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.