Books, Recountings

i have been reading disturbing things

*** warning: my recountings are of books with quite horrific subject matter. If you have a delicate stomach perhaps don’t read ***

So I’m sure you have many pressing questions for me (WHERE DID YOU GO AGAIN? DID YOU GET BITTEN BY A RADIOACTIVE CATERPILLAR? CAN YOU SPELL YET? WHY DO YOU DISLIKE CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM?) that you probably spending a large portion of your days simply agonizing over.

Also – why on earth did you shill out for a laptop and then … not use it? (Ah, yes. My good life decisions. I make so many of them.)

I’ve been reading, living, and finding out that Mt. Royal isn’t actually where I thought it was. (How can a mole hill mountain move? you ask. I DON’T KNOW EITHER.)

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THE OPIUM WARS:

THE ADDICTION OF ONE EMPIRE AND THE CORRUPTION OF ANOTHER

[aka wut teh british empire was pretty rubbish huh]

Iopiumwars‘m not sure how much I knew about the Opium Wars before I cracked open this book. But what I found here was awful – if I get the details right …

  •  we were buying a heck of a lot of tea from China
  • China weren’t buying a lot of things from us
  • basically, this was kind of uneconomical and so instead of … doing better market research, for instance, we forced them not to ban our opium from India [The ‘Just Say No’ slogan ran more in the ‘Say Yes Right Now’ direction]
  • and destroyed the Summer Palace
  • and the British Drug Lords were horrible
  • Lots and lots of egos on both sides were involved
  • and a horrifying number of people in China were addicted to opium (I believe the book mentions that at one point 90% of the Chinese army were addicted)
  • and lots of time was spent in trying to work out how the British officials could bow to the Chinese high ups without actually bowing to them.
  • and the Emperor only heard what his advisors thought he’d like to hear. Which wasn’t the best thing when trying to run a war. And led to quite a few bad decisions.

It’s fascinating stuff – the book is well researched and contains excerpts from documents on both sides. It’s also rather depressing and made me take sidelong glances at my cup of tea.

Also, depressing subjects seem to be a common theme in my latest factual reads. Yay.

THE GLADIATOR:

THE SECRET HISTORY OF ROME’S WARRIOR SLAVES

[aka … that’s just not right]

thegladiatorI wrote an extensive review after finishing this book [Actually, it was a page BUT THE WRITING WAS SMALL] and then I found out that Dan Carlin of Hardcore History had released a podcast on the same sort of subject ‘Painfotainment’ … which I haven’t listened to fully yet – but my point is (YOU HAVE ONE?) that this book affected me and I didn’t like it and I decided that I was quite right in loathing some of the Roman Emperors. Seriously. They were jerks.

My problem with this book didn’t lie in the actual history it was recounting – history, is after all, history. You can get mad at it and rave at it but you can’t change it. No, my issues lie in one of the chapters – the crowning chapter of the entire book – in which it describes how a slave is raped and then commits suicide to avoid the games. And this is fictional. To use the story medium as an illustration for how life was back then. A sort of ‘How We Lived and How It Stank’.

Cool. But no. When I read history, I want to read history. When I want to read historical fiction, I pick up a book of historical fiction.

History is bad in plenty of places; give me the facts but by golly, don’t wallow in it. I don’t want to read fictional gratuitous violence in my history book.

And, yes, I did get upset about that chapter, and yes, you’d be right in thinking me absolutely off my rocker for picking up this next book – but there is a difference – one was fiction, and this one? This one is horrible, brutal reality.

THE RAPE OF NANKING

by Iris Chang

nanking.jpgIn December 1937, the Japanese army invaded the ancient city of Nanking, systematically raping, torturing, and murdering more than 300,000 Chinese civilians.

This book tells the story from three perspectives: of the Japanese soldiers who performed it, of the Chinese civilians who endured it, and of a group of Europeans and Americans who refused to abandon the city and were able to create a safety zone that saved many.

This was an awful read. I don’t believe in avoiding the worst points of the world’s history; you can’t understand humankind if you glance at their achievements and virtues. Darkness shows how bright the light can be. But at the same time … what horrors people have done and are capable of …

I think it’s when you look at your fellow man and think of them as less – less than human. Less than nothing. When you forget your humanity, or forget theirs, and then well, you can do anything to them, can’t you? Most of us will think nothing of squishing a bug and there’s nothing wrong with stamping on dirt, is there?

It’s hard reading. I had to put the book down for a while, just for a break. But I finished it and I was glad I did.

Ultranationalists denied that the Rape happened, and for a long time, this atrocity against humanity was a mere lukewarm line or two in Japanese history books. But this book puts the truth out there. It’s terrible and it’s horrid and it’s brutal and awful. But it shouldn’t be ignored or forgotten.

As the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned years ago, to forget a holocaust is to kill twice

The more I learn about history, the more I realise that the answer of humanity does not – nay, cannot – lie within ourselves.

Also, my next factual book after I finish The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over The World is going to be about fish.

Just for a break.

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Books

there were no dragon illustrations

Glorious news! I can now spell ‘prejudice’ without the help of spell check. It – and this will blow your mind – doesn’t have two d’s.

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND

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I can’t read Alice In Wonderland right now – the artwork in my library edition is off-putting.

It’s just not pretty and my books must have:

  • epic dragon illustrations
  • pretty illustrations
  • no illustrations

… but I’m going to push through. Probably. Or I’ll put it on my kindle and read it without any drawings whatsoever.

SHADOWSONG

30694168.jpgOnce upon a time, I read Wintersong. The front cover was pretty. The sequel has just landed in my kindle because I rather thought that though I disliked the first quite intensely, it made me think about validation and where we draw it from.

Perhaps this sequel would give me an issue to ponder, was my line of thinking. But then I read the introduction and it had a trigger warning for suicide ideation, and said that this book was the author dealing with her monsters.

It’s not that I have anything against authors fighting their demons through the written word, it’s just that I never think ‘well, gee, let me read about someone fighting their demons in a book duology that I liked just as much as I like liver and onions.’

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LADY JANE GREY: NINE DAY QUEEN OF ENGLAND

388656Fun fact: I once saw the back of the author’s head. (It was, I rush to assure you, attached to the rest of her body.)

Now, I have a reread of My Lady Jane planned for this year, but it is comparatively flippant to the actual reality. (Flippant, but hysterically funny.)

I rather hoped the ending would change, but apparently history is set in stone and you can’t change it.

Lady Jane’s letter to her sister had a quote that quite struck me:

‘Live still to die … and trust not that the tenderness of your age shall lengthen your life; for as soon (if God call) goeth the young as the old: and labour always to learn to die …

She was sixteen years old, and that letter was the last she ever wrote.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice before. Yes, yes – I’ve watched the movies, the T.V shows … all of that jazz, but I’ve never read the actual book.

But it has now been consumed, and it is with great astonishment that I discovered that it was quite wonderful. Just as good as everyone said it was. I am now eating enormous quantities of humble pie.

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Behold, my pride – it has toppled! My years of prejudice have taken a bruising fall! And yes, I shall admit it: Mr. Darcy is very romantic.

(Is it better than Georgette Heyer’s books though? Hmm …)

Books

traumatised by books

Words are powerful. Books are powerful. (I would love to say that’s the reason I called my blog ‘of words and books’ but it isn’t; I was just trying to keep my bases covered. I know. Genius.) They can give hope, inspire us, change us, aid us in rising above the ordinary to perform the extraordinary.

They can also install a crippling – crippling! – fear of everyday objects.

THE WITCH

My uncle and aunt’s copy of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a well-worn and battered paperback. I read it, in the quiet, sitting on the attic stairs. A dedicated bookworm, even at a young age.

Was I entranced? Did I fall in love with Narnia and the adventures of the Pevensie siblings? I’m not sure. I grew fascinated with Turkish Delight, I remember that. I still am a little.

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i mean, i wouldn’t betray my siblings for it, but still

Usually, I think, after reading about Narnia, you’d want to open every wardrobe door ever. Just in case. Just to see. You’d hold your breath a little and reach in, past the coats … just to make sure. Maybe, just maybe, adventure was waiting for you, just beyond your fingertips.

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But me? OH HECK NO.

Coming into the room? The doors are open?! Close them. You know. Just in case.

Open the doors to retrieve clothing? Better make sure those doors are closed.

Going to bed? CLOSE DEM DOORS!

The illustrations … they’ve stuck with me too

I can still almost see what I feared the most – the White Witch, bursting through my white wardrobe doors on a chariot drawn by snarling creatures, arm raised with whip in hand, her expression most terrible.

I thought she was waiting behind the wardrobe. Waiting for me to forget to close the doors. Waiting for that sliver of light to appear. Waiting for me.

So the wardrobe doors were shut, lest worlds seep through and threaten my very existence.

THE CORPSE

One would think that one fear from the literary realm would be enough; one burden to haunt a little girl was sufficient. An active imagination is somewhat of a curse and a blessing … and occasionally a hinderance to visiting the bathroom.

At night, I wasn’t afraid of the toilet, or of the windowsill, or of the mirror from which my dark reflection would glance back. But rather, what might be laid out in the bath, waiting for me, morgue blue, eyes wide, and really quite dead.

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As the audiobook was playing, I’d stare at this cassette cover. Slowly, a fear of the possible contents of a bath sprung forth

Whose Body? is a delightful book – I’ve since reread it. I wasn’t terrified in the least. But to a young girl who listens avidly as an innocent person walks into their bathroom and discovers a A RANDOM CORPSE IN THEIR BATHTUB … well it didn’t take long to connect the dots.

  • My house had a bath
  • My house had a roof
  • Ergo, my house could have a corpse

[LOGIC STRIKES AGAIN!]

It was terrifying. Answering the call of nature at night became a fraught experience. Even when it wasn’t night-time, a suspicious glance at the bath first just had to be given. To make sure, you know.

I knew how it could be done, you see. Someone could – quite legitimately – drag a corpse over the rooftops and dispose of it in our tub: they would, perhaps, start at our next door neighbour’s roof with the body and then jump across to our’s. Then with gymnastics worthy of an Olympian, they’d climb through the narrow slit of the bathroom window with the body and deposit the body in our bath.

And there I would find it.

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Gradually I grew up and forgot to be afraid, but I shan’t forget those nighttime trips and those quick, fearing glances at the bathtub, and that moment when you’d hopped into bed, well you’d better get out again – the wardrobe doors were cracked slightly open.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words will invoke wardrobes and bathtubs and they will always haunt you.

Or at least, they will until childhood slips away little by little.

Books, On Writing

i kidnapped Suzannah Rowntree for an interview

I have Suzannah Rowntree, author of Ten Thousand Thorns, with me today. Well, not really because … we happen to live on different continents. But with the wonder of the internet, she is here, with me on my blog …
 
// 1 //
WHEN DID YOU THINK ‘LET ME SET THIS FAIRY TALE IN CHINA’ AND WHAT BROUGHT IT ABOUT?
Haha! OK, I’ll be honest with you: it was while I was watching a movie called THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM with my sisters. I know, a lot of wuxia fans detest that movie as a lamesauce American homage to the genre, but then again, it does have that epic Jet Li/Jackie Chan duel in it, and none of the great Chinese wuxia films have that, so. I’d always loved these adventurous, fantastic, and beautiful martial arts films (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO must be the ones most familiar to Western viewers), but it was while I was thinking about the philosophical underpinnings to Taoism as they cropped up in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM that I got the idea of telling Sleeping Beauty in this style. It occurred to me suddenly that in China, a princess wouldn’t be cursed to sleep for a hundred years: on the contrary, she would meditate, not sleep, and it would be this wonderful spiritual blessing. Or would it?
 
This would also give me the opportunity to write a Sleeping Beauty retelling that was absolutely chock-full of kung-fu action scenes. I mentioned the idea to my bro the same evening, and from the look of awe and anticipation that crossed his face, I knew it was a winner.
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// 2 //
THE WISE SAYINGS – HOW AND WHERE DID THEY COME FROM? DID YOU MAKE THEM? CAN I STEAL YOUR BRAINS? WERE THEY INSPIRED FROM SOMEWHERE?
I’m terribly sorry, I didn’t make them up myself. I don’t have that level of brains! I just spent a lot of time trawling through collections of Chinese proverbs online. Aren’t they marvellous? I did this because my Chinese beta reader told me that one’s martial arts master is supposed to speak in wise riddles, which the disciple is then supposed to figure out for himself. And if you can figure out what your martial arts master is saying, that proves you’re worthy to be his disciple. I thought the best way to get that effect and make it authentic would be to pepper his dialogue with gems of Chinese wisdom.
 
// 3 //
HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE TEN THOUSAND THORNS?

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The actual writing wasn’t too bad, though with other projects in the mix it took about a year from beginning to end. I took a month to write the first draft, a month to write the second draft, and another month to apply the edits suggested by my first-round beta readers. It usually doesn’t take me this long to do edits, but I had a Chinese
beta reader whose critique was very challenging and far-reaching. He gave me amazing help.
 
// 4 //
WHAT WAS YOUR WRITING PROCESS LIKE?

I tend to plan on a macro level. I’ll start with a concept and some research. I watched a lot of Chinese films and read two very long classic wuxia novels to prepare, which took me months. I also watched the director’s commentary for CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (yes, I spent a lot of my “work” days watching entertaining foreign films. I did not feel guilty about this at all).

I kept detailed notes of interesting things I noticed that seemed relevant to the story’s theme or a fun part of the martial arts story world: blood brothers, shocking betrayals, intense tea nerdery. Once I had all these details under my belt, I was able to construct a basic plot outline that expressed the theme and drew on all these elements that I enjoyed, hopefully also weaving them into something new. Then it was just doing the writing itself, which I usually do in a boring manner from nine till five with the assistance of silence and a succession of cups of tea. giphy-6
One thing I did do differently for TEN THOUSAND THORNS was to adopt a slightly different writing style than usual. It’s a bit more pulpy, a bit more humorous, and draws on the diction (in English) of Chinese friends and literature.

 

// 5 //
I WAS REALLY IMPRESSED BY THE TITULAR ‘THORNS’ – DID THE IDEA FOR WHAT THEY WOULD BE SPRING INTO YOUR MIND OR WAS IT A TAKE ON THE FAIRY TALE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO DO?
Aha! That particular concept just came packaged along with the genre. Once I connected the dots between Sleeping Beauty and wuxia, it was obvious what I was going to do with the thorns. The Chinese proverb “crouching tigers and hidden dragons” itself refers to the fact that you can never tell when someone or something will turn out to be highly dangerous and/or well-trained. Just watch any wuxia film and you’ll see that this is true. And that’s all I’ll say about that 😉

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// 6 //
WAS THERE A PARTICULAR SCENE THAT YOU REALLY ENJOYED WRITING?
Oh help. All of them? This novella was pure joy from beginning to end. Maybe I particularly loved the scene with the old lady at Wudang, and all of Iron Maiden and Clouded Sky’s duels in the first half. They had such fun interactions.
 
// 7 //
IF YOU COULD TIME TRAVEL – RIGHT NOW – TO ANY HISTORICAL TIME PERIOD, WHICH WOULD IT BE?
[A WORD OF WARNING – I HEAR JUNE 1348 IN ENGLAND IS A BAD YEAR TO PICK]
Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere in 1348. I even avoid fiction set during that time because I know it’s not going to end well, especially if it has ominous words like “domesday” in the title. No, I’d like to visit Jerusalem in 1183 to do research on my OUTREMER project. Saladin called it “a garden of paradise” and I would just love to see the amazing architecture and mosaics and fabulous clothes they all would have been getting around in.
THANKS FOR STOPPING BY, SUZANNAH!

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When Suzannah Rowntree isn’t travelling the world to help out friends in need, she lives in a big house in rural Australia with her awesome parents and siblings, writing historical fantasy fiction informed by a covenantal Christian perspective on history.
 
If you like the fiction of CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, Stephen Lawhead, or ND Wilson, you’ll probably enjoy her stories too.
Books, Recountings

recountings: ten thousand thorns

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TEN THOUSAND THORNS 

by Suzannah Rowntree

Princess Morning Light meditates in a hidden temple surrounded by ten thousand thorns. Guardian of a long-lost sword skill, the princess is destined to wake after a hundred years to return justice to the world.

Or so legend says.

As the Vastly Martial Emperor extends his brutal domination, rebel leader Clouded Sky flees the capital for the safety of his martial sect at Wudang Mountain. Meanwhile, a renegade martial artist seeks a hero to awaken Morning Light. As bounty hunters and imperial guards close in, Clouded Sky must determine who he can trust – and who may be planning to betray him.

An action-packed retelling of Sleeping Beauty in the style of a Chinese martial arts epic!

Ah, I really enjoyed this one.

THE WRITING

The writing is clear and crisp, and it truly draws you in; almost as if you are watching a movie – seeing the shadows, hearing the clash of weapons, and watching the cast interact.

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Some of the descriptions were quite perfect:

‘she moved as lightly as a dandelion seed blowing on the wind’

THE CAST

The characters are delightful, Iron Maiden in particular. Sometimes heroines can really get on my nerves (you know what I mean … ‘I AM A STRONG, POWERFUL WOMAN WHO CAN FIGHT BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE. I ALSO HAVE AS MUCH CHARACTER AS A CARDBOARD CUTOUT. NO! LESS!) but thankfully, such was not the case in this book.

What really was nice, was the way that Rowntree wrote her – skilled, but not flaunting it. Feminine, but more than capable of handling herself in a fight. The balance was right, and so I was really able to enjoy reading about her.

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Everyone was saying Very Wise And Poetic Sayings, which gives me life goals because I would very much like to drift around and say things like ‘truly, one happiness scatters a thousand sorrows’ (…and then crack out some ‘Awkward-Octopus-Strikes-Thrice-And-Falls’ martial arts move, afterwards, of course.)

THE PLOT

At first, I was a little overwhelmed (gee, doesn’t that make me like a swooning heroine!) with the amount of names, details etc there were – but that could be because my brain has the retention skills of a colander.

But once I caught the gist of the story and memorised names and who was who and what was what … it was clear sailing.

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There were some PLOT TWIST! moments that I enjoyed, and I found the way that the fairy tale was retold to be unique and quite clever.

TO SUM UP …

Altogether, I found this story to be an action filled martial arts adventure, garnished with the perfect touch of swashbuckling charm.

And also, my word, it felt like Rowntree had throughly researched the setting for her book – so hats off and kudos to her for that.

amazon // goodreads

DISCLAIMER: I received this book free of charge in return for an honest review. I would have happily written a review in return for a dragon, but I wasn’t offered any.