Review: Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie

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Half a King, by Joe Abercrombie

Genres: Young Adult, High Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“The fool strikes. The wise man smiles, and watches, and learns. Then strikes.”

This book is marketed as YA, but to tell you the truth, that is not how it feels when you go into it. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know, but it could also be because there is something about this book that is very mature, and its brutality is something different from what I’ve experienced in YA before.

Half a King really hit it out of the park. It had me hooked the moment it introduced Yarvi, the second son of King Uthrik of Gettland, who has a crippled hand and is thus perceived as a weakling by his family and his kingdom. When his father and older brother are murdered, Yarvi is forced to take the throne in his father’s place, a task that he is completely unprepared for. However, circumstances arise that throw Yarvi in a desperate fight for his life out on the high seas, and he must find a way to return to Gettland and reclaim his stolen throne.

High fantasy is a genre that has been so recycled, it’s hard to find anything original as one story bleeds into the next. It’s a genre that I’m drawn to but wary of due to its tendency to become very condensed. Half a King doesn’t have a strong, detailed world, nor a complex religion or political structure – but that’s actually its strongest point. It’s not dense, but it’s not light, either. It’s the kind of fantasy that is developed enough to be enjoyable but not so much as to weigh it down.

Plus, the characters are fantastic. Yarvi may have been stripped of his birthright, but he is not exactly a tragic hero. He shows on various occasions his ability to manipulate and deceive. He is vengeful; his malevolence is controlled and calculative. He may not know how to wield a blade, but that doesn’t make him any less terrifying. The others – Jaud, Rulf, Ankran, Sumael, and Nothing – were well-developed, intricately-written characters that I came to adore and fear for as they faced turmoil after turmoil.

I think the best part about Half a King is that there aren’t any clichés. Abercrombie doesn’t put his characters in a box, nor does he insert any plot devices to coax the story along. In a sense, he doesn’t use any cheat codes. There’s no deus ex machina. He tells the story honestly. (Though that doesn’t stop him from throwing in a couple screwdriver plot twists, which you will NEVER SEE COMING.)

Joe Abercrombie? This guy? He knows how to tell a story. I will definitely be picking up the sequel and more of his books in the future.

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Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Kappa, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

111256Original Title: 河童 (Kappa)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Geoffrey Bownas

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature, Satire

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“I do not wish to be born. In the first place, it makes me shudder to think of all the things that I shall inherit from my father – the insanity alone is bad enough. And an additional factor is that I maintain that a Kappa’s existence is evil.”


Project BSD

I really enjoyed Kappa, but I don’t know how to describe it in an appealing way, because it’s weird – and I mean it’s really, really weird.

It’s a satire a lot like George Orwell’s Animal Farm, but instead of politics, Akutagawa uses the fictional world of Kappaland to express his disgust of human beings, in particular himself. Akutagawa wrote Kappa during the last year of his life, while his already fragile mental health was deteriorating, not half of a year before he committed suicide in July 1927. In the story, an unnamed man falls down a hole into Kappaland, a world made up of Kappas, which are aquatic beings from Japanese folklore that have a tiger’s face, a sharp beak, scales, and an indentation on top of their head that, so long as it holds water, allows the creatures to live on land. He discovers that the Kappas have their own civilization, and from that point on he begins to live among them.

The Kappas have different ethics and practices than humans do, and though they’re not right by human standards, Akutagawa manages to twist it around and shove it back in the reader’s face a certain way that gives a sense of understanding. For instance, in a particularly disturbing birth scene, the Kappa has the choice of whether it wants to be born. This, along with the breeding practices mentioned in order to eradicate “evil heredity”, are subconscious indications of Akutagawa’s fear that he had inherited his mother’s schizophrenia. (The introduction claims that it’s a possibility, and that it is what eventually led to his death, but it’s impossible to say for certain.)

My favorite part is the end. There is a twist that Akutagawa kept until the very last few pages, and it wraps the story up nicely. When looked at from a distance, and after considering Akutagawa’s condition when he wrote the story, it also makes a lot more sense.

I am fascinated by Akutagawa’s work, because his stories are always filled with the weird, the grotesque, and the horrifying. I am more convinced than ever that although his stories aren’t for everyone, to the right person, they are magnificent.

Review: A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab

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A Conjuring of Light, by V.E. Schwab

Genres: Adult, Fantasy

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“Scars are not shameful, not unless you let them be. If you do not wear them, they will wear you.”

(^This song reminds me so much of this book.)

I have no idea how to review this book. I really, really don’t. I feel like I’ve said everything already in my reviews for A Darker Shade of Magic and A Gathering of Shadows. The character development, the world-building, the writing – all of it is magnificent. The entire series is a masterpiece.

Was A Conjuring of Light a bit slow? Yes. It’s a 600+ page book, and there was a lot of traveling involved. Was the ending a bit underwhelming? Yes. Definitely yes. Do I think the previous books were better? Absolutely – but this book still had the thing that I love the most, the thing that really made me fall in love with it. When it comes to books, there is one quality that I admire the most. I love crafted writing and I love a lot of action, but there’s something that a book can have that a writer can’t really learn. It’s an attribute to the book that develops all on its own.

Potency. Semblance. Realism. When a book opens itself up and completely swallows you, when it doesn’t leave a trace of doubt that any part of it wasn’t meant to be. A writer can learn how to build a world and shape it to their will, but it takes an extra push to make it truly come to life, and that’s not something that is done easily. When a book is real enough to make me forget that I’m reading – when I forget that it’s a story, not something that actually happened – that is my favorite thing. That is what Shades of Magic has.

A Conjuring of Light is the last book in the series. It is over 600 pages, and it is still not enough. It left me aching for more. Finishing it is like coming out of warm water into the shivering cold. I am tempted to beg for a spin-off series, except that I know how those things usually go, and I am restraining myself (almost).

I could disect this book the way that I usually do, but the truth is that I just want to enjoy the pleasure that it brought me while reading it. Sometimes it’s impossible to express why we love something, and I’m having a hard time finding the words for the magic of this series.

Review: Eliza and Her Monsters, by Francesca Zappia

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Eliza and Her Monsters, by Francesca Zappia

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

There are monsters in the sea.

Warning: This is a slightly personal review.

Eliza and Her Monsters is extremely relatable. It deals with social anxiety, which is something that a lot of people suffer with. It shows how, despite all logic, our minds can twist our biggest fears around and turn them against us.

I relate with Eliza on a lot of levels, but my personal experience reading this book might be a little different. See, I used to be exactly like Eliza. I didn’t realize it, but throughout high school, I didn’t talk to my peers very often. I purposely avoided working in groups or attending any of the events, including prom. I ate lunch in the library, even though I wasn’t supposed to, because I hated the idea of sitting in the cafeteria. I tried to hide as much as I possibly could, all because I was terrified of talking to my classmates and having them either ignore me or shut me down. I didn’t want them to even look at me.

My senior year of high school brought a lot of changes to my life, and I started to open up a bit more. By the time I graduated, I had gained some confidence. I wasn’t popular, but I wasn’t invisible, and I was comfortable with that.

I have mostly overcome my social anxiety – mostly. I’ll admit that sometimes I get extremely freaked out whenever I have to talk to someone that I have a crush on, and my best friend will attest to this, because she’s had to listen to me fret and whine for years. I didn’t realize how far I’d come until I read Eliza and Her Monsters and I saw in Eliza who I used to be.

I was so frustrated with her. A lot of the time, I thought Eliza was being extremely immature, especially when she shut out her family. Every time her parents would try to approach her and get her to spend time with them, she would throw a fit, like she was twelve years old. She was abrasive, disrespectful, and selfish. She gave no thought to how others felt or what their problems were.

I used to be just like that. I used to do all of those things, and reading them through different eyes – from the outside looking in – completely sucked. It was also an eye-opener.

Every time Eliza’s parents talked to her about how private she was and how she needed to be more sociable, I saw reflected in them my own parents, saying the exact same thing. I remembered how much those kinds of words irritated me – but, reading them again, I wasn’t. It was like I was finally understanding what it was my parents had been trying to drill in me for so many years.

I am still pretty introverted. I detest parties. I hate being by myself in a group of strange people – but I’m not as afraid to talk anymore. As a matter of fact, the right person would probably say that I have a harder time shutting up.

The best part about Eliza and Her Monsters was Eliza’s maturity. She learns how to conquer her anxiety and keep herself from getting worn out, and that is important to every person who has ever suffered from social anxiety. It has some nerd culture, yes, and quite a bit of the Francesca Zappia charm – of which I have grown fond of since I read Made You Up – but the most important aspect, and the one that will appeal the most, is how Eliza overcomes her fears – how, essentially, she slayed her monsters.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

35206Original Title: 羅生門 (Rashōmon)

Author: Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川 龍之介, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke)

Translator: Jay Rubin

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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What happened to the lowly servant, no one knows.


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • Rashōmon
  • In a Bamboo Grove
  • The Nose
  • Dragon: The Old Potter’s Tale
  • The Spider Thread
  • Hell Screen
  • Dr. Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum
  • O-Gin
  • Loyalty
  • The Story of a Head That Fell Off
  • Green Onions
  • Horse Legs
  • Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years
  • The Writer’s Craft
  • The Baby’s Sickness
  • Death Register
  • The Life of a Stupid Man
  • Spinning Gears

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa was actually one of the few Japanese authors that I knew before I started this project. He’s one of the more well-known ones out there. There was a collection of his stories in my school’s library, but when I started to read them, I wasn’t impressed. The translation was awkward and the story was confusing, and I only finished a couple before I gave it up and returned the book.

It turns out, I am not alone in my opinion. I mention this to emphasize the fact that a good story can be ruined due to a terrible translation, and that it’s better to see which ones are available before picking one up.

This collection is much, much different. The writing is beautiful, and Akutagawa’s creative genius shines through. The tales are morbid, strange, and cynical. Hell Screen, the longest one in the book, was one of the ones that I tried to read previously. The first time, it was like trying to complete a puzzle with pieces that didn’t go together; this time, I was absorbed completely.

Akutagawa has been compared to Atsushi Nakajima on multiple occasions, but to be honest, he reminds me of Osamu Dazai. Both authors committed suicide, and death and alienation are two recurring themes in their work. There are multiple differences in style – Dazai’s No Longer Human felt very sad in a numb, hollow way, whereas Akutagawa’s stories are more dramatic – but both authors suffered in similar ways, and it’s reflected in their writing.

–I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep?

The most controversial ones are Akutagawa’s non-fictional work. (Daidōji Shinsuke: The Early Years Spinning Gears.) There is especially criticism regarding The Life of a Stupid Man, Akutagawa’s “autobiography”, told in fragments. Akutagawa’s personal life, though interesting, is inconsequential to me regarding the story’s merit; it didn’t affect how I read it. I loved it because I thought that it was beautifully written, and the way it’s sectioned gives it a poetic feel that I particularly liked. I wasn’t that impressed with Spinning Gears, neither was I O-Gin or Green Onions, but as a whole I think this is a great illustration of Akutagawa’s craft.

Akutagawa was, in a way, tragic. His skills once put him at the top – but changing times, mingled in with his own doubt and other’s criticism, resulted in his decline. That is why although quite a few of his works are considered to be masterpieces, there are others that are far less than that. I don’t think Akutagawa’s work is something that you will always love 100% of the time, but an author is never perfect, and many of his stories are true classics.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edogawa Rampo

196150Original Title: N/A

Author: Edogawa Rampo (江戸川 乱歩, Edogawa Ranpo*)

Translator: James B. Harris

Genres: Horror, Mystery-Thriller

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“The living world is a dream. The nocturnal dream is reality.”

— Edogawa Rampo


Project BSD

Stories in this book:

  • The Human Chair
  • The Psychological Test
  • The Caterpillar
  • The Cliff
  • The Hell of Mirrors
  • The Twins
  • The Red Chamber
  • Two Crippled Men
  • The Traveler With The Pasted Rag Picture

Edogawa Rampo is referred to as “Japan’s Edgar Allan Poe”, and to that there are multiple reasons why:

  1. Edgar Allan Poe was Rampo’s mentor; he was an avid reader of both American and European mysteries, and a big fan of Poe’s work. (Eddie’s swelled head would blow up at that.)
  2. Similarly to Poe being the creator of the modern detective story, Rampo created the first original Japanese mystery story.
  3. Edogawa Rampo is the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe. The author’s birth name was Tarō Hirai (平井 太郎, Hirai Tarō).

These stories are more suspense than mystery. At any rate, those that contain murder are not about whodunit, but how they were caught, such as in The Psychological Test and The Twins. Some of them are horrifying and some are grotesque, but all of them are very, very peculiar.

Take The Human Chair, the first and probably the best story in the entire collection. A man that defines himself as “ugly beyond description” writes a letter to an authoress. In the letter, he recounts how he created an armchair that could inhabit a human being, how he holed himself up inside of it, and his experiences with all of the women that have sat in it – all of them unknowing that there is a man underneath them, caressing their body.

Gives you the absolute creeps, doesn’t it?

Then in The Hell of Mirrors, a man obsessed with optics creates a perfect sphere of mirrors and accidentally gets locked inside of it, and the images reflected cause him to go raving mad. In The Twins, one of two identical twin brothers confesses how he murdered his other half and took his place, then proceeded to carry out crimes as his true self while he continued to pose as his brother. In The Red Chamber, a madman recounts how he caused the deaths of ninety-nine individual people without lifting a single finger.

I was disturbed over and over again.

Another great thing about these stories is that they’re written in a way that feels timeless, like they could take place anywhere, anytime. Though the style of these stories is without a doubt Japanese, the translation gives it a Western feel, and this is due partly to Edogawa Rampo’s love of Western mysteries as well as his contribution to the translation. (According to the translator’s preface, Rampo could both read and comprehend English, but was unable to write it or speak it; the translator could speak Japanese but could not read or write it. Thus a painstaking five-year project commenced, with the translator turning out sentence after sentence until Rampo was satisfied with how it was read in English.) So even though Japanese mysteries are largely unknown to English readers, it’s easy to integrate into Edogawa Rampo’s writing, since he knew how Western mystery stories were crafted.

Today there is a Japan Mystery Writer’s Club, which Rampo founded, meaning that there is a whole vein of writers of the genre that have yet to be discovered. Still, there is no better place to get started than the man who started it all.

*Note: 乱歩 has been romanized as both ‘Rampo’ and ‘Ranpo’.

Project Bungou Stray Dogs: No Longer Human, by Osamu Dazai

Original title: 人間失格 (Ningen Shikkaku)194746

Author: Osamu Dazai (太宰 治, Dazai Osamu)

Translator: Donald Keene

Genres: Literature, Japanese Literature

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

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“Mine has been a life of much shame. I can’t even guess myself what it must be to live the life of a human being.”


Project BSD

No Longer Human is considered to be Dazai’s masterpiece, and it’s without a doubt one of the most depressing books that I’ve ever read. Considering the elements that relate to Dazai’s personal life, including suicide, it’s no wonder that people consider this more of an autobiography than a work of fiction.

The story follows the life of Ōba Yōzō, who feels alienated from other people and creates a cheerful facade in order to dispel his true nature. As he grows older his fears increase and prevent him from integrating into society, and he falls to smoking, drinking, drug abuse, and adulterous affairs with women. He reveals on multiple occasions that he wants to die, and considers a violent death a blessing.

During the course of my life I have wished innumerable times that I might meet with a violent death, but I have never once desired to kill anybody. I thought that in killing a dreaded adversary I might actually be bringing him happiness.

Definitely not a cheerful book.

This is a book where the relationship between the reader and the narrator is not definite. Even though I constantly felt sympathetic towards Yōzō’s situation, there were many times where I was frustrated with him as well. I think that was Dazai’s point, to not make him completely likeable, to emphasize how troubled he is. To create a character that is simultaneously likeable and dislikable is an amazing thing.

Overall, what this book highlights is how some people are unable to cope with everyday life, with the trials of “being human.” As a result, they are isolated and lonely beings who go through life as if in a living hell. In that aspect, although we don’t want to face such things as grief, guilt, and fear, if we avoid them we will only suffer more.

This book was dark and depressing, but a quick read, and beautifully written and translated.

Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

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The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom

Genres: Literature, Contemporary

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“All endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.”

This was a book I had to read for class. I’ve enjoyed assigned books in the past, but to be honest, I didn’t expect to eat through this book so quickly. It’s tiny – not even 200 pages – but it wasn’t so much the length as my inability to put it down.

I am an atheist. I have little to no knowledge about many religions, particularly orthodox ones. I have tried multiple times to stretch my beliefs a little, to believe in a deity, but I can’t. It’s not how I think. Despite this, if there is a heaven, I would want it to be exactly like it is depicted in this book. Many if not all individuals worry about living a pointless life, of not affecting anything, and wondering why they’re even alive, and The Five People You Meet in Heaven is based around the idea that when you die, you meet five different people – some you know, some you might not – that drastically changed your life, and explain to you the significance of their encounters and what they mean. It’s a way of understanding how you mattered during the time you were alive, something we all crave to know.

It’s very easy to see how, from our perspective, we would feel worthless, whereas from an outsider’s point of view, we understand how important we are. Eddie believes he was very insignificant, that due to the war and his leg injury he didn’t live as fulfilled a life as he’d dreamed – but when he glances through it with his five people, he comes to understand that he did in fact serve his purpose, that his life wasn’t as gray as it appeared.

This is such an emotionally-packed book. Many of the lessons that Eddie learns are things that we’ve all heard before, but the way they are woven through adds a deeper sentimentality. There are quotes in here that are worthy of being put in pretty fonts on rainy backgrounds and pasted all over Tumblr.

“Strangers,” the Blue Man said, “are just family you have yet to come to know.”

This is a book that is easy to fly through, that is over and done with in a matter of hours, but might stay with you forever, just because of how deep it is. It’s a tiny reminder that no matter how we perceive ourselves, we are not as transparent as we seem.

Review: The Disenchantments, by Nina LaCour

11699055The Disenchantments, by Nina LaCour

Genres: Young Adult, Contemporary

Rating: ✮✮✮✮

“Things happen for a reason. It doesn’t make sense now, but eventually, it will.”

This past week, I could feel myself sinking into a reading slump. No book was catching my attention at all. I even picked up a book by my favorite author, but I was too out of it to truly appreciate it, so I stopped.

The blame could only be placed on one thing:

Image result for Haikyuu gif

*Heavy breathing.* Fucking volleyball anime.

Anyway. I figured that what I needed was a change of scene. I’d been reading a lot of fantasy lately, so I switched to a contemporary. I needed something fast and light; I needed something easy to absorb.

Nina LaCour was the woman for the job.

Her books are some of my favorite contemporaries of all time. Her writing is low-key and mellow. It’s like sinking into a warm bath, almost. Sometimes there are ripples, but they calm down quickly. You would think that that would make her books rather boring, but it’s just the opposite: the pages fly by so fast, you don’t know what hit you.

“It’s incredible,” she says, “how much damage everyone does to everybody else.”

This story is about an all-girl band and Colby, the protagonist and roadie, who go on a one-week tour as a last pact of friendship before they are all divided by their different paths. Colby and his best friend, Bev, are supposed to be going on a trip across Europe right after the tour, but just as it begins she breaks it to him that she’s going to college instead. This wrecks Colby emotionally and sends him spiraling, wondering what he’s going to do next.

The main theme of this book is, of course, the future. It’s about where you’re going and what you want to do with your life, and also how you’re going to deal with the people you leave behind. The sentimentality in The Disenchantments – as is in every one of Nina LaCour’s works – hits me hard. This book is very hipster-esque and has a lot of emotionally-ridden quotes, but they don’t feel forced. They don’t make the characters seem too wise for their age. Nina LaCour perfectly captures the voice of a teenager struggling to puzzle out their life.

As a chord reverberates through through the tiny room, I decide that it can’t be that hard to be the person you want to be. What’s difficult is finding a place in a world with other people, who want different things for themselves.

I struggled to like Bev. She reminds me of Alaska Young too much for my comfort, but like Alaska, I didn’t let Bev ruin the experience for me. Both characters are distant and mysterious, and it makes me hate them. However, Bev eventually fleshes out and becomes more of a real person instead of something straight out of a cliche. I don’t know if the romance between her and Colby was necessary, but I do think that there would’ve been a lot less going on, so I don’t mind so much. I also love the way Nina LaCour casually slipped in her bisexuality, because nothing makes me happier than an undercurrent of LGBTQIA in a book that’s not about being gay at all.

Perhaps The Disenchantments is more about personal taste. Maybe I’m biased because I’m such a big fan of her work, but I love every book that Nina LaCour writes. Her work is so tender and easy to dive into, making them the perfect thing to read even if I don’t feel like reading. I’m so excited for her new book coming out in February, because I know I’m going to love it just as much.