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, 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, 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 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!