Friday, May 31, 2013

CBR5 #4: A Storm of Swords (Part 2) by George R.R. Martin

For the longest time, I didn't realize that the third book for A Song of Ice and Fire was divided into two parts. I finished Part 1 last year, began watching the third season of Game of Thrones, and was just completely perplexed about why the plot seemed so different from what I read.

Anyway, I wised up and quickly finished Part 2 in the middle of the third season. Since the books hew pretty close to the HBO series, anyone who is not up with the books and wish not to be spoiled should probably avoid this review -- which, admittedly, is going to be pretty brief.

Where to start, where to start...

Tyrion, my favorite character, is not having a very good time -- his face is pretty ugly, which bums him out; his wife, Sansa Stark, won't speak to him like a real person nor will she allow him to touch her; and his sister really hates him. Joffrey, his nephew, has continued to antagonize him, going so far as to hire dwarves for his wedding to Margary Tyrell to act like fools.

Meanwhile, over in the far North, my least favorite good character, Jon Snow, is just all sorts of conflicted, as is usual with his 13-year-old state of mind. He's  gotten in with the wildlings (and in the pants of Ygritte) but after they crossed the wall, he betrayed them and has now began a defense against them with his Black Brothers. However, the higher-ups, like that Janos Slynt from King's Landing (slimiest of slime balls who will can be trusted about as far as one can sling a piano) are beginning to question his loyalty to the Brothers. This comes in the midst of choosing a new commander since Lord Mormont was killed in Craster's Keep.

And now Arya! Arya manages to escape the Brotherhood and into the arms of the Hound, who is determined to try and ransom her off to her mother or some distant relative for gold. Sandor Clegane is fast becoming one of my favorite "bad" characters -- when questioned about his goodness, Clegane flings back insults to his accusers cast-the-first-stone style. This brings into stark relief how truly violent and awful George R.R. Martin's universe is, where even those who are considered good would be willing to kill and fight for "honor."

As for Daenerys, she's still trying to raise forces to reclaim the Iron Throne, but she is now stuck in the East, being called Mother for freeing the slave cities. It appears that most of the time, she is batting away sexist insults from her challengers while wearing dresses where her breasts hang out, or she's oogling Daario, a Braavosi who has sworn his allegiance to her who is apparently really handsome to her but sound like a rainbow oompa loompa on page. The loyalty of two of her advisers, Jorah Mormont and Arstan Whitebeard, is thrown into questions and Dany is all conflicted about who she can trust.

Do I have to describe the trials and tribulations of all the characters with chapters? The Wiki page will probably do a better job than I did. Obviously, I enjoy these books, and will continue to read them, but to be honest, recapping them here is really difficult. I encountered the same problem when I was recapping the Chaos Trilogy or the Hunger Games Trilogy, in the sense that these series are so immensely popular that it feels like everyone already loves them and exalts them, but since it is only a single part in a series, then my descriptions might spoil it for people who had not read it before.

It's doubly difficult with the Song of Ice and Fire books because I am reading them so concurrently with watching the HBO series that I have them kind of mixed up in my mind. I also only see the characters the way the actors portray them -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing since the TV series follow the books so closely.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

CBR5 #3: World War Z by Max Brooks

So the movie for this is coming out (or is it out already? Living abroad leaves me no sense of pop cultural happenings) and I thought I should finally read the copy that has been sitting in my book shelf for the last year and a half. I finished this back in March, so my memory of the book's details is a bit hazy, and my retelling of it may not be wholly accurate, but I'm gonna try my best.

I love zombie movies -- I think they are fun and weirdly campy in its horror, and the statement zombie movies are often trying to make is always so hit-you-over-the-head obvious that I enjoy the effort put into trying to diversify the message. But I've never read a zombie book. And World War Z is a pretty awesome beginning, I'd say, to changing the way I can appreciate how the zombie genre has evolved. 

It's essentially a series of oral accounts, put together by a government chronicler, to map out the zombie war that ate the Earth raw for about 10 years. It begins with how the zombie pandemic may have started -- in China, of course -- through the eyes of a Chinese doctor who saw how a young patient had been transformed after he was bitten and had to be tied down with rope to prevent him from hurting others. And then Brooks' chronicler goes into accounts of how it could have spread -- first by the Chinese government's refusal to tell other governments about the zombie pandemic, and then with the governments' ineptitude to secure its borders to the flood of fleeing non-bitten, and sometimes already-bitten humans. There was also an organ trade that could have spread the pandemic further. Scientists' recommendations on how to contain the infestation are ignored, making the problem worse. 

From the account of the female war pilot who crash-landed in an area filled with zombies, to the account of the rich Hollywood-type who said he had built his mansion-fortress up to keep in the rich and famous and allow the poor to die outside; to the Japanese youth, who lived in his own world plugged into the cybers, unaware that the apocalypse was upon him until it was literally upon him -- the richness in details about the ineptitude of governments, the stringent viewpoints of the military in dealing with an unknown and indefatigable enemy -- this book made me wonder how our global leaders would ever be able to deal with a real pandemic should something to this scale ever occur. 

I do wish I had written this review sooner so that I could do the book more justice. The truth is that I started reading it with the thought that it was going to be fun and amusing, like a zombie movie. And yes, it was, but midway through it, the clarity that Brooks imbued in his narrative account just brought to stark light how real this all could be, and I just got more horrified as it progressed. World War Z should be read, not as fiction, but as a parable. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

So I disappeared for a bit...

2013 was a bit of a shit year, to be honest. After I read and reviewed Ghostwritten, my life sort of went down the rabbit hole. My boyfriend and I broke up -- we were in a long-distance relationship, so the absence shouldn't have mattered so much, right? Even so.

So I disappeared for a bit, and I stopped reading, and I stopped reviewing. I found it difficult to sit still by myself with my thoughts, and so I was just running around, doing as much as I possibly could. I went to Kep on weekends with new friends, went to Jakarta on another weekend to visit an old friend. I started cooking again, this time trying to make Chinese-style noodles (hor fun), or pierogis, or just meals that consisted of the four food groups. I adopted a kitten and named him Biggie Smalls. I fought with friends, made up with friends, said goodbye to friends. I went to new places, new events that I wouldn't have bothered with six months ago, and I met up with old friends who visited Phnom Penh. I bought a nice camera and (somewhat) learned how to use it. 

First day in Jakarta

Jakarta city-view

Parts of the city were waterlogged when I was there. 

But people still seemed positively cheerful 

With Christi and her boyfriend, hanging outside in the balcony

Biggie Smalls, when he was very small

Biggie Smalls, two months later. Dude got huge!

My pierogis. I was very proud of 'em. 

Jane and I looking like hot bitches on our way to a classical music concert (Photo by Ben Woods*)

At the night market with friends (Photo by Ben Woods)

Always at Liquid. Etan (third from left) visited me in Phnom Penh for about 48 hours. (Photo by Ben Woods)

And this was all while working my ass off at my job, which is utterly life-consuming in some ways. Work was a relief during this time. I complain about it a lot, but I do love it. 

In March, I returned to the States for a month for Cynthia's wedding. It was beautiful, of course, and it was great seeing her again. Talking to her always feels like such a relief, like nothing's ever going to change between us and that if there's one thing that I can rely on to be constant in my life, it's my friendship with her. Her husband, Chris, was very sweet, very funny, and loves her very much (obvi), and I, naturally, think that he's lucky to have found a woman like Cynthia.

We don't like each other. 

Puppies kissing Cynthia before the ceremony

Cynthia walks down the aisle with her father

I also got to spend some time with my mother. We took a trip to central California, to Solvang, and its surrounding towns. This place was like weird farm central. We went to an ostrich farm, a miniature horse farm, a miniature donkey farm and a lavender farm. My mom also accompanied me to a beer brewery, called Figueroa Mountain Brewery.

miniature ponies!

miniature donkeys! (This one was sweet)

The donkey was trying to get my mom to pet him. 

Ostriches are fucking freakish looking. Also ginormous, and have huge talons. 

Then New York, which was exhilarating and exhausting. I stayed with Marissa, and just had a schedule full of seeing family, friends, mentors, and former colleagues. I drank way too much beer, ate way too much good food, and spent... not as much money as I expected, which was a nice surprise given how expensive the city can be. But I guess since I was visiting from Cambodia, everyone seemed to want buy me lunch, dinner, drinks. I also got to go to a concert in Bushwick, which made me so happy. Haven't heard live music in ages. The band was Crushed Out aka Boom Chick -- a drum/guitar duo. They were great.

View of uptown from my uncle's office. He works near WTC.

My cousin. She got so big! And understands words now. 

I meet the Polish hotties in the East Village.

I miss these girls so much. 
got a hipster card from the girls

Last week, May 3, was my two-year anniversary in Cambodia with Emily. We didn't do much -- just had sushi for dinner to commemorate it, then went out drinking with a buddy who was back in town.

Two years in Cambodia. Nuts.

Anyway, it's been a pretty eventful four months. I'm glad that I was more willing to put myself out there and do different things, but obviously there have been some down sides to being unwilling to settle down and allow myself to be ok with just. sitting. still. But I'm trying, right now, I really, really am. I've even started reading again -- besides that Ron Vitale book I reviewed below, I've read three other books. I'm aware that puts me way behind my CBR5 goal of 26, but I'll keep trying.

(*My friend, Ben, has more photos of Phnom Penh at his tumblr. He's a great photographer.)

CBR5 #2: Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost

We often dismiss the young adult genre as being filled with a lot of trash and cliches, but I believe that being able to write a good YA novel is an underappreciated art. Some of the books that I call my Favorites of All Time are from this genre. If it's written well, and is able to posit some great ideas, these books can go on to shape young people's minds. The Golden Compass (and the entire Dark Material trilogy, for that matter) was an eye-opening experience that made me realize that adults might not always have your best interests at heart, or they think they do, but they really don't know what they are doing.

Of course, we can't hold Phillip Pullman's masterpiece up as a yardstick for every YA novel, because if we do, then everything else basically pales in comparison. But there are other enjoyable and important YA novels of a much smaller scale that I hold dear to my heart. The Giver by Lois Lowry, everything Roald Dahl has written (The Witches scared the shit out of me as a kid), The Girl with Silver Eyes by Willo Davis Roberts (This one is not amazing and not a classic, but as a kid, it really spoke to me). 

And herein I arrive at my point: One does not have to aim for the stars to be a great YA writer but one should not condescend to their young readers either. 

And for Ron Vitale's Cinderella's Secret Diary: Lost, the mark was missed on several counts. This was provided to CBR5 readers as a free e-read, which I am so appreciative for. I can only imagine what it's like to be writer -- it actually gives me a bit of a panic attack to think about putting my work out there in to the masses to judge and criticize... gah, panic attack. (Yes, I am a reporter for a daily newspaper, but that's totally different.) But we're encouraged to blog about these free e-reads, and also told to write how we really feel so... here goes. 

Lost is a retelling of Cinderella's story -- a "After Happily Ever After" of sorts. It's written as a dairy from Cinderella to her fairy godmother, maybe about five years after she and the prince got married. In the beginning, Cinderella is pleading for her fairy godmother to come to her and help her because she is unhappy: her prince seems disinterested in their marriage, she is unable to conceive and she feels like a bit lost in her life. The diary serves as a means to communicating with her godmother, and sure enough, after a few entries, there are responses that the godmother magicked into the diary for Cinderella to read. Eventually, Cinderella begins on this journey that leads to her eventually "finding herself." 

There are several issues with Lost. The first and foremost is the writing. It's bad. It is written in the most bland manner possible -- I'm not saying that writing has to be flowery to be amazing (look at Cormack McCarthy, whose writing is basically the most stripped down and concise, but delivers such an emotional punch). If Cinderella is feeling happy, she says she's happy. If she's sad, she says she's sad. I found it difficult to get a real sense of the character behind these words, which translated no emotion. There are also issues with phrasing and paragraphs that can be very jarring to a reader if they are not done well (and that we don't notice in books because these things usually go through a rigorous edit by a second or third person). 

Throughout the book, I kept thinking, "Well, maybe this is realistic. In my real diary, I probably wouldn't be using incredible language and diction and paying attention to syntax as I just whine my feelings out." But here is the second issue -- the diary platform that Vitale chose for his book. I personally think it's one of the laziest way of conveying a story. It's really a crutch that authors use to try and get straight to the voice of the main character. When it's done well, it can be amazing (Think The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which I have personally never read, but everyone else seems to love) but it's so rare when that happens, and in Lost, it just comes across as thoughtless.

There is, however, one part in the book, where the fairy godmother is writing back to Cinderella and she said (I'm gonna paraphrase), "Your letters to me do not tell the full story. I saw you in your room last night and you were so broken up, I thought my heart was going to break." Something to that effect. And I thought, Oh, ok, maybe Vitale is holding back emotion on purpose, as like a character trait of Cinderella. 

But it's not worth it. It isn't. Because the writing is so soulless, I found it difficult to get through the plot or even to care. There were some surprises throughout the story, but it was hard to get invested at any point. Vitale had also inserted historical details throughout the book to let us know what time period this is taking place, but these details just frustrated me even more. If he took the time to think these details through to put it in his story, why couldn't he had thought his story through? Or taken more time with the writing? Or given more depth to his characters?

One of my favorite retellings of Cinderella was also a YA book -- Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. In that, there was a girl worth rooting for, a plot worth sitting through, and characters worth getting invested in. I wouldn't consider that book a stroke of great literary genius -- and looking back at the free preview on Amazon now, the writing isn't even that exemplary -- but it was still amazing, because Ella was made real to us. Sophia (as Cinderella's real name was in Lost) was just a cipher. 

(We were also given the sequel, Stolen, but I'm not gonna read that.)