Squeezing in another novel before the year ends…

Author :  Arlene J. Chai

Date of  First Publication :   1995 (Hardcover)

Publisher of First Edition :  Random House Australia Pty Ltd.

This Edition’s Publication Date :  2008

ISBN : 978-0-345-50958-1

No. of pages : 350

The Story :

Caridad gets a cryptic letter from her mother in the Philippines, asking her to come home.  Since her mother never writes,  a worried Caridad rushes home to Manila.  As soon as she arrives, her mother bluntly reveals a lifelong secret that forces Caridad to come to know herself and her family.  And as she listens to the stories reliving the painful period of the Second World War in the Philippines, she is taken into a tale of family love, strength, human frailty, hope and forgiveness.

The Review :

Arlene J. Chai is a Filipino, born and raised in Manila; thus this novel is refreshingly very Filipino.  It is set in Manila and told from the perspective of a Filipino-Chinese family.  It isn’t often that  I get to read an internationally distributed book by a Filipino author so I was pleasantly surprised to be immersed in a well written fiction in the league of many good bestsellers.

Chai writes very simply, fluidly but with enough sensuousness to create a clearly palpable Philippines in the throes of World War II.  The vivid historical details provide a great backdrop and interest to the otherwise simple plot.  But, the best feature of this book is the author’s choice of telling the story with the voices of four principal women characters.  As each narrate their own side of the story, each character infuses her own perspectives, feelings, and humanity in slow layers that deliciously build the novel’s depth and richness.

Aside from events in Manila during the war, the story also takes the readers through a bit of contemporary Philippine history with mention of tidbits from the People’s Power Revolution, the Marcos’ regime, and the Aquino assassination.

The author also treats us to a lot of insights into the Filipino’s complex family life, psyche, and culture, along with a better understanding of  the  multi-faceted Filipino society which owes its character to social class factions subdivided further along racial lines.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Filipino readers will be happy to relate to a story along familiar contexts, nuances, and events.  However, this book’s appeal  sets no racial boundaries. This is first and foremost a story about familial love and relationships which do not differ among race, social status, or creed; hence, this book’s international success.  Anyone can relate to the story; one just gets the added bonus of learning much more about Filipino life.

My Mark :  Outstanding

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Sometimes, I just can’t decide what to read next.  How to make that choice?  With a time-honored answer to indecision:  Eeny, meeny, miny, moe!

The Book of Joe is what moe came up with:

Author :  Jonathan Tropper

First Edition’s Publication Date :  2004

First Edition’s Publisher :  Bantam Dell

This Edition’s Publication Date : January 25, 2005

This Edition’s Publisher :  Delta

ISBN-10: 0385338104

ISBN-13: 978-0385338103

No. of pages :  368

The Story :

How else to purge one’s self of the painful past but to write about it?  This is exactly what Joe Goffman did when he left Bush Falls seventeen years ago with the thought of never going back.  He wrote a highly successful semi-biography which trashed everyone he knew.  Although names were changed and the book was  released as fiction,  Bush Falls residents  recognized themselves and didn’t take too well to this immortalized insult. Enmity toward Joe soared along with the success of his book and peaked when it was adapted to a movie with Leonardo di Caprio as its lead.

Now a best-selling author whose success rides on his former community’s humiliation,  Joe has no choice but to return to Bush Falls  when he was told of  his  comatose and dying father.   The town gives him a “welcome home” with a public milkshake pouring incident by an angry resident, a yard littered with his books thrown out by the local book club,  and a bar brawl with an irate psychotic former athlete who didn’t take too kindly to Joe’s inferences about his dubious sexuality.  Just to name a few “welcoming” incidents  for Joe.

Amid all that, Joe discovers his family and former friends again, and realizes that he does need home and home is Bush Falls.  So after years of  denying a past of  perceived betrayal, bitterness, and emotional battering, Joe must face all these and resolve issues with others and within himself if he is to survive his homecoming.

The Review :

My eeny meeny choice proved to be a nice surprise.  I enjoyed every minute of this wonderful novel.  I laughed,  I cried  and laughed again.  With such humor and well placed cynical wit,  it’s easy to smile even while shedding a tear or two on some sentiment.

It’s funny, sad, cynical, very “now”, and quite optimistic.  It’s about family and relationships, love in tethers, and just plain life.   The Book of Joe is about looking beyond people’s faults and seeing why they are so and at the same time, looking into one’s self and discovering how your own flaws affect reactions in others.

The book, with its boyish colloquial writing, has a contemporary feel to it that renders the characters real and easy to relate to.  Although there is nothing profound nor anything really original about the novel, there is a heart-warming glow about this book  that somehow touches you at some point and and makes you glad you’ve come across this story.

As my first book by Jonathan Tropper,  The Book of Joe makes me eager to try the author’s other novels.  He  has an easy going style loaded with great one-liners and witticisms that keeps you entertained until the end.

This is the type of book, though, that just cries out for a cinematic adaptation.  My hunch proved right when my surfing came up with one in the works with Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, and Brad Grey as producers.  As to when this movie will be released, I have no clue.  But I hope I will fall in love with it as I have with the book.

Mark  :  Outstanding


Everyone knows the story of Cinderella.  But Gregory Maguire takes us a step backward to see the story behind the story.  He deromanticizes the fairy tale and creates a realism behind it, adding a new dimension to a traditional story while staying true to the original framework.

This is my fourth read for Fall Into Reading 2009 challenge.  Four more to go.


Author :  Gregory Maguire

Date of First Publication :  October 6, 1999 (Hardcover)

Publisher :      William Morrow

ISBN-10: 0060392827

ISBN-13: 978-0060392826

Hardcover: 384 pages

The Story :

Margarethe and her two daughters, Iris (plain but clever) and Ruth (an ugly simpleton), flee England in the dead of night and sail for Holland.  Destitute and friendless, the family is forced to beg for their survival.  At last, a painter offers them board and lodging in exchange for housework and the permission for the plain daughter, Iris, to sit as a model for his canvas.  So for a while, the family is happily fed and secure.

A prosperous tulip merchant,  Cornelius van den Meer,  drops by at the painter’s studio one day and offers to buy the painting of Iris. However as a condition of sale,  Iris must accompany the painting to live in the great house and serve as a companion to Clara, the merchant’s extraordinarily beautiful but reclusive daughter. Margarethe sees this as an opportunity for greener pastures and loses no time insinuating herself and her other daughter in the deal.  Soon, she makes herself indispensable to the van den Meer household.

As tragedy would have it,  Cornelius’ wife and Clara’s mother, dies in childbirth.  Gritty Margarethe sees the opportunity to secure her family’s future and finds a way to marry the merchant.  Meanwhile, Clara, depressed and insecure upon her mother’s death and the marriage of her father to Margarethe, consigns herself to the kitchen, covers herself with ash and acquires a new name, Cinderella.  She declares her beauty a burden and seeks solace in the anonymity of kitchen drudgery.

But, tragedy does strike twice.  The tulip trade is disrupted; so soon,  the merchant  finds himself on the brink of poverty.   Unwilling to face hunger and indignity again, Margarethe makes a last ditch effort.  She prepares herself and her daughters for the coming ball where she, in her determination, believes plain Iris would capture the Prince’s interest with her intelligence.  Beautiful Clara, to Margarethe’s delight, refuses to go and parade herself for the Prince. Margarethe knows that Clara’s beauty would surely awe the Prince and that her marriage to him, coupled with her disdain for her stepmother, would land her family back in the poorhouse.

But unbeknown to Margarethe, Iris convinces Clara to get out of her shell and attend the party of the decade.  She secures a gown and a veil for Clara to hide under.  Clara appears at the ball, radiantly mysterious and gets the Prince’s undivided attention.  The rest is history with the glass slipper, coach, the midnight run  and all.

The Review :

Between the stark delineations of the good and the bad in any fairy tale, Maguire steps in to create a gray world — is the bad really that bad or just misunderstood?

Much like history or any story for that matter, fairy tales are told from a point of view, this being mostly from the hero’s .    Gregory Maguire is known as an author who loves to turn a fairy tale inside out with a resounding concept : “Let’s hear it from the other side”.

As with “Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West”, Maguire gives a voice to the villains, , telling the story from their perspective, and imbuing these much maligned characters with more humanity.  His intention is to relate how the forces of personality and circumstance that  influence  reactions and decisions,  coupled with the judgmental character of human nature, easily cast people  into roles of iniquity or seeming goodness.  Hence, there are always two sides to a coin;  and it is never two-dimensional.

In this vein, the author tackles duality in such concepts as beauty, love, compassion, greed — for instance, beauty as both blessing and curse, greed as both corruptible and necessary;  so that this is no mere fairy tale rehash but one with a purpose to provide some rumination on the abstracts of good and bad.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister” holds almost true to the Cinderella plot outline, except for the setting, Holland, and an event toward the end. It is quite entertaining how Maguire weaves a realistic background to the simple framework of the fairy tale. Told through the perspective of Iris, one of Cinderella’s or Clara’s stepsisters, we get a grip on why the Cinderella story had been spun so.

Because of the author’s inclination toward establishing the events and characters on which Cinderella’s story evolved to be what it is, readers may find half of the book a bit slow paced.

Although Maguire’s framework is commendable and his writing intentions, successful; there are nevertheless, a vagueness in Maguire’s writing here that I wish were clearer. To cite a few:   Clara (Cinderella) is somewhat a vague character and the reader may not be able to get a good understanding on what makes her tick. We are given the impression of a recluse, someone afraid of life. However, she suddenly does an about face by being very bold with the Prince, a stranger, at the ball. Also, Clara’s experience as a child at the windmill is left to imagination. What was it really? This, and some others, may irritate a reader who appreciates straightforwardness and specifics; but for those can live with conjecture, this shouldn’t be much of a bother.

In A Nutshell :

Although, not as good as his other novel, “Wicked….” , “Confessions Of An Ugly Stepsister” is nevertheless, still a pleasurable read, a satisfying deconstruction and reinvention of Cinderella that would appeal to those who love stories thought “out of the box”.

My Mark  :  Very Good

Author : Alice Sebold

Release Date : Sept. 20, 2004

When we see a news story of a murder on T.V., we see the grief stricken family, the outraged community, the promises of a good investigation, etc. What we don’t see is how the family does, day in and day out through the years, after the funeral, the condolences, and way after the media’s spotlight has dimmed. We don’t see how the family struggles to survive emotionally. We forget the incident after a time, but to each member, the tragedy goes on and on until they can come to terms with it, as individuals and as a family unit.

Alice Sebold writes an unusual book around this truth, the story being told by a fourteen year old girl in heaven, after being raped and murdered by a serial killer. From her place in heaven, she follows the lives of her family which collapses on itself through the years, while trying to come to terms with her sudden death. She watches how her dad, mom, sister and brother cope, in their individual way, with their grief, their tragic loss, and the injustice of it all. She also narrates how her death affects her friends and the neighborhood community as a whole.

This book is not about a crime story. The Lovely Bones is a book that deals with human nature. The grief, the anger and the efforts to fight these in different ways are so palpable and touching, and true perhaps for some families who have experienced a tragedy like this one.

Yet the novel is not a complete lament as one sees how the family knits itself back together, perhaps emerging different, as a unit that has grown stronger and healed through forgiveness and acceptance. So Sebold gives this message of hope.

I have to say that despite the theme of death and grief, the book’s atmosphere isn’t so gloomy or bleak. The story is told with a light hand and an elegance that shows how talented the author is. I’m impressed by how she manages to make this novel not end up like a chunk of sadness and hurt.

I thank Alice Sebold for successfully directing our attention and thereby our sensitivities to people who have had to face sudden tragedy. The Lovely Bones certainly deserves its bestseller status.

My Mark : Outstanding