Wednesday, December 05, 2007


Every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories, and false namings of real events. - Adrienne Rich

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Book of a Thousand Days (Shannon Hale)

I wasn't acquainted with the Brothers Grimm's Maid Maleen until I encountered Shannon Hale's Book of a Thousand Days, which uses the said tale as jump-off point for her latest YA novel. Someone told me it was her best one yet, but while this was well-written, I think I'll still award the superlative to her The Goose Girl.

The fairy tale is set in a world that has a Central Asian feel. Dashti is a mucker, more at home with yaks and goats than with nobility. By a twist of fate, she becomes handmaid to Lady Saren, whose refusal to marry a powerful lord has resulted in her being locked in a tower for seven years. Dashti included. It's enough to make a girl cry, but not our heroine. Instead, she keeps her wits about and tries to make life easier for her and her mistress. Lady Saren's spurned suitor makes threatening visits to their little tower, but so does her betrothed, the gallant Khan Tegus. But the tower walls have broken Lady Saren's spirit, and she insists that Dashti answer for her when confronted by both lover and enemy. It is not long before Dashti falls in love with the Khan herself and figures out a way out of the tower. But Saren's home is no more, and Dashti leads her to -- surprise, surprise -- Khan Tegus' kingdom.

Ms. Hale takes liberties with the original tale, of course, and I enjoy where she takes the story. Perhaps what keeps me from heaping praise on this novel is the fact that I found the first part of Thousand Days, when Dashti and Saren are still imprisoned in their tower, quite tedious. And to think this was the part that was most faithful to the Grimm's story, minus the visiting suitors. I certainly had fears that I would be reading a thousand days that detail the decreasing inventory of grain and cheese in the girls' larder.

Thankfully, the story picks up when they escape and progresses with an almost Cinderella-like (read: rags to riches) development. Dashti is a quintessential Hale heroine, admirably determined and resourceful, but after some time I suppose I would like to read one of her stories where the heroine isn't. Still, Ms. Hale loses none of her lyrical prose with Thousand Days. It carries with it the flavor I love best about her works: quietly told, observant and deliberate.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Dark Horse (Marcus Sedgwick)

After being sorely disappointed with Marcus Sedgwick's The Book of Dead Days, I wasn't too keen about reading his other works. But somehow, I couldn't resist the appeal of The Dark Horse, and I'm glad for it.

Mouse is a foundling. When Sigurd's tribe saves her from wolves and adopts her into their own, they grow to be brother and sister, content with their peaceful way of life. But this all changes when they come across a mysterious box and the strange man who comes with it. Mr. Sedgwick's novel may read like an archetype but in the end, it gave me one of the most unexpected developments I've encountered, right up there to finding out who four of the five last Cylons are. Maybe even more.

I'm often at a loss for words when I encounter a book that I truly enjoy, and this is one of those times. I found that Dark Horse didn't have that self-aware air that I disliked so much about Dead Days. It moved at such a brisk pace, with each plot point equally important to the unravelling of the mystery. The language is as sparse and stark as the setting, and it serves to underscore the story's themes.

Mr. Sedgwick proves that there's still something unexpected and original present in young adult fiction. This made me even want to give Dead Days another chance, if only I didn't give my copy away as a Christmas present. Come to think of it, if all his books were this good, then I'll be filling my shelf with his works pretty soon.

Sunday, November 04, 2007


If you feel the need to write music, or play it, then do so, but believe me, your creativity is of no interest to anyone. Write something--then it's there. If it's what you wanted to write, if it exists, then leave it. If it doesn't, throw it away. Your beautiful state of mind is totally irrelevant. - Marcus von Altenburg, A Song for Summer

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Minister's Daughter (Julie Hearn)

I had a passing fascination for Wicca back in my university days. I never went all The Craft on anyone (much to my very Catholic mother's relief), but I did come to respect this often-misunderstood religion. But Wiccan fascinations aside, I confess that I was drawn to Julie Hearn's The Minister's Daughter, also known as The Merrybegot, more by the half-mischievous, half-sinister expression on this edition's cover.

It's no surprise that a tale such as this ends in Salem. But the real story--Nell's story--happens somewhere in west England. Nell is granddaughter to the village's cunning woman, already the subject of the Puritan minister's disapproval. Nell not only has to worry about her grandmother's fate and failing health; she also has to contend with the minister's daughter, Grace, the village's golden girl. Nell and Grace share a secret, but it is not long before one accuses the other of witchcraft.

Readers of young adult fiction might enjoy the historical facts embedded into this well-written family drama. The core of this tale really lies in the relationships of the characters--their weaknesses and their heartbreaks, their loves and their desires. I expected The Crucible and got something else entirely. Another thing I didn't expect was the mix of piskies and faeries in these pages. The introduction of the supernatural as truth lent the story a slightly different guise from the plain historical fiction narrative. Did I like it? Not so much, since I thought it detracted from the severity of the topic, but the story wouldn't have moved in the direction that Ms. Hearn intended without its presence.

One interesting element is the inclusion of spells and herbal remedies in the story. Throughout the story, Nell recounts the various charms she has learned from her grandmother. Here is one such spell, though its effectiveness was never shown:

A Spell to Make a Lad Swoon with Desire
On a spring or summer's morning--
and best it be a Friday, on a waxing moon--
follow the one your heart is fixed upon
until he maketh a clear footprint in the earth.
Dig out the earth and bury it beneath a willow tree
with a lock of thine own hair and a sprinkle of petals
from a pink geranium. Tilt thy face toward the sky,
and declare, in utter certainty:
"As many earths on earth there art,
so shall I win my true love's heart."
So mote it be. (p. 94)

Sadly, there are no willow trees where I live. Maybe Nell would have taught me more than I thought.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Scott Lynch)

Thank goodness for context clues. Because of them, I'm not apologizing for thoroughly enjoying Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, a fantasy read that adeptly utilizes the worldbuilding practice that a lot of literary voices seem to condemn. Context clues helped me get through the twelve Capital Letters in the first sentence alone.

But more than his context clues, I really should give Mr. Lynch credit for the exciting and cinematic approach that Lies takes. Set in the Venice-inspired city of Camorr, it follows the exploits of Locke Lamora and his small gang of con artists, the Gentlemen Bastards. Unfortunately for Locke, he gets caught in another game where he becomes pawn of The Grey King, a mysterious figure out to get Camorr's mafia overlord. There was a breathless quality to the narrative that I found engaging. The pacing just right for my speed, the characters deliciously archetypal but still fascinating to read. While there are no surprises in characterization here, I applaud Mr. Lynch for his characters' well-developed quirks, from smarmy Locke to the often-mentioned-but-conspicuously-absent Sabetha. At times, though, I found myself questioning the logic behind Locke's decisions, but the story swept me from one plot point to the other, giving me time to wonder only after I finished the book. Find fault with Lies, but I highly doubt it will be on the con and action area.

They said that there was a lot of undeserved hype over this book. But (surprise, surprise) I liked it. So is there any other point that I should make in this review (other than the fact I probably shouldn't be reviewing books that critics have deemed unworthy)?

Apparently, there is; it's my blog anyway. If you like your fantasy with fast-paced swashbuckling (damn, I swore I wasn't going to use that word in this review) action, then The Lies of Locke Lamora comes well-recommended.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels. - Simone de Beauvoir

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky/ Kent Williams)

It all started when Nick called for help in choosing his next purchase among the graphic novels before him. I asked him what his options were. At the mention of Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, I totally tuned out the rest. In the end, Nick bought me a copy of my own, and it was the first birthday present I received this year.

Thing is, I've been meaning to watch the film when I first heard the story. How Mr. Aronofsky first cast Brad Pitt to star in this surreal, multi-dimensional quest to save a life, and how he had to subsequently pack up when the star walked away from the project. I missed the screening when it was released in Manila, and up until now, I still haven't gotten around to seeing it.

Thank goodness for the graphic novel, though. I found Kent Williams' art a fitting complement to Mr. Aronofsky's tale(s?). Isabella, Queen of Spain, sends her captain Tomas to the mystic land of Chetumal for the Tree of Life, in defiance of the Church. Their story, fact or fiction, is the subject of present-day Izzi Creo's novel. Izzi is dying of cancer while her research scientist husband Tommy slices open monkeys to find a cure. Does she die? Ask Tommy who, in the far future, is floating through space with the Tree of Life. In a bubble. Towards a star about to go supernova. All throughout this interweaving of lives, Mr. Williams' art does an admirable job of keeping up. It turns striking and bloody as the conquistadores duke it out with the Church and the Mayans, sparse and monochromatic during Izzi's battle with cancer, soft and lush when Tommy turns Zen in space.

But The Fountain survives more on the mood it envokes rather than the clarity of its narrative, which is hardly the point anyway. Visually and emotionally, it is multi-layered and ambitious, yet it communicates on a very personal level. Tommy's struggle with Izzi's sickness, in particular, impresses upon the reader a moment of pure heartbreak: a missing ring. At the heart of The Fountain is the survival of love: the strength to face death and embrace life in spite of it. 'Welcome the pain,' it exhorts, but without any cynicism or bitterness or emo-artiste-pathos.

Personally, there is much to celebrate today, and the graphic novel only serves to drive the point further home. So laugh. Cry. Live. Die. Rejoice. It leaves behind a message of hope which is perhaps, in the end, the nicest present of all. Have a nice life, you.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Countess Below Stairs (Eva Ibbotson)

Why did it take me years to find Eva Ibbotson? After spending an afternoon with her A Countess Below Stairs (also known as The Secret Countess), I was determined to find more of her books. Powerbooks carries her children's books, but of her adult titles, I could only find A Song for Summer, and I'm not really in the mood for a World War II novel.

What was it with A Countess Below Stairs that drew me to the story? The premise is a fairy-tale. Young Anna Grazinsky escapes the revolution that destroys her pampered life in Russia and finds herself in the employ of the soon-to-be-married Earl of Westerholme. Please. We know how this will end, right? But Ms. Ibbotson draws a very charming heroine in Anna, all grace and smiles and never-say-die attitude. While one may complain about the flatness of her characters (the good guys are unerringly good, the bad guys are comically bad, and there are really no surprises here), they somehow seem fresh under Ms. Ibbotson's pen. Muriel Hardwicke, the ambitious woman to whom young Rupert is engaged, is obsessed with eugenics and makes for a fine caricature of one both deplorable and hilarious. Ollie Byrne, the Westerholme's crippled neighbor, is simply adorable whether she's bursting with laughter or sulking in her room. Proom, the kind yet rigid butler, is as enterprising as he is observant, the hidden knight with shining cutlery. And Ms. Ibbotson even throws in a dog.

Countess is a feel-good romance, a historical fairy-tale, plain and simple. A romance fan won't be able to keep from smiling throughout the read. It's no Gosford Park, but readers will get a feel of the class system at work at the Westerholmes' as well as its surrounding households. It's no Pride and Prejudice, but it creates a satisfying romance amid the social commentary. The novel is infused with Anna's innocence and good nature, that somehow it's enough to leave you thinking that all is right with the world.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Love. Precocious evolutionary move, fashioning Cylons to be capable of experiencing it. I don't know if it was engineered as a tactical imperative,'s not for the faint-hearted, is it? Perhaps Cylon love is not the same as human love. Perhaps it's designed to hurt a little less. - Romo Lampkin, Battlestar Galactica

Let's be Cylons together.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)

Less than twelve hours in Singapore and already I needed a distraction from what could have been (or could not) the most important interview of my life, unless I count Judgement Day. Armed with a map, an umbrella, and a phone I couldn't use, I braved the rains to look for my favorite bookstores.

It seemed I wasn't the only one negotiating through unknown territory that day. At Borders, I picked up China Mieville's Un Lun Dun, where friends Zanna and Deeba find themselves in a strange version of their own home. While UnLondon immediately brings images of Neil Gaiman's London Below to mind, the new-world-as-seen-by-a-young-protagonist reminds me more of Clive Barker's Abarat. But let's set aside the comparisons. In fact, that's what Un Lun Dun is all about: the breaking of preconceptions and stereotypes.

The city's Chosen One isn't the Chosen One. The prophecies are useless. The amazing quest that one would expect young heroes from other dimensions would undergo doesn't happen the way you'd picture it. In this regard, Un Lun Dun does a remarkable job to break one's notion of how a quest myth should turn out. At one point, I wanted to reason with the protagonist, "But that's not how it works!" before realizing how brainwashed I've been by the fundamental structure of quests. Still, Joseph Campbell's monomyth holds true: hero enters a new world and is called to a quest, hero faces trials, hero reaches resolution, hero returns. (Or at least, that's the theory in a nutshell.) And that, of course, is what happens here. In a nutshell.

It took me a while before I could get used to the chapter breaks. Forgive me, Mr. Mieville, but the term I will use now is 'sputtering' because reading the first few chapters reminded me of my first time behind the wheel. The car moved a meter or so, and then stopped. Another meter, and then stopped. While I have never gotten the hang of driving, I was thankfully able to adjust to Un Lun Dun's flow.

The commonality of myths is often addressed in fiction, but it's refreshing to see it in a work primarily addressed to children. Un Lun Dun isn't just for fans of Mr. Mieville, who will appreciate his change of pace (and perhaps, like me, try to find my own UnGun); it's also for anyone who's looking for a fun (and maybe read-aloud) adventure with umbrellas and milk cartons, but one that still leaves the reader with something to think about as he closes the book.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)

That's not quite the book I own. You see, mine has the word 'bestseller' bannered across the top, a word that made me stay away from this intriguing read for so long. I know it sounds elitist, but I guess I just don't like being part of the hype. Until Tuesday came, and I was looking at five hours doing nothing at the airport save for breathing (I forgot to grab some reading material from my own shelves). So Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale became mine, and I didn't regret the impulse buy at all -- 'bestseller' claim notwithstanding.

Margaret Lea is a bookkeeper and an amateur biographer who is asked to write the elusive life story of Vida Winter, an acclaimed novelist. Ms. Winter has had several biographies published, none of them real. Now faced with illness and a haunting desire ('Tell me the truth,' a young man once implores her, a request she doesn't grant), Ms. Winters hopes to finally exorcise the ghosts of her past via a written reckoning. Ms. Setterfield's protagonist, Margaret, is not without her own ghosts, and

What I like most about The Thirteenth Tale is how nothing is wasted in the flashbacks that slowly reveal Ms. Winters' story. They do more than shed light on the characters; they are all important plot points. (Wow. That sounds overly simplistic. Hooray, bluntness.) Where other authors dwell on subplots to enrich the mood and heighten the emotion (a practice I certainly don't frown upon), Ms. Setterfield commands each scene to concentrate on the main story, which really works in this case. I also liked how the time frame was deliberately vague; there are clues, of course, but it added to the mysterious air the way I couldn't quite put my finger on the era.

The story plays up the strangeness of twins, and this certainly made me take a step back from the characters in Ms. Winters' past. I doubt the readers were truly meant to empathize with them in the first place, drawn the way they were as players in a gothic tale. But Ms. Winters' narration, as well as Margaret's involvement with the matter and her personal struggles, gives the events a human touch, and you begin to feel the bereavement with which these women have not come to terms.

I had spent more than five hours at the airport plus another three on the plane, and still I kept reading. I was excited to start my personal adventure in a different country, and still I kept reading. For a gothic mystery, The Thirteenth Tale is heavy and engaging. I couldn't resist the pull of the pages, and I couldn't guess how it was going to end. For a drama, it has just fallen short of moving me to tears, but it still manages to depict the bonds of sisterhood -- and its pains and losses and obsessions.

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)

Nothing about my recent run of good fortune could have prepared me for the attending joy that followed my sighting of Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Say what you will about heroic and traditional fantasy, but The Last Unicorn remains, for me, one of the must-read books of the genre.

Where one expects a happily-ever-after in a familiar medieval world, Mr. Beagle instead fashions a not-so-traditional tale. Schmendrick the magician frees the last unicorn from Mommy Fortuna's Midnight Carnival and the two set off to find what has happened to the other unicorns. Their search leads them to King Haggard, and to help the unicorn from sharing the same fate as the others of her kind, Schmendrick transforms her into a woman. It is as a woman that she discovers other magic that exists in the world--magic like love, and courage, and sacrifice.

Schmendrick's act eventually leads the unicorn, now known as the Lady Amalthea, to declare that 'I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do (p. 207).' But no one can claim that it was pure folly, for the change advents an inordinate amount of good as well. It is with this dynamic of regret and consequence that Mr. Beagle injects bittersweet realism into his fantasy, resulting in a tale over which young girls may swoon tragically and about which adults may nod sagely: "I've been there, I know that, I am no hero but I do." (Is realism always to be bittersweet? We have heroes and magicians and ex-unicorns who would probably attest to that.)

I grew up reciting lines from The Last Unicorn as my mantra. 'Take me with you,' Schmendrick implores the unicorn, 'for laughs, for luck, for the unknown (p. 44),' and she does. I came on that journey so many years ago, and as I close my new copy, I'm glad that I've never really left the path. Mr. Beagle's prose is as familiar as the dreams we inhabit, and never a stranger.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Truth-Teller's Tale (Sharon Shinn)

Twin sisters Adele and Eleda of the palindromic names are far from having identical personalities. But faster than you can say "Sweet Valley," The Truth-Teller's Tale takes you to the medieval countryside where Edela is a Truth-Teller, who is compelled to tell the truth when asked. Her sister Adele, on the other hand, is a Secret-Keeper, never betrays anything she hears in confidence. Not exactly Sweet Valley fare.

Young readers may find the plot likeable enough, despite the way it moves to a predictable denoument. Even with the additional complications brought by forbidden romances, arranged marriages, and mistaken identities, Truth-Teller offers no major surprises. But I find that its appeal lies in this simplicity. At the heart of it, Truth-Teller is a tale of two sisters growing up into their own women, making decisions on their own, and celebrating their differences. Another plus is that the rural setting of Merendon and their customs are well-realized, so reading this is a truly relaxing experience. All you'll need is a wide meadow and a river that runs through it. I only wish that the novel had dealt more with the twins' struggling with their roles, especially at the beginning, when they were only starting to come into their own. True, the moral dilemma emerged towards the climax, but I'm of an opinion that readers would relate to the twins more if they showed us their vulnerability early on.

Fans of Shannon Hale's The Goose Girl and Cynthia Voigt's Jackaroo may want to give Truth-Teller a try. It's not as action-packed as the other books, but all three emanate with the same spirit of discovery and coming-of-age in a medieval world.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Interlude: Sentimentality.

For a span of nearly two weeks, I have inhabited the pockets of a dream called Proposal Daisakusen, an 11-episode Japanese drama. My tears come easily, despite all my best intentions, but this time, they burst right on cue with every single episode. That effing dorama had my number. Called every night, and then some.

Here's to coffee milk, second chances, and the lives we leave unlived.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Etched City (KJ Bishop)

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, I wanted my own Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper. They were bright pink and pretty and nearly every girl had them, but they were really too expensive for my humble allowance. But because I still wished to be part of the herd, I meh-ed until my parents gave in--only to realize that no amount of trapping or keeping was going to save my school stuff from my supreme disorganization. And that I hated bright pink. I suppose that should have made me learn my lesson that not everything I wanted was actually right for me. Sadly, I'm slow on the uptake.

When I put down my copy of The Etched City, all I could think about was that Trapper Keeper. You see, for years now, I thought I wanted to go to Ashamoil and I ended up wishing I had taken the wrong train.

KJ Bishop's The Etched City chronicles the lives of two ex-revolutionaries looking for a second chance: Gwynn the merciless, and Raule, the doctor who rues the conscience she has lost long ago. After a brief and tenuous alliance as they journey through the Copper County, they reach Ashamoil and part ways.

Let's get one thing clear before I proceed. I admire Ms. Bishop's ability to create the grandiose yet crumbling city of Ashamoil, where the decadent and the grotesque carve out their lives. But the metaphysical talk was sorely lost on me. See, I want to be fair to Ms. Bishop by reminding you that I am likely not her audience, so anything you read here should not be taken as gospel truth. But I also want to be fair to readers who might want more fantasy than philosophy by warning you about this bit beforehand.

Proceeding. When the characters find themselves in Ashamoil, it doesn't take me long to fall out of like with the book. (I must be crazy. The book's well-received. It was nominated for the 2004 World Fantasy Awards.) Still, I found Gwynn one-dimensional and sadly, Raule doesn't get half the attention that Gwynn does. Gwynn is enamored by the engraver, Beth Constanzin, who inducts him into the surreal within Ashamoil. Beth may be wise and temptingly enigmatic, but I'm still not hooked by the story. It is Beth, though, who utters one of my favorite lines from the book: 'With inspiration and passion, and perhaps a little tragedy. Or perhaps cynically, in back rooms, behind closed doors (p. 157),' she says when asked of her art. I suppose I can never really dislike artists.

Set-up, set-up, set-up, and nearly twenty chapters later, rising action. I meandered along with the languid narration only to reach a climax and resolution that I thought was too deus ex machina. I got off the train. While I rejoice that writers such as Ms. Bishop give us more than the Tolkien fare, it saddens me that we automatically assume that fantasy novels that still have their share of knights and wizards are bad. At the end of the day, all I really want from a fantasy novel--or anything, for that matter, even Trapper Keepers--is one that will leave me with the magic of satisfaction.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation (Lauren Willig)

Procrastination, thy name is Chris. I had finished Lauren Willig's The History of the Pink Carnation and The Masque of the Black Tulip in less than a day since I borrowed them from Oz a few weeks back, but I was too preoccupied with other matters (like the naming of dogs and the purchasing of blue hair dye) to write. I suppose some books can wait to be reviewed. But here, my first historical romance review. Reviews, I mean.

I started out with Ms. Willig's Pink Carnation only because it's logical to begin with the first book in any trilogy, even if it was the plot of the second book that I liked better. Still, first things first. Meg Cabot calls the book a "genre-bending read" since it has two love stories in one. Not quite genre-bending in my book (nor highly original: think Possession, The Conjurer's Bird or, if you want to stick to the historical romance genre, Remembrance), but still very much worth the read if you like this sort of thing. And I do. So, yay.

Pink Carnation introduces us to Eloise Kelly, who is England to finish her dissertation on aristocratic espionage. Research, research, meets descendant of one of her topics, earns access to private journals, meets dashing but snooty grandson, sparks. Anyway, she learns about the identity of the Pink Carnation via the letters of Amy Balcourt, who wants to join the league of aristocratic spies (not because it was fashionable at that time). Amy meets the dashing Purple Gentian, meets his alter-ego Lord Richard Selwick, sparks. Also, they foil Napoleon's plans to invade England. See, I have no qualms of spoiling it all this way because we all know how these things end anyway. But more importantly, the book also introduces us to Richard's sister Henrietta, and his best friend Miles Dorrington.

Which brings us to Ms. Willig's Black Tulip. I liked Pink Carnation fair enough, but it wasn't outstandingly memorable. I must confess that I read the genre for the romance, not for its historical accuracy, so I do look for something unique about the main pair. In Pink Carnation's case, I was unforgivingly comparing it to Jude Deveraux's The Raider, whose characters, I thought, had more charm and appeal.

But Black Tulip is one of the very few romance novels I've ever read that featured a pair who were actually friends--and that in itself is memorable. It convincingly chronicles how Henrietta and Miles grow from childhood friends to lovers amidst the spying and the double-dealing going on. They argue, they get jealous, they kiss, they get confused. Wonderful pair, rerally. True, Pink Carnation had more of the spy stuff, but inevitably, it was towards Miles and Hen's tandem that I gravitated. My only (tiny) complaint about Black Tulip was that it had more of Eloise and Colin (the said dashing yet snooty grandson, who by this time isn't at all snooty, but of course we knew that). I guess I just wanted more Miles and Hen.

Despite my complaints, Ms. Willig writes fine historical romances. She shies away from the simpering female stereotype so common in this genre and manages to create situations where you don't question why her heroines don't always follow what society expects of them. And when it comes to historical accuracy, I don't think I'll be second-guessing Ms. Willig, who is a candidate for a PhD in history at Harvard. I could, you know, read up on this interesting period, but like i said: procrastination.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Saffron and Brimstone (Elizabeth Hand)

Skinny came bearing gifts. In one afternoon, I found myself the unexpected owner of KJ Bishop's The Etched City, Justina Robson's Living Next-Door to the God of Love, and Elizabeth Hand's Saffron and Brimstone.

I first saw Ms. Hand's short story collection at a local bookstore and was admittedly drawn by the reviews. Contemporary fantasy with a markedly feminine tone? Sold! But I was strapped for cash at that time and never found the book again. Thankfully, Skinny stepped in to buy me a copy in Singapore, and I tore into as soon as we parted.

Ms. Hand's gentle voice and disciplined eye made me breeze through "Cleopatra Brimstone," which I found intriguingly horrifying, though the outcome was not completely unexpected. Her "Pavane for a Prince of Air" struck a more personal chord with me as it dealt with the pain of loss, speaking of 'the impossible bargains I made at three o' clock in the morning with the pagan deities flitting about the room: what I would give up to save him, which digits, which hand, which leg; eyesight, the power of speech, an ear; two; my tongue (p 73-74).' I was beginning to like Ms. Hand more and more, even if I wasn't taking to "The Least Trumps" and "Wonderwall" well.

But it was The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations that kept me tethered to her engaging prose. Here, she speaks of eternal nymphs and muses, of what has been lost, of what has been forgotten. "Kronia" is my favorite of the quartet, with its simple flavor yet somehow wonderfully disjointed narrative. It has a certain cadence that makes reading it out loud a lovely exercise.

Fans of gritty spec fic may find Ms. Hand's kind of fantasy almost vulnerable, but there is a strength in the way she weaves her words that makes you believe that there is true magic here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Crimson Labyrinth (Yusuke Kishi)

Mr. Kishi actually tells you how his The Crimson Labyrinth will end. I had time to listen to him while I waited to board my flight from Kalibo, and kept on reading 26,000 feet in the air. Given the circumstances, I can't pinpoint why I couldn't put the book down: either it was really good or I just didn't want to spend two good hours doing nothing.

Or better yet, it was fairly decent and reading it was far from a waste of my time. Yeah. That must be it.

The Crimson Labyrinth, translated by Masami Isetani and Camellia Nieh, benefits from Mr. Kishi's almost instructional and extremely expository manner, which clearly depicts the unforgiving setting of this Battle Royale-meets-Lord of the Flies thriller. It's a psychological study peppered with an idiot's guide to the Australian outback. Very informative--even fun.

I didn't care much for the protagonist, though. Fujiki Yoshihiko is a forty-year old ex-broker down on his luck, but I feel that his is the type of personality that can be easily replaced by a thirty-year old schoolteacher or a mid-twenties recovering heroin addict and the story would still move. The story, after all, does not invest in him as much as it does on the whole plot, which is exciting enough if you try not to guess what comes next. Granted, that last twist was something I didn't completely predict, and I give Mr. Kishi major points for that.

The story is tight and well-paced, awarding the reader a glimpse of the fear and paranoia that would beset any unexpected contestant in a grisly reality show. Mr. Kishi has certainly gone to great lengths laying out how this weird game will play out, from the Pocket Game Kids to the checkpoints and the strange tandem of Platy and Lucifer. I suppose if I were in Fujiki's shoes, I really wouldn't last more than five hours in a game like this, so it was an education, in a way.

So Labyrinth was a bit predictable, yes, but in the end, it was still satisfying. Kept me turning the page. Convinced me that I was seeing all this unfold before my eyes. RPG was never this nightmarishly fun.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Interlude: Weirdness.

My lovely -- and newly-wed -- friend, Frances, just tagged me to play this Six Weird Things About You game. But since my little blog here is all about reading, I'm going to improvise a bit and limit my quirks to those that deal with books. Heaven knows I have enough weirdness about me.

Rules: Just cut and paste if you decide to participate in the tagging game. Each player of this game starts off by giving six weird things about themselves. People who get tagged need to write in a blog of their own six weird things as well as state the rules clearly. In the end, you need to choose six people to be tagged and list their names. After you do that, leave them each a comment letting them know you tagged them and to read your blog.

Anyway, six weird things:
1. I used to eat my books.
It was a high-fiber diet. I'd unconsciously tear out dog-eared portions and eat them. The older books tasted better. I know, I know -- my poor books! You should see my copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I stopped some time around high school. Maybe I learned something from Etiquette class.

2. I keep books in my bathroom.
I have a narrow glass shelf where I place my toiletries and a steady rotation of books to keep me company. It's fun to reread stuff while you're immobile. Last ones that were there before the shelf collapsed where China Mieville's Perdido Street Station and Jude Deveraux's The Raider (oooh, wicked). Maybe a lot of you won't find this too weird since you prolly do it, too.

3. My bookshelves are genre-coordinated.
To my bed's right are my fantasy and sci-fi books (my biggest collection at four to five rows), with two rows dedicated to mystery novels. Perry Mason has to sleep beside me. To the left are the young adult and children's fiction. On the shelves beside that are my romance novels. The shelves right next to the door hold the classics and general fiction, where Asian writers have a row to themselves. I used to have a small space for my manga, but they've threatened war if they weren't allowed to expand their territory.

4. I buy multiple copies of the same books just for the covers.
I wouldn't call myself a collector, though, because I'm not anal about getting every edition in existence. But I do like having my series in the same edition. I have four editions of the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy: 1)TSR's 1994 ed; 2) WotC's 2000 ed; 3) WotC's paperback annotated chronicles, and 4) the Special Collector's Edition (because an embossed leather cover and gilt-edged pages deserve title caps). And yes, I won't be ashamed to admit that I got the Wizards of the Coast edition because I thought Tasslehoff Burrfoot looked mighty fine on that cover.

5. I read while walking. Or should that be 'I walk while reading'?
I did that a lot back in high school and even when our agency was located along Ayala Ave. It's easy to do when you have a long stretch of sidewalk before you. Now that we moved offices to Gamboa St., I have a harder time navigating the walk. I try to do Sudoku puzzles instead.

6. I like smelling books.
Okay, maybe not that weird, but I was at a loss at what else to put. No other book-/reading-related quirk comes to mind. :P

There! Tagging Claire and Arvin, Tina, Didi, Kamelle, and Eman, if you're up to it.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Giant's House (Elizabeth McCracken)

I like the idea of librarians; unfortunately, I have never known a librarian that I really liked. Sure, they were pleasant enough, and helpful enough, and sympathetic enough to a first grader who wanted to find out who Nancy Drew was because she was being bullied by second graders for not knowing. I always thought that the books that surrounded them would lend them some of their magic -- together and by association. But the librarians I knew have been far from magical.

Peggy Cort from Elizabeth McCracken’s The Giant's House has no delusions of being magical, either. She knows she is just a small-town librarian, reserved, withdrawn. At twenty-six, though, she meets a remarkably tall eleven-year old, and under these ordinary circumstances emerges Ms. McCracken's National Book Award Finalist.

Ms. McCracken pens a woman's loneliness with much familiarity. 'I loved him because I discovered that day, after years of practice, I had a talent for it (p. 89),' she lets Peggy narrate, as her odd friendship with the brilliant and sensitive giant, James Carlson Sweatt slowly develops into something more. The story takes place over a span of some nine, ten years so no, it's not as offensive as it sounds. The boy grows legal and reaches eight foot seven. There is no pedophilia. There is a lot of crying in the end, mostly from me.

Anyway, back to loneliness. Peggy Cort is a study in quiet desperation, although I wouldn’t really say that it is desperation that leads her to love a boy fifteen years younger than she is. She can admit to anyone that her life 'is a small, hesitant thing (p. 281).' But the advent of James opens it to more joy and more sorrow that she ever anticipated, and the wake of James leaves her to an amazement 'the way a child is amazed to discover, holding his thumb to his eye, that he can blot out a mountain (p. 282).' Thirty-five now, and still an innocent, our Ms. Cort.

Forgive me if I find the other characters a little less striking. Even adorably awkward James, memorable mostly for his height and very little else. He is very sweet though, and sensitive for a boy who has come to terms with his own freakishness and mortality at a young age; still, these traits alone do not win him places in the literary hall of unforgettable characters. I loved how Ms. McCracken imagined him up, though, placed him in the middle of a library so a spinster librarian would catalogue him into her life.

But maybe this is where the force of Ms. McCracken's writing comes from. She writes of ordinary people (yes, even in James the Giant's case), with everyday fears and hungers and manages to find the poetry of the mundane. True, readers who want epic romances or magical realism may not find that encouraging. But while The Giant's House might not be for everyone, I'd still highly recommend it. It is a carefully-paced and well-conceived look into an unconventional romance that isn't really as strange as it seems.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


That indolent but agreeable condition of doing nothing - Pliny the Younger

Certain invetabilities carry with them an air of fatalism, especially on days like this. Anyway, I haven't been entirely unproductive with my reading list. On the nightstand: The Conjurer's Bird by Martin Davies, The Crimson Labyrinth by Yusuke Kishi, Mr. Thundermug by Cornelius Medvei, among others.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Size 14 is Not Fat Either (Meg Cabot)

While my friend Skinny takes on M. John Harrison, I say hello to Meg Cabot. So I need brain candy.

Meg is seriously fun. When she's good, that is. I loved her The Boy Next Door and am a fan of her Mediator series. Size 14 is actually the second book to her Heather Wells mysteries, whose initial offering, Size 12 is Not Fat, was something I quite enjoyed. Heather Wells is a pop star has-been turned resident hall assistant with a penchant for putting her nose into other peoples' business. Who is now a Size 12! And lives with a gorgeous PI! Well, not live live, seeing as he's her landlord, but well. A girl can dream. The mystery is fun, the romance infectuous, and Heather engaging.

Sadly, the new book makes Heather two sizes bigger and two notches more boring. It doesn't carry Meg's usual girlish charm at all. The mystery was a bit predictable. The romance aspect was non-existent. The only bright spot in the whole book is Heather's resident, Gavin, a loud yet sweet college student who has an adorable crush on her. Gavin comes alive under Meg's writing, which is a good thing because my other favorite characters (like Cooper, the gorgeous dick), felt like walking corpses.

Oh, Meg, Meg, Meg. If you're writing a mystery-romance, and need to sacrifice the romance for the mystery, then give me a damn good mystery, please! I love Heather and will still continue to read about her, but I do hope she takes on more interesting cases after this. I read chick lit for fun, but if that will elude me, then... hand me my Orhan Pamuk. I'm off the brain candy for now.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Haruki Murakami)

I suppose it would be easier to blame work for my lack of updates, but the nobler thing would be to admit that I've been too lazy. Mr. Murakami tore me out of that funk. I've been a fan since Sputnik Sweetheart, and it would be such a shame to let his latest short story collection go by without paying homage to it.

I've actually read two of the stories featured in this collection. "Birthday Girl" is included in Birthday Stories, which he edited, while "A Shinagawa Monkey" is something I came across in a fairly recent issue of the New Yorker. The rest of his collection came as a pleasant discovery. In Blind Willow, Mr. Murakami still writes with his delicious mix of the real and the surreal, using man-eating cats as a jump-off point to explore an adulterous affair or taking a quiet look at the life of a man who used to talk as if reciting poetry. Of these, though, my favorites are "Where I'm Likely to Find It," about an investigator hired to look for a missing husband, and "The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day," which theorizes that of all the women that a man meets in his life, there are only three who will have any real meaning for him.

While his stories can be quite unexpected, Mr. Murakami's graceful writing is a constant. There is something more reserved about Blind Willow, though, than his after the quake or The Elephant Vanishes, and in hindsight, it was this quiet storytelling that I enjoyed most. I'm a weird short story reader; I don't read short story collections in order. I just pick one whenever I feel like it (usually in the middle of a busy morning before I go to work) to shake things up. But the tone that he uses in most of his stories here has some soothing effect on me, and it is this vein that the collection carried, notwithstanding the order in which I read his stories.

"I imagine my search will continue -- somewhere. A search for something that could very well be shaped like a door. Or maybe something closer to an umbrella, or a doughnut. Or an elephant. A search that, I hope, will take me where I'm likely to find it (p. 290)," he writes. And here lies a promise. I'm just waiting to read about whatever Mr. Murakami is searching for.