordered this months ago because the premise really hooked me. Nearly a hundred years in the future, London and the rest of the world are underwater, a new civilization living at the bottom of the sea. The cover was absolutely gorgeous too, so I decided to give this debut novel a shot while waiting for Voyager to arrive.

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“In the last days of the twenty-first century, sea creatures swim through the ruins of London. Trapped in the abyss, humankind wavers between fear and hope–fear of what lurks in the depths around them, and hope that they might one day find a way back to the surface.
 
When sixteen-year-old submersible racer Leyla McQueen is chosen to participate in the prestigious annual marathon, she sees an opportunity to save her father, who has been arrested on false charges. The Prime Minister promises the champion whatever their heart desires. 

But the race takes an unexpected turn, forcing Leyla to make an impossible choice.

Now she must brave unfathomable waters and defy a corrupt government determined to keep its secrets, all the while dealing with a guarded, hotheaded companion she never asked for in the first place. If Leyla fails to discover the truths at the heart of her world, or falls prey to her own fears, she risks capture–or worse. And her father will be lost to her forever.”

There was a lot I liked about this book. The thing that struck me most was that it seemed to be aimed at teenagers, perhaps around 13-16 years old, yet it had a lot of swearing in it, so I’m not sure who the target audience is. YA, perhaps? There were a lot of plot twists I didn’t see coming, which is important for a good story.

Things I Liked

  • The world-building was fantastic. Some of the scenes describing the vibrant underwater world, filled with dangers, sea creatures, and ruins of old buildings painted some vivid pictures in my mind.
  • The main character, Leyla McQueen. Some people have said Leyla is naive or makes stupid decisions, but… she’s sixteen. I actually liked her a lot. She actually feels like a sixteen-year-old; she’s a little stubborn, makes silly mistakes sometimes (but apologizes and tries to redeem herself afterward), and loves hot drinks and taking care of her puppy, Jojo.
  • The theme of family and how important it is to her.
  • The themes of a government you can’t trust. This was great and full of unexpected plot twists and revelations that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Things I Didn’t Like:

  • The prose, I felt, was the weakest thing about The Light at the Bottom of the World. Many cliches and boring language were used, a lot of the scenes went at lightning pace and didn’t allow for any real tension to build, and in one chapter Leyla’s “cheeks flooded with heat” about four times within a couple of pages. A rewrite with more detail in the action scenes would do this novel a world of good.
  • The way she and the love interest, Ari, interacted. He’s the typical brooding, serious, but very handsome and strong type, and Leyla flits between disliking him and swooning over how perfect his jawline is. I found myself skipping sentences where she was talking about his golden eyes or the way his jaw twitched. He wasn’t much of a character, and it was obvious they’d become a couple from their very first meeting.
  • The first person present tense. Why is the present tense so darn popular lately?

The Light at the Bottom of the World had loads of cool nerdy references and parts that were unapologetically British; Leyla is a huge fan of Oscar Wilde, talks about how much she loves tea. Hermione Granger and Dr Who are also mentioned. King George is also briefly said to be the last king, which was a nice touch.

Quotes

Debut novels rarely have quotes worth noting down, but there were some great ones in this one. Here are some of my favourites.

“You people… always content with your own lives no matter what’s going on with somebody else – as long as you’re fine. Always believing what you’re told.”

A real Oscar Wilde quote: “Ah, one can never be too overdressed or overeducated.”

“Maybe if we weren’t bombarded with the endless promotion of despair, we might think and feel differently about our lives.”

I also found it interesting how depression was mentioned and dealt with in this story, and I think many readers would agree that it applies to the real world, too. I actually felt the best writing was in the last few pages when Leyla is reflecting on what’s happened and we see how she’s grown.

All in all, I enjoyed this story. I feel it would appeal more to teenagers because of the writing style, and I won’t be forgetting the unique world in a hurry. I think I’ll probably buy the sequel when it comes out. I feel the weak prose let the book down the most and hope that Shah will polish her craft before writing the next one.

Three and a half stars for The Light at the Bottom of the World!

3.5stars

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Dragonfly in Amber” by Diana Gabaldon

Following the fantastic novel Outlander is Dragonfly in Amber. I can’t believe I wasn’t aware of these books’ existence until very recently. This novel was originally published in 1992 and I wish I could have grown up reading them. Better late than never, though, as they say.

***THIS REVIEW DOESN’T CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR DRAGONFLY IN AMBER BUT IT MAY FOR OUTLANDER. CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK 🙂 ***

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“For twenty years, Claire Randall has kept her secrets. But now she is returning with her grown daughter to the mysteries of Scotland’s mist-shrouded Highlands.
 
Here Claire plans to reveal a truth as shocking as the events that gave it birth: the secret of an ancient circle of standing stones, the secret of a love that transcends centuries, and the truth of a man named Jamie Fraser—a Highland warrior whose gallantry once drew the young Claire from the security of her century to the dangers of his.
 
Claire’s spellbinding journey continues through the intrigue-ridden French court and the menace of Jacobite plots, to the Highlands of Scotland, through war and death in a desperate fight to save both the child and the man she loves.”

Gabaldon has an absolutely gorgeous writing style, and that’s what kept me reading when the first half of this book got a bit dull. I was a bit put out that the first five chapters were twenty years later, sort of “spoiling” what was going to happen; Claire had left 18th-century Scotland and was back in her own time with her daughter, Brianna. I even felt a little unmotivated to keep reading at first – what was the point if I knew what was going to happen? But I don’t think of this series as books, I think of them as a window into another world. One of those series where the characters are so real that you really are escaping into the pages.

The first half was a little slow; things did happen, but I was eager for Claire and Jamie to get back to Scotland and to get all the answers to the questions that Part 1 (“present time”) had inspired. The second half, however, was as explosive and exciting as the second half of book 1, and I’m extremely glad I kept at it.

Many of the events and characters are based on real people, and it made everything more heartbreaking. The tragedy of battle, life in the 1700s, and the struggles of the Scottish people. Scotland and its history are not very well-known worldwide, but perhaps that will change now that the Outlander TV show is gaining popularity.

I had two problems with Dragonfly in Amber. The first I’ve already mentioned; it was a little slow in the first half. The other issue was the huge amount of sex scenes. I find sex scenes in any book, no matter how tender or elegantly written, quite boring. I found myself skimming through them, wondering when they’d be over so I could get back to the story.

This wasn’t enough to deter me, though. The last fifteen percent or so of this story had me crying on the bus. If you love Scotland, love historic novels, please try this excellent series! I can’t wait to get my hands on Voyager, book three, and I’m wondering how it’s all going to go down now that Claire is in her forties.

Four and a half stars for Dragonfly in Amber!

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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

 

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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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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