Saturday, December 31, 2011

12 Days of Literary Christmas

I got this meme from Meann a.k.a. The Girl Who Read. It looked too much fun to pass up! Plus, it's a great way for me to wrap up the year. The literary characters and authors mentioned here are only some of my 2011 favorites.

On the first day of Christmas,
I'll give Turnip Fitzhugh from The Mischief of the Mistletoe
one large Christmas pudding.

On the second day of Christmas,
I'll give Charlotte and Henry from The Infernal Devices
two Shadowhunters.

On the third day of Christmas,
I'll give Celia Rae Foote from The Help
three bouncing babies.

On the fourth day of Christmas,
I'll give Fr Gus Saenz and Fr Jerome Lucero from Smaller and Smaller Circles
four new mysteries.

On the fifth day of Christmas,
I'll give Peter S. Beagle
five unicorns (here's hoping they inspire him to write more amazing collections).

On the sixth day of Christmas,
I'll give Sorcha from the Sevenwaters series
six lifetimes with her brothers, one for each one.

On the seventh day of Christmas,
I'll give Vish Puri
seven samosas. Or seven bowls of butter chicken. Or seven of anything fried and spicy.

On the eighth day of Christmas,
I'll give Flavia de Luce
eight potent poisons. Not that I'd wish for her to use it on her sisters, but it would be great to see her progressing with her chemistry.

On the ninth day of Christmas,
I'll give NK Jemisin
nine shiny goddesses.

On the tenth day of Christmas,
I'll give Sonmi~451 from Cloud Atlas
ten full libraries. ¡Viva la RevoluciĆ³n!

On the eleventh day of Christmas,
I'll give Cameron Quick from Sweethearts
eleven hugs from Jenna. Heaven knows the boy deserves it.

On the twelfth day of Christmas,
I'll give Terry Pratchett
twelve amazing years. I always wish you the best, Sir Pratchett!

Thanks again to Meann for this meme -- Happy New Year, everyone!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Girl Who Chased the Moon (Sarah Addison Allen)

The Girl Who Chased the Moon was part of my best friend's birthday present for me. Not only does she know that I like Sarah Addison Allen, she also assumed that it had something to do with astronomy, an expectation that I had earlier shared as well. Halfway through the book, I realized that we were a bit off, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the book.

The story moves quickly, and in Ms Allen's style, is filled with elements that make it into a quirky and comfortable read. When teenage Emily Benedict's mother passes away, she is sent to live with her grandfather in Mullaby, NC. But Emily is surprised that her activist mother had another life when she was in Mullaby, and her departure from the town is shrouded by a secret that no one seems to be quite eager to tell Emily. People here look at her differently because of her mother's past. Still, Emily is not without allies. She befriends her next door neighbor Julia Winterson, who bakes with longing, and the mysterious Win Coffey.

If you are a first-time reader of the author's work, this isn't a bad place to start, although I would recommend The Sugar Queen instead. I thought that there were some parts here that felt clunky to me, like the not-quite-explained attraction between Julia and Sawyer (though the Lost fan in me irrationally rejoiced upon seeing their names together), the secret behind the Mullaby Lights, and Dulcie's part in the whole thing. I thought that there wasn't enough evidence to support these three things. But Ms Allen's are not often about rationality as they are about magic, faith, and hope. There are a lot of those magical elements in this book -- bigger, in my opinion, than the ones in Garden Spells or The Sugar Queen. And what I liked about the book were certainly more than enough to overpower those that I didn't. One of the best things about this is Emily's character and the way she approaches her unusual situation. She conducts herself with a commendable amount of dignity and bravery, and there were really moments here when she defends her mother that I think is handled with much sensitivity and insight.

Time will tell if The Girl Who Chased the Moon will become my favorite of Ms Allen's work. Despite its flaws, something in this book really resonates with me. It speaks of loss and belonging, of misplaced grievances and faith restored, and of course, family. For me, it is always a joy to read something that unabashedly appeals to that part of us that remains childlike and hopeful, especially during the holidays.

It's Christmas Eve as I write this. Merry Christmas to you and yours!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Longing.

I used to think, if we kissed

in every time zone, it would always be the blue hour
in which I loved you. It still is. The literal

lightning bolt lodged in your family tree. The erased
surname. The alibi bone placed inside you.

A secret takes on a shape beyond language, becomes
tangible, something potentially broken

in half, for the world to see and give words to.
- from Jeffrey McDaniel's Meeropol

Sometimes it just hits me, how I miss certain things and certain people. How different my life would have been if we had moved to Singapore like we had planned or if I had stayed in Hanoi on that strange whim that still haunts me from time to time. Would I still find myself sipping coffee at the What If Cafe of my thoughts, waiting for someone to arrive to tell me about his day? Oh, the stories we would share.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Concubine's Tattoo (Laura Joh Rowland)

Ever have those books that you want to read but never seem to have the time to buy? For Christmas, one of my best friends Kaoko gave me Laura Joh Rowland's The Concubine's Tattoo. It's been on my TBR list since forever since I've always been partial to books set in Asia or have Asian elements in them. With the additional mystery element, I was really eager to read this. But since I kept seeing it around everywhere, it was one of those books that I always assumed I would buy eventually, no rush. Thankfully, Kaoko came to the rescue.

The Concubine's Tattoo isn't the first of the Sano Ichiro mysteries set in 17th-century Edo, Japan, but it's the first one to feature Sano as a married man. The opening scenes is of the samurai investigator marrying Ueda Reiko, the magistrate's daughter. Unfortunately, their marriage celebration is interrupted by the death of Lady Harume, who appears to have been poisoned after she makes a tattoo on a place only a lover is bound to see. Not exactly the most auspicious of starts to a marriage. This particular murder investigation takes Sano and his retainer Hirata into the inner chambers of the emperor's palace, and makes them deal with spurned lovers, jealous rivals, and a whole slew of political maneuverings.

One of the major draws for me is how the mystery takes place around a Japanese court. (Aside: I enjoy reading mysteries that take place in exotic locales. This year, I've read mysteries that occurred in India, China, and Russia, to name a few.) I thought Ms Rowland was able to transport me there and make me feel as if I am privy to what goes on there. Secondary characters and even suspects are fleshed out in brief yet bold sketches. Not everything is told from Sano's point-of-view, and I thought the additional perspectives made this a richer and more detailed reading experience.

Because sosakan Sano belongs to the samurai class, he has certain values and beliefs that hinder the smooth flow of his investigations. For example, handling corpses is a job for outcasts so you can't have post-mortem examinations left and right. Then there is of course the bushido code that Sano tries to live by, which prevent him from questioning his more prominent suspects outright. I like how Ms Rowland cleverly utilizes these in her book, making Sano Ichiro quite different from other detectives that I have read.

Now at the risk of sounding like a prude, I will have to admit: the sexual activity in this book took me by surprise. I know. The mystery involves the emperor's concubines, plus it had a newly-wedded couple in it, so I had to expect it, right? Uh, not quite. It was a little more than I had expected to read, especially given that this as my initiation into the series. Whether the rest of the books are as sexually provocative or not remains to be seen. Still, my curiosity has already been piqued by The Concubine's Tattoo . As a detective, Sano Ichiro faces intriguing dilemmas that I haven't encountered in other mysteries, and I'm eager to see what other adventures he and his crew will have at court.

Friday, December 16, 2011

After the Rain (Norma Fox Mazer)

Upon having dinner with Cel and Chachic last week, I was reminded of how little YA I've been reading these past few weeks. Not because there is an extreme lack of it in my library; my friend Oz has kept me well-supplied. But since I kept shuttling back and forth Manila since September, most of the books that I have bought and borrowed have remained in the city even when I had already returned to the province. Well, now that I'm in Manila I have no excuse, so I took on Norma Fox Mazer's After the Rain.

I had read Ms Mazer's Babyface a long time ago and I had A My Name is Ami /B My Name is Bunny when I was in grade school, but I really can't remember how those books made me feel. After the Rain has a fairly straightforward storyline about a teenage girl and her dying grandfather, without a lot of plot hooks and twists. It starts out rather slowly mainly because Rachel isn't particularly memorable for me. She felt very gloomy (although I suppose if I had been younger, I would have liked the fact that she wanted to be a writer).

Although it took me a while to warm up to the story, I eventually started getting interested in the relationship between Rachel and her ornery grandfather Izzy. The characters in the book always call Izzy 'mean', but it really feels that we have different definitions of the word. I thought Rachel's character only emerged through her grandfather's influence, and by the end of the book, I felt truly invested in the things that she cared about, as opposed to my indifference to her in the beginning. I like how the book scrutinized the other relationships within their family, the cracks in their facades.

One of the strengths of novel lies in how Rachel and Izzy grew, both as individuals and in terms of their relationship as granddaughter/ -father. It's a solid YA read, if you can soldier through the heavy mood of the themes tackled here and Rachel's own serious outlook as a protagonist. The payoff is touching, poignant, and leaves enough room for reflection.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Infernal Devices Book Two: Clockwork Prince (Cassandra Clare)

Ever since I read Cassandra Clare's Clockwork Angel, I've been eagerly awaiting its sequel. Clockwork Prince still has a lot of the elements that I enjoyed from the first book, especially the melding of Victorian romance and fantasy -- a true guilty pleasure read for me. But I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed by the absence of a pronounced challenge posed by the Magister's automatons, despite a grand battle with one of them at the book's climax. However, it just felt that it was missing the fear of the unknown that had sparked the incidents of the first book: the Clave didn't know who or what they were up against, and I thought that effectively highlighted each character's way of reacting to and coping with conflict. Since in this sequel they already know who they're dealing with, it didn't feel as exciting to me as the first book had been.

I'm getting ahead of myself. Clockwork Prince is meant to be a transition book: the Institute, led by (my favorite characters in the series) the young Charlotte Branwell and her absent-minded husband Henry, is on the trail of the Magister. Their investigations reveal that he is driven by revenge, not greed, and despite his absence he has left others to do his work. Readers also find out more about Will and Jem, the Institute's teenage Shadowhunters, and Tessa finally makes a choice between them.

I'm not too sold on the conflict/resolution introduced here about Will's behavior towards people. He was already a bit Jace 2.0 (from her Mortal Instruments trilogy) but it was something I overlooked in the beginning because I had faith that he would have a different story. But with the latest development, I think he just grew more into his Jace skin. Jem also does something here that I question given his condition, and I'm not inclined to dismiss this easily knowing that he had refused to be Will's parabatai before. It makes me feel that I'm re-learning their characters all over again. It still makes for an interesting read when you realize that there is more to the characters that you didn't consider before, but it runs the risk of them coming out as uneven and inconsistent. Despite not being as enjoyable as Clockwork Angel had been, I still look forward to reading more of the London Institute. There is enough action and promise here to anticipate a highly-charged conclusion.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

My youngest sister and I are attempting to 'buddy-read', and we decided on Kathryn Stockett's The Help, about the life of domestics and their employers in Jackson, Mississippi during the sixties. The story unfolds through the eyes of three people: Aibileen and Minny, two black women working for different families, and Skeeter, a fresh graduate who is best friends with both of their employers (or in Minny's case, former). Skeeter, determined to write something significant, manages to convince Aibileen to start sharing her story as a colored maid, and this enables other women to give voice to their own struggles and loves.

My copy of the book came with a short essay by Ms Stockett, part of which I would like to quote here because I thought it was very telling:

'I am afraid I have told too little. Not that life was so much worse for many black women working in the homes in Mississippi, but also that there was so much more love between white families and black domestics than I had the ink or the time to portray.

I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something that any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand...

I picked these lines because as an Asian reader born in the late 70s, there seems little to tie me to this story, at least on the surface. I cannot review it and say that I know exactly the perspective from which Ms Stockett is telling her story. But what I think she elegantly captures is how lives simultaneously go on, twine and intertwine, despite imaginary lines that we draw and labels that we put on different people -- and it is to this that I hold on. We've always had help in our family, most of them staying for years. There are helpers I've gone to watch movies with. There is one who's made me godmother to her son. There is another who has racked up a (nearly) P30,000 phone bill, which she is still paying for up until today. We've had our ups and our downs. So to a certain extent, despite my being worlds away from the life that Ms Stockett paints in her novel, there were many instances that resonated with me as I read The Help.

I applaud how there are so many different and well-fleshed out female characters in this book. Aibileen is such a sympathetic old soul, in many ways the anchor of this story. It is Skeeter's story arc that we follow however, as the novel traces her starting out with an ambitious project that she doesn't know will impact her life greatly. One of my favorites in the book was Celia, a poor white woman who employs the unemployable Minny, whose own struggles as an outcast is touching. But as there are admirable female characters, there are also those who are vilified by their own actions. Still, I think Ms Stockett manages to portray them with much fairness, giving them nuances so that they avoid being mere stock characters.

The women's book project is the first of its kind and they risk so many things to get it out. But what I truly like is that how they never really set out to change the world or even their community. They just wanted to tell a story. In The Help, Ms Stockett produces a worthy debut novel that deftly captures that very simple goal.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Scribbled: Special Delivery

Got my copies in the mail today!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Scriber (Ben S Dobson)

Despite being firmly of the medieval European vein, Scriber is an epic fantasy that manages to deliver freshness, deftness, and a fair dose of gender sensitivity to the genre's tropes. It moves from mystery/scavenger hunt to epic battle to morality tale but does it in an effective and seamless way. In this book, the Kingsland is being threatened by a group of rebels who seem determined to burn the kingdom down. Thrust into the middle of the action is Dennon Lark, a Scriber who is hiding away in the small village of Waymark but now the unfortunate target of the mysterious Burners. Lucky for the villagers, Bryndine Errynson and her company of female soldiers ride in to save most of them, but what Dennon and Bryndine don't know is that this is only the beginning of a quest that forces them together to save the Kingsland from a threat that none of them had imagined.

What first drew me to it was the choice of Dennon Lark, a historian, as the narrator. A fitting choice given his profession, though he is far from the kind of protagonist that most epic fantasies require. Dennon spends far too much time being afraid of his own shadow. His cowardice is often mentioned in the book -– from his desire to hide from the world after a personal endeavor turns tragic to his fear of Sylla, the self-appointed bodyguard of Bryndine Errynson.

A counterpoint to him is Bryndine, niece to the King and generally shunned to Hester Prynne-like proportions as a blasphemer for taking up arms and leading a company of female soldiers. She is the story's heroic trope, given bulk and battle ferocity to make her appear physically unattractive, but with a steadiness of character and purpose that made me cheer for her at every turn. Her actions are tolerated only because she is of noble blood and even among people she saves, she is neither admired nor thanked. Turn Bryndine male and the character loses much of its vulnerability and pathos.

I like how Mr Dobson gives us protagonists we can get behind and uses both Dennon and Bryndine to show different kinds of bravery, different kinds of battles, different kinds of heroes.

Even the warrior women are given nuanced roles. There are about twenty of them but the author knew how to write for them, how to introduce them to the reader so that you are never overwhelmed. Mr Dobson made sure that you paid attention to the right ones at the right times. One that particularly stood out was Wynne, with her hopefulness and desire for learning, and at the end of the book I really did feel as if I were part of this company.

I felt completely immersed in this world. Here, scribers like Dennon are tasked with recovering the kingdom's forgotten history, lost during a Forgetting instigated by a King who had razed all books and knowledge to the ground. It's a monumental task but one that Dennon approaches with passion and devotion, and snippets of all that he has discovered, as we ll as his thoughts, are revealed in brief passages before each chapter. But in spite of this, the world-building in Scriber is never unwieldy. In fact, I would go out on a limb and say that every detail mentioned had something to contribute to the plot and wasn't just included for flavor or scene-setting. (Let me know if I'm wrong.) Every little thing seemed to matter; nothing felt wasted.

I'm always up for a good series, but I'm a reader who is more impressed when a story wraps itself up satisfyingly in just one take. My only real concern with Scriber was how quickly the characters seemed to jump to conclusions while putting clues together. But that is little compared to how the story works itself to a glorious and emotionally-charged climax. Scriber ticks all the right boxes and reminds me that with indie releases like this, epic fantasy refuses to be just another tired and battle-worn genre.

This review is cross-posted to Adarna SF. The author provided a free copy for this review but damn, I have resolved to buy copies for Christmas presents.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Witches' Forest (Mishio Fukazawa)

It was one of those days again -- I needed a quick fix but my visit to Book Sale didn't yield much success in the YA department. I found a number of choice titles, though: Thomas Pynchon, Julian Barnes, Paul Theroux. At the last minute, I decided to add the Tokyopop translation of Mishio Fukazawa's Witches' Forest. It promises to be an RPG fantasy, which I didn't mind at all because I usually love that sort of thing.

Reading Witches' Forest definitely reminds me of the role-playing games that I play and the shounen anime that I watch --- so much that a part of me wished I had a manga in my hands. However, despite being a really easy read there is nothing much here to recommend. This is the story of Duan Surk, a Level 2 card-carrying member of the Adventurers Club, lost in the Witches' Forest after a pathetic stint with the army and accompanied by his grinia (lizard) Check. He teams up with the older and much more experienced fighter Olba October and then later, the fire-mage Agnis Link. It's pretty straight-forward, filled with familiar tropes and two-dimensional characters that make the plot trite and predictable.

But one reason that kept me going until the end was that the story acknowledged all those tropes and cliches -- embraced them, in fact. The characters had boss battles at the end of nearly every other chapter. They Leveled Up whenever they defeated a monster. They spoke of earning Experience Points. The book even has character profiles and adventurers' tools that poke fun at themselves (ropes that never break, lanterns that never run out of light). Given all of that, the entire story is actually very meta. Now if only it was half as interesting.

Witches' Forest is actually packed with a lot of action that if I were to turn it into an anime, I'd have a healthy monster-of-the-week shounen series in my hands. But then again, there is so much more to shounen anime that this story doesn't quite capture. So don't expect too much from Witches' Forest unless you're ten and very new to RPG. Otherwise, its charm might not work well on you.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Scribbled: The Breath and the Verse

Apparently, you can view a bottle containing Thomas Edison's last breath in the Henry Ford Museum, but there are also reports that there are 41 other bottles around. How do you know which one contains his final moment then? Oh, you had to be there.

My poem "The Forty-Two Last Breaths" appears in TAYO Literary Magazine's 3rd Issue (Print Edition). Do check it out, and if you're feeling generous, support the cause. TAYO Literary Magazine 'is dedicated to the creation, cultivation, and promotion of Filipino and Filipino-American arts and culture.'

Thursday, November 17, 2011

She Lover of Death (Boris Akunin)

I've had this on my Amazon wishlist for a few years now but just bought it last September, not realizing that 1) Boris Akunin also wrote the Sister Pelagia series that I often see in local stores; 2) She Lover of Death is part of a different series; and 3) I wasn't starting where I should.

Despite my ignorance, there were plenty of things that I liked about She Lover of Death. In turn of the century Russia, suicides seem like all the rage. They seem to stem from a suicide club called the 'Lovers of Death,' which attracts the young and innocent Masha Mironova, who renames herself Columbine when she moves to the capitol from her provincial hometown, in pursuit of a boy. But it is not love that awaits her in Moscow but death. Her infatuation pushes her to join the suicide club but it is her desire for change and transformation that urges her to stay. The club operates with a limited membership, with new members only inducted after one has left their circle. The leader of the Lovers is the enigmatic Prospero, a much older man who makes the impressionable Columbine forget about her former infatuation. She is quickly initiated into the ways of the club: the Lovers read poems about Lady Death and hold seances, where their medium Ophelia announces whom Death has chosen next to be her bridegroom (or bride, as in the case of the female members). As a rule, that member must encounter three signs before the hour of his suicide, and so far all of them have seemed to go readily to their early graves leaving behind their macabre poetry. But Lavr Zhemailo, a reporter for the Moscow Courier, manages to sniff out this practice, but he's not the only one interested in finding out more about the club. Erast Fandorin, master of disguise and infiltration, is convinced there is more to this than mere suicide.

I like how there are different perspectives at work in the narrative: Columbine's diary, Zhemailo's newspaper articles and commentaries, ZZ's agents' reports, and even the Lovers' poems. They added layers to what I thought would have been an otherwise dry and straightforward mystery. I wish I had known more about Erast Fandorin (or as he was known in this novel, Prince Genji or Erast Petrovich Neimless). I can only blame myself for not doing my research. Because this title comes in the middle of the series, the author already supposes that the reader knows a lot about Erast Fandorin, and Mr Akunin focuses on the character Columbine instead. Here, I can only see glimpses of the charm and the methods that have made Fandorin into a popular detective but I'd readily chalk this up to my failure as a reader rather than to any inadequacies in the writing. There are references made here to Fandorin's incredible luck, which piqued my interest enough to read the earlier titles.

But Columbine's story is far from disappointing. Her character intrigued me, and her motivations, no matter how strange they felt to me, mix naivete with passion. In her, the reader sees a character seduced by Death as an ideal, an end to suffering, an end to a life of being ordinary. I always welcome reading books that give me unexpected insight into something very contrary to what I think, and despite my desire for a richer mystery, I found She Lover of Death still worth my while.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Battlehawk (MP Ericson)

I’d say that Battlehawk may be the one to try if you like a quieter sort of fantasy, but somehow that statement doesn’t seem to give justice to the action in this book. Though the novel doesn’t have any dungeon-crawling or dragon-slaying, it still boasts of its fair share of sword fights and battles, calling to mind the weight and grimness of early European history.

Battlehawk is the story of brothers Galchai and Hauel, raised to be swordsmen who will fight to take back their southern kingdom. While they differ in skill and perspective, the task of raising their people back to their former glory and freedom rests on their shoulders.

The novel flows easily, at least at first. I like how in the first eight pages, the author throws you in the middle of the story and expects you to pick it up quickly without burdening you with massive info-dumping. I think it was this kind of restraint that encouraged me to pick this novel up in the first place. It does well to open with Hauel and Galchai as children. Not only does it show the family dynamics, but it also allows the reader more insight into the protagonists’ personalities than the rest of the novel does. I also applaud its treatment of a kingdom in exile, beggared by the years.

Unfortunately, the transitions were a real problem for me. As the brothers grew older and the various tribes and rulers moved closer to the brink of war, I was kept guessing on how much time had really elapsed between events. I had a smoother time reading the first third of the book, leading me to eventually give up on constructing a more concise timeline.

I was also anticipating a pay-off that never really materialized. Based on the story summary, I thought I’d see a definitive showdown between Galchai and Hauel. I had to remind myself that not every difference of opinion must lead to outright conflict or confrontation.

There were other minor details that bothered me. The first page speaks of 'a door hooked open,' and to my mind, a door can either be hooked/latched or open, but never both at the same time. A few pages down, a duel between Hauel and his cousin Robar concludes with 'After that, it was all over. Within moments, Hauel lay on the ground, panting and writhing (page 5)'. But it is Hauel who wins that fight and not Robar. Maybe these can still be corrected in future versions of Battlehawk.

My biggest regret, however, is the minor role given to women in the book although the ending foreshadows a change of direction. Unfortunately, this feels like too little, too late. If one of the lessons of the novel is that society must not exclude feminine wisdom and perspective, then why did it seem like every decision made by women in this novel — at least decisions that the protagonists listened to — led everyone to harm? I wish that there wasn’t such a wide disconnect between intent and application so that the conclusions made at the end of the book are properly justified.

I still think that Battlehawk delivers a fairly enjoyable reading experience. The battle scene towards the end of the book is something I commend. Ms Ericson gives it proper treatment. She doesn’t just turn it into a cut-away scene or dismiss it in a summary. Instead, she allows the action and the drama time to steep and then utilizes these into a fitting climax for her story. In the end, I think Battlehawk would have rated higher if I had found the rest of the novel consistent with its promising beginning and moving conclusion.

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

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Battle Royale (Koushun Takami)

While I thoroughly enjoy Japanese anime/manga/cinema/literature, I've always felt a little uncomfortable around the film Battle Royale. I like it enough, don't get me wrong. It's become iconic in its depiction of violence and fear, as it depicts the story of 42 students from Section 3-B of Shiroiwa Junior High who have been chosen to participate in the Program. The novel opens in 1997, and in this alternate timeline, Japan is part of the Republic of Greater East Asia. Its totalitarian government is behind the Program, 'a battle simulation [...] instituted for security reasons (p25)' where a junior high class is selected and its students forced to face each other and fight to the death until only one survives. It's the kind of movie I really don't want to watch again.

Given that, I don't really know why I agreed to read the source novel when my friend Oz foisted her copy on me. I was certain I was going to get more of the same violence I remember from the film, perhaps even more. What I didn't expect was a clearer look at the lives of each of the students. Even if they only appeared for a few pages, the students were given motivations and back stories by Mr Takami's skillful pen. This way, I really begun to see more than just typical cannon fodder, something that was not clearly evident in the film adaptation, though of course I can see why a different media would choose to treat the material differently. For the first time since I watched the movie, I understood what made Shuya Nanahara the most ideal protagonist in this situation. Shuya, a former star shortstop, is athletic, well-liked, calm under pressure -- and what's more is that he exercises estraint and aggression in equal measures. There is enough warmth and charm in him to enable him to get close to his other classmates at certain points during the game, thus affording us readers a better glimpse of their interactions and their beliefs. Through his eyes we see pacifists and sociopaths. We encounter cowards and idealists.

Shuya teams up with two of his classmates, Noriko Nakagawa and Shogo Kawada. Shuya feels a certain sense of responsibility over Noriko, his best friend's crush, and vows to protect her until the end of the Program. Shogo is a different story: an older, mysterious classmate whose survival skills greatly increase the group's chances for survival. Shuya and Noriko don't immediately trust Shogo, but eventually the two defer to Shogo's knowledge. This makes for some interesting dynamics. Shogo never wrestles the unofficial leadership position from Shuya despite the difference in their skills, acknowledging that he needs the protection Shuya offers as well. There's strength in numbers, especially when one of them is as athletic as Shuya. Shuya's trust also keeps Shogo from being targeted -- though not mistrusted -- by the others in their class. In the film, I actually questioned Noriko's role: superfluous and stereotypical. From start to finish she was a damsel to be rescued, pure and innocent, more disadvantages than strengths in a game like this. But it was the novel that enabled me to see her more as a symbol -- the hope buried underneath Pandora's box -- making her as essential to the purpose and message of the story, if not to the action.

When I finished the novel, I found myself reacting differently to it than I had to the film. Maybe it's because I'm a little older now and my perspectives have changed. Maybe the fundamental differences between both media naturally push my biases towards the written form. Whatever the reason, I am glad that I gave the Battle Royale novel a chance. Not only has it made me want to look for my old film CD and consider picking up the manga version as well (co-written by Mr Takami and Masayuki Taguchi), it's also given me much food for thought about fear and desperation in a collapsing society.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011's Moleskine Star Wars Giveaway

I know, I know. I haven't had a book review here in weeks. First, there was that trip. Then, there was this.

I was fresh out of college when I first heard of (under a different name then, if I remember correctly). I'd buy books from Jasper and other members of the auctions community. I would even meet up with him at Megamall (I lived in Muntinlupa then). I got a lot of fantasy books that way, including a signed hardcover edition of Neil Gaiman's Stardust that was the pride of my collection before he started visiting the Philippines. I think if I dig really hard through the mess of my room, I can still come across old deposit slips made out to Jasper's name.

Now that is already on its thirteenth year (thereabouts), it's giving away this lovely Star Wars Moleskine. It's enough to make my fangirl heart swoon. I first heard about Star Wars when my uncle took me to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was the second movie I ever saw at a movie theater (if you're wondering, ET was the first one, and Ladyhawke was the third.I had to watch all these in Laguna and at that time, I think it was safe to assume that we got our movies really, really late). I've been addicted to Star Wars ever since -- put posters up in my room, collected Kenner figures, followed the canon and EU, and of course, stood in line and watched the movies religiously. I actually paid the lost book fine at our school library just so I could keep their copy of Empire. The lengths I'd go to...

And in case someone knows anyone selling Malla and Lumpy merchandise? I'm in.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Interlude: Finding a Little Seoul

For the first time since Liv and I have started traveling together, we chose to set the itinerary aside and just make most of our decisions on the spot. We got lost. A lot. We lost our way around subway stations, around underground markets, even in the streets just behind our cheap hotel. Downtown. In the suburbs. But then again, we didn't mind getting lost. We laughed and smiled when we walked around in circles or got off at the wrong stop or lost count of the bridges during our nighttime stroll along Cheonggyecheon Stream.

It always pays to smile.
At The Stories of King Sejong and Admiral Yi
At the Changdeokgung Palace grounds
A mecca for lovers of K-drama
The view from the N Seoul Tower
At Insadong's colorful Ssamziegil

And when we remembered, we'd find a quiet place for coffee or tea. We'd alternately save and splurge, the same way we'd alternately rest our tired feet and keep on walking with drinks in hand. We'd talk about the lives from which we've taken respite, hug our coats and drinks a little closer, and make sure we'd always have a reason to smile.

This moment was one of mine.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Experiment.

By the time this post goes up, I should be in Korea, getting my fill of trendy little cafes and charming indie pop bands (wait for me, Standing EGG and Sweetpea!) and fangirl delusions. I've nixed Lonely Planet for Chinggay Labrador's Popped Too. I have Korean phrases written down on trusty index cards for emergencies: Please don't make it spicy or Where is the toilet?

But the real experiment is trying to go for about a week without checking my mail or my blog or my play-by-post RPG. Maybe it will work. Maybe I'll find myself experiencing major withdrawal before the week even begins. But here's to exploring the world outside my computer. See you!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel (Elias Anderson & EC Belikov)

Though the premise of Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel makes it look like your standard-issue adventure fare, it plumbs unexpected depths to make the reading experience quite worth your while. It opens strong on the action as it tells the story of the crew of the airship Masamune: its captain Violet, mechanic Tibbs, and former Inspector Moriarty now on the wrong side of the law.

The prose is certainly hardworking. It never lets the reader forget its steampunk roots as it weaves generous descriptions and terminologies into the alternative western story. I didn't feel that there was an excess of information provided; the wordbuilding was on-key. Unfortunately, there are times when the text descends into dry, almost didactic narrative of the tell, not show variety ('Moriarty now sat down to a hot meal and thought back at that fiery day, seven months ago, when what was now his family, for better or worse, had come together' p20) and forced sentiment (Violet compares a suitor to 'a lone rose in the middle of a pallid desert wasteland' p32). Thankfully, the uneveness doesn't last long. At 30,000 or so words, things tend to move pretty quickly. Aside from an obligatory origin chapter, the action is managed well, each move calculated, nothing wasted.

I was ready to write this off as a run-of-the-mill action-adventure story when the last few chapters happened. This is when things really get interesting, and it switches the dynamic of the story from a oneshot adventure session into a harsh moral dilemma. Although there are already hints of issues cropping up in previous chapters (most intriguing for me was the Augmentation Society and its implications), what occurs in the last third of the book is a major turning point not just for the story but for the world it inhabits.

I thought the characters here were a mixed bag. Take Violet, the captain. I don't adhere to the school of thought that to escape female stereotypes, a beautiful woman must be anti-female; in this novella, Violet hates dresses and heels, hates being ordered for, hates being reminded that she is a woman. Even when her past is revealed and in the light of what had happened to her, I believe we can expect more challenging characterizations from our authors than the shopworn variety. I'm also not convinced of Moriarty's role in this enterprise. I'm guessing his presence in the triumvirate is to be the moral compass, the everyman that may give the readers familiar ground, but so far there is little development in his area. The most intriguing character in my opinion is Tibbs, whom at first I had written off as a mere third wheel. In the course of the novel he had leaped to the forefront as a gamechanger. Most of your questions about the characters are answered by the time the novella closes, and I appreciated that the authors didn't feel the need to tease the readers more than was necessary.

One thing that greatly bothered me in this book was the way Violet, Moriarty, and Tibbs treated Harris, a secondary character who had the job they needed to fulfill theirs. Suffice to say that it left me just as horrified as what Parker had been doing at his ranch. Whether it had been deliberately made to add to the existing issues of the book or not, it had me reassessing my opinion of the crew.

Let's talk marketing and branding for a moment. Judging books by their cover is a reader-response that most authors must deal with. Look Homeward, Clockwork Angel's own cover is cleanly-executed but it has grim and serious quality to it. While it does echoes the heavier themes that the novella bravely tackles, I also think the tough alternative western, action-adventure aspect of the novella could be further highlighted to draw more interest to the e-book. Another suggestion would be tighter editing. The western slang adds color and can't be faulted, but the novella could use another editing eye (with careful attention to comma use).

Despite my problems with the uneven prose, I still found this a solid effort and a laudably courageous start. It looks like there is plenty to look forward to -- both in action and in character growth -- as the rest of the series unfolds.

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

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Coffin Dodgers (Gary Marshall)

Crafting a believable mystery based on an oddball premise can prove to be a challenge, but one that Gary Marshall embraces with tongue-in-cheek wit and panache. Coffin Dodgers is a light, fast-paced mystery punctuated with genuine comic moments and the usual concerns of a twentysomething life: boredom, work, romance, and the presence of beer. It slightly borders science fiction, with mentions of newspapers with video clips and cars that take care of everything but the steering (although if those were already common occurrences in your part of the globe, you can always chalk it up to my third-world ignorance), but as a whole I feel that Coffin Dodgers is still hewn closer to an alternative present than a truly futuristic sci-fi scenario.

One of the most impressive things about Coffin Dodgers is its conversational tone. Matt is an effective narrator, drawing the reader into his life with ease. He brings familiarity into a world where the bingo hall is one of the most packed places during the weekends. In fact, it’s not just Matt — his friends Amy and Dave are realistically drawn as well. Their banter feels genuine and unaffected, insanely proliferating the novel with nicknames for the people around them (Sleazy Bob, the Yellow Man, Rodeo Rick, to name a few). Their fun and reckless spirit is consistently carried throughout the rest of the novel, encouraging me to imagine Coffin Dodgers unfolding as a movie, that crazy sleeper hit with actors of the indie-slacker persuasion.

This debut novel starts out strong, quickly establishing the mood and parameters of this new world. In just a few wry paragraphs, Marshall outlines the reasons and consequences behind the silvering of the population — one that almost feels plausible. He is also quite careful in letting Matt and his friends function within the scope of their capabilities. They are able to act, reason, and attempt to unravel the conspiracy without calling on James Bond’s arsenal. Their go-to gadgets? Camera phones, online-bought bugs, a sound engineer’s equipment. Again, plausibility in just the right amount.

Coffin Dodgers moves quick enough to let you forget some of its flaws before you realize they were even there. My main concern is that the characters are pretty much WYSIWYG and have little development throughout the course of the book. The antagonists, in particular, are quite cookie-cutter and do nothing to save this book from its predictability. While I can’t fault the book for its pace, I can’t say the same for the way it wraps up the mystery. You know that moment in an action movie when the hero is confronted by seven thugs and you just wonder why the other six are politely waiting their turn instead of rushing at him all at once? I had similar moments while reading this. I felt that the antagonists were just missing that ruthlessly smart gene that would have evened the field. I understand that the ridiculousness of the situation is created by using current universal stereotypes of the elderly, but I was a bit disappointed that longevity in this world didn’t amount to much bad-assery.

Despite these hiccups, I really commend Gary Marshall for coming up with a well-written (and well-edited) debut mystery. There are moments in the book that subtly move into the realm of social commentary without having to try so hard. Irreverent tone notwithstanding, it feels much more polished than the usual indie e-books that I’ve come across — definitely worth an afternoon read.

This review also appears on Adarna SF, an awesome collective for reviews of indie speculative fiction. Please visit the main site :) The author provided a free copy for this review.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Beaches Book Club (August-September Challenge: Travel)

I had mentioned in a previous post that a few friends and I have formed an informal book club to encourage us to finish our reading piles. We're all readers but we tend to like different genres so it was hard for us to settle on a common title; I think the only thing we agree on is manga, and even that's still subject to further de-classification! In the end, we decided to go with a travel theme because it provided us with a wide range of things to pick -- and besides, we all liked to travel (even taken trips together, both local and abroad). Any book that touched on a form of travel was accepted. We began our books in mid-August and ended in mid-September. We had a list of questions we tried to answer, which focused mostly on the travel and cultural experiences mentioned in our respective books. While I took on Colin Cheong's Tangerine, here's a rundown of the other books the rest of the group had finished reading this month:

Book: How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays
Author: Umberto Eco
Reviewed by: Magnetic Rose
Thoughts:A collection of short articles and essays -- mostly parodies, written by Eco between 1975 and 1991. Includes instructions on How to Travel with a Salmon, How to Eat in Flight, How to Go Through Customs, and How to Deal with the Taxi Driver -- all funny, none real. The book covers places like London, Edinburgh, New York, and Milan, while tackling a number of ways to travel: first class, coach, train, taxi, and lastly bicycle. Funny as hell -- for smart people.
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you? Airline food will kill you.

Book: You Shall Know Our Velocity!
Author: Dave Eggers
Reviewed by: Oz
Thoughts:Reading this book is like going on a trip with two of your crazy, funny, (and probably cute) guy friends. Will comes into a big amount of money which he feels he doesn't really deserve. He decides to travel around the world with Hand, one of his best friends. Their trip involves visiting obscure countries and giving away Will's money bit by bit to the people they meet along the way. So the time they spend in each obscure country is mostly a mad scramble to find a way to go somewhere else. And all this they've decided to do after losing their best friend Jack to a car accident. Despite the craziness of everything going on here though, there are moments of raw emotion that lend a certain authenticity to everything that's happening.
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you? I honestly can't think of any decent travel advice I've learned here except probably what NOT to do on a trip. Will and Hand are disorganized, crazy, unprepared, unhygienic, unselfconscious. Their trip is a nightmare for anybody remotely OC.

Book: The Time Cavern
Author: Todd A. Fonseca
Reviewed by: Code Jutsu
Thoughts:When ten-year-old Aaron moved from the big city to the country, he thought it was a boring sleepy town. Then he met Jake, a know-it-all farm girl who said his house was haunted. She claimed an Amish boy disappeared without a trace after hearing the wind call his name. Aaron thought she was just trying to scare him...until the night he heard his own name in the wind. It was interesting, fast-paced and kept me thinking. Being a book targetted for 10 year old boys, explaining things *I* already know was a bit of a drag for me. But hey, I need to remember I am not the target audience. Its strength though lies with it's approach with the young protagonists, they are believable kids thrust into unusual instances. This book helped me understand more of the Amish, their religion and way of life. It was done with respect, and did not become preachy. It may be for kids, but it is interesting enough for kids at heart like me.
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you?Try anything once :)

Book: The Tattooed Map
Author: Barbara Hodgson
Reviewed by: Kitchen Cow
Thoughts:Lydia and ex-boyfriend Christopher travel to North Africa for entirely different reasons. Lydia because she lives to travel while Chris travels to buy curios and art pieces for clients. After an encounter with a mysterious stranger, Lydia finds a set of flea bites on her arm. Instead of it disappearing though, she discovers that the bites start taking the shape of lines and symbols, eventually turning into a tattooed map that slowly spreads along her arm. The story offers an interesting enough premise that borders on fantasy and realism. Unfortunately, it will forever be compared to Griffin and Sabine. It makes a good attempt to follow in the landmark trilogy's footsteps but it doesn't quite get there. The author fails to introduce story elements that I find important, like Lydia's relationship with Christopher, which was described in the book flap but is never really introduced until much much much much later in the book.
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you?Don't talk to strangers if you don't want strange tattoos on your body! J/K

Book: French Lessons (Adventures with Knife, Fork, and Corkscrew)
Author: Peter Mayle
Reviewed by: Otaku Champloo
Thoughts:This is a non-fiction book written somewhere before and during his stay in Provence. This particularly looks into how France has forever changed his palette. Its strength lies in his casual narration of places and faces in France and why they love their food. His descriptions are vivid enough to make you hungry and long for the little villages in France. I also consider his humbling experience a strength. As an Englishman, his culinary experience in France has brought his English arrogance down at least in terms of food. Prior to reading the book, my impression of French food is snooty bistros with either steaks or pommes frites with a splash of French sauces here and there. I thought that French food was all about fine dining with wine to drink however, reading Mayle's culinary explorations, the French were at home with rustic meals and lunches that can go on forever, like Filipinos!
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you?Don't judge a food by how it looks or where it's from. Don't be afraid of what you don't know. Eventually, what scares you can surprise you and turn out to be the best culinary treat you'll ever have.

Book: Vroom with a View (In Search of Italy's Dolce Vita on a '61 Vespa)
Author: Peter Moore
Reviewed by: Pixel and Ink
Thoughts:Peter Moore chases a boyhood dream -- to go from Milan to Rome on a Vespa. But it couldn't be just any old Vespa. Peter wanted a bike as old as he was and in the same sort of condition. He called the bike Sophia. Peter Moore's tone is very casual, so the book easy to read. It actually reads as though he's talking to you over drinks (or rather, ponce, like did in his book) and telling you about his adventures with Sophia. I love he gave each town/city/village he visits its personality because of his descriptions of them. I also really liked the subplot of him looking for the elusive green Vespa on Kinder Egg Surprise chocolates throughout his trip. He was the kind of traveller who would go see a place beyond its tourist spots. He learned about their histories, and tried to immerse himself in the local culture. He also told a lot about the history of the Vespa and how it impacted the Italians' way of life. I love that Sophia (and the people enamored by her) helped pave the way for Peter and us, the readers, to see what's not written in guidebooks.
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you? Just do it!

Book: Dark Star Safari (Overland from Cairo to Cape Town)
Author: Paul Theroux
Reviewed by: Just Wandering
Thoughts:Approaching a landmark birthday (60 years), Paul Theoroux decides to go back to Africa and travel from Cairo to Cape Town overland. He travels to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. The biggest strength of the book is that it's way off the beaten path. Apart from Egypt and South Africa, he features places that nobody would think to visit. He has worked in Africa before and can speak some of the native languages, so he was able to interact with the locals. He gives a brief history of the towns and cities he passes through and gives a pretty straightforward description place of just how much the place has deteriorated from when he was living there several decades prior. He can get pretty serious with the political stuff, but generally, it's not a hard book to read. One of my favorite quotes from the book: The greatest justification for travel is not self improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace.
What was the best travel trivia/advice that this book gave you? There are two things that pop to mind when we say Africa: bad news (famine, drought, hunger, war,... etc.) or lions, elephants and zebras. As Paul Theroux describes, taking the African Safari takes you to the "safe" Africa: far and isolated from the locals. If you want to really experience Africa, it's best to do it by going on your own and traveling overland.

Another friend took on The Ladies of Llangollen by Elizabeth Mavor, about two Irish upper-society women who ran away from their families and set up home together in Llangollen, but I'm not sure if she was able to finish it. Still, I think it was a good start for all of us. Not only did it give us that added push we needed to finish these books, but our online discussions made us feel that we've just read eight books in one go. We're about to start on our October challenge (which predictably is anything horror/occult/paranormal/thriller) and I already can't wait!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (Patricia C Wrede & Caroline Stevermer)

Fantasy and romance are two of my favorite genres, which find a satisfying balance in the YA title Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia C Wrede & Caroline Stevermer. Taking on the form of an epistolary dialogue between two cousins, the book is a quick and light read that follows cousins Cecelia and Katherine through their many magical and social (mis-)adventures.

In the story, Kate gets to experience her first London season with her sister Georgina, while her cousin and best friend Cecy remains at their home in the country. Though they are apart, the girls' lives still manage to connect: Cecy makes the acquaintance of Dorothea Griscomb, who mysteriously draws men to her like bees to honey, her wizard-mother Miranda, and Dorothea's cousin James, who is quite unsuccessful when it comes to spying. In London, however, Kate is content to follow her prettier sister Georgy around, but unwittingly wanders into a magical trap laid for the Marquis of Schofield. Add to this story a blue chocolate pot, charm-bags, chaperones, falling hairpins, and brothers who get turned into trees and you have a good idea of how much trouble two very stubborn Ladies of Quality can get themselves into.

The book pays homage to Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and there's a fair amount of romantic tension mixed in with the fantastical elements of the story. The girls do not concern themselves with finding husbands as they do investigating their mystery, but the ending seems inevitable. Fans of Regency romances will be delighted by the mention of familiar places and terms like Almack's, Vauxhall Gardens, and the Elgin Marbles. Even famous people like Sally Jersey, Lord Byron, and Lady Caroline Lamb walk into the story. For all its twists and turns, the story winds down to a rather predictable conclusion, but I still found it very charming and refreshing. Cecy and Kate are both candid in their observations and are quite insistent on solving their own problems despite the conventions and notions of propriety that their society has set.

Ms Wrede and Ms Stevermer both share snippets of this unique writing journey at the end of the book. According to them, the idea started out as a Letter Game introduced to them by Ellen Kushner, where they wrote to each other as two different personas (with Ms Stevermer writing as Kate and Ms Wrede as Cecy). "But we didn't play the Letter Game to publish it," Ms Stevermer confesses. "We played because it was fun." They admit that they didn't discuss plot between them, only timing, encouraging them to work out the details as they went along. As I read the book, I find this quite commendable because I was struck by how similar Kate and Cecy sounded, too similar I thought, as if they had been written by the same hand. Even the male romantic leads seem cut from the same cloth, but that wasn't a deal-breaker for me. Sorcery and Cecelia remains an appealing, enchanting, and well-written read that makes me wonder why I don't see more wholesome Regency romances for a younger audience.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Laini Taylor)

I took this book everywhere until I was done with the last page.

Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone takes place in a richly-imagined, layered, and lyrical universe -- an Elsewhere that exists along with ours -- that makes it difficult to put down. Karou, an art student in Prague, runs strange errands for her family, errands that take her to Paris, Saigon, San Francisco, Marrakesh in the blink of an eye, though there is much she doesn't know about her existence. I understand that that might sound like a tired cliche from the paranormal romance genre, but Daughter of Smoke and Bone was more than I expected. Here, I'll let the blurb do the talking:
Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love.
It did not end well.

Around the world, black handprints are appearing on doorways, scorched there by winged strangers who have crept through a slit in the sky.

In a dark and dusty shop, a devil's supply of human teeth grows dangerously low.

And in the tangled lanes of Prague, a young art student is about to be caught up in a brutal otherworldly war.
There are many things to recommend about Daughter of Smoke and Bone, foremost of which is the gradual unfolding of the plot. Though there were twists and elements that are revealed towards the end of the book, I never felt that Ms Taylor had tacked them on superfluously. The novel is well-layered, ambitious, and successful as it takes the reader from one world and one thread of the story to another. The pace allows the narrative to gain much ground. What's also striking about the story is that it carries with it a commentary on war, prejudice, and tolerance. It does not allow the romance aspect to overpower the important themes that the novel contains.

The setting also plays a significant role in perpetuating the fantasy. Most of the earthly activities take place in Prague, with its art schools and historic corners and grand cathedrals -- already a grand playground for the imagination -- so that when the tale moves to a different plane, the change is gradual and not shattering. Ms Taylor's other world comes with a colorful and diverse group of characters that evoke religious imagery without offending my Catholic sensibilities. I think the author was effective enough to use the angelic-demonic archetypes as a jump-off point to create her own characters of myth and legend to populate her world.

Karou herself is a great character: an admirably balanced mix of a heroine who is physically strong and more than capable of taking care of herself and one who has a great capacity for love. When I encounter characters such as this, I notice that one trait often precedes the other: as if love is a 'gentle' feeling that the female-warrior/tough-girl is required to shun at the beginning of the novel. In Karou, however, they exist at the same time, but I don't feel that this diminishes her strength as a character.

And the language! Some of my favorite lines:
'... clock towers across Prague started arguing midnight... (p56)'

'In her belly: a flutter of winged things shaking themselves fervently to life (p195).'

'It is bright within her, like a swallowed star (p311).'

I've used that 'arguing midnight' line on friends who have taken this book from me -- as I mentioned, I brought it everywhere -- and raised an eyebrow at the cover. Like I tell them, it is not every day that you come across a YA fantasy/romance like this. Daughter of Smoke and Bone appeals to readers who would want to be swept off their feet by an epic love story, as well as those eager for a secondary world with a rich mythos and history to accompany it.

My Advance Review Copy is courtesy of Hachette Book Group Philippines, through the kindness of Honey and Chachic. Much thanks!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sideways in Crime (Edited by Lou Anders)

In this compilation of alternate history stories, crime and science fiction meld seamlessly to create a collection that explores two essential questions: 'Whodunnit?' and 'What if?' Science fiction writer, editor, and Hugo and WFA nominee Lou Anders is at the helm of Sideways in Crime. The collection features 15 short stories from authors Kage Baker, John Meaney, Stephen Baxter, Paul Park, Jack McDevitt, Kathryn Rusch, Mary Rosenblum, Paul Di Filippo, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Theodore Judson, Pat Cadigan, SM Stirling, Mike Resnick & Eric Flint, Tobias S Buckwell, and Chris Roberson. When I had first picked the anthology up, I was only familiar with a few names but by the end of it, my interest in most of them had grown significantly.

Each story postulates an alternate reality, letting history fork at certain crossroads so that the world will go on a different path. This is already a daunting challenge in itself; to do so in just a few pages (the stories' length is excellent) is quite admirable. The collection offer glimpses into worlds that have highly deviated from ours (such as an England that has remained longer under the Roman Empire) and into those that are remarkably similar save for one small element (a world where Arthur Conan Doyle never published his famous detective). The results are a mixed bag, with some ultimately appealing to my tastes more than others. I found that some of these stories can intriguingly posit a 'what if' scenario only to stumble into predictable territory once the mystery elements are introduced.

In his Introduction 'Worlds of If,' Mr Anders puts forth that 'every science fiction author is a natural born mystery writer, whether they know it or not.' I won't refute that except to say that some are just more successful at the mystery part than others, while others have an easier time of luring the reader into their richly-imagined worlds. A few of my favorites in the collection were Kristine Kathryn Rusch's 'G-Men,' an investigation into a sensitive crime involving J Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson and certain lifestyle choices, as well as Paul Di Filippo's 'Murder in Geektopia,' which I thought created a believable second world through clever geek and pop culture references. Mike Resnick & Eric Flint's 'Conspiracies: A Very Condensed 937-Page Novel' opens like a hardboiled detective story and combines alien and government conspiracy references (Hoffa and Kennedy, anyone?) with much success. Mystery and science fiction fans won't go wrong with Sideways in Crime.

Friday, September 09, 2011

The 32nd Manila International Book Fair

It's just five days until the 1st Filipino ReaderCon and The 32nd Manila International Book Fair (Words Without Borders)! The MIBF is an annual event that brings local and foreign exhibitors together, all striving to help cultivate a love for reading. It is organized by Primetrade Asia, which is also one of ReaderCon's sponsors.

I've always loved going to the MIBF. It is often held during the first few weeks of September (which is good for me because I get extra shopping money this time of the year). I often start my Christmas shopping here: children's books for my godchildren, recipe books for my aunts, rarer titles for luckier friends. Over the years I've discovered unexpected treasures here. Once I bought a good number of secondhand manga in original Japanese (nearly completing my collection of Hana Yori Dango). Another time I loaded up on Perry Mason mysteries that were being sold at the Goodwill Bookstore booth for about P35 each. Still another I found a booth selling Discworld novels with original Josh Kirby art. Score!

When my favorite uncle was still alive, we would always make a trip to the MIBF. After he passed away, I began visiting it by myself, which is not always such a good thing. Even with the throng of people around the booths, I find that it's always nice to share your finds with someone. Last year, I came with my cousin but we were only able to spend a few hours there. Still, I went home with a few copies of local children's stories (including Palanca winner Irene Sarmiento's Spinning) while my cousin bought an Ambeth Ocampo book. Maybe this time around, I'll be bringing home a larger stash of books.

Aside from being a venue for publishing companies and book distributors, MIBF also plays host to a variety of events, the ReaderCon being just one of many. It's a great place to gather educators, students, publishers, authors, and every size and shape of reader there is. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tangerine (Colin Cheong)

With giant To Be Read piles plaguing us, my friends and I decided to encourage each other to attack these with an informal book club. For starters, we just decided on a general theme (travel) and picked books that we already have (win-win for everyone). Some of my friends chose books from established travel writers like Paul Theroux and Peter Mayle while others went with fiction. A friend even went with time travel -- hey, we're not picky. Mine was Colin Cheong's Tangerine, winner of the 1996 Singapore Literature Prize that chronicles how Nick, a young Singaporean photojournalist, travels by himself from Saigon to Hanoi to meet up with his old friends. Throughout the week-long journey in crowded buses and inexpensive hostels, he reflects on his alone-ness, in relation to his friends, his fellow travellers, and to his world in general.

Although primarily a work of fiction, the narrator's tone feels very realistic and consistent. This novella exudes a personal flavor that I wasn't quite expecting when I first picked it up. Where I was expecting a travelogue that would go into detail about the different places that Nick visits, it focused more on the people that Nick meets instead. Where I was looking for a taste of Vietnamese culture, practices, and traditions, it chose to reflect on the Vietnamese’s post-war sentiments. An example is old Mr Trinh, one of Nick’s cyclo-drivers in Saigon. He and Nick go to the War Crimes Museum and as they look on the harsh remnants of war, Mr Trinh admits that he has been one of the luckier ones. It shows a Vietnam rebuilding itself, a Vietnam slowly opening itself to the world.

It is this connection that gnaws at Nick. On his way to an informal reunion, he is forced to rearrange his plans and travel by himself to avoid tensions with a hinted-at ex. He muses at his life and relationships: his friends are getting married and pairing off. The travelers he meets at each point all have companions. As his thoughts travel inward, he realizes that somewhere he has lost his 'sense of pity' that allows him to connect with others. But if there's anything that this journey teaches him, it's to rediscover that 'sense of pity', that empathy.

Nick, a self-confessed by-the-book traveler, consults his Lonely Planet guidebook for everything. One of the tips he picks up is to bring a pack of Camels along and use it as an icebreaker. Though he is not really a smoker, he follows this advice and finds that it makes for a convenient icebreaker in Saigon. But as he travels north by bus, meeting all sorts of vendors and travelers along the way, he eschews the cigarettes for tangerines. Whether he is buying one or offering one to his fellow travelers, he slowly begins to appreciate that which connects him to others. Maybe it makes feel good to be in a position to help and give, especially in the rural countrysides of post-war Vietnam. In featuring Vietnam, the novella also paints a picture of the Singaporean adult. If we hold Nick up as a model, we are afforded a look into a generation's concerns, fears, and ambitions.

One thing that really resonated with me was his conclusion that he will never be able to see things the way a Vietnamese person sees it. I liked that he didn't try to be judgmental or attempt to give meaning to a culture and an experience that wasn't his in the first place. He actually extends this belief to his friends: that even though he and his friends have the common frames of references, he will never see things the way they do. In the same way, even if Nick's characters has a lot of concerns that are similar to mine, the novella reminds me that I will never be able to see the world as he sees it. Of course, reading his thoughts brings me a step closer to knowing more of his character but in the end, each experience and perspective is a singular one. The best we can do is to allow us to reach out to others despite this singularity, and find empathy, if not understanding. Though I wasn't sure where the novella was going to take me, and though I wasn't a fan at the beginning, I was surprised at how much I came to appreciate it by the time the journey was over.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Interlude: Intoxication.

You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish." - Charles Baudelaire, Be Drunk

Five years have officially come and gone. Today's the first day of my sixth blogging year, and yes, I'll keep on drinking.