Friday, January 29, 2010

The Bookshelf Project #23

This week's pictures of bookshelves are from Lucy-Jane, a blog reader from France.

Both Lucy-Jane and I think that her bookshelves represent the concept of "organized chaos." I guess when you have kids, that's usually the case. Somehow, I know that Lucy-Jane knows where every book is. I detect a "system" in there somewhere.

just love seeing books in foreign languages. Even though my French comprehension is near zero level, I want to have books in French in my bookcases. And I can see a lot of fantasy books in Lucy-Jane's shelves.

What do you think of Lucy-Jane's bookshelves, dear reader?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A book of love, family, high school, and basketball

I've said before that Jonathan Tropper is turning out to be my favorite contemporary author. His novels This Is Where I Leave You and How to Talk to a Widower were so hugely enjoyable that I was determined to read all his other books. His novels, while deeply heartfelt, are never cheesy. And they're laugh-out loud funny too. Having read The Book of Joe, one of Tropper's earlier novels, I think that I'm liking him more than John Irving and Tom Perrotta, two novelists who also focus on novels set in suburbia or small towns with familial themes.

The Joe is The Book of Joe is one Joe Goffman, a best-selling author who wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about his hometown, Bush Falls. Joe's novel becomes so expository about the inhabitants of Bush Falls that he ends up writing about not-so-flattering storylines about Bush Falls, his family, his high school friends, and virtually every human being living in his hometown. After 17 years of not visiting Bush Falls, he comes home after receiving a call from his sister-in-law that his father is in a coma. Needless to say, Joe becomes the most reviled man in Bush Falls. He gets into a fist fight with the local bully, who was also the bully during his high school years. Copies of his novel end up being thrown at his lawn by the local book club. People throw milkshakes at his face in restaurants.

The Book of Joe is a truly enjoyable novel. It's not as funny as Tropper's later novels, but, somehow, it succeeds in ways that This Is Where I Leave You and How to Talk to a Widower do not: you would be able to relate to at least one of the characters in The Book of Joe. There's the high school rebel who goes against hometown traditions, the high school best friend who turns out to be gay, the gossipy townsfolk, the adulterous family member, the celebrated basketball coach who spoils his team rotten but makes life hell for those who don't belong, the long-ago high school girlfriend who reignites your relationship when you visit home.

Tropper has written a novel about coming to terms with one's past. It's not your usual novel though wherein everything works out beautifully in the end. Joe is flawed like your everyday, well, Joe. Most of the time, he's clueless as to how to resolve deep family issues. He often lets things run their own course. If you've even felt like an outcast during high school, you'll love Joe. I wonder how Tropper comes up with these wonderful male protagonists in his novels. They're so messed up but oh so lovable.

Like the other Tropper novels, The Book of Joe initially feels just a comedic read, but they actually tackle profound issues. In this novel, Joe comes to terms with his being an outsider. He never makes it to the basketball team in a town that is very big in its basketball tradition. This is tough considering that his brother and his father were star basketball players. The Book of Joe is also about reconnection -- with friends and family. It's about confronting issues left unresolved even after so many years. Upon finishing it, you feel like buying a ticket and returning to your roots.

Read this book if:
  1. You felt like an outcast during high school.
  2. You still have a thing for your ex.
  3. You love reading about flawed but lovable characters.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Bookshelf Project #22

This week's pictures of bookshelves are from a fellow blogger -- Sheila of Book Journey. Sheila keeps one of the most updated book blogs that I know. And she has a lot of giveaways too!

Don't you just love it that the bookshelves are made of wood? Everything looks so orderly. Also, the shelf added near the ceiling maximizes the room space. Truly wonderful!

I can see that Sheila's reading preferences are diverse. She has everything from YA, thrillers, classics, and contemporary literary fiction. What do you think of Sheila's bookshelves, dear reader?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

An affair next Thursday

Have you ever read a book that all your friends are raving about so you finally decided to pick it up and ended up not liking it. In these cases, I usually ask myself, "What's wrong with me? Have I totally missed the point?" Well, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde is one such book. I was prepared to really, really like it, but somehow, it didn't work for me. In Jasper Fforde's fantastical 1980s England where The Eyre Affair takes place, people can travel through time, original manuscripts get stolen, literature is taken too seriously, folks clone dodos for pets, fictional characters go missing, and people patrol the goings-on of vampires and other mythological creatures.

In The Eyre Affair, we meet Thursday Next, a detective who belongs to Special Operations 27 (SO-27), the Literary Detectives, who are in charge of investigating crimes related to, well, literature. One day, she gets a call from another more powerful special operations department (SO-5) and is tasked to help track one Acheron Hades, an elusive criminal who seems to have supernatural powers. Unfortunately, the operation goes wrong and she goes back to her hometown of Swindon again as an SO-27. Back as a literary detective, she gets assigned to track a missing character from one of Charles Dickens's lesser-known novels. Thursday eventually finds a connection between this particular crime and Hades, who also kidnaps Jane Eyre.

The world Fforde has conjured up for this novel is a bit too hard to swallow. There's something about adults messing with time and history that feels off for me, which I wouldn't feel if this were a young adult novel and the plot would be more quirky. I keep thinking about the ripple effect, wherein a particular change somewhere along the past would have severe consequences on the present and the future. Fforde's multi-thematic approach to The Eyre Affair (fantasy, sci-fi, literary fiction, crime) made me feel that the novel lacked a center.

Thursday has been described as part Bridget Jones, part Nancy Drew, and part Dirty Harry by many reviewers. Well, there's a subplot concerning her failed relationship and how she resolves it. There's the detective part, so I get the Nancy Drew comparison. The Dirty Harry analogy is a bit of a stretch though. Thursday is far too sentimental to pull off that tough detective character. Nevertheless, there's lots to love in Thursday -- her persistence, her wisecracks, her apparent talent to find herself in funny situations. She's something to watch out for.

Still, a lot of readers would have a blast reading about the various literary crimes the SO-27 detectives get involved in. If you're big on Shakespeare, you'd love their debates on the actual authorship of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Fforde would also pique your interest on lesser-known literary works. And when you read that the ending of Jane Eyre has somehow been changed by the events, it makes you want to read (reread) the novel just to see if the "new ending" works.

The Eyre Affair is Fforde's Thursday Next novel. Most of my friends say that the series would get better eventually. Frankly, I'd just stick with my Elmore Leonard or, finally, read a Nancy Drew.

Read this book if:
  1. You feel specially connected to a fictional character.
  2. You're fond of strong heroines in novels.
  3. You love alternate histories.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Still looking for (more) pictures of bookshelves

I'm still looking for more picture of bookshelves, dear reader. I really love looking at what kind of books you have -- old and tattered paperbacks, spanking new hardbacks, and what have you. So just send them my way at peter[dot]sandico[at]gmail[dot]com. I'll be waiting!

By the way, so sorry for not being able to post regular for the past week. It's been a crazy one! I promise to post more book reviews soon.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Bookshelf Project #21

This week's bookshelf picture is from Ruth, a reader from the UK. Her bookshelf is just so beautiful!

And I love the fact that Ruth also has other things besides books in these wonderful bookcases. The globes and the microscope at the top shelf definitely add a nice touch.

Her reading taste is varied as well. I can spot several biographies and works of fiction among the books. And she has a good collection of Penguins!

What do you think of Ruth's bookshelf, dear reader?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Going beyond one's comfort zone

I just read this wonderful piece from entitled "Read a book you think you'll hate in 2010." In a way, the article describe's the New Year's resolution of the writer, wherein she'll read a book that she would usually avoid. It's an amazing concept, isn't it? And one that I'm willing to try out this year.

But first, I need to identify the things that turn me off, or my biases against certain books. Here are some of them:
  1. Novels that have "The best American novel" as blurbs
  2. Any book by Danielle Steele, Paulo Coehlo, and John Grisham
  3. Books with covers that show headless women, shirtless men, and two hands cupping an apple
  4. Cookbooks by celebrity chefs
  5. Memoirs that involve poverty, depression, and angst against one's parents
2010 is supposed to be the year I read more classics and fewer contemporary novels. But I guess, the above list is as good a reading challenge as any. How about you, dear reader? Are there any books that you've always been afraid to read but are willing to take on this year? I'd like to know about them.

Monday, January 4, 2010

I was simply blown away

And so one day I found myself in a bookstore wanting to buy a quick read. In times like these, I naturally gravitate toward the young adult section, which, in my own experience, can have very short but satisfying novels. I bought the first book of Darren Shan's The Demonata series, Lord Loss, since I liked his more well-known Cirque du Freak. I started to read it in the car going home and I couldn't believe that I've read more than 50 pages during the entire commute! Yes, it's that good.

The Demonata Book 1: Lord Loss is definitely scarier and more plot driven than Cirque du Freak. I guess this has something to do with The Demonata series aiming for a more mature readership. I couldn't help but compare The Demonata from Cirque du Freak; CDF can be a bit quirky, whereas The Demonata is just terrifying throughout. I think adults can also get a kick out of reading this series as it puts most horror novels to shame. In a way, Lord Loss calls to mind Stephen King's monsters lurking in small towns and Clive Barker's gross-out brand of horror involving demons straight out of hell.

In Lord Loss, we meet Grubbs Grady, a teenager who has witnessed his parents and his older sister killed by the demon Lord Loss and his familiars, Artery and Vein. He finds himself traumatized by the incident and is confined in a mental institution. One day, he gets a visit from his uncle, Dervish, who takes Grubbs to his home and becomes his guardian. Uncle Dervish eventually explains to Grubbs how Lord Loss is forever tied to the Grady family because of the family's curse. Only Lord Loss can reverse the family curse by beating him in a game of 5 simultaneous chess games and then by a duel in the demon world. When one of Grady's apparent cousin shows signs of having this curse, it becomes up to Uncle Dervish and Grubbs to summon Lord Loss and attempt to beat him once again.

The blurb at the front cover says that Lord Loss is guaranteed to gross out anyone. Well, I wasn't, probably because I've been exposed to this genre for the longest time that it would take something really spectacular to gross me out. (I think I've been desensitized.) Still, I think a lot of readers would find Lord Loss spine-chilling and terrifying. It will certainly please fans out there who are dying to get their horror fix.

I'm currently restraining myself from dashing out of the house and getting book 2, The Demon Thief. I just hope I can find a copy, since I haven't seen books 1 to 3 in bookstores for the longest time. (It was very surprising to find a single, slightly yellowing copy of Lord Loss the other day.) I couldn't care less -- as they say, the thrill is in the hunt.

Read this book if:
  1. You think that demons are real.
  2. You're big on horror serials.
  3. You love chess.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bad, bad monk

My first read for 2010 is a gloomy novel that has one of the most evil characters I've met recently, and I absolutely enjoyed it! Matthew Lewis's The Monk, first published in 1796, still has the shock and sensational value when you read it today. The Monk is a very sinister read. Yes, you have to get used to the dated language, but it's worth it.

In the late 18th century in Spain, we meet the monk Ambrosio, a Capuchin whose sermons and preachings are the talk of Madrid. He soon discovers that one of his beloved novices is actually a woman, who is a beautiful but devious and manipulative person named Matilda. Ambrosio and Matilda then carry on a very illicit affair while still in the monastery. Ambrosio then sees another beautiful maiden in the person of Antonia and becomes smitten with her. Matilda helps Ambrosio get the favor of Antonia by becoming the confessor of her dying mother. Ambrosio, with his passion uncontrolled, murders Antonia's mother so that he can rape her.

I can see why The Monk was tremendously popular when it was first published. And it also bore several negative feelings among the people who read it. With its images of naked women being ravished, The Monk was even perceived to be pornographic. I was actually quite surprised to be reading about women's body parts being touched in an 18th century novel. Nevertheless, these graphic descriptions only heighten the novel's atmosphere of menace and evil that men can have.

There are also other storylines in The Monk that support Ambrosio's evil character. In one of the first few chapters, we read how Ambrosio banishes Agnes, a nun, into the monastery's dungeon because he discovered that Agnes was carrying a child and was constantly seeing a man. Agnes's rescue becomes a pivotal point in the novel because it is through this instance that Ambrosio is revealed to be the monster that he is. Another storyline involves Antonia's romance with a young nobleman named Lorenzo, who was also instrumental in rescuing Agnes from the hands of those vengeful nuns.

Murder, rape, temptresses, lustful monks, and sadistic nuns. It appears that Lewis really wanted his novel to be controversial during its time. He even throws in scenes of demon summoning and magic to provide another dimension to The Monk, albeit a supernatural one. Lewis also incorporates humor, a certain playfulness in his narrative. (I think I identifed a couple of jokes in the novel.) Also, the ending has to be read to be believed. In a way, Lewis wrote an ending wherein all his characters deserved what's coming to them.

The Monk is indeed one of the best Gothic novels that I've read. It even comes close to my all-time favorite Gothic novel, The Woman in White. In certain aspects, what makes The Monk somewhat better than TWIW is that Lewis parodies the Gothic genre in his story. The chapter on the bleeding nun is the finest example of this parody. In the said chapter, Lewis injects the ghost-that-really-isn't-a-ghost in the story, playing homage to a common element in Gothic fiction.

For all the negative feelings the novel evokes, its themes of evil in persons of the cloth, and its graphic description of sex, The Monk is indeed a notable classical novel. It works on so many levels that I found myself reading it as if it were a contemporary page-turner. I'm glad I chose this novel to start my reading for 2010.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into Gothic fiction.
  2. You're wondering how an 18th century novel can be labelled as graphic.
  3. You love reading about murder happening in sinister places.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Beautiful disaster

Ill-fated star-crossed lovers have always been fascinating themes in novels, plays, and poems. We've all seen it -- from families at war; vampires, werewolves, and humans; aliens and humans. But what about witches and humans? That's what Beautiful Creatures is all about. Beautiful Creatures is a debut young adult novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, both of whom have been fascinated by supernatural elements in fiction and have longed to write a novel that is set in the South.

One can describe Beautiful Creatures as a Southern Gothic novel, as it is set in a small Southern town called Gatlin and it has the trademark Gothic elements: forbidden love, dark family secrets, creepy ancestral houses, just to name a few. In the novel, 16-year-old Ethan Waite falls in love with 15-year-old Lena Duchannes, who has just recently moved to her reclusive uncle's mansion, dubbed as the town's haunted house. The two fall in love against the wishes of their families. You see, Lena harbors a secret; she's a Caster (read: witch), one who'll be claimed either by the Dark or Light on her 16th birthday. Lena reveals this fact to Ethan, saying that Casters don't really have to say whether they they turn Dark or Light when they reach 16. Together, they attempt to find a way for Lena not to turn Dark. But in doing so, they unearth a family secret, one that involves two people from their families several generations ago and who were in a circumstance not unlike what Lena and Ethan are currently facing.

Frankly, I was prepared to toss the book in one corner after around 50 pages since I found the story too dragging, the narrative too slow, for my liking. Of course, I should've expected this pace from the novel since, after all, it is a Gothic novel. I do, however, have my doubts whether young adults have the patience to go through the novel's 550 pages if it isn't engaging at all. But thank goodness I persevered, for the novel somewhat picks up after 100 pages or so. When I reached the novel's second half, I could hardly put it down.

One of the reasons that I found the novel engaging is the set of characters that Garcia and Stohl came up with. Casters also have their special powers. To name a few: Sirens, who can persuade people to do stuff; Naturals, who can control the weather; Palimpsests, who can see different points in time; Shifters, who can change different objects into something else. The authors even throw in some supernatural characters as well such as Incubi and clairvoyants. But my favorite character would have to be the librarian, who runs both the town library and the library of the supernatural world.

Beautiful Creatures was a very surprising read. I've thought that the love angle would somehow seem similar to other supernatural romances in the YA genre. Both the characters of Lena and Ethan are refreshing; they act as any teenager would given the circumstances. Ethan is lovable because of his quirkiness and his curiosity. And I found myself empathic to Lena; her fish-out-of-water persona never goes overboard. If you found yourself being an outsider during your high school years, I'm sure you would be able to relate to Lena.

Beautiful Creatures was my last read for 2009. And I couldn't be more pleased to end the year with such a delightful novel. Garcia and Stohl are notable names to watch out for in the crowded genre that is YA supernatural fiction. Thankfully, I know that I'd be reading more from these two, since Beautiful Creatures ended with a not-so-subtle hint of a sequel. I'll be eagerly anticipating that one.

Read this book if:
  1. You're fascinated with witches.
  2. You felt different from the rest during high school.
  3. You've never read a Southern Gothic novel.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Walk away

When I find myself craving for a crime novel that has a noir feel to it, I immediately think of Patricia Highsmith. I love all her Ripley novels, especially the first one, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and I enjoyed A Game for the Living, which I read just recently. And just two weeks ago, I bought one of her more popular noir novels, Those Who Walk Away, which is a very entertaining read.

In Those Who Walk Away, we meet Ray Garrett, a man who has just lost his new wife after she committed suicide in Mallorca. While vacationing in Venice, Ray comes in contact with Ed Coleman, his former father-in-law, who blames Ray for his daughter's suicide. Ed tries to kill Ray twice in separate attempts -- the first by shooting him and the second by letting him drown. Unknown to Ed that Ray actually survived, Ray decides to follow Ed secretly around Venice. Eventually, Ed discovers him and the two engage in a very suspenseful cat-and-mouse game in this Italian island city.

Highsmith downplays the cat-and-mouse concept though, choosing to focus instead on the relationship between these two men. The narrative doesn't become melodramatic at all though; it still is very suspenseful. Ray and Ed pop into each other's lives at the most unexpected moments, and you're always kept on edge as to what these characters would do to one another. Highsmith's characterizations of Ed and Ray become so well-developed that the rest of her characters become irrelevant. Ed's mistress, Inez, doesn't seem to serve any purpose at all but to echo what is in everyone's mind.

When I think about it, readers who have been used to the current crop of thrillers and mysteries would find Highsmith's narrative slow. Highsmith's chapters don't usually end in cliffhangers. But what sets Highsmith apart from other authors is her ability to conjure an atmosphere of menace and dread in her novels. In Those Who Walk Away, you're kept on edge because you know that something bad, something terrible but probable, is going to happen.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into noir fiction.
  2. You love the Ripley novels.
  3. You've imagined yourself in a cat-and-mouse game.