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.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

ReaderCon/Filipino Friday: Reading Filipino Literature

As a countdown to our 1st ReaderCon, I'm joining the other Pinoy bloggers in doing this Filipino Friday meme. Every Friday, we're asked to share our answers on different questions, and last week's question was all about Filipino literature. Again, I'm a little late to the party.

Being a Lit major and a writer for our university's literary folio really broadened my awareness of Philippine literature outside of the stories we discussed in high school (like Maganda Pa ang Daigdig and Without Seeing the Dawn). I guess when we were younger, reading Filipino stories and novels was more an obligation than anything. But a lot changed in college. I was fortunate to have met a few of my literary idols; a number of them have even been my teachers and critics. Slowly I began reading out of genuine curiosity and no longer out of obligation.

One of my favorite Filipino books is Merlinda Bobis' Banana Heart Summer. It has such beautiful descriptions of food and living in the province and growing up and all of them together and I was just really drawn to it. It's been years since I read it (I'm pretty sure my copy's been lost in the black hole residing in my bookshelves) but as far as I remember it didn't have a real climax. But that's how I like my books: quiet slices of life, patient and poetic. And because I'm such a fan girl, there's also Yvette Tan's Waking the Dead, a rich collection of Filipino stories both weird and macabre. Another favorite of mine is a collection of short stories called Catfish arriving in little schools, which features short stories by Gina Apostol, Jaime An Lim, and Clinton Palanca.

I wish I read more Filipino books. This year, I've managed eight: FH Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles, Erwin Castillo's The Firewalkers, GM Coronel's Tragic Theater, chick lit books Popped, Fan Girl, and Love Your Frenemies, and Manix Abrera's Kikomachine 5. (Oo, malapit na ang 7. Huli na ako.) These are not enough. I have started reading books by Ambeth Ocampo and Alice Sarmiento but I left them in Manila. Still not enough. I read SFF short stories over at Philippine Genre Stories and I know: it is nowhere near enough. I'm hoping that I can continue discovering more Filipino books that I can enjoy, with the help of fellow bloggers and events like ReaderCon.

PS. I am hopeful that this will be the year that I finally get a copy of Vince Groyon's The Sky Over Dimas.

The ReaderCon is presented together with Vibal Publishing House, Inc, and sponsors Primetrade Asia, Flipside Digital Content, and Scholastic. It is supported by the National Book Development Board.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

The Incident Report (Martha Baillie)

The Incident Report was an impulse buy after seeing it mentioned in a copy of Bookmarks Magazine. What first intrigued me was that the story unfolds as a series of incident reports filed in a library. Miriam, one of the librarians employed by the Public Libraries of Toronto, keeps an observant eye on the different violations, threats, and other disruptive behavior that occur within their walls. She gives the offenders and the regulars made-up names (like Suitcase Man and Fainting Man) and details her encounters with them in clear, brief sentences. But the book does not limit itself to the incident report motif; what ultimately kept me reading was the unfolding mystery that accompanied Miriam's seemingly orderly life.

Miriam finds handwritten notes in various places of the library, all referring to Verdi's opera Rigoletto. In case you'd rather not click the link, the opera is, in a nutshell, about a court jester with a father's curse -- he accidentally has his own daughter murdered. Miriam, who names Rigoletto as her first opera, is not bothered by the notes in the beginning but as they grow in frequency and in zeal, she soon shares these with the authorities. The Rigoletto references stir her own memories. Interspersed throughout the incident reports are Miriam's recollections of her own father, done in a more plaintive voice than the detachment she employs when reporting the disturbances in the library. I think that Ms Baillie is most effective as an author here, when she manages to create strong images of Miriam's father without revealing too much at a time, and juxtaposing those with the heightened emotions in the mysterious Rigoletto letters. Their story is told with a gentle and heartbreaking sort of longing which I truly admired.

Along with this mystery is Miriam's budding romance with Janko Prijatelj, a Slovenian artist and cab driver who has a missing finger. Miriam does not believe in love anymore ['I was immune and that I could not fall in love, that I'd done so once before and did not wish to repeat the experience. If someone had asked, I would have said that I was not the sort of person who recovered(p77)']. Yet she lets Janko in, he 'with the quiet oval face and the eager eyes (p182)'. I'm a romantic at heart so I suppose this had a lot to do with my appreciation for that particular plot point but I'm not sure if everyone will enjoy it as much as I had. I thought that all her relationships (with Janko, her absent father, her colleagues in the library and their colorful patrons) give the reader a subtle yet probing understanding of Miriam as a woman: her fears and insecurities, her hidden strengths. Through Ms Baillie's nuanced writing style, I found myself immersed in this refreshing character study.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Anna and the French Kiss (Stephanie Perkins)

For months now, my teenage sister has been trying to get me to read Stephanie Perkins' Anna and the French Kiss. The premise reminded me of the Janet Quin-Harkin titles in the Sweet Dreams series (Exchange of Hearts, Lovebirds, and Ghost of a Chance, to name a few), where the Heroine is forced to go to a new country/state/town for a set period time (anywhere from a summer vacation to a year), where she finds love/independence/self-worth or some variation thereof. From the cover to the title, this book makes no secret of just how close it adheres to that romantic trope. But to my surprise, it's much more layered than I had expected, making me wish that I had listened to my sister a little sooner.

Anna is forced to spend her senior year at an international boarding school in France instead of in her familiar high school in Atlanta. She hates that she has to leave her latest crush behind, especially when they're thisclose to being a couple. Not only does she have to start over as a new kid while in her senior year, she has to do it in a place where she barely speaks the national language. Little does she know that that's only the least of her problems. When she befriends Meredith, Etienne, and the rest of their group, Anna must struggle with the fragile balance between friendship and romance, and stand up for what she wants in the process.

The characters are delightfully nuanced, especially Etienne St Clair, the object of Anna's affections. He is far from perfect -- both physically and emotionally -- and yet he remains a person whom the romantic reader can support. I like the dynamics of their group. All five of them come across as real friends, with their petty fights and their secret fears and their ability to understand each other even when they don't like each other very much. I thought the book captured Anna's precarious position in the group -- not wanting to rock the boat but not knowing where to take her own feelings either.

It would have been so easy to let the setting overwhelm the story. Paris is the city for romance; what more can two hot-blooded teenagers want? But what I admired in Ms Perkins' work was that she let the story tell itself. Paris, for all of Anna's explorations, remains a lovely backdrop, never stealing the attention away from Anna and Etienne.

I also enjoy how gradual this story is. Their relationship clearly moves from stage to stage, taking its time to establish how Anna comes to depend on Etienne as her staunchest friend despite her romantic attraction to him. It is sweet and honest, and it really shows me that a story can have a seemingly light theme but still carry weight. Highly recommended to YA fans and romance readers.