Thursday, July 28, 2011

A Dance with Dragons (George R.R. Martin)

I have to admit that it's hard to review a book that comes in the middle of a series. You want to be able to share something substantial with your reader but must be cautious enough not to spoil anyone. Had HBO not produced a TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I probably would have been freer with my thoughts. It has, after all, been years since the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, that any information meant to summarize the previous books for review purposes would not have been deemed too spoiler-y. (Also, who reads reviews of a fifth book when you haven't read the first until the fourth?) But since the TV series has generated new interest in the books, it might be better to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible.

Most of the events in A Dance with Dragons occur simultaneously with the events in AFfC. Mr Martin has always reminded us that AFfC and ADwD were originally meant to be one book but were later separated geographically instead of chronologically. While AFfC focused on King's Landing, the Vale, and Dorne, this fifth volume takes us to the Wall and eastward, to the Free Cities and Slaver's Bay. Mr Martin fleshes out places like Meereen, Astapor, Pentos, and Volantis, among others, so readers have to brace themselves for a new slew of information. I've been pretty geeked out by this series after following it for about fourteen years, so I've always looked forward to exploring more of the Great Eastern Continent but some readers might want to look at this as fair warning.

As with A Feast for Crows, Mr Martin uses A Dance with Dragons to move his characters around like cyvasse pieces. Both the second and third books in this series featured much action amidst the scheming; in this however, there is much more travel involved. Quite understandable: the events that have gripped most of Westeros in A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords have somewhat settled down. Characters in this book are left regrouping and scrambling for position. The Lord Commander of the Night's Watch is faced with making unpopular decisions for the good of the realm. Somewhere, a rebel king's Hand is beggaring for support for his liege. In the east, a queen fights to maintain control of her new kingdom, unaware that powerful men from Westeros are already on their way to win her to their cause. Away from the courts, most of these characters are shown relying on their street smarts and negotiating skills for a means to an end. But though the travel elements in this book are expository, I feel that the gradual pace takes away from some of the high-impact events in the book.

The book features some new (and forgotten) POV characters. I really applaud Mr Martin for Reek's chapters. He is not a character I particularly like but I feel that Mr Martin has turned out a thoughtful and moving character study here. I read his chapters with a combined pity and revulsion, and they certainly didn't want for action either. Same with Jon Snow. Though his chapters may not be as quickly paced as others', they really delve into the man he has become. As readers we really get to see how he thinks and reasons and why he does the things he does. Jon has learned to 'kill the boy' and proves himself a true Stark. The latter half of A Dance with Dragons continues the story of some of the POV characters from the previous book, like Arya, Jaime, and Cersei, signaling that events are finally back on their chronological track. I suppose it was this merge that left me that expecting something big would occur, but in the end, I got more of a 'defining moment' instead of the climax I wanted.

If there's one thing that all these different characters agree on, it is that 'Words are wind.' Prophecies are foretold, promises are made, deals are brokered, but words are worth nothing in the game of thrones. Some of these characters use that to their advantage while others find themselves at the mercy of fate. Whether you're in Westeros or in the East, it is perhaps the only formula for survival. And with that I'll leave you to wonder if your favorite character survives this latest book.

Sunday, July 24, 2011


And once the storm is over you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won't be the same person who walked in. That's what this storm's all about. — Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Over the weekend, just as I finished celebrating what would have been my uncle's sixty-first birthday eight years after his death, I received word that two of my close friends' respective dads passed away, both from illnesses. I have little to offer in terms of comfort; my uncle was a second dad to me but the last thing I want to do is to hug them and say, "I understand." So I offer this poem instead. I suppose in the eyes of many it is trite and maudlin, but it was one of my greatest comforts when I was going through my own loss. I hope it extends even the slightest succor to my own grieving friends.

God's Garden Must Be Beautiful
God saw you getting tired,
When a cure was not to be.
So He wrapped His arms around you,
And whispered, "Come to Me".

You didn't deserve what you went through,
So He gave you rest.
God's garden must be beautiful,
He only picks the best.

And when I saw you sleeping,
So peaceful and free from pain,
I could not wish you back
To suffer that again.
-Author Unknown

I first met one of the dads mentioned here, Mr Sugawara, at a delicious restaurant in Little Tokyo. It is one of my favorite spots in Manila, where my close friends (his daughter included) and I often gather after work, stuffing ourselves with takoyaki and beer and each others' company. We always kidded that he was the mayor of Little Tokyo because whenever he was around he would always ask to see if we were okay and eating well. For us, Hana meant friendship and fun and fond memories. It was--is still--a place of great joy. Do visit to see what I mean.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Quatrain (Sharon Shinn)

I was drawn to this because I'm a fan of Sharon Shinn, especially her novel Summers at Castle Auburn, admittedly one of the lesser-known ones in her portfolio. When I found out that my good friend from Celina's Books and Magazines was selling a hardcover edition of Quatrain, which contained a companion story to Summers at Castle Auburn, I instantly snapped it up.

Quatrain is a collection of four novellas set in Ms Shinn's different worlds. "Flight" is a prequel to her Samaria series. It revolves around Salome, a former angel-seeker who now spends her days far away from the angel holds, in a farm where she can raise her teenage niece Sheba. Little does she know that Archangel Raphael's arrival will send their world into turmoil. I like that Salome is in her forties, and her worldly wisdom is justified by her past. "Flight" is rife with family secrets and betrayals, especially when Salome is forced to confront her past and the lover who suffered because of her choices.

"Blood" is perhaps my favorite story in the collection, though I am least familiar with Ms Shinn's sci-fi novel Heart of Gold, in whose world this tale takes place. Here, three races -- the indigo, the gulden, and the albino -- live in relative harmony. Kerk joins his stepmother's family in a new city, with the hopes of finding his real mother there. To do this, he turns to an indigo heiress who takes him under her wing and introduces him to The Lost City. But his new environment and friendships slowly are making him question the man he has become. What I appreciated about this was how it utilized Kerk's search to explore issues of prejudice, responsibility, and family. There were plenty of moments that resonated with me. The story feels very contemporary, though I wouldn't have known that it took place in a sci-fi world had I not read up on it beforehand.

"Gold" is the reason why I bought this in the first place, a medieval-type romance that takes place years after the events of Summers at Castle Auburn. Princess Zara is hastily sent to the magical kingdom of Alora, to avoid being caught in a potential war in her own world. But there are many temptations that lurk underneath Alora's dazzling beauty, and Zara must face a different kind of battle from the one she has left behind. It is a lovely story, but maybe my rather high expectations prevented me from enjoying this more. (I had hoped to read more about Zara's parents, whom I adore!)

The final story is a prequel to Ms Shinn's Twelve Houses series. "Flame" is about her Mystic and Rider protagonist Senneth, a mystic who must face fear and prejudice in a small town that she has tried to help. Of all the stories, this had the most 'cinematic' climax though I thought it was the most open-ended of all. As far as prequels go, I felt that this one served its purpose by laying the groundwork and setting the tone for the subsequent series.

Here are Ms Shinn's words from her website: 'While these four stories take place in radically different worlds, a lot of little details tie them together. For instance, the titles roughly correspond to the four elements; all four open with an almost identical sentence. And a few other things like that. :) If I could have managed it, I’d have made each story the same number of words, but that proved to be impossible! I loved revisiting my old worlds, and the collection was a lot of fun to write.' Another central theme to these novellas is that of forgiveness, despite the many faces and forms of betrayal, ignorance, inconstancy, and mistrust. This made it much easier for me to move between worlds, assured that Ms Shinn's capable writing will turn disparate settings into one delicate and cohesive read.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Other People's Love Letters (Edited by Bill Shapiro)

These are 150 letters that you were never meant to see. Thanks to Bill Shapiro, they have now been compiled and printed to share with the rest the world. In his introduction, Mr Shapiro writes, 'So I started collecting other people's love letters. I contacted everyone I knew, and asked if they would send me any they'd been keeping [...] In the end, I had hundreds and hundreds stacked in my living room.' What follows is a generous collection of love, happiness, lust, anger, sorrow, insecurity, disappointment in different shapes, and forms that give readers a voyeuristic peek into other people's relationships.

From hastily-scribbled notes...
In case you can't read it: Stay warm for me and have a nice day. You are my sweetheart even with popsicle feet. Love you.

to creative postcards...

to artwork...

and even a few text messages and emails.

Don't worry, the sweetness isn't too overwhelming. There is a good deal of hurt and bitter sentiment mixed in with hopeful ones so perusing these pages doesn't turn into a heavy saccharine experience.
Of course, there are the more traditional letters, sent through post or left on bedside tables. My favorite letters in this collection is an exchange between a Jason and a Chelsea, friends who had met at college. Five years down the road, Jason writes: 'All I want to know is if you remember that moment, if you were there in that place, if you felt the same thing at the same time, if you ever wonder about it, too?' to which Chelsea responds, 'Somewhere amidst all that talk [...] a piece of my heart gave itself to you.' It left me wondering whether these two souls had met once more, opened their hearts to each other again.

I guess that is what this book does. It preserves all these moments of candor and vulnerability. These letters may not have the same effect on me as they do for their intended recipients, but there were really some that made me stop and think on my own life choices. Love and heartbreak are such universal things. There is a little of their stories in mine, as there must be a little of mine in theirs.

While this collection is certainly a visual treat, I wouldn't put it in the must-own category. I was grateful that a friend lent me her copy; at least for a short while I thought of myself as part of these strangers' lives, briefly navigating the sea of their loves and losses like I had some business to be there.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sweethearts (Sara Zarr)

Sara Zarr's Sweethearts was one of the first books I placed on my Amazon wishlist a number of years ago, but I was only able to buy it last Friday. Long time coming.

Outcasts Jennifer Harris and Cameron Quick were best friends--each other's only friend, in fact--when they were nine years old. But Cameron moves away and leaves Jennifer to deal with her share of traumatic memories alone. As she struggles to find life after him, she reinvents herself as Jenna, who's popular and well-liked and thin. But now that she's is high school, Cameron is suddenly back in her life and Jenna has to deal with loose ends and unfinished business and the definition of best friends and first loves.

I was surprised by how Sweethearts unfolded. I think it's so rare for a young adult book to winningly combine the elements of love, friendship, and coming of age (Melina Marchetta's Jellicoe Road comes to mind). Sweethearts may not be as epic as Jellicoe Road, but they have a similar strength about them. There's a love story here, true, but it's not quite how I had imagined a YA romance to be treated. There's teen angst and drama here, also true, but it is not preachy or overwrought. It deals with dark issues in a quietly emotional way, and at the same time it also tackles identity issues that a larger number of teens might be more familiar with. I'm a reader who tends to shy away from contemporary YA that ventures into darker territory but in Sweethearts these issues are handled with a deft hand and the characters' reactions are often believable.

Jenna is a strong lead for this narrative. Her confusion and character provide good perspective into life with a friend like Cameron, and how this friendship has impacted who she has become. I really felt as if I were right there beside Jenna undergoing all the unsettling feelings that Cameron's return has triggered. I also greatly admired how Ms Zarr chose to depict the adults in this situation. They all had their roles to play, something I often find is missing in most YA books.

Sweethearts had me wiping a few stray tears by the end. It also had me genuinely thinking about how I define 'being there for someone.' I don't think I've ever had anything that comes close to the relationship between Jenna and Cameron, and as this story proves, time will tell if that's a good thing or a bad thing. One thing's for sure: this is one of the best contemporary YA books that I've read in a long time.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Sable City (M. Edward McNally)

I would love to play RPG with M. Edward McNally. This was the prevalent thought I had while reading his e-book The Sable City, available on Smashwords and Amazon. The story certainly knows its way around different fantasy tropes, combining them well enough to create an adventure campaign that is light in tone and quick in pace.

What I enjoyed most about it is that it felt like a throwback to RPG-inspired series like Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. In The Sable City, Captain Block and Tilda Lanai find themselves far from their island home in search of a man long lost to their people. Along the way, they encounter a host of other characters (and monsters), getting themselves embroiled in an adventure that is much bigger than what they first anticipated. Running counterpoint to their story is the adventure of another party. Zebulon Baj Nif is hired to be the translator of a mysterious woman and her Far Western warrior escorts, a job that leads them towards the same destination as Tilda's (the titular city, in case you were wondering). Mr McNally excels in creating likable characters with interesting backstories, and he certainly knows them well enough to keep them moving from battle scenes to courtly games. At key points in the narrative, I was convinced that Mr McNally plays Legend of the Five Rings when he wasn't writing epic fantasy -- though his story featured only two Japanese-inspired characters (one of them a 'shukenja'), his world's spellcasting method made me recall certain elements from my favorite tabletop RPG.

Despite the book's engaging characters, it was in no means an easy read. I came to this forewarned about the amount of info-dumping here and while I applaud the author's efforts to create such a rich and realized world, it was hard for me to care about it as much as he did. I think moderation is key; fantasy readers often appreciate flavor as long as it is provided in manageable doses. One such manageable dose appears late in The Sable City, during Amatesu and Shikashe's backstory, which was evocative of a Japanese folktale. The setting and circumstances of their tale are very stylized compared to the rest of the book but it does not necessarily contain a lot of Places of Interest or Historic Titles that I had stumbled upon in the earlier chapters. I feel this stripped-down sensibility makes these scenes stand out against the rest of the book.

While I thoroughly enjoyed Mr McNally's characters and how they dealt with each other, I would have to admit that most of them acted as if they were in an RPG and had no choice but to keep to the quest instead of going off on their own and risking the GM and party's combined wrath. There were times when I felt that a certain character did something contrary to his persona just so he could stay in the story. Moments like this came off as contrived but despite this, The Sable City is a solid effort that has a lot going for it. Mr McNally writes with real skill. He has a good feel for conflict and knows how to balance humorous banter with sobering tension. I thought there was a freshness to it that I hope to still see in his next books.

Thank you to Frida Fantastic for the reco. It was well worth it!

Friday, July 08, 2011

My Summer of Southern Discomfort (Stephanie Gayle)

See this cover? I assumed -- incorrectly, if I may add -- that this novel was going to be the easy, breezy read that I've wanted for days (okay, I was looking for a Plot-What-Plot romance). That was the only reason I picked this up from the Booksale shelf. I had to revise my notion when I read that the author had a story nominated for a Pushcart Prize. So I bought it, on the gut feeling that I wasn't going to completely lose out on this one. And I was right: Stephanie Gayle's My Summer of Southern Discomfort was a very quick and satisfying read on a rainy afternoon. It was easy, breezy -- but far from what I had expected.

Natalie Goldberg is a young lawyer whose messy affair with her married boss has forced her to move from New York to Georgia. There is a lot to get used to in the south -- the heat, her co-workers, and especially her new job as a prosecutor. I will have to warn you that if you're looking for something similar to a Sophie Kinsella or a Meg Cabot story (see cover), then you might be disappointed with this one. How Ms Gayle chooses to tell her story can be polarizing. Some readers might find the premise to be a bit dull especially those who are looking for a nice summer romance, a flirty beach read. There is not much in the way of romance or fun in this story. It's a straight-out slice-of-life story. Nothing too heavy, although it does tackle domestic abuse, religion, extra-marital affairs, and capital punishment in one way or the other, which I thought was just right for its twentysomething protagonist.

What I liked about it (and I'm sure that there are others there who might agree) was that Natalie's story felt very realistic to me. There was a gradualness in the way her relationships were developed during this long hot summer where she learns a lot about herself as an adult. Most of Natalie's story revolves around her work as co-counsel in a capital case. If found guilty, the man they are prosecuting receives the death sentence, one that Natalie has always firmly opposed. The resulting conflict sounded quite convincing to me, as was the court case that served as the novel's highest point. But as in real life, there are other issues that are mentioned here that are never really wrapped up (the rather unorthodox way that Natalie got her job, the loose ends from her former affair), which I thought added more credence to this character-driven book. I applaud Ms Gayle for handling her material well; this was an admirable way of depicting the life of a young professional woman with more pressing concerns than what she will wear to work and who she will kiss at night.

Monday, July 04, 2011

The Moon Looked Down (Dorothy Garlock)

I am currently in the middle of reading a number of fantasy works and I thought I'd take a break by picking up something lighter. The premise of Dorothy Garlock's The Moon Looked Down doesn't sound that it should qualify for light reading though. In this story set in World War II, Sophie Heller and her family are struggling with anti-German threats and prejudices. But because her father does not want to report it to the authorities, Sophie feels trapped, and looks to her new friend Cole Ambrose for support. Okay, I must admit that it was mainly because Cole was a teacher that I was encouraged to pick up this romance, and I knew that despite the heavy topic, it might be the distraction I needed.

It distracted me enough for an hour or so. The Moon Looked Down was a very quick read mostly because I didn't feel that the author explored what could be very powerful themes quite as thoroughly as I had expected. The prejudice comes from two scum-of-the-earth type villains, even though the rest of their town Victory (told you it had a WWII setting) loves the Hellers and would defend them when push came to shove. This made me seriously question Hermann Heller's decision not to report the attack made on his family to the police. Sophie quickly and correctly identifies the villains, so the pervading anti-German sentiment that could have been handled in a realistic manner and be very debilitating for Sophie's family appeared to me as a weak caricature. Also, Sophie goes along with her father's wishes not to go to the authorities when their barn is burned down but in just a few chapters, she publicly confronts their attackers. Way to call attention to the matter, Sophie. It was a wonder how anyone didn't manage to suss out what had happened, especially since they live in a small town.

Ms Garlock also had an unfortunate way of letting her characters recount the same mundane things that happened to another character. Sophie going to the Ambrose hardware store is seen through her perspective and Mr Ambrose's; her ordering a meal from Marge's Diner is mentioned first from Cole's point of view and then her own. I found that the prose suffered greatly because of this, stumbling over such simple things like a bootlegged CD.

If there was anything that completely saved the experience for me, it was how Ms Garlock infused the novel with World War II elements. The language and terms used, as well as different visual elements, convincingly transported me to the proper time and setting. While it wasn't quite enough to augment the paper-thin characters, it created a solid world in which they could interact. I also cautiously liked Cole's clubfooted predicament because it painted a different kind of romantic lead, but even then I felt that any characterization only scratched the surface. If you don't mind Hallmark Channel TV movies and are looking for a distraction (as I was), then The Moon Looked Down will serve its purpose.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Where to Buy: Books Actually

I’ve fallen in love with bookstores for different reasons. The size. The layout. The sheer number of books. But what made me go crazy over this small neighborhood shop was its thoughtful selection of titles. Books Actually is an independent bookstore located in quiet Tiong Bahru that's a total haven for book lovers.

The bookstore's interiors are very welcoming and don’t feel the least bit commercial to me. It has an eclectic/homey retro vibe that really encourages you to peruse each book and explore every corner of the store. Wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves carry critically-acclaimed works, classics, pop-up children's books, special editions, contemporary canon, and other such gems. Angela Carter. Yukio Mishima. Truman Capote. Jeanette Winterson. Italo Calvino. But if you're looking for popular titles from Nicholas Sparks or Stephanie Meyer, you should head elsewhere.

I love Books Actually especially for its generous selection of Asian authors and for its science section that made me salivate (not on the books, don't worry). I was even tempted by a few locally published anthologies, but I thought about saving those for another visit. The books I ended up buying were pricier than what I usually purchase from Kinokuniya or Borders but given the harder-to-find nature of these works, I didn't mind at all.

There are other lovely touches around the store, like a collection of colorful vintage typewriters, retro postcards, and thin hand-stitched notebooks (I bought a bunch of these to give to friends as presents). I swear, I could spend hours there. When it was time to go, I was loaded with so much longing for the books that I was leaving behind. 'Had we but world enough, and time,' Andrew Marvell always tells me. I completely understand.

Books Actually is located at No. 9 Yong Siak St., Tiong Bahru, Singapore. Hop on the MRT's East-West (Green) line going to Joo Koon Station and alight at Tiong Bahru. Take Exit B. Yong Siak Street is a short 5-7 minute walk away.