Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Four Dead Queens” by Astrid Scholte

I’ve been reading a lot of debut authors by big publishing houses recently. I came across the newly-released Four Dead Queens by Australian author Astrid Scholte, and immediately loved the cover, which screamed romance and magic and fantasy. Anything with “queen” in the title catches my interest at once, so I pre-ordered the paperback and eagerly awaited its arrival.

It’s so pretty!

9781760524418“Seventeen-year-old Keralie Corrington may seem harmless, but she’s, in fact, one of Quadara’s most skilled thieves and a liar. Varin, on the other hand, is an honest, upstanding citizen of Quadara’s most enlightened region, Eonia. He runs afoul of Keralie when she steals a package from him, putting his life in danger. When Varin attempts to retrieve the package, he and Keralie both find themselves entangled in a conspiracy that leaves all four of Quadara’s queens dead. 

With no other choices and on the run from Keralie’s former employer, the two decide to join forces, endeavoring to discover who has killed the queens and save their own lives in the process. When their reluctant partnership blooms into a tenuous romance, they must overcome their own dark secrets in hopes of a future together that seemed impossible just days before. But first they have to stay alive and untangle the secrets behind the nation’s four dead queens.”

The book is an interesting blend of sci-fi dystopia and fantasy. Every other chapter was from a queen’s perspective and another from Keralie’s. This was fascinating as I expected the queens to be dead right at the beginning of the story, and learning about their intricate lives and secrets gave them details that made me care about them even when I knew they were going to perish.

I was actually more interested in the goings-on of the palace than in Keralie’s story, partly because the queens were more fantasy and the MC’s was more dystopian/sci-fi. The seventeen-year-old, whose personality and storyline is very reminiscent of the Divergent trilogy, is a fairly typical YA tough girl, short but spunky, kicking and punching and always with a smart joke on her tongue. I suppose she was likable if you like those kinds of characters, but I cared far more about the queens, who seemed much more vulnerable and real, and the identity of the mystery assassin.

My favourite queen was Corra: her past, the pressures of pretending to be a stoic Eonite, and her secrets that threatened to tear her world apart. Every queen had her own motives and personality, and it was bittersweet to find out so much about them to know that they were going to be murdered.

I wasn’t keen on the romance between Keralie and Varin. For all they went through together, there didn’t seem to be much chemistry, apart from her (slightly pervy) attitude towards his perfect body and skin. He was stoic and handsome, but there wasn’t much else to him. The book would have been just as satisfying if they’d turned out to be best friends.

The twists were what made this book really fun for me. Every time I had a prime suspect or assumption in mind, I was proven wrong. Earlier today, I hit a plot climax and had to tear my eyes from the book to go to work. It was all I could think about throughout my shift!

All in all, this was a great debut novel that I’ll probably read again in the future. I loved the world-building, although there could have been more detail about the wars and the quadrants themselves, such as a closer look at Ludia. The palace sounded fascinating, and I loved the relationships between the queens, how they worked hard to take care of their lands even when their clashing personalities sometimes made things difficult. The murders themselves were also thrilling, Ms. Scholte carefully concealing the gender of the assassin to keep our minds open about who it could be. I honestly didn’t guess until it was revealed, and I’m super happy I didn’t see the twist coming.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Ms. Scholte and her work. I give Four Dead Queens four stars out of five!

4stars

Get Four Dead Queens on Amazon UK
Get Four Dead Queens on Amazon US

10 Awesome Facts About Mt. Fuji, Japan’s Tallest Mountain

Mt. Fuji, or Fuji-san (富士山) as called by locals, is a volcanic mountain in Japan that has been used in art, literature, and mythology for centuries. This instantly recognisable mountain is well loved and awe-inspiring, prompting millions to visit and thousands to climb every year.

snow-3252673_1280

Here are ten awesome facts about Mt. Fuji.

1. It’s in the Top 50 Tallest Mountains in the World

As well as being the highest in Japan, according to PeakList, Mt. Fuji ranks at the 35th tallest mountain in the world!

2. It Last Erupted Over 300 Years Ago

Mt. Fuji is one of the many volcanoes in Japan, and its last recorded eruption was on the 16th December 1707.

3. It Could Erupt Again Anytime

though it’s been centuries since its last eruption, geologists classify Mt. Fuji as dormant, and technically speaking, it could erupt again anytime. Needless to say, scientists are keeping a close eye on this mighty volcano just in case.

volcano-609104_1280

4. It Can Only be Climbed at Certain Times of the Year

Even the most experienced of hikers are greatly discouraged from attempting to climb Mt. Fuji outside of climbing season, which is from July to September. The tricky conditions mean that it’s incredibly dangerous to attempt to get to the top outside summer.

5. The Oldest Recorded Person to Reach the Summit was 103 Years Old

Japan Times told the story of Masashi Toyoda, a 93-year-old man who reached the mountain’s peak in 2017. Though this is indisputably impressive, and many elderly people climb Fuji every year, according to Sengen Taisha, the oldest ever recorded climber was a whopping 103 years of age.

6. The First Non-Japanese Person to Climb Mt. Fuji was a British Man

Sir Rutherford Alcock (1809-1897) was the first diplomatic representative to live in Japan. He was also the first recorded non-Japanese person to scale the mighty mountain.

Rutherford_alcock

7. Women Weren’t Allowed to Climb it Until the Late 19th Century

The name “Fuji” is said to come from the Ainu people’s Fire Goddess “Huchi” or “Fuchi,” and that since she would have gotten jealous of any woman on the mountain, females weren’t allowed to approach it until the 1860s.

8. There’s a Proverb Saying You Should Only Climb it Once

There is a famous Japanese saying: “A wise man will climb Mt Fuji once; a fool will climb Mt Fuji twice.” Of course, no one is actually discouraged from hiking the mountain more than once anymore.

9. There’s a Realm of the Living and the Realm of the Dead

Mt. Fuji is partly famous for the many myths and folklore surrounding it, filling it with a sense of mystery and magic. The stark borders between the mountain’s forest greenery and its lava-burned rock are rumoured to be the doorways between the realms of the living and the dead.

10. You Can Enjoy Amazing Views of Mt. Fuji All Over Japan

Due to its central location, there are hundreds of viewing spots of this gorgeous mountain all over the country. These include Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, parks, other mountains, various well-placed ryokans (Japanese hotels), or from one of its five surrounding lakes. While hiking or enjoying a day out, it’s always a nice bonus when you can catch a glimpse of Fuji on a clear day.

Mt. Fuji is an icon of this great country and thousands more every year challenge the mountain’s trails to try and reach the top. How many of these facts did you know?

7 Drinks From Japanese Convenience Stores

There’s a reason local konbinis are considered convenient in Japan. There is a 7-11, Family Mart, Lawson, the Daily Yamazaki, or another brand of shop on pretty much every street in the country, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, selling food, drinks, makeup, toiletries, gift cards, magazines, and other necessities.

Japan never fails to impress with its endless choices of drinks. I’ll talk about alcohol in another article, so this post is mostly about the different drinks you can grab while you’re on the go. You won’t just find instant coffee, but an impressive variety of thirst-quenchers that go beyond the usual sodas and fruit juices. Here are a few examples.

1. Kiwami Cafe au Lait by Wonda

Canned coffee is a wonderfully weird phenomenon. I try not to buy it too often as it’s often loaded with sugar, but I was jonesing and the word “Kiwami” caught my eye – it’s the name of one of the famous Yakuza video games, which my husband loves. This sweet cup-o-joe-in-a-can was yummy.

2. Butter Matcha

I’m one of those people who just love matcha lattes. I always try different brands but again, try not to drink them too much because of their high sugar content. “Butter matcha,” alongside the “butter coffee,” looked so weird I just had to try it.

I should have looked closer. See the picture of the fit woman in the background? And see the zero at the top? Since when has a healthy version of anything been delicious?!

This nasty, watery mess was disgusting. Don’t buy it.

3. Hojicha Latte

DUDE! Hojicha, or roasted green tea, is just awesome. If you’re not keen on sweet lattes, at least try real hojicha at some point if you come to Japan. There are quite a few hojicha lattes out there, and this one was creamy and delicious.

4. Sakura Chocolate with Strawberry Jelly by Starbucks

I mentioned this drink in another post, appearing right after Valentine’s Day in time for the much-loved cherry blossom season. It’s an imitation of their sakura drinks (way more expensive if you buy them in an actual Starbucks, and ranging from 200-300 yen in a convenience store).

It was a little too much for me, but I understand why those with a sweet tooth might enjoy it.

5. Chocolat Drink by Ken’s Cafe Tokyo

Now this is the kind of sweet drink I can get behind. It’s not really a chocolate milkshake, though it was served cold; it was creamy, rich, and pretty much a dessert in a cup. If you’re a chocoholic, I can recommend this one.

img_8174

6. Cafe Latte by Georgia

(Sorry, I drank this one before taking the picture).

I’ve loved Georgia’s cafe lattes for ages, and you can usually find them in vending machines or the ‘HOT’ section of convenience stores. Just keep in mind that konbinis usually struggle to keep their ‘hot’ drinks, well… hot. A lukewarm Georgia coffee is still nice on a cold day. Just remember that it’s sweet.

img_8212

7. Yasai Days Vegetable and Fruit

This is my favourite drink of all time! The photo below is the drink at a supermarket and the convenience store packaging may be different, but it’s all the same stuff. Yasai Days has LOADS of different fruit and veg inside, including lemon, apple, spinach, kale, carrot, bell peppers, and more.

It apparently contains all your vitamin C for the day. Drinking this stuff is really good for you and it tastes nice, too; most juice, like pure orange juice, is far too sweet. Definitely give this one a try. It’s good for ya.

img_8218.jpg

I’ll probably add more to this list as time goes on. What’s your favourite konbini drink?

Cook-It-Yourself Monjayaki: How to Experience This Tokyo Dish

Monjayaki is a Tokyo-based Japanese dish that, despite being delicious and diverse, doesn’t seem to be as well-known as other foods such as sushi, ramen, tempura, and sashimi.

Maybe it’s because it doesn’t look as good as the others. To be fair, while it’s cooking, it looks like mush at best. Don’t let it deter you, though; the flavour makes up for it. There are plenty of monjayaki places in and around Tokyo. It’s the capital’s answer to the better-known okonomiyaki, a cabbage-based dish that came about in west Japan when there was a shortage of rice.

 

What can be intimidating about monjayaki is that you’re expected to cook it yourself. Sometimes, during quieter times in a restaurant, a waiter will do it for you, but this isn’t always guaranteed.

There are various monjayaki restaurants dotted around Tokyo and beyond, but a great place to try different kinds is Tsukishima’s Monja Street.

Step 1

The first thing you need to do is decide what kind of monja you’d like to eat. The dish consists of cabbage, various vegetables, and flour, but the possibilities for fillings are virtually endless. Here are some fillings you might find.

  • Pork
  • Mochi (small, chewy lumps of pounded rice)
  • Kimchi (spicy Korean cabbage)
  • Cheese
  • Garlic
  • Prawns
  • Spring onion
  • Corned beef
  • Curry (very weird, never tried it)
  • Ginger
  • Mentaiko (salted pollock roe; one of my favourites)

The types of available fillings depend on the restaurant, but pork, kimchi, and prawns wherever you go.

Step 2

The waiting staff will bring a bowl of raw ingredients to your teppan, or table with a hotplate. They should also switch the hotplate on for you. After spreading some oil onto the hotplate, mix all of the ingredients together in the bowl.

img_8129

Step 3

When it’s all mixed together, pour the ingredients onto the hotplate, leaving the liquid in the bowl. Make a sort of crater or circle in the middle like in the photo below.

img_8132

Step 4

Pour the liquid in the middle.

img_8135

Step 5

Let it bubble!

img_8143

Step 6

When it’s ready (a couple of minutes of bubbling until the ingredients are cooked), use a moji-bera, or small metal spatula provided, to scrape bits of the delicious mix onto your plate. From your plate, you can eat it with chopsticks.

This rich and flavoursome dish doesn’t look all that great, but it’s soooo good. One serving is about enough for one person, so if you’re sharing, be sure to order more than one. Most monja places also serve okonomiyaki, so an ideal meal for two is one serving of monja and one serving of okonomiyaki.

That’s how you cook your own monjayaki! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King

So continues my venture through Different Seasons, Stephen King’s four-part collection of novellas. After Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is Apt Pupil, the story of a young boy and an old man who share and suffer mutual blackmail. A movie adaptation came out in 1998, sixteen years after the book’s release.

kapook_world-176686“If you don’t believe in the existence of evil, you have a lot to learn.

Todd Bowden is an apt pupil. Good grades, good family, a paper route. But he is about to meet a different kind of teacher, Mr. Dussander, and to learn all about Dussander’s dark and deadly past… a decades-old manhunt Dussander has escaped to this day. Yet Todd doesn’t want to turn his teacher in. Todd wants to know more. Much more. He is about to face his fears and learn the real meaning of power—and the seductive lure of evil.”

Todd is described in the very first line as an “all-American kid.” On the surface, he’s perfect. Sun-kissed blond hair, a great smile, and even better grades. Too clever for his own good.

He’s sussed out his neighbour’s true identity. The old German isn’t an innocent immigrant, but an ex-Nazi with a truly horrific past. Todd’s got the goods on him. But he doesn’t want money… he wants to be told. Told everything. Every grisly detail of the Nazis’ horrific acts on their victims.

If only Todd knew at thirteen where his actions would lead, he’d have left the old man alone.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novella. Stephen King doesn’t digress as much as he did in Shawshank, which I preferred; we lived through Todd and Dussender’s mutual disdain, their hold on each other, the odd relationship not of friendship, but respect forming between them. Todd’s grades suffer; he has nightmares, his sick fascination with the unthinkable twisting his life in ways he could never have anticipated.

Horror isn’t always monsters and zombies; there are many horrors of real life that we have to live with, some more than others. In Apt Pupil, there was always something lurking, something that was going to happen, I could feel it. The tension was paramount throughout, leading to an explosive and satisfying ending. Neither characters were likable due to their natures, but it was fascinating to experience their discomfort, their constant fear, and their growing disdain of those they felt were beneath them.

The past is the past, but is it truly? Todd is affected by things that happened before he was born, and yet he is living them.

The dialogue was just great. I was in the 1970s, experiencing the slang of teenage Todd and the second-language love of idioms by Dussander. Stephen King also has a gift of taking similes and idioms a step further, making them his own. There were some quotes that had me laughing.

“It was impossible to tell his age. Todd put him at somewhere between thirty and four hundred.”

“Don’t you dare die on me, you old f***!”

“He looked like death with a hangover.”

It was a fun little Easter egg that Andy Dufresne of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption was mentioned, too. He was one of Dussander’s bankers before he (Dufresne) was arrested.

Apt Pupil was awesome, and I might check out the movie at some point. I give this charming novella five stars.

img_4438

Get Different Seasons on Amazon US
Get Different Seasons on Amazon UK

3 Stars Pancake in Musashi-Kosugi, Kanagawa

Today I found out that there’s a charming little pancake shop just a short walk from my apartment! It’s funny how you can live somewhere for a while and yet never know something exists until it’s introduced to you. 3 Stars Pancake is a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from Musashi-Kosugi Station, a little farther on from GrandTree, the nearby department store.

Since we arrived on a Sunday, it was insanely crowded. It took a while for the six of us to squash our way in; from the outside, it had looked bigger, but there were just a couple of tables.

It had the simultaneous feel of a chilled out European café and a trendy American lunch spot. It had a really nice, relaxed vibe which contradicted the long line of customers waiting outside.

3 Stars Pancake serves, as you might be able to guess, pancakes. I ordered the February special: chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. They’ll stop selling it after the end of this month, and the theme likely stems from Valentine’s Day, where women buy chocolates for the men in their lives.

It was monstrous!

The strawberries and the sharp, tangy berry flavoring in the ice cream granted respite from the potentially overpowering chocolate in the pancakes and cream. I couldn’t finish it by myself. This chocolatey delight is more than enough for one and would probably be able to satisfy two people (that being said, my twelve-year-old student next to me ordered the same thing and demolished it on her own).

Other types of pancakes include a classic-style fluffy type with cream and a fruity delight for those looking for a healthier, lighter dessert.

The drinks were cute, too; cold ones are served in glass jars, American style. From left to right: orange juice, grape juice, ice café latte, ice coffee, and iced tea. My hot café latte (as seen in the featured image) had a cute drawn heart on top of the cream.

The weekend was busy, but going for lunch on a weekday would mean getting in much faster. Certain soft drinks are also free between 10:00am and 2:00pm Monday to Friday.

Important Information

3 Star Pancakes is a cute café, perfect for visiting with friends for a treat. If you order a plate of pancakes and a drink, expect to pay around 2,000 yen. Children and kids are welcome and it’s a non-smoking establishment.

Access link

Book Review: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” by Stephen King

Movie buffs, Morgan Freeman fans, or anyone with good taste in film has seen or at least heard of the 1994 masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Of course, it was a novella first, written by the American master of horror, Stephen King.

I recently received a paperback named Different Seasons as a belated wedding gift containing four of King’s novellas, one of which is the 129-page Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, which would inspire the classic movie released twelve years after the story’s publication.

91h9ji0d2KL._RI_Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is the story of two men convicted of murder – one guilty, one innocent – who form the perfect partnership as they dream up a scheme to escape from prison.”

It isn’t a horror, though arguably the true “horrors” of prison life, such as “solitary” conditions, bribery, rape, are discussed. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a tale about perseverance, patience, and hope. It’s about holding onto what’s right and staying strong even in the toughest of times.

The book is just a novella, and a lot was added to make it into a movie. It’s not the only of King’s stories to be adapted in this way; more examples include The Mist and 1408 (which, incidentally, are both horrors).

It’s written from Red’s point of view, and though the story is about Andy and his time at the prison of Shawshank, we find out a lot about how Red observes, thinks, and feels. Interestingly, Red was a white man in the book (described as having greying red hair), but Morgan Freeman was perfect for the role in the movie adaptation.

Red is the person who can get things for you. In prison, he’s an important man who’s approached when someone needs things like alcohol, a pack of cards, or a dirty book. His friendship with Andy begins when the younger inmate asks him to get a poster of Rita Hayworth to put in his cell.

Andy shows up at Shawshank for killing his wife and her lover, and appears mild-mannered, calm, and even casual; he strolls about as though he’s at ease with the world and his words are carefully chosen. After advising a guard on how to keep his inheritance without it being taxed, Andy, who had been a banker before his stretch in prison, starts helping the other guards with his finances and, in turn, gets to live alone in his cell and is protected from the Sisters, a vicious gang of rapists.

You might know the rest of the story, and if you haven’t, I won’t give it all away.

Red tells the story in an order that isn’t chronological, often jumping back and forth between the years to talk about events and people. Much of it is also skimmed over, told rather than shown, which I thought would be against the number one rule in writing. Though it wasn’t completely confusing, it was jarring at times to go from the early ’70s back to 1959, but since I knew the story it wasn’t completely baffling. I did think, though, that I would have preferred to be shown through certain events rather than them being mentioned off-hand as something leading up to the “present.”

The movie also improved on many things. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book, stop reading now. If you don’t care about spoilers or you know the tale, read on.

**WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!**

There are some vast differences between Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and its movie adaptation. Here are a few examples.

  • In the movie, the leader of the Sisters is beaten to within an inch of his life for his treatment of Andy. In the book, they fade into the background when Andy is given protection.
  • Tommy, the young man who met the real killer of Andy’s wife, is transferred to a minimum-security prison, a sort of bribe by the Warden to get him out of the way. In the film, he’s shot dead by a guard; it’s an evil and shocking twist, though the concept of Andy’s only hope willingly leaving him behind is sadder and, in a way, darker.
  • Red doesn’t officially find Andy in the book. It ends with him out of prison and receiving the hidden letter he found after following his best friend’s clues and clinging to the hope that he may track him down someday. Movie watchers enjoy happy endings, and the on-screen story had a much more feel-good ending. Whether that means it’s better is debatable.
  • The best change from book to film was what happened to the Warden. After Andy’s escape (which is identical in both versions), Warden goes a bit loopy and retires early, always wondering how Andy managed to outsmart him. In the film, he’s found out for all the scams he’s running and fatally shoots himself.

Stephen King’s writing was impeccable, as always; it felt very ’50s, with plenty of old slang that was a joy to read. There were some amazingly funny quotes, too, which had me giggling as I read the paperback on the train.

“A man humping his butt across country in a gray pajama
suit sticks out like a cockroach on a wedding cake.”

“Cell doors opened; prisoners stepped in; cell doors closed. Some clown shouting, ‘I want my lawyer, I want my lawyer, you guys run this place just like a frigging prison.’”

“One wit suggested that Andy had poured himself out through the keyhole. The suggestion earned the guy four days in solitary. They were uptight.”

The image of an inmate, who probably detests the guards and is good at acting dumb, making a completely useless suggestion for kicks tickled me pink.

Overall, the book was a charming day in the life (though the story spans over several decades) of two inmates, one of which manages the impossible out of patience, dreams, and hope. Andy is a gorgeous character, mysterious and calm and completely likable. Overall, I think I prefer the movie, but the book was still a pleasure to read and I’ll probably reread it in the future. I give Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption four stars out of five.

4stars

Get Different Seasons on Amazon US
Get Different Seasons on Amazon UK

Book Review: “Lair” (The Rats Trilogy Book 2) by James Herbert

Lair is the sequel to The Rats, British horror writer James Herbert’s debut novel. Lair was published in 1979, five years after its predecessor and Herbert’s sixth book overall. The old cover art of Lair is too adorable not to show you!

It takes place four years after “the Outbreak,” the coined term for the infestation that led to hundreds dead in London and eventual evacuation to exterminate the filth.

Carrying on from the epilogue, several rats survived the onslaught, and though they are much fewer in number, they escape from their hiding place to wait, hide, and breed until their thirst for human flesh brings them to the surface again.

*Note: this review contains some spoilers.

lair-1

“The mutant white rat had grown and mated, creating offspring in its own image. They dominated the others, the dark-furred ones, who foraged for food and brought it back to the lair.

Now the dark rats were restless, tormented by a craving they could not satisfy. But the white slug-like thing that ruled them knew. Its two heads weaved to and fro and a stickiness drooled from its mouth as it remembered the taste of human flesh . . .”

Unlike in The Rats, Lair takes place in Epping Forest, a large wood on the outskirts of London. It takes longer for the vermin to attack this time; there are many “close calls” and sightings, building up the tension for the first third of the novel. Always, I wondered whether a new scene would lead to an unfortunate death or a lucky escape.

One aspect I really liked about the first installment is Herbert’s quick introduction to the backstories and lives of the characters, whether or not they fall victim to the rats. Whether suggested by his editor or on his own, it’s unclear, but it seemed like many of the victims were not very nice people and therefore it was less upsetting and more fun reading about their deaths or encounters with ruined corpses. A couple cheating on their spouses. A pervert who likes to flash young women. A grumpy farmer who doesn’t trust the law.

Harris, the main character from book one, is briefly mentioned, but we’re introduced to a new MC: Ratkill employee called Lucas Pender, our hero of Lair. Their struggle to track down and eliminate the rats in Epping Forest is real. The rats are stronger, smarter, and more deadly than ever before, often outsmarting their mortal enemies even though the humans know not to underestimate them.

Some scenes had me on the edge of my seat. Would they escape? Would the protective suits, which worked so well in the past, hold against the onslaught of vicious teeth? Would they finally destroy the creatures or had the rats hidden too well?

Herbert introduced political aspects to the novel, suggesting the economic consequences of an infestation in Epping Forest, an area that is home to hundreds of people and a green belt area that London politicians would dearly love to seize. The hesitation of the forest’s protectors exacerbates the situation despite Pender’s early warnings, giving the story a very real edge. How many times in the real world has common sense been abandoned for the sake of money and control?

The story was all about action and not much character development. I wasn’t aware Whittaker had a beard until almost the end of the book. If there was any description of Pender, I missed it; I imagined him as a normal-looking white bloke with darkish hair. I wasn’t keen on the love scene, but that’s personal preference; I tend to skip over over-the-top descriptions of sex and it didn’t feel it really had a place in a sci-fi horror. I appreciate that it might have been a respite from the gore, however, and it didn’t ruin the story for me.

All in all, Lair was pretty good. The shock value had worn off after recently reading The Rats, of course – there are only so many ways you can describe someone getting torn apart and eaten to death – but Herbert handled it well, offering fresh environments and more tension with creative new ways for the rats to attack and take their victims by surprise.

The ending was great. We finally find out the location of the rats’ lair and there was plenty of excitement. I can’t say much else without giving it all away!

If you haven’t read The Rats yet, it’s a great classic horror. I’ll probably wait a while to read the final in the trilogy, Domain, so perhaps the gory scenes can be shocking and scary again. That being said, Lair had plenty of tension to make up for it, and it’ll be interesting to see where Domain takes the story of these mutant rats that just won’t die! Lair was a fun read, and I give it four stars out of five.

4stars

Get Lair on Amazon US
Get Lair on Amazon UK

10 Upcoming Sakura-Themed Goodies to Get You Hyped for Cherry Blossom Season

Is it that time of year already?!

The other day, I stumbled across a Starbucks sakura latte in a Family Mart convenience store. It’s just one of the many exciting sakura-themed treats we’ll be experiencing for the approaching cherry blossoms, the pink flowers that bloom for just a few weeks in early spring.

People go crazy for it; they lay out picnic sheets, prepare a huge amount of food and beer, and have a great time under the falling petals. It’s enormous fun and I’ll be sure to attend at least one of these events, “hanami” in Japanese, in March.

To celebrate, here are ten upcoming (and current) goodies that various companies release for one of Japan’s most beloved seasons.

1. The Starbucks Sakura Latte

Starbucks is as well loved here as it is anywhere, and the huge American coffee chain has wasted no time in releasing its strawberry jelly treat. Served hot or cold, it’s recommended you only buy this if you really like sweet drinks.

2. Lipton’s Sakura Milk Tea

Don’t like coffee? How about tea?! Lipton’s is releasing a brand new Sakura-infused milk tea to celebrate the upcoming blossoms. You can read more about this on SoraNews.

3. Sakura Kit Kats

Kit Kats may have hailed from the town of York in England, but Japan has made them great. Gaining traction in Japan for their name, which sounds like “kitto katsu” (I’ll surely win) in Japanese and thus giving schoolchildren a boost when they buy them in exam season, Kit Kats now come in an enormous amount of different flavors, ranging from green tea and pumpkin to strawberry and sake.

It’s no surprise, then, that Kit Kats are bought by the bucketful when sakura season rolls around.

4. The Limited-Edition Sakura Pie at Lotteria

Lotteria is a fast-food place mostly selling burgers, similar to McDonald’s. In 2017, they brought out a limited-edition sakura pie for just 180 yen (about $2 USD). It was really delicious, and fans of this sweet treat are praying for a re-release.

5. Sakuramochi

sakuramochi-2110491_1920

Sakuramochi have been around for decades; mochi is the word for rice cake, and this seasonal treat is soft rice filled with red bean paste and wrapped in a salted sakura leaf. It’s insanely more-ish and you can find them in supermarkets all over the country come cherry blossom time.

6. Sakura Milk

Perfect for kids and those who aren’t keen on coffee, this snack-sized treat adds a cherry blossom twist to normal milkshakes. I’ll definitely be grabbing one next time I visit Kaldi Coffee.

7. McDonald’s Sakura Teriyaki Egg Burger

Not keen on sweets? You won’t miss out! Every spring, McDonald’s comes up with a range of sakura-themed treats, determined not to be missed out. They have a whole menu of sakura stuff: drinks, burgers, and even fries sprinkled with special cherry blossom salt.

I’m hoping for a return of the sakura teriyaki egg burger. It sounds so bad it has to be good.

8. Lindt’s Sakura Menu

Lindt has shops all over the place in Japan, the sales of their pricy but high-quality cacao-filled treats boosting in February and March anyway due to Valentine’s Day and White Day, respectively. They continue to sell well by introducing their sakura-themed menu, imitating other cafes with blossom-infused drinks and selling their own sakura macarons.

9. Eitaro’s Sakura Jelly

This sakura-themed jelly is a frequent yearly release by Eitaro that dessert-lovers should keep an eye out for. It’s 300 yen for one piece, making it slightly pricier than some others on this list, but a great treat for fans of sakura-infused foods.

10. Sakura Coca Cola

Yet another international brand jumps on the cherry blossom bandwagon! With other Japan-exclusive flavours such as peach cola, it’s not much of a surprise that sakura coke is a thing, too. The fizzy drink is already pretty sweet, so it remains to be seen whether the blossom infusion will improve it or not.

Seasons and related foods change fast, so grab these sakura goodies while you can! Before we know it, it’ll be summer and we’ll all be fainting under the humidity again.

Video Game Review: “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate” on Nintendo Switch

I love my Switch. I finally got one in January ’19 as a sort of “reward” for getting a bunch of work done. After dropping numerous hints (fine, begging), my husband didn’t budge. As they say, if you want something, you’d better get it yourself.

Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is a must for the latest Nintendo console, of course. I downloaded it and dove (dived?) straight in.

I’ve been playing Smash games since I was a kid and battling my little brother on the Nintendo 64. Melee (was that 18 years ago? DAMN!), Brawl, and the Wii version were all great fun, and I was introduced to the world of online play when I got my Wii U.

Gameplay

Nintendo has, wisely, kept the dynamics of Smash pretty much the same as the previous games. You’re presented with a menu and energetic music, pumping you up for a fight. There’s an offline mode of regular ‘smashing’ where every ten minutes of gameplay, a new character challenge appears and you beat them to unlock them. There’s a one-player mode (which I haven’t played much of yet) and, of course, an option to play online.

Characters

I’m not going to jump on the meme bandwagon and get enraged that Waluigi isn’t a playable character because Wario is my waifu. Although I think Nintendo goes overboard with Fire Emblem characters (no doubt appeasing its Japanese audience; the game isn’t that popular overseas, as far as I know), we got a good selection (over 70!) characters to choose from.

I was delighted to see the return of my personal favorites: Princess Peach, Ganondorf (beautifully overpowered), Wario, Kirby, Zelda, Wii Fit Trainer (shut up, she’s cool) and Bayonetta (for aesthetic purposes only; I suck at actually playing as her).

Online

Smash Bros. Ultimate online has to be one of the most frustrating yet addictive experiences in the history of gaming. Do I suck at this game, or do other people really spend fourteen hours a day in multiplayer? The few times I do actually win I’m over the moon, and I’m not ashamed to admit that getting my butt kicked several times in a row has reduced me to tears more than once.

But whatevs.

Quickplay Mode gives you everything you need to quickly enter a battle. You can even adjust the preferred rules by choosing one-on-one, group smash, or team battles, and choose between stock or timed. If you’re happy with anything, you can switch the preferred rules off.

Stages

The stages are fantastic! As well as golden oldies like Pokémon Stadium 2, Hyrule Castle, and Corneria, we can see a huge amount of new stages. Some are upgraded versions of old ones, some are incredibly annoying and, best of all, we don’t have to unlock them. Of course, we also see the return of a hazard-free Final Destination.

Glitches

Nintendo is usually great at releasing virtually glitch-free games, as opposed to some western companies who are so full of bugs they need to release a bunch of patches to make it playable. However, Ultimate‘s Battle Arena Mode needs work.

More often than not, I can’t find my friends if they open an Arena, and vice-versa. It makes playing online with friends impossible at times, which is a shame as I have a few people I’d love to smash with. Hopefully, Nintendo will sort out this strange phenomenon.

Spirits

A new version of a game needs new features, of course; as well as extra characters and updated graphics, Nintendo decided to introduce Spirits, which power up your character and give boosts to your defense, attack, and grab.

I don’t think I’m the only one who has zero interest in Spirits.

I just want to play! Smash Bros. battles are a test of skill, always have been. It wouldn’t be fair to be beaten by someone sub-par just because they collected a load of Attack Spirits or whatever. Thankfully, Spirits can be switched off in Online Mode.

Smash Bros. Ultimate is a fun experience and a must for any Nintendo Switch owner. Playing online can be frustrating if you’re not amazing, but it’s motivation to get better and watch your global score rise (not so fun to watch it fall).

I’d give it five stars if not for the Battle Arena glitches and the pointless Spirits. I give Ultimate four stars out of five.

4stars