Saturday, July 30, 2011

My Heart :)

Just a little illustration. I saw something like this on Tumblr and thought of making my own. :)


Review: Stories: All-New Tales

“AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?—four words that children ask, when you pause, telling them a story. The four words you hear at the end of a chapter. The four words, spoken or unspoken, that show you, a storyteller, that people care. The joy of fiction, for some of us, is the joy of imagination, set free from the world and able to imagine.”



These are literary rock star Neil Gaiman’s words that graced the first pages of Stories: All-New Tales, a compendium of twenty-seven bite-sized fiction by an eclectic set of tale-spinners and storytellers. Edited by master anthologist Al Sarrantonio and Gaiman himself, the stories comprising this collection do not fall under any umbrella genre; they’re simply written to celebrate good storytelling.

While most of the stories did succeed in making me go “I want to know what happens next!”, some just lacked the necessary ‘oil’ to propel themselves up to the five-star rung of my rating ladder. It’s a mixed bag—just like most anthologies—but as a whole I enjoyed it very much. Most of the contributors are immensely popular; I’ve heard positive things about them even if I haven’t read their works. This anthology then provided some sort of tasters for me, and after I turned the last page I have a new list of authors to keep tabs on.

Here are mini-reviews for my favorites and runner-ups from the collection, in no particular order:

Fossil Figures by Joyce Carol Oates. A story that reads like a real parable, this is about the fates of twins who are each other’s yin and yang even when they’re still inside their mother’s womb. It’s the epitome of picturesque writing and rather peculiar but effective dialogues. I sort of expected a ‘bang!’ at the end, but the imagery that closed it is haunting enough to stay with the readers.

Wildfire in Manhattan by Joanne Harris. Basically it is a whimsical tale that reads like a twee descendant of Gaiman’s American Gods. The tale is set in the modern times where Norse deities are living among ordinary humans after the Ragnarok, working as restaurant owners, rock stars, and the like. But even with mortal facades, the gods are not safe from their nemeses. I enjoyed this one. The ex-trickster god Lucky/Loki is practically humor-on-legs that reading from his POV is such a fun experience, but the recycled premise and execution deducted a couple of stars from my rating. Who can blame me? I’ve seen this kind of thing with a better caliber (wiggles eyebrows at Gaiman).

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman. It is a fairytale with beguiling imagery and dark undertones reminiscent of Brothers Grimm’s works. The spotlight bounces from a dwarf’s search of a cave allegedly filled with gold to a revenge story involving a missing daughter. Magnificent as usual, this tale is a fine example of Gaiman’s magic with words. I liked how even the smallest of descriptions can tell a story on their own. Call me predictable, but this gem is one of the few in this collection that I loved.
•Weights and Measures by Jodi Picoult. This is a poignant account about a married couple emotionally and physically suffering in the wake of their daughter’s death. Nothing much happened, but damn if the heartbreaking lines and scenes didn’t find a chink in my emotional armor and widened the damage to a bigger fault. I will try reading Picoult’s longer works, I guess.

A Life in Fictions by Kat Howard. This is an extremely inventive tale about a young woman who finds herself sucked into a story—literally—whenever her boyfriend writes fiction, with her as the muse. It may be flattering at first, but she realizes she can’t return from a story truly unscathed. It’s very quirky and I enjoyed it for the most part.

Catch and Release by Lawrence Block. This is a tale about a serial killer who has a peculiar habit of catching and releasing his victims, rendering himself a ‘vegetarian’ criminal…but not really. It’s a thrilling and creepy ride and it can keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon by Elizabeth Hand. One of the longest in the anthology, this is an affecting story about three men who attempt to create a present-of-sorts for a dying friend, who has a penchant for things concerning aircrafts and their histories. I guess the piece’s length has something to do with the characters becoming easier to love page by page. In general it’s a touching story.

The Therapist by Jeffrey Deaver. Divided into mini-chapters, this story is about a behavioral specialist who saves people—in his unconventional way—from ‘neme’, a virus-like entity that purportedly possesses a person and causes its host to relinquish emotional control. It’s intriguing and very engrossing, especially the courtroom scenes. There’s a little science fiction feel to it at first, what with the long but good explanations of ‘neme’ that engulfed almost the first mini-chap. I’m commending this for cleverly toying not only with the psyches of the characters but also of the readers.


•The Cult of the Nose by Al Sarrantonio. A tale about a man’s obsession over a cult whose members appear in scenes of carnage and ruin. I find it tedious at first, but a second reading rewards me with a realization that the man’s state of mind is better explored with the writing style. There’s a wee shock of a twist at the end. Now that I think of it, it is a tad similar with The Therapist.

The Devil on the Staircase by Joe Hill. Amazingly written both form-wise and content-wise, this story centers on an Italian boy who meets the spawn of Lucifer at the bottom of the staircase of his hometown after committing a crime. I wish to read more works in the same vein soon, if ever Hill has more of them.

Samantha’s Diary by Dianna Wynne Jones. The lightest piece among the bunch, this is a rather cute story with shades of science fiction and backboned by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I find myself chuckling while reading it, even if most of the scenes are pretty predictable.

Leif in the Wind by Gene Wolfe. This is perhaps one of the best speculative shorts in the compendium, zeroing in on the thirty-year, six-man space mission to an alien planet. Its ricocheting atmosphere of desperation and hope, reality and illusion, is a great plot device to build such a clever piece of science fiction.

The duds (most of which are not mentioned here) are not downright bad—they are either run-of-the-mill or they just failed to make me say the first four words of this review. Indeed, Stories: All New Tales is a treasure box of gems with a few stray rocks in it, but overall I loved it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Closing the blinds

Last night, a few minutes past eleven, I was hunched on the bed spending some insomniac timeby reading the anthology Stories: All New Tales. Every twenty minutes or so, I would punctuate a short story by looking up and gazing through our wooden blinds. Through the slits, past the rust-caked roofs of our neighbors, I could see the moon, and I would stare at it for long moments adoring its beauty. When the dark clouds would cloak it away from my sight, I would go back to the book and begin reading again.

My favorite moon would be a full moon, but not the white one surrounded by a few wisps of black clouds, the clich├ęd image that frequented too many vampire/werewolf flicks. I like it yellowish or orange-ish. I guess it’s because I’ve always wanted to associate it with a description of a moon in a D.W. Jones book from childhood—that it hung like a golden gong in the sky, or something like that. It makes me feel nostalgic. The moon last night, however, was not my favorite one. It was not even full; I guess it’s called gibbous, the phase between a half moon and a full moon…and it was immaculately white.

Be that as it may, I still liked it. It was far from a circle, but I think its imperfection made it more beautiful. Its incompleteness and wee flaw—like in humans—seems to weave a story worth telling and listening to (or yeah, maybe it’s just me and my over-analytical musings). It looked like a glowing jewel with a tiny portion of it chipped off, as if it was accidentally dropped and damaged; because it was still too exquisite to be thrown, it was latched back onto the wall of the night sky.

I stayed up last night, alternating my moon-gazing with reading. But soon I heard small rustlings outside the window—cats maybe, or almost-hairless rats the size of cats (YES, DUDE, THEY EXIST). Because my book was choked with things that inspire horror and I was too involved in it, I couldn’t help but feel a little fretful. I fetched for a hanger and closed the blinds. I went back to reading, and force of habit, I looked up, only to be greeted by the brown wood of our closed window. I opened it again, but the moon was already hidden between black sheets of clouds.

Cue in my metaphor-filled brain: two of the many lessons I was reminded of last night—sans the ones from my reading—truly reflect certain aspects of my life, or your life. Perhaps everyone’s life.

One: you don’t need to be perfect. One of the real splendors of humans is being flawed. It makes us unique, it makes us special, it makes us individuals, and it makes us beautiful. If we’re perfect and there’s nothing else to add to ourselves, how can we learn? How can we enjoy life? How can we grow? How can we truly live? Dang, how can we be human? :p

When I closed the blinds, it was because I was wary of the small things that scare me (which may not even exist, mind you)—and in the process I unwittingly sacrificed the sight of the moon. Here’s lesson number two: for so many times in our lives we let our fear get in the way of being happy. Paranoia makes us more careful, but in efforts of not being hurt, maybe we’re actually hurting ourselves more.

Maybe it’s one of those nights, when all I can do is muse until the sun broke the darkness. But you know, I guess reflecting on the littlest of things is equivalent to taking a dose of medicine for the stressed mind and heart. :p

The Endless (diminutive edition!)


The Endless (from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman series) are entities that are neither mortals nor gods. They are the anthropomorphic personifications of abstract concepts and are older than the rest of the universe: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.

Jill Thompson illustrated the said entities in a cute style inspired by DC Comics characters Sugar and Spike. All seven siblings appeared in her The Little Endless Storybook, produced in the wake of the positive reader reaction when they saw little Dream and little Death in the Sandman's fortieth issue, The Parliament of Rooks.

The adorableness of each Endless is just killing me, and I can't help but give them a little space here in my blog. :p So here they are, with some info:

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1. DESTINY

Destiny is the oldest among the Endless. To mortal eyes, he is the tallest in his family; he casts no shadow nor does he leave any footprints. He is depicted as a man cloaked and hooded in grey/purple/brown robes, and is chained to a thick book called the Cosmic Log, where everyone's/everything's stories are written. He is said to smell of dusts and old libraries.

He is cold, somber, and very dedicated to his work. "There are some who believe him to be blind; whilst others, perhaps with more reason, claimed that he has traveled far beyond blindness, that indeed, he can do nothing but see [everything]."
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2. DEATH


While everyone's stereotype of the concept of demise is a scary skeleton wielding a scythe, Death of the Endless is actually the opposite--instead of some creature inspiring terror, she is a down-to-earth friend. Unlike Destiny, she is warm and caring. She is depicted as a pale Goth girl wearing a silver ankh (ironically the Egyptian symbol for "life") and an eye-of-Horus tattoo around one eye. She is known to have a sense of humor, gentle wisdom, a quirky upbeat personality...a floppy hat collection and two goldfish (I'm serious).

"One day in every century, Death takes on mortal flesh, to better comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like, to taste the bitter tang of mortality: this is the price she must pay for being the divider of the living from all that has gone before and all that must come after."
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3. DREAM

Dream is--as stated in Season of Mists--a conundrum. To human eyes he's tall and "rake-thin, with skin the color of falling snow" (think of The Cure's lead singer Robert Smith, only a tad skinnier). His appearance actually varies depending on who's looking at him: a Martian sees him as a disembodied energy being, a cat sees him as a cat, humans see him as human and so on.

He is sometimes slow when dealing with humor, occasionally insensitive, often self-obsessed, and is very slow to forgive or forget a slight (also, he has a very bad list of love lives). If he is close to anyone, it is to his older sister Death.
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4. DESTRUCTION
Destruction is the fourth oldest Endless, portrayed as a big man with red hair and beard. He is Dream’s immediately younger sibling but in many ways wiser and more aware of the Endless' place in the universe. He is warm, affectionate, and the best humored; aside from Death, he projects as a character that is opposite of the concept he portrays.
He "resigns" and abandons his realm when he foresaw that mankind will eventually use science as a tool of mass destruction (i.e. the atomic bombs). He refuses to be responsible for this, and lets humans be the cause of their own destruction. He leaves and is referred to as "The Prodigal"; instead of destroying, he goes on and creates things. He paints, helps in construction work, cooks, etc.
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5. DESPAIR

Despair is Desire's twin sister, and is depicted as a squat, flabby, ugly naked woman. Her skin is said to be cold and clammy, and her eyes has "the colour of sky, on the grey, wet days that leach the world of colour and meaning". She has no odor, but her shadow smells musky and pungent. She wears a ring with a hook on her left hand, with which she occasionally carves her skin.

"It is said that scattered through Despair's domain are a multitude of tiny windows, hanging in the void. Each window looks out on a different scene, being, in our world, a mirror. Sometimes you will look into a mirror and feel the eyes of Despair upon you, feel her hook catch and snag upon your heart."
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6. DESIRE

Despair's twin, Desire is usually portrayed as an androgynous being; he/she/it is both and at the same time neither male nor female. He/she/it is of medium height, has pale skin and yellow eyes, smells faintly of summer peaches and casts two shadows: one black and sharp-edged, the other translucent and wavering. He/she/it is very malicious, engaging in games that interferes with the other Endless' affairs (particularly Dream's).

"It is unlikely that any portrait will ever do Desire any justice, since to see her (or him) is to love him (or her)--passionately, painfully, to the exclusion of all else....Desire is everything you have ever wanted, whoever you are, whatever you are. Everything."
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7. DELIRIUM
 

Delirium is the youngest of the Endless yet still older than the rest of existence. Her appearance is more variable compared to that of her other siblings, but she's usually portrayed as a young girl with wild, vibrantly colored hair and heterochromia: one eye is blue and the other one is green. Some people say that her mismatched eyes are a reminder that Delirium had a tragedy once, for before she was called Delight. Nobody knows the real reason behind her transformation.

She is said to smell of "sweat, sour wines, late nights, and old leather". Her shadow never matches the shape of her body, and it is tangible like velvet.
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Images (save the first one) came from The Little Endless Storybook by Jill Thompson. All characters by Neil Gaiman.

Review: Naomi and Ely's No Kiss List

The situation: You are a girl who is in love with this boy ever since you can remember. You two are inseparable, because you have already formed a strong bond when you were still but wee things that live next to each other in an equally wee apartment. The problem is, even if he does love you, it’s only a sisterly/ friendly affection…and it’s because he prefers to be in love with boys. Yes, girl: he’s gay.



In order to protect your friendship, you created a “No Kiss List”, which is, as the name says, a list of people that both of you shouldn’t kiss. Then you committed one mistake: you didn’t put your boyfriend’s name on the list. When your gay friend kisses your boyfriend, every brick of the foundation you cemented to strengthen your soulmate-ish relationship starts crumbling. Can any attempt to save your friendship not end in vain? Or is it already given that romance is superior to any kind of relationship?

This is more or less the gist of Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List, another brainchild of the duo famed for their head-bopping, heart-pinching novel, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

For me, Cohn and Levithan work like adventurous chef partners. Instead of cooking up a hackneyed recipe that everyone is comfortable with, they experimented with all their ingredients to come up with a new literary dish that, containing both the authors’ tasteful styles, will definitely delight young readers’ hearts. Cohn and Levithan wrote Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List the way they may have baked a multi-layered cake. They take turns in making each layer, sprinkling them with the common flavors of friendship and love and adding a surprising tang in the icing to make things both unfamiliar and foreign for the readers.

The book is comprised of chapters told in the POV of so many characters, changing every chapter. It’s like the authors want the readers to look through omniscient lenses without actually learning the stories from an omniscient third person point of view. Ordinarily this may be confusing, and I commend the authors for making it work throughout the novel.

It’s amazing how a small world—the apartment where the characters reside, in the case of this book—contain no two people that are exactly the same. Everybody is a finger print: they have their individual identities that shine through mere narration. Everybody feels deep and real, and their thoughts, unhindered by any filter, come out as harshly honest as they can get. Naomi is a girl with a hard bitchy shell but with a soft, warm personality inside; Ely is the epitome of promiscuity and egotism in the book. Then we have Bruce the Second, bland, paranoid, and seemingly boring, who creates the crack between the main protagonists’ relationship; Bruce the First, Naomi’s ex that has a penchant for Nicholas Sparks books and thinks Madonna is better than the Beatles; and Gabriel, the apartment’s doorman who creates CD mixes for Naomi, having seen a side of her that inspires him. Those are just the primary characters, there are others that stand in the background but provide ripples that touch and affect the storyline. What’s more amazing is that even the characters that didn’t get to get their own chapter, whose minds the readers weren’t able to enter, contribute to the build-up of the story. Watch out for the tales of the main characters’ parents. :) They’re as equally interesting as Naoim and Ely themselves.

This makes the novel character-driven instead of plot-driven. The different voices propel the story to go on, and they make the way towards the end strewn with epiphanies, regrets, and important lessons about friendship, family, and love. It has a lot of funny and poignant moments that are balanced perfectly in a scale that only Cohn and Levithan can pull off. It has an atmosphere reminiscent of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but they occupy rungs of different kinds of awesomeness on my favorites ladder. Oh, speaking of NANIP, there is a reference to it in this book! For some weird reason I went giddy when I read it haha. :p
It’s a short book and is best read in one sitting. Like NANIP, f-bombs abound and LGBTQ theme is explored thoroughly; some character’s thoughts and speeches may be extremely offensive to some readers. You’ve been warned. :p

Four stars for a good, quick read.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Rummaging through Yesterday's Drawers

Last Friday was general cleaning day for me. My drawers were crammed to the brim with a multitude of things ranging from old books to crushed paper cranes, and sorting through them set the nostalgia kicking in.

I’m not the kind of person who readily throws away things that are not useful anymore, so you don’t have to stretch your imagination too far in order to picture how my drawers looked like. Hodge-freaking-podge. Usually I keep things because I have this cheeseball-ish notion that securing a concrete memento—no matter how trivial—from a certain event makes the memories stronger and more special.

There were a lot of things that sent flashbacks to my head: tiny wooden dolls that my father bought from a priest in Tarlac, old CDs that have marker doodles on them, stacks of letters from friends, stubs of oil pastels, and many more. But what dominated my drawers was school stuff: textbooks, pamphlets, dictionaries, and the like. Novels are carefully stacked in the shelves (and a portion of my bed), but a couple somehow ended up in the chest.

Most of the textbooks I was able to dredge up were from high school—Basic Journalism, Biology, Algebra, Asian History. There was this poor thesaurus with an almost non-existent spine, and I remembered being given this during our last elementary school recognition day (the tomes came with the awards). It was very useful in high school, I mused now, and along with my English novels it enriched my vocabulary very much.

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I also found chemistry books, which reminded me of the quiz bees I’ve joined back in high school (I was a part of a team—I was weak with balancing equations and all those seemingly unintelligible formulas but was reliable on analytical stuff that doesn’t include numbers). Then I saw my sketches of editorial cartoons for a mini press competition, making me miss my high school journalism family. There were pamphlets as well, ones that could be availed in National Book Stores. I remembered purchasing them during summers so I could study in advance, gearing up for every approaching re-school-rections. I really miss those days.

I wouldn’t even go through the things that reminded me of college. I might well up. :’(

I never knew that I’d miss being a student this much, but there’s nothing to be done except remember and cherish the memories. In a few months I would be most likely setting my foot on a foreign soil for a job, and maybe the nostalgia would strike up at a higher notch, along with things that I’d surely miss like the time right now that I’m typing up this blog entry or the time I spend ceaselessly reading books. I must be prepared for the future, yes, but I’m going to relish the past. :)

Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

How can a book with a narrator who killed herself actually save lives? Jay Asher’s debut novel, Thirteen Reasons Why, points out more than a baker’s dozen of answers to that.



The story: Clay Jensen receives audiotapes that contain the reasons why Hannah Baker committed suicide. As much as possible he doesn’t want anything to do with the tapes, but the records say that anyone who receives the package is—in one way or another—responsible for her death. Confused but compelled to know what he’s done to contribute to Hannah’s ticket to an early grave, Clay listens to the tapes the whole night. As Hannah strips the enigma surrounding her past, Clay begins to see fragments of his present and future that can change his life forever.

Thirteen’s premise is not really a fleshy one. A suicide of a girl who had a hard time in high school? Everyone must have heard of similar stories, especially those about bullying. But Asher’s overall execution of the quotidian high school life is commendably genuine, in a sense that he has created two very distinct mouthpieces that gave sheer weightiness to the storyline. The simplicity of the writing helps in conveying the tale’s brutal honesty, and the intensity of the emotions woven into the threads of suspense-filled events is spot-on. No wonder why everyone I know who read this devoured it only in one sitting.

I must admit it’s almost painful to read. So rare it is to learn a suicide story from the perspective of the person who committed it, and this one’s done beautifully. It felt like jumping back to the past and hearing the sorrows of a girl before she dies, and there’s nothing you can do to save her because you’re following the rulebook of the Grandfather Paradox…you know how her story will end.

Two points of view are used: Clay’s and Hannah’s. I liked Clay’s very much, because the way he reacts to Hannah’s stories is so…sincere. He liked Hannah a lot, but he’s initially creeped out by the thought of listening to a dead girl’s voice—especially one that’s putting him in a blame list. He’s a stew of emotions inside: scared, confused, lonely, angry, hurt. Sometimes there’s a bit of humor in there, but mostly he’s haunted by the ghosts of his “what-ifs”. Between the transcripts of Hannah’s tales we see what Clay feels and does, and often these moments are the ones that pull hard at the heart strings. I guess this is because the way he reacts reflects how the reader would react if they’re the ones to listen firsthand to the audiotapes. What I find amusing about Clay, though, is that unlike most of “nice guys” in contemporary literature, he is aware and even acknowledges that he is Mr. Nice Guy. XD

Hannah’s voice is mordant and eerie. She uncovers the snowball of events that led to the decision to check herself out, and she does this one cassette tape at a time. The anecdotes reveal well-molded characters that might be familiar with the readers who have been to high school, people who contributed to Hannah’s accumulation of emotional bruises. One of my concerns on the tales is reflected in Clay’s common thought on a few of the records: how unfair it is to the people who don’t know the effect they can have on someone like Hannah. Sure, there are a lot of users/backbiters/gossipmongers/maniacs on the blame list, but there are some who are just being their goofy/foolish selves (in some way, we are all foolish in high school). And then there are those who are shy or who just couldn’t figure out how they could help Hannah because the walls she built around herself were too tall to jump over now.

I like how Clay is being the voice of what the readers may think. If only Hannah reached out, if only she wasn’t too vague, if only she asked for help, if only she’s vocal enough. Being weak is not an option in a kind of world we have today, but people who are as fragile as Hannah tend to break at the slightest of pressure. Clay realizes all that, and seeing how such history can repeat itself, he decides to rewrite it with an ink of hope. For a dark story, the ending was shining with a new beginning.

Thirteen Reasons Why is a very engrossing read. The message of reaching out, of people’s interconnectedness, of how silver linings can engulf the darkness of the clouds—it’s all strewn across the story, and it will be an indelible mark in your mind and heart.
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