Saturday, January 29, 2011

Minotaur (Benjamin Tammuz)

'He remembered what Chekov said about loaded revolvers: "If a revolver appears in the first act of a play it must be fired in the third act." [...] A revolver can appear in the first act and be fired pointlessly, and despite this it will be a play worth performing...(p180)'

So goes a passage from Benjamin Tammuz' 1981 English Book of the Year winner Minotaur. This powerful story revolves around an Israeli secret agent and his all-consuming love for a much younger woman. This is not Lolita; the two never meet except through letters and records exchanged over the years. Thea, the young woman, is about seventeen when forty-one year old Alex Abramov first sees her on a bus, yet something in her carriage and demeanor captivates the older, hardened man. He watches her from a distance, and in time engages her in an intriguing epistolary relationship. Thea is drawn to her mysterious suitor as well, accepting the strangeness of his existence while attempting to create a life of normalcy.

Aside from Alex and Thea, Minotaur also chronicles the lives of two of Thea's lovers: G.R., the man she almost married, and Nikos, her most recent lover. By shifting the perspective to these men, Mr Tammuz eloquently pieces together key moments in Alex and Thea's shared history. The result is not just a plot that oscillates with richness and passion despite its deceptive simplicity, but detailed studies in character as well. Minotaur urges you to come full circle: it starts with Alex, the secret agent, before moving to G.R., Nikos, and finally, Alex, the man. Alex's devotion to Thea is moving; throughout the novel, I came to view him with equal parts of ire and pity.

Minotaur struck a chord in me because I responded to the masterful way that Mr Tammuz drew me into these characters' lives. There was something almost voyeuristic in it, as if the reader has taken over Alex's role as a spy. I found the images brimming with emotion (my copy was translated from Hebrew by Kim Parfitt and Mildred Budny). It stirred within me questions regarding morality and devotion and forgiveness until its beautiful, bitter denouement. 'God gave signs, long ago,' Mr Tammuz writes, 'only to his prophets, not to simple girls, even if they were as simple as goddesses, according to their lovers (p96).' The novel is a prophet then, and the signs of the resolution of Alex and Thea's lives are laid bare on the page. It is a love story that I know will always resonate with me.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Popped (Chinggay Labrador)

In another life, I am obsessed with anime and manga, Japanese pop stars and movies. I took Japanese language classes. I've stayed at home just to finish an entire series. I wrote fanfiction; I've even made a Japanese-inspired harem game and a manga. One of my lifelong goals is to visit Japan, land of everything for which my fangirl heart beats. (Does that totally destroy any kind of lit street cred I may have? LOL.)

So when I came across Chinggay Labrador's Popped, I knew right away that I was going to relate to the story. The protagonist, Andie, is getting over a breakup via Korean dramas, which is only the start of her obsession as a K-fangirl. She and her friends find themselves elbowing other fans at a local K-pop concert, taking trips to Japan and Korea, and even chasing stars all over the place. Popped is really more about female solidarity, guilty pleasures, and unabashed optimism more than it is a love story, but there is still kilig there. Perhaps that kilig factor is already inherent in every fan-chasing-star tale (and how close they come) but Popped is still seasoned with a couple other romances that can touch anyone whose ever liked Asian-style love stories. I say this with a caveat though: I don't know how a non-fangirl would react to the story. Sure, there are a couple of things that seem far-fetched but I think that their adventures are the kind that a fan would dream of having. Also, the gushing tone that the characters use might get on some nerves if you're not familiar with the whole scenario. Andie certainly became hardcore too fast too soon, and though it's not unheard of, the lengths she goes to in her Second Life can take the reader aback.

I've never been to Korea but Ms Labrador writes her setting with such familiarity and enthusiasm that I feel as if I'm right there having this adventure with her. I've actually done something similar: a) one of my reasons for going to Taiwan was to see that diner where Shan Cai and Dao Min Si would meet but practicality won out in the end; and b) my sister and I have done that whole star-chasing thing when Jerry Yan and Vic Zhou came to Manila. But in Popped, this kind of adventure is given larger significance because it becomes not just about chasing boys, but about being there for your friends. Having BFFs who can understand you and appreciate you for all your quirks and moments of weaknesses is something worth treasuring, even if you have to go to another country to reaffirm that. Because of this, Popped is something I would heartily recommend to my chick-lit loving fangirl friends -- let's do this. >.< ^_^

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Smaller and Smaller Circles (FH Batacan)

With its command of logic, suspense, and contemporary Filipino elements, FH Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles is definitely worth the accolades and awards heaped upon it. This winner of the 1999 Palanca Grand Prize and 2002 National Book Award is a well-crafted Pinoy version of CSI, with two Jesuit priests investigating the grisly deaths of adolescent boys in Payatas. Their investigation convinces them that this is the work of a serial killer, one given to removing the hearts and genitals of his young victims and peeling their faces off. Lacking a team and proper resources, the priests (Fr. Gus Saenz is a forensic anthropologist while Fr. Jerome Lucero is a clinical psychologist) must rely on their instincts and their intelligence--as in real life, it's challenging to work with local law enforcement--to catch this troubled murderer.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms Batacan's carefully-plotted narrative. Carefully interspersed between the chapters are the killer's thoughts, the increasing panic and mania of the hidden self. Foreshadowing is done with subtlety but an avid mystery reader's Spidey senses would be set off by a fair number of them. What works even more for me is how Ms Batacan included the point-of-view of the different people around the Jesuits, from the NBI's investigative team head to the gutsy crime reporter who knows how to go after a story to the stricken victim's families. By not shying away from revealing the injustices committed by an imperfect system, she manages to depict tragedy with an almost journalistic stance, but one that is not devoid of the Filipino's penchant for emotion.

The blurb at the back of the book lauds it for being both 'popular' and 'literary', and I couldn't agree more. Smaller and Smaller Circles is an evocative and sharply-written novel that paves the way for similar intelligent crime stories from Filipinos.

NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books. I'm hoping to reach the Mythic Crime Buster Level (6-8 books); one mystery novel per month (it runs from January to June) definitely sounds like a comfortable pace for me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

No Strings Attached (Mina V. Esguerra)

Aspirational is a term that we loved to use when I was still in advertising (and by 'loved', I mean a mixture of sarcasm, amusement, and fondness). I don't even know if it's a legit word. "We want it to be aspirational," we were always told, whether we were making brochures for mid-rise condominiums or sale ads for a popular mall. Our team knew aspirational more than we knew the back of our hands, because let's face it, we were never asked to spend hours staring at the back of our hands.

But I've always believed that one place where that term belonged was in romance. Being aspirational is inherent in almost every love story. It's the anak-mayaman who falls in love with the household help; it's the romantic groveling scene that's tacked on at the end of every Hollywood rom-com. It's the reason I read chick lit -- the strange suspension of disbelief that yes, a finance lawyer can also be a domesticated goddess, that yes, a size-14 has-been pop star can find love with a hot private eye. Without that aspirational hoopla, we'd be reading a totally different genre. For me, a good romance would be the one that makes me feel happy with the life I'm living, but tells me that I can still indulge in the life I could almost have.

That's what I felt with Mina Esguerra's No Strings Attached. It's the third of her books that I've read and no matter how much I've gushed over the other ones, this has become my favorite. In this story, twenty-nine year old Carla deals with being the youngest and only unmarried single female in her barkada. But just before she turns 30, she meets impulsive, independent Dante -- boss' son, college prof, cool older brother, and five years younger than her. (I think that if my friends are reading this entry, they'd be laughing right now.)

What makes the story work is that despite what I would call the 'aspirational' stuff (by her own admission, Carla has become 'exponentially more attractive (p9),' having 'learned the importance of correct clothing sizes and flattering haircuts (p9)'), it still feels very grounded to me. I thought Carla's reaction to Dante is very real. She doesn't want to rock the boat when this new guy comes into her life. She has her hesitations but she weighs her options and decides to just go with the flow. I like how elements like this make a chick lit heroine much more accessible to the reader. What's more, Ms Esguerra easily shows us how a guy like Dante can be compelling enough to sweep Carla off her feet. Dante is so unlike the typical guy I would fawn over in a romance novel, but he is given such maturity and charisma that I found myself squeeing over the simple things: the way he made sure Carla would see him again, the way he texted her, the way he was when they were with his friends. His and Carla's relationship is drama-lite (not exactly the drama-free one they wanted) and that just makes it all the more believable to me.

In the end, No Strings Attached is not just about getting the guy. It's about making a relationship work so that he stays gotten. There's a studied air in the way this whirlwind romance is written: a great balance between what a woman could aspire for and what she knows she can keep.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Unseen Academicals (Terry Pratchett)

Of all of Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld 'sub-worlds' (Death, witches, The Watch, and the wizards), it is the wizards' world to which I least gravitate. Strange as it may sound, I find it easier to relate to a group of city policemen or stories about a hooded figure in black who speaks in ALL CAPS. I thought that I would approach Unseen Academicals with an obligatory air, to just read it because it was part of the series. Perhaps I did, in the beginning, but towards the end, I realized that there was finally a wizard-centric Discworld novel that I truly liked.

Unseen Academicals is a story about football--the Patrician has pressured the Unseen University into organizing the unruly local game foot the ball--but like most of Sir Pratchett's works, there's more here than meets the eye. It is a story of acceptance, destiny, forbidden love, and yes, even fashion. There's even the inclusion of one of my fave Discworld characters, the editor-in-chief of The Times so there's a healthy bit of journalism in there as well.

Integral to the story are four young people--or three young people and a grey creature. There's Trevor Likely, son of a local football legend, who has vowed never to play after his father's death; Juliet, object of Trev's affections and mysterious 'it' girl of dwarven fashion; Glenda, Juliet's friend and protector who runs the Night Kitchen at the University and is known to give everyone a piece of her mind (as well as a slice of pie); and finally the enigmatic Nutt from Uberwald, who works in the University's candle vats but has a brilliant mind -- the kind that can do mental sums and whip a fledgling football team into championship shape.

Some people not used to Sir Pratchett's style may find Unseen Academicals hard to get into because of the different plots in the beginning, but everything does come together in a grand Ankh-Morpork sports drama. What sold me on the series was Glenda (finally a Discworld character to whom I could really relate). Sir Pratchett writes, 'Glenda [...] never found anything good in her size and indeed seldom found anything in her size. In theory, something should fit, but all she ever found was facts, which are so unbecoming (p149).' She likes making everyone's business her own, she doesn't hesitate to make her opinions known, and she is loyal to a fault. Easy to see why I like her. But underneath this Avon-selling, romance novel-reading cook is a good soul and I really admired how she utilized in this novel.

Another reason why I enjoyed the novel was Sir Pratchett's artful way of mixing sharp wit with tug-at-the-heartstrings drama. With lines like 'I had deja vu without the original vu (p140)', the novel can still make me laugh out loud. But pair this with '... some fools shine like stars (p116)' from Nutt's adept psychoanalysis of Trev's relationship with his father, and you get a well-balanced novel that shows how an entertaining read can also play with your emotions. I still believe that Sir Terry Pratchett writes his best work when he works with his Watch novels, but Unseen Academicals exceeded my expectations. Recommended for fans.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Visit.

Late last year, my good friends Cla and Nina came for a three-day visit. I've blogged about them before, but there's something in the quiet that follows our crazy Ati-Atihan festival that makes me yearn for good company all over again.

Rumi writes, "Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you truly love." And this year, I will, I will.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Strain (Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan)

After including The Strain on my Want Books? list late last year, I went looking for a copy. A friend of mine found one before I did and lent it to me when I went back to the city for the new year. Good, I thought, one thing to cross off my list.

Somehow, though, the book didn't quite live up to my expectations. Did I set them unbelievably high? I don't think so; I only had to look at a website that was already available to the public to whet my appetite. I suppose my biggest discomfort would be the fact that the site already revealed a lot that the book took a hundred pages to get to. Basic premise: Vampirism is a virus, released onto New York via four survivors of a mysterious plane incident. (Also worth noting: vampires in this book are a lot like your Hollywood zombies: mindlessly feeding, clustering in hives, although the book hints that they become smarter as they adapt.) Dr. Eph Goodweather of the Center for Disease Control is the only one who believes something is amiss. Aided by a Holocaust survivor/professor with a vendetta, Dr. Goodweather sets out to uncover the gruesome fate that has befallen New York.

Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan's The Strain reads like an action-packed screenplay though. They don't scrimp on the details, so much so that sometimes I felt as if I was reading an encyclopedia entry in fiction format. (That's no exaggeration: the bit about the eclipse--I'm an astronomy enthusiast so I've done my reading--really feels as if someone had opened an astronomy book and copied every phenomenon that would occur during a solar eclipse.) Can't blame them from trying to put things into proper perspective or giving the reader a very clear picture of the action. It's definitely not lacking in the action department. The thrilling encounters, the chase scenes... they all make the novel very enjoyable. Just take it for what it is: an exciting read with marked bloodthirsty vampiric leanings.

For all the care and precision that the authors placed in setting up the story, I felt that they might have rushed the ending a bit. The climax of The Strain felt more like a TV movie ending to a Hollywood blockbuster. It wasn't bad, really; just more hurried, I suppose, and not as thought-out as the rest of the novel was. I know they're not supposed to get the bad guy right then (this is the first of a trilogy) but I just wish that there had been more of an investment in that confrontation as there had been in the other parts of the book. They meant to kill the Big Bad in the middle of a vampire hive; couldn't three guys find any other cannon fodder to assist them in their quest? Still, despite its faults, The Strain has lured me in enough to want to keep reading more. Time will tell if I'd blame this decision on glamour or just poor judgment, but right now I'd rather blame it on that good old vampire mystique.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Soulless (Gail Carriger)

Vampires! Werewolves! Steampunk! Regency! Gail Carriger's first of a trilogy, Soulless, is a mishmash of genres--and mighty proud of it.

While this book may not make it into my Top Ten list any time soon, it was still a fun read. Definitely a welcome change from: a) the bodice-rippers I usually immerse myself in (because of the added element of the fantastic); and b) the supernatural novels filled with angsty vampires and werewolves (because of its tongue-in-cheek Victorian setting). What I enjoyed most about it is that it doesn't take itself seriously. In the story, Alexia Tarabotti is not only half-Italian and old for the marriage market, she is also soulless. Not exactly what every Victorian woman aspires to be, not even in a world where werewolves and vampires are accepted into the ton. At her touch, supernatural creatures are reduced to their mortal states. What's more, Alexia has a sassy tongue and a fiery temper that often pits her against Lord Maccon, the Alpha of London's werewolf pack (and yes, one of the most eligible men of their time as well--but you didn't need me to tell you that, right?). When a renegade vampire tries to feed off her, Alexia and Lord Maccon join forces to get to the bottom of this new threat. Oh, and they fall in love, too.

Because it's such a melding of different genres, it becomes difficult to rate Soulless. I've enjoyed more exciting urban fantasies. I've fallen in love with more dashing heroes. I've been frightened by more menacing supernatural threats. But in its own campy way, Soulless is exciting -- a breathless, effortless read that tries to carve a niche among dozens of genres. The best way to enjoy it is to leave the Reviewer Mode at the door one rainy afternoon, and to make sure that you have a lot of tea within reach.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Heir to Sevenwaters (Juliet Marillier)

The holidays have always been a busy period, with this one made even busier by three weddings. It was a good thing that I was still able to read a few books here and there, and that includes Juliet Marillier's Heir to Sevenwaters.

I am new to Ms Marillier's world but I was hooked enough to keep on wanting to read more about it. Heir is not the first book of a series; it is actually a stand-alone fourth to an existing trilogy set in ancient Ireland and Britain. Ms Marillier explores Celtic myths and legends, a world that I had a fair interest in when I was in high school (I think it was listening to all that Enya). Reading it reminded me a bit of Pamela Dean's Tam Lin and Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer, and I wish there were more stand-alone fantasy novels like this one. I certainly didn't feel that I had missed much even if I hadn't read the previous trilogy.

In Heir to Sevenwaters, Clodagh, third of a brave and powerful chieftain's six daughters, seems content to run her father's household and learn other wifely tasks. But when her mother gives birth to a long-awaited son, it doesn't take long for her proper life to turn upside down. The baby is taken and replaced with a changeling that nobody else but Clodagh believes is alive, so she takes it upon herself to travel to the Otherworld and exchange this baby for her brother. What she doesn't know is that things are never quite what they seem, and there is more at stake in her quest than what she first believes.

Although at times I found the language uneven (sometimes the dialogue felt very contemporary to me, and in one particular instance I was surprised to read the word 'backup' uttered by a dark prince of the Tuatha De) and others I questioned certain ways an issue was handled, it was not enough to spoil my reading experience. I thought that Ms Marillier really captured the rawness and depth of Clodagh's emotions, especially the ones for the changeling. The story pivots around the relationship between Clodagh and the warrior Cathal, who accompanies her on her search, but out of all the themes tackled in the story (love, courage, filial devotion), it is her surrogate motherhood to the changeling that has moved me most of all, how real and how painful each moment felt to me. I enjoyed going through the adventure with Clodagh's eyes, a strong heroine who does not have to wield a sword or slay enemies to fulfill her quest. There is much promise in Sevenwaters and I will definitely be back to rediscover it.