Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Tooth and Claw (Jo Walton)

One of the best things I love about reading is when I encounter a book that is so unexpected in approach and tone. Although it may tackle familiar themes of love and courtship, class equality, revenge, and moral obligation, Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw explores them through a different lens, creating a truly remarkable and entertaining reading experience.

Jane Yolen sums it up quite accurately when she calls it 'the Pride and Prejudice of the dragon world.' In this story, the Dignified Bon Agornin dies, leaving his gold, property, and body for his family. The consumption of dragonflesh strengthens dragons and Bon's eldest son Penn, a parson, understands that his three younger siblings would need their father's body. But when his wealthy brother-in-law takes more than his share, this sets in motion events that will have heavy consequences on the mourning family. The tale follows the Agornin siblings: Penn, who is struggling with the repercussions of hearing his father's deathbed confession; ambitious Avan, who wants what is rightfully his; Selendra, whose brush with an unwanted suitor may have ended her chances for a favorable marriage; and Haner, who is witness to the many injustices within her brother-in-law's household.

I half-expected to read about dragons upright and human-sized. But Ms Walton never let us forget draconian anatomy and physiology (or at least as we have imagined them through the centuries). In fact, she utilizes certain physical characteristics to set the conventions of her particular world. For instance: dragon maidens have golden scales that will blush pink or red when a male dragon is too near, thus making the loss of the virtue an untenable disgrace. Another characteristic worth noting is that those who are in service have bound wings. Dragon-servants are all required to have bound wings, though some families allow for looser bindings for those they have grown to trust. Parsons too, like Penn, are required to bind their wings. With circumstances like this defining Tiamath society, it is hard to imagine the characters as anything less than their glorious, natural states.

Still, it works. Despite the strangeness of the circumstances, the book dives into the issues that divide a family and a society. I was more drawn to the female dragons' plights (Selendra and the intricacies of her courtship and Haner with her changing views), though that doesn't mean that the male dragons' stories are any less exciting. I just wish I could have read more about Haner and the abolition movement, which I thought was an important theme but was not as thoroughly explored as Avan's lawsuit and political pressures. Ms Walton's world was just that rich that I kept on wanting more even when I reached the final page.

I've been eager to read this since I saw a review on io9 many years ago, but it kept on slipping my mind. I finally got a copy from Celina's Books and Magazines, and I couldn't put it down. It was an amazing read from start to finish -- delightful, layered, and distinct.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Independence Day Giveaway Winners

Last Independence Day, I hosted a book giveaway for signed copies of Unseen Moon by Eliza Victoria and In My Mother's House by Joni Cham.

The winners are:

For Joni Cham's In My Mother's House:

For Eliza Victoria's Unseen Moon:

Congratulations, Tin and Monique! I'll contact you soon. I hope you enjoy your new books!

To everyone else, thank you very much for joining!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Scribbled: revelations from #romanceclass (Part 02 of 02)

More things that I have learned from Mina's #romanceclass:

Revelation #5: Research is key. I checked the tide tables and lunar calendars so that everything was legit. (I'm an astronomy hobbyist, so things like this are interesting to me.) I didn't want anyone to say, "You know, if you're in Boracay in mid-March and there's a new moon, the tide would have risen too high for them to be walking along this particular stretch of Station 1 at 10 in the evening."

Even if I am Aklanon, I still tried to double-check my info. All the places mentioned in the novella are places that I had previously visited but I found myself asking a lot of questions. Has it changed since I was last there? I'm situating a particular event there; is that even possible? Research helped me clear up my assumptions and allowed me to remain within the realms of reason.

I realized that it wasn't about how accurate I was at replicating real life, but how I can make the story feel like a realistic experience for the reader.

Location, location, location! This made research fun. 

Revelation #6: It's challenging to make authorial intent and reader expectations meet. It was particularly challenging for me since I tried writing from a male perspective! My beta readers and editors are all different, which means they also have different views on how guys should act and behave. Their insights and observations had me questioning myself a number of times throughout the writing process. Believe me, even after the final chapter had been written, I still have the same questions. Never-ending fears!

So why did I persist in writing a male POV? I believe this particular story called for it. I don't think it would have worked if I had written from my LI's point-of-view, because I think that would have been a bigger challenge for me, so much that I was likelier to get her voice wrong than to get it right. I also didn't want to switch genders; I thought a guy would have been too unsympathetic in the LI's role. There was far too much power in that role (at least in my story) that making the role masculine would have tipped the balance. So it wasn't just a whim. I wanted to try telling this story, and this to me felt like the best way to do it.

Revelation #7: I got by with a little help from my friends--and not just from the writing group. A lot of this I wouldn't have done without my reluctant consultant Da Kyong, whom I met at just the right time.

I'm not in my twenties anymore, so I was pretty lucky that I spent part of the summer hanging out with fresh college graduates, most of them sociology and anthropology majors. They treated me like an ate, so in a way I felt that I was getting in touch with the sort of people my MC would befriend. I was able to visit several small collections and exhibits thanks to them; in fact, the Anding Torres collection in my novella is patterned after a collection inside a university library, one that I would not have had access to if it weren't for them.

Revelation #8: Writing is hard work, but it shouldn't be all about hard work. I'm glad that I still greatly enjoyed this whole process. It really tested and inspired me and I'm going to try applying what I learned to my still-unfinished mystery. So thank you again, Mina! No matter what happens to this one, I have really learned a lot. Someday I hope to see a novella of mine on a shelf next to yours.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Megan Meade's Guide to the McGowan Boys (Kate Brian)

This month's quick fix came courtesy of Kate Brian's Megan Meade's Guide to the McGowan Boys, an unassuming little read that was fun from start to finish.

The titular character is an army brat, shuttled to different places because of her parents' jobs. (Incidentally, this comes a week after my niece's best friend, herself an army brat, leaves for a different state.) Megan's parents are heading to South Korea and they give her a choice: come with them or stay stateside with her dad's best friend's family. Megan wants to complete the last two years of high school in one place, so she picks the latter. But it's not exactly the easiest of decisions, because the McGowans have seven boys. It's both a challenge and an education for only-child Megan, and even her sporty, tomboyish ways aren't enough to win over her new family. And that's not even counting her complicated crush on Evan.

(First off, I didn't quite get why Megan chooses to stay with the McGowans. Her argument against moving to South Korea is primarily fueled by her desire to stay in her current high school in Texas. I mean, if she still has to move either way, then why pick the strangers, right? Oh, I forgot... seven boys. Fine, I might just pick the same way, but I'm also much older and this would probably be highly inappropriate.)

Okay, now that I got that off my chest...

The book itself is a pretty good distraction from life's other surprises. It doesn't pretend to be more than it is and delivers a solid story about fitting in, family relations, and male-female relationships. The fish-out-of-water trope is used quite effectively. It also provides a good backdrop for all the issues that are tackled in the book. From dealing with resentful 'siblings' to challenging the high school queen bee to even befriending a person with Asperger's, the book introduces conflict that seem to grow organically given the story's unusual circumstances. What's more, Ms Brian knows how to resolve these issues. Even if there are plenty of them in the story, they don't seem too overwhelming and they're all addressed by the time you close the book.

Because I didn't see it mentioned in the book, here are the McGowan boys, according to their order of birth: Sean, Evan, Finn, Miller, Doug, Ian, and Caleb. Ms Brian gives each of the boys (well, save for the youngest two) distinct personalities so it isn't difficult for the reader to identify them.

Even with all these colorful characters around her, Megan holds her own. She's upfront and bullish, but she can also be caring and sensitive. She's an interesting lead who refuses to be overwhelmed by her situation -- most of the time. That said, the climax seemed completely unlike her. I understand that the drama was needed -- it is the climax, after all -- but her decision and the subsequent resolution both seemed weakly realized. Still, all in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Despite its ups and downs, I admired the way the plot carries Megan from one challenge to another and encourages her to face them with her brand of tenacity and determination.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Scribbled: revelations from #romanceclass (Part 01 of 02)

Early this year, I took an online #romanceclass under Mina V Esguerra. Her challenge for the class was pretty straightforward: write a contemporary romance novella in less than a year. But I wasn't sure how far I was going to go with it. At that time, I was already writing two separate stories. One was a cozy mystery; the other, a contemporary romance. Although the latter seemed to be a good fit for the requirements of the class, I wanted to experiment with a plot that had intrigued me before but never got around to writing.

Fast-forward to five months later.  I religiously attended the first couple of face-to-face meetings but when it became apparent that I wasn't going to finish my Act 1 on schedule, I skipped the rest. Good thing Mina reminded us that it was okay to continue the class; I started really buckling down to work with about a month left. Thanks to Mina's class, I realized so many things:

Revelation #1: I liked having so much time devoted to plotting. I've always done outlines.  But while my previous outlines were written in very general strokes, writing things down as class assignments made them seem set in stone. I tried to work out my plot and my character's motivations early on. That way, I had enough time to puzzle out (and solve) the loopholes and pacing dilemmas that would always plague me while writing.

My #romanceclass notes. I broke things down into chapters and decided
what each chapter's purpose was to the story. Look, muffins!

Revelation #2: Forced (daily) writing time worked for me. When the deadline was looming, I cut myself from the internet every 11PM so that I could have 1 hour and a half of uninterrupted writing. Then during my last week of writing, work eased a bit, and I could now keep my file open from mid-morning until late at night. I forced myself to finish before work deadlines came in. The result? I finished the novella in 27 days.

My friends and I used a chart to track our progress and it was very helpful for me to note how many words I had been writing each day and how close I was to finishing the novella. I would usually set different deadlines for myself. Once I noticed that my daily word count had an interesting pattern (today, 1k words; tomorrow, 1.5k words; the next day, back to 1k). It became almost like a game to make sure I met the night's output. (Sorry, I'm OC-OC that way.) Or I'd tell myself I'd finish certain scenes first (today, first fight; tomorrow, kilig). Whenever I felt my eyes drooping, I'd just push myself to just meet whatever personal goal I had set myself for the day.

Revelation #3:
I like writing with friends. I felt that I wasn't in this alone. We cheered each other on. We brainstormed for solutions. When there were days that I felt depressed about my writing, all I needed to do to feel better was to see how far my friends' works have progressed.

Revelation #4:
I didn't write straight. Sometimes I skipped around. It was my way of moving on when I was stuck. And because there was a plot outline to follow, I knew where to take my characters without losing the flow. Of course when I was tying things together, I had to re-read and double-check. But that was an easier task to me than forcing myself to finish a scene that I wasn't feeling.

It's hard to capture every little bit that I learned from class. Trust me, this isn't even half of it! I'll gather the rest of my thoughts and just post my other realizations soon.

[EDITED: Part two here.]

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Giveaway: Signed Copies of In My Mother's House and Unseen Moon

Today, as the Philippines celebrates its Independence Day, I decided to give away some signed books by Filipino authors. This day always makes me reflect on my heritage and culture, so I thought it was only fitting that I help bring two fantastic works (which are not yet readily available in our local bookstores) to your doorstep:

First is In My Mother's House by Filipino-Chinese author Joni Cham. The book was awarded the Special Jury Prize in the Novel Category (Premio Jose) at the Premio Thomas: UST Quadricentennial Literary Prize.

From a quote by J. Neil Garcia:
Here is an incisive and at times merciless unpacking of a troubled mother-daughter relationship, complicated by the heady cultural dynamic attending “Chineseness” and all that it implies in a morally repressive, ritually pious and middle-class Philippines.

In My Mother's House is only available via Central Books, which has three branches in Metro Manila.

Next is Unseen Moon by another multi-awarded author and poet, Eliza Victoria, whose genre works move between the realms of horror, science fiction, and fantasy.

From Amazon:
Ghosts in a mansion. A home invasion. A group of friends haunted by a murder. An unlikely friendship, a dead body in an abandoned house. Unseen Moon (ebook edition) collects four suspenseful stories by award-winning author Eliza Victoria.

Unseen Moon
is available as e-book on Amazon and Smashwords, though the digital version only contains four stories. You can get a print version from Amazon that includes the fifth story, "The Viewless Dark" or you can win it here.

Both books are not only signed by their respective authors, but also come with a special bookmark each.

1. Leave a comment telling me more about the last book you read that was written by a Filipino author.

2. You may only enter (and win) the contest once. Multiple posts/comments will only count as one entry.

3. Winners will be drawn randomly. There will be one (1) winner for In My Mother's House and one (1) for Unseen Moon. Prizes will be distributed randomly as well.

4. The contest will run until June 22 (Saturday), and will be announced then. (Sorry, I don't have people's email addresses so you'll have to visit the blog again to find out if you've won.)

5. This giveaway is only available to residents of the Philippines. Prizes will be shipped out using the courier of my choice.

6. In case the winner doesn’t respond within a week of the announcement, I reserve the right to draw a new winner.

7. If you don't win, well... do yourself a favor and read another Filipino book when you can! Hooray for Filipino novels!

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Girl with Glass Feet (Ali Shaw)

Summer in the Philippines can be unforgiving. Eventually I start wishing for sandy beaches or colder climates, so I didn't hesitate to pick up three books that had winter settings sometime last March. Call it wishful thinking. One of those books was Ali Shaw's The Girl with Glass Feet.

The Girl with Glass Feet's St Hauda's Land delivers just what I had expected: a northern setting of ice and bog, harshly cold but also strangely magical. Deep within this icy archipelago (I am never sure if it's meant to be a country in itself) are magical things: a pale glow in the woods, albino creatures, tiny winged animals. It's also the setting of a love story told in multiple perspectives, mostly through the eyes of Midas Crook, a reclusive photographer, and Ida Maclaird, a tourist who never left. Not that she could: St Hauda's Land is slowly transforming Ida. An icy splinter has begun to spread and turn her feet into glass.

There's a deep sense of melancholy in the narrative. Mr Shaw's words fall heavy, as you would imagine Ida's feet to be within her thick boots. He also has a gift for description: 'In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles (p62).' or 'He thought of Evaline, and white dragonflies skimming by a river, and husks of the larvae bodies they had left behind in the reeds and green stalks, and the way back then he'd thought love had been hatching (p 123).' Instead of marching into the fairly straightforward and unforgiving fate awaiting Ida, the language uses flashbacks and details to make the plot richer. In a way, this also hides some of the book's weaknesses. Readers never fully understand why this is happening to her. I would have been fine just chalking it up to the general logic of magical realism, but given that the source of her malady was already tackled, I thought that eventually we would get some explanation as to why it even started in the first place. Unfortunately, I didn't get that. Or if it had been explained, I must have missed the significance of a few lines within the flowery prose.

The characters' isolation is self-imposed. It's as if the remoteness of St Hauda's Land has pushed them away from most kinds of physical and emotional attachments. Each one is flawed and hungry and weighed down. Even Ida, whose demeanor and perspective has often been positive and open, has moments that lead her to shun contact and dependence. When she meets Midas, the two of them recognize the similarities in their characters, despite their obvious contrasts.

But what really kept me reading was the transformation of Midas and Ida as people. Their relationship was both sudden/glacial, realistic/surreal. Strange. There were so many things that I loved about The Girl with Glass Feet but I don't think I'm ready to reread it any time soon. There is already some bitterness, sharp like an icy crystal splinter, working its way into me.