Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Name is Memory (Anne Brashares)

I'm not quite sure what I expected from Anne Brashares' My Name is Memory. The story's premise is somewhat akin to The Time-Traveller's Wife which moved me, and knowing that this was geared towards more adult readers, I approached it with a determination to like it. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed.

Daniel and Sophia are old souls that keep on coming back after every death. Daniel's memory is special: he remembers every lifetime he has ever lived and recognizes those he has come across. It is both a blessing and a curse. In his very first life in Africa, he had watched a woman die as he burned her house down. Unable to forget her, he continues to be drawn to her soul in every lifetime thereafter. Unfortunately for Daniel, Sophia's memory is wiped clean every time. Now, in modern-day America, she is known as Lucy, and in this rare moment that they are within each other's reach, Daniel is determined to make her remember.

I appreciated how the story is very introspective and Daniel, the main character, tends to wax philosophical, giving it a different approach to the many paranormal romances on the shelves these days. But this also means that it took quite long to unfold, and this was one of my first sources of confusion: I wasn't sure if the lovers were going to meet any time to soon to face their conflicts together or if it was going the Sleepless in Seattle route. That isn't to say that Daniel and Sophia didn't meet at all in between their first lives and now; in fact, they meet countless times. They would be strangers, sometimes related by marriage. Sometimes, one of them would be a child. There are moments in their strange lives that paint touching images but I strongly believe that it is only when Daniel meets Constance during the First World War that their love is truly justified. Everything else is mere commentary. The only other time I felt such strong emotion in this text was when Daniel visits one of his graves and finally recognizes how much he had loved his mother then.

One of the conflicts that the lovers face is Daniel's brother Joaquim, another old soul who is driven by vengeance. There was so much foreshadowing about Joaquim's abilities and his mysterious friend that I expected some revelation, some measure of triumph over him, but I was left with no closure. I didn't think the climax was as strong as it could have been and the denouement was even weaker. I would be very happy to know that there will be a sequel because then readers who have already invested their time into this text shouldn't feel as abandoned as I was towards the end. I feel that the choices Daniel makes at the end are contrary to what the book has been exhorting all along: to let go of the past, to realize that there is no shame in regret, and to learn to live for the present. I think that there is a still a healthy part of the teen audience that will gravitate towards a romance like this, but I hope that Ms Brashares will deliver a love story with more robust characters and a more thought-out plot in the future.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Interlude: Come Again Another Day

It is raining where I am. It's been raining for the better part of two weeks. To write this is a feeble attempt to cling to sun-melted mornings and an afternoon falling in love with a hammock. Get out the map and lay your finger anywhere down, the Indigo Girls sing, and while I love the rain, today it makes me wish that I can take their advice.

I'm imagining myself understanding the poetry of yellow casitas. The undone tumble of pink flowers. Doors that slide the world shut. Wood that knows how to dance and sleep. Grass that remembers the explorations of transients. Lemon tea. Giant jackstones. Card games and candles on a summer night.

I try not to be too envious of the me two weeks ago. I have my books and a cup of warm milk tea within reach. My bed is warm. I'll be fine.

Thank you, Casa San Pablo, for the advice.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (NK Jemisin)

It's no secret that I am big fan of fantasy. When I was much younger, I would really be engaged in the popular fantasy series of that time (Dragonlance, McCaffrey, Brooks, Eddings, Jordan). Despite all those different worlds that I have frequented, I would always end up picturing my heroes to be Anglo. Over time I would encounter fantasies with a markedly Arabic or Asian tone, thus rearranging my perspective for the course of the reading, but for the most part, my fantasy worlds would remain predominantly white. It took an encounter with NK Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to remind me that they don't always have to be.

At first glance, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms appears to be a manifestation of Joseph Campbell's monomyth. Yeine is half-Darr (a matriarchal warrior tribe in the north) and half-Arameri (the powerful ruling family from the central kingdom called Sky). She is content to be the young ruler of their tribe but destiny has other plans when she is also named heir to the king of Sky, her Arameri grandfather. Yeine travels to Sky and gets caught in a political web and a battle between the gods. Because in Sky, the Arameris not only rule over the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, they are also the masters of the once powerful gods who have now been enslaved as punishment for defying the Itempas the Skyfather.

But there is much to be admired in this book beyond the surface. The narration, written from Yeine's unique perspective, is sharp and frank and quite powerful. You could almost say that it is fragmented, the way Yeine moves to a different train of thought while describing something else, but it's written in a way that flows and -- as you will discover should you read it -- is justified. There were times when I thought that the language dipped, especially where the dialogue is concerned, but I think my admiration for that fragmented narration overcomes my dismay over its uneven qualities.

I thought Ms Jemisin did an excellent job of layering her story. Her construction of her imagined world's mythology is also masterful, awarding it a quality that's believable given the creation myths and legends found across the different cultures in our own world. The climax and denouement here still pays homage to those myths of long ago, but delivered in a way that I think makes it worthy of its Nebula nomination.

While racial and political struggles are not new themes to fantasy, somehow I was more aware of them here compared to other books. They constantly reminded me of Yeine's tenuous position in her new world. When I say politics though, I must point out that you shouldn't expect power games and schemes as strong as those in George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire but the agendas here would suffice. The characters, though, are mostly cookie-cutter. The good ones are good, the bad ones remain bad until the end, and I think I just wrote these very same phrases three reviews ago. Anyway. To be honest, I initially didn't think that Yeine had the right qualities to take on the Arameri ruling structure, and even now, still don't. She only had about seven days to act and things only came to a head because she allowed things to happen and not because she really did anything to trigger events. While Yeine may have somewhat disappointed me, I thought that one of the characters in this novel, the god Sieh, really came to life for me and was a constant joy to read.

My friend O and I usually have the same taste in books but this was one of the rare occasions that we disagreed. She had lukewarm feelings for it (lukewarm enough to make her give me her copy of the book) but I still found it genuinely fascinating (fascinated enough to be thankful that she did). I guess it is the kind of novel that you either love or hate. Obviously, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms stayed with me long after I turned the last page, and I anticipate the next book from Ms Jemisin.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Firewalkers (Erwin E. Castillo)

Situated after the Philippine-American War, Erwin Castillo's The Firewalkers reads part-saga, part-Philippine history lesson. It hovers on the edges of magical realism and fantasy but underneath the lyricism is a severely political thread. This particular edition is actually composed of two stories: the titular work and a shorter tale called The Watch of La Diane. What intrigues me about both is how they were rooted in two different milieux but were able to evoke the same probing questions on Filipino identity.

There was a sharp awareness of setting (a small town called Lakambaga in Cavite) in The Firewalkers, where police sergeant Gabriel Diego -- always referred to in the story by his full name -- finds himself in the middle of American troops and Philippine revolutionaries. There are numerous colorful characters that dance in and out of the story -- a cowboy named Apache Kid and his tiger; a traveling actor and his held ransom by guerillas, even a man who can make smoke from his fingers -- yet in this typically festive Pinoy fanfare, it is not hard to keep track of Gabriel Diego. He remains on the outside of both parties: treated like a lackey by his colonial superiors while the revolutionaries, led by his own relatives, seem to want little to do with him. Yet as police sergeant, he is essential to them, especially when a dark and mystical Beast is on the loose.

I really loved the rich and descriptive language used in The Firewalkers. Its ending was one of the most powerful that I've read in recent times, so fierce and poetic, a mantra I wanted to keep for myself. Mr Castillo's craft is even more evident in his second story. I think it is The Watch of La Diane's relatively contemporary setting that makes the poetry stand out in relief, juxtaposing image against image, scene against scene, one aspect of the Filipino migrant against another. The first person POV here is chaotic: 'The boy Rizal will have seen a couple of Sasquatch playing on the slope of the Makiling one rainy morning (p104).' Beautiful: 'And sadness, undecipherable, meaningless, breaks the winter down (p97).' (Also, for a completely shallow reason: I rejoiced when it mentioned my hometown briefly.) Still, that shouldn't take away from how strong and effective the language really is in the earlier story.

I don't think any review that I write can do The Firewalkers justice so forgive me if this one feels rather inadequate. My only hope is that you'll get yourself a copy; I found mine at Powerbooks for only P130.00. It's a small price to pay for a piece of quietly transforming Philippine literature.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Escape.

Let's ride a trade wind like paper airplanes.
Let's watch the sky wheel & wheel 
from under straw hats.
- from Mike Dockins' Poem of Low Latitudes

It was the last hurrah of a three-week vacation in Manila, even though the Manila trip wasn't really a vacation or that this last hurrah wasn't even in Manila. I probably confuse you. But there was nothing confusing about that weekend in San Pablo where the sun stayed inside our cozy room, lingered in the loft; where the hammocks swung into the sunset; where I felt it was actually possible to escape in a world that looked and smelled and tasted like home.

I went everywhere with NK Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that weekend. I could have easily been just as happy with Michael Ende's Never Ending Story or Madeleine L'Engle's And Both Were Young. If only I held on to it a little bit longer or smiled a little more often or remembered how much of a good thing I really had.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Dark Road to Darjeeling (Deanna Raybourn)

One of my favorite fictional Victorian pairs is that of the mystery-solving duo of Lady Julia Grey and Nicholas Brisbane. I have loyally followed them from Silent in the Grave to their most recent adventure in a lush yet remote region in India via Dark Road to Darjeeling. While I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books of Ms Raybourn's Julia Grey novels, I was a bit disappointed with the third one and a taste of another (non-series) book wasn't too my liking. I suppose these had led me to approach Dark Road to Darjeeling with some trepidation.

Ms Raybourn soon put all my fears to rest. I think that she was back in top form while writing this mystery. Julia and Nicholas, accompanied by her siblings Portia and Plum, travel to Sikkim to help Portia's former lover Jane find the truth behind her husband Freddie Cavendish's untimely death. The isolated region in the eastern Himalayas where Jane now lives (called the Valley of Eden) straddles Sikkim and Nepal, and Julia soon finds out that it takes a certain sort of madness to live in such a place, especially when she digs deeper into the secrets of the individuals and families there. I felt that this particularly rich setting added to the mood, because the assembly of likely culprits wouldn't have seemed so mysterious had the story been situated in an English countryside.

This rather unique setting also encourages Julia to be a little bolder in her investigations. I've always liked how Julia Grey is (outwardly) a proper Victorian woman but because of her rather unorthodox upbringing is also quite adventurous and forward-thinking. In Dark Road to Darjeeling, Julia and Nicholas are entering a new phase of their relationship and their dynamic is somewhat different. But circumstances finally push Julia to reassess her role in the relationship, and I applaud how it was approached here.

Another thing that I've always enjoyed about Ms Raybourn's work is how she adeptly weaves some family drama or personal conflict into every mystery. What's worth nothing here is that as Ms Raybourn gives us a glimpse into the sickness and depravity of the human mind, she also manages to tug at our heartstrings by adding elements to help us understand the different family relationships of those involved. There are recurring characters here that may throw off new readers, but their background is adequately explained. The impact of their involvement in this story may be somewhat diminished for new readers but I hope that this does not dampen anyone's reading experience.

NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books.

Reading this has made me quite interested in Sikkim (it's been a dream of mine for quite some time now to visit the country of Bhutan, and finding out how close it is to this Indian state has further intrigued me). It became a state of India in 1975 and to this day is recognized as one of the country's least populous states. Despite this, it is still home to a variety of races, cultures, and languages. To know more about Sikkim, visit their state's Information and PR Department.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Desperate Duchesses series (Eloisa James)

Stuck in Manila for a week more and with most of my friends at work, I turned to Eloisa James' Desperate Duchesses series loaned to me by my best friend. I finished this six-book series in three days (the first three on the first day) so I guess you could call me a 'desperate reader' at that time!

Set in the Georgian period, the series revolves around a group of young duchesses and their many romantic/marital woes. On the surface, there is not much here to distinguish it from the rest of the bodice-rippers in the market. The women are often adventurous beauties, the men are often cold rakehells, the consummation is always the stuff of legend. Although Ms James' books are stand-alones, they are still better enjoyed when read in the proper order. But tying them together, in a device I've rarely seen employed in a historical romance series, is a long drawn out chess match between the Duchess and Duke of Beaumont and the Duke of Villiers. Some of the characters' stories (especially that of the Beaumonts) are shared with us in bits and pieces before an entire book is dedicated to them (This Duchess of Mine).

It might be a stretch to imagine four, young, and extremely beautiful duchesses who happen to be friends and are unhappy with their current romantic lot (Ms James takes her cue from Desperate Housewives), but there is still much to enjoy in this series. It's a great guilty pleasure read, with its crop of intriguing characters, the genuine friendship between the duchesses, and the marital chess match. What I also admire about Ms James' heroines is that they actually do have other interests aside from fashion, gossip, and men: Jemma, Duchess of Beaumont, loves chess; Poppy, Duchess of Fletcher, is a budding naturalist; Henrietta, Duchess of Berrow, sits as a de facto judge at their local court. I find that these add a rather nice dimension to what would normally be a paper-thin character. These make me see these women as believably intelligent, instead of having to merely read them described as such. I certainly didn't feel that those afternoons curled up in bed and reading these wildly romantic romps were quite a waste.

The Desperate Duchesses series, in order:
Desperate Duchesses
An Affair Before Christmas
Duchess by Night
When the Duke Returns
This Duchess of Mine
A Duke of My Own

Sunday, March 06, 2011


It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it. -Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Came home from my first meeting as an official member of the Astronomical League of the Philippines. I'm humbled each time I realize just how little I know. Still, here I am, star stuff and luminous.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

The Replacement (Brenna Yovanoff)

I am generally distrustful of novels that put excerpts at the back of the book instead of actual summaries. It makes me think: a) someone's not doing his job; and b) really? you're going with that?

Not the case with Brenna Yovanoff's The Replacement. It was the excerpt that lured me in, guaranteed that I would think about it until I actually bought a copy and read until the last page. In case you're curious, it reads:

'In the story, Emma's four years old. She gets out of bed and pads across the floor in her footie pajamas. When she reaches her hand between the bars, the thing in the crib moves closer. It tries to bite her and she takes her hand out again but doesn't back away. They spend all night looking at each other in the dark. In the morning, the thing is still crouched on the lamb-and-duckling mattress pad, staring at her. It isn't her brother.
It's me.'

As you've probably gleaned from that, the protagonist Mackie Doyle isn't one of us. He lives in the town of Gentry, a self-sustained little town that somehow still clings to Old World folklore and traditions. Every seven years, a child is taken from the town and a changeling is left in his place. These replacements often doesn't live too long; Mackie is lucky that he's found a family who has loved and nurtured him all these years. Unfortunately, they can't protect him enough: his uncommon appearance and his susceptibility to blood, steel, iron, and holy ground continually mark him as an outsider and living in our world is slowly killing him. When his classmate Tate's younger sister is taken, events come to a head and he begins to confront the world beneath Gentry and his true heritage.

Reading The Replacement felt like reading Kelly Link-lite in a Guillermo del Toro/Tim Burton-esque world. Worth noting is that the mysteries surrounding Mackie and Gentry are presented and dealt with little fanfare. There is no breathless wonder accompanying each revelation. As most of the locals do, the reader is almost expected to accept the circumstances quickly and move on. I say this because a reader expecting otherwise might find The Replacement cold and detached in that sense.

I liked Mackie as a protagonist and was quickly drawn into his world. A lot of Old World beliefs are present in the text: scissors hung over cribs to prevent a child being stolen, the faerie aversion to iron, milk left out for the Good Neighbors. I liked how these elements were casually slipped into the text. Mackie's friends and family (particularly his sister Emma -- their relationship was one of the best things in this book) are an amazing support system, a positive force for a teenager who in all appearances looked and acted (with good reason) pretty emo. But there was something about the characters that made it difficult for me to truly empathize with them. Perhaps I just found his actions to be a little uneven: sometimes Mackie decided things quickly, other times he dithered. I understand that not everyone has to be brash and impulsive all the time, but I found that this reflected the pace of the entire novel. There were times when I thought that there was a lapse in action and plot movement while towards the end, I kind of wished that the climax had taken its time to sweep me along with it. To be fair, I liked the resolution and found it effectively dealt with the issues presented. I guess I had expected it to be a little grander, given the outcome.

YA readers who like their fantasies a little on the dark and macabre side might want to pick up a copy of The Replacement. It's a stand-alone novel with an intriguing premise that courageously wraps its story in a ccontained way. It might not be for everyone but Ms Yovanoff has found a new fan in me (plus she mentions Leonard Cohen, which is always a good thing). Do with it as you will.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Scent of Rain and Lightning (Nancy Pickard)

Jody Linder's family is the wealthiest and most respected family in Rose, Kansas. So when three-year old Jody's young father is brutally murdered and her beautiful mother goes missing, the whole town reverberates with shock and anger. The Linders, led by the powerful Hugh Senior, make sure that the guilty is punished -- in this case, town drunk and wife-beater Bill Crosby. But twenty-three years later, Jody's world is rocked once again despite her efforts to carve out a new life under the watchful eye of her grandparents and doting uncles. Crosby is now back in Rose, and his son Collin, now a lawyer, is determined to prove his father's innocence. Jody must deal once again with the horrible crime that destroyed her family.

I found this mistakenly placed in the YA section (perhaps because of its cover) and was pleasantly surprised as page after page revealed something that I never expected. As a mystery, it is engaging as its details are drawn sharply and compellingly. As a family drama, it doesn't quite have the intensity of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones but it is still effective in painting the different relationships in the Linder and Crosby families. There are lovely contrasts emphasized between the lives of Jody and Collin before and after the event, and while their growing relationship isn't as essential to the plot as other elements are, I still found myself hoping that Ms Pickard chose to explore this a bit more.

It took me a while to get used to the pace. It starts in present-day Rose, when Jody's uncles tell her that Crosby has returned. The next half of the book recounts the events that lead up to Hugh-Jay Linder's death before jumping back to the present. Doing so heightened the tension and the mystery, and by the truth was revealed, I had learned to appreciate why Ms Pickard told the story that way. I certainly didn't call this one at all.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning is a glimpse into small-town life and politics, into a family and a town dealing with fear, mistrust, and outrage. There were a lot of elements here that are present and plausible in the Philippines' own rural areas. Despite being different from my usual reading fare, The Scent of Rain and Lightning was a quick read whose grit and spirit did not disappoint me in the end.

NOTE: This review is done in response to the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Mary, Myra, and Fats at Gathering Books.