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!