Posted in Covid-19, Current Events, Politics, United Kingdom

Failures of State – A Book Review (but its really just an excuse to rant)

“Happy” Freedom Day.

Let this day go down in infamy history as the day when the UK decided to lift all covid restrictions, when masks can start becoming a thing of the past, when what was once policy starts to become optional, when the fate of thousands of vulnerable adults now rests on the wider British public’s ability to exercise common sense, and when unvaccinated youngsters can start to enjoy the glorious wonders of gyrating their hips and bopping their heads to house music in night clubs and bars around the country.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, we have people running around like headless chickens ensuring patients are being swabbed so they can have their planned operation, frantic managers wondering how the hell they can manage their workforce and deliver their service when half their staff are being pinged and told to self-isolate for no apparent reason, and NHS staff, who have been working their butts off for the whole of the pandemic, resignedly carrying on with their work knowing that its likely to get worse (again) before it starts to get better.

Yeah. Today seems like a good day to post my book review on Failures of State.

As the popular saying goes, history tends to repeat itself. I could not agree more, especially when those who are supposed to lead and serve the people repeatedly fail to learn from their past mistakes. Failures of State is the story of how Britain supposedly sleepwalked its way into the worst number of coronavirus cases in all of Europe, and the highest death toll amongst all the developed countries, except perhaps the U.S. who – at the time – had bigger problems on their hands (not the least of which was the fact that they had a buffoon with a blond wig and an orange tan running the country)

I knew that I was going to be annoyed and irritated whilst reading this book, there was nothing in it that I didn’t already know from reading the news, and from the endless cycles of lockdowns and tier systems and half-arsed measures that never seem to work. But what I didn’t expect was to move past annoyed and irritated and veer right towards being infuriated.

Maybe its because we’ve now lived with this for nearly 18 months and it still feels like some endless Groundhog Day nightmare of rising cases, overly optimistic outlooks and proclamations despite evidence to the contrary, and premature easing of restrictions/lockdowns. Maybe its the fact that I haven’t seen my parents for nearly 2 years.

Maybe I’m just sick of out-of-touch, privileged, elitist and (from where I’m standing) morally bankrupt men making stupid decisions that affect my day-to-day life while changing absolutely none of theirs.

Or maybe I’m just pissed off because I sat down today, after a really busy shift where I didn’t have the chance to so much as go to the toilet because I was so busy, and saw on Twitter that there were people around Westminster gathered for an anti-lockdown protest. On the day that lockdown officially ends.

You could not make this up.

Failures of State is an emotionally triggering book for those who have actually lived through the realities of the coronavirus: NHS staff, people who have watched their loved ones suffer, or worse, people who watched their loved ones die without even getting a fighting chance, because factors like their age and co-morbidities decreased their chances of survival, and hospitals apparently could not afford to waste precious bed space on people who are unlikely to make it.

Can you even imagine how that must feel like? And can you even imagine what it must feel like to be the one who has to make that call?

The book is incredibly informative, and whilst I’m not a good judge on what might be considered a good piece of investigative journalism, I like that the authors attempted to give context and background to the coronavirus story, with evidence and transcripts from China that shows how their government failed to notify the world in time that this virus could potentially have far-reaching (and fatal) effects. What the book does NOT attempt is any form of impartiality. This was an attack on the current Tory government and its fearless leader, full stop. And I for one think that the attack is probably deserved.

To be absolutely fair, one might be able to excuse the government’s actions during the first wave as the the actions of those who were caught unaware about the scale of the problem they were facing. I mean, they had Brexit to celebrate, who cares about some virus that’s hardly more dangerous than the common flu? This was a problem for Asian countries, it could never happen to us, and besides, the UK has one of the best contingency plans for these kind of things right? We can even afford to send PPE to China once it became clear they were struggling.

UGH.

I personally think that the whole reason for the mess we are in is that there are a lot of people in this county with a deluded sense of invincibility, not to mention an incredible sense of entitlement. It could never happen to us. That’s what most of us thought in December right? That the problem would never reach our shores, and even if it did, we would be ready for it and it will all blow away by the summer.

And then of course, once we finally went into lockdown after lockdown after lockdown, people started to complain because they were oh so tired of staying at home and not being able to go on holidays, or complain about the endless amount of time re-watching Friends on Netflix.

And when the vaccines were finally developed, some people cared more about their precious freedom – its my body and I’ll die if I want to – than availing of the one thing that can actually help us out of this mess. You just could not win.

And so now we’re back to where we started. Increasing cases, overly optimistic outlook throwing caution to the wind and lifting all restrictions, blah blah blah blah blah. As the great Taylor Swift said, I think I’ve seen this film before, and I can already tell where we’re going.

If it wasn’t clear, I have not had the best of days. I am quite aware that for a lot of people today is a day to celebrate, and I do not discredit the fact that 18 months of lockdown and isolation have had serious effects on people’s mental and emotional health. If I didn’t see day in and day out the toll that this pandemic has taken on my colleagues, if I hadn’t seen how harrowing it is to have to convert beds to ITU spaces and redeploy people to care for really ill patients, if I hadn’t just spent half the day helping to plan staffing so we could continue to deliver health services despite the shortage of staff, I would probably be more magnanimous towards those who waited until midnight to enter their favourite nightclub.

But I have seen and have done all those things. And as it is, all I can say is…

£%@$^^&!!!!*$%

And also, read this book. It might help some of us make some semblance of sense from the chaos of the last 18 months. If nothing else, you might probably find the smoke and mirrors that this government attempted to weave around its public mildly amusing and entertaining.

Posted in dating, poetry, relationships, women

Table For One

“Can I help you madam?”
the server asks
as she steps
through
the automatic doors.

As if a single beam
of stage-light
has shone
on
the vacant space
by her side,
she starts
to sweat,
self-conscious,
wary
of being judged
by this stranger.

This used to be easy,
something to aspire to,
a defiant gesture
in the face of
society’s expectations.
A bold statement,
I am
a
strong
independent
woman.

I don’t need a man
to share my meals with.
I have
a perfectly
working
digestive system,
thank you very much.

Now,
it felt like there was
a ticking clock
over her head
telling the world:
“This woman
has reached
the limits
of her best-before date.”

“Madam,”
the server persists.
“Do you have a
reservation?”
She shakes her head.
“That’s alright,” he says,
“Would you like
a table
for two?”

He asks this
as if it were a given,
as if it were the norm,
and it probably was,
and she was the odd one.
But godammit,
she just wanted to have
some kimchi pancakes.

Taking a deep breath,
she held her head high
and said,
“No.
Table for one.”
And she looked him in the eye,
daring him
to judge.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, relationships, Reviews, romance

Book Review: The Kingdoms – Natasha Pulley

Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns and flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

What. If.

Two words that independent of each other don’t amount to much but when combined, form one of the most powerful phrases in the English language.

As I grow older, and with lockdown causing me to have A LOT of time in my hands, I often pause and wonder about what could have been if I had made different choices, if I had chosen to go left instead of right, if I had walked instead of taken the tube on one of the days when I felt lazy, or if I had invested in Twitter when it was just another start-up.

What if I had never met this person, or never fallen in love, or if I’d had the balls to tell the guy I fancied I had feelings for him?

What if COVID never happened? I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about the opportunities not taken, the road no one got to travel, and the lost acquaintances, friendships and relationships that never had the chance to form because of the year we all spent apart instead of together.

The Kingdoms is a book that feels like one long episode of What if. Emphasis on long, because this is not a book for the fainthearted, clocking in at just under 500 pages. However, let me just put it out there that I couldn’t care less what her critics say, I have a soft spot for Natasha Pulley’s writing. Do some of the scenes meander? Are there times when you feel like nothing’s really happening? Is too much importance given to making tea and just sitting side by side with the person you love? Yes, yes, and bloody hell YES.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

You see, even in a plot as ambitious, twisty and thought-provoking as the one we have here (imagine a world where England had lost the Battle of Trafalgar and Napoleon had been made emperor), what Natasha achieves time and time again in all of her novels is a sense of intimacy. The kind that lives in the silence of words that need not be said, that kind that finds happiness in simply being near a person, that loves without conditions, understands without judgment, gives with no expectations and trusts, with no reason or proof that the trust is earned or deserved.

Her characters are always well developed. I can’t explain it, but because of the patient way she introduces them to readers, and the way she lets everything unfold without rushing us, allowing us to discover what we each love in the Joe Tournier’s, Missouri Kite’s and (still my favourite) Keita Mori’s of the world, I always end up feeling like I really know these people, and I end up falling in love with each of them, every single time.

I feel obligated to just drop a few lines that would actually be considered a proper book review rather than just me gushing about how great this book is. The premise is reminiscent of The Man in the High Castle, and I spent about a week watching the series just because I was inspired to give it another go after reading this book. I found it just as boring as the first time I bothered to watch the first episode. Great premise, terrible execution.

The Kingdoms, in contrast, was so well-crafted and well-plotted, and all the elements just fit. It was atmospheric, like all of Natasha’s works are. I could almost feel the chill in my bones, the salt air and the breeze coming from the ocean. I could smell the gunpowder from enemy fires and feel the smoke in my throat. And do not get me started on the feels. Everything was just so painfully beautiful, sometimes I had to stop reading to keep myself from getting overwhelmed.

If the superlatives weren’t enough to clue you in, then let me say explicitly that I really really loved this book. There is a different sort of happiness that can be derived from the simple things, and at the core of this fantastical book is a simple story of love being love, and being strong enough to withstand the literal test of time. Despite being Katsu-less (bloody hell, I loved that octopus), The Kingdoms is still a masterpiece, and one that I will quite happily (and probably) re-read over and over again.

Rating: 5 stars.

Posted in poetry, relationships

The Seat

Today,
I saved you a seat.
And watched
with bated breath,
as you came in.
Late,
as usual.

You catch my eye
And I wonder
what you see
in the seconds
it takes
to get from the door
to the seat next to mine.

Do you see
The hope,
warring with fear
and the dawning realisation
that you are the tide,
ebbing further and further
with each return.

You are the minutes
and seconds
of every day,
slipping through my fingers.
I cling to the light,
but the sunset always comes.

In your eyes,
I see restraint
a constant push
and pull
toeing the line
between leading me on
and breaking my heart.

Is today that day?
I want to break out of my skin
the moment
feels infinite.
Can you walk a little faster,
Please?

Finally,
You reach the seat
You pause,
breathe in
and sat.
I breathe out,
Relieved.

A reprieve
A stay of execution
And tomorrow
This dance
starts
all over again.

Posted in Careers, Current Events, Politics

A Promised Land and Why We Choose to Lead

Heavy is the head that wears the crown.

The release of Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, coincided with some of the most tumultuous months of my professional life, when I was grappling with my own aspirations, fears, and stresses as a leader. I bought it because I thought, who better to take lessons on how to lead than from a man who had to battle against history and more than a hundred years’ worth of ingrained prejudice to become the leader of the free world?

And for all its heft (the damn book is thick enough that you can kill a small rat with it), and for all that the man behind it is probably one of the most influential people to ever walk this earth, there is so much about A Promised Land that is relatable. It was a comfort to me when I was barely keeping it together after a particularly gruelling shift, or when I was incoherent with rage over some slight that I had (probably) blown out of proportion, to know that President Obama pretty much went through the same thing in his eight years as Commander-in-chief.

Okay, so he might have been a bit more poised and dignified during a crisis, and I’m sure there were far less trips to Chinatown for stress eating, and not as much boohooing over the fact that someone said mean and untrue things about him behind his back (although in his case, they probably said mean things about him TO HIS FACE).

But yeah, the man had good days and bad days. Just like me.

Some weeks it feels like the bad days outnumber the good, to be honest. There are times when I ask myself why anyone in their right mind would ever want to be a leader. What is the point? Its a thankless job where your mistakes are magnified and your successes largely go unnoticed. On any given day, I would have at least twenty conversations with twenty different people, all revolving around three central themes: some people are keen to point out the things I’m doing wrong, others will point out the things that I could be doing better, and then there are those who will simply complain that I’m not doing enough.

Some days are filled with difficult yet professional conversations with people whose principles are so fundamentally opposite to mine its a wonder I don’t lose my shit within 5 minutes of talking to them. On days when I really can’t be bothered to be professional, I walk away while I still can, hide in the relative privacy of an empty operating theatre, and release all my pent-up aggression by throwing around sets that weigh at least 6 kilos each and making lots and lots of banging noises.

I can’t switch off. I find myself thinking about staffing while I’m going for a run along the river, I think of competency booklets when I’m eating sushi, and where sweet dreams of Prince Charming should be, there’s the ever-present nightmare of missing consignments and empty shelves in the storeroom. The never-ending stream of problems play a constant refrain in my head, a more persistent earworm than my favourite Taylor Swift song.

Most days it feels like you’re just plugging a hole on a sinking ship, knowing with full certainty that your brilliant ideas and good intentions could still pave the way to a watery hell.

Okay, wow, that was a cheery thought.

I tried writing this blog with my usual optimism, I really did. But each and every time, I encountered the worst sort of writer’s block BECAUSE to write something positive when I’m feeling quite the opposite feels false and inauthentic. I feel like it is almost my duty to take a realistic view of what being a leader means now that I’ve had more years of experience being one. It’s not easy. It exacts a heavy toll on you. And sometimes you’ll want to give up. Just throw in the towel and leave the problems for someone else to solve.

What I can tell you with all honesty is that, if you were really born to lead, you won’t be able to help yourself. You care too much about your work and the people you work with to stay on the sidelines when an opportunity to change something for the better presents itself. You feel so strongly about the people who look to you for leadership that you wouldn’t want to let them down, and you will do all in your power to fight the battles that they can’t fight, because unlike them you are actually in the position to do so.

Finally, in the midst of the string of bad days, you will find that one perfect day when everything goes right, when you are reminded of why you wanted this so badly in the first place, when you see the fruits of your labours and realise you are actually making a difference. And isn’t that really why we beat on against the current when its so much easier to just swim with the tides?

So we lead, because we want to leave our mark in this world. We lead because the optimist in us believes in the way things could be instead of wallowing in the way things are. We lead because, as President Obama says, we have the audacity to hope that when we leave, the world would have been a much better place for having us in it.

A Promised Land is an inspiring memoir from a man that I really can’t help but admire, and totally worth the month it took for me to finish it.

4 stars!

Posted in Covid-19, Current Events, fitness, Lifestyle, london

In Pursuit of Dragons

I was feeling a bit anxious and restless today, what with nearly a year of this awful pandemic, and mounting pressures at work, most of them brought about by an abundance of control issues on my part (really have to work on that lol). So I decided to go for a wee run around London in the hopes that I’d feel more calm and centred after.

It will not come as a surprise to those of you who know me well to find out that I tend to overthink things, even physical activities like running. I genuinely think that its not the lack of physical stamina that’s keeping me from running a 10k from start to finish without stopping. Its those little voices in my head telling me its too far, and oh my god I have so many more miles to cover, I’m not gonna make it. You might as well just stop now, Anj.

Yeah, its a bit tedious being inside my head sometimes.

I read somewhere that the best way to run long distances is to first, have a good playlist, preferably made up of songs with a regular tempo, because when you’re in the zone your brain will just naturally get your feet running to the beat. And you want to be in that zone. You want to be at the point where you stop thinking and putting one foot in front of the other becomes as automatic as breathing. So I’ve started filling up my running playlist with songs that have a tempo of about 160bpm, with a few fast-tempo ones added just to spice it up.

I also realised that I do better when I have a destination in mind compared to when I just run around in circles. And so I researched different routes before coming across an intriguing one that follows the boundaries of the original City of London, which used to be a lot smaller than London as I know it today. The boundaries are marked by statues of winged dragons. There are apparently thirteen scattered all over the city, and I managed to find about 11 of them during my run today (one was removed due to construction and I stupidly ran past the one in Tower Hill).

The dragon markers of the City of London

The dragon markers can be found along Victoria Embankment, where it marks the boundary between the City of London and the City of Westminster; in Temple, near St. Dunstan; Chancery Lane, near the tube station; Farringdon, Barbican, Liverpool Street, Aldersgate, which all have the dragons that are badly in need of cleaning; Tower Hill, the one I missed; London Bridge, the prettiest ones; and then finally Blackfriars.

I guess I’m writing this post after having run my fastest 10k EVER during today’s pursuit of these winged creatures because it feels like a metaphor for how to face and overcome challenges. You never get anywhere in life by staying in one place forever. The only way to learn and to grow as a person is to push yourself out of your comfort zone even if it means you might fail. I for one think it takes a special kind of courage to do something when you know that failure is all but a certainty.

Every time I passed a dragon it felt like I was silencing a little bit of my doubts and fears, not just for the run itself but in general.

People think confidence is a natural thing, that those who appear confident just wake up every morning automatically feeling sure of themselves and their abilities. But I think that confidence is an everyday battle. You have to work hard to ignore the naysayers, and by naysayers I mean YOU, because you are your own worst critic. Every day you have to dig deep to cling to that belief that you can do whatever it is you set your mind to (provided that you’re willing to do the work).

I also just started thinking about how March is the anniversary of the initial lockdown for the pandemic. This time last year we were buying toilet paper in bulk and fearing the end of times. I find myself thinking back to how I felt this time last year, when my stomach felt like a lead balloon, and I didn’t know whether the last time I saw my family would be the last time I ever see them. In keeping with the dragon theme (because heaven forbid this post becomes anymore tangential than it is, lol) it felt like the coronavirus was Drogon, raining fire down on all of us and killing people left right and centre faster than you can say “dracarys”.

We took so much for granted, didn’t we? A lot of us were arrogant enough to think that we would be spared from the worst of it all (BoJo, I’m looking at you), and the prevailing sentiment seems to be that we were failed by the inaction of the very people who were supposed to lead us. But I really don’t want to dwell anymore on that, or the fact that I have completely lost faith in all politicians. I am choosing to see this pandemic not as a story of failure but as a story of the everyday resilience of the “ordinary” people, especially my colleagues in the NHS whose collective work have been nothing short of extraordinary.

It’s been a tough year, full of an unprecedented number of challenges. I personally just feel grateful to have reached this point, where there’s an end to lockdown in sight, and a glimmer of hope for the future in the horizon. I know a lot of people continue to struggle, and there’s nothing much we can do except to offer hope, support and above all kindness. Hang in there! Things will always get better, and the brightest morning always comes after the darkest night, you just have to make it through.

And to you dear reader, may you always find the strength to slay your dragons, in whatever form or shape they may take.

xoxo

Posted in Lifestyle, relationships, romance

It’s a Love Story, baby, just say yes…

I am and have always been a firm believer in the magic of possibilities. I think the promise of an indefinable something happening on any given day, something that might have the power to change my life forever, is what makes me get out of bed every morning.

It’s why I look back on the period between late 2008 and early 2009 with the utmost fondness. Back then, I had just finished college and was waiting for the exam results that would give me full license to practise as a nurse in my country. It was an in-between time where I no longer had the daily pressures of school work to keep me busy and stressed, and before there was any real pressure to find a job.

it was a time for dreaming and making plans, for self-examination and reinvention. I went on a diet, started an exercise regime and slowly started to shed the excess weight that have somehow accumulated through four years of eating away my mental and emotional stress. I had started the process of getting over the One Great Love of my life and have come to accept that there are some things you just can’t get through sheer will and effort.

I had just started to realise that really, you shouldn’t have had to work that hard to get someone to love you.

I cleaned out my closet to make room for clothes that would reflect the new me (special shout out to Ms. Bullyshanty for giving me my first makeover!) and I read books that i didn’t have the chance to read before because I was too busy studying for one exam or the other. The Twilight series had just come out and, like everyone else (ANY WOMAN WHO CLAIMS ANY DIFFERENT IS EITHER IN DENIAL OR A LIAR) I became obsessed with sparkly Edward Cullen and his borderline toxic relationship with the intrepid Bella Swan.

More importantly, in 2008, the great Taylor Swift released her smash hit Love Story for the first time, and it was a song that seemed to capture everything I felt and everything I dreamed about during that time period. I dreamt about my future and yearned for a starring role in my own love story, as opposed to being just a bit part in someone else’s story. Hearing those banjo strings and fiddle melodies, and that slightly nasally voice T.Swift used to have back then, always takes me back to that period, when I fully believed that anything could happen.

Fast forward 13 years later and Taylor Swift has re-released a 2021 version of Love Story, and I find myself wanting to put into words what it means for me to hear this particular version at this particular point in time. 2021 could not be more different from 2008. Its not overstating it to say that for most people the well of possibilities surrounding life has just about run dry. It has been the most dreadful couple of years. Most of us have been too busy surviving this virus to even think about things like romance and starring in our own love stories.

Even without the pandemic, it would have been hard to maintain the same wide-eyed belief in fairy tales that we used to have when we were younger. Taylor herself has gone through a turbulent time in the intervening years since she first released Love Story. She, along with the rest of us who have grown into adulthood in the past decade, has realised that love stories have teeth. They bloody well can bite you in the ass if you’re not careful. Oh, and Prince Charming? That dude has more baggage than a Chinese heiress on holiday. That castle that you’ve always dreamed about? It comes with a monthly mortgage and repair bills that you’ll have to work extra shifts in a busy hospital ward in order to afford.

Happily-ever-afters are not a given. The scene doesn’t fade to black after you find The One. Relationships are hard work. After the glow has dimmed and that halo surrounding your partner has been tarnished by the number of times you fight over keeping the toilet seat up, or the amount of hair that accumulates on the carpet on a daily basis (enough to make a wig if you’re anything like me) or who gets to throw the bins out this week, you’d probably be scratching your head wondering, is this love? Is that what they fought wars over and write songs about?

In a way, thought, it kinda IS. What I hear behind the more mature version of Love Story is the wisdom that comes from knowing that, more than the fireworks and ballgowns, its the life you build with someone that really makes up the fairy tale. Because at the end of the day, you want something real instead of something ideal. You want someone there for you when you feel like the whole world has turned against you. You want the quiet laughters over inside jokes that only the two of you would find funny.

And you want someone who will clean the flat with you when the party is over and everyone else has left.

You don’t always get the kind of love story you dream about when you were younger. But if you’re lucky, you get something better. I think mine is in a perpetual state of rewrites and is still under construction, but I’m mature enough to not cry a million tears over it, not even today, on the holiest of days for couples (and the most dreaded for those who are, as Emma Watson would say, self-partnered). I still believe its out there. And you might spend ages trying to find it, but goddamn the whole messy, terrifying, painful, contradictory pile of shit that is love is worth searching and waiting for.

P.S. To everyone who is single today and perhaps feeling like the weight of that is just a little bit heavier when you see other people receiving flowers or kissing on the streets for no reason, ITS OKAY. It’s just a day. You will still be single tomorrow. Lol.

And you know what, the very definition of what love is (and what love stories are) keeps changing every day anyway. To me, every day you live your life is a love story, regardless of whether or not it has Prince Charming in it. Your story will have friends, laughter, adventures, growth, and best of all, it will have possibilities.

It always comes down to possibilities, and that indefinable something.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Posted in bloggers, family, london, Reviews

Book Review: Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

I had a somewhat unorthodox introduction to Hamlet, arguably one of the greatest plays ever written in the English language.

I was about 11 or so when I heard that John F. Kennedy Jr., who back then was the closest thing America had to a prince, had died in a plane crash. CNN and BBC news kept flashing the image of him that had indelibly imprinted itself in the public consciousness: that of a little boy saluting his father’s coffin during the procession to its final resting place. One newspaper had stamped these words, along with his picture, on the front page:

“Goodnight sweet prince, and may flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

I remember sobbing my heart out though I hardly knew the guy. Even when I was younger, I always considered a life suddenly cut short, especially when it was unexpected, to be the biggest tragedy in the world. I looked up those lines and found out they were from a play by William Shakespeare called Hamlet, and I proceeded to hunt up a copy of the play so I could read what it was all about. I was prepared to be amazed and blown away.

My actual reaction was somewhat less than enthusiastic.

To be fair, I was 11 and not nearly mature enough to appreciate the plot, and of course, the various subtexts that made the play so culturally significant and the most widely discussed among all the Bard’s plays. I only knew that it was long and confusing and I would rather have been reading Romeo and Juliet instead if I’m being honest. Needless to say, this was the first and last time I would ever read the story of the Prince of Denmark.

After reading Maggie O’Farrell’s brilliant book, I think I might just crack open a copy of the play again and see whether time and maturity would give me a different perspective. Certainly the idea that Shakespeare had named the Prince of Denmark after his deceased son, and had written it both to honour him and as a way to process his grief, gives it this air of sentimentality, so much that I expect I may never look at it the same way again.

I tend to be really suspicious of any book that wins awards, be it Man Booker Prize or Waterstones’ Book of the Year or whatever. I often find that the quality of book doesn’t quite live up to the hype, at least not in the sense that I actually enjoy reading it. Like, for example, (and I’m probably going to be roasted on the internet for this) I think Hillary Mantel’s Wolfhall series is the biggest pile of (pretentious) drivel I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading.

Hamnet, though, deserves all the accolade it’s received and more.

The plot itself is really very simple. In fact, the plot is something that a simple Wikipedia search would turn up so this isn’t really a spoiler: Hamnet does not survive this book (it says so on the very first page). He dies at eleven; and while there’s very little known about the actual cause of death, Maggie O’Farrell suggests that he died as a result of the bubonic plague that was rampant around England at the time.

It’s hard not to draw parallels at this point to the current coronavirus pandemic. I think this book had a much bigger impact on me than it would have if these had been ordinary times. I just couldn’t help but compare the family’s efforts to care for the children to that of my NHS colleagues working round the clock to give extremely unwell patients a fighting chance to return home to their families. I couldn’t help but think of reports of entire families intubated in the ITU, or young men and women whom the public once thought invincible succumbing to this deadly virus.

It’s just hard, period. If I forget to say it later, I’d quite like to thank Maggie O’Farrell for writing this book and publishing it when she did. I don’t think she realised when she started how relevant it would be to the times we now live in. And speaking for myself, I thought her writing showed she really understood what it was like to see someone go through all that suffering, knowing you were helpless to stop it, that nothing you could do could stop the virus from taking a life.

This alone would have made the book a 5-star read anyway, but then there were all the other elements that made it even better.

It is a testament to how well this book was written that us already knowing how it would end doesn’t take anything away from the build-up of tension and suspense, as the timeline shifts between the present, where the family was trying to do all they can to save the children, and the past, where we get to know more of Agnes Hathaway, William Shakespeare’s mysterious wife.

In telling the story of Agnes, the author was able to inject hints of the magical and supernatural into the book: Agnes was rumoured to be some kind of witch, although I highly doubt this is true. More like these rumours were a product of ignorant minds who simply cannot fathom another explanation for an intelligent woman, apart from this being a result of a pact made with the devil. EYE. ROLL.

I liked Agnes. I liked how modern a character she is, how she took matters into her own hands, how she was strong enough to love, let go, survive loss, forgive, and love again. Taking the time to tell her story was a clever way of keeping readers waiting and at the same time ensured that when the story reached its inevitable conclusion, we’d already formed such a connection with the characters that we wept and mourned with them, Agnes most especially.

I liked that William Shakespeare himself was never once mentioned by name in this book. Of course his legacy casts a large shadow. One never quite forgets that when the author referred to the Latin Tutor, the son, the husband, or the father, that she was actually referring to England’s (and maybe the world’s) greatest playwright. But I thought Maggie O’Farrell treated him with the care and sensitivity that the story deserved, making him just another part of the tapestry being woven.

And that tapestry had Hamnet, the boy on the cusp of manhood, at its centre. This was evident in how she opened the book: him running towards an empty house desperate to find his mother so she could tell him everything was going to be alright, knowing all the while that nothing may ever be alright again. The lack of other characters in that one scene was like the moment in a play when the spotlight shines on the main actor, alone on the stage, and for that one instant we know that there is nothing else more important than this character, that he will touch the lives of those around him for better or for worse.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Kobe and Gianna Bryant’s death. When they died last year, the only thing people talked about more than Kobe’s legacy was the insane waste of Gigi dying so young, how she would have done so much good for basketball and for the world if her life hadn’t been so brutally cut short.

They quoted Hamlet again. May flight of angels sing thee to they rest.

It’s like the play, and now this book, has come to represent a life uninterrupted, the vacuum left by those who are no longer with us, and the empty space that those leave behind fill with what might-have-been’s.

This book ends with the creation of the play, as we knew it would, but how it was actually portrayed was one of the most heartbreaking manifestations of grief and loss that I’ve ever read in a book. Needless to say, I was sobbing my heart out. This isn’t the cheeriest of books, and I often had to take a break to read romance novels in between just to be able to get through it, but damned if this isn’t one of the best books I’ve ever read in a long long time, and I will remember it always.

Rating: 5 amazing stars.

Posted in Books, pop culture, romance, Women's literature

Is Romance Dead: My Views on the Romance Novel Genre

The romance genre has not always gotten the recognition or respect that, in my personal opinion, it rightly deserves. At best, people who consider themselves “serious” readers think of it as a bit of fluff that women read to pass the time (mom porn is a turn of phrase popular among critics); at worst (and especially after the admittedly ridiculous 50 shades of grey trilogy was published) it has been scathingly referred to as destructive, morally questionable and responsible for the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

A part of me is tempted to roll my eyes and tell people to relax, its just fiction, but as an aspiring writer myself I fully believe in the power of the written word. And let’s face it, some of those romance novel tropes are repugnant: sex that’s bordering on non-consensual if not outright rape, the fact that some books lead readers to believe that people really have nothing better to do than obsess about their love life all day, the way women are portrayed as overly dramatic damsels in distress and men the conquering heroes who will arrive just in time to solve our problems, usually in the form of a marriage proposal. Some of them are so badly written, its a crime that they’ve even been published.

Thanks to the new Netflix adaptation of Bridgerton, based on a series of books by Julia Quinn, I have spent the better part of the Christmas holidays reacquainting myself with romance novels. Lockdown being what it is, and being the voracious reader that I am, I’ve somehow managed to finish around 10 in a matter of days, including some of my favourites in the Bridgerton series.

It felt like a return to childhood. I can still remember hunting down secondhand copies of these books because they didn’t used to stock them regularly in the country’s only bookstore (at the time); or eagerly anticipating my aunt coming home from the US because she used to bring a whole heap of them. As I re-read old favourites on my Kindle and discovered some new ones, I found myself laughing out loud in a way I haven’t done with any book in a long long time. In addition, I was happy to find that the really good ones have more overt undertones of feminism and acceptance, reflective of the changing landscape of society, this growing belief that “women don’t owe you pretty”, and the female gender’s need to assert ourselves as equals.

Gone are the vapid, insipid, damsels in distress. These badass women save themselves. They have their own source of income, they are independent, their life is complete with or without a husband.

Gone are the perfect heroines with tiny waists and delicate constitutions. Heck, Julia Quinn’s Penelope Featherington was compared to a citrus fruit and one of Eloisa James’ characters is nicknamed The Scottish Sausage.

Needless to say, I identified with those two heroines the most.

Despite the welcome changes, love is still the first order of business. Its called a ROMANCE novel after all. And ah, how grandly and beautifully love is portrayed in these books. When I finished them, I was almost willing to believe (once again) that true love does exist, that there is such a thing as forever, despite numerous evidence suggesting otherwise. And that, i think, is what makes romance novels so widely scorned.

I think all of the genre’s purported crimes can be mostly overlooked or even forgiven were it nor for the romance novel’s greatest sin: the fact that it has the audacity to tell us that its okay to hope. In this day and age, you run the risk of being laughed at for even so much as hinting that you still believe, in your heart of hearts, buried under layers of cynicism, in knights in shining armour and fairy tale endings; for admitting that you in fact still listen (more times than you care to admit) to Disney songs proclaiming faith in some random prince that might someday come.

This is the real crime of romance novels, that it dares to ask us to BELIEVE.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t read romance novels. I really don’t think I would be who I am today, for better or worse, without them being such a huge part of my formative years. I blame them for my slightly unrealistic expectations of what relationships are meant to be, and I thank them for the relentless optimism that makes me believe that things will always get better, that something wonderful is waiting just around the corner.

These days, we could all use a little hope, a little optimism, a little wonder. Its what got me through the worst year in recent history, its what’s getting me through the prospect of an extended lockdown. And if only for that reason, romance novels will always have a place in my bookshelf, and in my heart.

If you’re new to romance novels, here are a few reading suggestions that, in my opinion, are the best representation of the genre:

1. The Bridgerton Series by Julia Quinn – of course. Penelope Featherington is my ride and die.

2. How to Marry a Marquis – also by Julia Quinn and in my opinion, even better than the Bridgerton series.

3. Remembrance by Jude Deveraux – cried buckets of tears with this one.

4. The Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas – St. Vincent is one of my favourite heroes EVER. Gotta love them bad boys and reformed rakes.

5. The Key Trilogy by Nora Roberts – in my opinion she should have retired after this series…it all kinda went downhill from there.

6. Romancing The Duke by Tessa Dare – absolutely fabulous. I was smiling the whole way through. In fact, read the whole series.

7. On a Wild Night by Stephanie Laurens – she tends to be a bit long winded but I love the plot of this one.

8. Duchess By Night by Eloisa James – hilarious, poignant, one of her best works. In fact, read everything she published before 2017. It all sort of went downhill after that.

9. The Magic of You by Johanna Lindsey – the Malorys are the best. And the books in this series were less rapey than some of her other works.

10. Whitney My Love by Judith McNaught – if you’re in the mood to be a masochist, read this book and all the books connected to it. Its absolutely painful to read but ugghhh, they’re so entertaining.

I hope you enjoy reading these books as much as I once did. And may hope spring ever eternal. xx

Posted in poetry

My First Go at Poetry: “Summer”

Crystal blue waters,
warm
as the cocoon
of the blanket fort you hid under
when the world got loud.

Bruised skies,
Pinpricks on your skin,
Smoky sweetness
On your tongue,

from those wine-soaked nights,
and careless kisses.

Past memories,
of burnished places,
and sepia days.

Will they fill
the empty spaces
of nights spent
in the pale
silver landscape

Of cold winters
Alone
An endless
ceaseless present.

Driving,
Future untold.

Through melting grey highways,
In the rearview mirror
looking back.

Behind,
A crossroad.
On one side,
the road not taken
glistening.

On the other.
the random collision
of fate and chance
that has brought you here.

Will you see only what could,
Or will you drive on,

Resolute
With the certainty that what is
is better than what might have been?