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.