Thursday, February 28, 2013

Don't ever find yourself wearing a red shirt

I'm not a big fan of Star Trek. I find the TV show terribly campy and the science involved wonky. But John Scalzi's sci-fi work, Redshirts, which somehow touches on the Trekkie universe, is a novel that I really, really love.

Last year, Redshirts was high on everyone's lists of best novels. It's one of the few novels that got to be popular among critics and readers. And what's surprising is that Redshirts appealed to even among those not into the sci-fi genre. Woot woot!

Anyway, we're in the year 2456 aboard the huge spaceship Intrepid, which is the flagship of the Universal Union. People who get posted to Intrepid feel privileged. But there's a catch though. For some reason, the casualty rate of those in Away Missions is suspiciously high. Also, even though there are a lot of deaths involved in these missions, it is always the low-ranking crew members who always die. The captain, the chief science officer, and the lieutenant always survive.

Andrew Dahl, who has just recently been posted to the Intrepid, notes these weird goings-on in the ship. Together with his fellow rookies, as well as the help of a more experienced crew member who apparently has gone rogue, they find out one unsettling fact. In their universe, they're all playing out roles based on a sci-fi TV series on Earth! And guess what, the high-ranking officials, who should have been dead 3 times over based on the number of Away Missions, are the show's main characters! The rest, well, the ones who wear the redshirts, are just extras who are expendable.

While Scalzi does provide solid scientific groundwork on the nature of parallel universes and time travel, Redshirts is still so charmingly non-threatening to the non-sci-fi reader. It's a book that plays around with the concept of identity but doesn't take itself too seriously. If you find out that your life is just based on a fictional role, does this mean that your living a bogus life? The answer is no. In the universe where Dahl exists, everything is real even though their existence is based on the fate of a character in another universe.

Scalzi is one funny writer, and Redshirts is probably one of the most comedic novels that I've read. The characters just pile one hysterical one liner after another. Some of the scenarios may toe the line on being slapstick, but everything works though.

The ending of Redshirts is very memorable too. While the overall feel of the novel is humorous, the ending is very heartwarming and affirming. Characters in the two universes find redemption and discover their purpose. There's also a bit of romance and nostalgia that never becomes cloying. A lot of reviews say that this novel is mind bending. I couldn't agree more.

Read this book if:
  1. You're a big Star Trek fan.
  2. You're not a Star Trek fan but you want to find out what the fuss is all about.
  3. You know that there's another you in another universe.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

For lack of something to do on a Monday night

And so on a weekday night, I find myself with a lot of time on my hands. As I didn't feel like reading but still want to do something book-ish, I decided to play around with the titles shown on book spines.

Coming up with coherent and grammatically correct (but not necessarily logical) statements using book spines is tough. I think I spent more than an hour just looking for and arranging these books. Here are 2 sets that I came up with.

Strangers on a train loving the art of travel

Don't look now, great apes mating on the beach!
It's quite challenging but fun actually, dear readers. And I think it's very therapeutic. You should try it sometime.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Elementary, my dear

I have a confession to make, dear reader. We're almost at the end of February, and I still have not finished a book this month. I blame it on my current favorite TV series from CBS: Elementary. It's now on its 17th episode, and I am really hoping that the series gets its 2nd season, or 3rd. To say that I'm addicted to Elementary would be an understatement.

And still I have another confession to make: I haven't read the short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle featuring the great and infallible detective Sherlock Holmes and his very grounded companion Dr Watson. I do recall a story we read in high school involving a snake as the culprit. Nevertheless, it's a good thing that I do have one of Doyle's books, which is The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I guess reading the bloody thing is now in order, eh?

Anyway, back to the TV series. One of the aspects that I enjoy about it is the characters. Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock is perfect, with his British accent, his unpredictable nature, and his totally disarming demeanor. In the TV series, Sherlock lives in New York, has a rich father somewhere who supports him, and is on his road to recovery from being a heroin addict. He's a consultant for the NYPD, with almost a 100% success rate.

Lucy Liu as Dr Watson is very groundbreaking. We don't get the usual "maneater" vibe from Ms Liu in Elementary. In fact, like the short stories, her character provides the much needed contrast to Sherlock's excess. She's the human touch to Sherlock's methodical and sometimes insensitive process. Dr Watson's character in the TV series is quite intriguing. All we know that she was a former top surgeon who's now taken on the role of a sober companion to recovering drug addicts. The episodes somehow peel the layers of Watson's character slowly, as if taunting the viewer to keep on watching week after week after week.

There's even a Moriarty, the great nemesis of Sherlock. But in the TV series, he isn't revealed yet. There's one episode wherein the duo appears to have caught a murderer whom Sherlock assumed to be the mysterious M that he has long been searching for. It turns out though that the man was simply hired by Moriarty.

If you like CSI, detective shows, and police procedurals, you just might be addicted to Elementary as well. I know that there's another TV series in the UK inspired by Doyle's works, but Cumberbatch rather weird. Miller and Liu are the detective duo for me. I love their banter, which thankfully doesn't go overboard.

Yesterday, I went to the bookstore and was quite happy to see that Doyle's books are as popular as ever. People (well, except me) are still reading the adventures of Sherlock and Watson even though the stories are more than 100 years old. And I also saw some books which have been inspired by the original stories. Below are just 2 of these books. The novel by Moore, The Sherlockian, has received very positive reviews.

So maybe this is the year when I finally get to read Doyle. I dread the time when the final episode of season 1 of Elementary airs and I'm having withdrawal symptoms waiting for season 2.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Nabokov in the mail

There's always something nostalgic when you receive something by post. It's as if that letter or parcel you're holding is an homage to a romantic age, when people still took the effort to get hold of a pen and paper, write something, and  go out of their way to mail it. I can't even remember the last time I received something from the mailman which aren't bills.

So it's quite a pleasant surprise when you get that notification that you have a parcel to be claimed from the post office. Although I must admit that I don't look forward to trips to the post office. The whole place just looks sad. The last time I was there, I noticed the crumbling walls, dark alleys, old, musty smells. And it doesn't help that the post office employees can be rude. When I went there yesterday, it's the same thing: rude and bored employees and everything.

The trip was definitely worth it though. I got a Nabokov! It's been a while since I last read a novel by him. I do recall enjoying Lolita and his collected short stories. And The Eye is a novella, perfect for whiling away those lazy weekend afternoons.

The book and the Far Side cartoon strips all came from Andy. I met him when I was in Bangkok last year for a business trip. He was the one who convinced me to try out 1Q84, which somehow became the novel that we're reading along in our book club. Thanks, A! See you again soon!

So it's true: brown paper packages are one of my favorite things.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In galaxies far, far away

Given a choice reading between fantasy and sci-fi, I'd choose sci-fi. While the line separating these 2 genres are becoming less and less clear, I'm really partial to novel big on sci-fi elements, one of which is space opera.

Space opera? Think Star Trek, Star Wars, Alien, and all those adventure stories featuring spaceships, faster-than-light travel, contact with aliens. High on testosterone, space opera is. And apparently, a significant number of these novels are doorstops. That's at least 500 pages of action set in space.

I wonder why space opera, as a subgenre in sci-fi, isn't as popular nowadays. It peaked during the mid 20th century, when most published sci-fi novels were set in space. Isaac Asimov's Foundation series had space operatic elements. Another one is Arthur C. Clarke's Rama novels.

Perhaps readers are now looking more and more into fantasy when they're craving for speculative fiction. George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is as popular as ever. Tolkien's middle earth novels are currently enjoying a revival, especially with the ongoing The Hobbit movies. A lot of current young adult bestsellers are in the fantasy mold as well: Twilight, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, etc.

Maybe there's hope for space opera. The latest Star Trek movie is out this year, and there's going to be a slew of new Star Wars movies in the future. And let's not forget Ender's Game. I hope these movies rekindle the interest in reading space opera.

Now, I'm reading Iain M. Banks's first Culture novel, Consider Phlebas. It's a very enjoyable read, set in the far future where artificial intelligences (drones and "Minds") play a huge role in a utopian society. It's got politics, sociology, technology, and just good ol' adventure. Interesting trivia: When Banks writes non-sci-fi novels, he drops his middle initial. His most popular novel is still The Wasp Factory, his debut work.

Being stuck on Earth can be boring; let's all head to space!

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The ones with the ridiculously cheesy covers

I'm no artist. I can't draw, can't pait, can't do anything with Photoshop, can't do simple art designs. This list of "can'ts" in line with art is just too embarrassing. When God showered Earth with all those artisic genes, I must've been using an umbrella on that day.

There's one thing that I do know though, and that's telling when a particular book cover is bad. Remember when the US Supreme Court had trouble defining pornography? They had to resort to this I'll-know-it-when-I-see-it line of reasoning. It's the same with book covers in my case.

I'm sure you get my feelings. And it's particularly disheartening when good books have these awful covers. Take the case of Lois McMaster Bujold's wonderful Vorkisigan novels. It's still an ongoing series, but the current crop of novels in this series have received very positive responses from both readers and critics. A lot of these novels have been shortlisted for either the Hugo or the Nebula, sometimes even both.

If you're looking for an exciting sci-fi read, I highly recommend the Vorkosigan novels. Miles Vorkosigan reminds me a lot of Tyrion Lannister, with his deformed frame and his shrewd but brilliant mind. I'm warning you though: these books are not eye candy on one's shelf.

I have a long list of gripe regarding the covers for this series. The artwork is so uninspired that it doesn't leave anything to the imagination. Let's put spaceships! And people shooting laser guns! We have weddings, so let's go for 2 people slow dancing! And don't forget the imperial guards standing at attention! Argh! I die of cheese.

Nevertheless, I will persevere and try to get my hands on the rest of the novels in the series. Good stories vs. covers that can cause epileptic fits? Really, it's no contest.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The most youthful person I've ever met

Two weeks ago at an "unofficial" book club event, I met the lovely Gilda Cordero-Fernando. I say unofficial because the meetup was not part of the roster of discussions for this year. I have always been intrigued by this enigmatic lady, so I went with giddy anticipation to the meet-and-greet and the informal Q&A session. It was a memorable Saturday afternoon filled with hearty laughs, deep insights, and memorable conversations.

Now, GCF is already in her mid 80s. To say that she doesn't look it would be an understatement. The lady is a riot! Her remarks were witty, her anecdotes detailed, and her sense of style and humor impeccable. She is an artist in every sense of the word. She writes about anything; she's published books on Philippine culture, history, food, and mythology. She's written several acclaimed short story collections both for adults and young readers. She even finds the time to write a weekly column for a national daily. And, she paints! Goodness! Compared to her, I've no talent whatsoever.

The informal event started very unconventionally, with GCF throwing questions at the ladies for her column. The R-18 topic: How did you get to know about sex? Ayayay! The temperature in the room went several degrees higher! This shouldn't be happening! We were the ones supposed to pose questions to her! Nevertheless, the ladies of the book club indulged her with their experiences. I couldn't help but chime in, especially when they were talking about how sex education is done in our schools. I've taught biology for high school, so I shared with them my experiences in teaching this sensitive topic to impressionable young minds.

I was also drooling at some of the books brought by Sana, one of the book club's admins who made this event happen. Most of these books are now out of print. Some of her books even had her paintings and illustrations. During the Q&A with GCF, some members asked her how open she was with converting her books to electronic format. She mentioned though that all the copyright of her books now belongs to the office of her son.

GCF's fond retelling of some of the memorable events in her life was a pleasure to listen to. Clearly, this lady has just too many stories to share. One story I couldn't forget was the one when she was still running her antique shop and she had to go to the southern tip of the country just to get some antique items. It was an adventure story featuring a former first lady, an unplanned motorcyle ride, illegal ammunition, and undervalued Muslim swords called kriss.

I got a chance to ask her a couple of questions, such as the most memorable places that she's been to both here and abroad. As her husband was a former high-ranking government official who traveled a lot, she said that she frequently tagged along, allowing her to visit many exotic local and international destinations. If you see GCF, you'd never think that she'd do the tourist-y stuff.

Unfortunately, when I went to the bookstore prior to the event to get copies of GCF's books, there were only 2 titles available. Both The Magic Circle and Bad Kings are for young readers. The Magic Circle features local mythological creatures and describes what happens when people stop believing in local folklore. It has themes of environmental protection too. Bad Kings is a collection of short stories featuring, well, bad kings.

Right before the close of the meet-and-greet, I manage to sneak in one final question: What's the secret to staying young? GCF mentioned 2 things. One is moisturizer, and the other is blended fresh lettuce leaves which has to be drunk daily. Oi! The moisturizer I can handle, but the thought of drinking something that tastes like soil isn't very much appealing to me.

What lessons did I learn from meeting Gilda? One is never too old to start doing something new. Case in point: Gilda started painting in her 70s with no formal training, and she learned to swim in her 40s. Also, one shouldn't take oneself too seriously; you'll just take the fun out of everything. I wholeheartedly agree.

Once again, thank you, R, for the pictures! They're lovely as always.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A sci-fi read-along

If there's one genre other than the classics that I'd like to read more of, that would be science fiction. I love science fiction, with its world building, space travel, alternative histories, and other speculative elements. I have a special preference for sci-fi published in the early to mid 1900s though.

Last year, I read Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Frank Herbert. And I decided to continue on this year with reading "classic sci-fi." These are the authors whose works continue to influence the present crop of writers, sci-fi or otherwise.

So this year, the book club voted to have a science fiction read-along, a few weeks after the close of the read-along for Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. The first challenge? Selecting the books. In the end, I consulted with a friend and we came up with 4 titles.

I've read all 4.
So April will be a month of rereading for me.
Initially, we were thinking of reading the entire Dune or the Foundation series. But I think that it might better to read sci-fi novels from different subgenres. Hence, the 4 titles, while all of them are undoubtedly sci-fi, are somewhat different from one another.

The first time I read Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was when I was 13. I remember being really enthralled by the adventure story. I'm looking forward to rereading it this April, the sci-fi read-along month. I miss Captain Nemo and I've forgetten how it felt to step aboard the Nautilus.

Of course, Isaac Asimov's Foundation is a must. And there has to be an apocalyptic sci-fi novel too. So we've included Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Interestingly, these 2 novels were published in 1951. And I think they were well ahead of their time.

We must have cyberpunk, and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is considered a seminal work in this subgenre. It's a very groundbreaking novel. For one, Ernest Cline, the author of that popular Ready Player One, considers Stephenson's novel a huge influence on his work.

So there they are, the 4 sci-fi novels. We could've chosen more books from other subgenres. But there's always the burnout factor. We wouldn't want the participants to feel stressed or think that the read-along would be too much work. At the end of the day, what counts is that we have fun reading these sci-fi novels together.

I'll post the link to the online discussions soon, in case you want to join us in April.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Step right up

It's about relationships. It's about sex. It's about fetishes. It's about everyday people. It's about city life. It's about violence. It's about almost anything under the sun. That's what Jerzy Kosinski's National Book Award-winning work, Steps, is all about.

As I scan this slim fictional work, however, I realize that it's a challenge encapsulating the very feel of this book: sometimes hopeful, sometimes depressing, but never cloying. The stories are just a joy to read.

I bought Steps on a whim one weekend. I was early for an appointment and I didn't like the book that I had in my bag. For the life of me, I don't know the point of having a book I have no plans of reading in my bag. But anyway, there was I with an unwanted book.

When I bought it, I went to one of those trendy juice shops with their overpriced drinks. I plopped my fat ass in their comfy seats. And then I turned the first page of Steps. Several minutes later, I kept on looking at my watch, hoping that the person I'm meeting will run late. I didn't want to put the book down. I was on a stranglehold.

Don't you just love these little things—when the book you have no ideas about turns out to be one very satisfying read? And could it be true: that we're only 1 month into the new year and I've already found my best read for 2013? Maybe.

Steps is categorized as a novel. It didn't feel like it at times though, especially with the disconnected narratives found in the pages. But there seems to be a connecting thread to each story, as if Kosinski is weaving an intricate picture of humanity in its raw form. Some stories, like the one involving bestiality, may shock some readers. But it doesn't erase the fact that these scenarios can happen.

Kosinski's writing reminds me a lot of Hemingway; his sentences terse, and the paragraphs short. I love Papa Hemingway, so that's probably one of the reasons why I immediately became comfortable with Kosinski's writing. These gifted writers can say a lot in just a few words. And with the case of Steps, with its less than 200 pages, the writer spoke volumes.

Read this book if:
  1. You'll read anything that's won the National Book Award.
  2. You like writing that can range from poetic to visceral.
  3. You love wonderfully freaky stuff.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Eeny meeny miny moe

I've a happy problem: I can't remember if I've ever read Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. I seldom reread, considering that there are still tons of unread books on my shelf.

I do remember reading The Brothers Karamazov on a whim back in high school. I recall that I surprisingly liked it. Back in high school, I went through a phase wherein I read most of an author's works if I enjoyed the 1st book of his that I read. This explains my extensive yellowing paperback collection of Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Jules Verne, and Clive Barker. Also, I must admit that I have Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, too. Krantz and Collins are enjoyable on another level. Hihihihihi.

Anyway, I'll probably read/reread Crime and Punishment for the book club discussion sometime this year. The fact that I can't even remember reading it means that I just have to suck it up and just read the darn thing. I love me some Dostoevsky and it's been a while since I picked up one.

I did see a graphic novel of C&P at the bookstore and bought it on the spot. For a few minutes, I considered just reading this "lighter" version. When I say lighter, I mean just that: the graphic novel does weigh less.

Oh, there's one good thing about reading C&P now. Pevear and Volokhonsky, them husband and wife award-winning translators, did a new translation of this beloved work by Dostoevsky. I've read their translation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina last year, and I must say that they did great work on it. (Yes, I actually compared a few versions just to check.)

I gave the graphic novel version to R. over the weekend. If I see it on my shelf, well, I just might choose the graphic novel instead of the full doorstop of a novel. Besides, if there's one person who understands graphic novels, it's R.