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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amazing book! 4 out of 5 stars.

Posted in Books, LGBT, romance

Book Review: The Binding – Bridget Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love always wins.

Utterly stunning and captivating book! 4 stars.

Posted in Books, 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 bloggers, Books, Fantasy, LGBT, relationships, romance

Book Review: Murmuration – TJ Klune

Ever read a book where you spent a good 10 to 15 minutes staring into space (wondering what the hell you just read) as soon as you turned the last page?

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Welcome to the world of Murmuration. Its confusing, amazing, heartbreaking, fascinating, wonderful, traumatic and lovely all at the same time.

Its seriously f***ked up. 

This was recommended by a friend on Goodreads who thought it would be a worthy addition to the list of LGBT books on my bookshelf. I thought I’d be reading some fluffy love story that will make me feel all gooey inside after I’ve read it. I was reading this while on a birthday trip to Disneyland Paris, for crying out loud!

So there I was, all glowy and happy from a day of spending time with Mickey, Minnie and my favourite Disney Princesses (and super high on adrenaline after riding two rollercoasters in one afternoon), and I thought it would be a good idea to finish the evening reading something light, something that’s not so taxing on the brain cells. I was on holiday after all.

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This book totally made my brain hurt. Is there such a thing as mental pain? Because I’m pretty sure that describes the sum of all my feelings towards this book.

I can’t even give you a synopsis because I don’t want to spoil the plot. Let’s just say that I thought this was a story about a small town boy (living in a lonely world) in the 1950s who falls in love with another small town boy and that they would have to fight to overcome the prejudices that were prevalent at the time.

I started to get warm and fuzzy feelings from the development of the romance (I do love a good friends-to-lovers story) and from the level of acceptance that surrounded these two human beings. I thought, my my, what an awesome story, there is still hope for mankind after all.

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I don’t know when the vague sense of unease started to creep in. I don’t know where I started to get an inkling that there’s something not quite right with this story. Amidst the cute diner scenes, fourth of July picnics and the charms of walking home hand in hand in the dark, I started to feel like this was all too good to be true. There’s something seriously wrong with this story.

Okay confession time.

I skipped ahead to the ending. 

Okay, okay, I’m sorry. But COME ON, have you ever had the distinct experience of reading a book by TJ Klune? The man doesn’t have it in him to be brief, okay? His books are incredibly lengthy, and while the writing is good there are moments when you just want to yell at the man to get a damned editor because surely there is a better, SHORTER, way of writing a story.

Just get the bloody hell on with it.

Anyway. I skipped to the ending because I know I won’t be able to sleep a wink without knowing for sure which one of my crazy theories were correct. I was sure that it was either one or the other. I have read a lot of books and its very rare that a plot line is able to surprise me. I’m usually always spot on with my predictions.

I was so far off the mark with this one that its not even funny.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve been living under a rock or what, but I thought this was one of the most unique plots I’ve ever read in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever come across such an insanely fascinating story in my entire life.

Does it have plot holes? Sure. Absolutely. Enough to rival the holes on the ozone layer in fact.

Does it make sense? Hell, no. It doesn’t. It requires a lengthy stretch of the imagination to even conceive that this book is within the realms of possibility.

What it was, though, was vastly entertaining. It will keep you on your toes, constantly thinking up explanations for the things that are happening. It will drive you crazy wondering what the hell is going on. It will keep you in a heightened sense of dread, especially when things are going so well for the main protagonists, because you are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It will make you cry. There’s all sorts of feels in this book, and the ending is bittersweet in the way really good stories are (Hello, Inception). It will make you feel like maybe its okay to not have a happily-ever-after, as long as you can be happy for now.

I‘m pretty sure this book took a little piece of my heart with it. 

Let me just say, in conclusion, that it constantly amazes me to think about what the human mind is capable of. It is capable of so much invention and innovation as the seat of our intelligence. It is capable of so much destruction when common sense is overruled by emotion, such as pain.

It is capable of dreaming up stories such as this.

We can spend a hundred years studying the human mind and I don’t think we will ever reach the limit of its capabilities, nor will we ever fully answer the mysteries inherent in the minor miracle that is our brain. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe we’re not meant to overanalyse how we think, how we feel and how we came to be who we are.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in this book, its that there’s very little point in examining and cross-examining why we make the choices we make and why we live the way we do. That’s not the point.

The point is simply to live, the best way you know how. 

 

 

Posted in Books, LGBT, Uncategorized

Reading LGBT Books With Pride, Literally (Literally!)

When I was younger, my reading tastes were strictly limited to two things: Sweet Valley and the kind of bodice-ripping romance novels from the likes of Johanna Lindsey featuring guys with a long mane of blond hair who I’ve recently discovered were all basically the same guy in different outfits whose name was Fabio.

I’m happy to say that my tastes have evolved since then. I’ve mostly outgrown romance novels, especially the ones that seem more like wish fulfilment rather than actual literature (I’m looking at you, Twilight).

Joining the Goodreads community, and my forays into the book clubs around London, has exposed me to many different genres. I’ve read so many fabulous books these past couple of years, more than I can ever manage to review, and I’ve picked up books from genres that I never would have imagined myself exploring ten years ago.

The one recent and unexpected genre I’ve discovered recently is LGBT-themed books. I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonably open-minded person despite my sheltered and almost prudish upbringing. But the Philippines, being a strictly Roman Catholic country, isn’t exactly the kind of place where you’d have a bookstore that proudly boasts an LGBT section.

I came across my first LGBT-themed novel when I was challenged by one of my Goodreads friends to read a New Adult book called Him, which was actually co-written by two of my favourite authors, both of whom have published a lot of books featuring heterosexual couples. I was in between books at the time, and travelling around Western Europe by train, so I decided to give it a go.

I’ve always believed that the more we come to accept each other’s differences, the easier it us for us to accept that we are all the same despite of it. This is what I realised when reading ‘Him’. Sure, gay couples will have difficult experiences that people who are straight will never fully understand. But fundamentally, these books are all about the struggle to understand your feelings, and the courage it takes to act on them.

I think that’s something that everyone will relate to, straight, gay, bi, trans and everything in between.

At the risk of sounding corny, I think The Beatles said it right when they said that all we need is love. I think as human beings we are genetically engineered to crave companionship, no man is a bloody island after all. And that’s another running theme in all books, that human need for another person who will see the world in the same way that you see it, to paraphrase from the great John Green.

So, in honour of pride weekend, I thought I’d make a list of the fabulous, world-view-altering, and inspiring LGBT books I’ve read these past couple of years in the hopes that other readers like me will pick them up and discover what I did, that to want to love and be loved is universal. Enjoy, fellow bookworms!

Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda

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I’ve reviewed this book for my blog and I’ve recently re-read it because the movie adaptation came out. Both are equally good, but the movie doesn’t really capture the quirky, naive, confused and endearing quality of Simon’s inner thoughts.

Just to add to the diverse theme of this novel, Simon’s main love interest is also of a different race. But again reading it, I never noticed any of those things. This was just a plain old sweet and awwww-inspiring YA novel that is a must-read for any fans of the genre.

Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe

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This is another one of those YA books that ran the risk of being sickeningly sweet and overly saccharine but because it was placed in the hands of a talented author, it became a tender and romantic ode to coming-of-age and the wonders of falling in love with your best friend. The writing style reminded me a lot of Rainbow Rowell, one of my favourite YA authors. And the cover was absolutely divine.

Call Me By Your Name

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Ah, yes. The book that started my obsession for all things Timothee Chalamet. I read this book at a time in my life when I could relate to the main situation of the novel, even if not necessarily its main theme. I’ve already waxed lyrical about how much I love this book so I won’t go into it again. If you missed it, read my review here.

The Song of Achilles

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This one actually won the Orange Prize in 2012. I read it because it was recommended by fans of Call Me By Your Name. It was wonderful and sad all at the same time. I mean, I know the story of Achilles and his famous heel but somehow reading the backstory made this Greek tragedy feel even more tragic. Read with a box of tissues on hand.

Maurice

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This one I read again because of my love for all things related to Timothee Chalamet. I think the movie adaptation of this book was directed by James Ivory, who is the Academy Award winning screenwriter of Call Me By Your Name.

Anyway, this book not only deals with being gay in England at a time when it was a punishable crime, it also deals with class boundaries and the struggle to be yourself even amidst the crushing weight of familial expectations. A bit darker, less of a fluff piece, but an interesting read nonetheless.

If We Were Villains

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This one was a Waterstones bookclub recommendation that sparked the liveliest debate in all of the sessions I attended, in part because of the dodgy and inscrutable characters but also because of its ambiguous ending. This is more of a thriller than anything else but at the heart of it is the kind of passionate, boundary-breaking love that can drive someone insane. Its since become one of my favourite murder/mystery novels. Read my review here.

Him

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And finally, the book that started it all. I find it fitting that a romance novel like this  started what has since become quite a literary adventure. Okay, I may have cringed and blushed at a few of the more graphic scenes. But really, is it any different than when you read straight romance novels? I don’t think so. I’m glad I got past the initial discomfort and awkwardness of this experience, because at the heart of ‘Him’ is one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read, right up there with anything Judith McNaught or Johanna Lindsey has to offer.

And also, these guys were two best friends who eventually came to see each other in a different light. And they realised that the one thing they’ve been looking for has been standing in front of them this whole time. Sounds familiar? Of course it does.

Happy Pride Weekend everyone!

 

Posted in Books, LGBT, Movies, relationships, Reviews, romance, Self-Discovery

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name – Andre Aciman

I’ve always believed that a book’s power lies in its ability to make it’s readers feel. As someone who’s been both an avid book reader and an extremely emotional person all my life, feeling for the stories I’ve read has never been a problem for me. Its probably why I spent my first 10 years as a reader reading romance novels because they always guaranteed a happy ending; they were probably so far off the mark as far as realism is concerned, but they were relatively painless and angst-free.

This book is not painless and angst-free.

I’ve never read any book where I spent the first three chapters with a hand over my heart because it was throbbing so badly from feeling too much and because I was relating too closely to a character. I was probably twenty pages into the book when I started questioning my sanity for voluntarily subjecting myself to the kind of reading experience that exposes far too many truths about my own self and my own experiences.

Elio and Oliver meet when the latter spends the summer at the former’s villa in Northern Italy (his parents usually adopt graduate students over the summer). Elio becomes infatuated with Oliver even before he consciously realises it. It first came on as a desire to please, then later this need to be around another person all the time, as if you might die if you’re not within their orbit or if you can’t keep them within your sight at all times. It then turns into an all-consuming infatuation, even something that can almost be mistaken for love.

I am not a good enough writer to even come close to giving this book a fitting summary. All I can really say is how it made me feel. And I’m sorry, I don’t mean to take away from whatever message this book is intended to convey about love being love no matter what; I also don’t meant to disregard how important works like these are to the LGBT community (of which I am an avid supporter). But I mean it as a compliment of the highest order when I say that while I was reading this book, I completely forgot that I was reading about two guys who are discovering that everything they knew about themselves may have been a lie. All I knew was that I was reading about and relating to two people experiencing love, and all the joys and aching sorrow that comes with it, for the first time.

I was watching a video on YouTube where the actor who plays Elio was giving an interview and he says that this story, both book and film, transcends gender issues and will mean different things to different viewers/readers. And therein lies the magic of it: It becomes one thing or another depending on who watches it. Yes, its very much a thousand steps forward in terms of gay cinema/literature, but for me its simply a love story. You don’t have to be straight, gay, bi or trans to relate to this story, you just have to be human.

Anyone who’s ever felt the torture of wondering whether your feelings are reciprocated or not, anyone who’s ever experienced the agony of waiting for just one kind word or compliment from the object of their affections, anyone who’s ever felt jealous when said object seems to have feelings for someone else, anyone who’s ever done something they didn’t need to do just because the other person asked for it, anyone who’s ever been simultaneously afraid and exhilarated by the feeling of having given someone the power to either make you happy or break your heart into pieces….they will all relate to and love this book.

There’s one more thing I want to say before I end this review:

Memories are a powerful thing; they sneak up on you when you least expect it, and they surprise you with how much you can still feel even after so many years have passed. This book reminded me of two things: the first time I ever gave my heart to someone, a long long time ago; and the first time I’ve ever felt the pain of saying goodbye to someone that I knew I could have loved if we only had more time. Both were experiences that, if you ask me, I’d really rather forget because they just hurt too much. I think I pushed those memories aside so that I could have the strength to carry on with the business of living. In the process, I also probably closed off a vital part of myself without knowing it. You believe a little less, and doubt a little more because your heart’s been bruised before. I think now that I may have been wrong about that and so many other things. As Elio’s father says towards the end of this book:

We rip so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not feel anything – what a waste!

I highly highly recommend this book. Five stars, applause and a 10 minute standing ovation. Click on image below to buy on Amazon!

Posted in Books, LGBT, romance, Young Adult

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Remember your first crush?

Remember walking down the corridors of your high school and blushing whenever you catch a glimpse of that one cute guy who seems to shine just a little bit brighter than everyone else?

Remember the late night conversations with your friends trying to decipher and construe every conversation and gesture, looking for any hidden meaning or indication that he feels the same way?

Remember your first heartbreak, like when you find out he likes someone else and you comfort yourself with a tub of rocky road ice cream and listen to emo music (Jann Arden in my case)?

These are the kind of memories that this book evokes. It takes you back to a time in your life when every feeling and emotion is magnified (probably because of teenage hormones). It recalls the innocence of first love and I think it captures it perfectly, with just the right amount of self-deprecating humour, sweetness and angst. 

But you know what the most beautiful thing about this book is?

Its about two teenage boys falling in love for the first time. I am really happy to be living in a time where books like this can be published and widely read, not just by the lgbt community but by mainstream readers as well. I think that ten years ago, a kid growing up confused about his sexuality would have felt alone and depressed whereas I fervently hope that now, with all the support and books like Simon, they would know that there are other people going through the same thing and that it DOES get better.

I love Simon’s internal monologue, I really like getting into his head and seeing his take on things. I love that he is a huge fan of Harry Potter and I love that he does theatre. I love the fact that he thinks “coming out” shouldn’t be exclusive to gay people and that straight people should come out as straight too. I love that he thinks straight shouldn’t be the default setting and I love that he was able to bring a sense of humour to his own eventual coming out. 

I know that coming out is a really serious issue for teens, and I’ve read several books where this hasn’t turned out well. But, spoiler alert, its great to read a book for once where family and friends really rally around the character in order to give him support. It gives you hope that that kind of tolerance will eventually be the norm. Love is love people, get with the program.

There’s a mystery to be solved here and if you guys are anything like me, you’ll be tempted to just read through the end to find out who “Blue” is but trust me, you don’t want to spoil the experience. I honestly guessed it early on but I kept getting thrown by the red herrings. However, just like when I’m reading crime and mystery, I know that its rarely the obvious suspect whodunit because where’s the fun in that? And also if you’re really observant, Blue gives himself away in one of his emails to Simon. 

Anyway, if it was possible to die from sweetness overload, I would have keeled over last night. I finished the book and just went “awwwww“. It kinda makes me miss high school, although I wouldn’t go so far as to wish to go through adolescence again. If you’re looking for a nice and easy read, add this to your to-read list! I guarantee you won’t regret it.