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, 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.

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!