Posted in bloggers, Books, murder mystery, Reviews, Young Adult

Book Review: Two Can Keep A Secret – Karen McManus

I suck at keeping secrets.

I can count in one hand the number of times that I’ve truly kept a secret, including my own. Its my personal opinion that by its very nature secrets just demand to be told. The act of unburdening yourself to someone else, the knowledge that you are not the only person in the world to hold a particularly juicy or dangerous bit of information…I think it gives you relief like no other.

A secret is not a secret unless its been told after all.

Echo Ridge, the setting of Karen McManus’ new book is a town full of secrets. In 1995, a high school senior disappeared while walking home from the library, and no one has seen a trace of her since.

Then five years ago, a homecoming queen was found murdered underneath the ferris wheel (rollercoaster? I forgot which) of the town’s Halloween park, a place aptly called Murderland (like, who would name their business that?! Isn’t that just asking for trouble?).

And then the murderer claims to be back, and he or she is hoping to once again satisfy what is truly a creepy fetish for homecoming queens (Freud would have a field day with this one). And when a local girl disappears it sends everyone into a frenzy of nerves, anxiety and suspicion. Who can you trust? Is there a connection that ties all three victims together? What the bloody hell is going on?

The latter is something I asked myself throughout the five hours that it took me to finish this book. I love whodunits, especially since I consider myself pretty good at solving who actually done it. I go into my Sherlock Holmes mind palace and I can almost always identify the killer at about three-quarters of the way through any crime book, and I’m almost always right.

But this one stumped me. Just like this year’s Academy Awards, there was no clear-cut suspect. And I suspect that Karen McManus made me like her characters so much that I didn’t want the murderer to be any of them, just like I didn’t want to suspect any of the Bayview Four from  her first book , One of Us Is Lying.

So apart from the fact that I was so invested that I was no longer an unbiased observer, this book was so tightly plotted that the best thing you can do is to stop figuring out what in the world was happening and just go along for the ride. I told myself that, for once, I will allow myself to be surprised when the killer is finally unveiled. And until then I will just enjoy what truly is incredible writing and characterisation.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I love how Karen doesn’t resort to the usual cliches of band nerds and popular girls in this book. I like how she allows her characters to cross the divide of high school society. Sure, you still get the usual chumps who want to maintain the status quo, but its a world where the popular girl has feelings and problems just like anyone else, and she’s able to come down from her pedestal enough to be nice to her geeky stepbrother.

I like how the so-called losers find strength in their loserdom, and that there’s none of the usual aspiring to be in higher social circles trope that is prevalent in most YA novels. I mean, in my opinion,  as long as you have your circle of friends, and you’re having fun, and you love who you are, why in the world would you want to be anything or anyone else? Being a jock or a cheerleader is seriously overrated, and also, its so 90s.

I love how Karen was able to deftly manage all the subplots, and the subplots within the subplots. Even though it felt like she had too many balls in the air at one point, she was able to juggle them all very well. Every element of this story felt important, and made absolute sense especially as the story headed to its inevitable conclusion.

In fact, the only thing that didn’t make as much sense was the actual perpetrator himself or herself (wouldn’t want to give away spoilers!). I feel like that character could have been fleshed out more maybe, so that the big reveal would have been more like an ‘Ah, I see what you did there’ moment rather than “What the fuck? Huh?”.

Of course, this could just be me, and my total ignorance might have been because I wasn’t paying the required amount of attention to enable me to separate the real clues from the red herrings that have been planted throughout the book. But that’s okay, because that gives me a reason to re-read this.

This book is a true embodiment of the word “page-turner”. You will be hooked. You will be invested. You will end up reading it into the wee hours of the morning even though you know you have work the next day. Fans of Riverdale and Pretty Little Liars will be delighted by the similarities, although this actually felt to me more like a throwback to Carolina Moon by the great Nora Roberts, another fantastic novel that you should check out after reading this one.

Well done, Karen McManus. I salute your sophomore outing and I really hope you hurry up and write another book soon so that I can allow you once again to just take my money. I just want my book!

4 out of 5 stars!

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

Book Review: The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

It’s always the women and children who pay such a high price when “great men” decide to play the game of thrones. Or so the great GRRM once wrote.

I’ve been immersed in all things Greek mythology lately, and I feel like its all been leading up to where it would always inevitably culminate: the epic Trojan War. Poems, novels, music and movies have been written about the ten-year siege of Troy, and of the notorious Helen, also known as the face that launched a thousand ships.

This book is unique in that it tells the story from the perspective of the women who were sold into slavery at the Greek camps when their cities fell to the mighty Achilles and his legendary army of Myrmidons. It focuses on one woman in particular: Briseis, former queen and now slave to Achilles, the man who burned her city and killed her husband and brothers in the process.

So, these reviews always seem to go on longer than I intend them to. I’ve yet to develop the skill of editing my own work, and I probably never will. But I will try to focus on two main themes for this review, for the sake of being “brief”.

The Spoils of War

I’ve always had a weird fascination for reading about war times, not because I’m particularly interested in weaponry and warfare, but because I’m fascinated by its effect on the people who are left behind. I don’t care much about how the war was won, because for me there’s no such thing. When a country goes to war with another country because diplomacy has failed them in every way, everyone loses.

It always breaks my heart to read about the very human stories behind every major war. And its always the same thing, over and over again, throughout the pages of history: the lost promise of youth, children growing up way before their time, young men who never lived long enough to fulfil the dreams their parents had for them.

Its the story of women who have lost fathers, brothers, husbands and sons; women who were never given the opportunity to fight the battles when they were every bit as invested in the outcome. I think if any government leader should ever take it into their head to go to war over something, they should take a good hard look at the women in their family, and to think about all that they would suffer, and decide whether its worth it.

This is the great thing about this book, because it really highlights all of that, and also how the women of the Trojan War were stripped away from their sense of self, from their identities and individualities, from everything that makes them a person, and were instead relegated into the role of objects.

It brings into stark relief all the humiliations and degradations that these women suffered in the hands of so-called heroes: Achilles, Ajax, Agamemnon (although I’ve always thought of him as sort of a prick), Nestor, and even Odysseus. This is an important book to read, and an important point to make, during these times of change when women everywhere are fighting for equality in every arena. Its a call to arms, a message that we will no longer allow this to happen. And for all of that, I salute you, Pat Barker. 

Love is Love is Love

To end this review on a more positive note, I’d like to revisit the story of Achilles and Patroclus. Despite numerous research into the matter, historians are still unable to agree on whether these two were lovers or just really really really close friends. After reading about them in Madeline Miller’s fabulous book, The Song of Achilles, and again here, I am of the opinion that at the end of the day, it makes no bloody difference.

Whether it was the love between brothers, friends or lovers, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is the kind of love that is strong enough to transcend labels, powerful enough to turn the tide of the Trojan War and so powerful that, in my heart, I am sure that it even defied death.

The Greeks, for all their brutal ways, had no hang-ups whatsoever when it comes to sexuality. Hercules had both male and female lovers, it did not make him any less of a legend in their eyes. I love reading about these stories, and I particularly love revisiting the story of Achilles and Patroclus, because it gives me hope.

It gives me hope that if a love like that can exist, there is a future for all of us to look forward to, one in which wars cease to be a possibility, and a world where you can just be free to love who you love, regardless of class, race, age or gender. And that is the kind of ideology that IS worth fighting for.

 

Briseis came to a conclusion towards the end of the book that, for all that she tried to defy and escape him, she was ultimately just another spoke in the wheel, just another supporting character to Achilles’ story. But that doesn’t mean that she does not get to try to write her own story and her own future.

Ultimately, this is what this book is about. We are all free to make our own choices, chart our own destinies and write our own stories. You don’t need to be a hero. You just need to be a person with hopes, dreams and, more importantly, the capacity to love…because long after all the songs have been written about battles and triumphs, its the human tale of love that will endure.

Fabulous book! 4 out of 5 stars. 

Posted in Books, Fantasy, Reviews, Uncategorized

Book Review: Heroes – Stephen Fry

I’ve found myself living in Ancient Greece this past week, which is perhaps the best compliment that I can give to Stephen Fry’s works on Greek mythology.

For me, he has brought these stories and characters to life in a way that has had me transfixed and immersed in these pages almost to the exclusion of anything else in my life right now.

Heroes is a volume that can be read separately from it predecessor Mythos but one gets a much better experience with the former if you’ve read the latter. It shifts the focus away from the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus and on to the mortals (or fools) that dare to dream, that are in the possession of an incredible amount of self-belief (or hubris), and have the boldness, brawn and brute strength to accompany it.

Stephen Fry makes it very clear that the history and interrelatedness of the characters in Greek mythology are so tangled that one will simply go mad if one tries to memorise all the kings, queens, sons, daughters and, of course, incestuous unions and offsprings. He makes a valiant effort, though, to highlight and cross-reference important ones in what is undoubtedly my favourite part of this book and the last one: the footnotes. 

But I think that readers shouldn’t approach this book as they would an academic exercise. There is no requirement for you to recall who Heracles‘ father was, or to remember that he had a twin, for you to enjoy the tale of how he tricked Hades into lending him Cerberus, the literal hound of hell. The only fundamental requirement to reading this book is that you, as a reader, have every information you need to understand and enjoy these stories (and very helpfully, the book comes with a glossary to  help you with that).

Because believe me, this is a book with an extensive cast of characters, each of whom play a role one way or another in the events that unfold. There are a few standouts, apart from the heroes themselves. I found myself intrigued by the role that women played, or how they were portrayed and perceived in greek mythology. There is a hint of misogyny that is typical of that time period I suppose, but I’d like to think that Jason would never have gotten the golden fleece without Medea’s help, and that Theseus would still be stuck in the labyrinth were it not for Ariadne’s love and life-saving advice.

Some of the stories here will be familiar to readers. Like, who hasn’t heard of Icarus and his failure to follow his father’s advice to not fly too close to the sun? It’s like the mother of all cautionary tales. I think they teach it in school so that young impressionable minds will know from the get-go that there are consequences WHEN YOU DON’T LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.

The tale of Icarus, as well as that of the heroes in this volume, is also a testament to the saying that pride cometh before the fall. The gods seem to take a particular delight in punishing heroes when they overreach and overstep, perhaps out of jealousy but perhaps to remind them that whatever else they achieve, they are still in fact human.

And I guess that’s an important thing to remember when we talk about heroes. They are human just like us, and there’s two important things I’d like to point out in addition to that.

One, anyone can be a hero. Think about it, a hero is someone who finds himself under difficult circumstances and chooses to do something about it. We do that in our every day lives. For me, a nurse who stays beyond her shift in order to see to a trauma patient is just as much a hero as Perseus, and believe me, its easier to deal with Medusa and her hair of snakes than it is to placate a patient who’s been waiting in the busy A and E for four hours. 

The second thing is, perhaps, just something I’ve come to realise about us and our entire belief system. I’ve said this so many times before, that the saddest thing in the world is to see someone who’s lost the ability to dream and have hope. I think that’s why Hollywood (and Disney) have chosen to gloss over the more unsavoury parts of greek mythology’s so-called heroes. We don’t want to know about the tragic end to their stories, or that they weren’t the men we always thought they were when we placed them so high upon their pedestals.

I certainly don’t want my child to know that Mr. Zero to Hero Hercules (or Heracles, which is his proper name) killed Megara AND his two kids. Or that  Perseus and Jason were in fact considered murderers by many who knew them. That did not make it into the final cut of well-known movies, did it?

I think that the reason for that is because Hollywood and Disney recognise (and cater to) man’s innate need to believe in the extraordinary. We need to believe that somewhere out there are people who can rise to the occasion and rise above human flaws to fight the battles that we cannot fight. We will always need to believe in that, and for as long as we do, we will always need to believe in Heroes.

Great book and just as hilarious and entertaining as Mythos. Four out of five stars!

 

 

 

Posted in bloggers, Books

Book Review: Mythos – Stephen Fry

There’s something so endlessly fascinating about Greek Mythology.

I can’t put my finger on it. Is it the way the Gods and Goddesses of Mount Olympus are always so much larger than life? Is it the excesses, passions and often violent rage that they exhibit with such alarming regularity? Is it their intense relationship with mortal beings, or the way so many of what we know today have their origins in Greek legends?

Whatever it is, these stories have been a source of fun and entertainment for readers the world over since time immemorial. And with this retelling, Stephen Fry takes a modern, 21st century approach in the hopes that these stories will become more accessible, even to an audience who may not necessarily have any background whatsoever on Greek mythology.

It starts, as these things always does, with the story of creation, moving with alacrity to the birth of the Titans, the cruelties of Kronos and his eventual defeat in the hands of his son Zeus. I don’t need to issue a spoiler alert, do I? Everyone knows how that story turned out. In fact, I’m sure most people have heard these stories in one form or the other at one point in their lives. If nothing else, a lot of us have seen either the Clash of the Titans or Percy Jackson movies.

What’s different about this is the way Stephen Fry tells the story. First of all, its very British. I can almost imagine him writing this (or reading it aloud) while having crumpets and a cup of tea. The language is very current, and extremely funny. I found myself bursting into laughter at the unexpected humour in stories that have always seemed so serious, and I encourage everyone to read the footnotes because they are some of the most amusing things I’ve ever read in my life.

Cupid and Psyche. Persephone and the Underworld. Pygmalion and Galatea. Narcissus and himself. All the stories we’ve come to know so well are all here in this marvellous volume that I know I’ll be rereading in the near future. These are stories of love, ambition, with a side-helping of cautionary tales against the dangers of excessive pride and what the Gods call hubris.

I’ve already started on the follow up to this book and its just as good. Meanwhile, be sure to check out Mythos on Amazon or your local Waterstones. Its so so good.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Posted in bloggers, Books, Feminism, Politics, Reviews, women, Women's literature

Book Review: Becoming – Michelle Obama

Its hard to condense in a few short paragraphs how profoundly good this book is.

I’ve been sitting in front of my laptop for a while now trying to process what I just read and the things I have learned. I have thought of little else since finishing Becoming at 1am this morning, and more than 12 hours later I’m still at a loss as to how to start reviewing it.

I can’t pinpoint the exact time I became a Michelle Obama fan. Maybe it was when I saw her on Carpool Karaoke with James Corden belting out Beyonce hits like nobody’s business.

Maybe it was when I saw a photo of her opening up the White House to kids and hula-hooping with them on the South Lawn.

I was definitely a fan when I heard her speak during a commencement rite in one of the high schools in America whose name I have now forgotten, encouraging young people, and young women especially, to pursue their dreams despite the odds stacked against them.

She knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the latter. She’s not just paying lip service when she talks to the marginalised and the disenfranchised about overcoming adversity, she’s talking from experience. Because their story is her story.

Most people would think that Becoming is the story of how a young black girl who grew up in the South Side of Chicago eventually made it into the White House, the sort of modern-day rags-to-riches Cinderella story that people love to read about.

Well, Michelle Robinson Obama is no Disney Princess. She would not be caught dead feeding birds and baking pies simply waiting for her prince to come. She’s just as likely to slay the dragon herself than she is to ever wait for a man to come and save her.

Hers was not an easy life. Her parents had to work hard to provide for their family, her mother sewed her clothes and she shared a room with her brother growing up because their entire apartment was smaller than her walk-in closet in the White House.

She grew up in a less tolerant America, where racism was widespread and people still held strong beliefs and prejudices against people of colour.

She talks about what it was like to grow up in that kind of environment, to know that you have to work twice as hard as anyone in order to be given the same recognition, all because of the colour of your skin.

Instead of falling victim to the narrative that seemed to be set out for her, though, she chose to rise above it, excelling in her studies, getting into Princeton and, later, Harvard.

She would also work at one of the top firms in Chicago where she’d meet the man who would eventually become her husband, and the leader of the free world.

Despite the gravitas of her story, and despite the weight and importance of the role she once held, Michelle Obama managed to come across as incredibly down to earth.

The book is written in such an engaging way that I didn’t realise I was nearing the end until she was talking about soaking in the last few moments of her life as First Lady.

At that point, she honestly felt less like the icon that she is and more of a friend.

For someone who’s been one half of the world’s most high-profile couple for the better part of the last decade, she is refreshingly candid and relatable.

She doesn’t gloss over her faults, like her tendency to go apoplectic with rage whenever she gets into an argument with her husband, or her need to put things in some kind of ordered lists that she can later tick off as being done.

She doesn’t deny that she has moments of self-doubt, days when she felt like she wasn’t good enough. She talked about how much it hurt when something she says is misconstrued or disproportionately blown up by the pundits and the media.

She was very open about the personal struggles she went through with her marriage, her  aversion to politics and her moments of resentment over the fact that she has to share her husband, and the father of her children, with the rest of America.

Through it all, she remained relentlessly optimistic and hopeful. Rather than dwelling on the things she can’t change, she chose to focus on the things that she could, finding things she was passionate about and pursuing them with gusto.

Time and time again she would butt heads with her own staff and opposing parties just to implement something she thinks would be good for a lot of people. And while there’s a lot of politics involved in that, I’m happy to say that politics did not play a major role in this book.

Instead, the struggle for equality was the central theme in this memoir, both for women and for people of colour.

I know it might sound trite or corny, but this book really resonated with me as it hammers home what it means to be a woman, of a different race, trying to make it in a city that is predominantly white.

When I first came to the UK, I met people who would always comment, with a tone of surprise, on how fluent my English was. I had a colleague who was shocked that I was interested in Caravaggio paintings and Bernini sculptures. One of the surgeons I used to work with expressed surprise that I’ve read Dickens.

They have this preconceived notions of Filipinos as people who receive limited education, who speak broken English, who are not interested in culture beyond our adobos and karaokes, and who form pockets of communities wherever they go because they don’t want to socialise with people who are not Asians.

I wasn’t conscious of doing it at the time, but I set out to shatter all of that just to prove that I come from a country that, for all its faults, are full of hardworking and intelligent people that are just as capable as any Westerner in any job or any role.

In the end, all anybody really needs is for someone to take notice and to give them the opportunity to prove they can do it.

I have never really felt like a victim of racial discrimination, and that’s because I’ve never allowed myself to be.

In the end, the colour of my skin is not the central plot of my story. The central plot is my hopes, dreams, aspirations and the many things that I still want to achieve, that I believe I can achieve.

Its very affirming to know that someone of Michelle Obama’s calibre has gone through the same thing, has been on the same journey.

To say that it is exactly the kind of book we need to be reading right now is an understatement. For women especially, it sends a message of hope and empowerment that is sorely lacking from the increasingly gratuitous and pretentious era of social media.

This book will hopefully encourage everyone to use whatever platform they have, whether its a small instagram following or a larger political stage, to tell their story for the purpose of inspiring others as this book has really inspired me.

Her story is our story. Her becoming is a message to all of us, but especially for young women, that we too can become.

Posted in Books, Lifestyle

My Winter-Spring Reading List

A friend was asking me for book recommendations earlier this week and it made me go back to my bookshelf to check out what I have, only to realise I have a freakin’ stockpile of books I’ve bought but haven’t had the time to read yet.

I need help. I have a disease. A disease where I need to follow the compulsion to buy books every time I go into a bookstore. I always leave Waterstones asking myself: WHAT THE HELL HAVE I JUST DONE?!?

(This is usually after having just forked over at least 50£ for a bunch of books)

I’ve now imposed a ban upon myself: I am no longer allowed to buy books until I finish the unread ones currently sitting on my shelves.

So, without further ado, here’s my 2019 winter-spring reading list:

Becoming – Michelle Obama

This one I’m halfway through, and I personally can’t wait to blog about this incredibly inspiring book. A must-read, especially for strong independent women trying to find their place in the world.

Mythos – Stephen Fry

The story of the Greek Gods told in Stephen Fry’s inimitably funny, humorous and tongue-in-cheek style. Mythology as seen and narrated from a 21st century perspective. This should be fun!

Heroes – Stephen Fry

A companion to Mythos, this time covering the Age of Heroes: Perseus, Jason and the Argonauts etc.

The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

This one intrigued me so much when I pick it up, because its the Iliad as seen through the eyes of the women who had to live through those turbulent times. For once, Achilles and his damned heel won’t be the centre of attention.

The Queen and I – Sue Townsend

What happens if the institution of monarchy were suddenly abolished and the Royal Family had to move to and adjust to living a life in the Midlands? It makes for great comedy, I’d imagine!

Fire and Blood – George RR Martin

The long and bloody history of the Targaryen dynasty, starting from Aegon the Conqueror to Aegon III. I love love love Game of Thrones, and although this doesn’t cover recent history (like the reign of Mad King Aerys) I still can’t wait to read this.

Time’s Convert – Deborah Harkness

Going back to the world of A Discovery of Witches, which, incidentally is now a major tv series! Haha

Nine Perfect Strangers – Liane Moriarty

As I understand it, nine people go into some retreat where nothing is at it seems and the retreat leader seems to have nefarious and sinister plans. Oooh.

Black Widow – Chris Brookmyre

About a woman who goes through husbands like I go through socks, except her husbands end up dead so maybe that’s not the most fitting analogy. Lol

City of Ghosts – Victoria Schwab

A book about a girl who can see ghosts, set in one of my favourite cities: Edinburgh

Middlemarch – George Eliot

Because I need to read a classic every once in a while.

The ABC Murders – Agatha Christie

Recommended by my sister and also now a tv series!

Victoria – AN Wilson

Because I love hearing stories about women who rise to the occasion, and Victoria has always been one of my favourite monarchs.

One Day in December – Josie Wilson

Rounding things up with a little story about love and serendipity.

Hope you all find something in this list to enjoy!

Posted in Books, LGBT, Paranormal, Reviews, romance, Young Adult

Book Review: The Dark Artifices Trilogy – Cassandra Clare

All the potential in the world will not amount to anything if there’s a flaw in the execution.

It pains me to say it, because I am a huge fan of the ShadowWorld and all things connected to it, but this trilogy did not quite live up to my expectations.

Maybe that’s my fault. I’ve been looking forward to Julian Blackthorn and Emma Carstairs‘ story ever since they were introduced in The Mortal Instruments series.

I’ve wondered for so long about the secret behind the parabatai bond and why those who have undergone the ritual were forbidden to fall in love, which is the basic premise of this trilogy.

But while the relationship between these two was explored and discussed ad infinitum, I feel like Cassandra literally lost the plot about halfway through the second book.

I feel like she lost sight of why she was writing this book in the first place and the series took on a life of its own.

And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and while I did love discovering the world of the Faerie and the existence of other dimensions, the overall plot got too cluttered in the end.

That’s not to say that this series was bad.

I think the problem was that she tried too hard to please fans both new and old. There was a massive inclusion of characters from previous books, and I get that she was trying to tie all her past series in some way, but it all just got a little bit much.

The first book started out okay, I thought the main plot of that was interesting and really rich in Shadowhunter history. But then it all slightly veered from the road that I thought it was going to go and it never quite totally got back on track.

There was a little too much focus on the romantic elements, especially in the latter half of the second and most of the third book. Even in the midst of the apocalypse, people still found the time to worry about their love life. Go figure.

So the book wasn’t brilliant, but there were elements of it that were beautifully crafted.

I like how Cassandra Clare continues to preach the importance of inclusion and acceptance in her books. The tension between Shadowhunters and Downworlders could almost be a parallel for the current state of the world, prejudice and all.

I love how there’s no shortage of diverse couples in this book. For Cassandra, love is love is love is love. She’s always been a big supporter of the LGBT community and that shines through in her book.

FURTHERMORE, there’s an added element in this book that I thought was absolutely RISQUE for what is essentially still a YA book. I wasn’t sure whether it was entirely appropriate but I have never advocated author censorship, and that part was so beautifully done that I think it might actually end up sending the right message to teens.

Intrigued? Read the book to find out more.

The characters were well-developed. I love the tight-knit relationship of the Blackthorn family and how their love for each other evolved over time as a result of trials and heartbreaking loss.

I like how this series showed that the world is not black and white, and that no one is all good and all bad. I love how it showed that, despite all the evil in the world, everyone is still capable of doing good things in the name of love and family.

I understand that this review is probably not that coherent. To be honest, I’ve yet to decide whether I loved it, liked it or regretted it. And may I just say that the books were a whopper? The last one was nearly as thick as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix!

This series is a far cry from The Infernal Devices trilogy, which will remain forever my favourite, but ultimately, and I’ve literally just decided this, its still a good series. And I look forward to the next one, and the continuation of the Blackthorn saga.

Rating: Solid 3 out of 5 stars.