First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami *Book Review*

First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami has swept back into our lives this year to bring us a short story collection about memory and its impact on us despite its ephemeral nature. This is First Person Singular, and I really loved it.

It’s important to note, especially if you’ve never read any Murakami before, that you can’t really go into his books with the expectation that the plot will be explosive and action-packed. I find his writing to be exceptionally meditative. He writes about the human condition and the beauty of life’s minutiae in a way that feels easily relatable and simultaneously separate from reality entirely. He paints portraits of moments—regular, everyday events that for some reason strike his characters (and us) in such a way that makes them unforgettable. He introduces us to that moment and then lets us stay there a while.

“A dimly lit hallway in a high school, a beautiful girl, the hem of her skirt swirling, With the Beatles.”

With the Beatles, p.79

Murakami’s use of language is so masterful and poignant, that even though there isn’t much happening per se, I find myself savoring sentences individually. First Person Singular is yet another fantastic demonstration of his ability to manipulate words into vivid images.

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This collection contains eight stories. It starts with Cream, in which a man tells the story of a strange experience he had when he was 18 and going to visit an acquaintance at her piano recital. (As the title would suggest, all of the stories are told by unnamed narrators, with the exception of one, in the first person).

On a Stone Pillow is about a man who meets and sleeps with a relative stranger who enchants him with a booklet of self-published tanka poetry. Her words have stuck with him all his life even though he can’t recall her name or what she looked like. This story was one of my favorites.

“Even memory though, can hardly be relied on. Can anyone say for certain what really happened to us back then?

If we’re blessed though, a few words might remain by our side. They climb to the top of the hill during the night, crawl into small holes dug to fit the shape of their bodies, stay quite still, and let the stormy winds of time blow past. Dawn finally breaks, the wild wind subsides, and the surviving words quietly peek out from the surface. For the most part they have small voices—they are shy and only have ambiguous ways of expressing themselves. Even so, they are ready to serve as witnesses. As honest, fair witnesses. But in order to create those long enduring, long-suffering words, or else to find them and leave them behind, you must sacrifice, unconditionally, your own body, your very own heart. You have to lay down your neck on a cold stone pillow illuminated by the winter moon.”

On a Stone Pillow, p.49

Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova is about a man who comes up with a fake album and publishes a review of it for a magazine, then ends up finding it one day in a record shop.

With the Beatles centers on the meeting between our narrator and his girlfriend’s older brother when he stops by for a date, and she isn’t home. It touches on themes of memory and grief in a way I found particularly profound.

“I’ve heard it said that the happiest time in our lives is the period when pop songs really mean something to us, really get to us. It may be true. Or maybe not. Pop songs may, after all, be nothing but pop songs. And perhaps our lives are merely decorative, expendable items, a burst of fleeting color and nothing more.”

With the Beatles, p.89

Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey definitely boasts Murakami’s penchant for magical realism. Although nearly all the stories in this collection have some aspect of the strange and fantastical, this is definitely the most “out there.” I’m always amazed at how he can take such a strange premise (in this case, it’s a man who meets a talking monkey who works at a remote inn and steals the names of women he’s in love with) but still keep it grounded in reality enough that I don’t find myself questioning it.

Carnaval discusses the tiniest happenings in life that shape us or otherwise take up space in our memory for whatever reason. It starts with a man befriending a woman that bonds with him over a mutual love of “Carnaval” by Robert Schumann and takes a strange turn after they lose contact with one another.

“These were both nothing more than a pair of minor incidents that happened in my trivial little life. Short side trips along the way. Even if they hadn’t happened, I doubt my life would have wound up much different from what it is now. But still, these memories return to me sometimes, traveling down a very long passageway to arrive. And when they do, their unexpected power shakes me to the core. Like an autumn wind that gusts at night, swirling fallen leaves in a forest, flattening the pampas grass in fields, and pounding hard on the doors to people’s homes, over and over again.”

Carnaval, p.197

I think my favorite story in First Person Singular is the penultimate Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection. This one is particularly interesting because it’s told by Haruki Murakami himself. He muses on his time rooting for the baseball team The Yakult Swallows even though they were notoriously bad. I have no interest in baseball whatsoever, but I was so convinced by his love for it, that I found myself wanting to be in his shoes for an afternoon, sipping beer on the patch of grass in the outfield and watching a game. He talks briefly about his strained relationship with his father, and with his mother who suffered from memory loss in her old age.

“It’s true that life brings us far more defeats than victories. And real-life wisdom arises not so much from knowing how we might beat someone as from learning how to accept defeat with grace.”

The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, p.209

“Of course, winning is much better than losing. No argument there. But winning or losing doesn’t affect the weight and value of the time. It’s the same time, either way. A minute is a minute, an hour is an hour. We need to cherish it. We need to deftly reconcile ourselves with time and leave behind as many precious memories as we can—that’s what’s the most valuable.”

The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, p.224

First Person Singular is the namesake of the collection and the story that wraps everything up. Ironically, I found it to be the weakest of the bunch (not bad by any means, just overshadowed by the others) and I almost wish the last two had been swapped.

Altogether this is a fantastic addition to the Murakami oeuvre and I believe it will cement itself among some of his most solid short stories. If you are a fan of his work, I would have to strongly advise against skipping this one, and if you’re new to his work I think it would be a great place to start. As I said earlier, the magical realism is present but not as front and center as some of his other stories and novels.

First Person Singular provided me with a relaxing escape from some of my real-life turmoil and gave me a much needed reminder that happiness and enjoyment in life is sought out on purpose, in the average every day happenings, not waited for. I think I needed to hear that, and I’m happy to have been given that message through Murakami’s gorgeous writing. I think I’ll go listen to some jazz and pet my cat. I feel like that’s what he would want.

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Final verdict: 4/5 stars

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Empire of Storms (Throne of Glass, #5) and Tower of Dawn (Throne of Glass, #6) by Sarah J. Maas *Tandem Book Review/Rant*

I have made it my life’s goal to finally, FINALLY finish the Throne of Glass series in the year 2021, and it looks like this is gonna be the month I do it. After starting and stopping, rereading, and then forgetting to continue since 2013 (ouch I feel old.) the journey will finally have come to an end. And I gotta say… I am not loving the way things are going.

Now before you come to my house and kill me, let me say that I understand why this series is so well liked, and how it propelled the author to the forefront of the Young Adult genre. So if you adore this series and it’s your favorite thing ever, I completely understand and my personal opinions can’t take that away from you.

**Beware of spicy hot takes and major Throne of Glass spoilers ahead.**

So where did we leave off? I finished Queen of Shadows and I gave it a rickety 4 stars out of 5 almost entirely because of my love for the character Manon Blackbeak, and I do stand by that. Manon’s chapters were phenomenal, as was the introduction of Elide Lochan, and the culmination of Kaltain Rompier’s arc. All of those were shining points that I still consider to be impressively written and executed within the series. Before that, I really liked Heir of Fire (another 4/5 stars) with its intro to Rowan, and the development of his relationship with Aelin. Things were starting to go in a VERY different direction but I was on board.

Coming into Tower of Dawn and Empire of Storms…. Wow. The bad parts got so much worse, and I don’t think the positive aspects were enough to cover for them. But we’ll get into that.

Let me start this rant by directing my ire at whoever is in charge of marketing this series to its target audience. This book series starts as Young Adult– sure I can agree with that. There is a “fade to black” sex scene in the second book that, to me, falls in line with the Young Adult tag. By Empire of Storms, though, I think it’s a far cry from YA with sex scenes that are so explicit I actually had to pull my headphones out so I could listen to the audiobook without being shamed while doing the dishes. How dare you make me go to all that effort in a book that’s supposed to be for 14-year-olds. I’m being a little hyperbolic of course. It’s obviously not the biggest deal to me, (I’m 23, which makes me about 5,000 in YA years) but this is something I think is worth mentioning to people going in unawares.

I digress. I did a tandem read of these two books which means I followed a guide (graciously put together by this lovely blogger here, thank you!!) and basically switched off every couple of chapters, from one book to the other. This was very easy to do once I tabbed the pages and got the audiobooks downloaded. Fair warning: it will make these two books feel like one, really really long book.

I guess I’ll start in chronological order. So let’s rip into Empire of Storms first.

I’ll begin with the things I liked. There are four scenes in particular: When Manon faces off against her grandmother because she refused to kill Asterin, setting off a heart-pounding chase and aerial battle that leaves Manon completely wrecked on top of Abraxos. Then, Aelin and Elide meet for the first time. This scene was very emotionally impactful, not just for the two of them, but also for the fact that Aelin and Dorian come to understand the massive play of the game that Kaltain pulled at the end of Queen of Shadows. “She said to remember your promise to punish them all,” absolute chills. Next, is the chapter(s) where Manon and Aelin go into the witch mirror, and we all get emotionally sucker-punched by Elena. Finally, we have the ending scene where Aelin faces Maeve who strips her, chains her, and whips her, before shutting her in an iron coffin and kidnapping her. It is revealed that Aelin knew she was going to die either way and planned this grand scheme with Lysandra who will shapeshift into her place, etc. It was extremely brutal and impactful given that we know Aelin’s history of being chained and abused at the hands of people who strip her power from her. I also thought their plan was clever.

I will give Maas the flowers she is due for the fact that she knows how to write scenes that feel devastating and important. These scenes usually have very memorable quotes (“Nameless is my price,”) and involve characters that we’ve come to love (or in some cases, tolerate) being faced with extremely dire circumstances.

So that’s all well and good, and those 4 scenes are the reason I added an extra half star to my overall rating. Unfortunately, 4 scenes in a book that spans 689 pages, is not cutting it for me. I struggle to say that I like this book because, while I LOVED those scenes very much and they left a mark on me in some way, there was so much more that I hated.

Let’s start with Maas’ writing style which is repetitive, clichéd, self-important, and simplistic. This is not new, but I was hoping to see some improvement considering we’re now five books deep. Next, is the pacing, which is painful in this book. There are little bursts of action followed by pages upon pages of people just talking in a room and infodumping about the plot. Speaking of the plot, it’s not that interesting. The story of Empire of Storms is just Aelin and The Gang going around trying to recruit people, fighting off demons sometimes, and men being insufferable to their love interests.

Speaking of. The characters in this book and their romantic relationships are exhausting. Why on Earth SJM endlessly insists on pairing off every single character that sticks around for more than a chapter with their assigned soulmate, the answer completely escapes me. This might be okay if only they were all interesting and distinct from each other. Elide was interesting until she gets paired off with Lorcan. Lysandra was interesting until Aedion…happened to her. Rowan was really interesting in Heir of Fire and since then, his personality been flung to the side, and it doesn’t appear it’ll be coming back any time soon. MY GIRL MANON WAS INTERESTING BEFORE DORIAN GOT HIS GRUBBY LITTLE SHADOW HANDS ON HER. The problem is that it’s so predictable and every male counterpart is exactly the same. They are aggressive, territorial, snarly, muscular, deep-voiced, Adonis-bodied, carbon copies of one another with different hair colors. I’m so sick of “Fae males” oh my god. Seriously, please spare me. Every relationship is between a beautiful white man and a beautiful white woman in some kind of reluctant enemies-to-lovers formula. It’s so boring, and when it takes up the majority of the page space, it makes the book a chore to read.

I can’t take a book with 62 main characters when there’s not enough to distinguish themselves from each other. You couldn’t pay me to care about Lorcan, Gavriel, Fenris, Aedion, or Rowan. Elide and Dorian are on thin ice.

And. The magic system. It makes no sense whatsoever. There are no consistent rules aside from people just occasionally going Super Saiyan to level up. And there are magical artifacts that do stuff when the plot needs them to. Listen, I don’t mind a soft magic system when it’s a more minor aspect of the story (ex: Game of Thrones)– or vice versa, I can appreciate a really complex magic system with rules that takes up a big part of the story (ex: Stormlight Archive). But this series is really just showing that it wants magic to be massively involved in how events get worked out but there is no rhyme or reason to half the stuff going on. (If you’re interested, the author of Stormlight Archive and Mistborn has given a lecture on how to write effective fantasy magic systems. ToG breaks most of the rules.)

Anyway, my Final Verdict for Empire of Storms was 2.5/5 stars.

Onto Tower of Dawn.

I actually like this one more, overall. But it still got on my nerves for a lot of the same reasons.

Again, I’ll start with the parts that stood out to me in a positive way: The scene where Yrene has a very tender moment with the young healer she finds crying in the bath. The multiple scenes in which Yrene heals Chaol and it unravels painful memories for both of them, and that bring them closer to each other and justifies their relationship. The scene where Yrene and Chaol fight and she tells him, if he wants to go to war so badly, he can get up (he’s bound to a wheelchair). That was super badass and powerful. And finally, the scene at the end where Chaol sees the note Yrene keeps in her locket and puts together that it was Aelin who helped her all those years ago. I’m looking forward to that meeting in the last book.

Overall, the Tower of Dawn vibes were much more enjoyable. The location was refreshing (could it have been the diversity, perhaps?) the characters were overall more nuanced and likable. They aren’t perfect, and Chaol still gets on my nerves with his cranky attitude, but his relationship with Yrene is meaningful and sweet. I still think he and Dorian would make a better pairing but whatever. Nesryn is alright. I think her relationship with Sartaq is cute if not a little unnecessary.

The worldbuilding around the setting and the Torre in general was very interesting. I loved the Khagan politics. They felt original and believable. I’m honestly sad we’re leaving.

I don’t have much else to say. My gripes with ToD are basically the same ones I have with EoS. I wish so badly that the main cast was more interesting. I wish the romantic relationships were more dynamic, or better yet, cut down in quantity– by a lot.

My Final Verdict for Tower of Dawn was 3/5 stars.

I can understand the argument that SJM may be avoiding the inclusion of diverse characters in the main cast because she herself is a cishet white woman. Maybe she is afraid of misrepresenting a particular group, and sure, that’s fair. But I must say, sensitivity readers are a thing (and I’m certain she can afford them) and with her status as one of the biggest YA writers out there right now, she is in a position to do a lot of good by letting diverse members of her fanbase see themselves in her characters. I won’t speak on it more since I am a white woman (I am LGBTQ+) and there are other people who have more stake in this conversation and I won’t drown out their voices with my thoughts on this particular matter.

To wrap this up though, and I do apologize for going on for so long, I intend to read Kingdom of Ash, but I did just cancel my preorder of A Court of Silver Flames. I’m at the very least going to wait for first impressions, and there’s no way I’m giving her hardback money this time around.

I guess we’ll touch base again once I’ve finished KoA and we’ll see how this whole thing plays out.

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The Witch Hunt (Jonny Roberts, #3) by Alexander Lound *Book Review*

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The Witch Hunt (Jonny Roberts, #3) by Alexander Lound

I was given a free copy of this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Our series protagonist, Jonny Roberts returns for this latest paranormal adventure, and this one is probably the darkest yet. Weaving together complex problems, both real and supernatural, Johnny has a lot to deal with and the stakes are higher than ever.

I think any kid who grew up in a less than perfect home will be able to relate to our hero’s struggles. I loved how themes of familial loyalty are addressed and it touches on the fact that our parents are fallible human beings. In a lot of YA, we see parents that are squeaky clean or altogether absent and that just isn’t realistic. They may be the people who raise us but they make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes hurt us. I really appreciate that this book doesn’t patronize its readers by implying things are so simple.

When Jonny goes to stay with his dad he’s dealing with grief and heartbreak from the end of the last book, which is another mature topic that I thought was handled respectfully and maturely. He faces new family figures including his father’s romantic partner and her daughter. He must try to come to terms with his own feelings in order to let these new people into his life.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Jonny Roberts book without a spooky mystery to solve and as I mentioned, this one is very dark. This time the horrors aren’t just dead and buried, and Jonny and Friends need to race against time to save those they love and themselves!

There were a few parts I found slower than previous entries but when the action does ramp up, it delivers! I loved the return of one particular consistent character in this series, and I’m hoping the ending means we’ll get to see another in the next entry.

My final rating for this book is 3.5 stars and I highly recommend checking it out if you like adventurous, character-driven stories that include some supernatural elements.

Trigger warning for attempted suicide

Thank you very much to Mr. Lound for the opportunity to read and review this book before its official release! I’m looking forward to the next entry in the Jonny Roberts Saga.

This book will be released February 8, 2021.

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