Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fly you high!

So I'm still not over how Mockingjay turned out to be one huge disappointment, and that's why I'm holding off on reviewing it. But it's a good thing that Collins actually wrote an earlier series for younger children that I can sink myself into. I have no expectations whatsoever when I bought the first book of The Underland Chronicles, Gregor the Overlander, and read it in just a few hours. And guess what, the series blew me away!

The Underland Chronicles, the 5-part series by Collins, is an easy, entertaining, and delightful read. Fans of Riordan's Percy Jackson series would surely gobble up these books. I think I even found The Underland Chronicles better than Riordan's, which can get cheesy and contrived at some points. Collins's 5 books are just pure storytelling joy. I can't even recall the last time I read all the books in a series one after the other.

In book 1, Gregor the Overlander, we get to meet Gregor who accidentally discovers a city in peril several miles below the surface called Regalia. Gregor meets interesting characters in Regalia: humans called underlanders who have pale skin and violet irises, and giant rats, bats, spiders, and cockroaches. The founder of Regalia, one named Bartholomew of Sandwich, has written several prophecies, which have Gregor figuring prominently in some of them. In fact, the fate of Regalia somehow rests on Gregor, who has been called the warrior that will save the underlanders' magnificent city.

So in all the books of The Underland Chronicles, Gregor sets off in different adventures that climaxes in a war between the underlanders and the giant rats. And in each book, Collins has introduced more and more fascinating characters that would eventually figure in her elegant storyline. We're introduced to giant cantankerous fireflies who seem to eat for a living, a 12-foot albino rat called the Bane who becomes the ruthless leader of the rats, and Gregor's other family members who take on more active roles in the later books, among others.

There's a whole cinematic feel to the five books in the series. The writing is tight and the pace is really appropriate for younger readers. Adult readers would still find a lot of elements that can be quite refreshing: the simple dialogue, the taxi-meter pace, and the uncomplicated characterizations and revelations in each book.

Yes, you can ignore the sequence of the books and read the books in your chosen sequence. Books 1 to 3 have stand-alone narratives. Book 4 (Gregor and the Marks of Secret), however, ends with a cliffhanger, effectively setting the tone for the full-on battle that will happen in book 5, Gregor and the Code of Claw. And the last book was really satisfying. Collins has written a beautiful yarn, which, despite appearing cluttered in some parts, she masterfully weaves together in one central conclusion.

Oh, and Suzanne Collins has come up with another witty one liner much like the "May the odds be ever in your favor!" in The Hunger Games trilogy. In The Underland Chronicles, every time they wish someone luck especially when that person is going to a battle, they would say, "Fly you high!" I wish I can come up with something like that if ever I would write my first novel. Hehe.

I'm wondering why these series isn't as popular as the other YA chapter books out there. The Underland Chronicles has something for everyone. (It even has a love angle, which doesn't feel forced, thank goodness.) Is it because Collins chose to populate this series with animals that we think of as disgusting? After all, it can be a stretch to think of a 6-foot, mangy, violent rat as a warrior defending the underlanders. Or that a huge cockroach can be fond of giving piggyback rides to a 3-year-old toddler. For me, those are some of the things that endeared me to the series.

Read these books if:
  1. You like chapter books.
  2. You're somehow drawn to rats, cockroaches, and spiders.
  3. You love Suzanne Collins (despite that Mockingjay disappointment).

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


My good friend and fellow bibliophile, Ajie, made this caricature of me. One thing I've noticed though -- I've never looked this thin in years! Thanks for this, Ajie! I love it!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Not looking forward to number two

I was prepared to like this. Really. After reading Mockingjay, I felt that I needed to read a fast-paced and well-written young adult novel. I Am Number Four is fast-paced, but well written it is not. And somehow, it comes off as an uncoordinated mash-up of several themes in YA literature.

I Am Number Four is the first of six planned novels by Pittacus Lore. No one can live in the world with that name; Pittacus Lore is a pseudonym of course. (PL is actually James Frey, who is famous for his semi-bogus autobiography, A Million Little Pieces.)

Number Four is a 15-year-old boy who goes by a different name every time they move to a new small town in the United States with his guardian. When they move to Paradise, Ohio, Number Four goes by the uninspired name of John Smith. These two are really aliens; they've fled their planet Lorien when a race from another planet, the Mogadorians, invades their home planet and slaughters every one.

So John is number four out of a group of nine. They're Garde, who are citizens of Lorien who develop powers (called Legacies) as they hit their teens. Aside from the Garde, there are also those called Cêpan, who serve as guardians to the Garde. John's Cêpan, Henri, is concerned that the Mogadorians have been able to kill Numbers One, Two, and Three. John's number, literally, is up. Mogadorians can kill these young Garde in sequence, as a charm from Lorien's elders protect them.

When the nine and their guardians left Lorien, they were but wee children. Now, they're coming into their Legacies. Thus, the Mogadorians are hunting them in a fury. Because pretty soon, when these young persons develop all their powers, they're now capable of waging war against the Mogadorians and reclaiming Loriel as their own.

I Am Number Four presents nothing new. If you want to read about young people developing powers, you're better off reading the X-Men graphic novels. And there's a whole cinematic feel to everything. It's as if PL-slash-James Frey wrote the novel as an afterthought, after coming up with the screenplay in his mind.

This book is set to be adapted to the big screen by Michael Bay, a director known for blowing things up. (You walk into a Michael Bay movie, and you leave the theater with a ringing in your ears.) In the last few chapters of the book, there's useless destruction everywhere. School buildings get blown up, huge monsters fight one another (à la Godzilla vs. Mothra, which I will prefer any time), fireballs flying here and there, explosives and gunfire going off every few seconds. The result is one big mess.

Not content with all these destruction, PL also gives us cheese. And what rotten cheese he serves up! A dying character always manages to give words of advice to John Smith such as "Be strong," and "I wouldn't have missed a second of it, kiddo. Not for all of Lorien. Not for the whole damn world." Cringe-inducing moments indeed.

I guess the only persons who would go through the series as the books come out will be teenage boys. They're the only ones who have the patience and energy. Incidentally, this is the same crowd who can sit through a Michael Bay movie and actually have a good time.

Read this book if:
  1. You believe that chapter books get better as the series progresses.
  2. You love destruction.
  3. You have way too much time on your hands and can afford to waste three to four hours of mindless reading.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Feels detached, but in a good way

I love debut fiction. There's nothing like the thrill you feel when you discover a new author. Whoever said that the novel is dead must be delusional. Life of Pi, The God of Small Things, The White Tiger -- all of these are debut novels; they're all wonderfully satisfying reads as well. Reading debut fiction can be quite risky, too. You just don't have any comparison. We all have a list of writers that we are partial too, but with first-time novelists, you just don't know whether you'll like their work and ultimately decide they're writers to watch out for.

So after being terribly disappointed with Mockingjay (review to follow next week), I've decided to take a risk and read Eleanor Catton's debut novel, The Rehearsal. I've read so many things about this novel that I was challenged to read it. The Rehearsal is one novel that polarizes readers. One group would say that it feels oddly detached. Another would mention that it represents a departure from your traditional storytelling. Both are true, in fact. And I'm pleased to say that I liked The Rehearsal. It's the type of novel that makes you think.

The pivotal scene that drives the two narratives in The Rehearsal has to do with a scandal -- a high school teacher was discovered to be having a sexual relationship with his student. It is this context that we hear the perspectives of the main characters of the novel. Isolde, the sister of the sexually abused student, has struck an air of indifference on the issue; it is her classmates that express a strong point. Isolde continues on with her student life amidst the chatter and gossip of her classmates. The result is something analogous to living in a fish bowl, with everyone noticing and discussing Isolde's every move.

Isolde is also studying the saxophone, going frequently to her saxophone teacher for private classes. The saxophone teacher remains nameless throughout the novel. But ironically, it is her thoughts, dialogue, and actions that become the novel's most distinct voice. The sax teacher speaks to parents about different subjects, in a language that somehow feels unnatural because of their verbosity. It is the sax teacher that introduces Isolde to Julia, another high school student and encourages them to become friends. The friendship of Isolde and Julia again become the subject of malicious talk at school. It is only when Isolde develops a romantic relationship with Stanley that the novel takes a wonderfully uncomfortable turn.

The other narrative in The Rehearsal, which occurs as alternating chapters with the chapters on Isolde, is that of Stanley. Stanley is a first year drama student at a prestigious institution. As a student of the performing arts, Stanley comes off as unremarkable. He doesn't have any unique skills. One would only feel for Stanley because Catton writes him as a sensitive character. It made me ask though -- did Catton write her characters purposefully this way? It's as if Isolde, the sax teacher, and Stanley are mere observers, as conduits of people's thoughts.

The latter parts of the novel is where everything gets more interesting. As part of the requirement at the end of their first year, the drama students must perform a play that nobody has heard of. The class decides to choose the sexual abuse in the nearby high school as their subject. Little does Stanley know that he's dating the sister of the subject of their play. Isolde is also clueless about the play. Add to the fact that Stanley will be playing the abusive high school teacher and that Isolde's parents have been invited to watch opening night, you just know that everything will come crashing to a close, and in a big way.

If the novel feels detached, then I guess it is Catton's way of saying that we're all spectators of everyone's lives. Catton engages the reader in a very unusual way. Instead of letting her reader feel that he or she experiences the novel's scenes, Catton lets the reader view it at a distance. Here's an excerpt to illustrate. Note that it has the feel of an opening act of a play.
Isolde and Victoria are watching television. Isolde is curled in the cat-furred hollow of the armchair with her legs hugged to her chest and her head upon her arm. Victoria is lying on the sofa with one leg cocked and the remote control held lightly between her finger and her thumb. Their father has just come through the room and crumpled Isolde's toes in his big hand and said Goodnight, slugs. Their mother has just called out from the stairway, Bed by eleven please. Their counterpointed footsteps, light and heavy, have just dwindled away up the stairs, and they have just shut their bedroom door with a faint and knucked click.

So, Eleanor Catton is someone whose later works I will be looking out for. Who knows what kind of novel she comes up with next. The Rehearsal is so refreshing; I've never read anything quite like it. You read other people's thoughts about the same situation. It appeals to different aspects of our lives -- our need to express our thoughts about a scandalous affair, our fascination for the taboo, our indecisiveness as adolescents, our indifference to people we hardly care about.

If this review has made The Rehearsal seem like a pretentious piece of contemporary literature, then I would have to say that it is not. On the contrary, The Rehearsal is very readable, the dialogue crisp, and the characters people you can relate to. Read it, now.

Read this book if:
  1. You like plays.
  2. You love debut fiction.
  3. You've been the subject of malicious talk.