Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Back from Japan!

Hello Birdies!
So as you know, I disappeared from this blog for a while because I was IN JAPAN.


It was super exciting! I LOVED it.

Although I made a Tumblr blog for the trip, I ended up not using it because I didn't have the world's greatest wifi over there. No surprise, but although I had a data card, I tried to use that when I needed to Google Map or translate something. So I'll probably delete that blog or maybe make post-trip posts on there about it. Who knows. I also made a Bonjournal for it because I like the idea of writing up my trip and exporting it as a fancy, minimalist PDF. So I'll probably do that actually too.

Anyways, I'll make another post about the trip later, once I finish uploading pictures of the trip onto my computer. I've been home for a couple of weeks now, but I've been really busy getting ready for my senior year of school, getting another job (cause you know, who needs a social life when they're broke?), and going to leadership training.

But be prepared for an exciting rest of the year of posts! I got some great stuff planned and I'm really excited to share my trip with everyone.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Japan Update!

Dear Birdies,
After doing much research into the thought of keeping an online travel blog and app, I made the decision to blog my trip to Japan on Tumblr. I made this choice because Blogger unfortunately doesn't have a very good mobile app and although there is a decent mobile app I've added this blog onto, it doesn't always seem to keep my posts updated when offline.

But since I've been using Tumblr for about a year now (you can follow my official Tumblr blog here), and knowing that it's decently easy to use and you can not only post a lot of different content easily (as well as reblog stuff), but you can customize it easily.

I also thought about an online travel journal/app called Bonjournal. And while it looks really nice and I love the idea of being able to download it as a PDF, you can only put in three photos per entry and you can only do photos and text. So while its just generally really pretty and has a nice PDF download, I like the idea of keeping videos, photos, text, and anything all in one place.

So I started this blog: July in Japan. You can follow all my updates on there if you wish since I'll be posting there as often as I can. I also have an official blog for the trip at the program's blog but since I'm not sure what all kinds of content I can post on there or how often, I decided to make the Tumblr so I can post as often as I want and post anything I desire on it (although I won't post anything inappropriate on it, but I like knowing that its mine to do with as I please).


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Book Review: The Young Elites by Marie Lu

(From Amazon) I am tired of being used, hurt, and cast aside.

Adelina Amouteru is a survivor of the blood fever. A decade ago, the deadly illness swept through her nation. Most of the infected perished, while many of the children who survived were left with strange markings. Adelina’s black hair turned silver, her lashes went pale, and now she has only a jagged scar where her left eye once was. Her cruel father believes she is a malfetto, an abomination, ruining their family’s good name and standing in the way of their fortune. But some of the fever’s survivors are rumored to possess more than just scars—they are believed to have mysterious and powerful gifts, and though their identities remain secret, they have come to be called the Young Elites.

Teren Santoro works for the king. As Leader of the Inquisition Axis, it is his job to seek out the Young Elites, to destroy them before they destroy the nation. He believes the Young Elites to be dangerous and vengeful, but it’s Teren who may possess the darkest secret of all.  Enzo Valenciano is a member of the Dagger Society. This secret sect of Young Elites seeks out others like them before the Inquisition Axis can. But when the Daggers find Adelina, they discover someone with powers like they’ve never seen. Adelina wants to believe Enzo is on her side, and that Teren is the true enemy. But the lives of these three will collide in unexpected ways, as each fights a very different and personal battle. But of one thing they are all certain: Adelina has abilities that shouldn’t belong in this world. A vengeful blackness in her heart. And a desire to destroy all who dare to cross her.

It is my turn to use. My turn to hurt.
 I've always been impressed with Marie Lu's writing. Her last book series was really amazing (and if you got them in hardcover or paperback, they were great because Day's point of view was written in a different color). But I think this series is definitely her best so far.

One of the things that really captured my admiration right off the bat is the main character, Adelina, because I think this series is one of the few books I've seen in YA lit where the MC is an anti-hero. We rarely see books where the main characters are flawed like this and where they consciously make questionable choices. I think it was a brilliant choice because throughout this book, she wavered between trying to do good and doing evil. She questioned herself, she questioned her friends, and she questioned her enemies. In this book, the line between what is good and bad wavers and there is a lot of gray area. 

 Adelina really did seem like a 3D character, and while Marie Lu has always done well with her characters, I am thoroughly impressed with the level of characterization in this series. Most of the characters seemed like believable people. And with Adelina, I found myself rooting for her, but also disappointed when she failed. Few authors venture down this route I think because trying to either maintain that gray line is hard or because I think some people feel odd writing characters of questionable morals and motives where there is no black and white. 

Teren was actually another really well done character. For an antagonist, he was well fleshed out although his feverish way he held onto his beliefs about the Young Elites reminded me of several other characters. Teren didn't seem to be evil just to be evil, and he didn't go after the Young Elites just to go after them. By bringing in his "secret" and making it an integral part of his character and beliefs, it really helped drive home his characterization. In a twisted way, I understood his reasoning even though I didn't like it. And the way he had multiple goals and ideas that motivated him, was a great choice. He was not a one sided villain.

I struggle with Enzo and some of the other Young Elites though to give them the same depth of character as Adelina and Teren have though. In a series like is, you need those characters who lean more towards the good in order to balance out the strong dark sides going on, otherwise it would become too much. But I think you also run the risk of them becoming a little flat. Enzo and his team remind me in a way of The Theif Lord because it's set in an Italian-esque world, with a group of vigilante young adults. 

But I liked how the Young Elites weren't about saving all the Malfettos, just the ones with strong powers like them who they thought they could train. I think if Lu had them try and rescue all the Malfettos, it would have made them seem too good. And not only that, but this fact helped influence some of Adelina's choices and thoughts as well. And I think it also helps us question as readers about what responsibility a group like this should have. Should they try and save everyone, or only the ones who can help them take down the problem and stop further horrors from happening at the risk of losing some?

Anyways, there were times where I struggled with the characterization of some of the other Young Elites. And to go back briefly to Enzo, I liked his character because he too helped shape Adelina. And their romance wasn't the focus of the story, but at the same time, Lu took it in a daring direction in the end. And by putting Adelina in all these rough parts, whether or not they were actually her fault, it helped push her in a direction. When they say to kill your darlings and to not pull punches from your characters, Marie Lu shines through with this. 

One of the other Young Elites that really stuck out was Rafaelle. His character and Enzo's were the two most fleshed out ones in this book and I enjoyed his character. He had a tragic backstory but I think he tried to do more right then wrong. The other elites I felt could have been flesh out more book we see more of them in the next book.

Onto the world building which was another part that was very well done. The time period really comes out and I think you can tell that the research was done. You don't see a lot of stories set here, although it made me think of the Stravaganza series which is also set in an Italian Renaissance based world. I loved the fantasy elements in this story, although some of the creatures I thought she made up weren't all that well described. There is some kind of flying animal that they comment on, but I never did get a clear idea of what it looked like.

When looking at the way the plague affected the city and the people and brought about the Inquisition, I think Lu did a good job at showing us how quickly people on turn on each other when something as devastating as a plague happens. Not only did she show how it affected the people, the ones who fell ill, but she also showed how it affected them economically and environmentally.

Overall, I think this was a fantastic start to another series by Marie Lu and I'm really excited to continue it. I think it has a lot of unique elements to it and I think it has a lot of potential to really make people think and question. I would say as far as some YA books though, this one definitely does make you think and goes beyond just entertaining you. 

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book Review: Prophecy by Ellen Oh

(From Goodreads) The greatest warrior in all of the Seven Kingdoms... is a girl with yellow eyes.

Kira’s the only female in the king’s army, and the prince’s bodyguard. She’s a demon slayer and an outcast, hated by nearly everyone in her home city of Hansong. And, she’s their only hope...

Murdered kings and discovered traitors point to a demon invasion, sending Kira on the run with the young prince. He may be the savior predicted in the Dragon King Prophecy, but the missing treasure of myth may be the true key. With only the guidance of the cryptic prophecy, Kira must battle demon soldiers, evil shaman, and the Demon Lord himself to find what was once lost and raise a prince into a king.

Intrigue and mystery, ancient lore and action-packed fantasy come together in this heart-stopping first book in a trilogy.


I REALLY wanted to love this book. Believe me, I really did. I am so tired of seeing your run of the mill European based fantasies when there are so many other cultures to explore. So when I heard there was a fantasy based in Korea, I was intrigued. 

The only reason I gave this two stars on Goodreads was that. The culture was well researched and the world building was done well. But beyond that, I think the book could have served from more editing. The characters felt flat, stereotypical and annoying. The style felt more lower young adult then what could have benefited from being complex. And a lot of the plot felt unoriginal.

I couldn't get past Kira's yellow eyes and her tiger spirit. I didn't see the point to it other than to make her "seem cool and special". Its like the argument that you shouldn't give your characters purple eyes just to give them purple eyes. It calls up so many tropes and it reminds me of one of the reasons people have given crap to Memoirs of a Geisha because the main character has these vivid blue eyes and ethically, Japanese do not have blue eyes. So I'm wondering if the same can be said for Korea. How many people have yellow eyes? Not many I imagine. I also wasn't sold on everyone's hatred of her. The fact that all the court ladies hated her seemed sterotypical and the king's hatred of her seemed overdone.
The prince really annoyed me. I get that he is a 12-year-old boy who is immature, but he seemed really immature for his age and not the brightest kid there. He got into a lot of dumb situations and Kira let him. She is supposed to be protecting him!

Although it got a little annoying as well, I enjoyed the twist that Kira wasn't immediately in love with her betrothed and that he seemed to be kinda evil too.  His reactions though seemed overdone to me and they got to me after the fifth time of reading how much he was going to enjoy the first night of their wedding.

As I said, the only part of the book that kinda saved it was the world building. The story was well researched and there was a haunting image of Kira watching the court ladies throw themselves from the cliff and watching their robes flutter around them. That was a beautiful, haunting, and disturbing image. But, there were other times when I thought the author tried too hard to explain things that she ended up doing more telling then showing and the writing ended up feeling more kiddish.

I think the author could have made this into a beautiful, well crafted story that really looked into complex issues via the lenses of an unfamiliar culture and time period. Not a lot of people (especially in the U.S) are familiar with Korea's history before the 1950s. And I think this is a good introduction to it, but it could have been so much better. Korean history is fascinating, and the way it interacted with its neighbors, the world, and its own people is something that more people should look into.

That being said, I couldn't finish the book and I'm disappointed. I tried, but the book just isn't there for me yet. If the author ever has the chance to republish it and edit it again, I would definitely love to give it a second shot. I might even read the second or third book to see if it gets better. But this is a rough start and I really wish it hadn't been. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Historical Women- Japan's Ancient Queens, Himiko and Iyo

In my research, I've discovered that Japan seemed to hold a special place in their society for women that I haven't seen a lot of other places in the ancient world. One just has to trace back the lineage of the Japanese Imperial Family to discover their claim as the ancestors of their sun goddess. And there were more women who held the title of Empress (or Tenno) in their own right in earlier times in Japan then at any time in the recent several hundred years (especially when you consider that in Japan right now, a woman cannot take the throne).

So in my second blog on the series of historical women to know, I'm talking about an ancient queen that has recently captured Japan's and the world's imaginations and love.

The Sun Queen, Himiko: Queen of Wa (or Yamatai)
An artist's rendering
from the Meiji period.
Himiko (as we'll call her, different translations call her Pimiko) holds the honor of being not only a confirmed person from the 3rd century, but she also is the first recognized woman from Japanese history. She lived during a transitional time in history, the Yayoi (300 BC-300 AD) and the Kofun (250-538 AD) periods where Japan at the time was split into hundreds of little warring states.

Although you would think we know her from Japanese sources, we actually know her from Chinese and Korean sources. We're not sure why exactly neither of Japan's ancient historical/mythological books mention her, despite that they mention several other important women. From China, we know her from the History of the Kingdom of Wei (297 AD), and from Korea from the Records of the Three Kingdoms (1145 AD).

At the time, China referred to itself as Wei and to Japan (roughly) as Wa. And when Himiko arrived on the scene "Wa", was actually the kingdom of "Yamatai" or "Yamato".

Anyways, the Chinese sources say that due to the lack of a good ruler, the "Land of Wa" was throw into a civil war. And eventually, the people chose an unmarried, young woman named Himiko to rule and as a shamaness, she apparently had bewitched the people.

She was placed in a palace (where after, she was rarely seen) with armed guards and towers, and served by a 1,000 female attendants with her "brother" acting as her medium of communication and serving her food and drink. I put "brother" into quotes because we're not sure if he was actually her brother or not and some translations say there two men instead of one.

Regardless, she restored order over the land and sent delegations to China. The Chinese in turn, acknowledged her as the true Queen and called her a "Queen of Wa, friend of Wei". She sent tributes of four male slaves, six female slaves, and two pieces of designed cloth, each twenty feet in length. They in return, gave her a golden seal, a purple ribbon, and over 100 bronze mirrors which were a status of power back then.

The "Records of Wei" also go on to say that she reigned for nearly 80 years and that when she died a great mound was raised. And like other ancient societies, her attendants followed her to the grave (apparently over a 100 male and female attendants). But a king was placed on the throne and he must have been heavily disliked because the people wouldn't obey him. He was assassinated and over a thousand was slain in the conflict.

After that chaos, a relative of Himiko's, "a girl of thirteen" named Iyo, was made Queen and peace was restored. Unfortunately, we don't know much else about Iyo or if she was even a real queen. I haven't been able to find much else on her other then that.

Well remember that "great mound" I mentioned a little bit ago? These burial mounds are called a Kofun (hence the period named for them) and in 2009, archaeologists announced that they had discovered a burial mound in the town of Sakurai, near the ancient capital of Nara in central Japan, that they say is the resting place of Queen Himiko. They discovered near the site, clay artifacts that according to radiocarbon dating says were made in between 240 AD and 260 AD. And according to those Chinese records, Himiko died sometime around 250 AD. The tomb is also nearly three times the size of other mounds nearby.

Despite being clearly mentioned in Chinese records, Himiko wasn't well known until the Edo Period (1500s-late 1800s) until the philosopher Arai Hakuseki and scholar Motoori Norinaga started to debate where exactly Himiko's kingdom was located. After that and especially after 1950s, Himiko was shot to Japanese national spotlight and now around 90% of Japanese school children can recognize her. She's become a mascot for several towns, statues, the center of a beauty contest, and the character in numerous films, games, and books since then. (I also wrote some short stories this year centering on her and Iyo.)

For some reason, Blogger isn't picking up the right youtube video,
but I'll link this here. In 2013, Tomb Raider released a game centering on
Queen Himiko and I found a game video of this scene.
History of Japan Podcast: The Sun Queen
Wikipedia: Himiko
Tofugu: Queen Himiko
Heritage of Japan: Queen Himiko
Telegraph: Queen Himiko's Tomb Found
Himiko and Japan's Elusive Chiefdom of Yamatai: Archaeology, History and Mythology by J. Edward Kidder, Jr.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

I'm going to Japan!

My Japan coloring book.
I am SO excited to share with everyone (literally everyone, I'm pretty sure my family and friends are SUPER annoyed by now) that I am going to Japan during the month of July! My goal is that since I'll be in this really awesome cool place that I'll get to blog about it every day! (Or every other day...once a week, we'll see!)

So be prepared for some awesome pictures, videos, and stories as I explore JAPAN for a month and if you follow me on social media, I'll be posting there too. I'll hopefully try to make some cool blog posts commenting on what I've learned doing research for The Messenger series vs what I observe while in Japan. Hopefully, I'll learn some cool things that can really help the books and maybe the trip will help clear up some things I've been confused about (research will only take you so far folks).

I'll be in Kyoto for three weeks and then Tokyo for a week before heading home. While in Kyoto, we'll be visiting the golden pavilion, seeing the Gion festival, taking a class on Japanese literature, art, and culture, and lots and lots of other stuff!

The Top 15 things I'm most excited for! (In no particular order)
Some guide books I rented
from the library

  1. JAPAN
  2. The Bullet train
  3. Seeing the Imperial palaces (or touring through the gardens)
  4. Visiting the Fushimi Inari Temple (its a temple famous for its hundreds of red torii gates). Excited for this because kitsunes are the fox messengers of Inari. 
  5. Touring Japanese gardens
  6. Gion district (that's where the geisha are)
  7. Tokyo skytree
  8. Japanese cuisine
  9. Visiting other temples
  10. Golden pavilion
  11. Kabuki theater
  12. Museums
  13. Shopping! All the shopping in both Kyoto and Tokyo!
  14. Heian shrine
  15. hot springs and public baths 

I've always wanted to go to Japan because I think its just so different from America in many ways and that if I was going to study abroad, I may as well do it in a place I'm really excited about. It also so happened to be that the timing was just right this year so its the perfect time for me to go.

I knew that I was going to study abroad this year because it was a goal of mine in college and that this year was the last year I could really could. And at first I was considering some other options from my school and although they would have been cheaper, they weren't going to places I was super thrilled about and they weren't studying topics I was super thrilled about, nor was I sure the timing was going to work out. But with the program I found, although its a bit more expensive, its going to somewhere I'm really interested in, and studying something cool as well.

Anyways, I'm really excited to go on my trip and I'm excited to share it with you. If you guys have any tips for traveling in Japan, traveling in general, or if you know of any things I should try or see, please comment below! Also make sure to follow me on social media and this blog and check in to see all the exciting adventures I'm going to have.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book Review: The Watchmaker on Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

(From Goodreads) 1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.

I was really looking forward to reading this book, so when my school library got it, I immediately jumped on renting it. It took me about a week to read through despite it not being that thick of a book. But then, I was reading it at night an hour before I went to bed.

Anyways, pacing wise the book wasn't the greatest. In the beginning, the book wasn't the most exciting but it was definitely exciting. There were bombs and And the middle dragged. The ending
finally picked up.

I liked the characters in the beginning. Nathaniel was a protagonist that I liked because I felt I could related to him personality wise. And I also liked Mori as well. He was an intriguing character because you weren't sure if he was behind the bombs or not. And I enjoyed Grace's character because she reminded me of Alana from Tamora Pierce's books but she was a scientist, which was cool to see a woman being portrayed in the 1800s.

And as much as I wanted to really love this book, I just can't. Even thinking about it a while later, I'm still with the same conclusions. There was a lot of plot points that to me, didn't really seem to make a lot of sense. And I felt that the pacing was either slow or it dragged a lot. So the characters didn't seem to make rational choices, and a lot of things went unexplained. At the end of the book, I was left with more questions than answers. Questions to things I felt there shouldn't have been questions to.

There was a marriage towards the end of the book that I felt came out of seemingly nowhere and it wasn't really explained well. I felt the characters involved kinda talked about it, but their reasons weren't strong enough and I felt the whole ordeal could have been avoid, Grace's parents certainly seemed to overreact to her going over to Mori's that it was a bit ridiculous. While I saw Grace's point in trying to get married so she could get her aunt's house, I wasn't completely sold on Thaniel's reason. I did not feel that Thaniel was torn between two opposing loyalties when Grace got involved.

Overall, I felt that the historical accuracy was pretty on point, and that nothing popped out at me of being out of time for the Victorian period. The book made a big deal about the Irish at the beginning and as the book went on, that was a detail that seemed forgotten at times. The description seems to say that its look at "Japan's civil war as its long standing traditions crumble" will be exciting, but it was not. I did not get a sense of a civil war and the way that it affected Japan's traditions.

I haven't studied too much yet into the Meiji period, but from what I do know, I can say this, the way the atmosphere of Japan was portrayed as seems correct though. Ignoring the part about the civil war, I was fine with that.  I wish though that we would have seen more looks of Japan and how it affected Mori later on.

Another thing that bugged me about the book was the "dazzling flights of fancy". There is magic in this book, although you wouldn't realize it until about halfway in. No one in this book ever addressed this, where the magic came from, if Mori was the only one with it, and other things. The book was more alternative history/science fiction/light fantasy. And I wish that the fantasy elements would have been dealt with more. Thaniel never seemed to be bothered by any of it, except for the fact that Mori could have been creating clockwork bombs. The only person with a dash of common sense in this whole book was Grace and even then, I question her. 

The biggest thing that brought me out of the story was in the end when we find out that Thaniel and Mori are in love and on their wedding night, Thaniel leaves Grace for him. And honestly, it was such a deal breaker for me. As Grace thankfully pointed out, it was ridiculous and rude of him and cruel. I get wanting to go through with it because you feel stuck, but once they had married...well there had to have been a better time to break things off. Like, I dunno, BEFORE the wedding or at least wait a while after you've been married. Or even just leave her at the alter. I just lost a lot of respect for Thaniel as a protagonist and it almost ruined the book for me.

Not only that, but the relationship between Mori and Thaniel seemed so sudden to me. It was as if it came out of no where. There were probably signs before hand, but they were so subtle I didn't catch them. I guess in a way, I give my complements for not being so obvious, but it was such a shock. In a way to me it seemed as if the author suddenly decided that she wanted to throw them together and then never went back to change anything about their friendship. 

Overall, this book had a lot of potential, but it was lacking in a lot of places as well. I'm disappointed in this book and I definitely think it could have been better if it had been longer and the author had taken the time to flesh out parts of the book a little bit more. Its almost there, but not quite yet. 


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