Posted in Books, Careers, Health and Well-Being, Lifestyle, Reviews, Self-Discovery

Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck – Mark Manson

It’s not very often that you find the kind of book you need at the exact same moment in which you need it. Call it fate, call it kismet, call it in act of divine intervention, but this book found its way into my loving arms just when I needed it the most.

I was in the operating theatre one day when I got into an argument with a particularly obnoxious Fellow over specimen labels, of all things. She thought she was right and I was wrong, and I was just as convinced of the opposite. I was so enraged that she wouldn’t just do what I told her to do (because I was right, goddamit) that I went storming into the manager’s office, ranting and raving like a lunatic, begging them to please do something about this stubborn incompetent fool.

On my way back to the theatre I felt the faint stirrings of pain on the centre of my chest and (I imagined) somewhere on my left shoulder (or left back, I wasn’t really sure). Bearing in mind that I’ve been having blood pressure problems for a while now, you can see why I would suddenly feel anxious and almost panicky. I became so convinced that I was having a heart attack right then and there that I very nearly excused myself from theatres so I can go to the A and E.

As you can probably tell I did not, in fact, have a heart attack thank goodness. Shortly before this incident, I had two large sausages and a piece of bacon for lunch. And because I was in a hurry to scrub for the next procedure, I had inhaled all this food in a hurry and was finished with my lunch break in five minutes. So what I probably had was a mild case of indigestion (although the hypochondriac in me still believes there’s merit in assuming and being prepared for the worst).

That moment really opened my eyes and made me think about a lot of things. Like the fragility of life. Like how much I let what other people think affect me emotionally and psychologically. Like the number of things I give a fuck about that I will probably forget in five years or less. Like how fucking pissed I would be if I died because of a bloody specimen form and miss out on all the wonderful things I have to look forward to this year, like my parents coming for a visit, and the Tiu Family Reunion we’re planning on Christmas.

And then I picked up The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. This is a book that generated a lot of buzz when it came out last year (I think) and numerous friends and acquaintances have been encouraging me to read it for a while now, but I’ve always been kinda skeptical about it. I’m not into self-help books to be honest, I’ve always found it kinda hokey, and the authors always came across as being self-righteous, not to mention self-congratulatory.

This book felt more like a friend. It was funny, endearingly self-deprecatory and perhaps more importantly, extremely relatable. I identified with a lot of the situations Mark wrote about, and with the experiences he’s shared. I’m not saying it’s perfect, nor do I agree with all of it (I think something in me rebelled at the thought of accepting that I will always be ordinary). But in the three weeks it took me to finish it, I have made some changes that I think will be healthier for me in the long run.

While reading it I’ve been forced to think about my values, and to examine the metrics by which I measure success. I went for a run last week and my calves were hurting the whole time, which reduced my speed from slow to turtle pace. I felt so discouraged by the whole thing and nearly gave up on running altogether. But then I asked myself how I defined a successful run. What were my metrics? Was it finishing a 5k within a certain time frame? Was it being able to run longer distances every day? Was it being able to run pain-free? Because realistically speaking, if I only focused on those three things I’m almost guaranteed to fail at least about half the time.

What about the fact that I managed to wake up at the unholy hour of 5:30 in the morning four times a week and get my lazy arse off my comfy bed so that I can run before work? It’s currently averaging between 1 and 5 degrees in London at the moment, and those are temperatures that make you want to do the opposite of getting up and going outside.

But I do it every. single. time. And you know what, I realised that by doing that, I was already winning.

I made the executive decision that from that point onwards my metric for a successful run would simply be me getting up in the morning and showing up physically as well as mentally. And that’s when things changed. Every day I felt like I was winning a race. Every day felt like a triumph.

I stepped on a weighing scale two weeks after I started running and nearly wept. With abject misery. Because no matter what I did, no matter how much I tried to stick to a healthy diet, counting calories like a miser counts coins, I just can’t seem to get that number on the scale to go down. What was the point of putting myself through all of it if I wasn’t achieving results?

Then I started monitoring my blood pressure twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. For the first time in a long long time, the readings were steady, and if not always normal they were not as astronomically high as they were this time last year. More than that, I’ve started feeling more positive, both at work and life in general. I’ve been able to deal better with difficult conversations, uncompromising colleagues, unfair criticisms and all the other curveballs that your personal and professional lives throw at you on a daily basis.

An anaesthetist saw me yesterday and noted that I seem more chilled and relaxed. Was that not some better measure of success than the number on my weighing scale?

In a way, the book was very liberating. One of its fundamental beliefs is that we would be much happier if we stop placing all these unrealistic expectations of ourselves to be something great, to be extraordinary, to make a lasting impact on the world, to be so amazing that we are immortalised and allowed to live on even when we’re dead. Jesus, that is a lot of pressure to place on our teeny tiny human bodies.

Apparently, the more we accept that we are just a tiny fraction of the world at large, that it is not always about us, and that we are not special and unique, the better off we will be. For someone who’s always been a bit type A, for someone who has always been ambitious, for someone who was groomed from childhood to draw happiness from other people’s approval of my achievements, this is quite a difficult pill to swallow.

But Mark Manson argues that the feeling we get from other people’s approval are only temporary highs, it’s not true happiness. In fact, we’re actually making ourselves unhappy by constantly chasing the feeling we get when people give us praise, whether in real life or in the form of likes on social media. When we seek validation from somewhere outside of ourselves, we’re planting the seeds of our own discontent and eventual unhappiness.

True happiness, he says, is actually borne out of suffering. Pain and struggle are necessary ingredients to happiness because “to be happy, we need something to solve”. And when we find that solution, it then creates a whole host of other problems for us to solve, forever and ever and ever, Amen. And this apparently is what keeps us happy. This is what defines us. We are defined by the pain we’re willing to sustain, the things we’re willing to struggle for.

I don’t know about you, but I kinda want a pain-free life where I don’t need to struggle.

But I see his point. To expect a life free from suffering is to be delusional. Instead, you need to choose what is worth struggling for. For example, is it really worth having daily arguments with a colleague just so you can prove you’re right? Do you take that job that offers a bigger salary but also comes with a whole host of responsibilities that take you further and further away from the thing that you really want to do? Are you willing to struggle through frustration, insecurities, and the fear of failure just so you can finally fulfil your lifelong dream of publishing a book?

I think about the pain I feel when I go for a 7k run: the lactic acid being released from my muscles causing pain in my legs, that feeling of being slightly out of breath – that I’m willing to endure. Because waiting for me on the other side of that pain are the endorphins released after a good run, the sense of achievement from simply being able to finish, knowing that you gave it your best effort, and of course, the prevention of a potential heart attack (sorry this is going to be a recurring theme).

Needless to say, I really really REALLY like this book. I would give it as a present to everyone I know if I could. There’s so much more I want to say about it, and there is so much more to discuss, but this post is seriously starting to reach dissertation lengths. I’d just like to end by saying that the best compliment I could give for it is that it forced me, a notorious speed reader, to slow down and really reflect on the messages that the author wants to impart: that you need to have better values, that sometimes even the littlest things are a measure of success, and that if you do have to give a fuck, choose what you want to give a fuck about.

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.