study the past if you would design the future (june historical fiction roundup)

Now that it's summer, I've had a lot of free time. And between obsessively watching Gilmore Girls, playing TwoDots, and searching for my apparently long-lost Zoombini's CD, I've been reading. A lot. I've already read something like thirteen books in July alone, and I've still got dozens on my to-read list. But today, I'm focusing on a select four of the books that I read last month. Although historical fiction seems to be a rather polarising genre- you either love it, or you hate it to bits- it's always been one of my favourites. From The Other Boleyn Girl by Phillippa Gregory, to Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (one of my favourite books ever!), I will eat up any kind of historical fiction that you give me, regardless of the place or the era.

Historical fiction is so fascinating because it reminds you of the sheer power that fiction has: the words on the page transport you to another world. Circumstances and events that happened so long ago are evoked vividly on the page. It's an absolutely magical experience!

Without further adue, the four historical books that I read in June are: A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, Orphan Train by Melissa Baker Kline, Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Septys and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller.

(Fair warning: I've never actually written a book review before. I just thought it'd be interesting to try because I love books and I love to write, so I might as well write about books. If this fails horribly and terribly, we can pretend like it never happened).

(Also, I realise it's mid-July now, but never mind).

my copies of the books (except AGaTB, that's from the library)
A Great and Terrible Beauty is set in the Victorian Era (who doesn't love good Victorian fiction?), and is about Gemma Doyle, a sixteen-year-old girl who grew up in India, and moves to a boarding school in London after her mother's murder. She has visions, and eventually finds out that she's able to access another realm. On paper, this book had everything that I love: magic, mystery and boarding schools. But as much as I really wanted to like this book, I didn't.

The characters were fairly good. I really liked Gemma, and the supporting characters were also very interesting to read about (despite being incredibly one-dimensional). But the plot, overall, felt rather weak. It had a good basis, but the execution felt awkward- things weren't fully explained, there wasn't enough time devoted to important scenes. Overall, it ended up feeling very rushed, for scenes of no importance were dragged out, while others lagged. Due to this, the plot was very difficult to follow.

Overall, I wouldn't recommend it. Perhaps it gets better as the series goes on, but after this lacklustre first book, I doubt I'll be reading the rest of the series.

An orphan train
The next book I read was Orphan Train by Melissa Baker Kline, and, thankfully, this one did not let me down. I initially didn't intend to pick it up- I'd read about it on Goodreads, but had decided not to add it to my to-read list for some strange reason. But, when I saw it in the bookstore, I couldn't resist.

I'm so glad that I decided to get it, because it was an amazing reading experience. Like, amazing. There are two intertwined storylines: an orphan, Molly, helps an older lady, Vivian, clean up her attic as part of her community service. There, she learns a great deal about Vivian's past: she was an Irish orphan who was adopted into various American families as part of the orphan train movement. Both storylines are equally gripping, and it's very easy to get emotionally invested in the characters. I usually find that dual-storyline novels can get a little tedious because often, one plot is more interesting than the other. This is something that rarely occurs in Orphan Train; you are never left feeling dissatisfied by the switches in point of view.

The ending of the novel is what really makes it for me. While on the surface, the novel may simply seem to be the story of a young girl aboard an orphan train, it's a much deeper exploration of family, love, relationships and culture. I don't want to give anything away, but the novel ends on a beautiful, poignant note. Ten out of ten, would recommend.

The third book was Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Septys. It tells the story of Lina, the daughter of a Lithuanian intellectual, who is kidnapped by the Soviets and sent to Siberia. Taking place during Stalin's rule, the story perfectly demonstrates the hardship found in the Siberian work camps, all while building up beautiful characters and relationships.

Lina herself is a particularly enjoyable character to read about, although she is a little two-dimensional. What really brings her to life is her interactions with her mother, her younger brother and another boy at the camp. Through Lina's eyes, we see the double standards present, along with the comradeship, yet distance, between the fellow prisoners. Septys really makes you get attached to her characters (and then SHE BRUTALLY RIPS YOUR FAVOURITE ONES AWAY FROM YOU- sorry, slight spoiler alert).

The book is a lovely narrative, a little slow-moving in places, but a wonderful read all the same. It's quite light, and very easy to gobble up in a day.

The fourth and final book that I read was The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller. This retelling of The Iliad from Patroclus' perspective focuses on the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, interpreted here as being of a homosexual nature. The book took Miller ten years to write, and won several awards.

This book left me feeling a little torn. The actual writing was good- the prose was wonderfully vivid and well-written, but I just couldn't like the characters. In my opinion, any novel needs a compelling narrator. That doesn't mean that they have to be good people-- in fact, flawed narrators make for some of the best reading experiences (I mean, who doesn't love The Murder of Roger Ackroyd?), but they need to be interesting. Patroclus is quite the opposite of that; rather, he's incredibly passive. It seems as if he's floating through life, unable to make any decisions for himself. We only really ever see one side of the character; there's no development whatsoever, despite certain situations ripe for it. It's much the same with Achilles.

The relationship between Patroclus and Achilles was also disappointing. It had so much potential, which was all wasted through badly written, soft-core love scenes, and declarations of love that were never supported. We heard plenty about how Patroclus felt about Achilles, but we rarely saw it: not until the very end (the end, itself, was rather tedious: post the war declaration, I found myself skimming through it). Overall, despite loving Greek mythology and the original Iliad, I found this book rather disappointing. Interestingly, it seems to be a rather polarising text: while some loved it, others hated it.

So, in conclusion, last month held both great successes and great disappointments where historical fiction was concerned. I've already made headway on several more books since reading these (Go Set A Watchman,  Atonement etc.), and perhaps shall follow up this post with another book roundup.

Do you have any favourite historical novels? Please feel free to share your recommendations in the comment section below- I'm always looking for new books to read and add to my never-ending 'to-read' list!


life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes

So much has happened since I last made a proper post on this blog. I graduated high school, met my offer for the university of my choice (CAMBRIDGE!) and actually got a 45 in the IB. This summer is a bit like being in a state of suspended animation; it's that time of emptiness between school and university.

Although I am quite enjoying all of this freedom, because it means that I get to read all the books I've been wanting to read (more on that coming soon- I'm working on a roundup of the historical fiction that I read in June!) and do things that during the IB, I just didn't have time for. I've got time to do things that I love-- and after I've completed them, I don't have to write a CAS reflection about them. But still, right now, I feel like I'm floating, just waiting for university to start to kick myself back into gear.

Everything is about to change. For the first time, many members of the Class of 2015 are going to be leaving home and starting afresh in a brand new environment-- maybe even a brand new country. We're all going to have to learn how to adapt, and how to survive by ourselves (which is daunting, considering that until a few days ago, I could barely cook anything without burning it completely). It's not all going to be easy, but there are always going to be ups and downs. We've just got to maintain a positive outlook, assess the situation and remember that everything happens for a reason.

Things are going to be crazy, and I know that over the next few years, I'm going to learn a lot about myself. It's important, though, that we stay true to who we are. We're going to be tested, and sometimes, it'll be easier to follow the crowd. Two years ago, I wrote that there was probably some long psychological reason for this, but as I'd only been taking Psych for a week, I couldn't explain it. After taking Psych for two years, I think I can explain that phenomenon now: we conform to a group because we want to be right, or because we want to be liked. We follow a set of social norms either because we don't know how to act in a certain situation, or because we are afraid of social disapproval.
To anyone who's looking at this photo and thinking "what?!", this is an image of the Asch experiment. Asch (1951) put a single participant in a room full of nine confederates disguised as other participants. He gave them a line and they had to pick which comparison line (A, B or C) was of equal length. The task was so simple that when they did it alone, the participant got the answer right around 100% of the time. However, when in the room, the confederates had been instructed to give an incorrect answer. Despite knowing the correct answer, the participant would change his answer to conform to those given by the confederates. Interviews revealed that this was due to fear of social disapproval.

Here's what I think: the fear of social disapproval is a huge driving force in how many of us behave, but it doesn't have to be. Yes, there are some people who might turn their backs on you if you don't conform, but there are others who'll like you for who you are, and those people are your real friends. I don't see any point in pretending to be someone you're not; after all, there's only one of you, so why deprive the world of a chance to get to know that person?

So as we enter the next stage of our lives, it's important that we remember who we are, through all of the ups and downs. And even if we're not really sure who we are yet, we've got all the time in the world this summer to work towards finding out.

As Eric Roth once said, "It’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be."


look who's back

Hello blogverse!

It's been a while (and by a while, I mean a very very long time) since I've written here. The IB was a crazy, two-year ride and I spent practically all my time writing IAs, studying an insanely large syllabus, applying to university and doing CAS. But now it's OVER!

This is just a short post to say that I'm back. I plan to update this blog much more frequently over the summer, so stay tuned!


disney, you've come so far.

Hello everyone! Apologies for not writing in so long, I've been really caught up with school and other such things. I hope you guys all had a great Christmas and hopefully you'll all have an amazing New Year. Dubai is planning to break the world record for fireworks displays by having a 45-minute fireworks show at landmarks across the city. It's going to be very pretty, but also very smoky and foggy the next morning...

Anyway, on the 11th of December, I got to go and see 'Saving Mr. Banks' with my friend Ciara at Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) an entire week before general release. 'Saving Mr. Banks' is an emotional roller-coaster of a movie that is about the author of Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers, and how she reflects on her tragic childhood during meetings with Walt Disney regarding the adaptation of her novel. It depicts Disney studios during the late 1950's to early 1960's and really is a must-watch. Another recently released Disney movie that I watched was Frozen, the latest addition to the Disney princess series. Together, these two movies got me thinking about how much Disney has evolved since it started. I will warn you now: this post contains major spoilers for Frozen, so if you haven't seen the movie, I suggest you stop reading now.

Concept art for Anna from Frozen

If you're still reading, I'll assume that you've watched the movie. Frozen really broke the norm for Disney princess movies, and it did this in several ways. First, the prince. In early Disney movies, most notably Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, the princess had no trouble or second thoughts about marrying a man she had just met. While that might have been fine at the time, it may not send the right message to young girls today, as you now can't completely trust someone who you've only recently met. Frozen communicates this- Anna gets engaged to Hans, a prince from a nearby kingdom, on the night that they meet and she is sure it's true love. As it turns out, all he wants is to steal her crown. Clearly, that engagement didn't turn out so well.

Frozen also helped to show that over the years, Disney's female characters have become more independent. If you look at the three classics again-  Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, you'll notice that the women are all reliant on their prince. Snow can only defeat her evil stepmother with the help of her prince, Cinderella can only escape her evil stepmother and ugly stepsisters by getting married to the prince, and Aurora can only be saved from Maleficent's sleeping curse through a kiss from a prince. The men are constantly coming to save them. This trend continued into a few of the more modern Disney films, such as The Little Mermaid, where Eric is the one who needs to give Ariel her voice back. 
Screencap from Sleeping Beauty
However, it does start to change. In Beauty and the Beast, Belle is intelligent and brave, and instead of the Beast saving her, she saves the Beast. It's the same thing in Tangled- Rapunzel saves Flynn. Mulan is the toughest of all Disney protagonists- she doesn't get married, defends China against the Huns and instead of the men saving her, she saves all the men. And of course, we have to look at Merida from Brave, who saves her kingdom single-handedly. In Frozen, Kristoff may have rushed to save Anna from freezing solid, but in the end, it's her sister, Elsa, who saves her. 

Frozen proves to audiences that it is possible to save yourself, rather than to wait for some prince to come and save you. And like Brave, it shows the importance of family relationships. Merida's relationship with her mother was a key part of the main storyline in Brave and in Frozen, the relationship between Anna and Elsa was at the forefront of the movie.

Screencap from Brave
In conclusion, Disney princesses always have been and will always continue to be role models for young girls. It is important, therefore, that these characters communicate the right message. As Walt Disney once said: "movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood."


time and space, you watch us run.


To celebrate, I decided to harness my editing skills (because I so totally have editing skills) and create a tribute to my favourite series of Doctor Who- series 6 of the 2005 reboot. This particular series was perfect for a number of reasons- it presented us with a perfectly timey-wimey mystery, elaborated on the idea that 'silence will fall when the question is asked', and gave us the intriguing backstory of River Song. It also helps that the 11th Doctor is my favourite doctor and the Ponds are my favourite companions. What's not to love? 

Doctor Who will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of the best sci-fi shows of all time. When people ask what it's about, it can be simply described as a show about a man who can fly through time and space in a box called the TARDIS. But it's more than that. Doctor Who is about compassion, love, sacrifice, power, empathy and so many other wonderful things. 

Here's to another 50 years of Doctor Who! 


whoever controls the media controls the mind

Hello everyone!  I'm so sorry for not writing in such a long time- I've been really caught up with school work, SAT preparation and work for various extra curricular activities. Blegh. However, I did have some really exciting moments over the last month. I turned 15, got accepted as a student officer for THIMUN Hague (are any of you guys going?) and even dressed up as River Song for Hallowe'en. Fun stuff. Anyway, I'm not here to talk about my life right now. Today's post is centered around a simple and often discussed topic: messages from the media.

The media dominates our lives. It's everywhere - In our homes, at school, on the roads. Media reaches us through several different forms, from television, to the Internet, to the billboards we see on the highway and the advertisements on taxis and sometimes the stickers on cars. Wherever we look, we're being convinced to buy a certain product because it will make us more beautiful/intelligent/attractive to men or women/etc. However, many of the ideas conveyed by the media are negative and self-deprecating. The fact that we're constantly being bombarded with these messages means that the negativity is very, very hard to ignore.

One of the largest problems with mass media is the message that it sends regarding our body images. The women and men that you see in the media always fit exactly the same criteria: skinny, fair-skinned, glossy hair, and golden ratio facial features. This is not an accurate representation of humans. We're all of different shapes and sizes. We all have different skin tones, different hair types and different features. But the media tells us that only a select should be considered beautiful. They sell us products that they claim will help us become their definition of beautiful, such as the skin-whitening creams mentioned in my last post. Those of us who don't fit this criteria often suffer from a warped self image that drives some of us to develop life-threatening diseases, such as bulimia and depression just because they don't look a certain way. I've previously talked about that over here.

There are several other issues that plague the media. It contains a huge amount of glorified violence and abusive behaviour. Seeing violence in the media has negative, long-term effects on us: it causes us to become desensitised, meaning that we become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others. We may become more fearful about the world around us, or be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways to others. Cultural stereotypes are prominent in the media, diminishing the richness of human diversity. The media also peddles gender stereotypes, differentiating products for young children through colours and labels, convincing them that the genders are completely different and they both require completely different items.

Messages from the media influence how we think. Mass media can be considered a shared system of knowledge, one that largely affects our mindset. It can affect how we feel about ourselves, how we interact with others and most importantly, our beliefs and values. Historically, beliefs and values are learnt through local communities. They are taught by family members, educational systems, cultural groups and our own balanced judgment. While we continue to learn much from those in our community circles, our values about what is 'right', 'true' or 'beautiful' are greatly influenced by the media. If something is depicted as positive in the mass media, then we tend to accept it, no matter how negative our balanced judgment or previous knowledge tells us that it is. 

Although right now, messages in the media are mostly negative, we can use it to do good. If the media influences the accepted norms around us, we should be able to use it in order to make sure that those norms are realistic. For example, H&M recently released an advertising campaign for their latest swimsuit line, where they used a plus-sized model. In recent years, companies such as Disney have begun to embrace diversity; in 2009, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog became the first African-American Disney princess. 

It's good to see the media tackling issues that are relevant to our world today because it is through mass media that our mindsets begin to change, as it influences our values. If models are of different shapes, sizes, races and looks, if violence is no longer glorified, if diversity is embraced, then the media will be influencing our world for the better. If the media begins to transmit positive messages, maybe the people who have negative self-images will begin to feel empowered. 

We can change the negativity that has plagued the media for so long if we just begin to question it. If we identify where it's going wrong, we can take measures to steer it back onto the right path and make a difference for the better. As Jim Morrison once said "whoever controls the media controls the mind."


the girl next door is evolving

On the 15th of September 2013, Nina Davuluri made history by becoming the first woman of Indian descent to win the Miss America title. Immediately after her victory, there was a backlash of racist comments on social media that has since been highly publicised. Thousands of tweets were published about how Miss America apparently "isn't American"and therefore shouldn't have won. In my opinion, this is highly unfair- Nina was born and brought up in the States and therefore qualifies for the competition. Just because she doesn't embody the image of a typical blonde and blue-eyed beauty does not mean that she didn't deserve to win. As Nina herself said, "Miss America is viewed as the girl next door, and she is always evolving."America, as a country, is a huge melting pot of different cultures and through Nina's win, it is evident that the Miss America pageant is celebrating this diversity. 

Nina Davuluri at the traditional dipping of toes in the Atlantic Ocean after the pageant. Source: Vancouver Sun.
As the media coverage of the negative messages on social media died down, another debate emerged. This time it was about whether or not Nina would have won the pageant back in the country of her origin: India. Why? Because her skin is too dark. Many Indian and South Asian writers have noted that you wouldn't be likely to see someone of Nina's skin colour in a pageant. Indian beauty queens, such as Sushmita Sen and Aishwarya Rai are typically fair-skinned, because South Asian individuals often see light skin as being more beautiful. Back in 2003, when Miss India contestants were being prepped for the pageant, they had weekly sessions with a dermatologist. Each and every one of the women ended up taking some kind of medication to alter her skin.

This obsession with fairer skin drives a market of skin lightening products. India's whitening-cream market was valued at a whopping $432 million in 2010. Such products are hard to ignore- whenever I go to India, I always see several advertisements for different kinds of whitening products. These advertisements often feature a darker-skinned woman getting turned away from marriage or a job before the product appears, suggesting that by lightening her skin, all of her problems will magically disappear.

Yet there is a double standard involved here. While people in Asia are trying to lighten their skin, people in European countries are trying to darken it. Being in an international school which has eighty-three nationalities, I hear different people expressing different opinions regarding their skin tone. I have heard several Indian's complaining about how they're too dark, but I've also heard several people from Europe complaining about how their skin is too light and refuses to take on any colour. In the same way that South Asians use lightening products, Westerners use tanning products to give their skin a darker glow. What's even worse is that all of these products have major health risks: tanning beds expose skin to sharp UV rays that could cause skin cancer, while whitening creams can contain dangerous chemicals that cause hypertension and even some forms of cancer.

So what does this mean for us? Why do we expose ourselves to such dangerous health risks just to change our appearance? The skin colour debate is one that will continue across the world for a long time, but here's what I have to say about it. We should be comfortable just the way we are. If we are born with darker skin, so be it, and if we are born with super pale skin, so be it. I'm originally Indian, but was born and brought up in New Zealand, so when I was little, I was always surrounded by people who had fairer skin than I did. Now in Dubai, I'm surrounded by people who all have different skin tones. I think that no matter where you are, you should be comfortable in your own skin. As Steve Maraboli said: "There is nothing more rare, nor more beautiful, than a woman being unapologetically herself; comfortable in her perfect imperfection. To me, that is the true essence of beauty.”

PS: If you don't love Nina yet, you should read this. Congratulations Nina! You're an inspiration to us all.