Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ex Libris: April Books

Just a quick note: April had been a rather busy month for me such that I only managed to finish three books. However, all three books were quite good and, something I'd recommend to anyone. More to the point, if these three books have an overarching theme, it's that one can get away with cliches if one has the balls to do it.

I don't want to review Gene Wolfe's The Knight since this is only the first part of his Wizard Knight work. Suffice it to say, Wolfe takes a whole load of fantasy tropes and cliches, ranging from the modern person transported to a fantasy setting, the boy-Chosen-One, the magic sword, fairyland, etc., etc., and makes his mark on them. I'm not saying that all fantasy stories should be like Wolfe's; however, what he's done has definitely raised the bar on what fantasy should achieve.

On the other hand, reading Paul Witcover's Tumbling After was reassuring, given how I'm stilll looking for his first novel, Waking Beauty. Witcover's novel covers dual coming-of-age storylines: first, of pre-teen twins Jack and Jill Doone in 1977 America on one hand, and a post-apocalyptic tale of a half-bird, half-human mutant named Kestrel. In one story, Jack unfortunately seems to have discovered he has the power to alter reality after a near-drowning experience. Meanwhile, in the other story, Kestrel has unwittingly been chosen to be the fulcrum in the war between the super-powered mutants and the super-advanced human race. The tie between the two stories is a game called 'Mutes and Norms', a role-playing game about mutants and humans in a far-future war.

Insightful and beautifully-written, Witcover has created a fascinating parallel of these two tales as both Jack and Kestrel struggle to determine what their 'newly-found powers' mean. Overlying Jack's story is the doubt that he may be going crazy: is there really a war between realities or are the changes in reality just cracks in his sanity? It doesn't help that his relationship with his 'older' twin sister Jill is too close for comfort as dominance and sexual awakening play their parts. Moreover, like Wolfe, Witcover plays with the tropes and cliches and doesn't allow himself to become predictable. The end, reminiscent for me of Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter, was definitely surprising (especially Jack's side).

Lastly, I read and quite enjoyed Luis Fernando Verissimo's whodunit Borges and the Eternal Orangutan, a quite thin paperback at 135-pages. I picked up this book on the strength of the title alone though it helped that I'm currently undergoing a fascination with non-Western genre writers and authors.

Vogelstein, a translator hoping to meet his idol Jorge Luis Borge at an upcoming Israfel Society convention (an organization dedicated to Edgar Allan Poe) in Buenos Aires, finds himself in a middle of a mystery when one of the participants is found murdered in a locked room. Verissimo has fun with the mystery genre as Borges, with Vogelstein as his 'sidekick', try to solve the mystery. Is it one of the participants angry at the victim? Does it have anything to do with the mysterious monster-gods of H.P. Lovecraft? And what does the aforementioned orangutan have anything do with it?

I admit a lot of of the references Verrisimo brought up in the book passed over my head (not an uncommon experience; I'm a fan of Umberto Eco). But Verrisimo makes it a fun read anyway so that when one closes the book, one is left with the puzzled yet satisfied smile on one's face.

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