Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Where to Buy: The Tintin Shop

Tucked among Pagoda Street's stalls of kitschy souvenirs and Asian memorabilia is this gem of the store that will make any fan exclaim, "Blistering Barnacles!" Yup, it's an official Tintin Store in Singapore.

I've loved Tintin ever since I started reading those big comic books at our grade school library. Lucky for me, two of my younger cousins also got into the series as they were growing up, and I had unlimited access to their library. So imagine my delight when I heard that an official store had opened in Singapore's Chinatown. It sounded like a strange location for a young Belgian reporter and his crew, but I was eager to go anyway.

Anyone coming from the MRT Exit A will find The Tintin Shop on her left. There's an al fresco cafe out front, with the orange and white chairs and tables that you can't miss. Inside, though, is where the magic waits.

A Tintin figure perched on the cashier

Tintin explosion: toys, keychains, magnets, mugs, postcards, journals...

and of course, books!

Some of the rarer Tintin titles were out of stock, but you won't hear me complaining, especially not after seeing all the other goodies in the store. I brought home a Snowy plushie as well as some other presents for my cousins (yup, the ones with the Tintin library).

What made the experience even more enjoyable was that the staff was very friendly and accommodating and they shared with me that the SG branch is only the seventh worldwide. Lucky for all of us fans in southeast Asia! I know that I'll definitely be back for more.

The Tintin Shop is located at 56 Pagoda Street, Chinatown, Singapore. Take the Chinatown MRT and exit at Exit A.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Nightcap.

Always, we keep coming back for more. It's only been months since I last saw three of my closest friends but it really feels longer. So off we went to visit old friends, celebrate a birthday, shop our wallets dry, drink our hearts out. Only our idea of a nightcap is a warm pot of berry-flavored tea.

One more for the road.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

UFO in Her Eyes (Xiaolu Guo)

A short visit to Singapore really put my reviews on hold, but after coming home with 17 books, I'm quite confident that I'll be back writing at a more regularly pace. I picked a few of my finds to keep me confident during the plane ride home, and one of them is Xiaolu Guo's UFO in Her Eyes. In the near future, a peasant woman from the tiny Chinese village of Silver Hill reports hearing a big noise and a spinning plate in the sky. She blacks out soon after and upon waking up, she discovers a bleeding foreigner whom she patches up in her cottage.

The story unfolds through reports and interviews made by the National Security and Intelligence Agency, as they go through key individuals and witnesses in Silver Hill. In the course of three years after the incident, the village goes through significant changes that affects the lives of all its inhabitants.

UFO in Her Eyes employed an easy and lighthearted approach to tackle the issues brought about by economic and technological change, especially to a rural agricultural village like Silver Hill. It is almost heartbreaking to see the changes all over the countryside (that include the demolition of the Hundred Arm trees that were once the pride of the village and the loss of trade of its simple and elderly folk), but because of the format that Ms Guo used, the book doesn't come across as pedantic or moralizing. It still effectively holds its prose as a mirror showing the consequences that a lack of insight can bring, not just to a rapidly developing nation like China but to others as well. The characters in UFO in Her Eyes seem real, despite encountering them only through reports. They come alive through their own words and through what others say (or don't say) about them. Kwok Yun, the peasant woman who encounters the mysterious craft, goes through a particularly moving journey through these reports, as Ms Guo employs an exposition that is both subtle and probing. One of my favorite characters is her grandfather, Kwok Zidong, whose sharp language and revelations move me in unexpected ways. For a book that I picked up merely on the strength of its appeal to me (UFO and China? Sold!), this was definitely one of my luckier purchases.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Noodle Maker (Ma Jian)

What Ma Jian has created with The Noodle Maker is a collection of lifestyles and ideals that grew under China's Cultural Revolution, were affected by the years that followed the adoption of the Open Door Policy while still under the Party's all-seeing gaze, and survived the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square incident. Here, a professional writer and his friend the professional blood donor meet regularly to chat and dine. The professional writer has been charged with creating propaganda about a hero who embodies the Party's ideals when all he wants to do is to write about the people who intrigue him. So it is to the professional blood donor that he confesses and this serves as the framework for this collection of tales.

There was a kind of horror and disbelief that I experienced when I first read Ma Jian's Stick Out Your Tongue. He was not shocking just to be shocking; there was a sorrow that permeated his writing, one that truly drew me in. That shocking feeling was absent for me here in The Noodle Maker but whether it is deliberately gone or I am merely used to his style is still open to debate. The sorrow is still there though, in the lives of people who wish to be more. Here the tales are similarly stark, and even if the characters branch off in different directions (an actress with an unusual idea for a live performance, the young man who runs a private crematorium with an added service) they find their lives weaving in and out of each other.

The collection is filled with truths that can be disconcerting and uncomfortable, moments of sharp insight. One of my favorites is a conversation between the professional writer and the female novelist about young writers. The female novelist is bemoaning the new generation's shallowness, to which the professional writer counters, 'Perhaps a purer form of literature will emerge from their numb minds. They have no prejudices, no interest in politics. Their problems are purely personal(p86-87).' In their exchange, I feel bitterness and resentment, even at the professional writers' words, despite his obvious defense. He is merely stating fact: '[the female novelist's] time is already over(p87).' Here is a generation introduced to the Self after years of dealing with just the State.

There are really so many layers that one can uncover while reading The Noodle Maker. Ma Jian's writing makes even the most jarring images a source of reflection not just of the self, but also of the world that controls us.

Monday, May 09, 2011

The Native Star (MK Hobson)

The Native Star is the third 2010 Nebula-nominated novel that I've read, and with its combination of fantasy and historical romance, it's by far the most satisfying to my reading tastes. I'm not too sure how it will fare in the voting, but I'll definitely be rooting for it. It wasn't hard for me to love this story. Set in an alternate version of America in 1876, MK Hobson has created a world where Witches and Warlocks run academies, serve in the military, and for the most part, can respectably walk through cities and towns. Emily Edwards is a backwaters Witch in a very small lumber town out West, fashioning a love spell that she doesn't know is about to get her into a lot of trouble. Dreadnought Stanton is a know-it-all Institute-trained Warlock from New York assigned to educate Witches and Warlocks in the Sierra Nevadas (which in this case meant Emily and her adoptive Pap, and Emily's not too pleased about it). When one action-packed night finds a strange and powerful mineral embedded in Emily's hand, the unlikely couple must join forces to unlock its mysteries and keep it away from those who would wield its power for evil.

The tone of the story is geared towards romantic fantasy, so I have a feeling it will take an awfully-secure male fantasy fan to read through this and appreciate the sprawling epic adventure that it draws. And epic is the right term: the novel takes Emily and Stanton from California to Chicago to New York to Charleston in grand Americana fashion. They ride horses, trains, and flying machines. They visit gambling dens and whitewashed towns. They even hold seances to talk to an Indian wise woman in an acorn. With all the running around these two do, it seems like such a shame that male readers might be put off by the romance element. And there's plenty to cheer for when it comes to romance; fans will certainly enjoy the banter between Emily and Stanton, who have interesting back stories to lug around. Emily, who gets flashes of her early life with a mysterious mother she barely knew, is charming and enterprising enough as most protagonists go. But she is not entirely faultless; in fact, she has marked prejudices that keep her from being a true Mary-Sue character. Also intriguing for me are the antagonists. I think Ms Hobson has a knack for creating truly menacing and memorable villains in Captain Caul and Grimaldi. They gave me the same kind of chills that I had while reading about the Chaos Walking trilogy's Mayor Prentiss.

There were times when my interest wasn't as sustained as it had been in the beginning, but it's probably because of my ambivalence to the circumstances that have engaged the protagonists rather than a noticeable dip in action. But all things considered, The Native Star was an extremely satisfying and engaging read that struck just the right balance between two of my favorite genres. I couldn't put this one down.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Nocturnes (Kazuo Ishiguro)

There has always been a sharpness in Kazuo Ishiguro's work that makes me feel inadequate and ill-equipped to write a review. His Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of all time but I couldn't even begin to find the words to do it proper homage. I'm attempting anew with Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall.

In his sparse yet carefully-nuanced narrative style, Mr Ishiguro sketches five stories that revolve around the process of creation and definition through music. Maybe 'sketches' isn't the right word, as it connotes something rough and unfinished, but it does fit: we stumble across each of the narrators at a certain point in their lives, as they tell stories that to me have a lovely way of trailing off. He opens at a piazza in Italy and ends there as well, coming full circle but never telling the same story twice. The first, "Crooner," is about a guitarist hired by a once-famous standards singer to woo his wife. The wife reappears in another story, "Nocturne," while what could be the same piazza is seen again in the final "Cellists." Familiar elements echo through the stories, like the theme in a musical composition.

What I really admired about Nocturnes is how Mr Ishiguro weaves introspective pieces that made me reflect on what defines an artist. In the more humorous "Come Rain or Come Shine," the narrator confesses in a moment of candor, 'It's hard to know where to settle. What to settle to (p85).' In "Nocturne," the realization is a bit more in-your-face: the narrator is undergoing surgery to correct his imperfections and launch his career into the 'right' direction. I had meant to give Nocturnes as a present to a good friend but after reading it I wasn't sure if my friend would want something more aggressive when it comes to how events unfold. I'm still hesitating. But for me, each of these five stories know how to sit with you one quiet afternoon, pat your hand before they leave, and that's the only time you realize something had been happening to you all along.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Summer.

All I'm missing is a hammock and my own private beach. In a few days, I'll be leaving our little home and heading to Manila and Singapore. Not too keen about spending the rest of the summer in the city's sweltering heat but the prospect of shopping and seeing old friends is enough to excite me. Orchard. Clarke Quay. Holland Village. Bugis. Chinatown. Sentosa. Marina Bay. Here I come.