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: “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.

Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Origin” by Dan Brown

My mother let me borrow her paperback of Origin recently. Dan Brown is a well-known American author known for his thriller novels, including Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code. I hadn’t actually read Dan Brown before, so I dived into this fascinating story.

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“Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao to attend the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever”. The evening’s host is his friend and former student, Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old tech magnate whose dazzling inventions and audacious predictions have made him a controversial figure around the world. This evening is to be no exception: he claims he will reveal an astonishing scientific breakthrough to challenge the fundamentals of human existence.

But Langdon and several hundred other guests are left reeling when the meticulously orchestrated evening is blown apart before Kirsch’s precious discovery can be revealed. With his life under threat, Langdon is forced into a desperate bid to escape, along with the museum’s director, Ambra Vidal. Together they flee to Barcelona on a perilous quest to locate a cryptic password that will unlock Kirsch’s secret.

In order to evade a tormented enemy who is one step ahead of them at every turn, Langdon and Vidal must navigate labyrinthine passageways of hidden history and ancient religion. On a trail marked only by enigmatic symbols and elusive modern art, Langdon and Vidal uncover the clues that will bring them face-to-face with a world-shaking truth that has remained buried – until now.”

Dan Brown’s prose is wonderful, which comes from a lot of experience in writing. I haven’t read many books recently that weren’t debuts, and it makes a difference to see a master at work. Every sentence sang.

Origin isn’t of a genre I usually go for, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I was eager to learn this secret Edmond Kirsch was planning to unveil, joining Robert Langdon in his exploration of the museum, his meeting with Winston, and the building anticipation to Kirsch’s big reveal.

Origin has been praised for the extensive research Brown undertook, and the organizations and buildings described in the story are all real places; he describes them with detail; no doubt he visited most (perhaps all) of them for the story and it gave the book a very realistic edge.

The story was full of action and many twists, some of which I didn’t guess, and some of which I saw coming. I liked Ambra Vidal very much; she was intelligent and strong, yet vulnerable. Arguably, she was a typical action heroine, but I enjoyed how she interacted with Robert and how she felt about him.

There’s no doubt that this is a wonderfully crafted novel. Personally, though I found the descriptions of the real cathedrals, museums, and other buildings impressive, it was sometimes a little overkill and interrupted the story. I also saw one of the major plot twists coming from near the beginning of the book. That being said, I liked Origin very much, so I’m giving it four stars out of five.

4stars

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Spoiler-Free Book Review: “Girls With Sharp Sticks” by Suzanne Young

This book caught my eye after coming across a blog post that was raving about it. Since I’ve mainly been reading fantasy and horror for the past few years, this looked like a fascinating change. Set in the near future and full of mystery and intrigue, I devoured the hardback in three days.

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Some of the prettiest flowers have the sharpest thorns.

The Girls of Innovations Academy are beautiful and well-behaved—it says so on their report cards. Under the watchful gaze of their Guardian, they receive a well-rounded education that promises to make them better. Obedient girls, free from arrogance or defiance. Free from troublesome opinions or individual interests.

But the girls’ carefully controlled existence may not be quite as it appears. As Mena and her friends uncover the dark secrets of what’s actually happening there—and who they really are—the girls of Innovations Academy will learn to fight back.

Bringing the trademark plot twists and high-octane drama that made The Program a bestselling and award-winning series, Suzanne Young launches a new series that confronts some of today’s most pressing ethical questions.”

Philomena, called Mena by her friends, is a student at Innovations Academy, along with many other beautiful young girls like herself. However, instead of learning about science, maths, or world history, they are taught instead how to be “perfect” – manners, sophistication, politeness, self-control, and physical beauty. It was like 17th-century values were being ingrained into a modern school. It was really… weird.

Everything about this “private school” had me on edge. The teachers were sort of nice, but also incredibly controlling. The students took “vitamins” at night. Any whisper of doubt or rebelliousness was instantly “remedied.”

I liked Mena very much. She is down-to-earth, clever, and loves her classmates like they’re her sisters. She isn’t bitchy or over-the-top sassy like we see in some female characters.

Each page I turned only brought more questions. What is this “therapy” they go under when they’re disobedient? Why would their parents send them to such a strange academy? What is their intended purpose once they graduate? Why do Mena’s parents neglect to visit her? Who are they, really?

I didn’t guess the final twist, which was great and made everything fit into place. Though plenty is left to the imagination, I was deeply satisfied with the explanations shown to us in the exciting last third of the book. That’s not to say the first part was boring; I was hooked from the first chapter, and instantly loved it.

Girls With Sharp Sticks is a must-read for those who love suspense. There are feminist themes for those who are into that. The only thing I wasn’t keen on was the present tense narrative, which I’m not a fan of, but I quickly got used to it (as with the Divergent trilogy) and it didn’t take away from the story.

I give Girls With Sharp Sticks five stars out of five!

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