Saturday, February 28, 2009

Another pleasurable thing that's Swedish

I had an Agatha Christie phase when I was 13 years old. There's nothing like curling up in bed with a good old-fashioned mystery novel. My favorite Christie novels are And Then There Were None, The Pale Horse, Murder on the Orient Express, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs. Christie relied on a simple formula: execute the murder, call in the detective, round up the suspects, find the motive, and reveal the murderer. The formula may seem antiseptic, but Christie executed it flawlessly. In the mystery, there's no one like Christie. I tried to read Erle Stanley Garner and Dorothy Sayers. They're good, but they lacked the elegance of writing the closed room murder mystery.

The closed room was a popular device in murder mysteries back in the 1950s to 60s. Basically, in the novel's denouement, all the main characters are gathered in one room (usually the scene of the crime) where the detective, with much drama, points out the killer and his motive. It's this reference to the closed murder room mystery that made me want to read Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The girl with the dragon tattoo is Lisbeth Salander, a genius when it comes to computer hacking and private investigation. Oddly, she's not the main character of the book. Larsson planned that the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was to be part of a series of mystery crime novels with Salander as the main character. Larsson, however, was to meet his death in 2004 with only three books completed.

At the start of the novel, Carl Mikael Blomkvist, a financial journalist, is convicted to serve three years in prison because of libel. The subject of his expose, the influential businessman Hans-Erik Wennerström, is hell-bent on crushing the charismatic Blomkvist and making sure that Blomkvist becomes a pariah of the Swedish press. While in jail, Henrik Vanger, a semi-retired businessman, contracts the services of a security firm to investigate Blomkvist. This is where Salander gets involved, reporting that to Vanger that Blomkvist may in fact have been set up in publishing history on Wennerström. After Blomkvist serves his time, he gets hired by Vanger to write a book on the family history and to find out who killed his beloved niece, Harriet. In return, Vanger promises Blomkvist an offer he couldn't refuse: Vanger has information that would let Blomkvist have his revenge on Wennerström.

Edgy crime novel, old-fashioned murder mystery, and investigation of social aspects in Sweden in equal parts, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo succeeds in so many levels. When Blomkvist meets and interviews each member of the eccentric Vanger family, the reader is pulled into the story by having himself question whether that particular Vanger is the killer. The closed room in the novel is not really a room at all but an island, where the Vanger estate is located. When Harriet disappeared, all access to the the island was temporarily cut off because of an accident, allowing Blomkvist to write a list of all possible suspects. Larsson has the talent to make the reader step into the shoes of Blomkvist, an unconventional hero.

The many references to financial terms and goings-on in the book should not stop you from enjoying the book's yarn. They're non-threatening. In fact, these details add to the pleasure of reading. You get to see the importance of why Blomkvist had to write that damaging piece about Wennerström. Larsson also explores Swedish norms on sexual violence and racism. Salander gets violently raped and the reader is shocked that nothing could be done about it. Ties to fascism are also perfectly acceptable in the world of business.

Larsson's second book is yet to come out. This time, it'll feature Salander on a more substantial role. Hopefully, it'll be as good as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most thrillers and crime novels do not really stack up to Larsson's novel. This really is an intelligent book. It doesn't dumb down the reader with predictable angles and sloppy characterizations.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Where's the cover, Penguin?

A reader's personalized cover of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Penguin, the British book publisher based in the UK, has recently launched a line of classic books called "Books by the Greats, Covers by You." Basically, the book covers just come in white and you get to put your personal touch to them. You can draw, paint, doodle, spatter blood, cough phlegm, etc. on them. It's rather an interesting concept, and I just wonder if people are taking it seriously. Apparently, they are, at least in the UK. The forgettable band Razorlight and that brilliant but stinky Beck did their own artworks for The Great Gatsby and The Lost Estate.

I saw a couple of these books at Fully Booked and I initially thought that they were misprints. (There's a new Fully Booked in town by the way. It's at the lower level of the tres posh Greenbelt 5.) I think they would make great gifts to book lovers or to anyone who just collects Penguin books for the covers.

See what kind of book covers people have come up with here.

Classic Penguin book covers

We wanna watch Watchmen

Thanks to a very dear friend, I've been introduced to the world of comics, now more popularly known as graphic novels. I haven't read that many though, since graphic novels are quite pricey and I realized that I don't pay much attention to the illustrations. Nevertheless, I've read THE graphic novel -- Watchmen by Alan Moore.

Graphic novel readers in their teens and early20s probably would not like the book's pace. Nothing much happens in the first few pages of the book, and the story only fully reveals itself in the second half of the book. This book has been described as "groundbreaking," and frankly I'm confused by this label. I think probably it's because Watchmen was one of the first graphic novels to have a well-written plot and well-developed characters that do not rely on their superpowers to propel the story. In the world of Watchmen, superpowers are an afterthought. I did enjoy reading it though; the suspense builds up effectively and the ending is very satisfying.

And speaking of superheroes, click here to make your own. I managed to come up with this:

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Why our books are shrink-wrapped

Philippine bookstores have this practice of shrink-wrapping their books in stock. If you've been hanging out at bookstores since you've learned how to read, then I'm assuming that, like me, you have a love-hate relationship with shrink wrap. The plastic gets in the way of browsing the book's contents. Most of the time, we're just left with reading the synopsis at the back cover, which is usually filled with misleading and overused blurbs -- "Thrilling!" "The best of the year!" "This book will change your life!" "A gripping page-turner!" Such gibberish really. One of the blurbs for Jose Carlos Somoza's novel Zig Zag cried out: "It's the most intelligent thriller I've read." Intelligent is the last word to describe Zig Zag; it's overconfident, inane, and stupid.

Anyway, back to the shrink wrap. People have become more adventurous with their book browsing techniques. We've learned that removing the shrink wrap to sample the pages is perfectly acceptable. In Powerbooks, if you're still hesitant to remove the plastic, tell the book specialists that you'd like to read the book and they'll unwrap it for you. (The title "book specialist" is a stretch, but I'll discuss it in a future post.) In A Different Bookstore, the guys working there would even tell you that you can remove the plastic if you want to browse the books. The only bookstore that seems to frown upon people taking out the shrink wrap is National Bookstore. Still, you can always go to a secluded corner and quickly take out the wrap. I've done this many times and have never been caught.

If I do decide to get the book, I'd return the opened copy to the shelf and get a new one that still has shrink wrap. I like my books in pristine condition, and the shrink wrap somehow guarantees this. (Oh, the hypocrisy of it all!) Having a browser's copy was standard in our local bookstores before; now, I think it's only Bestsellers that does this. Fully Booked does not even wrap their books in plastic anymore. I think they should. You see, there are practical advantages to shrink wrapping.

Light is not friendly to books. Books placed near sunlight tend to have yellowish pages quickly. The shrink wrap somehow prevents this. Also, our bookstores are not kept airconditioned 24 hours. When they close, so does their airconditioning, locking in moisture and heat inside the store. Shrink wrapping books is a good idea if bookstores don't clean their bookshelves often. Lots of books at Fully Booked shouldn't be sold at full prices because of the hardened grime at the bottom of the books. No self-respecting booklover would ever think of getting those; we want our books to get dirty on OUR shelves.

Sadly, the shrink wrap's effectiveness ends when we get home and unwrap the books we've bought. Unless you keep your books in an airconditioned room 24/7, you know how the Philippine climate practically kills our books. It only takes a few years before pages start turning yellowish. And have you noticed how pages curl when it rains? C'est terrible!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

You can eat your Harry but not your Hardy

First it was children's toys from China. Then came the melamine milk scare. Now it's children's books. Well, children's books published before 1985 that is. The US government just released a warning saying that the paint used in books published before 1985 used lead-based paint in their prints. And since most books with colorful prints are children's books, the US government is set to ban all pre-1985 children's books in 2010.

You're probably thinking of throwing out all your Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton, and vintage Seuss books. Don't. Lead has to be consumed for your body to experience its toxic properties, and you probably have to eat several old children's books before its concentration in your blood reaches dangerous levels. Besides, who would want to eat moldy old books? Even kids would probably think twice before putting these crusty objects in their mouths. (I chewed pencil erasers when I was in grade school, but only because I like the texture.)

If you think that the repercussions to this ban are few, then you couldn't be more wrong. Come 2010, it will now become technically illegal to donate old children's books. Libraries who thrive on donations will be forced to turn these books away. And what about second-hand bookshops? While they can still sell these books, they can only do so if and only if they subject them to lead tests, which are very expensive. Rare, out-of-print books can only be sold for adult use.

I am practically torn by this piece of news. On the one hand, it's a preventive measure. No one, not even idiots, should be made to suffer after eating the library's Bobbssey Twins collection. On the other hand, this ban means that getting these beautiful and artistically detailed books will be much harder for the book collector. These books are precious artworks in themselves. It's bad enough that we have very few eye candy in our shelves but a lot of headless women.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The hotness that is Tom Perrotta

Whenever I hear the words "the great American novel," I couldn't help but cringe at the thought of reading another one. How many great American novels should we be exposed too? I can't remember the last time I read a novel by Philip Roth and John Updike, who are, I have to agree, instutions of American literature in their own right. I've found their recent works too tedious and, for a lack of a more appropriate word, scholarly (i.e., long, boring, parochial).

Tom Perrotta, however, belongs to a different breed of American authors. Instead of focusing on a broad context that is the American landscape, Perrotta zeroes in on a place that seems quite uneventful -- the suburbs. I believe that the suburbs are truly American. It's where immigrants dream of living. It's our equivalent of the Filipino subdivision, where the upper middle class go on with their lives. In Perrotta's novels, he explores the dynamics of these upper middle class Americans in a way his readers can relate to. What seems a tranquil, clustered, and predominantly white neighborhood becomes the perfect setting to explore the very issues controversial today. While I haven't read all of this novels, I would like to recommend these three wonderful Perrotta novels.

Joe College, one of Perrotta's earlier works, is a first-person narrative of Danny, an incoming junior at Yale. Perrotta himself went to Yale, and his descriptions of life at Yale do come off as genuine. The issues presented in the novel may not as monumental as what's in his later works, but the nuances of the father-son relationship are given depth. Danny's father works his butt off just to send Danny to an Ivy League school, not knowing that his son has a few things his father wouldn't be proud of. First, Danny gets his hometown girlfriend pregnant. Second, Danny angers the local lunch truck mafia, putting his father's business in jeopardy.

I've read Little Children before the movie came out. The movie is faithful to the book though, but not reading Perrotta's novel deprives your senses of flawless characterizations. This novel is really about how people are ill-prepared to face the consequences of their decisions, and what happens when seemingly perfect lives are transformed because of these decisions. Sarah, a woman with a 3-year-old daughter living in a perfect house with the perfect husband, engages in an affair with Todd, who the women call Prom King. Todd has no reason to start an affair with Sarah; his wife's gorgeous and earns large sums of money, allowing him to stay at home and finish his law degree. The heart and soul of the novel though is the pedophile. He's everything that people living in suburbia aren't.

Perrotta's latest novel, The Abstinence Teacher, is also his finest and his funniest. Despite being set in the suburbs, it explores the controversial issue of sex education. The main character in the novel is Ruth, a sex education teacher who gets pulled out from teaching the subject because the school suddenly feels that it should promote abstinence instead. The novel is basically a satire of white, Protestant America; you can literally taste the hypocrisy of the characters. In The Abstinence Teacher, Perrotta makes effective use of stereotypes in developing his story: the divorced mother who hasn't dated recently, the religious man who's struggling with his beliefs, the gay couple and their angst against unequal rights, the perky abstinence teacher hired by the school.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Sad for the smiling pope

I've always been fascinated by the Vatican -- the bureaucracy, the opulence, the inhabitants. If you've read Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, then you have plenty to unlearn. What Dan Brown fails to present in his hack of a novel is what John Cornwell exposes in his non-fiction book, A Thief in the Night. In Cornwell's book, the Vatican becomes real, not just a symbolic place that is the center of Catholicism. You get a feel for why, first and foremost, it's a state. The real Vatican is terribly bureaucratic, secretive to a fault, occasionally corrupt, and peopled with very ego-centric men in vestments. Despite these negative images, there's an unavoidable romanticism to the place. And there have been several times throughout history when Vatican has been thrust to the limelight.

The subject of Cornwell's well-researched book is the mysterious death of John Paul I on September 28, 1978. John Paul I, just 33 days into his reign, was found dead in his room, seated and clutching a book entitled Imitation of Christ. What makes the death of John Paul I so mysterious and intriguing is that people don't seem to agree with the important details of his death including the person who found the body, the exact time the body was found, the official cause of death, the details of the embalment (or if there ever was a secret autopsy sanctioned by the Curia), and the pope's health before his death. Cornwell decides to investigate these details, hoping to shed light on this unfortunate event. What Cornwell discovers is far from all the conspiracy theories surrounding the untimely demise of John Paul I, the smiling pope.

If you've developed a taste for atmospheric crime novels, then you wouldn't have any problems shifting to Cornwell's non-fiction work. The book reads like an engaging mystery. Cornwell delves into the lives of the significant players as if treating the whole scenario like a closed room murder mystery. Who's likely to benefit from John Paul I's death? Who stands to lose? Why the need for all the secrecy? Cornwell's conclusion to the whole affair, while purely speculation, is very probable. He ties every thing together in one bravura chapter, which literally breaks your heart with its details.

I picked up this book because I wanted to know about John Paul I's death and about the man who was the leader of the Catholic church when I was 4 years old. My parents can hardly remember John Paul I; all they do remember are all the conspiracy theories surrounding his death, which is a bit unfortunate. Albino Luciani, the man who would be John Paul I, was elected to the throne of St. Peter against his wishes. He was very vocal about how he wasn't fit to lead all the Catholics in the world. His background was on catechetics (oral instruction of religious dogma), and his ministry was most often described as being grass roots and pastoral. Further, he was physically unfit to the task, a fact not unknown to all the bishops during the conclave. During his reign, his legs became really swollen that he couldn't even wear proper shoes. I finished A Thief in the Night with an admiration for John Paul I. Here was a pope who had no interest in finance, administration, and politics but who willingly fulfilled his role. Here was a pope who was elected by bishops who just seemed to want a respite from Pope Paul VI's long and arduous reign. As one person close to the smiling pope said, "We did not deserve him."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Summer is in the metro

Photo credit: Rhett De Jesus

If you were in Metro Manila this Saturday, you'd probably have noticed that summer is finally here. We don't need to hear it from our national weather agency; we just have to feel our sweaty backs and smell our stinky armpits.

For book lovers like me, it's the time to consider reading the doorstops. Finally, we can get to read those 800-page novels that we've bought on a splurge, telling ourselves that we'll find the time to read them. I'm looking forward to the Holy Week this year, as I believe that we'll be having more days off from work, which translates to more days reading. Bliss.

Friday, February 20, 2009

40 days of not buying books

I'm really looking forward to February 25, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. For many of us, it's no-fish Fridays, no hallelujahs in mass, and the obligatory acts of kindness. For me, I decided to try something different. I'm planning not to buy any books during the entire 40 days—from Ash Wednesday to Black Saturday.

As a bibliophile, I think the only way to achieve this is by:
  • Not going to bookstores as often as before. A hard feat, considering that I pass by at least four bookstores every day on my way home.
  • Leaving my discount cards at home. Buying books at full prices is enough motivation to refrain from getting them.
  • Staying clear from sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The less I know about new releases, the better.
  • Constantly looking at my ever-increasing reading backlog. I just can't keep adding on to it. So far, I've bought 18 books this year and I've only read 1.
  • Downloading audio books from torrent sites. It's free, and there's literally thousands of choices.
  • Spending more time on Facebook. There's just so much note-tagging going on.
  • Going on a diet, exercising, walking, using the stairs more often. These are my acts of kindness—to myself.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Botany 101: Plants don't eat stupid tourists people

There's something to be said about a non-prolific author coming out with his new book. We just can't wait to get our hands on the next book by Donna Tartt, Ian McEwan, and Michel Faber, just to name a few. We eagerly anticipate their next work because we somehow have the inkling that it's gonna be good (probably because it took too long to write). At the other end of this spectrum are those that churn out at least a book a year -- King, Patterson, Steele, Grisham, et al. These are the true businessmen in the publishing world. The way they write novels calls to mind a production assembly line: the final work is "okay," but it's just like the rest that came before it.

Scott Smith's first novel, A Simple Plan was a pleasant surprise when I read almost 10 years ago. I bought it at a bargain bookstore while waiting for a friend. After several hours, I found myself unable to tear myself away from the riveting plot and the believable characters. His second novel though, The Ruins, is another matter altogether. The Ruins, which is basically a horror story, has been a long time coming. Smith's fans, who were floored with his first novel,

In The Ruins, four Americans, a Greek, and a German are taking their vacation in Cancun when they decide to head to the tropical jungles to find the German's brother who has gone missing. It turns out that the jungle is home to plants of the carnivorous variety. This sad bunch of tourists find themselves trapped by these plants which are unexpectedly hell-bent on eating them.

Readers expecting to be scared shitless by this premise are better off reading R.L. Stine's young adult horror novels. The Ruins is terribly and wrongfully lengthy to sustain the creepy and dread factor. Does Smith really need more than 300 pages to kill all his characters by tropical flora? His characters, which I won't even be bothered to remember their names, fall into stereotypes. As expected, one of them comes off as the only rational person in the group; the rest are simply plant fodder. The gory and suspenseful scenes, while they're the meat of the book, taste bland and too overdone. Most of the time, you're just reading the hysterics of the characters.

I had no doubts that the book would not appear in bestseller lists. Unless you read the book reviews, Smith doesn't give a clue regarding the horror device he employed in his second novel. This ploy would have been ingenious if the book was half as good as A Simple Plan. But because it only made your expectations even higher, your disappointment after reading The Ruins is greater. And sorry, Mr. King, this isn't the "best horror novel of the new century." Perhaps you should lay off writing blurbs for a while.

Read this book if and only if:
  1. You live in a touristy town and wish its visitors would just drop dead.
  2. You don't know that plants are autotrophic (i.e., they can make their own food).
  3. You're clueless why "Little Shop of Horrors" was brilliant without being serious.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Countdown to turning 35 and not being 20/20

I still have a few days before I turn 35, which is probably why I've been thinking lately about a lot of things -- from giving my wardrobe an overhaul to pondering on the significance of the things I've recently bought. I did notice one curious thing concerning the books I bought for the past few months: most of them are hardbacks.

Before, I would think twice before buying a hardback, often painfully waiting for the mass market or trade paperback editions to come out. Lately, I've been buying several of them. Never mind that it means that I would have to use a bigger back just to lug around 2 of them with me. I keep going back to how easy it is to read the larger type.

I still love paperbacks though. Most of my favorite books are paperbacks. I couldn't care less that they were printed on newsprint and smudged my fingers with their low-quality, semi-permanent ink. For the past few months though, I noticed myself squinting every time I open them.

I've never pictured myself in glasses, although most people always assume that I wear reading glasses at least. I didn't need them before. I have (or used to have) perfect 20/20 vision. I can read fine print a meter away. Now, I'm not so sure anymore. But if not wearing glasses is what stands in the way of reading books, then I'd wear a pair. Heck, I'd be happy to keep them on even when I go to bed.

Is reading books that difficult?

Last Sunday, I was in my room with Mika, my cousin's daughter. We were busy with my 1,000-piece puzzle when she suddenly directed my attention to all the books in my room. "Tito, why do you like books so much? Have you read all of these books?" The first question, about my love for books, can be quite difficult to answer, especially since my love for books encompasses several levels. (I read books because reading gives me pleasure. I read to kill time while stuck in traffic or while waiting for someone who's terribly late. I read books because they're there.) The second one, however, I answered quickly. "I've read most of them."

I'm no stranger to these questions though. People who're privileged enough to enter my room are simply amazed to see thousands of books and are perplexed by the idea that I've spent a significant portion of my waking hours reading them. Judging by their reactions, I can see that most of them felt that reading this much is simply a waste of any one's time. When Mika posed these same questions, I realized that I have to find a different approach to my answers. Here is a young person (Mika is 8) who's wondering why someone would take the time to read for several hours and still enjoy the experience. I must admit that when people in their late 20s up have developed an aversion to reading, I really can't influence them enough about the meaningful experience of reading. Young people are different; they'll believe everything you tell them IF you sound authoritative enough.

When I told my niece that I've read most of my book collection, I intentionally added that it was no big thing. Well, it really isn't if you think about it. If you still read just one book (any book) in a month, that's 12 in a year. And if you live up to the ripe old age of 60, you'd have read at least more than 500 books! To emphasize my point further, I took out one of my picture books entitled The Cow That Laid an Egg and we decided to skip the puzzle for the meantime and just read. It took us just under an hour to finish it. (It would've been quicker if not for Mika's outrageous but witty comments about the androgynous cow and the size of the egg.) See? You can read a book in an hour! And enjoy it too!

Perhaps what kills the reading experience for most people is their high school reading list. Books in grade school tend to be fun and read quickly because of the simple but effective use of language. Of course, their pictures help a lot in comprehension too. When you reach high school, it's as if you're expected to read the works of literary giants and then write a paper on the symbolisms employed in the book. We're simply not prepared to read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Catcher in the Rye because our culture's so far removed from the books' contexts. Yes, the themes may be "universal," but we have trouble decoding these themes between the lines. And then you get to college and you're required to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. I don't blame you if you've ended up buying the Cliffs notes because you simply do not have the stamina for the novel. The novel is quite brilliant though IF you read it for the sake of reading. If you're not preoccupied keeping tabs for your book report on which Buendia character is supposed to represent what, you'll be dazzled with Marquez's device of metafiction and appreciate how it carries the story further. Characters just seem to appear out of nowhere and a person engaged in dialogue suddenly assumes into heaven. These are natural in the world of Marquez.

Also, I read because I was never under the impression that reading will make me someone better. There's just too much pressure going on in that mindset. I read because I want to. I think this is the most effective way to get children to read. Let them read just for the pleasure of it. Adults should also be involved too. Don't force children to read something, anything. They'll hate you for it. I still cringe at the memory of my high school teacher who wouldn't let us choose which books to write reports on. Unfortunately, I was assigned Uncle Tom's Cabin. I was 13, and I couldn't care less about racial equality in a foreign land during the early 20th century. It also didn't help that everyone was loving Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Post a picture of your bookshelf

I'm a firm believer that the books you have are a reflection of your personality. Never mind that you don't get to read them, just the fact that you bought them and keep them in your bookshelf say a lot about who you are (or who you want to be).

Here's a snapshot I took of a section of my bookshelf. I'm sure that you're already coming up a list of my character traits just by looking at the books.

Let's try a little experiment, shall we? Email me a picture of your bookshelf at, and I'll post it here with my insight on your character. I'll be waiting!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Non-conventional books on love

Finally, Valentine's Day is upon us, and, it's time once again to show our appreciation to the persons and things we love. My top 4 loves (in random order) are food, family and friends, the curly haired one, and books. If you do plan to spend the day by yourself, maybe you can snuggle in your bed with a book for company. If you're in bed with a book, you don't have to worry about things like morning breath, the obligatory snuggling, the required talking after sex, Here are my favorite books about love (or some other feeling associated with it). Once again, Happy Valentine's Day to all of you! Mmmmmmwahhhhhhh!

Jose Saramago's magical novel set in 1711 during the Inquisition is pure romance. This isn't a light read though. Saramago hates punctuation marks. There's barely a period and no quotation marks to speak of.

Ian McEwan's brilliant novel about obsession is highly recommended for those who have been heartbroken. McEwan even comes up with a totally realistic description of a personality disorder. If you've ever considered stalking somebody, read this.

Never mind if you've seen the mess of a movie; it doesn't even compare to the genius of De Benieres's prose. Captain Corelli's Mandolin is really for everyone who's in love, fallen in love, fallen out of love, and loves Greek food.

John Preston's In Search of a Master is a novel with sadomasochistic themes. Still, it's basically your everyday love story. Man inflicts pain, boy feels pain, boy loves the pain, boy falls for the man. Now change the sexes and I'm sure you've also experienced this.

Now You're One of Us, a horror novel by Asa Nonami, has been compared to Rosemary's Baby. While it does have the same theme as Levin's novel, Nonami's book focuses on a woman turning a blind eye to the things around her, all for the love of her man.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Where have all the monsters gone?

Clive Barker has carved his own niche in the horror/fantasy genre. In the crowded world of mostly amateurish horror novels, most of his works are seminal -- Weaveworld, Cabal, and The Hellbound Heart. His short story collection, The Books of Blood, are worth every penny; they'll give you many sleepless nights with their otherworldly plot. If you find these in bargain bins, get them, because I can't find them in our major bookstores anymore. Barker's foray into the young adult fiction is noteworthy as well. The first two books of his planned quartet, Abarat, are simply beautiful books. Other than being a novelist, Barker is a painter as well. And his Abarat books sparkle with his disturbing artworks.

When Barker's latest novel, Mister B. Gone, came out last year, I had no hesitation in getting myself a copy. He hasn't come out with an adult novel in the past few years, so I was desperately in need of a Clive Barker fix. If you've read a horror novel by Barker, you somehow expect that this book will have plenty of (1) delicious gore, (2) perverted sex, (3) disturbing imagery, and (4) a character that you simply dread. Sadly, all these four elements are missing in Mister B. Gone. I've even wondered whether this book was ghostwritten. If not for the premise of this book, it could've been written by any second-rate novelist straight out of a writing seminar.

Written in the style of an autobiography, Mister B. Gone is the personal account of Jakabok Botch, or Mister B, a demon from the ninth circle of hell. Jakabok sees a raw steak and beer, which is actually a lure used by fishermen. He then gets dragged from hell and is forced to live in the world of mortals. Jakabok spreads his mischief on earth through several centuries, eventually forming a partnership of sorts with another more powerful demon named Quitoon. Jakabok, now known as Mister B, finds himself fleeing from Quitoon's company after a frightful disagreement. He goes to a small town in Germany, where he think Quitoon is, to make amends. When he finally meets Quitoon, the demon tells him that something that could shake the very foundations of heaven and hell is brewing in this small German town.

There are many things on why the book does not work. If you're looking for a horror novel, the supposed scary scenes are simply, well, not scary. Perhaps it's the autobiographical theme of the book that makes the scary scenes, when told by Mister B himself, seem self-indulgent. Also, demons have been practically created to wreak havoc on mortals, so it's a no-brainer that Mister B is capable of this kind of evil. Halfway through the book, I began to seriously take the advice of Mister B to burn the book I am holding. (Throughout the chapters, Mister B continually pleads the reader to not finish the book and burn it instead.) This book has somehow been miscategorized. It's not a horror novel, it's one based on comedy, although unintentionally at times. As a young demon, Mister B passes out as he burns his notes on torture, falling accidentally into the fire and disfiguring himself in the process. His wife-beating father then drags him off the flames. Aren't demons acclimatized to the fiery pits of hell? Also, demons have fathers?

I almost gave up midway, but when I came to the pivotal drama of the novel involving angels, Gutenberg, and his movable type, I thought that Barker would redeem the inane story of Mister B's life. This particular part was ripe for an all-out Barker shock extravaganza. Still, the book fell short of expectations. Looking back, I think using this particular moment in history (the invention of the printing press) for the climax of the book was ill-chosen. You just know that Gutenberg will still be able to overcome either the angels or the demons and successfully print the first book.

One thing going for this book is its just a few pages more than a novella. You can read it in a few hours. But where are the monsters Barker is so successful at conjuring? Where are the scenes of torture and depravity? How come this book is so anemic in terms of horrific ideas? In Barker's previous novels, I have come to expect and love the unimaginably grotesque. Maybe it was this disappointment that led me to crave for a Clive Barker's Tortured Souls action figure. My friend R bought me Feverish (shown below), who has his insides taken out and lies on a steel bed being perpetually tortured.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Attack of the headless women

Thanks to one of the blogs I'm following, I now have a name for why the Gossip Girl covers bother me so much. It's called headless women fatigue syndrome (HWFS). What is it with these covers? Why are the heads left out? If it's an actual photograph, are the female models ashamed to be associated with these books?

The headless woman is currently the trend in the covers of "serious" chick lit and historical romance novels. This trend is a paradox if not downright hilarious. If these novels were indeed serious, why cut the anatomical part that houses the brain? Perhaps there's an artistic school of thought regarding the non-use of heads in covers that I know nothing about.

I scoured some of my books for these headless women, and, apart from my precious collection of GG books, I wasn't able to find any. I did notice one amusing thing though. In gay-themed books, the predominant human image is, of course, the male head. Are gay-themed books more unconsciously cerebral? It depends. I noticed that when the covers are showing the man's head without much of the facial details, the more "intelligent" the books are.

Gay erotic books show you everything -- the impossibly handsome face, the ridiculously toned torso, the seemingly pregnant biceps. I believe this also applies to erotic fiction of the straight variety, with a different visual element of course. This is in your crotch face marketing. Gay campy novels, on the other hand, usually just show the face up close.

There is one way to counteract HWFS. Get the cover showing the movie poster. A good example is the cover of Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. Revising the cover from the obligatory HW to the indulgent movie poster is a brilliant marketing ploy if you ask me. Women and gay guys buy it because of Eric Bana, straight guys because of Scarlett Johansson, and geeks can get a high seeing Princess Amydala.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My year with the GG books

Yesterday, I realized how gossip-hungry we truly are. The more hurtful, complicated, and dirty the gossip is, the more we like it. And what's fascinating about gossip is that we help fuel it, giving it legs until (gasp!) it reaches the unfortunate subjects of the gossip. I haven't really thought about why we're fascinated with gossip. All I know is that we gossip about people we know and the people we know of. Yesterday, for instance, I received an email detailing the raunchy sexual adventures of a local celebrity. I doubt if any of us would be directly affected by this "news," still, it did manage to create a long and interesting thread of conversations among the email recipients. People who are supposed to be working (including myself) posted our on take on this naughty piece of information.

In case you've been hibernating for the past two years, there's this fabulous TV show about a group of rich, spoiled, and horny teenagers in NYC's Upper East Side called "Gossip Girl." The TV show is very very loosely based on Cecily von Ziegasar's Gossip Girl books young adults. When I learned in 2007 that CW was coming up with "Gossip Girl" the series, I got curious about the books and decided to check them out. I ended up reading all the 13 GG novels in 2008. No, I didn't enjoy the novels; I just like gossip.

Similar to the TV series, the books follow the exploits of Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Nate Archibald, Chuck Bass, Daniel and Jenny Humphrey and other forgettable characters. Gossip Girl, a blogger who remains unidentified until the end of the books, broadcasts their affairs to the rest of the young NYC elite. If you want to read the GG novels quickly, I suggest you just read Gossip Girl's blog, which are usually found at the beginning of the chapter. You'll end up not wasting your precious time and money if you do.

There are no distinct plot lines for each of the 13 books. I don't even get how von Ziegesar comes up with her titles (Don't You Forget about Me, Would I Lie to You, etc.). The titles are irrelevant; you can actually interchange them and they wouldn't make a difference at all on how the story goes. von Ziegesar stretches the already thin story line until the last book. The characters all exchange bodily fluids with one another; you get lost as to who's sleeping with whom. It's ridiculous. Blair, the only character that has promise at the start, becomes your cookie cutter mean bitch. The rest of her gang are cardboard cutouts in Prada and Miu Miu handbags. Dan, the brooding high school poet, makes you happy that he doesn't get the rich girl. He gets anxious about problems which are not problematic at all. Maybe it's just the poet in him, or perhaps he's just an idiot. Serena's character is two-dimensional. She only appears to be involved in the story when people gossip about her. Serena's character is symbolic of the rich NYC crowd in the GG books -- effortlessly fabulous, carefree, promiscuous, and shallow.

The Gossip Girl books, despite my having lost several months reading them, doesn't need brain work at all. You read them because they're about the rich and everyone wants to know about the rich. Even the rich would like to know what other rich folk are doing. The GG books are simply books about, well, gossip and nothing much else. Shame on you for thinking that these books would tackle anything profound or serious. Just look at the covers! If you want to get the most out of your GG books, arrange them vertically on your bookshelf with only their spines showing. This way, you add pastel colors to your shelf.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Non-fiction can be exciting too

I noticed that Filipinos don't read non-fiction as much as they read novels. Most of us head directly to the bestsellers (mostly novels) and the romance sections of our local bookstores. Perhaps we associate non-fiction too much with our school textbooks, with their unimaginative language and uninspired subject matter. I've never liked non-fiction before too, not until after I read Robert Wright's The Moral Animal almost 15 years ago. The Moral Animal is one of the most intelligent books I've read, which establishes a compelling case on why promiscuity is advantageous to women too. Sadly, this has been several years out of print. I really want more people to read it, if only for the heated discussions among those who've read it.

There have been several non-fiction books that have become publishing phenomena in their own right. Most of them are business books and self-help. Recently, Freakonomics, Malcolm Gladwell's books on how people think (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers), Good to Great, and The Black Swan, just to name a few, have consistently topped bestsellers lists. I've read quite a few and I must say that they're definitely very engaging reads. If you haven't sampled these business books, I urge you to just read a few pages. Chances are, you'll be hooked on them too. They're not really business books per se; the points they raise have broad applications and most of them can elicit feelings of "Aha!"

I'm not into self-help books really. The closest thing to a self-help book is one of the books I'm reading now -- YOU: On a Diet. While I've no delusions that this book will make me lose a significant number of my lovehandles, it still is a very interesting read. You see, I have this love-hate relationship with self-help books. Maybe because I already see the issues being discussed in Oprah. Or perhaps it's just my distaste of the idea that I'll get all the help just from a single book. But if self-help books get people to read, then they should be given larger shelf spaces in our bookstores. Let our bookstores order more John Gray, Deepak Chopra, and Dr. Phil.

If you're looking for something intelligent to read and you're feeling adventurous, check out the non-fiction shelves of your favorite bookstores. These are usually found under the Science, History, References, Biographies, Travel, and Special Interest shelves. If your work doesn't allow you that much free time to travel, then read Peter Mayle's wonderful books on Provence. I highly recommend the first one -- A Year in Provence. Toujours Provence is good too, but it sometimes feels overdrawn. If you think science non-fiction books are just like your college textbooks but pricier, then read Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe. It's about string theory and how this theory supposedly reconciles quantum theory with relativity and vice versa. Don't be intimidated by the subject matter; Greene's a genius in making the technical and abstract seem uncomplicated and concrete. If you've been checking celebrity cookbooks because of their pictures and recipes, then you'd definitely enjoy Jeffrey Steingarten's compilations of humorous essays entitled The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate.

I was feeling overwhelmed by Rushdie's Satanic Verses and so I decided to read non-fiction. I went through my reading backlog and picked 6 non-fiction books that I plan to read soon. I've always wanted to read about Marco Polo, so I bought Laurence Bergreen's Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. Maybe I'd finally find out whether Marco Polo was the one responsible for bring pasta to Italy. And speaking of pasta, I also plan to take on Bill Buford's Heat, an account of his time spent being an apprentice to Mario Batali. I bought Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament on a splurge. Basically it's an autobiography, an angry (but funny) autobiography about growing up in a strict religious community. After reading the first page of Pamela Druckerman's Lust in Translation in PowerBooks one day, I knew I just have to buy it. The first page says, "Adultery provokes more outrage in America than in almost any other country on record (Ireland and the Philippines are two exceptions)." Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct and Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan I received as gifts. I've always wanted to have them.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

We all miss our childhood

Come away, O human child
To the waters and the wild

With a faery, hand in hand,

For the world's more full

of weeping than you

can understand.

-W. B. Yeats

Imagine if your childhood was stolen from you. Think of all the carefree days spent playing under the sun, eating candy with abandon, expecting anything, fearing nothing. Childhood is that most magical of time explored in Keith Donohue's wonderful first novel, The Stolen Child. If you can find a copy, get it. The last time I checked, local bookstores do not carry copies anymore.

The Stolen Child was the best book I read last 2007. I first came to hear about it while browsing through the latest releases in The premise was so original, and I felt I just had to read it before anybody else. I eventually placed my order along with Scott Smith's The Ruins, a terrible, cheesy, and campy horror novel. After 4 weeks of anticipating its arrival, the hardback finally came. With my gauge 8 plastic sheet (more on covering books soon), I wrapped the book and immediately read it.

In the book, Henry Day, the main character, is stolen by changelings and is forced to join their mythical world. These changelings apparently have the habit of stealing young children and replacing him or her with one of their own. To do this, the changelings spy on the prospect child constantly for several months, with the replacement changeling slowly taking on the child's physical looks and even developing the child's personality. When Henry Day is plunged into the world of changelings, being named Aniday by the changelings, he somehow loses grasp of the memory of his childhood. Even Henry's mother tongue is eventually replaced by the strange language of the changelings.

As you read through the novel, you'll realize that Aniday is different from the other changelings. He's afraid to lose all his memory of his family, forcing himself to spy on his parents and the changeling who replaced him. He even manages to make himself visible to his father and communicate with him, but his strange changeling language and his changed appearance scare his father away. In a way, Aniday's hanging on to his childhood is his last desperate attempt to cling to his identity.

Donohue's beautiful writing never disappoints throughout the book. His vivid description of the strange world of the changelings, Aniday's frustration as he loses his memory, language, and looks, and his father's anxiety at the thought that his child is a stranger are remarkable. The book pulls you in. You get lost in the two worlds it presents -- the darkly alluring world of the changelings and the prosaic and melodramatic human world. The narrative constantly shifts between these two settings, but it never feels disjointed. It retains its cohesiveness even when Donohue introduces a subplot focusing on the past life of Henry Day's replacement.

The Stolen Child isn't a young adult novel despite its childhood theme. Children never appreciate anything unless you take it away from them (I guess this is true for grown ups as well). They can never relate to the brilliant complexities of the book. Adults, I believe, will find this book beautifully written but achingly sad. Nevertheless, The Stolen Child stays with you even after you turn the last page.

Read The Stolen Child if:
  1. You have this feeling that you're adopted.
  2. You still are a child at heart.
  3. You like adult fairy tales.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Censorship is for idiots

"There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them."
- Joseph Brodsky

I'm currently reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight Children, and I'm reminded of its controversial history. After all, wasn't this book banned in Arab countries for its anti-Islam ideas? Last year, my beautiful Granta planner had a theme on the books stupid people tried to ban. Here are just a few of these books.

This book was banned in China in 1931. The Hunan province governor did so because it was "disastrous to put animals and human beings on the same level." Right. Pass me the Peking duck and the suckling pig.

Now banning this book actually made sense. When it was first published in the US, many bookshops were afraid to put these books in their shelves. They thought that their customers would take the title literally. Don't you just love it when other people decide for you? Think of it as free lobotomy.

During the apartheid regime in South Africa, this book was banned among many others because of "objectionable content." They found the word "black" in the title objectionable. Brilliant. Ummm, that word was actually describing the horse.

No, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code isn't technically banned by Catholic and other Christian groups, although they're not happy about it either. It's not sold in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and a few Indian states. Why? They think that it's offensive to Christianity. Awww. Aren't they sensitive? Perhaps they can dismantle their nuclear weapons next.

The term "masochism" was coined by a psychiatrist with the author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in mind. Venus in Furs, his novel, features the main character deriving pleasure from pain and humiliation. Apprently, Eastern European countries banned this book until the collapse of the USSR. Aren't there any masochistic communists? If you're a communist, isn't being one already masochistic?

Loving the Lot, but hating the King

Scary books were a big part of my teenage reading years. I recall the thrill of seeing a new Stephen King paperback displayed on the shelves of National Bookstore and then saving money to buy it. Back then, we didn't have the Internet and, unless you subscribe to publishing journals, the only way you'd find out if an author you're closely following has a new book out is if you check out the monolith that is National Bookstore. I'd get giddy of the prospect of reading that new King, never mind that it meant forgoing recess at school because I needed to save money from my allowance.

The authors that I was really into were Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Clive Barker. These guys were the masters of the horror novels, achieving their popularity in the 1980s. Straub wrote the creepy gothic novel Ghost Story and a darkly atmospheric coming-of-age fantasy/horror novel called Shadowland. Barker is known for his morbid imagery in his novels. His novel The Hellbound Heart, whose main character is Pinhead, has achieved cult status and has spawned several substandard sequels/prequels. Of the three, my favorite was King. (I am using the past tense here because I stopped reading him after the unimaginative Rose Madder.) And my favorite King novel was, and still is, Salem's Lot.

Salem's Lot is a vampire novel. Unlike the vampires in today's books, King's vampires are anything but beautiful. In Salem's Lot, they're described as giving off a strong rotting stench. This stench somehow makes sense, doesn't it? If you're living off human blood and you've been dead for several hundreds of years and your body has stopped all its metabolic functions (including digestion, circulation, and waste excretion), you'd really have a noxious smell, right?

King's vampires are traditional, too. They don't get out in the day. They use humans as their familiars to do their daily business for them. They can't enter your house unless you invite them. They can shape shift into bats. Garlic and holy water are lethal to them. Still, King's vampires are downright scary. When I was about 10 years old, I saw a faithful TV adaptation of Salem's Lot, and I couldn't sleep for days. The scariest scene in the movie had to do with a boy vampire scratching at the window of his best friend's room while whispering, "Let me in. Let me in."

Nevertheless, despite my admiration for King's early works, I was really thrown back by what he had to say about Stephenie Meyer, the author of the Twilight novels. King mentions that Meyer "can't write worth a darn. She's not very good." Perhaps King is nearing the untimely twilight end of his career and needs the publicity. Let's face it, King hasn't really made an impact lately on the horror genre. His latest books (except for Lisey's Story, which won the Stoker award) have been panned by critics. I think King has lost his edge in scaring the wits out of his readers. His recent works are a feeble attempt to tell people that he can come up with something "literary," too. Well, I think he doesn't need to. Why come up with something new when the old formula worked, and worked really really well.

I'm not a huge fan of Twilight. Although, when I read the first book 3 years ago, I encouraged people to get a copy. It was refreshing to have a vampire novel for young adults without the gore. Still, I'm not big on cosmetic vampires that are just too perfect. I think it's wrong to romanticize something that has its roots on people's fear of the unknown, the occult, the non-human. However, Meyer can indeed write, and she achieves a remarkable feat: she made people read. Her characters maybe archetypes -- the fish-out-of-water heroine, the brooding hero with a dark secret, the third wheel who desperately wants the affection of the girl -- but people relate to them very well. People root for them. They talk about them. And these characters make people want to read more about them.

When you think about it, King shouldn't be saying these things about any author. Sure, King could have critiqued her books and would probably have raised very interesting points. But calling someone who's sold millions of copies of her books in just a few years as someone who couldn't write is another thing. In a way, King has isolated himself from legions of potential readers of his books by saying that what they like isn't worth a darn. If we were talking about TV shows, people would say that King has jumped the shark. A good portion of Meyer's readers are teenagers. And when they grow up, they'd want to explore other vampire fiction. Perhaps they'd sample King's work, and perhaps they wouldn't after what King said about their reading preferences.

If you want to read more about what King has to say about Meyer, click here.

Friday, February 6, 2009

So who are you wearing?

In Japan, there's a group of young people known for their obsession with luxury fashion brands. Because most of their income is spent on designer handbags, clothes, jewelry, and shoes, all these brand-obsessed Japanese could afford in terms of residence are tiny one-room apartments. Luxury is big in Japan, and people would go to great lengths just to get their hands on luxury items. When you think about it, what else would do the Japanese do with their money than splurge on designer items? Japan's birth rate is so low that it almost has hit a plateau. It figures that if you don't have a mouth to feed, then you feed your vanity.

This nugget of information is only one of the many insider pieces of information on the luxury fashion industry that Dana Thomas explores in her brilliant book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster. Thomas worked as a fashion writer for many American magazines and newspapers (Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vogue, just to name a few). After the release of this book, I doubt if Thomas would ever be allowed to enter again into fashion's inner sanctum. In Deluxe, Thomas has painted a picture of the fashion industry in a very unflattering light.

Thomas takes the reader into the different aspects of the fashion industry--from interesting biographies of top designers like Marc Jacobs and Christian Loboutin to how every major item in the luxury industry is manufactured. In the first chapter, she discusses how the luxury industry was born, using Louis Vuitton as her springboard. From there, she then presents why luxury items are a big business, even if you seldom see a designer shop packed with shoppers. In a way, the book is a sort of eulogy of the pioneers of the business. You feel that Thomas laments the emergence of fashion conglomerates such as LVMH, which owns the Louis Vuitton, Moet, and Hennessy brands. Luxury fashion started out as an art, with fashion houses crafting one dress for several months, now it's an industry that profits from cheap labor.

Thomas erases several myths people may have about the luxury industry. If you think that your Prada handbag or Gucci loafers have been made by well-trained Europeans, then you may be surprised to find out that these were probably made in China. Forget the "made in Italy" label. Turns out, a handbag doesn't have to be 100% made in Italy to bear that label. The Chinese can make the body of the handbag, ship it to Europe, and then have its handles attached in Italy. If the last stage of production happens in Italy, then it could bear the mark "made in Italy." Also, Thomas's text on perfumes is particularly enlightening. For many of us, designer perfumes are the cheapest luxury item we can afford; in Thomas's words, when we buy designer perfume, we "buy into the dream." However, most of these perfumes are not produced by the fashion houses themselves--they're owned, produced, and distributed by large pharmaceutical companies such as Procter & Gamble. These companies simply pay royalties for using the logos of these luxury brands.

Not wanting to feel like an expose of the fashion industry, Deluxe also celebrates the craftsmanship and the ingenuity of some people responsible for creating the classics. You'll be amazed to know that Chanel No. 5 still hasn't changed its formula since it was first launched. It's one of the last perfumes to use flowers exclusively harvested from France (most perfumes use flowers coming from Asia and the Balkans). The classic Hermes bag still has a long waiting list. And you'll learn that, in making the bag, people use specific sections of alligator leather for each part. Truly a time-consuming but remarkable process.

Deluxe is for everyone who has always been fascinated with the fashion industry. It's informative yet very entertaining and engaging. Thomas's language is precise. It's full of insider information that the fashion industry doesn't want you to know. Thomas manages to remain objective throughout its pages, and her several years of journalistic experience and her being part of the fashion industry do show in this gem of a book.

I recommend this book to:
  1. People who spend fearlessly in a time of global financial crisis.
  2. Fashionistas who wear fake designer items.
  3. Everyone who thinks that the Oscar red carpet pre-show is much more important than the event itself.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I don't need a hero

Perry Moore's novel, Hero, has this dedication: For everyone. Apparently, I'm not part of everyone. Moore's novel, which is geared primarily toward young adults, falls short of expectations considering that it does have an atypical main character -- a gay teenager with superpowers. Having this protagonist, who is named Thom Creed, does not provide enough fuel to the plot of the novel.

Thom hides the fact that he has superpowers and that he daydreams of Uberman's strong and hairy thighs. He applies to the League of Superheroes and gets accepted as a probationary hero, being lumped with other superheroes-in-training (a boy who can make people sick, a girl who can make fire, an old woman who can see the future, and a man with super-speed powers). Unfortunately for Thom, this does not sit well with his father, a disgraced superhero himself who has shunned the League completely. A murder of a superhero becomes the pivotal point of the novel. Typical of superheroes, they band together to capture the murderers, and it is Thom's group that gets the suspect. Unfortunately, during the press conference, Thom announces that they've got the wrong suspect because Thom was "with him" that night. This confession outs Thom to the whole world and, more significantly, to his father.

Moore tries too hard to veer away from the conventions of a young adult novel and also from the stereotypes of a gay character. Thom is a star basketball player and has no mother figure at home. In fact, his mother's non-presence in Thom's life is due to two reasons. One, she left them without word one day, and, second, she's Invisible Lass, also a superhero. There are also cringe-inducing moments such as when father and son share cold beers every now and then.

What's paradoxical about these attempts to be a non-traditional YA novel is that Moore's Hero is a book of cliches used ineffectively. In a death scene, for example, the old woman whispers her enigmatic message to those around her; in her funeral, they bid their farewell to the dead woman one by one and then go their separate ways. Even the love angle is so contrived. When Thom and another boy are about to kiss, they hear an explosion cutting their brief romantic moment. Enough already! Even Thom's powers is a cliche: he can heal people.

Of course, one would argue that the flaws in Moore's novel can be attributed to the fact this is his first novel. His uses of allusions would probably get better with time. In Hero, Moore shamelessly makes parodies of the superheroes we've come to love. Justice, the symbolic head of the league, is from another planet, sent by his parents when his planet was about to explore. Warrior Woman, a minor character probably best left out of the book, is a demi-god from an island, and she has a magic lasso too.

In short, Hero is all over the place. And that is never a good thing since the plot is spread too thinly. You'd definitely be better off if you read graphic novels if you want to get your superhero fix. Gay readers would find little to relate to in this book. It's neither campy nor witty.

Read this book only if:
  1. You like your characters in spandex.
  2. You have an affinity for one-dimensional characters.
  3. You're partial to names like Major Might, Justice, Typhoid Larry, Golden Boy, and Silver Bullet.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

How much chick could a chick lit...

Look at the cover on the right and tell me that this book ain't chick lit. I myself am having difficulty telling which category this book should belong to. I didn't buy this book because it's chick lit. (I have nothing against chick lit though, but after four Shopaholic novels by Sophie Kinsella, which became more and more unimaginative as the series progressed, I felt it was time to read more "serious" stuff.

I must admit that I wouldn't have bought this one if I hadn't come in early for an appointment and spent the time waiting in Bestsellers in Galleria. (Tip: The Galleria Bestsellers branch is a treasure. Go there.) The cover does get your attention, yes? It does strike me as glamorous. Just look at the details in the ballgowns (and what clean lines and fabulous silhouettes!). But we'll focus on fashion some other day, when I talk about Dana Thomas's Deluxe.

If you're an anglophile like me, you should get your hands on this book. And what better way to get into our mutual love of the English than to read a post-war novel about the British upper middle class. The story revolves around Penelope Wallace, who accidentally meets Charlotte Ferris in the bus. Turns out, Charlotte Ferris is your typical English 20-something aristocrat -- she's spoiled, has an allowance, gets invited to balls almost every night, and has an American boyfriend. Penelope and Charlotte eventually become close friends, with Charlotte introducing Penelope to the fabulous world of the cream of British society.

Nothing much in the way of a plot happens as you read through the book's 350 pages, but I found myself glued to the pages just to know how the upper class conduct themselves in different scenarios. The beauty of Eva Rice's writing is that she lets you in on all the dirt and sparkle in this magical era. Even the rituals of tea in the afternoons becomes significant, as this is often the time when the English make conservations that matter (and also when they trade secrets).

If not for the love angle between Penelope and Charlotte's cousin Harry, this book wouldn't count as chick lit at all. For one, the humor is sublime. It doesn't even employ a sub-plot involving a comedy of errors, much less a heroine that you root for even from the beginning despite her clumsiness and bad luck (e.g., Bridget Jones, Rebecca Bloomwood). With Rice's main character, Penelope Ferris, you get a person with grit. In the end, the book is all about her and not the snotty people that suround her.

Read this book if:
  1. You know what crinoline, tafetta, and organza are.
  2. You love all things British.
  3. You like them pretty things.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Everybody backlogs

A very good friend was generous enough to get me this pterodactyl. Now, it's boldly guarding my reading backlog.

I've actually made it a goal to go through these four books within the first quarter of this year. First, there's the much publicized and much hyped YOU: On a Diet. It's the kind of book that you don't really read from cover to cover -- you read one chapter, read another book, then go back to the next chapter. A brief scan would tell you that it really is a well-researched book; diagrams, factoids, and illustrations appear on every page. There's even a section on "easy-to-do" recipes you can try to follow yourself. (Ummm, two recipes require Jonagold, Ambrosia, McIntosh, and Rome Beauty apples. WTF! I only know two kinds -- the red and the green.)

Philip Hensher's The Northern Clemency was Amazon's top pick for 2008. While this may be enough reason to buy the book, I must admit that I got it because the story starts in 1974, the year I was born. It did receive mixed reviews though, and its 600 pages is enough to turn most people away. Still, I do like a challenge every now and then.

The World Without Us appealed to my scientific sensibilities. Contrary to what you may think, I was a science major in college. And every once in a while, I feel that I do have to get my geek fix. My friend told me that there's a documentary that used this book's premise, which is about Earth's environmental conditions should the human population suddenly vanish.

Everybody was expecting Michael Grant's Gone to fill the void left by the Harry Potter series. Judging by the lukewarm reception the book has currently received, I doubt that it would be the next publishing phenomenon that it was meant to be. Nevertheless, it does have a very intriguing story line: one day, everyone aged 13 years and older disappear. Think Lord of the Flies, with the characters developing superpowers.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Bookshelves wanted

Don't you just love it when your room's literally littered with books? You get high with the glue.

Kill the kids

Suzanne Collins has balls. After all, it takes balls to write about a bunch of 12- to 18-year-olds kill one another in front of national television. A premise already explored (in somewhat a different form) in books such as the seminal Battle Royale and Stephen King's The Running Man. I haven't seen the film adaptation of Battle Royale, but the comparisons are indeed obvious. (I actually have a bootlegged DVD, but, unfortunately, it doesn't have any subtitles. I did get a mild high seeing twinkie Japanese teenagers shoot each other's brains out. You gotta hand it to the Japanese; in their hands, killing seems so, well, quaint.)

Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games puts a very effective twist on this genre. Imagine a North America devastated by war and divided into 12 districts surrounding the Capitol. Food is scarce, and every one lives in fear of the Capitol. Every year, each district sends two representatives (a boy and a girl) to compete in the hunger games. In district 12, when her 12-year-old sister was chosen, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her place. The objective of the hunger games is simple -- kill or be killed; the winner eventually gets to live a life of luxury and his or her district receives a year's supply of grain.

In Katniss Everdeen, Collins has created one of the most polarizing figures in young adult fiction today. She's not afraid to show brutal force; her hunting skills, which she learned from killing game in the outskirts of her district, are unparalleled; she can charm people; and she can kill. But coming from district 12, she's at a disadvantage. Apparently, in this imagined North America, people from districts 1 to 3 are better fed and prepared for these games. In fact, the last time somebody from district 12 won the hunger games was decades ago. For the locals of district 12, Katniss signed her own death warrant when she volunteered.

I stayed up until 3 am finishing The Hunger Games. True to its being a young adult genre fiction (science fiction/adventure/thriller), each chapter ends in a cliff hanger. There's even a love triangle thrown in. Peeta Mellark, the boy representative from district 12, professes his love to Katniss during the press conference for the games, much to Katniss's dismay knowing that Gale, the boy she left in her own district, would be watching. But what really kept me awake was the killings, and the way these kids kill one another can be quite disturbing. (Imagine: in the hunger games arena, there are no guns.)

If you do get to read just one novel this year, I guess this should be it. Collins writes vivid narratives, making The Hunger Games one of the most compelling reads I've experienced recently. There's a rather predictable moment in the end, but somehow, Collins manages to pull it off. While the author did express her intention of coming up with a trilogy, of which this book is the first, The Hunger Games satisfies on its own.

Read this book if:
  1. You like your meat served rare.
  2. You want to see spears, arrows, and rocks as murder weapons.
  3. You always root for the underdog.