Three Straightforward Reviews

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is loosely based on Sophocles’s play Antigone, its basic plot transplanted to contemporary life for British Muslims. The story is narrated from 5 POVs, 3 of them are the Pasha siblings: elder sister Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz. Isma raised the twins following their parents’ death. Their father left a legacy of disappearing to fight the jihadi cause. At the start of the novel, Isma has arrived in the USA to pursue higher learning and Aneeka has begun university. Parvaiz, adrift and feeling left out, was easily persuaded to follow in his father’s footsteps and join ISIS. In the aftermath, the Pasha sisters became connected to a father-and-son duo (the 2 remaining POVs): Karamat Lone – UK’s Home Secretary – and his son, Eamonn.

Home Fire is a short novel, too short to do its plot points and interesting ideas justice. As characters, the twins were underdeveloped. Aneeka is a loose cannon, making one reckless and unreasonable move after another. Parvaiz’s story could be an entire novel on its own, but we only got 2 chapters: one on ISIS indoctrination and a very brief sketch of life as an ISIS recruit. Which was a shame. The topic is fertile source material, but because Parvaiz’s plotline was so rushed, I didn’t feel any sympathy; I just thought he was stupid.

I am OVER the mythologizing of twins in fiction: it’s beginning to be used to explain away illogical decisions. Aneeka deeply grieved for Parvaiz and created a dramatic spectacle because of…. special twin connection. No, not convincing enough. 

It was a relief to get to Isma and Karamat Lone’s POVs. In another book, Isma would have been a dull character – responsible and homely. But she was a refreshing contrast to Aneeka, Parvaiz, and Eamonn’s navel-gazing. Karamat Lone, as a rightwing British politician of Muslim heritage, was unbending and flawed. His POV was the most energetic and compelling of the 5.

What I did enjoy about Home Fire was its commentary on the weight of expectations and gender roles. Boys struggle with the burden of expectations: how do they match, let alone surpass, their fathers? How do they become their own men without disappointing their fathers? Eamonn’s and Parvaiz’s POVs played with this in different ways. Girls, meanwhile, struggle to carve out a path for themselves. They are burdened with lack of expectations (and subsequently, lack of resources). If there are default expectations for women, it’s for them to support family and community. The needs of others often leave them unfocused, and almost too willing to sacrifice their hopes and dreams, as seen in Isma’s POV.

If anyone knows of other novels that portray this theme well, I’d love to hear your recommendations!

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Read and reviewed as part of my Classics Club Challenge

A very short collection, this book comprises 6 stories and totals only 120+ pages. The word “Rashomon” would most likely conjure to mind the famous film directed by Akira Kurosawa, which I have not had the pleasure of viewing. To be honest, all of Kurosawa’s films seem interesting, but I have only watched Throne of Blood, a Japanese adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. It isn’t my favorite Macbeth film adaptation, but Throne of Blood was directed in such a way that renders its scenes both refined (to the point of severe – which I think is meant to align with Japanese aesthetics) and lush. Its climax scene for the Macbeth character was also very striking.

Anyway, back to books – my days as a movie buff is long behind me. A fellow book blogger once told me that Rashomon the Kurosawa film was adapted from two of Akutagawa’s short stories: “In a Grove” and “Rashomon”. Reading this collection, it made sense. They were the best stories curated here. Akutagawa’s writing style has a very modern edge despite having been written in the early 1900s. His voice is deeply cynical; all 6 stories in this collection are bleak, almost nihilistic.

“Rashomon” is a punchy and concise story about a lowly retainer in old dilapidated Kyoto who has fallen on hard times and is contemplating survival. Akutagawa, in the span of 10 pages, mocked everything he could: noble ideals, the retainer himself, and even the idea of fellow man.

Pervasive bleakness permeated every story and had the unfortunate effect of making the collection monotonous. “Kesa and Morita” is an unwelcome entry as it explored a very similar idea against the more famous “In a Grove”. In both stories, multiple characters recount an event from their perspectives. Each telling was so different from the others and so self-serving that it was clear all the storytellers (and by indictment, all of humanity) were lying to save their skin or for self-interested purposes.

Final story “The Dragon” provided a bit of relief. Tonally it isn’t as hopeless and is more comedic. The voice of its Buddhist-priest narrator is perfectly whiny and pompous.

The relentless lack of faith in humanity in Rashomon and Other Stories made it a surprisingly dull read. There was no light to cut through the darkness. The lack of nuance frustrated and bored me.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber

This is one of Michel Faber’s earliest works, and while he has made a name for himself in the literary world, no one really talks about this novella anymore. I can see why. A week after I finished reading, I struggled to recall its plot for this review. Certain phrases felt show-offy, like Faber was trying hard to make an impression on you.

However, it was fun, enjoyable, and funny: a quick, refreshing gulp of a read. There were self-aware and deprecating jokes of the Gothic aplenty. The prose was excellent; it led you on nimbly and never dragged. And while certain phrases felt too try-hard, others were successfully witty and clever.

Our heroine Sian is part of an archeological dig at Whitby Abbey in Yorkshire, England. She’s a woman with a past and is harboring secrets. In Whitby, she’s haunted by routine nightmares of beheading. Then she meets a handsome man who offers her a centuries-old murder mystery in a bottle. Throughout all this, Whitby Abbey is always in the background.

(LOL, somewhere a Victorian lit professor is looking at these tropes and thinking, “tick, tick, and tick.”)

So yes, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is a Gothic mystery/romance. It’s tightly plotted and tightly written. Faber covers his story quickly to keep it readable and compelling, but keeps his pace controlled enough so that it never moves too fast or stops being enjoyable.

I think the ending is divisive. There were a few loose threads, ignored or left incomplete – and some would complain that the conclusion sputters: the novella promised lots of melodrama but did not deliver. Instead, it stops with a subdued, bittersweet, and slightly aimless closure. I like it though. The obvious ending would have been too unrealistic for me.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was first published in 2001. It’s told from a woman’s perspective but was written by a man. In our current zeitgeist, publishers would be wary of launching fiction like this. There are pros and cons associated with that, right? Hopefully writers and publishers would treat women-centered stories more responsibly and sensitively. At the same time, it would be a shame to see writers not taking risks.

Did Faber succeed in writing a believable woman narrator? A few thoughts skewed too teenage girl, but others were convincing and funny and authentic. I think Faber has a strong eye for detail regarding feminine habits, which makes me excited for the last book by him that is still unread on my bookshelf: The Crimson Petal and the White. Why haven’t I gotten to it? Oh, it’s 860+ pages. Although I suppose a door-stopper novel is perfect for these social-distancing times.

Balancing Acts

The end of February and the start of Lent have come and gone. 2020 feels like the quickest year I’ve ever lived. It was Chinese New Year barely after New Year’s Day. Before you knew it, it was Valentine’s Day. Soon it will be Easter. Does anyone else feel like 2020 is running faster than Usain Bolt? Or do years just accelerate as you grow older?

I’ve been keeping busy: with work, with making sure I have ambitious yet realistic plans for the rest of 2020, and with trying my best to maximize life in general. Certain activities have kept me balanced in the middle of all this.

Lent Resolutions

I wrote down the following resolutions for Lent:

  • Dietary change: resist junk food as best as you can. Eat more healthily and more plant-based foods.
  • No shopping, except for replacements and gifts. Books are excluded, but there’s no book currently on my wishlist anyway.

Note that neither point is excessive. It’s “resist […] as best as you can”, not “completely eliminate”. I’m using Lent not to deprive, but to balance. I’ve known for a long time that whenever I eat healthy, my body benefits – I feel good and have more energy. I’m also very aware that less healthy food tastes amazing and that it’s OK to have them – but don’t have them too often. During Lent, I just want to have them from time to time.

Same with shopping. I’ve had good self-control since I was a kid so I would never buy things I can’t afford. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t love shopping. I love clothes, jewelry, and beauty. I do think that I’ve accumulated a lot of new stuff over the past few years though. Lent provides a good time to slow down. Excess is never good for anyone. Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean you should, need to, or even want to.

(I hope this more balanced outlook can extend beyond Lent, but I reserve the right to indulge in something nice the day after Easter Sunday.)


Obviously, reading is always a comfort to turn to. I wanted to sink into something juicy, approaching guilty pleasure. Enter The Drowning King by Emily Holleman, a fictionalized account of the Ptolemaic dynasty upon and immediately after the death of Ptolemy XII the Piper, father of Cleopatra. If you know history, you know what that means – all the royal children start squabbling and scrambling for the throne. The novel is told in linear fashion, from the POVs of Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIII, 2 of Cleopatra’s younger siblings.

Question: is unicorn latte art a sign from the universe that one day you shall have a minimum value of USD 1 billion?

When my brother saw me reading The Drowning King, he said, “Haven’t you read every book about Cleopatra there is already?” I answered, “Yeah, probably.” Fun fact about me: I’ve been obsessed with Cleopatra ever since I was 7 and received a picture book on her life as a gift. Stacy Schiff’s 2010 biography was a disappointment to me as I knew its contents already. Even the title The Drowning King immediately pinpointed to me a major plot point the author would incorporate.

As a kid, my love was simple. Cleopatra was the first woman I encountered who was described as both powerful and womanly, and this duality was never judged in my picture book as something negative. I grew up in the era of the tomboy. I vividly remember the prominence of Hilary Clinton, Disney’s Mulan, and Tamora Pierce novels. I never begrudged this. In fact, as a young girl, I wished to have more masculine traits: better at sports, more visibly assertive, owning tougher edges. Yet I was always too girly for it to work. Cleopatra was the first figure I encountered who was presented as an ideal because of, not in spite of, her glamor and feminine appeal – not even necessarily because of physical beauty; many historians are unsure on whether she would fit conventional beauty standards.

As a grown up, I find it remarkable that her power and her femininity make up a whole, but each element is not dependent on the other. Without her seduction of Caesar and Antony, she’d still be powerful, rich, and intelligent. She was Queen of Egypt after all. Yet without her famed glamor and charm, she would not be the historical character who continues to fascinate us, more than 2 millenniums after her death.

I have finished reading The Drowning King and here are some thoughts:

  • It was exactly what I wanted: a fast-paced escapist read, though the pace became noticeably speedier during the novel’s second half. It was fine if a little jarring.
  • I’m not too fond of the POVs, which is understandable. I wanted more Cleopatra and this novel puts the focus elsewhere. This is Arsinoe’s story, so it was inevitable – even understandable – that she would be rendered more likeable and Cleopatra less likeable. Yet I found Arsinoe so lacking in charisma that whenever I got to her POV, I would think ‘I hope this is a short chapter.’ I enjoyed Ptolemy’s POV more, watching him flop about ineffectually is at least entertaining.
  • I’m surprised to read this portrayal of Cleopatra. She was rendered as capricious and a little random, when I consider her very pragmatic despite being a huge risk-taker. It could be caused by intentional narrative distance – this story isn’t told by Cleopatra, and her siblings are portrayed here as idealists, which would make Cleopatra incomprehensible from their perspective.
  • It amused me to see the impact of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire even here. A birthday was referred to as “name day”. Certain phrases like “japes” and “curdled lies” recall Westeros very strongly. Crass language regarding sex is spoken even by aristocrats – something I’m not sure is historically accurate. Surely the highborn would think coarse language beneath them.

Cooking & Baking

I get sporadic phases where I would want to cook all the time. The bug hit hard in February. It has dimmed but has not vanished – very helpful for my Lent resolution. Not all the food I prepared were healthy, but I enjoyed the process of making them. Some photographic evidence:

I love this idiot-proof chocolate cookie recipe by Ruby Tandoh. Over the years, I’ve changed the measurements a bit to suit my taste, but everything else remain the same. It’s what I make when I want to bake yet am too lazy to do anything strenuous or risk a failed experiment.

You know you’ve reached peak millennial when you have perfected avo toast. This version was avocado + lime juice + salt + spring onions + cherry tomatoes, topped with a sunny side up egg and more spring onions.

I made another version that was even lazier: mashed avo + feta cheese + lime juice. Pro tip: yes, you do need sourdough or an equivalent crusty bread – other breads can’t hold up the mashed avocado.

This is a curry based on one of Nigella Lawson’s older recipes. I can vouch that it tastes great and is easy to make. I even like it more as leftovers since the pumpkin continues to soften as it keeps and creates a thicker curry consistency. It’s listed as a Thai curry, but I was reminded of a regional dish called bubur Manado. As a fan of the cuisine (my grandmother is Manadonese), I’m very happy about this.


The brutal rainfall brought unprecedented flooding to Jakarta on New Year’s Day. Flooding continued to regularly hit areas of the city in February. I’m very fortunate that I wasn’t much affected. Now that we’ve entered March, the skies are still gray and gloomy.

Gray skies are good motivators to read and cook, not so much when you need to go out and be productive. Adding some color livens up my mood. When you’re a girly girl, nothing is easier to lift the spirit than color and bling.

The lighting is too warm, but surely it shows my maximalist taste

I have accumulated a lot of jewelry. My biggest addiction is earrings. The more intricate, the more I love them. Earrings are one of the reasons why I’m trying to hit the brakes on spending. I just have so many now, and over the past week, it has been lovely to plunder my collection and rediscover the ones I already have rather than seeking new ones.

What I like about these hobbies are that they feel productive (and they are, to an extent). They provide ways to unwind but aren’t necessarily frivolous. In fact, I must be cautious not to let these activities take over the time and energy I need for actual work.