Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Young Adult

Book Travels: The City of Weep and beyond with the Muse of Nightmares

The first time I read this book I was so excited to finish it that I think I missed some of the finer points of the story. I was looking through my notes on this and 2019 me felt all confused and conflicted about the ending of this book, whereas 2020 me thinks its pretty darn awesome!

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: the key to any successful fantasy or dystopian series is world building. I believe the great JRR Tolkien created an entirely new language while he was writing The Lord of the Rings; there are kids out there who still dream of receiving a Hogwarts acceptance letter when they turn 11, because JK Rowling made it as real to them as their own local middle school.

Albeit on a much smaller scale, in this book Laini Taylor has done something similar to what those literary giants. For the sequel to Strange the Dreamer, she’s shown us the broader world that exists outside of the City of Weep and in so doing, opened possibilities for an infinite number of stories. I’m already ablaze with excitement at the thought of the many spin-offs she could do and the number of directions she can take from this point.

Of course, the City of Weep is still at the heart of this story, and so are the characters that readers would have become so invested on from the first book. There is so much character growth in this book and we finally get a clear picture of just how much of the present has been shaped by the past. Special shout out to my favourite side characters, Minya and Thyon Nero!

Expect a really satisfying conclusion to the series. I really like how it all comes full circle, and I especially like how its evolved into more than just another YA love story.

If you’re new to Laini Taylor’s writing, I’m jealous that you still have so much of her works to discover. Might I suggest the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which is just as incredible and also somewhat related to this one?

Overall rating: 4 out of 5 stars!

Posted in pop culture, Self-Discovery, sport

The Last Dance, Being Like Mike and My College Traumas

Lockdown is making people feel all kinds of nostalgic. Its understandable: the present is looking a little bleak at the moment, and no one knows what’s going to happen in the future, so we comfort ourselves with thoughts of the past. My extended family has taken to sending old photographs in our messenger group, including some of myself that has led me to conclude that I was a cute baby but a freakin’ ugly kid who then grew up to be an okay-looking adult.

I could be an emoji

Anyway, I don’t think it gets anymore nostalgic than The Last Dance, a sports docu-series that’s currently on Netflix which tells the story of the 1997-98 championship winning season of the Chicago Bulls, starring the great Michael Jordan. Its made a lot of people into three-week basketball fans; its had such an impact that its even trending in the UK, a country where – when I first arrived and said I didn’t like football because I’ve grown up watching basketball instead, people looked at me like I had horns sprouting from my head.

Watching this documentary brings home the fact that so many of my childhood memories are centred around those Saturday NBA games on ESPN when we would all gather around the telly watching Michael do a lay-up or a fadeaway or another dunk – basically anything humanly (sometimes inhumanly) possible to win the game. I’ve been watching the episodes with my sister, who’s not a big sports fan but nonetheless could almost reflexively identify all the important players of that era even now, 23 year later.

I remember watching my brother and my male classmates go through a period where they worshipped everything Jordan-related. If a genie had appeared before my brother at age 8 I believe he would have asked for a pair of Air Jordans without so much as batting an eyelash. His face when my aunt finally sent one over from the States is what I imagine mine would be when I finally meet the love of my life (yeah, I just had to get that in there lol).

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I don’t care what other people say but nothing compares to watching a really good game of basketball, especially when you’re invested in the team and the players, as a fan or as a person. And I think the magic of MJ is in the way he makes you feel invested; he pulls you in with that attitude and that determination to win at all costs. There’s something to be said about a guy who believes in playing at the highest caliber at all times, because if you don’t, what’s the point in playing at all? Hey Mike, I want a sip of your Gatorade.

Watching this series, and getting to know the person behind the legend, I realise that I don’t really like Michael Jordan and I think a lot of people will agree with me; he’s kind of a dick. But I think people not liking him is a price he’s willing to pay for being GREAT at what he does. They don’t need to hug him on his way to the basket, they just need to get out of the way. I find myself wondering a lot of times while watching this series whether it was better to be liked or to be respected, and whether it was possible to be both.

When I was younger I used to be quite arrogant and a bit full of myself. I was probably masking some deep deep insecurities (which may or may not have been related to my weight issues) but the one thing I always had going for me was my intelligence. I knew I was smart. I was first on the honour roll from kindergarten onwards. I graduated class valedictorian in high school and had so many medals around my neck after the graduation ceremony you could hear them clanking as I walked.

Then I started college and for the first time I was around people who a) have not been my classmates since we were practically in diapers and b) who were just as if not more intelligent than I was. Suddenly I was in a class where we had 14 valedictorians and about half as many salutatorians. It was a whole other playing field. And like MJ (just so we don’t lose the thread here! Haha) I revelled in that. I pushed myself hard and I was determined to be the best of the best.

I’m a really competitive person. I want to win. I don’t want to do something if I can’t be great at it. I don’t believe in mediocrity. That attitude has gotten me to where I am today. But my greatest weakness has always been caring too much about what other people think. I have this pathological need to be universally liked. And in college, I rubbed a lot of people off the wrong way because what I thought was me being determined (and okay, showing off a little) most people saw as me being a complete bitch with a superiority complex. I still cringe at the thought of how much people I now call friends must have hated me in college. Oh well. At least they like me now.

Needless to say, I graduated college with one medal, a lot of friends, a more humble attitude and a greater appreciation of my place in the great circle of life.

Why am I suddenly bringing this up? I suppose its because I wonder where I would be if I had the same attitude as Mike…the whole isolation is the price of winning mentality that seems to be a characteristic of the greats. Is it worth it? Or is the old adage true, that its incredibly lonely up top all by yourself? I’m sure my feelings would have been different if you asked me when I was younger, but with the wisdom of old age I can say (with only a slight hesitation) that I would rather have friends than reluctant admirers. I would rather have people who will be there for me no matter what, even and especially if I fail – and its almost a guarantee that you will fail at some point in your life.

As usual I’ve managed to make this about me but whatever.

Takeaway messages from The Last Dance: Dennis Rodman is a Dude, Steve Kerr is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last and you should never judge a book by its cover, Scottie Pippen deserved better and finally, it takes a village. MJ wasn’t winning championships until he had a winning team. 72-10, baby.

P.S. this blog is in part dedicated to the guy whose job it was to shout “What time is it?” during the Bulls’ pre-game huddle. You, my man, are an icon.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Uncategorized

Book Travels: The City of Weep and Strange the Dreamer

When we grow up, it feels like some force of nature compels us to stop dreaming big dreams, and in some cases it also forces us to let go of the dreams we already had to begin with.

How tragic and how sad it is to live that way.

I think this is why I read fantasy. It keeps my imagination alive, and sometimes – and especially when reality starts becoming so heavy and all too real – its one of the few things that keeps me believing that impossible things could still happen, that it would still be possible to have miracles for breakfast.

Laini Taylor is one of THE best writers in this genre. Her books, pardon the cliche, are like pages and pages of poetry compiled into one single cohesive work. For the uninitiated, it might seem extra and oversaturated with enough saccharine sweetness to make you want to puke. I can’t deny that I get impatient with it sometimes, especially when you just want to know what happens next but you’re treated to an internal monologue about stars and moons and butterflies and everything that is fluffy in the world.

But that’s just me being cynical.

Strange the Dreamer is Laini at her best. Its the story of a young orphan named Lazlo Strange, a small seemingly insignificant young man with big dreams that, one day, literally came riding into his life. His is a tale to inspire, to remind people that even when others mock you for it, you should always hold on to your dreams; or maybe it wasn’t so much dreaming as it was the fulfilment of one’s destiny. Whatever it was, I found Lazlo’s story such a joy to follow. He has always been one of my favourite book characters (yes, yes, this is technically a reread).

The City of Weep is at the centre of all of Lazlo’s yearnings and imagination, but the reality of it was bigger than even he could have ever dreamed of. Weep is a city with a tragic backstory. I applaud Laini Taylor’s courage to explore some really dark themes in what is essentially a YA book, but then these are dark times. I keep forgetting that the young adults of today are no longer as ignorant about the sufferings of the world as I was when I was 14 or 15. This fast-paced and sometimes cruel world we live in forces you to grow up quick.

There is of course a love story at the heart of Strange the Dreamer; it was given quite a lot of air time but it wasn’t the most compelling part of the story for me. I personally thought Lazlo and Sarai were more interesting apart than they were together but then again, this could just be ME: my state of mind not being in the mood for giddy romance and all. In fact, is it a reflection of my state of mind that I found the anti-heroes Minya and Thyon Nero and the flawed and tortured Eril-Fane so much more interesting? Maybe. What this tells you, dear readers, is that this is a book with a deep back bench. Its secondary characters add salt and pepper to what would have otherwise been just another okay but somewhat bland star-crossed love story.

Its been a real pleasure travelling to and through the City of Weep (again), with its endless supply of stories and legends. I’m staying here for a little while longer as I’m currently reading the sequel, where things get even more juicy and sinister and interesting – all the requirements you need for a really good book.

Check this book out, its really awesome! 4 out of 5 stars.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Book Travels: Afghanistan and A Thousand Splendid Suns

It’s difficult for me to write this book review of A Thousand Splendid Suns.

It’s a well-written book, let’s get that out of the way. Khaled Housseini has a real talent for telling stories, and for sharing a little bit of Afghan culture to the world. His words make the country come alive for the reader, making them feel like they’re sharing the blistering heat of the sun or the welcome pouring of rain with the characters. I especially like the little touches of whimsy, such as the fact that Titanic and Leonardo di Caprio were apparently big enough to be trending even in war-torn Afghanistan.

I think what made this book difficult for me to read, and therefore to review, is because the subject matter pushes all my buttons. At the heart of it, this is a story about two women who were both victims of circumstances beyond their control. Their whole life they’ve not been given any choices, they’ve never been able to have a say about what they want or what future they might have imagined for themselves. They’re forced to wait for life to happen to them; they’re not free to make things happen by design.

I hate that.

I hate that in some parts of the world this is still considered normal. I hate that some of the freedom and privileges that I take for granted all the time may seem like a miracle for a woman whose never been allowed to even speak in a man’s presence, let alone argue with them. I hate that, despite our best effort, we are still a long way away from achieving equality. I would never presume to call myself a feminist, and God knows I haven’t got a bone of activism in my body. But I nearly wanted to sound a call to arms when I read the scene about women having to go to a different hospital because the one they’re at only caters to male patients; and then to arrive at a women’s hospital and find the amenities so lacking that you have to reuse sterile gloves, or bloody hell, have a caesarian section without any anaesthesia.

Both as a woman and as a healthcare professional, I was so horrified by this that I nearly stopped reading the book.

I also hate that there are still pockets of society, even in this modern world we live in, where people think that bearing children is all a woman is good for. If that’s the case, then I am the sorriest excuse for a woman there is.

The book may or may not have hit a bit too close to home.

In the end, this book made me feel grateful: grateful for my education, grateful that my parents worked hard to give me options, that despite their reservations about my lifestyle (and their increasing desire for grandchildren lol) they respect me enough not to force the issue of marriage. I mean, it’s not like eligible men grow on trees these days, and even if they did its kinda hard to get to know someone when you have to social distance or hold a first date through Zoom.

There is something symbolically powerful about a woman standing up for another woman, and there is a lot we can achieve when we build each other up rather than tear each other down. Such is the message of this book, and this is what makes it so beautiful.

Posted in Books, Reviews

Book Review: The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini

One of the sacrifices we’ve had to make during this pandemic, and subsequent lockdown, is to forego all non-essential travel. As someone who likes to explore all the beautiful places this world has to offer, this saddens me. I don’t think I’ve ever fully appreciated the extreme privilege of being able to move freely between countries, or of having opportunities to experience various cultures and different ways of life.

Its times like these that I’m grateful for the solace that reading has to offer. Between the pages of a book, the possibilities of being transported to a time and place far far away from my current reality are limitless. Reading is the only way that I can still afford to travel to different places, for the bargain price of 8£ per paperback.

Today’s travel took me to 1970s Afghanistan. In the list of places I would never even consider travelling to, Afghanistan is superseded only by, I don’t know, North Korea maybe. It first came to my attention during the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, a watershed moment that brought terrorism to my consciousness. I remember watching the news and thinking life will never be the same. I read about jihad and holy wars and understood for the first time that there are some men willing to fight, kill and die for the sake of an ideology. Nearly 20 years later and those same was are still being fought.

The Kite Runner is as far away from war and terrorism as anything could be. Sure, it is set against the backdrop of conflicts and coups. One cannot tell this story without also touching on the many political changes that made the country what it is today.

But to tell the story of Amir and Hassan is to tell the story of a different kind of Afghanistan. Its an Afghanistan that is colourful and exciting; it is a place where you can write stories, read books about heroes, and watch American Westerns in the cinema; it is a place where young children anticipate winters so they can have kite-flying tournaments and make their parents proud when they win; and it is a place where friendship, love and loyalty can still exist despite divisions in class and religion.

I told my sister today that when all this ends, I’d quite like to visit Afghanistan. She asked me, do you want to die?

I googled a photo of Kabul as it is today, and it depressed me to see its war-torn streets and ravaged population. it forced me to think that, for all that we moan and groan about anything and everything that inconvenience us on a daily basis, we live an insulated world where we are mostly protected from true horrors, from the true meaning of human suffering. I think reading books like this is important, if only for the fact that they give you just a little bit of perspective.

Stories like this underscore the need for us to really nourish and cherish the things that are truly important. Not money, status or power, or other transient sources of happiness; but simple things like the thrill of feeling love for the first time, the pleasures of reading for and with a friend, the pure joy and freedom of running through familiar streets and knowing you are limited only by how far you are willing to run, and when you’re young sometimes you feel like you can run forever.

I think in a time where there is so much uncertainty, this book gives me hope. There are days when I can barely bring myself to read the news because there’s so much filth and stories of human cruelty permeating the headlines and the social media feeds. To read a book about unconditional love and unswerving faithfulness at a time like this…well, I’m already an emotional person at the best of times, the sort that will cry in films like Stuart Little, so it will come as a surprise to no one when I say that this book had me sobbing into my pillow for a good 15 minutes, pounding my chest as if to help ease the ache I suddenly felt there.

There’s no better review than that really, is there?

I’m late to this particular party, I know. My friends have been telling me to read this for years. Its made many a readers’ favourites list on Goodreads and Instagram, even friends of mine who are not avid readers have read this book. They all told me its awesome, they warned me it will be emotional. But none of that prepared me for the reality of it, for the sheer emotional punch of the story within its pages.

To say that I’ve read a lot of books is an understatement. I must have reads thousands and thousands of them by now. Some good, some I had to force myself to finish, some whose stories have stayed with me to this day. The Kite Runner belongs in the third category: I will be thinking about this book on and off for a long long time.

Posted in Covid-19, Current Events, Health and Well-Being, Nursing

It’s Been a Long Year…and It’s Only the Start of May

Sometimes it feels like this lockdown will never end.

Its been roughly six weeks since the UK imposed measures that essentially robbed life of any semblance of normalcy. Since then, we’ve all been trying our damnedest to keep our spirits up even as we become increasingly isolated from our fellow man.

Every day there seems to be new challenges cropping up on social media (like doing 20 press-ups on your instagram story and then challenging five other people to do the same) or an at-home concert organised by one pop star or the other, and what both those things have in common is that it speaks to our inherent need to stay connected even as social distancing becomes the new normal.

I might just be speaking for myself here, but I think this unprecedented crisis has heightened our sense of empathy and compassion for others. All of a sudden the number of people showing support for the NHS and recognising the work that carers do has increased tenfold. Young people now go out of their way to buy groceries for elderly neighbours. Colleagues who don’t normally get along have learned to put their differences aside so they can work together and do what’s best for the department they work for.

Personally, what this pandemic is teaching me, above all else, is that in times of pain and suffering no one is a stranger.

This week another nurse lost the battle to Covid-19, three weeks after his admission to one of the best hospitals in the country. He was my age.

Like me, he was an overseas nurse who left the Philippines to pursue a career in a foreign country, in the hopes that it will lead to a better life for himself and his family.

Like most of my friends, he dreamed of opportunities and adventures the likes of which we never would have experienced if we stayed in the Philippines.

Like tens of thousands of Filipinos before him, he bore the loneliness, the frequent homesickness, and the separation from family because he believed his future laid here, in his adopted country.

When I heard about the story of his death, I cried like a baby.

Despite having plenty of common friends, in every sense of the word this person was a virtual stranger to me. And yet his death affected me to a degree that goes beyond what you would normally feel for someone you didn’t know from Adam.

Maybe his story hit a little too close to home. I don’t want to dwell too much on how his story could so easily be our story, because that kind of thinking is just too morbid to contemplate. But all the same, on the day of his death I said a little prayer for every overseas Filipino nurse I know, and even for those that I don’t.

I’m not really sure how to end this post that has turned out to be more morose than I intended it to be when I first started writing.

I guess I just wanted to say that the longer this goes on, the deeper we may have to dig within ourselves to stay upbeat and positive.

But we can’t let this virus defeat us. I have every hope that this too shall pass, that there is a life waiting on the other side of this pandemic, and that we will all be better, more understanding, and hopefully kinder people for having lived through it.

We owe it to the people who have lost their lives to this virus, and especially to the people who have given their lives in caring for people with this virus, to ensure that we never ever take that life for granted.