Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who/What is Skellig?

Sometimes, it just takes a simple story, albeit well written, to hold the reader's attention. And it also probably helps that you have no expectations regarding the book you're holding whatsoever. David Almond's Skellig is one such novel.

Skellig manages to impart profound ideas on love, healing, and friendship in just a few pages. To say that it's pithy would be an understatement. I think that it's a beautiful work of fiction which young adults should read. It never becomes cheesy nor cloying in its overall feel of hopefulness.

We are introduced to Michael, who has moved to a new home with his family. Michael's baby sister has been in and out of the hospital, and the novel makes the reader feel that the baby's death is a possibility. One day, Michael ventures into the garage and discovers a being hidden amid the dust and forgotten objects stored in the garage.

Almond doesn't give a clear notion of what this being, named Skellig, actually is. Is he an angel? Is he half-bird or half-human? Its only request is that Michael keep Skellig's existence a secret. But how could Michael do such a thing when clearly Skellig needs serious help -- he has arthritis and all he has been eating are insects and mice brought by the owls.

Pretty soon, Michael becomes friends with Mina, his neighbor who is raised by a very unconventional mother. Mina's mother doesn't believe in organized education where children are stifled by the confines of the classroom. Mina thinks freely and appears to be more learned than children her own age. It's only a matter of time before Michael introduces her to Skellig. And they discover that Skellig has wings.

Together, Michael and Mina help make Skellig better (e.g., cod liver oil for his arthritis), even though they have doubts as to what he really is. One thing's for sure though, Skellig is a mystical creature. Skellig may have been instrumental in making Michael's baby sister well. Michael somehow sees or dreams Skellig visit his sister at the hospital, hold her up, and leave. Skellig is never seen again.

It's clear that Almond values the importance of familial love and connections between friends and other people. As a friend, Mina becomes the trigger for Michael to develop his artistic side. Michael's mother and father never waiver in their hope that their baby would get better. For himself, Michael realizes the true nature of love -- love for his family, his friends, and even for someone who doesn't appear to be lovable at first impressions. Yes, without his love for Skellig, the mysterious creature would simply languish in their house. Forgotten and hopeless.

Read this book if:
  1. You believe miracles do happen.
  2. You have a couple of hours to spare. (It's a short read!)
  3. You know someone who could be an angel.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Getting a good dose of speculative fiction

If it weren't for Honey's wonderful decision to have Philippine Speculative Fiction 6 as the book of the month for August, I wouldn't even have bothered to pick this up. Good thing she did, for this turned out to be a very satisfying read, especially since I've been craving for fantasy and science fiction lately.

Now speculative fiction isn't just about sci-fi and fantasy, mind you. According to Honey, it can be any of the following genres:
  • Alternate History
  • Apocalypse/Holocaust
  • Coming of Age (as a species)
  • Contemporary Fantasy
  • Cyberpunk
  • Dystopian
  • Fairy Tales
  • Fantasy
  • First Contact
  • Horror/Dark Fantasy
  • Magical Realism
  • Science Fiction
  • Slipstream
  • Steampunk
Speculative fiction does appear to cover a broad spectrum, no? Except for slipstream (which I have yet to Google), I think I've read at least one fictional work for each of the sub-genres mentioned above. But it's my first time to read any of these within a Philippine context.

I would have to agree that almost all of these stories have a strong Filipino element, whether evident in the use of the language, the setting, the history, and the characters. The first story, "The Big Man" is wonderful in a very unconventional way. It presents a fictionalized account of an outstanding basketball player who might be, for all intents and purposes, be a character in Philippine folklore called the kapre. For a short story, it's quite lengthy, but the personal history that the writer has come up with is rich in detail.

My favorite story, however, is "The Grim Malkin" for it does not take itself too seriously. Compared with "The Big Man" which has a very pedantic feel to it, "The Grim Malkin" is pure geekiness. It's about a mismatched couple who go on a quest and manage to resurrect a cat-like entity who makes it clear that it's no big deal if it kills the couple. It's high fantasy on drugs. The banter between the cat and the man and woman is so humorous it begs for canned laughter.

Other notable stories (IMHO) are "Alternative Histories," "Ashland," and "On Wooden Wings." "Alternative Histories" is presented as a series of tweets from personalities in Philippine history if they had accessed to that social networking site. "Ashland" is marvelous in the writer's portrayal of a world so gray and silent. "On Wooden Wings" can be categorized as cross-over, for it works for both adult and young adult readers. And it's setting is a place where writers in this genre seldom touch on -- the Philippines' Islamic provinces.

I have yet to read the first 5 volumes of this series. But if they're just a fraction as good as the 6th volume, then I know I'll be happy. It's just too bad that the publishers only printed a few hundred copies of PSF 6, and that the earlier volumes are out of print. More people should read these.

Read this book if:
  1. You're into speculative fiction.
  2. You love suspending disbelief.
  3. You're curious how Filipino writers would write in this genre.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

In the future, the 80s are cool

The 80s were fun years. I was in grade school during this time, and I had fond memories of Saturday morning cartoons and console games. Ernest Cline's debut novel, Ready Player One, brought me back to this wonderful novel. It's not a period novel, contrary to what you might think. It's actually science fiction.

The year is 2044 and the world is, as expected, an economic, environmental, political, and societal mess. As a means of escape, people log in to a virtual world called OASIS, which has been created by James Halliday. OASIS can be likened to a universe. There are different worlds that people can visit. People can go to school, conduct their business, entertain themselves, among others, in OASIS. This virtual meeting place has become so ingrained in the lives of the people that OASIS currency is even more stable than real currency. Also, you can be anyone you want to be in OASIS.

Then James Halliday drops dead and leaves no heir for OASIS. Instead, he tells the millions of denizens of OASIS that this virtual world can be theirs if they find the three keys that are located in the vast OASIS universe. Of course, this game spawns a culture of hunters, called gunters, whose sole obssession is to obtain the keys. For 5 years, gunters have painstakingly studied the life of Halliday for clues and they have also meticulously gone through 80s pop culture, the decade that Halliday was very fond of. This isn't surprising though, as Halliday grew up in the 80s amid Ataris, coin-op games, and other console games.

Ernest Cline with his DeLorean. Love it!

But during one ordinary day, one person finally discovers the first key -- Wade Watts, or Parzival, as he is known in OASIS. However, Parzival would soon learn that finding the first key has its downside, as there would be several professional gunters who would be after him for information, some even threatening his life. It is at this stage that Ready Player One really takes off as a very entertaining and thrilling read.

Cline definitely knows his pop culture. This is evident in the various games the gunters have to go through to get a key and pass through a gate. In the first gate, for example, Wade has to play Joust, one of the very first vector graphic games. And there are so many references to Blade Runner, Atari, Back to the Future, early computers with laughably small RAM (think 16 kB), and the movies of John Hughes.

Ready Player One is one very funny novel, a book that is so refreshing to read because it doesn't take itself too seriously. Yes, Cline is one gifted writer. His descriptions of the various planets in OASIS and the virtual battles are vivid. And Cline has made me recall my favorite console games in the 80s: Pac Man, Galaga, and Pong.

But of course, my all-time favorite game is the one shown below. I can spend hours just playing it.

Read this book if:
  1. You love anything 80s.
  2. You're heavily into gaming.
  3. Most of your waking hours are spent online.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Bad-ass classic

In 1954, a book was published that would take the publishing and reading world by storm. A book written by William March, who, despite having written other works of fiction, would always be known simply as the writer of this suspense novel. A novel that would be nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction, a rare feat considering the genre. A book that would inspire a Broadway play and countless Hollywood movies about murderous children. A book that would spark an endless debate about people's personalities. That book is The Bad Seed, which has been reprinted recently, much to reader delight.

So who is the bad seed in this novel? It's one eight-year-old Rhoda Penmark. By all appearances, Rhoda is all sugar and spice, complete with those dainty sundresses, cute pigtails, and adorable maryjanes. But it's all a veneer of course, for Rhoda manages to kill a boy of her own age simply because he bested her in a school computation. Also, she exacts revenge on a gardener who has somehow seen her for who she really is. There are other acts attributed to Rhoda in her earlier years, but March leaves it to the reader to decide. One thing is certain though -- Rhoda is "the" bad seed and she will continue to be one as she grows older.

One of the themes of The Bad Seed is that genetics plays a part in molding our personalities. March makes it evident that Rhoda, even with her doting mother, was predisposed to evil. (Later in the novel it will be revealed that Rhoda's grandmother had a similar streak.) Yes, Rhoda's father was always absent, but that's irrelevant: Rhoda is evil because evil is in her genes.

It is at this point that the reader may ponder on the question of nature vs. nurture. Can people do anything if a negative personality trait runs in their veins? I sure hope so. Still, it's a chilling thought -- being predisposed to do sinister acts. You never know if you'll wake up one day with the urge to repeatedly stab that pesky neighbor for playing Air Supply loudly in the middle of the night. Or push that officemate down the stairs for getting a paperclip from your desk without asking.

Despite being published in 1954, The Bad Seed still gave me the chills after reading it. And the ending was so unexpected that it gave me goosebumps. March's writing is as fresh and detailed even after more than 50 years. It's one of my most enjoyable reads for this year. In Rhoda Penmark, March has created an iconic character that we would all be afraid of.

Patty McCormack, the girl who played Rhoda, in the 1956 Oscar-nominated movie
People mentioned that it was she that should have been nominated instead of the actress who played her mother.

Read this book if:
  1. You have no doubts that children can be evil.
  2. You like classic suspense novels.
  3. You think that you just might be a bad seed yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Not another fantasy novel

But not just any fantasy novel, this one has endeared itself to me, and I'm not even big on this genre. Patrick Rothfuss's debut novel, The Name of the Wind, will appeal to just about any reader. There's adventure, romance, magic, and a coming-of-age tale in Rothfuss's doorstop of a book. (Question to you, dear reader: Why do fantasy novels always have to run for more than 500 pages?)

In The Name of the Wind, we meet Kvothe (pronounced "quothe"), a reclusive inkeeper in the provincial town of Newarre. Rothfuss makes it clear from the start that Kvothe and his assistant, Bast, are not the characters they appear to be. It turns out that Kvothe is something of a legend, one who has been labelled as "the kingkiller" among other things. Kvothe, all red hair and green eyes, is simply whiling away his days in Newarre, which appears as an insignificant speck on the map. (Another question for you, dear reader: Why do fantasy novels always have a spread-out map?)

However, terrible things are slowly happening in Newarre too. One day, a scribe who is more famously known as the Chronicler stumbles into Newarre and recognizes Kvothe. Kvothe offers a deal -- he will tell his entire life story to the Chronicler in a span of three days. Kvothe begins to account the early part of his life on the first day. Thus, The Name of the Wind is just the first part of the trilogy. (And yet another question for you: Why do fantasy novels always have to be part of a trilogy or a series?)

To say that Kvothe's life is one of endless trials and tribulations is an understatement. We learn that his family was of the Edema Ruh, a well-known and respected troupe of performers. One unfortunate day while Kvothe was running an errand, an evil force called the Chandrian kills the entire troupe, including Kvothe's parents. Orphaned and with no money, Kvothe is forced to live as a beggar and as a thief in the city. Then he remembers what his guardian, a Merlin-like character, told him -- to go to the University and learn to be an arcanist. (Question: Why do fantasy novels always have a character like Merlin?)

In the University, Kvothe earns a reputation for being a prodigy. He easily masters the principles of a form of magic called sympathy among other things. But of course, all is not well in this place of learning. He manages to get the ire of the first-born son of a nobleman. And also, Kvothe falls in love. But Kvothe never strays farther from his goal -- to learn more about the Chandrian and possibly avenge his parents' death. Of course, there has to be a dragon somewhere in the novel. (Another question: Why do fantasy novels always feature dragons?)

I was pleasantly surprised how I found myself totally liking this novel. Unlike other fantasy novels, The Name of the Wind has some parts that are lighthearted and funny. Rothfuss thus makes the entire narrative somehow engaging. There's a pervading element of thread, yes; but the reader is always hopeful that Kvothe will get what he so truly deserves. I learned that it took a few years for Rothfuss to finish this novel. I guess that explains the beard. (And my last question: Why do fantasy novelists always have to look like the person below?)

Patrick Rothfuss

Read this book if:
  1. You love fantasy novels.
  2. You're still waiting for the next book in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.
  3. You're patient.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

One thing leads to another

If it weren't for the wonderful music in this:

I wouldn't have read and somehow "liked" this:

Still, I'm glad I got inspired to finally read this:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A very peculiar read

Judging by its cover, you'd think that Ransom Riggs's debut novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is a horror story. Unfortunately, it's not, but it's something much more wonderful. In a way, it's a coming-of-age book filled with mystery, suspense, and the occasional episodes of creepiness. And, I believe it can be a cross-over novel -- a book that can be enjoyed by both young adults and adults.

As a child, Jacob, the main character, has long been fascinated by the old photographs that his grandfather keeps. The photographs are by and large eccentric -- a girl seemingly hovering in the air, a scrawny boy apparently lifting a huge boulder, a girl staring at her reflection on a pond, with the reflected image consisting of two girls, a creepy pair of girls with their backs turned to the camera, a girl holding a globe of light in her hands.

The black and white photographs lend an air of mystery to the story. Of course, we all know that they're fake, yet somehow, there's a gothic feel to them. Here are some examples.

By the time Jacob is in his teenage years, his fascination for the photographs and the children on them has waned. But then his grandfather dies violently of mysterious causes. Jacob decides to go to the Welsh island where his grandfather's orphanage once stood, with the hope of finding the reason for his death.

Things turn more mysterious when Jacob reaches the island and finds out that the orphanage, which was run by Miss Peregrine, was bombed during World War II and with all of its residents killed. So how can it be that his grandfather failed to mention this very important detail? How did his grandfather survive the bombing? Adding another layer of mystery to all these, Jacob makes a startling discovery -- the children shown in his grandfather's photographs are alive! And they do have peculiar traits!

I don't want to write any more details. You just have to get your hands on this one, dear reader. It's one of the most pleasantly surprising reads I've experienced this year. What's more, there can be a sequel!

But I do would like to say that, production-wise, this is a very beautiful book. The vintage photographs appearing in the novel are real pictures that Riggs have gathered or have requested permission to reuse. The pictures effortlessly weave into the story, making the reader richer and more satisfying. Here are two of my favorite pictures:

Read this book if:
  1. You love cross-over novels.
  2. You like books with pictures. Who doesn't, no?
  3. You think you're a peculiar child yourself.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

More good sci-fi/fantasy

It's a good year in reading science fiction and fantasy novels for KyusiReader. And one of these is China Miéville's outstanding steampunk novel, Perdido Street Station, which managed to grab a string of awards including the British Fantasy Society's August Derleth Award in 2000 and the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2001. Naturally, my expectations were quite high; thankfully, I wasn't disappointed.

The first part of Perdido Street Station innocuous enough. Miéville sets up the city of New Crobuzon in wonderful detail. It's a city unlike any other. The industrial metropolis is populated by individuals whose traits can only be described as otherworldly. Frog-like individuals called vodyanoi can manipulate water into different shapes. Kephri, those with the head of an insect and the body of a human female, make sculptures using their spit. There are cactacae whose bodies are half human and half cacti. Animal and mechanical parts have been painfully grafted into the bodies of some humans, thus labelling them as the remade.

In the first few chapters, we meet one Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a scientist with a lowly reputation. One day, Isaac is visited by a garuda, an esoteric individual that is half man and half bird. The garuda has informed Isaac that his wings had been cut off, and that he is looking to Isaac to help him take flight again. Isaac accepts and immerses himself into research. He studies the mechanics of flight, finds out more about the garuda community, and acquires winged organisms. One of these is a beautiful caterpillar who only survives by taking a hallucinogenic drug called dreamshit.

The second part of the novel is where things get more interesting. The novel effortlessly becomes a work of horror, suspense, and adventure. The caterpillar has morphed into a pupa, which in turn emerges as a slake-moth. It then manages to find four of its siblings, wreaking havoc on the citizens of New Crobuzon. It turns out that slake-moths can suck the dreams and consciousness of a person; what's left after the "psychic carnage" is a living body devoid of thought -- a husk. The existence of the slake-moths has also brought a plague of nightmares to the city. Isaac, after learning all these, takes it upon himself to hunt for these slake-moths. Of course, he enlists the help of some of his friends, the garuda, and his kephri girlfriend.

If the first part of the novel is brilliantly mesmerizing, with the descriptions of New Crobuzon and its inhabitants, the second part is thrilling and propels the reader to finish Miéville's 700-page doorstop of a novel. Trust me, you would wish for another 700 pages after reading the last page. Perdido Street Station is that satisfying. Good thing that this novel is just the first of Miéville's Bas-Lag novels; it's followed by The Scar and The Iron Council.

After reading Perdido Street Station, China Miéville immediately became one of my favorite authors. I'm currently reading The Scar and I'm happy to report that it's just as good as Perdido Street Station. And that's why I'm on a frenzy collecting Miéville's fiction.

I just have a few more novels to go before everything's complete. I think I'm missing his short story collection and his young adult novel. I'm looking forward to the hunt. (No massmarket paperbacks for me.) I've also managed to buy a signed first edition at a secondhand bookstore, which I got for a steal thanks to a book club friend. (Thanks, Fredda!)

Read Perdido Street Station if:
  1. You like steampunk.
  2. You're prepared to experience a hallucinogenic reading high.
  3. You want to know how dreamshit works.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Maybe some people liked this

Killing time in bookstores usually works for me. However, there are times when I regret ever having stepped in a bookstore one day and going home with a book that I have no idea why I bought at all. And because it's bookstore sale season once again here in Manila, the frequency of my bookstore trips has increased. Most of the time, I leave with a smile on my face, happy to take the books home. Very rarely do I end up buying a book that I would like to fling violently across the room after finishing it. Unfortunately, Gayle Forman's novel, If I Stay, is one such book.

The blurb on the front cover should have served as warning of some sorts. But hey, I liked Twilight (just the first book), so I figured I might as well give this a shot. Plus it's short, so investment on time is practically nil. I figured I'd finish it in two hours, tops. But boy oh boy would I want to have those precious hours back!

I guess my apparent distaste for If I Stay is now very much apparent. The plot is dilute and derivative. Mia, a musically inclined teenager, loses her parents and her younger brother in a freak car accident. She's in a coma herself, after suffering brain contusions, a pierced lung, broken ribs, and what-have-yous. Mia sees her still body in the hospital surrounded by family and friends, and begins to reminisce about significant parts of her life.

Forman adds layer upon layer of cheese to the story. In If I Stay, the circumstances in Mia's life are just too uncomfortably fine. Mia's parents are ex-hippies, so they're very "cool." Mia, a gifted cellist, has a boyfriend who's in a rock band. (I just shudder at the cliché.) Her relationship with her very precocious younger brother is never troublesome at all. There's an attempt to provide conflict when Mia decides to audition for Juilliard. If she does get accepted, she will have to leave her boyfriend and family in Oregon behind. But this sort of conflict is something we've all read before. We just know that it'll work out eventually, no?

It is in remembering these scenes that helps Mia to come to a decision -- whether to continue living, albeit an orphan, or to permanently leave her body and join her parents and younger brother in the afterlife. Sadly, the decision is quite predictable. You'll get to know it at the part where her boyfriend is with her comatose body in the ICU, silently holding her hand. How unimaginative is that?

Read this book if:
  1. You like clichés.
  2. You believe in the power of love (whatever, peanut butter).
  3. Oh, don't bother.