Tag Archives: Books

Side Comments of the Month XV: Consume

Side Comments of the Month XV: Consume

Dear Blog,

Long time, no posts. I hope you aren’t angry with me. I haven’t updated you in three months. Your lack of activity coincides with the arrival of Titus. Titus happens to be the Kindle I got for Christmas…

As much as I love the smell of new books and the feel of paper, it’s convenient to be able to borrow books from the library at 2 AM in the morning. Here’s a list of everything I’ve read on Titus so far (in order of reading):

  • The Duchess War — Courtney Milan
  • Viscount Vagabond — Loretta Chase
  • When Patty Went to College — Jean Webster
  • The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness — Cecil B. Hartley
  • The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness — Florence Hartley
  • The Heiress Effect — Courtney Milan
  • A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong — Cecilia Grant
  • To Catch A Heiress — Julia Quinn
  • The Romance of Lust — Anonymous
  • The Countess Conspiracy — Courtney Milan
  • The Actress and the Rake – Carola Dunn
  • The Wisdom of Father Brown — G.K. Chesterton
  • Songs of Innocence and Experience — William Blake
  • Lord Roworth’s Reward — Carola Dunn
  • Captain Ingram’s Inheritance — Carola Dunn
  • The Devil’s Delilah — Loretta Chase
  • The Good Soldier — Ford Madox Ford

 

Archer and Rin are ready to crack some skulls.

2. Aside from reading too much, I’ve managed to start and catch up with a couple of anime series:

  • Baby Steps (an unfortunately named series, yet interesting in its own way. Prior knowledge of tennis not required)
  • Carnival Phantasm (oh my god the sugar rush of fan service)
  • Knights of Sidonia (a good bit of science fiction)

I also finished the first season of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works. I’m looking forward to the new season, which starts airing this month. I think it’s superior to the original Fate/Stay Night series. (The prequel Fate/Zero is still my favorite installment of the franchise, though.) 

I don’t watch a lot of western animation, but Adam and I finished The Legend of Korra. We are now currently consuming the fifth season of Archer. Such a depraved lot of characters! I love how Jessica Walter plays pretty much the same mother she was on Arrested Development. 

 

3. For live-action television, I’m ashamed to admit I binge-watched the first season of Broadchurch over one long weekend. That’s eight hours of following the red herrings and trying to fathom the shifty behavior of all the characters. That binge made for one emotionally wrecked weekend! I was so tense my nails bit into my palms, yet I couldn’t stop watching.

Hardy's ready to crack some skulls, too. Right after he takes his medication...

Broadchurch’s second season, which I’m currently watching on BBC America, lacks the  intensity of the first. It does, however, make me think of a new subtitle every week.

(These subtitles have mild spoilers. To read, highlight the text below.)

The Adventure of the Dying Detective

How Ellie Got Her Groove Back

There is Only One Bed

Everybody Lies, thus Danny’s Murderer Will Obviously Get Away with It

OMG Charlotte Rampling Plays a Barrister, I Loved her in Swimming Pool, I Can’t Stop Watching Now 

 

Hardy and Miller’s developing friendship is one of the best elements of the second season. Whenever she gives him a little punch in the arm for doing something stupid, I just have to go “aww.” They have some subtle comic moments, like the scene where Hardy offers Miller a hug and she just gives him the stink eye.

Not enough people give David Tennant the stink eye convincingly, I wonder why it’s so entertaining to watch. Suddenly I miss Donna Noble…

On a side note, I feel like I should make a David Tennant shirt. On one side it will say “The Worst Cop in Britain” and on the reverse, “the Best Doctor in the Universe.” Yeah, that sums up all my David Tennant feelings.

 

Dr. Henry Morgan doesn't crack skulls. He probably collects them. Some of them were probably his friends...

4. Still on the topic of live-action television, Forever continues to hover somewhere between guilty pleasure and good TV. I still believe this show exists to put Ioan Gruffudd in a variety of period costumes. By my reckoning, so far Dr. Henry Morgan has been shown wearing 1) Regency attire, 2) Victorian duds, 3) World War II gear, 4) an early ’80s suit, and 5) his natty modern suits and scarves.

The show’s team must be enamored (like me!) of Gruffudd’s old work: Amazing Grace and Horatio Hornblower. I suppose the man can’t help it if he looks good in a cravat and tight breeches.

Forever has yet to resolve its recurring immortal serial killer problem. Right now, it’s at a strange impasse, and sometimes it doesn’t interest me as much as the murder of the week stuff. I get the feeling the show’s making its mythos up as it goes along, à la The X-Files.

As to rooting for a lost cause, I’ve pretty much given up on Constantine. While some of the episodes were just bloody brilliant, nobody else seems to realize it.

I haven’t watched the last episode on DVR because let’s face it, I just know that the series won’t be renewed and I’ll be left agonizing for years over some unresolved cliffhanger. Gah. Matt Ryan deserves better than this.

Side Comments of the Month XII

Side Comments of the Month XII

I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since my last post. Bad blogger. Bad, bad, blogger. The weeks have been tough, with me getting a bad case of strep throat. Before I fully recovered from that, I got rear-ended in my first accident in three years. I could say more about this but I feel oddly reticent. I also don’t want to harp on the horrible things. So onwards with the good:

1. I got free books again, and lo, none of them are romance novels: The Moon Sisters and Your Perfect Life are YA; Dark Eden and Fiend are science fiction; Numbercruncher is a graphic novel; The Art of Castlevania is a companion book to a video game; and The Luminaries is an award-winning literary novel.

To be perfectly honest I don’t know where I’m going to find the time to read these texts! If I made time for all the books I wanted to read, I would live forever and never get any sleep.

 

2. Remember the time when I said I only cared about Doctor Who when it affects my friends? I swallow my pride and take it all back. As much as I hate to appear inconsistent, yeah, I pretty much like Doctor Who now, or at least I like it enough to try watching the episodes in order. I used to watch half an episode all the time, mostly when David Tennant’s crazy eyes would get a close-up.

My eleven-year old nephew (ever the completist) recently borrowed the 1996 TV movie and I found Paul McGann adorable. So now I find myself binge-watching Christopher Ecceleston’s episodes, and suddenly all the stuff that I didn’t understand in the 50th anniversary episode makes sense. Yup, my nephew dragged me to watch that at the cinema too.

Perhaps this is a case of fandom by Stockholm syndrome. It’s okay. At least it’s not Pokemon or Twilight. There are just some bandwagons that should never be boarded.

 

3. Speaking of bandwagons, I’d comment on the latest episode of Game of Thrones except I have nothing new to add to that conversation, except a gleeful die Joffrey die

I also have to say, I was quite underwhelmed with Margaery’s necklace. Is that the best King’s Landing had to offer? I don’t think much of their jewelry shops, then. Sansa and Cersei had better bling. Maybe there’s a missing scene where Cersei hoards all the good jewelry for herself?

 

4. Since Space Brothers is on hiatus, I’ve returned to my roots and I’m now on my biennial Honey and Clover kick.

I first watched this series in 2007 and it’s been a perennial favorite for me to re-watch and re-read. With only twenty-four episodes and ten comic book volumes, Honey and Clover may seem like an easy read, but it’s full of unfulfilled longing, with equal parts of humor and melancholy.

Of course it’s about five friends in art school who don’t know what they are doing with their lives.

Honey and Clover helped me discover Spitz, my favorite J-rock band. It also made me aware of the sub-genre of josei manga, which are comic books written for an older female audience.

When I was in university, everyone was reading Banana Yoshimoto. Looking back, Kitchen, N.P., and Lizard could have easily been written and serialized as a josei manga.

I always worry that Hollywood will discover Honey and Clover and think of making an American adaptation—it’s been a popular franchise in Asia over the past decade, with both film and television adaptations, so I think it’s a matter of time before that happens.

Aside from a live-action Evangelion, this is my anime nerd nightmare because I don’t think the dynamic between the main characters will translate well to another culture. I look at the American remakes of Shall We Dance? and Dragon Ball Z and I just cringe.

So, yeah. Honey and Clover. Don’t let the theme song of the first season throw you off. (It’s the only annoying song on the soundtrack.) This series is brilliant.

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Four

 

The first Buy, Borrow or Bash for the year features three novels that have nothing in common with each other. In no time-space continuum should these three novels be lumped together in this graceless fashion. Unfortunately, I just happened to read them  in succession. Sometimes it just happens that way.

Since I did a ton of reading last month, I’ll try to post a second BBB next week. I read faster than I analyze and review.

I wish I could set a regular day for posting this feature, except I now have an erratic schedule that leaves me horribly muddled.

 

Carola Dunn’s Lord Iverbrook’s Heir (1986; Kindle edition 2010) 

Hugh Carrick, Viscount Iverbrook, returned from the West Indies to find that his brother and wife passed away, leaving his nephew Peter in the care of his in-laws, with the no-nonsense Selena Whitton in charge as legal guardian.

Since the child is his heir presumptive, Viscount Iverbrook is not keen on leaving Peter where he is. Hugh doesn’t have a high opinion of women, and having hung around ignorant ones most of his life. Hugh is determined to wrest Peter away—only to out that find the child thriving in an estate run wholly by women! The rich Whitton lands are run by Selena, who was brought up by her father to care for the farm. With Lady Whitton, who acts as the neighborhood apothecary with her herbal teas, and Delia, a younger sister addicted to gothic romances, Hugh finds the whole household charming. He finds it impossible to stay away, even as he butts heads with Selena over who has more claim to Peter.

Throw in a destitute Whitton cousin (Sir Aubrey) who wants to marry Selena to gain the estate, a scheming ex-mistress determined to stalk Hugh, a talkative best friend who always says the wrong thing, a couple of nosy solicitors, and ta-dah! You have all the ingredients for a romantic comedy.

Selena doesn’t trust Iverbrook easily. She always acts as if he’s about to kidnap the child, which might be grating to a modern audience. But during that era, men had the upper-hand in almost all legal disputes, so Selena’s paranoia is understandable.

Lord Iverbrook’s Heir was written after Angel, so this book doesn’t suffer from the flaws of that earlier novel. Lord Iverbrook’s Heir has tighter subplots without being simplistic.

Once again, there’s nothing more graphic than a few stolen kisses. At this point, however, I know I’m reading a Carola Dunn novel. I’m used to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Lily Everett’s Sanctuary Island (2013)

Ella and Merry Preston have been estranged from their mother since their parents’ divorce. Fifteen years later, however, with Merry pregnant and Ella having problems at work, the sisters finally agree to visit their mother Jo-Ellen, a recovering alcoholic who lives in a remote place called Sanctuary Island.

Ella’s a prickly, defensive heroine, the type who takes offense at practically anything. She immediately trades barbs with her mother’s handyman and friend, Grady Wilkes. Grady’s a decent man traumatized by a near fatal accident, and he only wants to help heal the rift between his friend and her grown daughters. For reasons known only to himself, Grady makes it his mission to show the beauty of Sanctuary Island to Ella.

Sanctuary Island revolves around themes of forgiveness and second chances. It’s a competent piece of contemporary romance. Unfortunately, its plot is somewhat cookie-cutter. Most the characters suffer from poor communication skills! One of the best parts of the book is when Ben, the local veterinarian, calls out the hero and points out, “this could have been resolved if you talked to each other, man.” (It’s not an exact quotation, but it’s a good estimate.) A Romance Novel Trope has been lampshaded.

Despite its predictability, Sanctuary Island has some good moments. Wild horses and horse-lore play a huge part in the novel, and this element brings freshness to the narrative. Horse therapy works for some people, and the author really knows this aspect of her story well. Readers who remember their childhood love of ponies should swoon. It’s worth noting that the first time Ella sees Grady, he’s riding a horse and looking manly. Of course he would be riding a horse…

While Sanctuary Island wasn’t the right romance novel for me, I’m definite other readers will just adore it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow 

 

Nancy Mitford’s Highland Fling (1931; reprinted 2013) 

If you’re looking for a romp through the fringes of high society, look no further than Highland Fling. Reissued by Vintage with an introduction by Julian Fellowes, this volume presents Nancy Mitford’s world of dilettantes and workshy nobles to a new generation of readers.

Young Albert Gates decides to become an abstract painter on the day his best friend Walter Monteath proposes to Sally Dalloch. After two years in Paris, Albert returns to London only to be dragged off to a shooting party at a Scottish castle. There he meets Sally’s friend Jane Dacre, a woman ready to fall in love with anyone since she has nothing better to do. The guests assembled at Dalloch Castle are divided between the conservative ‘grown-ups’—an odd collection of peers and military men—and the younger set, who are only keen on poetry and partying.

It’s hard to sympathize with Sally and Walter Monteath’s money troubles or Jane Dacre’s indecisiveness. Only Albert has some sort of goal for himself, and even he’s haphazard and flighty. Overdrawn at the bank and yet coasting on allowances and their family connections, everyone in Highland Fling leads a charmed existence. Dorothy L. Sayers and Edward Gorey endlessly parodied these sorts of characters, in everything from Clouds of Witness to The Curious Sofa. 

Social comedy stems from the clash between the old and the young, the serious and the flippant, the moneyed and their dependents. There’s loads of 1930s pop culture references—everything from Jaeger pajamas to Laszlo—which will probably stump a reader unfamiliar with the time period. Maybe enterprising Downton Abbey fans should take footnotes for their fanfiction.

Highland Fling is like a well-made soufflé; it’s airy and insubstantial. It might leave you craving something with more meat to it.

heat meter: one          final rating: borrow

 

This blog post incorporates ideas from earlier pieces written for the San Francisco Book Review

Side Comments of the Month XI — Post-Holiday Catch-Up

Side Comments of the Month XI — Post-Holiday Catch-Up

Top row: books courtesy of the SF Book Review and some angels connected with the Young to Publishing Group. Bottom row: gifts from friends and Adam.

 

1. I got another haul of great books this past holiday season. I know I shouldn’t crow that friends and strangers send me books, but damn it, I like big books and I cannot lie. I had to part with so many books when I moved countries, so there’s a pleasure in rebuilding the collection.

These babies are now in my ever-growing Books To Read pile, which still is bigger than my new Books Finished and Now Must Review pile.

 

2. Last week, my family drove to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation to see the newly opened Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination

My nephews spent a lot of time waiting to sit in a real hovercraft while I had silly fun with  the “give your robot facial expressions” terminal. A family friend, Kevin, lamented that Hans Solo trapped in carbonite was nowhere to be seen, aside a ton of Boba Fett-related props. I didn’t even notice these omissions until he mentioned them because there were tons of other cool models. I especially liked Obi-Wan Kenobi’s sweet, scratched-up ride from Episode IV: A New Hope.

Since I was feeling queasy that day, I skipped The Millennium Falcon Experience. I didn’t want to risk throwing up midway. Lots of people at the exhibit were unable to see it too due to limited seats. If you’re planning to visit this exhibit—it runs until February—I highly recommend buying all your tickets online.

 

3. Adam and I just finished watching all the episodes of Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals (also known as Rock Lee’s Springtime of Youth). For a gag anime that features tons of cross-dressing and silliness, the last episode had at least three shifts in art styles during a furious fight scene. I think the animators wanted to outdo themselves for the finale! It was unexpected.

This show is the animated equivalent of cotton candy and Pop Tarts. I think I will miss it.

We have now returned to more serious, age-appropriate fare like Mushishi and Space Brothers. 

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Two

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round Two

This month’s Buy, Borrow, or Bash takes a look at three well-established authors: Loretta Chase, Carola Dunn, and Eloisa James.

There are some spoilers in these mini-reviews. To read the spoilers, highlight the invisible text. 

What do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to borrow it  from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.   


Loretta Chase’s The English Witch (1988; Kindle edition 2011) 

For readers hooked on Loretta Chase and her Carsington novels, The English Witch will pose a conundrum. A Chase novel without sex scenes? How is that possible?! 

The lack of sex is no impediment to an amusing story, though. The English Witch reels with plots within plots, and a heroine with more fiancés than Ranma Saotome. 

Alexandra Ashmore spent the last six years rusticating in Albania, where the locals call her “the English Witch” due to her extraordinary beauty. Her father, an amateur archaeologist, dragged Alexandra all over the region and now expects her to marry Randolph Burnham, the son of the man funding his expedition.

Alexandra, however, doesn’t want Randolph, so she’s forced to write to her godmother for help. Her godmother promptly sends Basil Trevelyan to the rescue.

Basil’s a scheming man, the typical amateur gentleman spy that the Regency era loved so well. With Alexandra’s cooperation, Basil feeds a cock-and-bull story to her father about being a long-lost secret fiancé.

He contrives to bring everyone back to England, where Alexandra manages to snatch up more admirers. Finding himself growing attached to his fake fiancée, Basil must keep on scheming to drive away the competition and win Alexandra’s trust.

The novel suffers from too many minor characters (most of them made their first appearance in Isabella, which I haven’t read yet). It gets confusing. Fortunately, Basil’s an interesting take on the reformed rake trope, and Alexandra’s a tsundere. While it’s not Chase’s best work, I still find it rewarding to trace a writer’s development. If you keep these things in mind, The English Witch will be a good read.

heat meter: one chili           final rating: borrow 

 

Carola Dunn’s Miss Jacobson’s Journey (1992; reprinted 2012) 

Miss Jacobson’s Journey is a great novel that transcends the limitations of the genre. It’s more a historical adventure with lots of character development than an empty will-they-do-it-doggy-style mess.

Right before a Jewish matchmaking ceremony, Miriam has doubts about getting married and becoming a wife. She feels pressured to accept the suitor that her mother likes, but all she really wants to do is to travel with her favorite uncle. At the crucial moment, Miriam rejects the quiet young scholar presented to her before he can utter a word.

Years later, her uncle’s death leaves Miriam stranded in France due to the war. She approaches the mysterious Jacob Rothchild for help and he makes her a deal: he’ll give her Swiss papers and help smuggle her back to England. In exchange for this, though, first she must travel with two agents and a secret cargo of gold destined for Wellington’s army near Spain.

Despite the recklessness of the plan and stern warnings from her maid, Miriam accepts before she meets her traveling companions: Felix Roworth, a snobbish aristocrat, and Isaac Cohen, the same man she cruelly rejected years ago.

Roworth and Cohen hate each other on sight and it takes all of Miriam’s diplomacy and quick thinking to keep the mission on track. Miriam’s the glue that keeps these reluctant companions together, and soon Roworth and Cohen find a real reason to hate each other.

If you’re looking for a ramshackle travelogue through Napoleonic war zones, Miss Jacobson’s Journey is a fascinating, well-researched novel. It’s exciting, with most of the danger and emotions coming across as natural. It delves into the plight of marginalized Jewish communities, and the casual discrimination they faced long before World War II.

Apart from these elements, the novel’s got an incredible, well-developed love triangle. At one point I didn’t know which guy I was rooting for: Lord Felix, who slowly sheds his anti-Semitism, or Isaac, who’s out to prove he’s become a better man since he was first rejected.  

heat meter: one chili          final rating: buy

 

Eloisa James’s The Ugly Duchess (2012) 

There are loads of bad fathers in historical romances, but the Duke of Ashbrook is one nasty entitled ass. He embezzles his ward’s dowry and brings his duchy to the state of bankruptcy. To save himself from public exposure, he forces his heir, James Ryburn, to marry Theodora “Daisy” Saxby to cover up the crime.

Daisy’s been a part of the Duke’s household for years, so she and James grew up together. This makes the Duke’s demand seem natural and yet emotionally awkward for James. How does one transform affection for a best friend into romantic love? James doesn’t know.

Being young and weak-willed, however, James gives in to his father’s tantrums. James orchestrates a romantic proposal that Daisy innocently accepts. The shit hits the fan, though, when the marriage is consummated and Daisy finds out the awful truth.

The Ugly Duchess is a strange take on how trust can be lost and regained. The pacing of the novel is odd: it starts out fine with several time skips, but the second half of the novel speeds up until there’s no breathing space.

I find it weird that a couple that’s been estranged for seven years can resolve their differences in one long conversation that takes place over a single day. The conversation itself spans several chapters, in a variety of rooms in a house besieged by paparazzi. Perhaps a less attentive reader will say I’m nitpicking. Given the heroine’s character development, though, it just seems improbable. It’s even more improbable than the plot twist of James becoming a pirate after getting thrown out of his house.

Maybe other readers won’t have the same issues I have. (Some Amazon reviewers take issue that James had mistresses while they were separated. I didn’t have an issue with that. While cheating is morally reprehensible, it does make the character historically accurate.)

The Ugly Duchess is still a decent read, and I like that the author credits Dorothy L. Sayers for inspiring the House of Lords scene. I’m sure there’s an Eloisa James novel out there that I will totally agree with. This one, though, is not it.

heat meter: four chilies           final rating: bash

 

Throwback Thursdays: Sanghaya 2001

Throwback Thursdays: Sanghaya 2001

Book: Sanghaya: Philippine Arts and Culture Yearbook 2001
Product Details: Hardbound, 144 pages
Publisher: National Commission for Culture and the Arts
Year: 2001
Language: English
ISSN: 1655-1796
Availability: Limited. It’s an old title. Your best bet would be
the publication department of the National Commission

 

If there’s any book I have worked on that is incredibly close to my heart, it has to be the first volume of Sanghaya: Philippine Arts and Culture Yearbook. The brainchild of National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera and my boss and mentor, P.T. Martin, Sanghaya was an ambitious project. In the context of publishing in the Philippines, nothing quite like it had been attempted before.

 The Project

Sanghaya aimed to capture the developments of the national art scene. Subject experts wrote in-depth articles on developments in their fields: architecture, film, dance, performing arts, literature, music, and visual arts. The articles, supported with numerous lists, directories, and a chronicle of the major cultural events of the year, provided one huge snapshot of all the local endeavors and cultural trends.

Essays on cultural awareness and ethnic minorities, mainstream media, and translation attempted to include ideas from the fringes of society. These provided a nuanced look at the challenges faced by a country perennially besieged with foreign influences and internal conflict. I remember pushing for some weird items, like the list of current pop music and DVD releases. I felt that these things reflected mass culture, and served as a counterpoint to the coverage of formal ballets and concertos.

My Involvement

"Malaki ang utang ng librong ito sa iyong sipag at talino." (Loosely translated: "this book owes much to your diligence and talent.") Prof. Lumbera's dedication still makes me giddy.

Before Sanghaya, I had already worked on other book projects, albeit in a limited capacity. As an undergraduate, I worked as a research assistant for some titles put out by the UP Creative Writing Center (now called the UP Institute of Creative Writing.) This usually involved combing through endless magazine stacks for recently published short stories and poems.

Sanghaya, however, was on an entirely different level. I had to: keep tabs on all our contributors, their contracts, and their submissions; gather most of the research material; hunt for photos and get permission to use them; keep track of and attend to a hundred other things. It was a huge challenge but I really enjoyed it. My personal favorite task was compiling amusing or thought-provoking quotations that could be used to relieve the layout of the text. Since this was a decade before Twitter, you can only imagine how hawk-eyed I grew over every newspaper interview.

In his introduction, Professor Lumbera explained that sanghaya was an old Filipino word that meant “beauty, honor, dignity.” Working on Sanghaya was occasionally messy. My insane commute to downtown Manila was anything but dignified, and I don’t know if it’s honorable to hound critics for their drafts. But when Sanghaya finally came out, I was so happy. I felt as if I had witnessed a birth. I know my designation in the credits is “editorial assistant,” but I was definitely more than that. I think I can still take pride that I worked on a book that tried to live up to its name.

 

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round One

Buy, Borrow, or Bash: Round One

I can imagine your eyeballs rolling but please hear out this rationale. I learned from the late Dr. Luisa Mallari-Hall, my old thesis adviser, that I should approach all literary exercises with the same effort and analytical precision. (I loved her so much. She was equally enthusiastic over post-Marxist literary theory as she was about Filipino Harlequin-style romances.) 

When I decided to try my hand at writing a historical romance, I started with a survey of the genre. (Hey, a woman’s got to know her comp titles.) Since I consume so many of these novels nowadays, I thought it might be fun to post occasional reviews of the best and worst ones. 

At the end of each review, there’s a “heat meter” and my final assessment. Please take note that the heat meter refers solely to the amount of sex in the novel. That’s never any indication if the book is worth reading or not! Some of these books have lots of sex but suffer from shoddy writing, plotting, or editing. You have been warned!

So what do my final ratings mean? BUY means I’d cough up the cash for the book. As I suffer from limited means right now that’s the highest praise I can give. BORROW means it’s worth checking out. While I wouldn’t buy it, another reader might want to check it out from the library or read a sample chapter online before making any rash purchases. BASH means no! Don’t waste your time. Go re-read Jane Austen or something.   


Mary Balogh’s A Matter of Class (2009)

The set-up is a genre cliché: Reginald Mason, the son of a prosperous tradesman, is threatened with disinheritance unless he marries a young woman with a title. His father already has a girl in mind: Lady Annebelle Ashton, the disgraced daughter of a spendthrift earl. Despite being long-time social rivals in the neighborhood, the earl and the former coal miner agree to marry off their troublesome children.

The first chapter didn’t really grab my attention. I’m glad I gave the book a chance, however, because it immediately got more interesting when the hero stopped acting like a silly ass. Once the flashbacks started, the narrative got even better.

As the title suggests, the book discusses the subtle class distinctions of the Regency period, and how a well-kept fortune can buy upward mobility for future generations. Not a lot of historical romances come with genuine twists, but this one does (or it would have, if I wasn’t also a keen mystery reader.) In hindsight, some of the earlier scenes (like the proposal) becomes clever and subtle. It’s a better read than the first Mary Balogh book I picked up.

heat meter: three chilies            final rating: borrow

 

Carola Dunn’s The Improper Governess (1998, reprinted 2010)

Lissa Findlay is the new chorus girl at the local theatre. Unlike the other performers who are dying to catch the attention of a rich patron, Lissa is uncomfortable when men try to wine and dine her. She may a chorus girl, but she’s unwilling to be anyone’s whore.

Rakish Lord Ashe originally wanted to make Lissa his mistress, but there’s just something about her that brings out his chivalrous streak. When he makes an outrageous offer to employ her as a governess instead, Lissa is naturally suspicious of his motives. Yet she is forced to accept.

Unknown to Lord Ashe, Lissa has a secret: she kidnapped her two step-brothers and is currently hiding them from her abusive stepfather. Only poverty forced her to “tread among the boards,” an occupation wholly suitable to a woman of genteel breeding. Will Lissa be able to keep up the charade when she finds herself falling in love with her employer?

The Improper Governess is the second Carola Dunn novel I’ve read. Her romances are a treat for readers who care more for plot than meaningless steaminess. This novel has elements reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (down to the sickly boy named Colin!) but rest assured this work is no rip-off. From the heroine down to the minor characters, everyone is slightly flawed and fleshed out. Overall, it’s a satisfying romance with mystery elements.

heat meter: one chili          final rating: buy

 

Amanda Quick’s Dangerous (1993, reprinted 2008)

Prudence Merryweather isn’t your typical Regency debutante. She’s almost on the shelf, she wears eyeglasses (oh horrors!), and worst of all, she fancies herself a paranormal investigator. She captures the attention of Sebastian Fleetwood, the Earl of Angelstone, a blasé noble who similarly dabbles in amateur investigations on the side.

Prudence’s younger brother dislikes any libertines showing interest in his sister, so he keeps issuing Angelstone one silly challenge after another. Further misunderstandings along the way (the dumb type that can only happen in a romance novel), cause Angelstone to publicly announce that he is engaged to Prudence. While Prudence agrees to go along with the farce to protect her reputation, she isn’t so sure if Angelstone understands that it’s only make-believe…

This must be the first Amanda Quick novel I enjoyed. After reading Dangerous, I worked through half of her books available at the Berkeley Public Library (her hardcovers take up a lot of space in the general fiction section) but most of them made me go “meh.” Oh well.

Dangerous reminds me of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: disparate Sherlockian elements such as amateur detecting (good) and cheesy ghost-of-the-week vibe (frothy fun). While some sections feel uneven and I don’t particularly like the way the villain is unveiled, the hero’s obsession with picking locks is amusing. For that alone, I’d buy a copy.

heat meter: four chilies            final rating: buy

Writers are Criminals

Writers are Criminals

They didn’t shake hands but drew nearer one another.

“I never expected to meet you in a place like this,” Madrid confided. “A prison exercise yard, with a number stenciled over your heart! But then, being a detective is not far from being a criminal, is it?”

“It’s been a long time since I was a detective.”

“Ah yes, you have become a writer. Quite famous, too. I’ve read your books. Well, being a writer amounts to the same thing as being a detective. In terms of being essentially criminal, I mean. Writers steal people’s lives. Isn’t that not so?”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been a writer.”

 

—Madrid addressing Hammett in Owen Fitzstephen and Gordon McAlpine’s Hammett Unwritten (2013)

Side Comments of the Month: the Literati Edition

Side Comments of the Month: the Literati Edition

I'm a sucker for free books (that are pertinent to my interests). These titles are courtesy of Ten Speed Press.

1) I attended the second “Write Now!” at the Mechanics’ Institute last Tuesday. I like this new monthly event because it forces me to write under pressure. There’s nothing like being stuck in a room with twelve other people with equally puzzled faces: “How do I tackle this prompt?”

Not everything produced under time pressure can be epic but that’s not the point. The point is to get the juices flowing. Rewriting and editing can come later.

Tarlyn Edwards, event facilitator and librarian, distributes old postcards at each meeting to serve as visual prompts. Attendees are allowed to keep the photos because the library has more images than they know what to do with. Since I’m a sucker for vintage postcards, I get a thrill out of picking my photo. I will post the photos and my flash fiction in another entry.

 

2) Literary agent Michael Larsen delivered a talk on “10 Keys to Becoming a Successful Writer” at the Mechanics’ Institute. (My Chicago Manual of Style-trained brain is just itching to correct “10” to “Ten,” but I suppose I shouldn’t because that was the proper title of the talk.)

His talk was informative and honest. I’m sure that the handout he gave, which included a flowchart of the publishing process, was a complete surprise to many of the other writers in attendance. In Manila there are no literary agents. Since I’ve never met one before, I found his insights fascinating.

 

3) Yesterday, my lovely classmates and I attended “Movin’ on Up: Getting Hired and Promoted in Publishing.” This was organized by the Young to Publishing Group, a volunteer-based initiative that aims to mentor and educate people new to the industry.

It was a well-attended event, with a predominantly young, female crowd. The panelists were up front on how difficult it is so get an in-house editorial job. I like how they differentiated between East Coast and West Coast publishing. This clarified certain nagging questions in my head.

I tend to lump “American publishing practices” into one messy ball, so now I will be more mindful in thinking it’s all homogenous. A small press will operate differently from Chronicle Books, which has around 200 employees, and both San Francisco-based companies won’t match the hectic pace of the Big Five in New York. It may seem obvious but until I heard someone share their industry experience, the reality of it didn’t sink in.

 

. . .

All these events touched upon various stages of the publishing process—writing, selling a manuscript, editing—and it made me think there’s a huge disconnect between novice writers and the rest of the publishing industry. Some of the questions and comments at the “10 Keys” talk had a wonderful, heartbreaking naiveté behind it.

Perhaps it’s awful for me to say so because I remember being equally shocked by some opinions expressed at the first Litquake event I attended. That was almost two years ago; now it no longer comes as a complete surprise.

There was a woman who almost had an attack of the vapors when Mr. Larsen said a successful book is “ten percent writing, ninety percent marketing.” I didn’t get to chat with her afterwards, which is a shame. I really wanted to tell her that, no, excellent writing is not the sole keystone to a successful, bestselling book. It’s only the first step in a long, arduous process. Yes, badly written books become runaway hits all the time.

If it’s possible to accept the current challenges of the industry and still desire to deal with words—whether to write, edit, or publish them—then congratulations. Welcome to the working week. There’s more to book production than putting words on a page.

 

 

Review: Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

Review: Purgatory by Tomás Eloy Martínez

The first part of this review previously appeared in the San Francisco Book Review last December 8, 2011. 

 

Even readers who have consumed a steady diet of South American literature since the boom era may find immense pleasure in reading Tomás Eloy Martínez’s last novel. It’s a gut-wrenching tour de force. Purgatory revolves around Emilia Dupuy and her husband Simón, two newlywed cartographers who are torn apart by the Argentinean military regime of the 1970s. Either by malice or accident, Simón joins the ranks of the “desaparecidos,” one of the many thousands who disappeared during this turbulent era.

Now living in New Jersey and exhausted by years of searching for Simón, Emilia is surprised to find her husband at a local cafe, looking exactly as he did on the day he disappeared. Is this encounter real or is Emilia being haunted by her memories and desires? Martínez gives no easy answers to the central mystery, preferring to peel back, layer after layer, each moment that leads to Emilia and Simón’s separation and reunion. The novel travels back and forth between the past and the present, with casual cameos from a Nazi pseudo-scientist, Spanish royalty, and even Orson Welles.

Disguised as a spectral romance, Purgatory is really a lamentation for the missing and for those left behind. It is a brilliant, bittersweet narrative that keeps a reader up at night long after the last page has been read.

. . .

So ends my formal review for Purgatory. Now comes my informal reaction to the book:

I had an entirely visceral response to this novel. I suppose it’s a mix of several elements, including my university degree and my interest in Latin American literature. Maybe it’s also my personal experience—an acquaintance of mine, Sherlyn Cadapan, is among the disappeared in the Philippines. You can read about her case here. I was not particularly close to her and I had not seen her in years before her abduction by the Philippine military.

It was impossible for me not to be bothered on a primal level. This was someone who used to tease me to buy her lunch when she was broke, which was the case pretty often. This was a familiar face I saw in Vinzons Hall during my last years in university. To consider the worst fate possible just renders me speechless. In the back of my head, it’s hard not to think, “if I was a stronger person, if I had pushed further and done more community work, that could have been me.”

Some of my former colleagues would call it “lie low guilt.” Lying low, in the parlance of NGO or nonprofit work of the last decade, was to take a break from the intense, grueling lifestyle connected to social work in the Philippines. It usually involved crawling back to one’s family for a couple of months and recuperating from diseases like malaria or amoebiasis. (For some people—myself included—lying low means never returning and being slowly ripped apart by one’s conscience for abandoning the cause of social justice.) This is something easily misunderstood by those touched with apathy, and even those active in the movement (the grim and determined types.) After all, it’s easy to dismiss something as intangible as mental suffering.

It is in this frame of mind I found myself finishing Purgatory. It was impossible for me not to relate and sympathize with Emilia. When I think of everyone I’ve ever met who lost a loved one this way, I just want to curl up into a ball.

It’s painful to consider these things, after all these years. But I have to say, Purgatory is such a beautifully written trigger for self-examination.