Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Checking in for the holidays (and with a lovely gift for you, too!)

The last half of the year had been very busy for me. I had to move back to Manila from my rather comfortable home in Aklan. It's not something to which I particularly looked forward, but it had to be done. The last half of 2012 was also filled with two funerals, a new job, a non-profit project, and a trip -- and before I knew it, it's just a day before the world is supposed to end. Sadly, it meant that I couldn't blog as often as I would like to. I'm hoping the next year would be different.

In lieu of reviews, here's (some of) my reading list in pictures:

Eliza Victoria's A Bottle of Storm Clouds. The story here, "Earthset," is one of my favorites.

I brought my copy to a spur-of-the-moment Boracay trip over one of the long weekends.

Finally got the Summit edition of Mina Esguerra's Fairy Tale Fail. Love this cover.

Speaking of Mina, she's generously shared discount coupons for you to enjoy this holiday season! You can get a dollar off her self-published digital books over at Smashwords when you enter the following codes:

Fairy Tale Fail
Code: VF92P

Love Your Frenemies
Code: CK34B

Interim Goddess of Love
Code: RY33Q

I love Smashwords; it's where I made my first e-book purchases when I still didn't have a reader for myself. More importantly, it's a lovely way to treat yourself this Christmas. You can even share it to your other Mina-loving friends as presents. Now isn't that a great gift? :) (Thank you very much, Mina!)

I hope this year has found you healthy and well, at peace with yourself and the decisions you've made. I hope you end the year with books on your shelves, hope in your heart, and love all around. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Book Depository Competition

Get a chance to win a retro Olympus E-PL1 Compact System camera (Black with 14-42mm black lens kit) from Book Depository just by sharing of a photo of you reading your favorite book in your favorite place. Sounds simple, right?

Head here for more details on how to join. The contest ends on Monday, August 27 at 5 PM GMT.

You can also win a Panasonic HD camcorder -- that rotating banner above would have probably alerted you by now -- so don't let my excitement for the retro camera stop you. More interested in the camcorder? Details here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Mechanique (Genevieve Valentine)

The Mechanical Circus Tresaulti travels a wide circuit. Little George, who has grown up in the circus, knows that the Boss calls them 'the circus that survives.' In a time of war, the circus travels from city to city with its astonishing feats, giving poor and tired spectators one night of entertainment from a harsh and unforgiving landscape. Thankfully, this mechanical circus survives because of Boss and her terrible secret. But all secrets must come to light. Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is a tale of creation and consequence, flying and falling.

At the heart of this steampunk tale are wings made of gilded bone, worn in the finale for years, when they still had the Winged Man act. Now, two of their acrobats, Stenos and Bird, desire it for themselves, without knowing what it can do to its owner. While the wings are pivotal to the story, I am constantly drawn to the other steampunk elements of the story, most notably the circus characters. I think that Panadrome, a one-man band with a tragic history, fully captures what the Circus Tresaulti is about.

Aside from Panadrome, the other characters are all well-fleshed out, pardon the irony. My favorites include Little George, who took on the important first-person perspective in some chapters; Ying, a young orphan who came to the circus at a very young age and who didn’t really know what she was signing up for when she joined; and Bird. There is an innocence in the first two characters that summon powerful contrasts in a story like Mechanique,reminding the reader how humanity can be easily lost because of bitterness and poverty. And Bird? I don't know. I still don't know what it is exactly about her that makes her larger-than-life, fearsome and vulnerable at the same time; I only know that she's a character that stays with me long after the book has ended.

Mechanique is told in vignettes. These snippets and drabbles are not always chronological but they're careful enough not to mess with the attentive reader. It’s also told in various points-of-view and even shifts tenses. So how does it get away with it? Maybe it's the language; the whole thing reads like poetry. It’s just that beautiful. You really get caught up in the moment and read the book as you would experience a multi-act circus. Snatches of what could be real, what could be imagined. Lines blurring because you blinked. Don't let this one pass you by.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Chain Mail Addicted to You (Hiroshi Ishizaki)

Two things have kept me from posting as many book reviews as I could have during the past few months. One: a business trip to Tokyo that had me occupied weeks before and even weeks after my visit there. Two: a role-playing game that my friends and I have been playing for the past ten months. I've gotten obsessed quite steadily.

It's hard to explain how truly addictive an RPG can get, especially to someone who hasn't played one. Chances are, I'll only get strange looks should I attempt to do so. In a nutshell though, an RPG -- especially one that is as long-term as ours is -- lets you develop complex relationships with the other players. It lets you populate an imagined world with projections of your own selves: a direct copy, maybe; an ideal, possibly. Sooner or later, you get attached to them despite your better judgment. And in building these relationships, an RPG can also isolate your from everyone else who isn't part of it. May sariling mundo, as we say in Tagalog, in more ways than one.

That's the premise of Hiroshi Ishizaki's Chain Mail Addicted to You. Four teenage girls find themselves answering yes to an enigmatic request sent to their phones: Would you like to create a fictional world? The game they play is fairly straight-forward. Each girl takes on one of four roles: a young girl, her stalker, her boyfriend, and a detective. Through their posts, they help build the action and flesh out the characters. But eventually, the lines between what is real and what is a game start to blur -- not just for the characters but for the reader as well.

Chain Mail takes the reader through the different reasons why someone would seek to escape into an imagined world. For example, Sawako is standoffish and isn't too popular with her friends. Mayumi, on the other hand, is devoted to her best friend, a star badminton player. She's never questioned her role in the relationship until now, when she realizes that she can make things happen, even if it's just in the game. Mr Ishizaki writes from each girl's point of view. It's a challenge, but he manages to differentiate the girls from one another. He is also effective in creating tension within the game. Even if all we read are excerpts from the girls' exchanges, sufficient excitement and paranoia is built to make us eager to find out what happens to the young girl and her stalker.

There are so many elements to Chain Mail that makes the reading experience an intriguing one. Though the twists in the story were not that unique, what stands out is the depiction of teenage life from something other than a western perspective. With its Tokyo setting, different concerns and motivations are pushed into the spotlight. Of course, with what I had revealed earlier, it goes without saying that I could relate to a lot of elements in this novel. My own experiences definitely color how I appreciate a book but I hope that you can give this psychological thriller (and a social commentary of sorts) a chance as well.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Scribbled: Turtle Warriors

Some news on the writing front: my short story "Chasers" appears in the Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology 7 available on Kindle and Flipreads. It's a theme I often explore in my work -- the undefinable nature of contemporary relationships, its demands and compromises. Not exactly ground-breaking stuff, I know, but it's something I'm comfortable with. Write what you know and all that.

From the Amazon description:
A heartbroken youth discovers the first woman, Maganda, in a garden. The youngest, most beautiful of ten siblings gets sold as a bride to a Tiq’Barang. A segment of the Filipino population suddenly transform to look like American celebrities. The Philippine Speculative Fiction series are anthologies that showcase the rich variety of Philippine literature: between these covers you will find magic realism next to science fiction, traditional fantasy beside slipstream, and imaginary worlds rubbing shoulders with alternate Philippine history—demonstrating that the literature of the fantastic is alive and well in the Philippines.

Stories from this series have been included in the Honorable Mentions list from The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror edited by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link & Gavin Grant.

I wrote this a few years ago and I'm really glad it found its way to a collection. Thanks so much to Kate Osias, Alex Osias, and Dean Alfar for this opportunity.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kwentillion: Book Spotlight

Ficsation is joining the countdown to Kwentillion's 1st Young Adult Reader Carnival! I won't be able to attend as I live a plane ride away (it's this weekend, July 21, Saturday, from 1-5PM, at the National Book Store Bestsellers branch at Robinson’s Galleria) but I'll participate by weighing in on some exciting YA titles heading for our bookshelves in the next few months. Here's one upcoming YA title that I'm very eager to pick up:

Carnival of Souls
Melissa Marr
(HarperCollins, September 4)

What is it about:

Welcome to a world of daimons. Welcome to The City. Once in a generation, daimons like Aya and Kaleb are given the chance to join the powerful ruling class through a deadly and ruthless competition known as the Carnival of Souls. For them, this is the ultimate test of survival.

Meanwhile, far from the City, exiled and hidden away among humans, is Mallory. Though she tries to live a normal life with her father, she knows that her destiny will always lead her back to the one they've left. But can she really prepare herself for what awaits her back in The City -- and at the Carnival of Souls?

Why I'm excited about it:
Melissa Marr's Wicked Lovely series shuttled the reader back and forth between the dark and mysterious machinations of faerie and gritty urban situations. In Carnival of Souls, she revisits a formula that has worked for her via a richly-layered second world, one whose social and political systems set the stage for a deadly tradition. Add some strong fantasy Hunger Games overtones to the mix, and Carnival of Souls promises to be a brave beginning to a new series.

Carnival of Souls will be available at National Book Store in September 2012.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The 1st Filipino Readers’ Choice Awards

The Filipino Readers’ Choice Awards seeks to engage the Filipino reading public in honoring their favorite Philippine-published titles. An initiative of the Filipino Book Bloggers Group, the Filipino RCA was established to develop awareness and appreciation of Philippine literature; recognize the reader’s role in creating the meaning and experience of a literary work; and give the readers a voice in the Philippine book industry.

Writers are praised by critics, handed awards by institutions. Wouldn't it be nice if readers like us have a say, too? Welcome the Filipino RCA. Titles published in the Philippines from January 2010 to December 2011 -- yup, a two-year period -- are eligible for nomination. I meant to post this earlier since nominations began last July 9 but don't worry, you can still weigh in until Sunday, July 22. (Click here for the nomination form).

This year, the awards will have eight categories:
• Children’s picture book
• Chick lit
• Novel in English
• Novel in Filipino
• Comics / Graphic novels
• Short story anthology
• Essay anthology
• Poetry

Winners will be announced during The 2nd Filipino ReaderCon on August 18 at the Filipinas Heritage Library. The ReaderCon site also does updates on what's been nominated so if you have any favorite Filipino books that haven't been mentioned yet, now's the time to nominate them!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Scribbled: In Another Tongue

Enceladus is one of Saturn's inner moons, a world of ice and light, with geysers that spit out frozen material from its active belly. I've always been intrigued by moons like Enceladus and planets that could possibly hold other secrets to life in this universe. How can my fractured tongue even begin to describe it? Give me rain and earth instead; give me the familiar and the near. Anyway, I digress. Here's what I really want to say:

My poem Alimu-om appears in Ideomancer's latest issue. :)

That, and ittekimasu, as the rains begin.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Substitute.

[...]Sit down tonight
And write him about the life you can talk about
With a claim to authority, the life you've witnessed,
Which for all you know is the life you've chosen.

- from Carl Dennis' The God who Loves You

Thea, Oz, and I agreed to meet up at a cafe just across Oz and my college alma mater. For Thea, it was an adventure; she studies at a rival school and would have little reason to head west of the city if we hadn't prodded her. For Oz and I, it was a chance to see up close how much things had changed since we graduated ten years ago.

Has it really been a decade? Some of our old haunts were still there, true, but most sported new faces. The small University Mall, dimly-lit and almost seedy-looking in my memory now looked very different. The Korean-inspired cafe we went to was one of the hipper (hipster?) additions to a neighborhood that was once littered with computer rental shops and shawarma places. As we picked our poisons, green tea and caramel in tall glasses, we reminisced about almost-hads and might-have-beens, in between moments of quiet which I'm sure took us in the opposite direction of the paths we had picked for ourselves back then.

I told them the cafe reminded me of the ones in Korea, the ones I wish I could visit again. What I really wanted to say was this: I wonder who I'd be if I had been born a decade later, if I were a student now, sipping coffee and doodling on a Polaroid in between classes. How much of myself would be reinvented, improved, discarded? Oh, the possibilities.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: All Geeked Out

The first time I met Rocky was the day I fell in love with his chronologically-arranged collection of Star Wars expanded universe books. And then he played Mal to my Kaylee and I really don't know how my heart could recover after that. This month's Bookworm takes care of a bunch of blogs, including his personal one and The Geeky Guide to Nearly Everything (which I had read even before one of his partners introduced us). When he's not reading or writing, he works as a Marketing Manager for a multinational call center and has recently started an independent travel agency (A.S.A. Travel and Tours) with his partners.

Rocky is a total Kindle advocate. "Having a Kindle will change your life - reading on a tablet can't compare, I swear. The biggest benefit is that the eInk doesn't feel like you're staring at an LCD screen all the time - it feels like you're still reading a book." You can find him reading multiple books at a time like "the hardcover that I can't bring around with me, the paperback that I stow in my work bag that I read on the MRT and at least one ebook that I read via my Kindle," he says.

1. How often do you read? What kind of books/genres do you often read?
I read every day and I try to squeeze in reading time whenever I can. I admit that these days I read more ebooks versus physical books given I've noticed that I tend to read faster when it comes to ebooks. I'm primarily a science fiction and fantasy kind of guy, but I have been known to deviate into contemporary fiction and magical realism / surrealism.

2. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
Three books only? Well I guess we can stick to Dune by Frank Herbert, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

'Ours is a peaceful race, and we must live in harmony...'

3. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
Favorite authors are Frank Herbert, Haruki Murakami, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Save for Herbert (who is deceased), all are pretty much on my auto-buy lists.

4. How did you get into fantasy and sci-fi?
I have my biological father to thank for that - he introduced me to the whole genre through the TV series Star Trek and there has been no going back ever since.

5. Which books do you think would make a successful transition into TV or film? Anything you would be excited to catch onscreen?
I don't think that there is any one book that will guarantee a successful translation to a movie or a TV series - that really depends on the vision of the producers / director, the involvement of the author and the budget of the studio. And in the end, the translation is an independent work which is typically better off not compared to the source material.

It's actually great trying to take a peek into Rocky's mind. He's really one of the more interesting people I've met in recent years. For him, "reading is amazing since it introduces us to amazing new worlds, allows us to experience new stories and adventures wherever you are. Of course there's the chance to learn new things whether in terms of practical knowledge or more abstract wisdom for life in general." I can't agree more.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Blog Love: Otaku Champloo

It's no secret that I love to read Asian literature, which includes a healthy dose of shoujo manga. Over on my friend Khursten's Otaku Champloo, she explores more of this industry and literary form from the international reader's perspective -- one who is both an academic and a fan.

According to Khursten:
Champloo stems from chanpurū, an Okinawan word for 'something mixed' but can also stand for 'easy-going'. Taking inspiration from Samurai Champloo, this site is a mish mash of things that makes Khursten an otaku.

A historian by profession, Khursten features news and trends in the manga industry, as well as delves into its cultural and social influences. She tackles issues that involve most manga readers through her light yet thought-provoking posts. She also highlights both new and established mangakas and series to broaden her readers' shelves. If you think that manga is just about the latest cartoon craze the kids are talking about, then prepare to be enlightened. Manga is not merely limited to action-packed series or love stories with wide-eyed heroines. There are a ton of themes and settings continually being explored in manga.

Part of my manga collection -- at least, the books I have here with me in the boondocks.

For example, from May 22 – 27, Otaku Champloo will be hosting a Moveable Manga Feast devoted to Oishinbo and Food Manga. In hindsight, maybe I should have posted a photo with Mixed Vegetables, the only food-related manga I have with me right now (though you can see one volume peeking out from beneath The Girl Who Leapt through Time). But I digress. If you're eager to learn more about manga in general and food manga (and by association, Japanese cuisine) in particular, you can head to Khursten's blog. It's guaranteed to be a gastronomic and literary feast!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Maisie Dobbs (Jacqueline Winspear)

A staple of my favorite mystery works is the presence of an engaging sleuth. I forget the intricacies of motive or the originality of the crime for a moment; I am primarily drawn -- above all else -- to the main character. In Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs, I get just that: an keenly observant young woman whose brilliance, dedication, and courage has not only helped her survive the Great War but has even helped her establish herself as a private investigator in the years after.

Setting gives the Maisie Dobbs series a unique voice. In this eponymous introduction, Ms Winspear not only establishes Maisie's first case as a discreet private eye, but also digs into her beginnings as a young girl serving a wealthy and noble family, the Comptons. It chronicles a delicate time in history. The Great War touches demands sacrifices from everyone, from the working class to the wealthy, and losses are too many to count. On the homefront, class divides are slowly being broken down while independent women like Maisie begin establishing a firmer voice in society. These upheavals are evident in Maisie Dobbs, turning this mystery into a commentary on the times as well.

While Maisie's first case bookends this novel, it is her past that forms the bulk. Readers are introduced to how Lady Rowan Compton helps Maisie with her education until she is on her way to Cambridge for further studies. But because of the War, Maisie decides to join up as a nurse, and we become privy to a tender and painful period of Maisie's life, one that she does not readily share with others. When she is hired to investigate private marital matters, she uncovers more than she expected -- a secret retreat where disfigured soldiers go, and one that awakens in her all the emotions that she has locked behind after the War. Ms Winspear weaves emotional depth into what first seems to be an open-and-shut mystery case, and she does it without being heavy-handed about it. She lets us follow Maisie's careful and logical observations in detail so we don't question the rationality of her heroine's actions, but at the same she allows us to see the humanity and weaknesses that lie behind the investigator's strong mask. In the end, it's this combination of historical portraiture and subtle emotion that makes Maisie Dobbs a truly fascinating mystery series.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Raw Blue (Kirsty Eagar)

Thanks to my friend Chachic of Chachic's Book Nook, I was introduced to the work of another fine Australian writer: Kirsty Eagar. Ms Eagar's prose turns poetic in Raw Blue, which centers on Carly, whose life now revolves only around work and surfing after a traumatic incident. She barely keeps in touch with her family. School is a distant affair. Friends are few and far between, especially as she strives to keep her walls about her. The last thing Carly seems to want is someone like Ryan, a fellow surfer: strong, intense, and mysterious. But they're slowly drawn together and Carly has to deal with her past to figure out if she can have a future with Ryan.

What I enjoyed most about Raw Blue is the gradual unfolding of the story. Carly and Ryan are both flawed but the story doesn't choose to focus on how they became broken. Instead it explores the quiet days after -- the mundane rituals of everyday, its surprises and challenges, how life stubbornly goes on. It took me a while to really get into the story despite enjoying the lyrical language. It's easy to figure out what happened to Carly, but the blurb and even Carly's thoughts remain guarded about it, the proverbial white elephant taking up space among the pages.

Still, it's Ms Eagar's very visually descriptive narration that kept me reading -- and eventually made me appreciate the slow and gentle pace that the story took. No shortcuts. No sudden epiphanies. Ms Eagar tosses around images like honey and devil moons and the raw blue of the ocean. 'My happiness is crunchy. Snapping, crackling and popping in the sun,' Carly thinks, and suddenly I could feel what she meant. This smooth and well-thought out language keeps Carly's story from descending into the full pity-me drama of a Telemundo show. Instead it feels realistic, at least to my limited experience (and I accept that I can't fully judge what is realistic in this sense).

I'm no surfer so all the surfing terms were lost on me, but everything else about Raw Blue is a revelation. If you ever find yourself with time and patience to spare this summer, I suggest picking this one up. It's intimate and philosophical, gentle and courageous. This was my first 'new adult' read -- or at least the first one I've read ever since I was introduced to the sub-genre -- and Raw Blue certainly doesn't disappoint.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: Things by the Book

I've been so busy this month that instead of opening with the Bookworm Gallery feature, I had to end with it. Still, it's never the wrong time to feature a fellow book-lover. This month, it's Niner Guiao, attorney, environmental advocate, and beach-tripper. She's also one of my closest friends. Once upon a time, she went to Geneva for a three-month research position on climate change. Now she does consultancy work for a firm that deals mostly with ecologically sustainable tourism, as well as an institution involved with international law and climate change. She is also doing consulting work on intellectual property and cyber law.

Because of her schedule, Niner usually just reads one book at a time for each 'aspect' of her life, so to speak. "I read one work-book at a time, and one leisure-book at a time, but those two often go together. Depending on my mood or the exigencies of my schedule, I shift from one book to another," she says.

1. How often do you read these days? What kind of books/genres do you often read?
Every day, for at least four to five hours a day. I can’t really avoid it, since while I love to read, I also have to read for work. A lot of my work has to do with research, so I have to read academic-type books, like law commentaries and studies on climate change and intellectual property. On my own, though, I usually prefer to read graphic novels (manga), suspense, fantasy, general fiction and a whole lot of chicklit.

2. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
Persuasion by Jane Austen, Ghost Hunt vol. 8 by Shiho Inada, and Black’s Law Dictionary.

3. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
Anne Stuart, Susan Elizabeth Philips and Jennifer Crusie are definitely on my auto-buy list. I also really like the work of Neil Gaiman, Karen Rose, Sophie Kinsella, Melissa Nathan, among others. Chris Mariano is on my auto-buy list, too. (Note: See why I love Nine?)

Niner highlights passages and writes notes in the margins of her work literature but just copies great passages in her notebook for her more leisurely reads.

4. You're heading to the beach. What title/s is/are in your bag?
It varies, depending on my mood and what’s out in the market at the time (haha), but right now I’d say Call Me Irresistible by Susan Elizabeth Philips, What's Your Number by Sophie Kinsella, and the latest volume of Ghost Hunt by Shino Inada.

5. What do you think is the biggest challenge when it comes to protecting IP, especially when it comes to e-books?
Personally, I think that while current laws and their implementation could be better, in the long run things won't change unless you change the way people see it. There are so many brilliant people who can work around law and technology faster than it takes to come up with laws and work on their implementation. Intellectual property is an intangible thing, and while a case could definitely be argued that illegal downloading can be considered theft, it may be difficult to convince people of that since nothing entirely tangible is being taken.

Niner also shares her opinions on a lot of things, like the popularity of legal thrillers like John Grisham novels ('In the legal profession, problems generally arise because of a human -- rather than biological or medical -– factor, and can only be resolved by the same. It’s less technical in [that] sense... Also, it may be easier for the audience to relate to the conflicts and the characters in legal dramas because they address or challenge viewers’/readers’ own views on morality and relationships.') or climate change. Through her love for books, Niner expands her world one page at a time. For her, the best thing about reading is "the escape, the artistry, and the depth in even the simplest things."

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Blog Love: Textbook

Let me introduce you to this wonderful blog I recently discovered: Textbook. The genius behind it is John Jannuzi, who likes giving runway-worthy looks to characters from history, literature, film, and music. You can catch his complete list here.

Here are his posts on some of my favorite fictional and historical figures: Anne of Green Gables, Joan of Arc, Princess Leia, Amelia Earhart, Emma Woodhouse, and Peter Pan. I'm so in love! I actually wish I could include one of his images here, but instead I'll try to take my cue from him and try it just this once, with Sophie from Howl's Moving Castle.

So why Sophie? I've always enjoyed this Diana Wynne Jones book, and I think Sophie's a great (and safe!) choice to try this on. I'm thinking classic romantic and florals, but in bright colors to fit her strong personality.

1) Old Soul
Silk-georgette dress by Giambattista Valli, for those flower-picking afternoons in vintage (not elderly) style

2) Sophie's Choice
Sleeveless printed floral dress by Mary Katrantzou, because now she'll always have magic in her life

3) Mad Hatter
Hat by Yestadt Millinery, since old habits die hard

What do you think? Do these fit Sophie at all? If you could dress any fictional character, how would you do it?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

All Men of Genius (Lev AC Rosen)

When I first heard that someone had written a steampunk re-imagining of Twelfth Night mixed with a little The Importance of Being Ernest, I was over the moon. For months now, my friends and I have been obsessed by our play-by-post RPG world in which (in a total coincidence) our characters are staging a steampunk musical of Twelfth Night. You can see how this translated into an eagerness to get my hands on Mr Rosen's story.

No shipwrecks here: Violet masquerades as her twin brother Ashton so she can be a student at the illustrious, all-male Illyria College. What's admirable about her efforts is that she is not merely driven by personal ambition; she genuinely desires to change the way society looks at female inventors. Ironically, to do this she must submit herself to the standards and approval of men first. Despite the confusing social politics governing female inventors (Ada Lovelace is a patron of the college and she doesn't seem to have any problems gaining said masculine approval), All Men of Genius strives to impress upon the reader the celebration of individual differences despite society's standards and rules.

Violet's first days at the College, her interaction with her professors and peers -- these all seem to be an effective way to get the readers acclimated to the world of the text. As with other re-imaginings, I enjoyed seeing familiar characters show up in different roles. There was also the promise of something darker, more sinister, brewing beneath the surface (and I mean that literally: Violet and her friends uncover strange plots in Illyria's off-limits basement). But after a while these action-adventure elements seem tacked on. Twelfth Night already has a number of subplots going on, and giving Violet and her crew the added burden of discovering a plot that threatens Illyria College doesn't seem too well thought-out. That part of the plot felt thin and poorly explored both in intention and in execution.

The cover immediately made me think that it's being marketed as a young adult read but note: it's very bold about exploring homosexual relationships, bicuriosity, May-December affairs. That, together with the smattering of mature jokes and situations, ought to serve as a warning that some younger or more conservative readers may not find this the most ideal reading material. As a romance though, it has its moments, but to enjoy those I had to leave the young adult frame of mind and enter the Regency one: Violet is eighteen and the Duke is about thirty. Add to this their uncomfortable relationship of being student and headmaster and you've got a romance that I was surprised to find in what I assumed to be a YA story. (Note: If this wasn't marketed as YA, then please tell me. I'd love to know that I was wrong.) I enjoyed this quick read but I wouldn't call myself a fan; there's something in the gender politics that doesn't quite sit well with me, although I can't quite pinpoint what it is. But if that has you curious, then by all means, grab a copy and let's discuss. Despite this, Mr Rosen's writing is lively and impassioned enough that I'll be looking forward to his next book.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Island.

Someday I will send everyone a card
with nothing on it, only
the calligraphy
of a river, and in the back
with invisible ink I will say:
Forgive my happiness,
I have betrayed you all.

- from Eric Gamalinda's Enough

Sausage and vodka pasta at Tibraz in Boracay. One of my favorite places on the Island. Crazy weekend. I thought I'd be writing but ended up quite hung over on Sunday morning. I'm too old for this, I think, too old for the parties that I was always too uncool for, too old for staying late or smiling at cute strangers.

And what will they say about the pudgy girl with the glasses, reading in the corner? Will they make up stories about me, just as I do about them? Will our stories meet in the middle, turn themselves into a quiet epic about the ocean, where it goes, what it whispers to anyone who listens?

Monday, April 16, 2012

10% Off Your Next Book Depository Purchase

Don't you just love promos? I do! That's why Ficsation's offering to help you get 10% off on your next Book Depository purchase by clicking the link below and entering the code.

10% Discount / APMA12 Coupon Code / Book Depository

Any books on your wish list? Any upcoming releases you'd want to pre-order? Offer runs until May 14, 2012 so make sure you grab your chance before summer's over. Happy reading!

My Kind of Guy

Mina V. Esguerra, author of Pinoy chick lit titles such as My Imaginary Ex, Fairy Tale Fail, and No Strings Attached is coming out with her latest book, That Kind of Guy via Summit Publishing and she's hosting a giveaway on her blog. As part of her mailing list, I could have gotten a head start but after going all sentimental in my last post, it almost felt redundant -- but look! Isn't that what I'm doing now? *headdesk* Please bear with me. Still, I'd love to spread the news about Mina's latest book; her characters are always real and easy to relate to, and I'm sure this one won't be an exception.

So. Who's 'My Kind of Guy'? If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have come up with a rather exacting description. But having grown older (wiser?), I would just rather that he fit into the lines of an Alanis Morissette song:

You see everything
You see every part
You see all my light
And you love my dark
You dig everything
Of which I'm ashamed
There's not anything
To which you can't relate
And you're still here

I'm the kind of girl who has quirks and faults. He's the kind of guy who understands the kind of girl I am and what's important to me -- my family, my interests, my faith. And hey, if he's the kind of guy who will get me katsudon in the middle of the night or will take me places in a blue police box or can answer positively to the Dashboard Confessional question (do you like dreaming of things so impossible or only the practical or ever the wild or waiting through all your bad bad days just to end them with someone you care about?), then I won't have any other reason to complain.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Regret is the name I've given you.

Every year, around this time, I think about you:
So what is this, exactly? Do I call it an accounting of what might have been? I certainly entertained that thought more than once--and as I have recently discovered, so have you. Not quite the marriage of true minds as we were so quick to label it then, because we had our colossal share of impediments. Two months after that, you got married.

You were unexpected. You were every cliche visited upon me by ghosts of journals past. You made me roll a Will saving throw when I had -3 Wisdom; I could never win with you. But you were very real, and in the end, this will only be a remembering.
We were young. Once. See above evidence of every little emotion I felt obliged to document and wear on my sleeve. Someone once told me you have a son now, but maybe that's just my subconscious reminding me that I couldn't have made a difference anyway. Still every year, around this time, my heart curls up a little, into itself, as if it's something flammable come too close to the fire.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Peach Keeper (Sarah Addison Allen)

There's much comfort to be found in a Sarah Addison Allen book, and a lot of it has to do with her small town settings. They invite you to sit down in someone's kitchen, eat some homemade pastry, and gossip about the local characters. In The Peach Keeper, the former logging town of Walls of Water in North Carolina is front and center but there's something darker that's lurking beneath the surface. This scenic place, surrounded by waterfalls and hiking trails, has some buried secrets that are about to come to light with the re-opening of the Blue Ridge Madam.

The Blue Ridge Madam is a town landmark, built by Willa Jackson’s great-great-grandfather who lost his fortune when the logging business died out. Now the Women's Society Club, under the leadership of golden girl Paxton Osgood, has restored it and has invited Willa to the big day. But that's before they find a skeleton on the grounds, and both women -- never friends -- must now band together to solve a mystery that threatens both of their families.

There's an awkward but steady friendship that develops between Willa and Paxton, as the novel delves into the beauty of discovering friends and allies when you’re at a vulnerable stage of your life. These two women not only had shared history; they had shared interests and beliefs as well, including the importance of family and the love for their small town. It's the gradual unfolding of their friendship that I admired most in this book, rather than the inevitable romance between Willa and Paxton's twin brother Colin. In fact, I was a little more interested in the secondary romance (though somewhat improbable to me) between Paxton and Sebastian than I was in the former. Willa and Colin were just too cookie-cutter to me. There were no surprises there, though I admired how their relationship issues were later addressed.

Both Willa and Paxton become privy to their family secrets as they try to get to the bottom of the mystery and I like how these were slowly introduced into the story, even if it was easy to guess how things really happened. I also thought the whole police involvement in this cold case was glossed over but I suppose it wasn't the purpose of the novel. The Peach Keeper is meant to celebrate women and their friendships: friends like Agatha and Georgie, and later, Willa and Paxton. The tone and themes in this novel is somewhat heavier than the ones I've come to associate with Sarah Addison Allen's work but they still make The Peach Keeper worth a quick afternoon read.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater)

Every autumn, wild capaill uisce (water horses) emerge from the sea and into the small island of Thisby. Men brave enough to catch these flesh-eating, sea-mad horses -- the fastest steeds on land -- ride them in town’s Scorpio Races, held every first of November, a day when someone is sure to die.

How I just devoured this book. As characters, Puck Connolly and Sean Kendrick have their own baggage and sorrows, their own hopes and desires but the story doesn’t choose to dwell on just these things. What it is about is a race, told from the perspective of two people who want to win for two different reasons. Puck joins the Scorpio Races almost on an impulse, a last-ditch attempt to keep her brother Gabe at home before he goes to the mainland. Later she realizes that her family’s future on the island depends on how well she does.

"Boys just aren't very good at being afraid," one character says, and this cuts into Puck's own bravery. She isn't going out there to make a feminist statement. In fact, she's not even doing it to save the house (in the beginning, at least); she's doing it because this is how she thinks she can keep her family together. She's not afraid of the capaill uisce; what she's most afraid of is losing what's left of her family. I like Puck’s fire. She dares to race on her island-bred horse Dove in a race for water horses. She is reckless because she has much to lose. She is brave because she needs to brave for others. "I have my own reasons for riding. [...] Just because I'm a girl doesn't make those reasons any less (p196)," Puck declares, and this made me cheer for her every time. I also like how Ms Stiefvater made sure that Puck had all options available to her, like the chance to run the race on a real water horse. It made the decision to race with Dove a practical, rational one instead of a purely emotional one.

The other protagonist of the story is Sean Kendrick. At nineteen, he’s got an almost otherworldly bond with the capaill uisce, especially the red capall Corr. Sean’s won the Scorpio Races for Malvern Stables four times now but no race has ever been more important than this one. This year he’s got a slim chance to win it all but not without risking it all too. Sean is a perfect foil for Puck’s character. He’s cool and steady, no matter the challenges being leveled at him. His is another story of bravery, one that is quiet and firm, like a cornerstone, something that cannot be shaken. The bond he has with Corr just moves me on so many levels. (Also, Sean is a great romantic lead. He’s the swoonworthy, silent, and brooding guy that most romance novels wish they had but can never perfect.)

Thisby is an imagined place, but I could easily picture it off the coast of Ireland or Wales. I like how this is fantasy world is a given, the magical woven into the mundane without any explanation. No one here is Dorothy bewildered by the loss of Kansas, no one is subjected to a mythological infodump. If anyone dares voice out the strangeness of the Thisby world, it is George Holly, the American horse breeder, but his question is more out of sociological curiosity, not "Why in the world are there things like flesh-eating water horses?" kind of way. I thought Ms Stiefvater showed a lot of skill and restraint when exploring the characters and culture of Thisby, especially in the way the island both revered and feared the water horses. She revealed just enough for the story to retain its mystery. I thought this way brought both Thisby and the capaill uisce to life. Ms Stiefvater carefully shows the readers just what these strange vicious horses mean to Thisby.

I was reluctant to let go of this even after I was done with the last page. I could feel myself still in Thisby, still standing on that shore and not wanting the moment to end. I guess it shows in the way I've gone on and on about this. Shutting up now. In my dreams, there's a capall waiting by the water's edge, daring me to come closer.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

I'm not quite sure what happened with The Night Circus. I thought it started quite well, lush in intent, but as the story progressed, I didn't find all that much meat to the story. The battle is between two fundamental opposites: Celia and her father, who believes in a magician's innate ability; and Marco and the mysterious man in grey, autodidacts who learn their magical skills on their own. Celia and Marco are only the latest in a long-standing and deadly game, with the Night Circus as their battlefield.

There were parts that I really took to. The opening chapters found a way to hook me in, short and tantalizing as they gave hints about the bigger story. The descriptions of the Night Circus, though not quite literary thaumaturgy at work, still helped me visualize Celia and Marco's world. But what of the rest? The book set the stage for a battle, but all I got was akin to foreplay. Celia and Marco were two people caught in a game not of their own shaping, but I didn't really feel them struggling against their bonds. In fact, they took to their kind of prison quite well -- and if the romance is any indication (not a spoiler to anyone who reads the book blurb before purchasing), they even welcomed it in a way -- so I felt the book did not have a central driving conflict behind it. I found myself interested in the characters but not really caring for them one way or the other, and I sincerely hope that it was my failing as a reader that led me to that conclusion.

Then there was the chronology. Events were chronological enough, but between their chapters was the story of Bailey (and the circus twins Poppet and Widget), which progresses separately at first but eventually ties in to the others. I would have been fine with it had it not been for some moments when the stories approach each other closely but never connect; I found it hard to jump between teenage Poppet and Widget in the Celia/Marco storyline and then back again to the Bailey one. It made my reading experience somewhat disjointed and from then on I could never really recover whatever magic The Night Circus was promising. When the story ended, I found myself drawn Bailey and the twins marginally more, even though they only appeared in a third of the book. It left me strangely empty, as if the experience of reading it had been as illusory as the magicks in the Night Circus.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Trese (Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo)

Some books consume me completely. Sometimes it's because they are fiercely fantastical, like China Mieville's The Scar or Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy, with worlds that pull me in and don't let go. Sometimes they can be about ordinary matters but have characters or ideas that speak to me, like Valancy in LM Montgomery's The Blue Castle or the beautiful chaos in Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. Trese's draw for me is a little of both as it combines Philippine mythology and local pop culture into creative, well-crafted mysteries.

I was lucky to purchase all four volumes of Trese at once; it made it quicker for me to devour the series in one sitting. Two days after buying the series, I had already read it three times. That's how I was completely immersed in Trese's world. Written by Budjette Tan and illustrated by Kajo Baldisimo, Trese follows Alexandra Trese, police consultant on paranormal crimes, through the dark and mysterious paths of Manila's under/otherworld. As a heroine, Trese is strong, compelling, and enigmatic. She's constantly flanked by her masked Kambal sidekicks and together with a recurring cast of allies and foes, she takes the readers on a wild ride around the city.

Each volume had its strengths. The first, Murder at Balete Drive, is a great introduction, immediately throwing the reader into Trese's world and circumstances. The second, Unreported Murders, cements the fast-paced, episodic action of the series. The third, Mass Murders, winner of the 29th National Book Awards for Graphic Literature, delves into Trese's backstory and culminates in an epic confrontation. The fourth and latest release, Last Seen After Midnight, is stylistically cohesive in story and in art. The black-and-white art improves with each volume: bold and dramatic, deliciously dark. It emphasizes a Manila you might see when you close your eyes, a Manila that hides in the shadows and won't reveal itself to just anyone. Each story also delves into a different part of the city, and the attention to detail that Mr Baldisimo uses to set the scene is amazing. One can easily recognize Katipunan or Quiapo in these pages; I'm looking forward to seeing Binondo or Intramuros or even Taguig next.

Despite the emphasis on the gore and action, moments of pathos also shine through. A lot of the stories are hinged on human emotions finding an outlet on a different plane. There are unreported crimes and unsolved murders. There are social injustices. There are commentaries on the lifestyles of the privileged. Mr Tan shows great skill in capturing these moments and structuring paranormal occurrences around them. "The Fight of the Year" (Vol. 4) and "Our Secret Constellation" (Vol. 1) appeals to very Pinoy struggles and pains -- almost melodramatic -- and the latter, a tribute to Mars Ravelo, proves to be my favorite story to date.

There are some stories that I felt would be better had they been longer. The gang war in "A Private Collection" never fully materializes as a red herring because it's quickly wrapped up in a few pages. True, it's good for a reader who hates devices like this but as a staple of mystery fiction, it has its uses. I can only imagine how rich a story detailing the aswangs vs manananggals would be, had this been further explored. Another story that I felt could have been better served by more pages was "The Tragic Case of Dr Burgos," which was over before I even really got into the story. I think the climax could have been stronger had it been given the same pace as the events leading up to it.

Still, that doesn't take anything away from what this series tries to do. It takes Philippine mythology and shoves it into the cracks and corners of our familiar streets, weaving the fantastic and the commonplace seamlessly. It's an excellently done urban fantasy that I would be proud to share with the rest of the world.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Attachments (Rainbow Rowell)

Because of its genre's standard set pieces, some romance novels utilize different conceits to stand out from the pack. With its Sleepless in Seattle-reminiscent and partly epistolary love story, Attachments makes an effort to be memorable both in structure and in content, asking the readers to cheer for characters who are struck by 'love before first sight.'

Attachments is the story of Lincoln the IT guy who, during the early years of the internet has been hired by the local paper to read and flag emails sent through the company system. This is how he gets to know Beth, The Courier's resident movie critic, who can't get enough of emailing her friend Jennifer about the details of her personal life. As the two women email back and forth, Lincoln finds himself becoming more and more attracted to Beth.

True, what he does sounds awfully stalker-ish on paper. But what I admire about Attachments is how Ms Rowell turns him into a sympathetic character -- the reluctance to do his job evident on each page; in fact, reluctant to do much of anything at all, after a devastating break-up. That particular break-up is one of the highlights of this book, written in a poetic punch-in-the-gut kind of way. Thanks to that, Lincoln easily slides into the sweet spot of any romance protagonist: handsome enough to want as a lead, flawed enough to be within reach.

The novel itself lives within the early stages of most love stories. It thrives in that crushing-on-the-guy-at-the-water-cooler moment, the creative interpretation people do when they begin to attribute certain characteristics to their prospective loves, the awkward admiration at a distance. It's why the voyeuristic element works here. Lincoln, after keeping everything in his life at arms' length, is making slow but steady attempts to build himself anew. Situating the story on the cusp of the millennium also helps the plot as it's framed by the delicious anticipation of a new age and the dread that everything might come crashing down.

[Just an aside. The book is not particularly religious; in fact it has its share of slight profanity and taking of the Lord's name in vain, if you want to get technical. Despite that, I still admired one character's honesty about praying: 'I pray for everyone we care about. Plus, I like to pray for things that seem possible (p191).' It was an unexpected declaration of faith that to me seemed liked it didn't have an agenda or was meant to to be didactic. That, and the mention of two Catholic weddings didn't hurt either.]

There are no real highs and lows in this story but I don't think it needs it. Attachments is less about the thrill of will they-won't they and more about the journey to get yourself back on your feet and reconnecting with others. It's heartfelt, unpretentious, and satisfyingly patient.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Alan Bradley)

After her last mystery, Flavia de Luce tries her hand at solving a case that is much closer to home. Flavia has invited the gypsy Fenella to stay at The Palings, a wide field on the edge of the de Luce property. But instead of being safe and protected, the old woman is brutally attacked here. Flavia of course takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of things, and even ends up discovering one or two important secrets about her own family.

I thought that the mystery in A Red Herring Without Mustard would be my favorite in the series, since it involved gypsies and buried secrets -- and hinted at Flavia's mother's past. But as the novel progressed, I was increasingly drawn away from it by other things. It didn't keep my interest as well as the first two books did. Flavia is still her old clever and impatient self; if anything, she's grown too self-confident of her own abilities and refuses to listen to those in authority. I've always enjoyed this aspect of the series. Though we see the stories unfold through Flavia's eyes, we are also quite aware of how difficult it is for the inspectors to do their job when you have someone like her doing her own brand of investigations. It's not as if the detectives are incompetent, but having Flavia going through crime scenes and keeping evidence for herself certainly complicates their task. If it weren't for Flavia and her troubles with her family (her sisters still torture her and what's worse, she's just found out that their financial problems has her father auctioning off the family silver), I would have probably saved this book for a later date.

Daphne, Flavia's second eldest sister explains the title. "Red herring, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was considered an inferior dish," Daffy replied, with an especially withering look at me on the word "inferior." (p162) It certainly highlights the inferiority theme throughout the book: the gypsies were discriminated against, the favored suspects in local crimes; the Hobblers are a fictional religious sect that were seen as Dissenters and Nonconformists, certainly taking on an Othered role in the narrative; and finally, that concerning Flavia herself, continuously bullied by her older sisters and treated as unimportant. But a red herring in mysteries also refers to a misleading clue that draws the reader's or investigator's attention from the main conflict, and there's certainly one here. Mystery-wise, there was not much to excite me. But when it comes to learning more about the de Luce family, A Red Herring Without Mustard still satisfies.

A final note: I've always wondered why, for all her inquisitiveness, Flavia has never really delved into her mother's disappearance. She certainly learns a bit more in this book but it never really spurs her to find more. I guess that's something to look forward to in the other books of the series.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: Reading in Style

Fashion stylist, graphic artist, web designer, and award-winning blogger Alex Lapa is March's featured bookworm. Alex has styled for fashion shows, TV, and even movies but is currently doing more work for engagement shoots. She also works part-time with (a members-exclusive shopping site) as their web content manager and designer. This year she hopes to start her own business by designing and selling swimwear.

A geek at heart, Alex also helps her brother run his table-top miniatures business. When she has free time between all that, she teaches Science to kids, mostly in grade school. "But it's not the typical Science class, since it's more of a performance--like doing magic tricks, except they're actually scientific experiments. I know, most of my friends and family think it's totally out of character, but it's surprisingly fun," Alex shares.

With her busy schedule, it's no wonder that Alex juggles several book titles at once. Some books take her months (sometimes, even more than a year) to finish. But she shares a neat little habit when it comes to finding her place. "I still use bookmarks. Right-side faces the page where I stopped and the edge of the bookmark ends on the line where I stopped. I can't be the only one who does that, right?" I had to tell her that this was the first time I encountered it, but then again, I'm not big on bookmarks myself! Here's the rest of what Alex had to say about her love for reading:

1. How often do you read these days? What kind of books/genres do you often read?
I read everyday, but most of the time they're not really new material. I have e-books and audiobooks of my favorite reads so I listen/read them all the time. I also have this bedside book pile that keeps about 4-5 books in rotation--a mix of ones that have already been read and those that I'm still reading. Right now, I read a lot of fantasy and young adult fiction. Because I'm still not over my George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire phase, I now listen to the audiobooks instead so I can "reread" even when I'm mobile. The only problem is, I sometimes still get so absorbed as I would with a physical book--but I'm making that look of utter concentration without one (sitting very still and unblinking), so I think I just look weird.

2. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones and White Oleander by Janet Fitch.

3. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
I think I'd pick up anything by Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman. I'm so sad that the former passed away last year, I don't think she got enough recognition for her writing. She's amazing. I think Harry Potter and JK Rowling fans would love her work. I also like Nick Bantock's books--I was surprised when I learned that he was first an illustrator before becoming an "accidental" writer. I also enjoyed reading Lucy Maud Montgomery, growing up.

Leki gets caught reading in the middle of a shoot. Photo by her friend and fellow stylist Nio.

4. If you could emulate a fictional character's style for a day, who would you pick and why? How would you dress as?
I do plan on doing that Halloween this year! I'll be Delirium of The Endless. I've been trying to complete her costume for some years now, but I wasn't serious enough about it so I never completed it in time. But now I've got the same haircut, so it's too good an opportunity to pass up. I've almost got everything--I just need a fish balloon and colored contacts, and I'm set. I think it'd be fun to dress as her, because there's plenty of room to be creative, but readers of Sandman will still recognize it's her. And as you know, I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman, so dressing up as one of his characters is in my bucket list.

5. You're also big on gaming and visual arts. Which book would you want to see done as a graphic novel or a video game?
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman would probably make a fantastic video game. London Below is an interesting setting for an RPG, and the costume design for the characters would probably be kick-ass.

I think one of the reasons that Alex's interests are so diverse and dynamic is that she is constantly embraces new things. According to her, that's the best thing about reading. "Reading introduces you to new ideas and other cultures that you probably wouldn't have known on your own," she says. "It's like going through school (except it's more engaging, haha) or traveling."

Friday, March 02, 2012

Global Astronomy Month (April 2012)

As a member of the Astronomical League of the Philippines, I've always been vocal about my love for astronomy. Our group is affiliated with Astronomers Without Borders, an organization that builds relationships among international skywatchers through the sharing of resources and knowledge. I'm taking a short break from book blogging to promote some of the efforts to celebrate this big event.

10 Ways to Get Involved in GAM 2012

With the approach of Global Astronomy Month 2012 (GAM 2012) in April, astronomers around the globe are organizing events for the world’s largest celebration of astronomy in all its forms. Join Astronomers Without Borders in sharing the Universe with others under the motto,
One People, One Sky.

Here are 10 ways to get involved in GAM 2012:

1. Kick off GAM2012 with both the Sun and the Moon. SunDay (April 1) and Lunar Week (April 1-7) both return this year, just as the month-long celebration begins. Hold a solar event during the day and continue with our closest neighbor in space after dark.

2. Take part with an event of your own. Register your event on the GAM website so others near you can join in, and others around the world can share in your plans. If you are part of an astronomy club, planetarium or public observatory, bring your local community into
this international program.

3. Explore the Universe from home. GAM offers two ways to enjoy remote online observing. Follow along as an astronomer navigates the skies for you live, or try your hand at controlling a telescope yourself.

4. If you’re a teacher, get your students involved. Learn and teach the importance of dark, starry skies. Inspire their creativity in the Astropoetry Contest. Students are fascinated by the wonders of the night sky. Be sure to pay attention so you can answer their questions!

5. Plan a family night out for Lyrid Watch (April 21/22) marking the return of this annual meteor shower. Bundle up on your own porch or drive to darker skies to watch as space wanderers drop in on Earth, burning up in our atmosphere as “shooting stars.”

6. See stars of the celestial kind at the world’s biggest star party – the Global Star Party on April 28. Find an event near you, or organize your own and invite the neighbors. Meet the stars: Saturn, the Moon, and more.

7. Keep in touch. Follow the GAM blog, with a different astronomy blogger every day throughout April. Join the conversation on Twitter using #GAM2012, share your pictures on Flickr or be our friend on Facebook. Follow the GAM website for news and updates.

8. If you’re a journalist or blogger, tell your readers how they can join the GAM celebration with events near them and online throughout April.

9. Sponsor this international outreach and peace-building campaign. Sponsorships opportunities are available for the month and for select, targeted programs. Download the GAM 2012 Sponsorship Package or contact AWB President Mike Simmons.

10. Astronomy is for everyone and so is GAM. Browse our resources for People with Disabilities, a new and growing movement in astronomy highlighted in GAM.

There are GAM programs for everyone. Star parties, solar observing, remote observing sessions, cosmic concerts, programs for planetariums and people with disabilities, competitions, art events and more.

Join the celebration in April 2012 as Global Astronomy Month brings together thousands of people and hundreds of organizations worldwide to share their passion for astronomy in innovative new ways, connecting people by sharing the Universe!

-Astronomers Without Borders

The Astronomical League of the Philippines will have local events to celebrate the month as well. I'll be sharing them here soon. Clear skies, everyone!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

India Black (Carol K Carr)

Told through the no-nonsense and irreverent (almost anachronistic, though I'm no history expert) tone of its protagonist, India Black spins a tale of espionage and mystery set in Victorian England. The eponymous Miss Black runs Lotus House, a brothel that caters to gentlemen, mostly minor aristocracy, military officers, and high-ranking civil servants. Little does she know that the death of one of their regulars will embroil her in politics, state secrets, and matters of national security.

The key to enjoying this book is enjoying India's perspective. If you don't find yourself taking to her tone, then I'm afraid there will be little else to like about this one. It does not offer much in the puzzle solving area; the book is too straightforward to be classified as a true mystery. A good part of it merely follows India and fellow agent French as they trail behind the antagonists. Still, I enjoyed India and her interactions with French (no romantic overtones here yet, as a caveat to readers looking for some) that I bought the second book right away.

As a fan of historical mysteries, I've always read about how members of the ton would solve a few cases here and there, or capture the occasional spy. As a brothel madame and a former prostitute herself, India won't be seen in grand ballrooms or taking leisurely strolls with a chaperone. It was this markedly different perspective that encouraged me to give India Black a closer look. I found her an engaging figure. Her friends, especially Vincent, were equally interesting. There are plenty of moments here where I laughed out loud both because of India's wry observations or their occasionally comic, even bumbling, attempts to capture their quarry.

Where India Black was a spy thriller, India Black and the Widow of Windsor tries harder to introduce more mystery elements. Whether these attempts are successful is a matter of subjective opinion, but for the most part I was satisfied. That, and I was becoming more and more intrigued by India and French's back stories, which were both conspicuously absent in the first book.

Queen Victoria heads to Scotland for the holidays, but word has reached the Prime Minister's office that in Balmoral nests a plot to take her life. Prime Minister Disraeli dispatches India and French to go undercover and suss out the would-be assassins: French upstairs with the rest of the titled guests and India below stairs among the staff and help. Ms Carr steps up her game with Widow of Windsor. The seeds of romance have been sown. The mystery element, though not hard to figure out, is a welcome addition. Also included are brief hints into India's past as well as French's current situation. As a reader, I was appreciative of these gestures to enrich the series both plot-wise and character-wise.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of Ms Carr's books. Fans of Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation series or Deanna Raybourn's Lady Julia Grey series might enjoy picking up some India Black for an unapologetic protagonist and some memorable escapades.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Gourmet (Muriel Barbery)

Hungry to remember the most delicious meal he's tasted, a dying food critic trawls through his memories in Muriel Barbery's The Gourmet. In Pierre Arthens, Ms Barbery brings to life the passion, arrogance, and harshness of a talented mind, told not only through the protagonist's recollections, but also through the thoughts of those around him -- wife, mistress, son, nephew, doctor, servant, beggar, cat.

The Gourmet is a book for the senses. It meticulously recreates details meant to entice the reader, bring her closer to Arthens' world. Taste is a given, of course, since Arthens recounts his favorite meals for that singular moving flavor, but that does not mean that the other senses are abandoned. Consider scent:

'...rub the leaves between my fingers: slightly acid, sufficiently tart with a vinegary insolence... (p420)'

Or touch:

'A sensual dust tinged the pinky copper of the crustaceans with an exotic gold: the Orient, reinvented (p58).'

When Ms Barbery describes (this edition is translated from the French by Alison Anderson), she does not scrimp; she infuses the each page of Arthens' memories with incredible detail. Whether she's talking about bread or whiskey or mayonnaise, the language cannot be faulted.

But what richness and fondness Arthens has about food is certainly missing in his relationships with his family. Told in alternating chapters are the perspectives of the people closest to him, each showing vignettes of the food critic as they knew him. It paints a clearer picture of the dying man, how loved he was or how reviled, depending on whose perspective you take. Here resides anger, loss, and regret.

In the end, when Arthens finally remembers his most delicious meal, you realize that the novel isn't just about the significance of food. It's also about the events that shape our character and the things that we value -- and how these define the life we've lived. The Gourmet is exotic, pleasurable, intense.

Monday, February 06, 2012

The Secret Lives of Dresses (Erin McKean)

Old-world charm enters the life of a young college undergraduate when she reacquaints herself with her grandmother's boutique of vintage dresses. Dora, who is majoring in "vagueness studies" (read: Liberal Arts), is called home from her final months in college when Mimi suffers a stroke. As a gesture to the grandmother who raised her and hoarded dresses for Dora that she never wore, Dora keeps the boutique open. Erin McKean's The Secret Lives of Dresses is a light-hearted romance despite being situated in the middle of a family tragedy -- a good choice for a reader looking for something fluffy to enjoy over the weekend.

The novel is permeated with a genuine love for vintage dresses, evident in the way each is thoroughly described. Most of the dresses in Dora's grandmother's shop have 'secret lives' -- short stories written specifically for that dress, told from the dress' point of view. It's an interesting addition to a chick lit novel, with the obvious difference in tone between the narration and these vignettes making the entire reading experience not just quirkier but also richer.

Nothing came as a surprise to me but it didn't keep me from enjoying the rest of the book. Con, the romantic lead is solid and likeable, though one-dimensional. The other characters are fleshed out better, but I think the author has a certain attachment to some characters (like Gary) that's more than necessary. Fleshing out minor characters isn't bad but when it doesn't tell the reader anything new or significant, then it would be better to keep it at a minimum. Since I mentioned Gary earlier, I'll keep at it: we already get what he's supposed to be. All the extra chapters further detailing his relationship with Dora just seems superfluous. It's not as if Dora is pining for him incessantly now that they're apart so I don't understand why he needs to be constantly mentioned throughout the novel, as if he stands any real chance to get the girl.

There are also other moments when the novel's flow isn't as seamless as it could be. Most note-worthy is when it alternates between the hospital and the boutique because there just seems this huge emotional divide between the family drama (which bordered on Lifetime movie variety) and the charming vintage store moments. Still, The Secret Lives of Dresses is a lovely crossover between the coming-of-age novel and a romance. It hits the right spots. It's idyllic and sentimental in parts, and I think those are enough for to let any romance fan keep on reading.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: Philosophy and the Poet

Our bookworm for February is Noelle Leslie dela Cruz, a published poet and an Associate Professor in Philosophy at De La Salle University, who shares her work at Blue Moon Huntress. When she's not in the classroom, Leslie also helps maintain the Buy Your Own Coffee Book Club, which was begun by one of her colleagues and some philosophy majors. "Somewhere along the way, perhaps largely because we aggressively promoted it in Facebook, we generated some interest outside our school," Leslie explains. "So far we’ve already discussed Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Dante’s Inferno, Exupery’s The Little Prince, and Murakami’s new book, 1Q84." They usually meet once a month at a different coffee shop in the Metro Manila area.

1. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
I'd say, in no particular order: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. All of these, in one way or another, address love, mortality/morality, and the nature of reality. I'm really partial to novels that are written lyrically, have more levels than you realize, and are ostensibly about human existence. I'd say these books are "existentialist," without the baggage of philosophical jargon. The mere act of reading them changes you as a person.

2. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
The authors I mentioned in number one are of course among my favorites. Others are Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami. A recent discovery is David Ebershoff, whose book The 19th Wife (which about Mormonism) I'm currently reading.

I'm a romance reader as well, but not as much as the last decade. If there's a romance writer I still read, it's Madeline Hunter, who writes excellent medievals and regencies.

3. What are you looking forward to reading in 2012?
I'm perpetually trying to catch up on my huge to-be-read pile, so I'm trying not to go gaga over new titles. I want to be able to read some notable titles I had missed out on. For 2012, it's my goal to read Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Atonement by Ian McEwan. If there's time, I also want to read Kafka on the Shore by Murakami, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff.

Leslie considers highlighting memorable lines as her way of personalizing her books. 'I don't feel like I've read them unless I've written on them,' she says. Photo by her friend Arch.

4. Take us through some of your reading habits.
I wish I could say I had the discipline to read only one book at a time. I think I used to do that when I was younger, when many authors were new discoveries for me. (I usually stick to one when I'm devouring an author's backlist.) But now, especially after I got a Kindle, the sheer number of good books out there necessitated a change in reading strategy. But though I'm usually in the midst of reading several books, I usually read only one book per genre (e.g. literary fiction, romance, nonfiction, history, or poetry). It helps that most of what I read are in my Kindle, where I have a special "Currently reading" folder.

5. What's it like to be in a book club?
Participating in a book club is a delight. It forces me to read interesting works I probably wouldn’t have read on my own. It’s also nice to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise met had it not been for our shared interest in reading. My only frustration though is that you can’t always count on committed attendees. Usually it’s just my colleague and me and a handful of our students who attend regularly, sometimes not even the students. I blame it on the hectic schedule we have at DLSU, as well as the existence of other media that have supplanted reading. Low participation can be very disappointing especially if you’ve enthusiastically read a book and are raring to discuss it, only to find that only two or three other people would actually show up!

6. I don't know anything about Philosophy. Can you recommend some titles that would help me along?
All the great books, I think, already address philosophical issues, even though they may not overtly be about philosophy. But if you’re looking for the latter type, Alain de Botton is a prolific popularizer of the discipline (check out The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he features the life and ideas of six important thinkers). Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, an epistolary novel about philosophy, remains a good introduction, as is Who Needs Philosophy by Ayn Rand. The book that first got me interested in philosophy is From Socrates to Sartre by T.Z. Lavine, which I read in high school. It was Lavine’s exposition of the Cartesian meditations that got me hooked.

If you’re looking for authors who are highly philosophical, or who address philosophical issues, check out the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Haruki Murakami.

7. How does having a philosophical mindset help you appreciate works of literature? Do you think it's a form of literary criticism?
I think one need not necessarily be in the discipline of philosophy to approach books philosophically. If you’re inquisitive by nature, ponder on the great questions (e.g. Why are we here? What is real? Is there life after death? Does God exist? etc.), or tend to be a critical thinker, then chances are you philosophize along with—or through—books.

As for literary criticism, I’m more of the formalist school so I tend to be suspicious of suspicious ways of reading. I’m referring to all the -isms that reduce the work of art into a simplistic gender, race, or class paradigm. Approaching books philosophically, on the other hand, is less criticism, I think, than conceptual experimentation. You enter the imagined world of the book and consider the questions it asks about any and all aspects of human life.

Leslie also believes that the best thing about reading is "being able to expand your world without leaving your chair. This expansion includes 'traveling' to other places, meeting new people (fictional or real), and dialoguing with people both living and dead. You know, reading is a way of life. I can’t imagine what my consciousness would be like if for example I had not read Thoreau, or Conan Doyle, or Murakami. I believe that familiarity with literature is a prerequisite for wisdom. Good books teach us how to relate with others, how to see what is normally hidden, and even how to be moral! Reading is one of the compensations of being human, and one of the things that fortify us to continue being one."