Monday, July 22, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home (Carol Rifka Brunt)

"You can't open the book of my life and jump in the middle," Captain Mal Reynolds protests in a Firefly episode. But you can open Carol Rifka Brunt's Tell the Wolves I'm Home and come pretty close to mine.

I do this most of the time. Read a book and write about what it makes me feel, rather than nitpick characterization or analyze it using Foucault's discourse of power. I'm going to do it again now. Warnings for emotions spilled in the guise of dissecting a text. Warnings for potential incoherence.

Still there?

June, the book's protagonist, is coming to terms with the death of a beloved uncle, Finn. He is her mother's only sibling and he and June are more friends than relatives. They have a special bond. He brings her to galleries and restaurants and medieval festivals. They talk about art and movies and things important to them. They are more friends and soulmates than uncle and niece. Despite the fact that we only see Finn as June remembers him, their relationship is carefully detailed and preserved. But Finn has another life that he has kept from June. It is the late eighties; not much is known about AIDS. But after Finn's death, June meets Toby, and begins to realize that she is not the only one who misses and grieves for her uncle.

I don't know if my appreciation for June's story stems from how lucid the writing is or if it is only lucid to me because nearly every page seems familiar. The way June resents how she is 'just the niece,' not the one that the guests would console at a funeral. The way she wonders whether she knew Finn at all, or if it had been Toby she had been discovering through Finn. The way she constantly looks for her uncle in every thing and every place. Ms Brunt ushers us into June's head and makes sense of her emotions. The narrative reserves its shining moments for June and Toby, as they stumble through their fledgling friendship and try to gain what they had lost when they lost Finn. But, again, I am reminding you: I am the unreliable reviewer today.

The novel doesn't forget the premise it sets out. Grief is not insular. It can heal and unite, though I may be doing the text a disservice when I lay that out in such simplistic terms. Still, June slowly sees beyond Finn and Toby to others around her who are also dealing with the loss in their own way. June's relationship with Greta is a strong sub-plot that neatly ties back into the main thread. It is a coming-of-age novel and a family novel as well.

It is by no means perfect; that much I can admit. The prose can get bogged down by over-articulation, too much tell than show at times. There is a bit about art at the end that I am not a fan of. I don't mean to nitpick but the resolution over Finn's painting -- an important device throughout the story -- just seemed too far-fetched to me that it almost soured the reading experience. Almost. But whatever its faults, Tell the Wolves I'm Home was still one of the most moving reads I've come across this year. I will not be reading it again.


It has been ten years. Happy birthday, Uncle.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The House of Silk (Anthony Horowitz)

The buzz about the book is this: it's the first novel that bears the seal of approval from the Conan Doyle Estate (see the little gold circle to the left). When my friend Oz gushed about it, I knew I had to read it as well. In tone, mood, and characterization, Anthony Horowitz's The House of Silk feels every bit like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries, only longer. I don't think fans will be disappointed with this new adventure at all.

Dr John Watson's familiar voice opens the book, keeping the glamour alive. I'm no expert on Holmes, but I find that his tone is eerily on point. Dr Watson hints at two mysteries. The first involves a certain Flat Cap Gang in America and an art sale gone wrong. The second takes place closer to home with a darker, more sinister air and sends Holmes and Watson on the trail of the titular House of Silk.

I love that The House of Silk contains a number of references to the original stories. It certainly adds to the idea that this, too, belongs to an older time. Other elements I enjoyed were the inclusion of a more sympathetic Inspector Lestrade and the uh, more pronounced expressions of friendship between Holmes and Watson. Of course, these all take a backseat to the mysteries themselves, which alternately depict grim vignettes in dark places and thrilling Hollywood-type rescues.

If there are any additions to the familiar Sherlock Holmes tale, I think it would be Horowitz playing up to the more modern expectations of what a mystery-suspense story should do. When reading the older Sherlock Holmes adventures, I feel that we're not really supposed to figure out the details ahead of our protagonists. There will be red herrings, there will be clues, but you will never get enough to put them all together. Snakes as murder weapons, when there have been no previous mentions of them. Dusty knees whose significance only Holmes knows. But I think the way mysteries are structured now, inviting readers to come to their own conclusions by laying enough crumbs to follow, makes for a more engaging reading experience. We get the chance to play armchair detectives along with our heroes. Mr Horowitz certainly does that in The House of Silk. He gives enough, withholds enough, so that when the truth is revealed, you get that lightbulb moment instead of feeling excluded from the heavy thinking.

I kept a running commentary with my friend, texting her my theories, which turned out to be true. Was I disappointed? Just a tiny bit. I figured if I could figure it out, then surely it shouldn't have been all that hard for Holmes, right? But one thing that saves it is that as in his older mysteries, Holmes keeps his cards close to his chest. He doesn't reveal much information to Dr Watson anyway, so I shouldn't really blame the good doctor for not jumping to the right conclusions. A better explanation is that the action builds at a good and steady pace that what matters are the mysteries of the moment, not the larger picture. If this is the direction where Mr Horowitz is taking Sherlock Holmes, then I am up for more.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Giveaway: Digital Copy of All's Fair in Blog and War

Lately, I've been going on and on about my recent writing endeavors. It was an exciting learning experience for those of us who participated. Well, thanks to that same romance class, my classmate and good friend Chrissie Peria has published her own novella called All's Fair in Blog and War! It's a light and fun read that's got travel, blogging, and of course, romance.

Book Description:
Five Cuevas @5travels
Three guesses to where I’m going next. Starts with an M. Ends with a U. Has a lechon named after it. #travel

Travel blogger Five thinks she has hit the jackpot when the Macau Tourism Board invites her over for an all-expense-paid blogger tour in exchange for blogging about Macau. But while she happily signs up for the trip, she didn’t sign up to be travel buddies with the infuriating Jesse. Will her dream vacation turn into a nightmare junket? Or will falling in love be on the itinerary?

Interested? Head over to Smashwords to buy her novella! Or you could simply share with me what you think is the most romantic location in the world. The first three people to comment on this post (see mechanics below) will get a Smashwords coupon.

1. Answer the following question:

What do you think is the most romantic place in the world?

2. IMPORTANT: Leave your email address so that in case you win, I can email you the code.

3. You may only enter (and win) the contest once. Multiple posts/comments will only count as one entry.

4. The first three commenters will get a Smashwords coupon that will allow them to download a copy of Ms Peria's All's Fair in Blog and War.

5. The coupons are only redeemable until August 15, 2013.

6. This contest is open to all readers.

7. Giveaway ends once all three slots have been filled.

EDITED: All three codes have been claimed! Thanks to Rachelle, BenJ, and Bliss! Giveaway is officially over, but don't let that stop you from enjoying All's Fair in Blog and War. :)

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Nowhere But Home (Liza Palmer)

I heard of Liza Palmer's Nowhere but Home from Chachic's Book Nook. Intrigued by the pretty cover, I checked out the premise and realized instantly that this was a book that I needed to read. The protagonist, Queen Elizabeth (Queenie to friends) Wake, has spent most of her adult life moving from place to place. She's never settled in anywhere, especially since her temper and exacting culinary demands keep on getting her fired. Finally, she decides to move back to her hometown. North Star hasn't exactly been a safe harbor for the Wake women and now it's going to witness how Queenie confronts her ghosts.

The small-town girl who leaves home to find herself in the big city is a familiar trope, but Queenie's story has just the right amount of uniqueness and familiarity to it that I kept on reading. Her sister Merry Carole, who had an unsavory reputation after getting pregnant early, has never quite shaken old rumors, even as her son is named starting quarterback of the town's prized football team. Her old flame Everett Coburn -- the one who got away and broke her heart in the process -- is back again and looks eager for another shot. Her new job has her cooking final meals for convicted criminals, their last request before dying. All these elements made for a smooth yet very compelling read for me.

What really pulled me in were the final meals that Queenie would cook. Ms Palmer begins each chapter with notes of what Queenie is eating (Chapter 4 when she comes back defeated to North Star aptly notes 'Crow'), reminding us how food is an institution, especially in small towns. Food that unites a family, food that forgives a wrong, food that heals a soul. Queenie was given the burden of cooking for anonymous criminals and she made sure that these men and women were given some moment of peace before they died. I thought those scenes were very powerful images that resonated with me.

It's not too heavy on the romance and I like it that way. Ultimately, I think it is about Queenie coming to terms with her past: her family's reputation, her life decisions, her mother's death. Personally, I thought the romance part was like a sugar flower on the side of an already satisfying cake. It wasn't a bad sugar flower when you stop to consider it, but it wasn't the reason why I kept on reading this book nor did it seem to be very important to Queenie's journey. It had its heart-tugging moments but none as striking as those that Queenie faces on the job. Ms Palmer won me over with Nowhere but Home, and I hope to read her A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents next.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

In My Mother's House (Joni Cham)

The strained and complicated relationship between mother and daughter comes to a head when Nina, the dark-skinned and introspective child of Chinese immigrants, returns to care for her ailing mother. Joni Cham's In My Mother's House peels back the layers of a Chinese family in the Philippines. Mother and child stand as opposites: Le Bi wishing that her daughter becomes more Chinese in appearance and in manner, Nina accepting another culture and language as the emotional divide between them grows.

There are so many things about the Chinoy experience that this review may completely miss or misinterpret. But what the author deftly does is to include the readers into her protagonist's experiences, regardless of how much they know about Chinese-Filipinos. I found Nina's recollection of her middle-class upbringing an almost Proustian experience; I had to stop to savor my own memories that Ms Cham's writing would manage to dredge up. Key here is Nina herself, the self-proclaimed 'Rat' of her family, silent and lurking and painfully observant. The protagonist notes small details, like '... the image of words written on red sheets hanging on walls, remembering how as a child, she had sat among the pieces of paper fluttering in the wind from the ceiling fans (p42),' she writes. Or, describing an uncle, she notes his 'perpetually smiling mouth with dried saliva on is corners and a voice made raspy from years of tobacco-smoking (p72-73).' The narrative has a tendency to meander from present to past as if we're floating along Nina's stream of consciousness but she keeps the readers well-anchored, careful about which piece of her relationship with her mother Le Bi she will reveal in each chapter.

Ms Cham relies on metaphors and images to build the story. The first is the rat, after Nina's birth year and the physical parallels that Nina draws to this creature. At an early age, Nina has accepted that she is not her mother's favorite, preferring to stay in the background or in the company of her beloved Yaya Pasing, who has turned into the maternal ideal in her life. Another is the odor of her mother's house, stale and suffocating. Scent is a strong element of the book. It is a point of struggle for mother and daughter in the beginning of the story, but throughout the novel it symbolizes the insular lifestyle that Le Bi clings to and hints at the divisive turning point in their family's lives.

This is not the Chinese-Filipino equivalent of The Joy Luck Club. Far from that. It is not filled with obscure Chinese references and rituals from the old country. It is not festive or warm, though there are moments of light and release. It may start as a slow read, but keep to it. The conclusion is moving and forceful, as startling and as deceptive as a rat behind the walls.