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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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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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: “The Queen’s Resistance” by Rebecca Ross

The Queen’s Rising, American writer Rebecca Ross’s debut novel, was one of my favourite fantasy reads of all time. I was enchanted by the world, Ross’s gorgeous atmospheric writing style, and the story of Brienna, a heroine who wasn’t over-the-top feisty and quirky, but believable and likable.

Ross didn’t originally plan to write a sequel, as she described in her Instagram post:

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Today, my second book comes out, and I honestly can’t even believe it! 😭✨ THE QUEEN’S RESISTANCE almost didn’t happen, and what I mean by that is it was originally supposed to be a companion novel to TQR, not a sequel. A companion novel which would focus on a new heroine in the world, because I believed I had finished Brienna’s story. * * In 2016, I wrote a companion novel. Hated it. Scrapped it. Wrote another companion novel. Still wasn’t satisfied with it. I was beginning to panic, because it was about time for me to deliver something to my editor, and I had no idea what my second book needed to be. The companion books were lacking something, and I didn’t know what that *something* was. All the same, I wasn’t going to publish a book I was not 100% in love with. * * In February of 2017, I was sitting on my back deck, throwing the frisbee to my dog. I had a journal open on my lap, and I was trying to brainstorm. And out of the blue, Brienna returned to me and quietly said, “Continue my story. And Cartier? He has a lot left to tell, too.” * * I did exactly as she said: I started to write this book by hand, reuniting with Brienna. And I knew she was right: her story was not finished, & this book was as much Cartier’s as it was hers. * * The words began to flow. This story caught fire—I had been seeking that spark, which my companion novels lacked. And this book poured out of me in 24 days. * * It was a magical, emotional, cathartic experience. And I knew that my second book was meant to be this—a continuation. A book where I could dig deeper and build upon the first. * * THE QUEEN’S RESISTANCE marks the end of the series. It is bittersweet, but I think you will understand why this is the end when you reach the final page. Which I bawled like a baby when I wrote it. * * Thank you all for your love & excitement & support! Thank you for purchasing, requesting, recommending & reviewing my books. I cannot tell you how grateful I am, and how much it means to me. * * I hope you enjoy this little story of mine. It is a book I poured my heart into. And I know my name is on the cover, but this book doesn’t just belong to me anymore. It belongs to you. 🧡✨

A post shared by Rebecca Ross 🌙 (@beccajross) on

TL;DR: she eventually decided to write a sequel that she liked. It carries on immediately from The Queen’s Rising, so of course, be sure to have read that one first.

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“Brienna is a mistress of knowledge and is beginning to settle into her role as the daughter of the once disgraced lord, Davin MacQuinn. Though she’d just survived a revolution that will return a queen to the throne, she faces yet another challenge: acceptance by the MacQuinns.

But as Queen Isolde Kavanagh’s closest confidant, she’ll have to balance serving her father’s House as well as her country.

Then there’s Aodhan Morgan, formerly known as Cartier Évariste, who is adjusting to the stark contrast between his pre-rebellion life in Valenia and his current one as lord of a fallen House. As he attempts to restore the Morgane name, he let his mind wander—what if he doesn’t have to raise his House alone? What if Brienna could stand by his side?

But Brienna and Cartier must put their feelings aside, as there are more vital tasks at hand—the Lannons’ trial, forging alliances, and ensuring that no one halts the queen’s coronation. Resistance is rumbling among the old regime’s supporters, who are desperate to find a weakness in the rebels’ forces.

And what makes one more vulnerable than love?”

Much like the first novel, it took a while for the action to begin. I really enjoyed this in TQR as I loved exploring Magnolia House, Brienna’s life studying the passion of knowledge, and the culture of the world around her. In Resistance, it took a while for me to get into the story. Brienna and Cartier are in Maevana preparing for Queen Isolde’s coronation, and various problems crop up, building in seriousness until things get dangerous about two thirds in.

That being said, the story is filled with many enjoyable twists and turns, many of which I did not see coming. As many readers do, I made guesses as to what was coming, and though I was right about a certain character, there were many other things that surprised me. Predictability can kill a story, and Ross did an excellent job of keeping me on my toes.

Much like Allegiant by Veronica Roth, the chapters switch between Brienna and Cartier’s perspectives. Unlike in Allegiant, however, Ross did a great job of distinguishing their voices so it was easy to follow whose eyes I was seeing the world through. It was a joy to get inside Cartier’s head, to understand how he felt and thought and what many emotions he held back. I thought I could guess the reason for this style of writing, but I was happily proven wrong.

The Queen’s Resistance was much, much darker than the first book. We see much more of the effects of King Lannon’s tyrannical rule and much of the action was much darker than the first. In a way, this symbolises how much Brienna grows throughout the stories; when we first meet her, she’s a pretty innocent seventeen-year-old with not much to worry about except getting her passion cloak; in Maevana, she witnesses brutality, torture, and cruelty. No more details here without reading it yourself!

Ross kept her poetic writing style that caused me to fall so hard for her first novel. Though I didn’t enjoy it as much as the first, this is still an excellent book. I love Brienna; she’s strong without falling into the stereotype of the “witty tomboy” we often see in modern books. I also enjoyed seeing the tougher side of Cartier’s character. I give The Queen’s Resistance four stars out of five.

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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.

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