Monday, January 30, 2012

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (Tarquin Hall)

"With respect, sir, this is hardly the time to be thinking about your stomach."

"Don't worry, Inspector," said Puri. "There will be no thinking involved." (p64)

Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator, is back on a new case where the stakes are higher. It's a case that has most of India talking. The victim: rationalist Dr Suresh Jha, who dies when a sword is driven into his chest. The murderer: the goddess Kali, who appears in front of Jha and his colleagues one early morning in Central Delhi. The religious nature of the case has people talking and pretty soon Vish Puri is called to lend his expertise. What he uncovers is a complicated plot that takes him from university halls to sprawling ashrams and mixes faith, science, and greed. 

This was my second Vish Puri mystery and though it started out slowly for me, I thought it ended on a more satisfying note. Mr Hall has great way of bringing India to life, not just through the extensive and vivid descriptions but even through his characters' nuanced speech patterns and thought processes. The circumstances in the book feel much more dangerous than they had been the first time around so it's amazing how Puri and his operatives use everything in their arsenal to ensure that those who are guilty are punished. Readers get a clearer idea of who Facecream, Tubelight, Handbrake, and Flush are as Mr Hall shares with us some of their backstories. The mystery also touches on the dangers of fanaticism and the corrupt practices of those who try to take advantage of those who are vulnerable. What drives people to seek out mystics among mortals and turn them into gods? How far would a man go for his cause? 

In spite of the heavy nature of the mystery, the book never feels bogged down. It remains a light-hearted read, especially when you have someone like the charismatic and enterprising Vish Puri for a protagonist. Also engaging was the accompanying mystery involving Puri's wife Rumpi and his fiery and delightful Mummy. All in all, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is one smart, colorful, and highly entertaining read.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Trident of Merrow (Amber Marshall & Kristopher Lewis)

Readers who enjoy their adventure stirred with some romance will find much to like in The Trident of Merrow. The story moves swiftly, following two separate crews: the Sea Drake, where Tosh is imprisoned by the pirate Jebediah Blud and a powerful Strega witch with an agenda, and the Gallows Jig, captained by Tosh’s childhood friend Germaine . From mutiny and sea monsters to airships and ancient rituals, The Trident of Merrow delivers action at a blistering pace.

The first pages immediately throw the reader into Tosh’s world: not just a swift mapping of the circumstances surrounding her current life but also a taste of the place she inhabits. She and her father live in Kingsport but their lives and trade revolve around the Shardsea. By the end of the chapter (it must be noted that the chapters are relatively short), Tosh’s adventure is already well underway. The action is instinctive. It sweeps the readers from the sea into the air; one can almost hear the John Williams soundtrack.

I liked how the magic elements were handled here. Ships employ a weather mage, with limited but useful abilities to calm huge waves or dispel a fog, but who can also appeal to and negotiate with various elementals to help them with more difficult tasks. I also enjoyed reading about the melding of magic and technology; at one point they even use it to create the Aquan equivalent of a missile.

Another interesting aspect of the story is its mythology. Aquan gods and goddesses are binaries: brothers and sisters are also rivals locked in battle. For instance, the Strega witches worship the Abyssal Lord Merrow as the god of the sea while sailors believe in Tryta, the Harlot Mother of Tides. I thought this framed the other binaries of the narrative quite nicely: magic and technology, the Gallows Jig and the Sea Drake, the Rozinante and the Colossus, Germaine and Massimo.

Unfortunately, Tosh is not as strong a character as she first appears to be. It’s evident that the authors tried to distance her from other literary damsels in distress by making her useful and allowing her attempts to rescue herself from her captors (she’s a steam mechanic, with life skills that come in handy once in a while). But there’s something about her that just falls short of being a compelling and relatable lead. It seemed rather unfortunate that the story’s main conflict revolved around Tosh and Massimo when they could be counted among the weaker characters.

However, that doesn’t diminish the impact of the other characters in the story. The Brinhold twins, Brion and Gage, are colorful members of the team who present interesting perspectives. Their backstory alone paints an intriguing culture and dynamic that I hope can be further explored should the authors choose to expand the book into a series. There is also Ama, the resident Manic Pixie Girl-type, an endearing addition to the story even if she only appears in the latter half of the book. Even Germaine, the knight errant, has moments of conflict and introspection, which surprised me because I had expected him to be a one-dimensional character. They might all fill certain stock roles, but they evade the predictability of their tropes just enough to ensure that the story remains memorable.

Despite the non-stop adventure, readers are constantly reminded that The Trident of Merrow is also a romance. In fact, it ends with a realization on Tosh’s behalf regarding the nature of love: not as a rosy-colored, sugar-coated fantasy [but]... seeing someone at their worst, a filthy keening animal. Wise words, but when concluded by someone whose own romance unfolds like the nautical equivalent of the Stockholm Syndrome, it just doesn’t deliver the desired impact. It’s actually the romances in the story that prevent me from fully enjoying the story; sometimes it can get cloying, other times just plain confusing.

Though The Trident of Merrow winds down to a predictable conclusion (the final confrontation with the Big Bad seems almost anti-climactic), there are a lot of moments in the journey that are exhilarating. Young adult readers will enjoy this alternative to the sword-and-sorcery medieval fantasy, and even older ones won’t regret a brief afternoon spent lost among the waves of the Shardsea.

This review is cross-posted to Adarna SF. The author provided a free copy for this review.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Loot and Other Stories (Nadine Gordimer)

Nadine Gordimer wasn't required reading when I was a Lit undergraduate but I wish she had been. The 1991 Nobel Prize winner for Literature is always asking questions through her text -- questioning social behaviors, facilitating political discussions especially those concerning her country, South Africa -- and does it with a deft hand. I actually feel inadequate just attempting to describe her writing.

The title story "Loot" is certainly the most lyrical, about an earthquake that "drew back the ocean as a vast breath taken." The ocean floor and its treasures are laid bare ("People rushed to take; take, take(p3)"), consumed by a greed that spurs them to possess things that are not theirs, reclaim someone else's memories. Ms Gordimer describes the frenzied scene with an almost breathless tone to her narrative, before ending with the story of one man in particular who has joined the looting. It is here that the story takes on a political undertone, setting the mood for the entire collection.

My favorites though were "The Generation Gap" where four grown-up children deal with the breakdown of their elderly parents' marriage late in the relationship and "L,U,C,I,E." which is about a trip to Italy shared by a woman and her distant father, visiting the tomb of the grandmother after whom she is named. I've never been a politically-minded reader in the first place so I naturally gravitated towards the strong familial themes of these stories. "The Generation Gap" is effective in its depiction of a family left scrambling after their father leaves their mother for another woman. What follows is an upheaval of the dynamics of their old life; familiar roles and definitions are changed, relationship lines are redrawn. There is an almost-detached reportage quality to the text, an outsider's view of a very personal matter, and the story never declines into melodrama despite its very nature. In contrast, it is the conversational (but no, not friendly) of "L,U,C,I,E." that drew me to it. Here, the narrator is actively inviting the reader into her thoughts: her relationship with her father, the awkwardness of it, the discomforting details of an Italian cemetery. "Karma" takes the prize for being the most ambitious, and though it isn't my favorite, it ends the collection on a strong note as it tackles death, karmic Return, and the nature of life in five different voices.

The themes of avarice and desire and possession are not uncommon in literature, but in Loot and Other Stories, they find new skin. The book is both beautiful and uncomfortable, and either way, quite startling.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Interim Goddess of Love (Mina Esguerra)

In her latest book, Mina Esguerra combines contemporary teen romance with hints of Philippine mythology to offer a satisfyingly-layered and unique read. Here, Hannah already has a job helping out at the Guidance Office but on top of that, the Sun God has also asked her to fill in for the Goddess of Love temporarily. Not exactly the easiest job for a sophomore on scholarship who's still trying to find her place at an expensive college. Interim Goddess of Love is the first book of a planned series, and aside from Hannah's struggles, it also features her first project: Kathy, a girl who claims to be 'invisible' but is getting lots of attention from a secret admirer.

Readers looking for a definitive introduction to Philippine mythology might want to look elsewhere, but for the casually curious, Interim Goddess of Love intersperses enough hints of Filipino gods and goddesses between Hannah's college life. As the IGoL, Hannah is privy to a number of romantic situations (and cute guys!). You get a good glimpse of the inhabitants of Ford River College from her perspective -- the mortals and the deities, the RKs (rich kids) and the SKs (scholarship kids). The author excels in capturing a certain slice of Filipino life that I think is alternately familiar and unique. The writing is smooth and the whole book is broken down into different situations that almost seem episodic to me.

What I admire most about Ms Esguerra's stories is that they create romantic moments without always resorting to Hollywood's Big Gesture but still have enough warm and fuzzy feelings to go around. I really loved how Kathy's love story was developed. The gifts she got from her secret admirer were swoon-worthy, the kind that will make a girl go, "Hey, this guy really gets me!" I also enjoyed reading about the divinities mentioned in the story. The pantheon of Filipino gods is huge and tends to vary from region to region, so a local reader like me had the added bonus of trying to remember which god was which. I also think that the book sets up the rest of the series quite well, and I look forward to seeing how Hannah's powers develop in time and if she'll find her own match in the game of love.

Note: Real life recently demanded time away from my online one, especially with the huge Ati-Atihan festival annually held in our town. I hope I can slowly catch up with my long line of reviews to write. Please be patient with me!

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Duff (Kody Keplinger)

Maybe it's not good to start the new year -- and a leap year at that -- by declaring that I can totally relate to the Designated Ugly Fat Friend (DUFF). That's who I am and I don't think there's any harm in admitting that. In Kody Keplinger's The Duff, Bianca Piper starts a hate-love relationship with Wesley when he acquaints her with the term. Not exactly the most promising start to any kind of relationship with each other, as they are about to find out. (Spoilers ahead, because it is hard to review this book without dishing out some of the details.)

There were a lot of elements about The Duff that surprised me. Of course this is not the first YA book to mention sex, but the way Bianca and Wesley dive into their enemies-with-benefits arrangement shows a view of contemporary teenage relationships that is markedly different from the ones I've previously read about. I couldn't understand how Bianca would feel that engaging in an intimate relationship with someone she says she hates is going to make her feel better. Am I supposed to give her a pass because she's a teenager? I'm no angel but to be honest, reading about all the casual sex this book made me feel like the world's biggest prude. I have to give it Bianca though. She knows she's making a mistake but still she is all gung-ho about it, damn the consequences.

Still I could see Bianca struggle with her need to find an anchor in her life, even if that anchor was sex. Some people would turn to friends, others to alcohol or school activities. Yet Bianca chose this complicated relationship with Wesley to escape her problems with her alcoholic father. The story really has more to do with that and little to do with her struggles about being labeled fat or ugly, so if you're looking for those triumphant Cinderella rom-coms, look elsewhere. You won't find it here. Thankfully, it takes her loyal and caring group of friends and their own insecurities to make Bianca see that every girl can feel down about herself once in a while and this doesn't mean the end of the world.

Bianca is sharp and cynical, and in parts, she is also rather selfish and facetious. Given everything, she does feel realistically drawn. But the subject matter and approach used in The Duff can be very polarizing and despite my high hopes for it, I realize it isn't completely for me. I'm just too old for this.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: Going Places with Books

One of my resolutions for the new year is to put varied content on my blog. Other than reviews, I've decided to start featuring different kinds of readers, highlighting one every month. For January, I asked award-winning travel blogger Nina Fuentes of Just Wandering (which recently bagged Nuffnang's 2011 Asia-Pacific Blog Awards for Best Travel Blog) to answer a few questions about her reading habits. She's been blogging since 1998, but only started blogging about travel in 2006. She's been all over the Philippines, Asia, and Australia. Recently, she went on an 18-day adventure in Morocco. Nina reads everyday, but it's a mix of books and smutty fanfiction. When she's not obsessing over Drarry (that's Draco x Harry to those not acquainted with slash), she would read about her next destination.

1. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
Vroom with a View by Peter Moore, Chō yo Hana yo by Yoshihara Yuki, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

2. Do you often bring a book with you when you leave? What was the last book you read on a trip?
I always bring a book when I travel, though there's no guarantee that I would read them. The last book I read while on a trip was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which I read for the book club.

Nina on the sand dunes of Morocco. Photo by Cla.

3. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
Peter Moore. I have all his published books, and have even read the abridged versions he submitted for a compilation of travel essays. I love reading his books because it's like listening to a friend sharing his stories on the road. His books are very conversational and I love his sense of humor. I actually even met him while traveling back in 2007!

I was in Melbourne when Peter Moore released his latest novel, Vroom by the Sea. He had a launch, which I was unable to attend, but luckily he called out for an informal get together at a bar by the beach. There were only two of us who came and the other girl didn't arrive until two hours after I did so I was able to bombard him with questions. I can't remember everything we talked about, but the thing that made the most impact on me was that he's been to more places in the Philippines than I had. I was feeling rather sheepish, so I made an effort to travel more locally. And I did.

4. What was the best book you read last year? What are you looking forward to reading in 2012?
Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux because I feel it gave me a better look at Africa. For 2012, I'm looking forward to reading Lonely Planet's Europe on a Shoestring.

5. How do you feel about e-books and e-readers?
E-books and e-readers will never replace the real thing. On the other hand, I cannot deny how convenient they are, specially if you're traveling. No longer do I have to lug around a bulky guidebook that takes up a lot of space and eats up my baggage allowance; I just download a copy to my iPod, along with my music, games and videos.

For Nina, "Reading is just like traveling: it take you places and even brings you beyond the things you can imagine. It opens your eyes to a world outside what you know." We may not all literally go places like her, but through reading, we can still do so figuratively (or should I say literarily?) A big shout-out to our favorite travel blogger for sharing her thoughts on this space!