Saturday, October 01, 2005

[Book Reviews] October Book Reviews

October Book Reviews

The Rating System:

1 – There are better ways to spend your time. Examples: Damphir
2 – Ho hum novels, typical of its genre. Examples: most Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.
3 – A cut above the rest, these are usually standard fare stories with either an interesting twist, gorgeous visualizations, or simply make a very interesting read. Examples: Anita Blake series, Dragonlance Chronicles.
4 – Highly recommended books! An interesting read, and pioneers the genre it’s in. Examples: Kushiel’s Dart, Perdido Street Station, Good Omens.
5 – A classic. Must get at all cost. Examples: A Game of Thrones, The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant, Dune.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

Murakami takes readers for a lovely ride into the consciousness of two protagonists, a girl who has never fallen in love, and her best friend who is secretly in love with her. The words are short and simple, no long descriptions for example, but the narrative is entertaining and ever-changing in only a way Murakami can narrate. The novel might just be a translation, but much like haikus, it’s nonetheless gorgeously written, and it would seem as if it was never written in Japanese to begin with. Much like most literary fiction, reality and fantasy collide, yet it’s all just a metaphor for the human condition.

Rating: 4.5/5.

Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

The master of psychological horror, Palahniuk takes us on a roller-coaster ride of the life of a cult survivor. It’s chock full of details, ranging from how to remove blood stains from the carpet to all the chemicals one needs to consume to preserve one’s beauty. It’s also a great concept book as the pages and chapters are numbered in reverse order, a countdown to the story’s predictable but enjoyable ending.

Rating: 4/5.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

A perfect example of today’s modern novel, Pattern Recognition is full of neologisms and tech-savvy terms, although it’s an easier read compared to Neuromancer. Post-apocalyptic cyberspace cities give way to a consumer-heavy present, and the reader is bombarded by all these brand labels, which as it should be as the main character has a certain allergy to such logos. The book starts out as a mystery-type novel with the main character’s history as a recurring subplot. While far from an easy read, it’s more accessible compared to his earlier work, and is geared towards a less ambiguous ending.

Rating: 4/5.

Slayers Vol 3: The Ghost of Sairaag by Hajime Kanzaki

The first few pages are already funny, if you know what to look for. Kanzaki transforms standard-fare fantasy into one with a comedic slant thanks to his writing style, while still being epic and serious at the appropriate moments. A couple of slapstick humor here though, and that doesn’t translate so well in text as it does in animation. Still, Slayers is a great diversion, and quickly cuts to the chase. Facing the aftermath of the previous books, heroine Lina Inverse encounters an old enemy she thought was dead. Despite that fact, the story supports itself well enough without needing prior knowledge of the books that preceded it.

Rating: 3/5.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

When you thought that Murakami’s stories couldn’t get any shorter, this collection compiles several brief narratives loosely based on an earthquake that shook Japan. Murakami’s sense of pacing here is impeccable, as the stories when it is most appropriate, giving the reader something to think about rather than closure. Much of it is an easy read, and it’s amazing where Murakami’s imagination can take you. There’s little commitment here at barely a hundred pages, but the emotional and intellectual returns are great.

Rating: 5/5.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Romance in a not-so-linear narrative, The Time Traveler’s Wife is an excellent example of good slipstream fiction. Formal fiction prose blends with science-fiction and fantasy ideas, and one gets caught up with the two main protagonists, lovers who meet each other in different stages of their life. Several quotations from poetry and philosophy sprinkle this novel, as well as various foreign words, but they don’t detract from the story, and adds to the glamour. Niffenegger’s execution of time travel and keeping track of all of it must be applauded, as well as the twists and turns one encounters in the plot.

Rating: 5/5.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

Perhaps McKillip’s best-written novel ever, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld contains all the essential elements a classic. The prose is enrapturing, brief but colorful, simple yet deep. You also have a three-dimensional protagonist, who appears strong at the beginning, but eventually undergoes a transformation of her own. And while the book is short, it encapsulates a lot of things, and no line is wasted. There’s also the menagerie of creatures and riddles, presented in a way only McKillip can deliver. As if that wasn’t enough, readers are rewarded by an ending that is fulfilling but does not seem forced.

Rating: 5/5.

The Knight by Gene Wolfe

While a novel of epic proportions, more modern readers of fantasy or fiction might be detracted by Wolfe’s more traditional writing style. If one can get over that, then The Knight is a story rich in character and setting, as Wolfe draws from various Western lore. The language is archaic but appropriate, while the narrative takes the form of the protagonist writing a letter to his brother. The hero of the story is a child who suddenly finds himself in another world that has seven layers, and is soon transformed into an adult as he encounters knights and various kinds of aelfs. I couldn’t help but feel though that this book was a male fantasy, as several women try to bed the protagonist. Finally, this is truly a novel in two parts, as the second part, The Wizard, must be read in order to complete the tale. The Knight ends at a crucial juncture, not necessary leaving you hanging, although there has been a lot of build up that has not yet been resolved.

Rating: 3.5/5.

The Two Swords by R.A. Salvatore

Concluding the Hunter’s Blades trilogy, Salvatore takes his most famous character, Drizz’t Do’Urden, to new heights as his character evolves once more and realizes new epiphanies. As usual, the novel is full of what Salvatore is good at: fight scenes, both of epic scale and dramatic one-on-one battles. Any one who’s read the other books in the series will find themselves at home with this one, but those who haven’t might get lost at the opening, as Salvatore has managed to turn the exploits of Drizz’t into a massive, world-changing event that will change a part of Faerun forever. And perhaps that’s the weakness of the book, as new readers will be confounded at the various characters and perspectives, while existing fans will notice the sudden disappearance of a sub-plot being built up in the previous two novels. Everything simply gets swept away in the revolution. New sub-plots are also seeded in The Two Swords, paving the way for more sequels, and ensuring fans that this is far from Drizz’t’s last adventure.

Rating: 3/5.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Another Japanese writer who practices the art of telling short narratives, Yoshimoto’s writing style is quite straightforward and entertaining. Kitchen is actually composed of two stories, but both tales have many similarities. There always seems to be an element of fantasy or disbelief when it comes to Yoshimoto, but she executes it perfectly, even amidst her gender-bending protagonists. Her characters are emotionally scarred in this book, and indeed, her subject matter is dark and depressing. Yet the message Yoshimoto gives is one of catharsis, one of hope. While Kitchen may be a quick and easy read, it harkens to the soul and leaves one much to ponder upon.

Rating: 4/5.

Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson

While undeniably a classic, its writing style and narrative betrays its age. Archaic language and ancient fantasy tropes pepper this book, but it is far from a difficult read. Hoger Carlsen, hero of the story, is transported from Earth to a land of faerie, and there combats the forces of chaos. While this book is inspired by Arthurian and European myth, many modern fantasy novels borrow elements from Three Hearts & Three Lions. Of course having said that, today’s reader might not necessarily find this book as appealing as it was half a century ago.

Rating: 3/5.

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Friday, September 30, 2005

[Blog Entry] The End is Near…

The End is Near…

… but that only means that my deadline is looming over the horizon. It’s been an exhausting week, and next week will be no different. I’ve struggled working for a monthly magazine… an annual publication is even more difficult. Especially when it feels like you have a staff of one.

Not that it’s all pain and agony. Earlier today, I got to interview Boy Abunda over the phone. Strangely enough, there was no pressure, just a calmness, lots of insights, and simply enjoying the experiencing. It’s also interesting to see how some events have developed. I mean a Bb. Pilipinas was thrown our way a few weeks earlier. Who would have expected that she be this year’s Miss International? (Of course in my opinion, the photos on the broadsheets don’t do her justice; she’s prettier in real life.)

At the end of the day, a question I ask myself is whether I’ve grown. Just because you’ve suffered doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve learned anything new. I won’t answer that question for now. For some things, you need to wait for the end in order judge it fairly.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2005

[Blog Entry] Tracing Your Genealogy

Tracing Your Genealogy

Have you ever traced your family tree? If I were to embark upon a quest to investigate my genealogy, it would be a venture that ends too soon. My father’s father was adopted, his heritage lost in the labyrinth of time. The purity of my Chinese blood would probably be in question if it weren’t for the fact that my grandfather was born in China, and that the legacy of his Chinese forefathers bred true.

Ignorance of the past bestows a certain sense of freedom. One’s imagination is let loose, for my ancestors can literally be anyone. Where they emperors of their time, or perhaps honorable and noble warriors? Maybe my great great grandfather was sired by Lung dragons, or my great great grandmother the concubine of a shape shifting spirit.

But a part of you will always be missing, a past that may unknowingly haunt your present. At the back of your mind, whenever you woo a beautiful girl, you ask yourself, is she a distant cousin? Or when you shout a thousand different curses at your hated enemy, are you condemning your own relative?

Amidst all the uncertainty, one is perhaps given a gift, a boon so many crave. Few people are ever born with a blank slate, bereft of any expectations, deprived of a haunting or indebted lineage. The only past one has is whatever one makes of the present.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

[Essay] Memory: The Silent Killer

Memory: The Silent Killer

An important but subtle element that governs us is memory. At the shallowest level, it can be as simple as remembering a friend’s name. Yet memory is a pervading force, and it branches out to other aspects of our lives. If it wasn’t so vital, whether it be individual memory or collective memory, then why bother with history, with psychology, or simply keeping a journal?

Haven’t you been attracted to someone because they reminded you of someone else in your past, be it a friend, a lover, a relative? It’s not always apparent the first time you meet a person, yet it’s there: what’s beautiful about him or her? Sometimes, it’s the memory of a past life with someone else who shares the same qualities. It could be the way they talk, a physical feature, the gestures they make, or even their interests. Yet no two individuals are completely identical, and so this new person’s quirks will in turn cause you to be attracted to someone similar in the future. But it’s not always about love. It could also remind us to dislike certain types of people, to distrust them, and sometimes, to loathe them. When we quibble that we don’t like a certain person, yet can’t point our finger on what makes them untrustworthy, sometimes it can be rooted to a memory of encountering someone similar.

As for friendships, even the strongest bonds can be shattered by memory. Amnesiacs live out entirely new lives, make new friends, for previous shared experiences do not exist. Yet it does not always have to be something that drastic. In our daily lives, who do we think about? Perhaps one of the reasons why people don’t always keep in touch with each other is because we forget. And the insidious part of it all is that we don’t notice. It could be our best friend from high school, a teacher from college, or perhaps our nursemaids when we were babes. What impedes us is not malice or fear or laziness. Sometimes it’s memory, as their significance in our lives is encompassed by the all-too-important present.

But forgetfulness is not always the root of disagreements. Sometimes, we remember them all too well. Lovers might separate and claim that the other was not the same person they fell in love with. Here, the roots of memory take a firm hold, and anything short of it becomes faulty, unworthy. The same goes for our friends and family: we often like to remember them during their best. But some fall prey to constantly measuring them by that standard. And there’s the fact that memory isn’t always selective, and as much as we remember the good, we also recall the bad, and it lurks in our minds whenever we encounter them. It’s what makes betraying a trust so malignant: even if we forgive, we seldom forget.

We are temporal beings, and our only link to who we truly are lies in memory. Aside from our experiences in the present, the only thing that tethers us to the past, and some believe to the future, is memory. The reason we keep on doing something over and over again is because we recall our prior encounters with it. Learning would be impossible if it weren’t for memory, and indeed, we measure growth in terms of who we used to be. A man without memories is simply a man who lives for the present: who can say whether he’s matured or not? He cannot plan, he cannot save, he cannot expect. There is simply the now, with no past life to give him firm grounding.

And indeed, memory is the key to our identity. The reason why we’re so dedicated to unearth lost memories is because we believe they’re part of what makes us who we are. Have you ever tried to remember something, yet can’t? Don’t you feel the frustration in doing so? It doesn’t have to be an important event, it could be a trivial thing. Perhaps what you had for lunch, or what clothes your crush wore. Yet when it’s forgotten, it’s as if we’ve lost a part of ourselves as well. But this fact extends to more than the individual. Rewriting history is perhaps difficult because we’re modifying the memory of a nation, of a people. Unlike true memory, we can edit, delete, or even add to our past. Whereas our own memories are only subject to the biases of a single person, history is subject to the biases of a million narrators.

One of the questions a pacifist should ask is when do we start remembering in terms of a collective rather than as individuals? Whether it be as a person, a family, a state, or a nation, as long as we have these artificial boundaries, there will always be conflict. Memory thrives on shared experiences, and in fact what takes note of the differences we have. Memory is the ego, but for selfish creatures like ourselves, perhaps the only way to realize a lasting peace is to have one ego. That’s not to say we give up our individuality, but rather that we start thinking in terms of everyone and not just ourselves or our nuclear family.

Concepts like vendetta and revenge is only possible with the existence of memory. Yet when we ourselves make a mistake, we do not rise up in retaliation to our own body, but instead seek to correct ourselves, to not repeat the same mistake. As long as we think of ourselves as individuals, there will always be “the other”, a separate memory that needs to be assimilated, or failing that, destroyed.

Death is what gives memory a finality. We make our last recollections as we take our final breath. But the ironic thing is perhaps the fact that while individual memory ceases with death, collective memory is strengthened by a person’s death. The dead become part of the consciousness of the survivors. And if history is any proof, the deaths of hundreds, thousands, and millions take a firm foothold in the minds of people.

The question I ask is not whether we remember the past, but whether forgetting is a boon or a bane. As we witness innumerable horrors, is forgetting the ultimate relief, or does it plant the seeds for human error to repeat once again?

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Monday, September 26, 2005

[Blog Entry] Bookstore Musings, Lit Mag Musings

Bookstore Musings

So I dropped by Fully Booked again, this time at the Greenhills branch. It surprises me at how books I saw last week aren’t there anymore. I guess aside from the really popular authors (i.e. Neil Gaiman), Fully Booked just gets a few copies and spreads it out among their three branches. Look at the Fantasy Masterwork series: at each branch, I just see a copy or two of each title. And when I visit the various branches, each one has a different set. If you want to collect them all, I have to travel to Cubao to Greenhills to Rockwell.

On one hand, there’s something to look forward to when I visit each branch. On the other, well, it’s a logistical nightmare, especially if one isn’t as mobile as myself.

Lit Mag Musings

A lot of magazines are out in the Philippine market, from music to pop culture to lifestyle to gadgets. Long ago, I dreamed of working in a gaming magazine (gaming like Collectible Card Games and RPG’s, not just video games). Failing that, an anime magazine (please, don’t even get me started about Psi Com’s anime magazine.. while it’s a valiant effort, I could easily point out where they went wrong, and how everything could be overhauled). Right now, there’s a tinge of hope for a magazine that reviews books.

Except you know, both types of magazines belong to the big bookstores. Powerbooks has Read, while Fully Booked In Print. As much as I want to believe in the spirit of Filipino bibliophiles, well, a literary magazine might not exactly be the most lucrative of publications. Fully Booked virtually gave up on “selling” the magazine and gives it away for free. As for Read, unless Powerbooks discloses its sales, I have no idea how it’s doing. (And besides, selling books to Filipinos is already a hard sell to some people… how much more a magazine that deals with books that few people actually read?) And perhaps the problem with doing book reviews for publications like those is that, well, you’re supervised by bookstores. For one thing, you must review books that their bookstore keeps in stock (which can be a hassle if you plan on reviewing titles another bookstore has). The other is well, you can’t exactly not recommend the book you’re reading. I mean if you give a bad review, then it’s like you’re anti-promoting the book, and why would the bookstore publish such an article? The last thing a bookstore wants are unsold stocks (and in the bookstore business, space is money).

I remember my youth, at when there wasn’t any good local anime magazine around, I set up my own fanzine. Unfortunately, if it’s just going to be staffed by one person, I’m afraid the readership will be less than holistic. I mean I classify myself as a science-fiction and fantasy reader, and if truth be told, probably more of the latter than the former. If I started writing book reviews, it would probably belong to that one niche genre. How about the others? How about fiction, nonfiction, poetry, horror, etc.?

And well, there’s a reason why it’s called a lit mag rather than a book review magazine. So you know, there should be something else in it aside from book reviews. Perhaps one of the advantages of working for a bookstore is the fact that you automatically get invites to their events. (Unfortunately, the only thing you’ll be covering will be their events.) You won’t get any press passes, but one has the freedom to cover virtually any event, whether it’s a film showing, a book discussion, or a book launch, as long as you’re allowed to go in. Of course my tendency to ask is how frequent such events occur? I mean how often do we get writers like Neil Gaiman to visit the Philippines? Or a Harry Potter novel is launched? I guess there’ll always be the annual SF con, and the occasional bleep like Serenity but other than that, well, hopefully there’ll be lots of open events.

Of course this is all theoretical, unless someone actually picks up the pieces. You know, an actual staff, an editor, and a layout artist (even if the thing will just be up on the Internet or something). (It’s a good thing you don’t know what I have cooked up for a definitive anime/manga magazine… the proposal is just lying around my hard drive, and more extensive that this blathering.)

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Sunday, September 25, 2005

[Blog Entry] Cowardice


For most of my life, my dreams have usually been filled with fear. I constantly seem to be running away from something, whether it’s omnipotent overlords, vampiric predators, or inhuman antagonists. And it seems to be something I never outgrow. While I have full control over my emotions during the waking hours, when asleep, my first reaction is to run and hide. And I do just that.

Of course in real life, I’m not one of to face supernatural horrors, even if I wanted to. The only time fear truly grips my heart is during social scenarios, when talking to people, be it over the phone or face to face.

One of my biggest worries is that there’s seldom just one encounter with a person. More often than not, people you meet will be people you meet again and again in the future. Under what dispositions or circumstance, I don’t know, but it’s better to play it safe.

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[Blog Entry] Bizarre Birthday

Bizarre Birthday

When I entered college, some of my batchmates from high school (and I do say batchmates because in high school, the words classmate and friend never jived together, just to show how unpopular I was back then [and still am]) gathered every September to celebrate our mutual birthdays. I mean there were four of us September celebrants, and we just split the bill among our common friends. It was also the perfect excuse for a reunion of sorts.

Sadly, that tradition stopped last year. Either that or I wasn’t being informed.

Probably ever since then, my birthday slowly dwindled into anonymity. I’d treat friends and coworkers out for lunch or for dinner, and that’s probably the only indicator for them that it’s my birthday. Of course my immediate family would always greet me, soon to be followed by relatives.

Perhaps what makes this year bizarre is that not even my relatives greeted me this year (which is actually the biggest surprise). Just my parents and siblings, my coworkers (because we actually have such a thing as a birthday leave, and since I’m at the office every single day Monday to Saturday…), and some friends which I treated beforehand. Other than that, my email and cellphone has been relatively light when it comes to messages.

Not that I’m expecting birthday greetings. I hardly remember people’s birthdays, and there are friends whose birthdays I know are within the week, yet I never really took the time to greet them. (It’s a strange habit, but I remember people’s birthdays a few days before, but forget on the day itself.) The only people whose birthdays I consistently remember is that of my immediate family, the birthdays of people who are close to the birthday of my immediate family (my mom’s birthday falls on April 15, for example, and I have some friends whose birthdays lie between April 14-16), and two crushes (June 4 and November 29, although for the latter, a lot of friends’s birthday also fall on that day).

It is interesting though to find out the people who do greet me, as they come from unexpected sources. This year, one came from my former editor-in-chief of the high school paper, and we remember each other’s birthdays because it’s one day apart. Another was from a blockmate, but of course, we remember each other’s birthday because it happens to fall on the same day. I also have this one friend in LJ land, and of all the 90+ people there who friended me, I’m surprised it came from her to greet me a happy birthday because we’ve only known each other for a year or two, and not that close at that (well, we did meet when she came home from Japan).

Of course upon reflection, this year’s birthday was better than last year’s. I mean last year it was my first day on the floor (call center jargon for being on duty, answering phones), one of the scariest days of my life. I mean our trainers at the call center always tell us that no matter how much they teach us, nothing can prepare you for your first day on the floor. And it so happens to be my birthday at the time. This year, well, since I rarely get breaks from the office, it was spent performing procrastinated duties such as visiting my optometrist and doctor.

More importantly, it’s nice to look back at the year, and observe how much I’ve grown. What surprises even myself is how more emotionally stable I am. Normally, if this happened two years ago, I’d probably go into a depression and whine at how lonely my life is, at how I don’t have true friends who even remember my birthday, or how I’ll die unremembered. And then rant, rant, rant.

Of course not everything is swell. One thing I need to improve upon is my general apathy at things. Like I said earlier, usually I’d rekindle bonds with old friends during this time of the month. Nowadays, I just let everything sweep by, and I’ve definitely lost the initiative.

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