Sunday, February 28, 2010

The perfect book for bibliophiles

I've been seeing this book in bookstores for over a year now but was so afraid to pick it up. I've always though that it would be cheesy, sappy, and too melodramatic for my taste. Yesterday though, I finally grabbed a copy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (TGLAPPPS, from now on) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. It's a book about the love of reading and belonging in a book club -- two things that I can really relate to.

The novel is set in post-war England in 1946, when Juliet Ashton receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, which forms part of England's Channel Islands. Dawsey starts a correspondence with Juliet, who is a writer herself and in search for the topic of her next book. Dawsey begins to tell Juliet how the residents of Guernsey formed the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to cope with the hostile German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the war. Eventually, more and more members of the society write letters to Juliet; each character telling personal stories during the Occupation and recounting how the book society nurtured their love for reading.

Juliet does become more involved with the lovable characters of the island. She eventually decides to visit Guernsey, as she feels a deep affinity for the members of the society. As Juliet becomes an accepted resident of Guernsey, she forms profound relationships with the society members. She decides to stay on the island and adopt an orphan of Elizabeth, one of the society's founding members.

TGLAPPPS is a love story of sorts. First it's about how people love reading. There are passages in the book that spoke to me as a bibliophile. Some of them are a bit cliche, but any book lover, or bookseller for that matter, would appreciate reading about them.
I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true. [page 10]

I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers -- booksellers really are a special breed. No one in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and no one in his right mind would want to own one -- the margin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it -- along with first dibs on the new books. [page 15]
TGLAPPPS is an easy read. It's perfect for those lazy afternoons when you absolutely have no plans and you just want to stay in bed curled up with a good book. The writing style of Shaffer and Barrows is "breezy"; the novel takes almost no effort to read. You just turn the pages one after another to find out what's in store for Juliet and the members of the book society, which are as diverse in personality as their reading preferences. The authors also manage to throw in a romantic angle between Juliet and Dawsey, something which is definitely inspired by Austen's Pride and Prejudice. (I still haven't read P&P though. I'm forever stuck on page 47.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn't a great novel, but it sure is a good one. It's written in an epistolary style; letters just fly back and forth between the characters. Unfortunately, some of the characters lack a distinct voice, despite the interesting stories they convey in their letters. Nevertheless, I was happy to have read TGLAPPPS.

Several questions though kept running in my mind as I was reading this novel. We live in an age of emails, Facebook, and Twitter, yes? While I love these high-tech communication tools, I kept thinking that we won't be reading any more of the letters of our favorite authors because of them. How would email change the way we find out how our well-loved novelists and writers communicate with their friends and families? Would a compilation of emails have the same effect as those personal letters? Also, haven't you noticed that you see fewer small and independent bookstores? I just love them and the highly personalized service that they provide. Are small bookstores really on their way out?

Read this book if:
  1. You belong to a book club.
  2. You love letters.
  3. You've always wondered how a potato peel pie would taste.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

I just move on

I saw a brand new hardback of the latest Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Pendergast novel, Cemetery Dance. And since it was only 99 pesos (a little over $2), I had no second thoughts of buying it. Don't you just love bargain bins? I can spend an hour just browsing the titles.

The Pendergast novels are my guilty pleasure. I think I've read them all. They're so entertaining and requires no major effort to comprehend. You couldn't help but fall for Pendergast -- the stoic, ├╝ber-intelligent, and esoteric FBI agent. Preston and Child aren't even clear if Pendergast is really an FBI agent, or if he was, what happened to him that he had to leave the bureau. And the Pendergast novels also have a touch of the fantastic to them. They're basically mysteries and thrillers involving archaeological elements. They can be really addicting.

I was into page 101 of the novel when I noticed something. I was reading it quite fast but I was finding it lackluster. Somehow, it wasn't that engaging anymore. Sure, all the techniques of Preston and Child were there -- the chapter cliffhangers, a murder involving (possibly) a zombie, and the weird investigative methods of Pendergast.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The more things change...

Ever heard of the saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same"? It's something I will never figure out; it's so zen koan. I do want to offer an alternative -- the more things change, the more you want things to stay the same. We all want change, but only if it's for the better. But any unwelcome, sudden changes that happen to our lives, the more we long for the "good old days."

Consider Zachary King, the 32-year old main character of Jonathan Tropper's novel, Everything Changes. He lives in a luxurious rent-free apartment in Manhattan courtesy of his millionaire best friend, Jed. He has a beautiful fiancee, Hope, who comes from a very rich family. He has a fairly stable job. Overall, Zach lives a pretty much uneventful and uncomplicated life, one that is free from any major responsibilities. But within the next few days, Zach's life becomes more interesting.

First, Zach may have bladder cancer, after seeing that he's pissing blood and undergoing a series of tests including a very uncomfortable biopsy. (I cringed reading about this very descriptive part.) Second, he feels that he's not that in love with Hope anymore. He's falling more and more in love with Tamara, the widow of his other best friend, Rael, who died in a car accident. Third, his long-absent father, Norm, suddenly appears at his doorstep, making amends. Norm left his family almost 20 years ago. And let's just say that Zach, his two brothers, and their mother, Lela, aren't too pleased about this.

What happens in the novel as Zach learns to face these changes is so funny that you tend to forget how serious some of these problems appear to be. I think that's why Tropper is brilliant, and why he's my current favorite novelist. Despite the humorous scenes in Everything Changes, Tropper doesn't trivialize his themes. You feel that Zach is your troubled best friend and you just can't help but root for him and wish that everything turns out well. But this is a Tropper novel; there's no silver lining for every problem, which makes this novel a very pragmatic one.

What is it with Jonathan Tropper's novels that make them so addicting? Is it the wit? Is it the lovable but flawed characters? (Families, especially dysfunctional ones, are a major element in his novels.) Is it the hysterical scenarios that have been so graphically described? Is it the engaging narrative? It could be all of these. I do love the fact that Tropper's novels are all heartwarming. I think Tropper is our new John Irving. Everything Changes is one satisfying read. It is by turns serious, profound, and honest.

A fellow bibliophile introduced me to a new term -- lad lit. It's a genre of novels, such as those of Nick Hornby, that have a broad appeal among men. Everything Changes (and all of the novels of Tropper for that matter) may be considered lad lit. But women would still definitely find Everything Changes enjoyable as the novel can allow them to find out what men think when faced with unusual circumstances.

Read this book if:
  1. You want to sample lad lit.
  2. You find it difficult coping with unwanted changes.
  3. You just like a rollicking good read.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A love story, a fairy tale

Have you ever read a book that you couldn't decide whether you like it or not? Ali Shaw's debut novel The Girl with Glass Feet is one such novel that I'm feeling very ambivalent about. I first heard this novel when it was included in the Not the TV Book Club at UK. I thought that if it was good enough to be selected, then it would probably be a good read. Besides, it's basically a love story, so it's the perfect read on Valentine's Day. So yes, I was prepared to get all sappy and cheesy should the novel decide to go in that predictable direction. Thankfully, it didn't.

The Girl with Glass Feet is a novel that is part love story, part fairy tale, and part mystery set in a small island in Europe called St. Hauda's Land. Based on Shaw's description of the island, St. Hauda is a bleak, desolate place. It's a place described in the novel as "incestuous," where everyone knows one another. (With all the romantic entanglements among the different characters, I kept thinking that St. Hauda's Land was one big Melrose Place.) Apparently, there's something magical about this place. You can see thumb-sized winged cows and white dragonflies the size of your hand. St. Hauda's Land is also where people have strange illnesses.

And one of these people is Ida Maclaird, a character who has returned to the island searching for a cure for her unusual condition. Ida Maclaird's feet have turned to glass, and it looks like this condition is slowly spreading throughout her body. She meets Midas Crook, a photographer who'se a long-time resident of the island. Midas eventually discovers Ida's condition and decides to help. This romantic relationship is too flawed to be sappy and cheesy. Shaw probably didn't want his characters to fall into a cliche: the sick but strong-willed woman and the awkward man who'll do anything for her. In fact, Midas never fully becomes comfortable with his relationship to Ida till the end of the book.

The Girl with Glass Feet, aside from being a love story between Ida and Midas, focuses on the past relationships: the infatuation of Ida's uncle on Ida's mother, and the relationship between Midas's mother and Henry Uwa, a man who breeds the small magical creatures. The novel somehow establishes that Henry has something to do with Ida's condition, but it's never fully revealed. I found this disappointing. There are just too many unanswered questions.

I wouldn't recommend Shaw's debut novel to anyone looking for a book to feel good. For one, The Girl with Glass Feet touches on depressing topics -- suicide, missed connections, and failed relationships. This is not something you read while on vacation. Shaw's writing, however, is wonderfully atmospheric and vivid. I ended up empathizing with Ida and Midas, and totally believing that a seemingly ordinary island can have magical elements. Shaw is indeed a talented writer. He depicts scenes in detail and probes each of his characters' feelings and personality.

The Girl with Glass Feet is definitely not a page-turner. You take your time with it. You savor each lyrical sentence, so that you fully appreciate Shaw's prose. I felt that the love story could have been more redeeming for both characters though. But, all told, Shaw's debut is a joy to read and a wonderful novel to get lost into.

Read this book if:
  1. You want to read a magical love story.
  2. You love atmospheric reads.
  3. You've experienced missed connections at one point in your life.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Question: Would you set fire to a dead author's house because you really, really, really hate his or her books? Right now, I can't think of any. Living authors, yes. I know of a lot. I can't picture myself flying off to England and then setting fire to Jane Austen's house just because I can't finish any of her novels (all those gossipy characters just drive me mad). Nor do I imagine burning Saul Bellow's house because I have all these pent-up bittnerness inside me that I'm never going to write beautiful sentences as much as he had.

Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, a superbly well-written book, is a novel that explores this issue. We meet Sam Pulsifer, a man who accidentally burned Emily Dickinson's house when he was a teenager and was sent to prison for 10 years because of this. After his time behind his bars, he builds a new life: getting a college degree, marrying a beautiful woman, having kids, living in an upper middle class neighborhood in New England, and working for a packaging company. Sam never reveals his past to his wife. But his peaceful existence is shaken when 4 other writers' homes are burned in New England, and he's the only suspect for all of them.

Now why would all these cases of arson be linked to Sam, you might ask. Well, aside from his past crime, it turns out that while he was in prison, people have written letters to him asking him to burn this and that dead author's house because these people have something against these writers. When Sam was released from prison, his father showed him the box of letters from people asking Sam to burn these houses. Now, several years later, a few of these letters are missing, and the authors' houses mentioned in these letter are being set on fire, one after another.

Based on the plot, Arsonist is a mystery, with Sam as the unwilling detective motivated to find who could possibly be framing him for these crimes. Of course, there's Thomas Coleman, the son of a couple who was killed when the Dickinson house went down. There's also his drunk mother, a character who seems so sad and angry because of Sam's father's illicit affair. One shouldn't count out Sam's wife, Anne Marie, who can be very opinionated, especially after being left in the dark of Sam's past. And there's a whole cast of other characters as well, people who have a bone to pick with Sam.

The mystery storyline in Arsonist is just secondary. Clarke's novel is a satire on the world of books, authors, writing, and the literary academe. Clarke even has included funny episodes. His black humor pokes fun at people who are so into Harry Potter and what can go horribly wrong during a book reading by a prominent author, just to name a few. One hysterically funny bit is when Sam spies on a book discussion attended by people who obviously haven't read the book but who end up discussing their personal lives.

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is so enjoyable that it made me want to go on a tour of all the dead authors' houses in New England. (I never knew that there were that many in that area.) Read it! If you love books or are passionate about your favorite authors, you'll see yourself in the myriad of characters in the novel. Clarke's style of writing isn't straightforward. He often injects short events from Sam's past in the present narrative. The result isn't disappointing though. On the contrary, he has created very believable, three-dimensional characters in his novel.

Read this book if:
  1. You read only novels by dead authors.
  2. You love a well-written mystery.
  3. It's been a while since a book made you laugh and cry at the same time.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A brutal but touching letter

I've been hearing a lot of good things about Incendiary, Chris Cleave's debut novel. I've been holding out since I've also found out that it's a post-9/11 novel, which is a theme I'm not too big on. When I read Joseph O'Neill's Netherland last year, I thought that it was the best novel about 9/11 even though it touched on other less familiar topics such as cricket. Incendiary, however, surprised me. It's a damn terrific read with its graphic depiction of the horrors of terrorism and the deep-seated emotions that follow.

Incendiary is actually a novel in letters, one written by an unnamed married woman to Osama bin Laden. One afternoon, while her husband and her 4-year-old boy were out watching a football game, terrorists bomb the London football field. The bombing happens when she was having an illicit affair with one Jasper Black, who takes her to the football field amidst the riot and stampede that eventually ensues. She passes out and wakes up 3 days later in a hospital where she learns that her husband and son perished during the attack, and all that was left of them were their teeth.

Our heroine goes through her life in London in a daze. She gets a clerical job in Scotland Yard where she has a brief fling with her boss, Terence Butcher. She meets Jasper Black's partner, Petra Sutherland, who eventually invites her to move in with them. One night at a pub, Terence makes a revelation about what happened during that day of the terrorist attack, something which our heroine also tells Jasper and Petra, both of whom are journalists for the Sunday Telegraph. What happens during the novel's final pages is just too good to reveal.

The character's letters to Osama consist of 4 epistolaries -- for for each season. The bombing happens in the summer, which incidentally is the lengthiest letter, almost half of the book. Her letters during the other 3 seasons show us how difficult it is to cope with the loss of her family. It's a downward spiral from there. The narrator sees her boy in almost every male child that she meets, and we see how the tragedy causes episodes of dementia during her waking hours. These scenes are very heartbreaking. You've left no choice but to empathize with her.

I love novels with narrators who have distinct voices, and the one in Incendiary features one of the most provoking and attention-grabbing voices I’ve come across. She’s not strong-willed though. On the contrary, she writes about how she just lets herself break down when she thinks about her husband and son. And this is the brilliance of the novel: it allowed me to think how victims of actual terrorist attacks are coping. Are they slowly losing it all, with their paranoia, anger, and sorrow? Or are they rebuilding their lives with what was left, which our narrator can’t seem to do?

Incendiary is a very satisfying novel. I experienced a wide range of emotions when I was reading it. I laughed during scenes that showed our narrator’s cluelessness about current fashion trends. I got angry at terrorists for their acts of violence. I became morose at the narrator’s emotional turmoil. Incendiary is a whole world different from Netherland. It’s not better, but it is definitely noteworthy for exploring the effects of terrorist activities on the everyday individual.

Read this book if:

  1. You love a narrator with a distinct voice.
  2. You’re no stranger to graphic depictions of attacks.
  3. You’re fond of epistolary novels.

Monday, February 1, 2010

KyusiReader turns 1

Exactly one year ago, I wrote my first entry for this blog. Now, 277 posts later, I can say that this blog has made my experience more rewarding. Sure it takes time to write reviews, but I think it's worth it. I love reading all your comments.

So, Happy Anniversary, my KyusiReader. And thank you, dear reader, for taking the time to drop by every now and then.