Posted in Books, Dystopia, murder mystery, Politics

Book Review: The Last – Hanna Jameson

A post-apocalyptic version of And Then There Were None.

This was how the bookseller at my favourite Waterstones branch sold this book to me while I was paying for the four other books I’d already bought at the till. Needless to say, I left the bookstore that night with five books instead.

I love stories where characters from all walks of life find themselves in a single room or house or hotel. I think it creates a really interesting dynamic when you force people who would normally ignore each other on the street to interact on a daily basis. Add the apocalypse, the threat of starvation, cannibalism and murder and you get a really interesting read.

A professor of history who happened to be on a business trip in Switzerland finds himself in a hotel with twenty other people after a nuclear bomb destroyed half the major capitals of the world. They’re all stuck there, cut off from the Internet, all their iPhones and laptops dead or dying, and without a clue as to the survival of the rest of the human race.

So he thought to record the events after Day One (the apocalypse) for the sake of posterity, and most of his scribblings were about the rationing of food and water…until the day they found the body and realised there was a murderer in their midst.

The Last is a book that is as interesting as it is disturbing, the latter mostly because – with the way politics is these days – it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to believe in the possibility of a nuclear war ending life as we know it. The subtext was so clear that even I, who barely follow the news these days, could see the rebuke of Trump’s administration and the not-so-subtle dig and protest against his policies and everything the horrid man stands for.

Although there were certain parallels to Agatha Christie’s seminal work, this book was far from being a retelling or just another version of And Then There Were None. I was surprised by how little it actually focused on the murder, although Jon – the professor – became fixated on solving the mystery for want of something better to do.

To me, the book was more a story of survival than it is a mystery. It touched on the many different ways we find to cope with loss and grief, and the lengths we’re willing to go to in order to change our situations for the better. I liked how it asks readers to think about how much of our humanity we’re able to keep when the outlook is so bleak that you almost see everyone as an enemy, or as a potential source of sustenance.

I liked the juxtaposition of the extraordinary and the mundane. The joy of listening to music for the first time in a long long while against the scene where the survivors raid the nearest pharmacy for supplies. The happiness of seeing children play versus the sorrow of burying a little girl’s body. Getting drunk and high with your fellow man versus doing CPR on someone who tried to take his own life.

So was I a bit disappointed that this was nothing like And Then There Were None? Maybe.

The bookseller sold this to me under false pretences but at the end of the day, I am not that upset about it because while I was expecting this book to be just another murder/mystery I ended up with something more profound and certainly far more interesting instead.

It was well-written, funny, smart, emotional, political and almost painfully poignant. This is the kind of book that makes you think, that scares you because it hits far too close to home – which also means this is the kind of book that everyone should be reading right now. These are troubled times, and anything that makes people conscious about it, anything that starts a conversation that could maybe lead to change – anything like that I consider to be an absolute win.

Recommended for all you fans of the apocalypse, The Walking Dead and that movie where Sandra Bullock was blindfolded half the time.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Posted in Books, Reviews, romance, Women's literature

Book Review: The Flatshare – Beth O’Leary

As any Londoner would tell you, one of the most difficult things about living in the capital is finding somewhere suitable to live.

And by suitable I mean somewhere clean, in a relatively safe area, easy to get to by normal means of transportation (preferably along the same tube line as your place of employment) and, most importantly, somewhere that will not cripple you financially such that you’re constantly living on beans and toast until the next pay day as you struggle to meet the exorbitant rent prices.

I have been known to tell my friends on occasion that I would seriously consider taking anyone as a partner if only for the purpose of having someone to share the rent with.

I know, its so totally not the most romantic of reasons to look for a boyfriend.

Beth O’Leary has managed to make the sad reality of London living accommodations into one of the most heartwarming and romantic love stories I’ve ever read, and trust me, I’ve been reading them since I was twelve.

Tiff and Leon have a sort of ships in the night relationship going in this book. By some weird combination of desperation and opposite work schedules, they manage to share a flat…without actually physically sharing it.

She works 9 to 5. He works night shifts as a nurse and is away on weekends. She sleeps on the left side of the bed and bakes cakes when she’s stressed. He has a brother that’s been wrongly imprisoned and he makes a mean mushroom stroganoff.

By sharing a living space they develop a tentative friendship that soon blossoms into something more. I love the little notes that they leave each other, and their first face to face meeting is epic and will have you in stitches.

The chemistry between them just leaps off the pages, whether they’re interacting via post-its or having heavy make-out sessions in some medieval castle. The story and their relationship unfolded in a way that felt natural and uncontrived.

I’ve said this a lot recently but that’s because its true: the older I get the more I appreciate the value of simplicity. Apart from a crazy ex-boyfriend there was a distinct and pleasant lack of unnecessary drama in this book. There was a tiny bit of angst but it was an understandable reaction to the situation and didn’t feel like it was placed there as a plot device.

The writing was good, the character development was even better. I love that Leon is a hospice nurse, they don’t write enough books about what we do in my opinion. I love the supporting cast, they felt like people that I would hang out and be friends with in real life.

The book was touching, funny and a reminder that there is room in our lives for the unconventional, and that amazing things can happen when you take a chance.

After reading this book I’m somewhat tempted to look for another flatmate myself if it means kickstarting my dormant love life into gear. BUT alas my housing contract specifically prohibits such things. Sad.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a light summer read to take your mind off the things that bring you worry. Escape into Tiff and Leon’s wonderful world of exotic Stockwell (haha), and you’ll turn the last page with a smile on your face.

4 out of 5 stars!

Posted in Books, Feminism, relationships, Reviews, Women's literature, Writing

Book Review: Circe – Madeline Miller

I’ve read so many books in my lifetime and I’ve since come to the conclusion that the secret to writing a good book all boils down to three things:

1. Find a compelling subject matter – preferably one that you personally feel passionate about.

2. Write a character that people would, at the very least, find unique and interesting. Someone they would want to get to know even if its not someone they would necessarily like.

3. Keep it simple. Tell the story as you would like it to be told to you: without an excess of metaphors, unnecessary angst or pseudo-clever narrative tricks. Just allow it to unfold as naturally as a person journeys through life, and you’re good to go.

Circe is a book that fulfils all three of those conditions and more. Its a story about a woman who was born different, and who has learned to live with and ultimately celebrate those differences.

She’s someone who chose to march to the beat of her own drums, who refused to be defeated when odds and Gods alike rose against her, and who devised a way to find happiness even in the depths of a miserable and unjust exile.

I love her.

She’s fierce, witchy, bitchy and uncompromisingly herself. She goes for what she wants and make no apologies for the lengths she will go through to achieve her goals. Lesser mortals and deities cower before her because she’s not afraid to fight for the right to be happy.

This book deserves all the praise and acclaim it received. I would read it over and over again, if only for the last 50 pages of absolute magic. Like I said, I’ve read a lot of books. Its rare for me to be surprised, or to finish a book and genuinely be able to say that I did not see that one coming.

I know this is a work of fiction, and I hate that the ending was left uncertain. I fell in love with this character so much that I want nothing else but for her to have her happy ending, because she’s fought so hard and asks for so little.

In fact, I’m choosing to believe that she’s out there somewhere, living her dream; a simple dream that most people take for granted.

Circe is a celebration of womanhood and what it means to really, truly be alive. It reminds us that the measure of a life well-lived is not riches or the absence of pain and troubles, its how we find peace and contentment despite all of it, its in the people we meet, and its in the joy of finding someone to go through it all with you and who will tell you, at the end of the day, that everything is going to be all right.

Five stars!

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews

Book Review: The Ruin of Kings – Jenn Lyons

There’s few things I hate more than not being able to finish a book.

I tried with this one, I really did. I wanted to give up after the first few chapters but I persevered because the writing’s not bad, truly. I like the snarky humour, the sarcasm and I even came to tolerate the convoluted non-linear narration.

But writing fantasy is like telling a good joke. If you have to explain the punchline, you’re doing it wrong. There were a lot of telling and explaining in this book. Plot twists were “discovered” by the hero without any build-up whatsoever, and the backstories were so complicated that I gave up trying to keep up.

I’m not even sure what the premise was. I thought I was reading a book about dragons, something that I’m really into as I wait for the final season of Game of Thrones to finish. But there’s ONE dragon in this book and he’s as interesting as an Excel spreadsheet. I was waiting for a ‘Dracarys’ moment but he just went on and on and on about what he would do to the hero when he caught him without actually doing anything. Its very difficult to be bored out of your mind when reading about dragons but this book has achieved that.

The hero, Kihrin, was mildly interesting. He’s got a mysterious past, a somewhat conflicted sexuality and he’s got personality with a capital P. He’s got snark down to an art form and I like how he never lets anyone or anything get him down. He does what he can to get by and makes no apologies for the things he’s done to survive. I love survivors.

Kihrin is – from the little I understood about the backstory- in the centre of a great prophecy concerning the end of the known world. Good premise, maybe. But it all went downhill from there with all the deaths and subsequent resurrections, the massive cast of characters who can take on different forms which makes the cast even bigger than it already is…it was all just unnecessarily complicated.

I DNF’d at about 70%. It had taken me 2 weeks to even get that far and that point my to-read pile had grown too big for me to ignore the fact that I had simply lost interest in this book.

I don’t like giving bad reviews. This could just be all me, really. Other people seem to find it good and kudos to them for being able to keep up. For me, there’s a reason why they say simplicity is beauty. You don’t need all kinds of props and gimmicks in Fantasy, you just have to tell the story.

Also, if you’re going to have a book with dragons, USE YOUR DRAGONS for more than just show.

Overall rating: 2 stars (and mostly because I like the cover!)

Posted in Books, Fantasy, LGBT, women, Women's literature

Book Review: The Priory of The Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

I’ve been trying to find words for the past 24 hours that will do this book justice and so far all I have to show for it are drafts that I’ve since decided were rubbish. Sometimes when a book comes out that is so ambitious in its scope, and just so damn interesting, words fail me.

Book like these are an experience. So much patience and skill went into the world-building, which we all know is the foundation of any good fantasy story. The Queendom of Inys, the mysterious Priory and the distant East all felt like real places, places that I would pay big bucks to visit I might add. Each separate location had its own language, religion, traditions and culture. Its a world that felt like it sprung fully-formed from the depths of the author’s imagination. She made it feel so easy and effortless, when it must have taken ages to piece all of it together.

The characters were as alive as the setting. First of all, I like that the members of the female population featured more prominently in this book than their male counterparts. I can see why its being called a feminist book. Its led by three strong women, each with their own distinct personalities, quirks, strengths and faults. One is a queen whose destiny is irrevocably tied to the fate of her country, another is a mage in hiding who’s been tasked to protect a queen. And the third? The third just wants to ride dragons.

Did i fail to mention there were dragons in this story?

They were such glorious, magnificent creatures in this book. You can tell how much enthusiasm Samantha Shannon had in writing them into the narrative, they totally stole each scene they were in. I loved how they were almost human in their portrayal, if that makes sense. Not only were they sentient beings they also had a a voice, a personality, and a sense of humour.

They were so involved in human lives that they even took part in war councils and contributed to political decisions. I know that having any sort of fire-breathing beings in your book will draw the inevitable comparison to Game of Thrones (intended to be a compliment I’m sure) but I think this book is a far cry from being any sort of imitation. I found it quite unique and original.

The story is rich and complex. A dynasty that was built on a lie is threatened by the arrival of an ancient enemy. Add to the mix some political machinations and betrayal, the formation and dissolution of alliances, and above all, the quest for the truth in order to keep a Queendom safe and what you have is a tale of epic proportions.

Despite the fantastical and magical elements though, this is a story that’s (strangely) very much grounded in reality. I certainly saw parallels with the current state of the world. Whether or not it was her intention, there were moments when the book felt like a social commentary on the times.

Finally, let me just say that its very rare to find a book that represents diversity in such an unobtrusive and casual way. For example, Samantha Shannon didn’t make a big fuss about the fact that several of her main characters have fluid sexual orientations, she simply made it the new normal. I think this book is a great testament to how evolved literature has become, and I’m glad that we’re at that stage where not only is everyone free to be who they are (and to love who they love), we’re also free to read and write all about it.

Don’t be put off by the weight of this book. Yes it felt like I could pound a nail through a two-by-four with it, and I gained biceps definition in the time it took me to walk home from the bookstore just by carrying it around. Its a hefty tome, but its worth it. Samantha Shannon has become one of the authors whose future works I will watch out for. The next time she publishes something, I’m going to hie myself off to my nearest Waterstones faster than you can say ‘Dracarys!’.

Amazing book! 4 out of 5 stars.

Posted in Books, LGBT, romance

Book Review: The Binding – Bridget Collins

The Binding is a book I wish I’ve written. Period.

You know a book is good when it leaves you thinking about it for days, even after the last page has been turned. You find yourself staring into space for about 10 minutes just thinking about the story, the characters and that goddamn ending.

I need to start with Bridget Collins’ beautiful prose. I know atmospheric is a word that book reviewers use quite often but this books takes atmospheric to a whole new level. It feels almost like an immersive experience, the way she pulls you in with every change of setting so you feel the cold in your bones, the soot in your face and the taste of tea on your tongue.

The premise of this book is clever, and one that avid readers everywhere will appreciate. Binders weave some kind of magic: with your consent, they take away memories that you can’t bear to live with and bind them in a book that they then store for safekeeping.

After a binding, a person will feel like something’s not quite right. Colours seem less bright, sounds seem muted, food is tasteless, you have after all just lost an essential part of yourself. But what you get in return is some form of peace, a peace that comes from ignorance and from forgetting something that hurt you so deeply you chose to lose yourself rather than keep a memory of it.

I suppose its an exploration of the age old question of living versus simply existing. We are who we are because we’ve loved and because we’ve lost. The cycles of joy, pain, happiness and sorrow are what makes life worth living. You can never fully appreciate what triumph feels like if you’ve never tasted defeat, after all. The secret is in the contrast.

Ah, but I’m going on and on about the philosophical questions that this book brings up when at the heart of it, this book is a love story. I don’t think this book was predictable in that sense (I spent many hours just pondering and dreading the many possible directions this plot would take) but I have an instinct for these things, and I knew from the very moment the characters met that we have something here. Something special.

I went over it and over it in my head because I couldn’t put into words how it made me feel. I thought I was looking for something with perhaps more of a twist, something more complex. But really the magic of the book is in how it pared down a fantastical plot into something as wonderfully simple as two people finding each other again and again despite the odds.

There is a beautiful message here about being true to yourself, and about never letting anyone tell you who you can and cannot love. Its a message of courage and hope, and not being afraid to face and accept that part of yourself that you think no one will ever be able to love, because someday, someone will.

Love always wins.

Utterly stunning and captivating book! 4 stars.

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews

Book Review: Fire and Blood – George RR Martin

I sit here and write this whilst re-watching episodes from past seasons of Game of Thrones in preparation for the final season premiering in April. I can’t believe its been 10 years since this show aired its pilot, and even longer since GRRM published the first book of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Since then, its become this massive phenomenon beloved by people all over the world, discussed in coffee rooms and workplaces across several countries; when a Game of Thrones season is in progress (airing on Sundays), you can bet your bottom dollar that come Monday people will be dissecting and analysing each episode for clues, easter eggs and foreshadowings of things to come.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: fantasy must be the most difficult thing in the world to write. It takes a whole lot of imagination. The concept of world-building alone staggers me; even as I nurture my small but growing ambition to become a writer I know I’ll probably never be able to write fantasy. I have imagination but its limited to the things that I know, to the world that I know.

George RR Martin is a man whose imagination has no limits. He’s not only written five books about the current events in Westeros, he’s made Westeros into something so rich, concrete and solid that it now comes with its own history, folklore and legends. This country feels so real you can almost taste the weirwood or feel the melting of the ice on The Wall.

Everyone knows about Jon Snow who knows nothing, about the misfortunes that befell the Starks, the cruelty of the Lannisters, the sandsnakes of Dorne and, of course, the journey of Daenerys Targaryen towards reclaiming the Iron Throne. Westeros as it stands is in turmoil, and everyone waits with bated breath to see how it will all end.

Which is probably why fans made such a hue and cry when, instead of moving forward, GRRM chose to look backwards. With his new publication he’s written a sort of prequel, and fans were not happy because they think he should have been working on the next book in the Game of Thrones series instead.

As someone who’s always loved history, I think that fans are really missing the whole point here. Any GoT fans worth their salt would appreciate Fire and Blood for what it is: a chance to have a glimpse into the history of Westeros’ most notorious, enigmatic and legendary rulers.

With Fire and Blood, GRRM explores a dynasty whose bloody history rivals that of the Romanovs, whose wars are as devastating as the War of the Roses, whose relationships are more complex than anything we’ve ever read about in medieval history, which is thought to be the inspiration behind Game of Thrones.

The history of the Targaryen kings have all the makings of something truly epic: battles, romance, rivalry, betrayals, family secrets, politics, incest, and most of all, DRAGONS. The Targaryen dragons are every bit as important as the riders they bore on their backs, and they play just as pivotal a role in the shaping of Westeros as we know it.

At times when reading this massive tome, I did feel as if I were back in a classroom studying for a history exam. Having always been a geek to the core I did start to stress out over the dates and notable names mentioned in the book. I was almost tempted to get a pen and paper out so I can start making notes. But then I told myself to get a grip and to simply enjoy what was truly an incredible story. Let me tell you, if they taught stuff like this in school more people would be getting A’s on the subject.

William the Conqueror would have been so much more interesting if he also rode a dragon when he set out to conquer England, I’m just saying. 

There was always a risk that this book would turn out to be dry and boring, but GRRM has written this with flair and an almost self-deprecating humour. He made reading about wars and bloodshed fun, and it was clever of him to write as a fictional maester of the citadel who had been tasked to compile the history of the Targaryen kings, so that he can explore both historical facts and historical gossip,

And there were a lot of salacious gossip; those Targaryens were as lusty as they come.

I still can’t believe that one man has held all these complex plots in his head. How in the world does he keep all of them straight? I’ve yet to find plot holes or instances where he’s contradicted himself. I do think that his pacing has suffered somewhat in the later books, and I sometimes wish his characters could just get on with it rather than linger overlong in some godforsaken free city like Pentos or one of those stupid places in Slaver’s Bay.

But I think I’ve become such a fan of the show and the book series that I really just want to linger in this world he’s created, and seeing it again through the eyes of some of my favourite characters feel like catching up with an old friend. I, for one, will gladly purchase anything that is written about Westeros and in me, the genius that is George RR Martin has a fan for life.

Rating: 5 stars.