Friday, December 30, 2011

What if your memory fails you every day?

Imagine, if you will, waking up every morning with absolutely no recollection at all of the past several years. Imagine seeing a stranger next to you in bed only to find out that he's your husband. Imagine looking yourself at the mirror and getting confused with all the age lines that you see in your face, for you remember being only in your 20s when you went to bed. In S. J. Watson's debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, these are exactly what happen to Christine Lucas the moment she first opens her eyes in the morning.

Christine has amnesia. She can't recall the details of what happened to her for the past several years. She's had this condition for more than 20 years, a condition brought about by an accident, which her husband Ben tells her.

So you might be thinking that Christine's husband is a dearie, right? Explaining to Christine every day for the past 20 years who he is and telling her about her amnesia. It must be nerve wracking to be in Christine's shoes. I'd seriously consider killing myself if I were in my shoes. Thankfully, she discovers that she has a journal, one that she's writing on every day recently. The journal also tells her one important thing. Written on the first page of it is this sentence:

Don't trust Ben.

It's chilling reading that sentence. Just 3 words. Three words that somehow turn the novel into a very engaging one. Yes, Before I Go to Sleep is a thriller. And what's more interesting is, you find yourself really curious as to how Christine can get herself out of the situation she's in.
Something's definitely not right with the things Ben keeps telling her. Ben mentioned that they didn't have kids, that her accident caused her amnesia, that she was a lowly clerk at some office. But Christine has occasional flashes of memory: a son named Adam, a best friend, an affair, a sexual assault.

Watson's novel is one of the most entertaining novels I've read in years. I found it refreshing that the novel just focused in on a few characters, allowing him the leverage of wonderful character development. Everyone would love Christine and be distrustful of Ben. Although, some readers would definitely be put off by the apparent black-and-white attributes of the characters.

But what I found even more compelling is how Watson throws something to the reader from the left field. Her husband may not even be the person he's telling himself to be. Christine finds out that she's been seeing a medical specialist clandestinely every day, meeting the doctor as soon as Ben leaves home for work. Watson slowly unravels the reasons for these. It's a nail-biting unraveling though. Watson definitely teases the reader's patience.

Before I Go to Sleep is one novel that feeds on paranoia. I think that Watson has entered the realm of genre fiction with a bang. Let's just hope that his next novel is just as rewarding as this one.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always been afraid of losing your memory.
  2. You love the movie "Memento".
  3. You keep a journal.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The year that was in reading

In just 3 days, we'll be saying good-bye to 2011 and then making those resolutions, futile and otherwise, for 2012. This got me to thinking though: What were my reading highlights for 2011?

To start, I read 111 books, which is fitting for the year '11, no? (I doubt if I'll be able to finish another novel in 3 days with all the get-togethers still squeezed within those 3 days.) And then, I looked back at all those 111 books and said to myself, "Why, yes! 2011 was a good year for KyusiReader!"

I discovered Gary D. Schmidt this year, who instantly became my favorite YA novelist. No magic, no vampires, not a hint of a fantastic element. Just pure storytelling brilliance. His are the kind of books that you want your children, nephews, nieces, classmates, strangers on the bus, and the sexy hunk next door to read.

And then there's Brandon Sanderson. Oh, Brandon, Brandon, Brandon. Where do you get all those friggin' ideas? A world where people use colors for magic, where a city inhabited by gods become cursed, where a gang of thieves can topple a tyrant. You made a lot of people realize that they don't need a George R. R. Martin to get their fantasy fix.

And speaking of GRRM, 2011 is the year when I finally got all hardcovers of A Song of Ice and Fire. Thanks, Iya, for the first edition of A Game of Thrones. In this edition, I can't help but snigger at the author bio, wherein it's mentioned that GRRM is currently at work on his 2nd novel, A Dance with Dragons.

On a lighter note, Tove Jansson's Moomin books were a constant delight. They're the perfect palate cleanser, something to read between those "serious" books. I've read the first 4 and can't wait to read the remaining 5 books.

It's also the year Penguin released their Red series. Again, another excuse for more mindless book buying. How can anyone resist the highly artistic covers! In the cover for D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, for example, artist's inspiration was the woman's vulva.

How can I go wrong with classic science fiction? John Wyndham has given me the perfect escapist novels this year. Very, very enjoyable, I must say.

Y: The Last Man. Best graphic novels ever. Read them! Thankfully, the 5th deluxe edition (the last book) came out this year.

And it's been my tradition to collect the Booker shortlisted novels every year, no matter how late the books become available here in Manila. Funny thing is, I'm missing this year's winner, Julian Barnes's A Sense of an Ending. (So far, I've read only 2 of the 5 that I have. Hehehe.)

How about you, dear reader? What were your reading highlights this year?

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas gifts

Okay, so you can call me shallow, but one of the best things about this season is that I receive books as gifts! And for this year, I got books that I haven't even read yet! (Well, maybe I dropped a couple of hints here and there to friends and relatives. Hehehe.)

I'm especially looking forward to reading Maus and The Phantom Tollbooth, which I heard are very enjoyable books. So allow me to get back on my reading, but let me first wish you a joyous season and here's to more books in 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The circus is in town

Much has been said about Erin Morgenstern's debut novel, The Night Circus. You can't miss it, it's all over the place these days. And so I found myself in a bookstore doing some last-minute shopping when I thought, heck, why not get just one book for myself.

I've always loved the circus, and I found the paper cutout elements of the cover quite amusing. So off I went to the register with several books in my arms, including this novel which I do hope is really worth the hype.

Fortunately, The Night Circus is one very enjoyable and well-written novel. Morgenstern's story may appear derivative to some (i.e., elements of Cirque du Freak, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), but the novel's storyline holds water on its own. Aside from the author's apparent talent for describing setting vividly, Morgenstern does a great job in coming up with the most eccentric characters in fiction that I've read recently.

The novel is, at its heart, a love story. It's a romantic tale between two people (Cecilia and Marco) who have been trained in illusion, and tangible and mental manipulation. Unfortunately, they have been pitted against each other by their masters, and their masters have chosen a circus as the arena. To complicate things further, Cecilia and Marco both fell in love with one another much to the chagrin of their mentors. They soon learn that, by the end of the game, only one will emerge alive.

Morgenstern's novel works in so many levels that it would appeal to a wide range of readers. First, the love story between the protagonists would appeal to fans of romantic fiction. Fantasy readers will definitely love the scenes where magic plays a central role. The Night Circus's air of mystery and motley of performers will delight readers of all ages.

I was surprised that, with all the elements that Morgenstern brings into the novel, the story isn't a mess, with the subplots flying all over the place. The writing is very controlled, but the pace of the novel is oh so deliciously taxi meter. I loved this circus. I sure hope you find the time to step inside and see the wonders waiting for you, dear reader, underneath the striped tents of the night circus.

Read this book if:
  1. You're big on circuses.
  2. You love outstanding debut fiction.
  3. You believe that true magic really exists.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Really, really, really loving this series

If there's one fantasy series that's quickly becoming my favorite, it has got to be Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn. I've been telling friends and other fantasy lovers that they'll surely love Sanderson's mystical world.

I've just finished book 2 of the series, The Well of Ascension. I read it in white heat, probably all 800 pages of the paperback in a little over 2 days. The story isn't as standalone as the first one. But I'm telling you, dear reader, the story arc just keeps getting better and more intriguing.

Sanderson has raised more questions in the 2nd book, which I think is very clever, as readers have left no option but to get to the 3rd book, which I am doing right now.

So right now, when you mention fantasy to me, it's just Mistborn, Mistborn, and Mistborn. GRRM, I love you, but Westeros and Tyrion would just have to wait.

Of course, I've been searching the Net for Mistborn toys and action figures, and I am literally drooling over these painted miniatures. These are very detailed, I think.

And I've been thinking a lot about mist cloaks, the tasseled ones that Mistborn wear. It must be awesome to have one. I can imagine landing softly on the ground with the cloak fanning out in slow motion.

Photo from Hyde DesignsLink

Friday, December 16, 2011

Another one from my favorite YA novelist

I made a promise to myself to read all the books written by Gary D. Schmidt. His two latest releases, The Wednesday Wars and Okay for Now, remind you why you read books in the first place -- to enjoyably lose yourself in a story that is wonderfully written. Like these two novels, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy doesn't disappoint.

Scmidt transports us to an island in Maine in the early years of the 20th century. Turner Buckminster, together with his father (who is moving to the small island community to be the minister) and silent-but-strong-willed mother, arrives in Phippsburg, Maine and discover that not everyone in this place is happy to have him.

Turner has several things going against him. Of course, being the minister's son has its obvious disadvantages. He finds out that the boys on the island community play baseball differently from the usual. And, he becomes friends with a black girl named Lizzie Bright. Lizzie comes from Malaga Island, an island just off the coast of Phippsburg and populated by former slaves. He soon knows that the community of leaders of Phippsburg want to kick out this African-American settlement to convert Malaga Island into a tourist spot.

Schmidt, instead of writing a novel about a hero conquering seemingly insurmountable odds, has written a book that feels very much grounded. Nevertheless, Turner does do everything he can to rescue Lizzie's family and friends in Malaga Island. Turner fails though, but what he accomplishes after this sad fact is noteworthy.

What is it about Schmidt's novels that make me want to shed tears, buckets and buckets of them. If the reader shed tears reading Schmidt's last two novels, it's very different altogether in Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Turner makes a very unfortunate discovery concerning Lizzie that will leave the reader in shock at first and then possibly weeping because of it.

And there's no sugarcoating in this novel. Schmidt presents bigotry in all its ugliness, always reminding people that this is how some people think and feel about African-Americans in the early 1900s. It's a very unsettling picture, especially when he writes about how people foolishly act on their prejudices.

Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy actually has historical truth in it. There really was an island in Maine cleared off its African-American residents during the early 1900s. And, there really was a black girl who was transferred to a mental institution during this time. The girl's name was left out in the records; Schmidt, however, gave her a name in his beautiful novel.

Read this book if:
  1. You love historical YA fiction.
  2. You've experienced moving to a new home when you were a kid.
  3. Like me, you'll read anything written by Gary D. Schmidt.

Monday, December 12, 2011

My best reads for 2011

It's that time of the year again, fellow book lovers! Now's the perfect moment to round up our best reads for 2011. I had a fabulous year, as I was able to read more than 100 books! Normally, I list my top 10, but it was a bit difficult to do that this year. So I came up with my top 12 favorite books!

Two YA novels struck a chord this year. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars and Vanderpool's Moon over Manifest. Both are touching reads and are very life affirming. Moon over Manifest definitely deserves the Newbery this year. I'm still waiting for Schmidt to win though.

For classic reads, I highly recommend Williams's Stoner and Hesse's Siddhartha. Stoner has received universal acclaim recently. Williams's story about the life of an academic is pure reading bliss. As for Siddhartha, well, it's simply profound.

2011 is the year that I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind is recommend to people waiting for the next George R. R. Martin novel. Miéville's Perdido Street Station has elements of steam punk, horror, and fantasy. It's unlike anything I've read before. Bacigalupi's cyber punk The Windup Girl combines aspects of politics, genetic engineering, and sociology. I loved it!

Of course, most of my best reads are in contemporary fiction. I liked two 2011 Booker-shortlisted novels -- Miller's Snowdrops and Edugyan's Half Blood Blues. Tóibín's Brooklyn was shortlisted last year. Rachman's The Imperfectionists is one very funny novel made of stories. And I was floored by the narrative and scope of Syjuco's Ilustrado.

Hmmm... This must be the first year when I haven't listed a non-fiction book as a best read. Maybe I should read more non-fiction next year. How about you, dear reader, what are your favorite books of 2011?

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Metals, mists, and mind-blowing fantasy

One wouldn't wonder why the estate of Robert Jordan asked Brandon Sanderson to write the final novels of The Wheel of Time after reading Mistborn. Sanderson's magnificent trilogy makes a pleasant assault on your senses. The first novel, Mistborn: The Final Empire, starts off the series on a very high note.

In the science fiction and fantasy genre, world-building becomes of primary importance. A good story would appear weak and diluted if it's not set in a detailed universe where the reader can suspend his or her disbelief in. In the first Mistborn, Sanderson's world-building skills are so fine-tuned; the reader is simply swept away by the story and the fantastic setting.

Sanderson's world is one ruled by a seemingly omnipotent character called the Lord Ruler, populated by noblemen and slaves called skaa, obscured by thick mists during the night-time, and where a select few practice Allomancy. There's a certain "science" behind the principles of Allomancy, where some people can ingest particular metals and then burn them to harness their powers. A few people can burn just one metal, but a very few can burn all 10, and these people are called the Mistborn.

One of these Mistborn is a street urchin named Vin, who is discovered by another Mistborn called Kelsier. Kelsier dreams of a world where the skaa are free from the tyrannical clutches of the noble houses. He gathers a team of Allomancers (including Vin), soldiers, a fake nobleman, and a historian. Kelsier's plan: kill the Lord Ruler, make the noble houses wage war against one another, and train at least 10,000 skaa to be soldiers to fight the garrison. Kelsier's plan is met with harsh criticism from his team, for everyone believes that the Lord Ruler is immortal.

Sanderson's Allomancy is one juicy element in Mistborn that can be milked for all its worth. It's fascinating to read about this form of "magic," or "science" if you may. When Mistborn burn brass, they can alter the emotions of the people around them, burn pewter and Mistborn become several times stronger, burn tin and have their senses enhanced, burn steel and they can push metallic things away from them. Only a gifted world-builder can conjure this kind of fantasy, which is enough motivation for anyone to read the rest of Sanderson's trilogy.

There are stereotypical aspects of the fantasy novel that make their way in Mistborn. Kelsier appears to be the savior, the Lord Ruler the epitome of evil, and Vin the apprentice who would end up with a much larger role in the end. But everything's handled perfectly in the story. Stereotypes they may be, but the reader is sure to enjoy reading about them.

If you're not into trilogies or series or sequences, don't worry -- Mistborn 1: The Final Empire can be a stand-alone novel. Sanderson ties up everything cleanly in the end, albeit too neat for some readers who may want an edgier, non-grit-free ending. Still, I doubt if many would not enjoy themselves in this world where the mist can engulf you and where Allomancers can play on your emotions.

Read this book if:
  1. You love fantastic world-building.
  2. Mists fascinate you.
  3. You're curious to know more about Allomancy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

And all that jazz

Of the 6 Booker-shortlisted novels this year, I have read only 2, even though I have all of them in my shelf. The reason I somehow make it a point to get my hands on them is that these books are usually good reads. Esi Edugyan's novel, Half Blood Blues, is no exception. In fact, it's one of the best novels I've read this year.

As the novel focuses on jazz musicians during WWII, it becomes evident that Edugyan knows her jazz. But Half Blood Blues is more than just jazz as it is about friendship, betrayal, and the plight of blacks in Europe during the war. It's very fascinating, I tell you. I'm not at all interested about the music nor the artists of this musical genre, but Edugyan uses jazz as a backdrop, as a playing ground where her characters can fully develop themselves.

The novel's narrative alternates between Europe (Berlin and Paris) during the war and Berlin in the 1990s. In Berlin in 1939, just before the war erupts, we get to know three of the major players of the popular jazz band, The Hot Time Swingers: Hieronymus Falk, its very talented trumpet player, is even better than Louis Armstrong, as some people say, and Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, who are Americans from Baltimore. For these three characters, it's a dangerous time to be in Berlin, for they are all black.

The band escapes to Paris with the help of a woman who is also connected with Louis Armstrong. In Paris, the band plans a collaboration with Louis Armstrong to make a record, which is disrupted when the Germans eventually conquer France and march into Paris to the tearful faces of the Parisians. One night, Sid and Hiero decide to go to a French cafe where Hiero is arrested by the Germans. He is never seen nor heard of again.

The novel's denouement takes place in the 1990s, wherein Chip has invited Sid to go to Berlin to watch a documentary about Hiero. It is in this part of the novel where Edugyan makes you feel the conflicting emotions going on in Sid. It's evident in the earlier part of the novel that Sid could have done something to prevent Hiero's arrest. Trust me, dear reader, when you discover how Sid betrayed his friend, it's almost too painful to bear.

The characters speak in a broken kind of English which takes getting used to. Once you get over it, the language makes the story richer, as if you're reading a diary or journal of sorts. Half Blood Blues did convey a lot of emotions -- the joy of being part of a group of friends with the same interest, the fear of finding yourself in hostile territory, the frustration for the things that should've been, among others.

Edugyan's subject matter is rarely touched among historians, much less by novelists -- blacks in Europe during WWII. There are parts in Half Blood Blues that portray horrific realities brought about by the Nazis. But in the end though, one feels lucky to have read such a fantastic piece of historical fiction.

Read this book if:
  1. You read all the Booker-shortlisted novels every year.
  2. You're into historical fiction.
  3. You love jazz.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The year that was for the book club

It certainly was a good year for my book club, Flips Flipping Pages. I've posted below some of the highlights from our discussions for 2011. If you want to be in the company of fellow book lovers, then join us! We'll be happy to have you.

January 2011 Meet-up
Best and Worst Reads for 2010

The glass wall at Libreria, where Flippers posted their worst and best reads

At Libreria, Cubao, Quezon City
(also with book bloggers and Goodreads members)

February 2011 Discussion
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

The cast and director of the Repertory Philippines play during our Q&A session

At the Repertory Theater, Greenbelt 1, Makati
Discussion at Gloria Maris, Greenbelt 2

February 2011 Discussion
Cien Sonetos de Amor by Pablo Neruda

Yes, we had 2 discussions for February!
Here are the Tadurans with their magnetic poetry thingy.

At Coffee Beanery, Quezon City
(too bad I wasn't able to attend this one)

March 2011 Discussion
by José

I co-moderated this one with Gege.
I love her expression when she saw the picture of Saramago kissing his wife.

At O'Sonho, Eastwood City
(Don't you just love the mural on the wall?)

April 2011 Discussion
Born to Run
by Christopher McDougall

Moderator Jeeves explaining pronation and supination of the feet
One of those few moments when my eyes glazed over

At Órale Taqueria, The Fort Strip

May 2011 Discussion
by Miguel Syjuco

Moderator Iya with her slides
She's so effortlessly classy, no?

At Uncle Cheffie, Burgos Circle

June 2011 Discussion
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Discussion was actually held in July.
Here are some members laughing during the pre-discussion game.

At Red Swan, Tomas Morato, Quezon City
(sorry for the blurry pic, couldn't find a clearer one)

July 2011 Discussion
by Gregory Maguire

Welski, one of the moderators, made the most amazing bookmarks ever!
There's actually a smaller bookmark inside this bookmark! Clever, no?

August 2011 Discussion
Philippine Speculative Fiction 6

The awesome event banner designed by Honey (or was it by Honey's husband?)

September 2011 Discussion
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

I moderated this one!
I wonder why the Flippers are laughing. My presentation was supposed to be scary!

At Chocolate Fire, Makati

October 2011 Discussion
Urban Fantasy Face-off

Dead until Dark
by Charlaine Harris and Storm Front by Jim Butcher

Why is there wine at a book discussion?

At Gino's Pizza in Katipunan
Awesome job at moderating, Rhett!

November 2011 Discussion
Flippers take some much needed time off

Moderator Blooey decided to reschedule this to January 2012.
Wonderful event banner, yes?

December 2011 Christmas Party
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry

We came in costumes that feature literary characters!
Rhett and I were Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee!

At Powerbooks, Greenbelt 4, Makati

Pictures courtesy of Rhett (best photographer ever!), Mike B., Joko, and Honey

Sunday, December 4, 2011

I wanna go to Russia

Suddenly, after reading A. D. Miller's Booker shortlisted debut novel, Snowdrops, I had the urge to book a flight to Russia. Miller has a very enviable gift of describing settings. You feel the extremely uncomfortable cold in Moscow, where temperature can fall below zero (enough for your mobile to be stuck in your ungloved hand when you use it outside). In Moscow, you can sense the acrid taste of corruption and smell the desperation of its citizens.

I thought I would be reading a thriller, something fast paced with a clever resolution at the end. Snowdrops is something deliciously more than that. It is indeed a crime novel, but it's also a travelogue of sorts, portraying the Moscow that you wouldn't see in guidebooks, the Moscow where single women dress up as prostitutes and where cabdrivers can prey on their passengers. It's a very unflattering picture of Moscow that's depicted in Miller's debut novel, but Moscow is all the more fascinating for it.
'Snowdrop. Your friend is a snowdrop.' That's what the Russians call them -- the bodies that float up into the light in the thaw. Drunks, most of them, and homeless people who just give up and lie down into the whiteness, and murder victims hidden in the drifts by their killers. [page 3]
You know from the start of Snowdrops that something will go wrong. Nicholas Pratt, the main character of the novel, writes a letter to his fiancée, forming the novel's narrative. Nick is an expat, a lawyer assigned to work in Moscow. One day, he meets two girls who introduce themselves as sisters -- Masha and Katya. It is revealed later in the novel that these two aren't really sisters nor cousins. They are players in a scam involving selling housing units in Moscow. Miller adds an extra layer to his story -- the romantic relationship that develops between Masha and Nick.

How Nick becomes part of this scam unfolds slowly in the novel, but it's not the kind that leads to ennui. In fact, Miller's writing appears to be beautifully controlled, focusing more on character introspection. Masha and Katya urge Nick to help their old aunt named Tatiana Vladimirovna move out of her Moscow apartment and into a new residential building. That's the scam right there. Nick finds out that Tatiana isn't a relation to the girls, that the residential building is never meant to be lived in, that Masha and Katya duped Nick in giving money to an oily character who appears to be a middleman of some sort.

In the end, both girls disappear. Tatiana, whom Nick has grown fond of, also goes missing. It is never mentioned what happened to the old lady, but it's a good assumption that she's been murdered. Miller toys with the reader's imagination. You just know that something grisly has happened to Tatiana. I love authors like these.

Read this book if:
  1. You've always wanted to visit Moscow.
  2. You like novels with that Hitchcock feel to them.
  3. You love the cold.

Monday, November 21, 2011

This YA novel is more than okay

Gary D. Schmidt is now my favorite young adult novelist. His second novel, The Wednesday Wars, is one of the funniest and most heartwarming novels I've read ever. His latest one, Okay for Now, is also a keeper, a book that should be displayed prominently on your shelf.

In The Wednesday Wars, the character of Doug Swieteck was a minor one, playing second fiddle to the lovable Holling Hoodhood. Good thing that Schmidt decided to make Doug the lead in Okay for Now. As a protagonist, Doug represents all the potential that young adults can become, given the support and encouragement of family and friends.

The novel is set in a small town in New York state during the Vietnam War. Doug's family has just relocated to this quaint spot, where the library is only open during Saturdays, where every one seems to know one another, and where first impressions usually are important. For Doug, the last one can be very problematic, because of his troublesome father and his wayward older brother.

Pretty soon, Doug becomes friends with the indomitable Lil Spicer, whose father owns Spicer's Deli where Doug eventually works as delivery boy during Saturday mornings. It is during these delivery trips that he meets some of the eccentric residents of Marysville, New York. And during Saturday mornings, he takes up the habit of visiting the library where the librarian teaches him how to replicate Audobon's beautiful watercolors of the birds of America.

Audobon's book is the centerpiece of the town's library, but since the town is sometimes in need of cash for some project, it has sold one Audobon plate after another to different individuals. Doug then decides to collect back these plates. So how does Doug do it? Well, his methods become some of the endearing and funny parts of the book.

Okay for Now was nominated for this year's National Book Award, and I was hoping that it would win. (The Wednesday Wars was a Newberry Honor Book, which I felt was well deserved.) Doug's adventures in Okay for Now will often make you teary eyed and whoop for joy at the same time. I had no choice but to root for Doug all the way.

For a novel just under 400 pages, Schmidt has written about the aesthetics of Audobon's watercolors, the appeal of Jane Eyre to readers (the novel was a reading assignment in Doug's class), the horrors of gym class, the effects of war on families, and the causes of juvenile delinquency, among other things. Trust me, dear reader, Okay for Now is a wonderful and meaningful reading experience.

I do hope that Schmidt releases another novel soon. Schmidt's message of hope and redemption in Okay for Now is something that people need. Doug's persistence in learning Audobon's technique is admirable. His triumph in the midst of familial discord is a cause for celebration. His well-earned respect from the people around him is something every child can aspire to. All these make Okay for Now my favorite young adult read this year.

Read this book if:
  1. You love Audobon's plates.
  2. You'll read any YA fiction with a very lovable character.
  3. You know that when things go really, really wrong, they can only get better.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Two boys, a house, and one very good novel

Children can be cruel toward one another, no? Their words sting, their fights physically hurtful. Susan Hill's 1970 novel, I'm the King of the Castle, explores what happens to two boys thrown together by parental circumstances. Having the same age, these boys are expected by all to be the best of friends, but in Hill's novels, these 11-year-olds turn out to be bitter, savage rivals.

Charles Kingshaw, the son of a husbandless housekeeper, moves into the grand ancestral house of Edmund Hooper, the son of an aristocratic Englishman. From the start, Edmund makes it clear to his father and Charles that he has no intention of being friends with Charles. Edmund is one territorial child, somehow perceiving that Charles will encroach in his domain.

But it's not enough that Edmund verbally abuses Charles. He locks Charles in his grandfather's room which houses a creepy collection of dead moths. He engages Charles in a fistfight. Charles makes it a point to get out of Edmund's way every day, but Edmund is intent on being the bully, the stalker, the antagonist. One can see that the situation is hopeless unless the parents intervene. Charles's mother and Edmund's father, however, remain clueless to the goings-on in their house. The parents have struck an awkward flirting phase with one another.

I'm the King of the Castle provokes a host of reactions from its readers. Some mention that the novel has a gothic, creepy feel to it. With the novel's setting and Hill's sombre turns of phrase, this reaction is justified. There's a pervading gloom in every page of the novel, as if Hill is preparing the reader for the eventual catastrophic climax.

Others mention that the novel is a crossover one, a work of fiction that can be read by both adults and young adults. This is rightly so, especially with Hill's accessible gift of narrative. I'm sure that both audiences will be able to relate to the themes of parental blindness, bullying, and dreams of fleeing.

I'm a big fan of Susan Hill, especially her ghost stories. The Woman in Black is my favorite ghost story. The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand are great creepy reads during rainy nights. Hill provides I'm the King of the Castle with a different kind of terror. It's a terror that's all too real and familiar, and it's from individuals whom you never imagine can give it -- children.

Read this book if:
  1. You've been scarred for life from bullying.
  2. You love Susan Hill's atmospheric novels.
  3. You're a parent of precocious children.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tuscany, LOL!

There are just a few places where I imagine spending my retirement years. The beaches of Boracay is one, and the rolling hills of Tuscany is another. The sumptuous food and wine, the glorious weather, the wonderful scenery! How can you go wrong with living in Tuscany! But in James Hamiton-Paterson's hilarious Booker-nominated novel, Cooking with Fernet Branca, Tuscany becomes the setting where everything goes wrong.

In Cooking with Fernet Branca, we meet two of the most hysterically funny characters in recent fiction -- Gerald Samper and Marta. Gerald, a Brit who ghostwrites celebrity biographies, has a fascination for a cuisine one might say is experimental. Marta, a native of the ex-Soviet republic called Voynovia, is a composer, working on the score for the film of a famous Italian director. Gerald and Marta are neighbors, much to each other's chagrin. Here's a sample of a dish that Gerald made for himself. Try not to be queasy. (There are a lot of these dreadful recipes in the book!)
Mussels in Chocolate

You flinch? But that's only because you are gastronomically unadventurous. (Your Saturday evening visits to the Koh-i-Noor Balti House do not count. These days conveyor-belt curry is as safe a taste as Mozart.)

2 dozen fresh mussels, shelled and cleaned
Good quality olive oil
Soy sauce
100 gm finely grated Valrhona dark chocolate

You will need quite a lot of olive oil because you are going to deep-fry the mussels, and no, that bright green stuff claiming to be Extra-Special First Pressing Verginissimo olive oil with a handwritten parchment label isn't necessary. Anyway, how can there possibly be degrees of virginity? Olive oil snobs are even worse than wine snobs. . . [page 15]
Hamilton-Paterson's novel is a comedy of errors in the craziest sense. Marta believes that Gerald loves the horrible alcoholic drink fernet branca so much that she lets him drink lots of it. Gerald, on the other hand, feels that his obligation to drink up as much as he can of that awful stuff, thinking that Marta likes the drink too. Now bring in coke-addicted drug stars, crazy family members, and a famed porn director and his son, and you've got a very rowdy mix of a story that Hamilton-Paterson expertly handles.

One feels that Hamilton-Paterson parodied the expat's life in this corner of Italy. It's a very successful attempt, with Gerald coming off as the stereotypical prudish Brit who feels entitled to the promise of solitude and beauty that Tuscany can offer. He has the habit of singing arias and other operatic pieces despite his little knowledge of the lyrics and the wanting quality of his voice. Marta uses Gerald's singing in the film. When Gerald first hears the score, he feels that the music is "vaguely familiar."

Cooking with Fernet Branca is a fun novel. It's the kind of novel that you read on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you think you can use a good laugh. And Hamilton-Paterson does bring in the gags. The novel is one comedic scene after another, with the reader relating to either Gerald or Marta. Read it, dear reader. You'll weep with delight.

Read this book if:
  1. You like parodies of famous travel books (Under the Tuscan's Son!).
  2. You're taste in food is also experimental.
  3. You'll read anything set in Tuscany.