Sunday, December 14, 2014

"You take up a summer job and trip into a conspiracy"


Eliza Victoria has consumed me wholly this year though our love affair as authoress and admirer has been, on some occasions, an infrequent and most unsure relationship, but I take comfort in the private knowledge that our rendezvous point will always be located within the rich tapestry of  her stories. The gift of her prose and imagination has revitalized the way I look at certain areas in my life, and I'd like to believe that she is my own Neil Gaiman, since I'm aware that Gaiman is a lot to his fans simply magical, and Victoria is the same for me as well.

This is the third work of hers that I read and reviewed for this year and it's a science fiction novella that had a lot of promising potentials to become a full-length novel if Victoria ever decides to pick this up again and go in that direction someday because I believe it's not too late, and I know a lot of readers share this opinion. I also believe that some of them might criticize this novella's brevity, particularly on the aspect of world-building which most sci-fi novels often entail with in order to be considered a very nuanced reading experience. Personally, I think that this was a more self-contained piece than anything, so I can understand why the setting was only discussed in context of the characters who live in that time and place which was a futuristic Philippines where robotics have advanced and have become prominent machines used in law enforcement. This was what the focus of the book; what the Philippines would be like if menial jobs are given to machines. 

In Victoria's Project 17, policemen have been replaced by model units called sentries while domestic helpers and prostitutes are replaced by cleaners and dancers respectively. As a futuristic world, Victoria created something memorable in the sparse 169 pages of the book and it served its purpose well enough for a character-driven story that was at its core a mystery to be unraveled and solved by the teenage protagonist Lillian and her friends Max and Jamie. A seemingly harmless and ordinary job, Lillian was hired by a man named Paul Dolores to take care of his mentally unstable yet heavily medicated brother Caleb which she was reluctant to take up at first. As soon as she got involved in the brothers' pattern and routine, she became intrinsically attached to the lives they lead, particularly when she began to suspect that they were not who they say they are. With the help of her hacker friend Max, Lillian begins to pull at the threads until she uncovers a disturbing secret that could shake up the very fabric of the reality they have cozily lived in for so long.

I have enjoyed Victoria's stylistic language for this book which had always been economical and brisk, and poignant when it needs to be. It superbly suited the story it was telling because we readers are able to wrap ourselves in the enigma that the lead heroine is solving before our own eyes as we closely follow her discoveries. This was a great first effort for a science fiction novella though I still believe Victoria's strength as an author is more fully embodied when she's composing speculative and metaphysical fiction like the stories collected in her anthology A Bottle of Storm Clouds. I also still consider Dwellers as her more superior work, but comparing Project 17 to that is truly a matter of apples and oranges. Despite of the difference in genre, what they do share is Victoria's penchant for writing "siblings with a dark secret" angle. Other than that, Project 17 has amusing, witty and relatable protagonists in Lillian, Max and Jamie who we trust as the story unfolds, and this never wavers until the conclusion of the book itself. Said conclusion is more definitive than Dwellers which was formulaic enough to be acceptable but not as haunting as the latter's own conclusion that is open to interpretations.

I liked this book a lot. It was a fun and fast read with delightful character interactions as much as heavily emotional ones, and a mystery that had surprising twists and turns. The world Victoria created for this book that was filled sentries, cleaners and dancers was descriptive and believable enough in the context of the plot. However, this was a lesser work for me than Dwellers and A Bottle of Storm Clouds because it just didn't resonate as much as those works did. Still, I expect greater things from this authoress and will continue look forward to her future projects.


RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Just Orsk us!" says the beehive worker


Since earlier this year, I have enjoyed and consumed a strange quantity of downloaded horror game walkthroughs from YouTube vidders who post their gameplays online for the general masses of people who can't afford or have the time and commitment to play such games, but are nonetheless interested enough to submerge themselves in another person's virtual world that are mostly filled with deaths, macabre and creepy backstories. I've enjoyed gameplays for Alice: Madness Returns, two Outlast games, five Silent Hill games, Among the Sleep, Slender Man the Arrival, and other delightful array of indie horror games. The reason I bring this up in a book review is because Grady Hendrix's novel HORRORSTOR is amusingly reminiscent of this type of games in the most disturbing way imaginable in prose form and that is why reading its content was hypnotic and spooky in a very visceral level.

This is the most appealing aspect about Horrorstor for me: Hendrix's precise and lush prose was able to create and sustain the atmospheric horrors that such survivalist games aforementioned are initially built on--then magnify that effect and turn it on its head as the story progresses. Everything about this book is a visual assault to the senses in narrative form which produces some of the creepiest and most memorable situations in a reader's imagination as he or she browses not only through the plot's events but alongside the accompaniment illustrations of a variety of Orsk furniture which are gradually transformed into a catalogue of torture devices as soon as the characters find themselves exploring the darker dungeons of the seemingly harmless retail store.

Just like any good premise for a survival horror game, Horrorstor introduces us with easily relatable characters as its core players; the typically apathetic twenty-something Amy who never gets too involved with people, let alone commit to her job at hand or make any kind of definitive long-term plans; Matt and Trinity, a pair of adventurous slackers with loftier ambitions who want to capture ghost phenomena on tape, believing it's their ticket out of small-town obscurity; the decisively responsible yet traditional Basil who takes his job way too seriously, almost in a religious way; and the kind and sympathetic friend-to-all Ruth Anne whose unwavering concern and devotion to her job and co-workers was the singular most heroic quality that actually endangered her in the end.

Next, we are sampled with the workings of a well-constructed setting where all the terrors and nightmarish encounters will revolve later on: the Orsk retail building with floors containing different ensemble of furniture choices and other interior-design selections. As the night deepens, this location will slowly but surely fuck with their minds as they find themselves navigating through a chaotic labyrinth that seems to stop them from leaving at any cost. Not only is the author's prose and story engaging, but the visual design of the book itself allows readers to feel as if they are a part of the world (each chapter break contains a full-page illustration of a furniture  plus a descriptive sales caption, until the next ones devolve into torture devices).

Much like a scary video game, Horrostor relies on the overall visual layout to heighten the spookiness value of its story and to drive home that nagging sense of dread and anxiety as we keep exploring its corridors in spite of our better judgment. However, unlike a video game, this is still a novel so it has to be consumed through reading, and Hendrix does a fabulous job making readers like me care and invest emotionally on the safety of its characters, much like any good work of fiction has to do. This book was compelling, hard-edged and at times very disconcerting indeed so you better have a strong stomach and a slight smidge of masochism to get through some descriptions.

I would also suggest that you buy this as a hard copy rather than read this in a device because holding a tangible one in your hands as you turn the pages will make the reading experience even more uncomfortably real as it was intended by its author. You will also be able to look through some of the finer details in the layout that you might miss if you browse this in an eBook reader.

This was a brilliant piece of narrative that will appeal to you well enough if you enjoy a good scare every now and then. The novel also has an ending that is begging for a sequel. I read somewhere that this might get a cinematic adaptation soon, and I have no doubt in my mind that it's definitely fit for visual enjoyment on screen. Hell, they should make a video game for this. I'm not going to be able to play it myself but I will most definitely watch the gameplays in YouTube!

RECOMMENED: 9/10


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

"Build replicas for your kingdom and pack for the moon"


Just like with Eliza Victoria, I encountered Dean Francis Alfar with his story Strange Weather in the Philippine fantasy anthology The Farthest Shore which was also a collection he edited himself. One day, I was browsing through the shelves in my local bookstore when I came across this collection and I was very interested already at this point especially since the title has 'terra incognita' in it, which has been the name of my column in my college paper back when I was the literary editor, and I also kept that same title when I became the associate editor.

By definition, 'terra incognita' is a Latin phrase that means "uncharted territory" which was used in cartography to describe regions or lands that have not been or have yet to be documented on maps and geography. I decided to use it because my aim was to touch upon certain topics that have not been discussed before, mostly of the whimsical variety. I thought that such a phrase would be the most appropriate description of the content I used to write about then.

In Dean Francis Alfar's anthology How to Traverse Terra Incognita, the speculative fictionist took it to the next level using the same thematic approach. His twenty-one stories were divided into five categories where Alfar deliberately placed his readers as first-time tourists visiting unknown lands of his creation, while he serves as their tour guide, offering five fundamental advices on the best way to navigate these distinct places. Every story is a journey after all, and Alfar's theme of terra incognita has only enhanced the metaphor in the most enduringly creative way possible.

For the first category Research your Destination, my two most favorite stories have to be Simon's Replica and The Face. The former tells the story of a dying queen's request to her favorite architect where she tasked him to build a replica of her entire kingdom; while the latter is a tale of a desperate woman hoping to save the family business both through the power of prayer and science. These stories were memorable simply because Alfar conveys sadness and longing on paper with a sharp edge that makes readers feel as it was their world too that was ending alongside these women. I had the most painstakingly enchanting experience while reading these two stories.

On the second category Take Appropriate Precautions, I was incredibly disheartened by the tales characters in Ghosts of Wan Chai have to tell, where grieving people are unable to move on from their losses and have therefore began to haunt places where their loved ones were last seen; and the whimsy yet heartbreaking Packing for the Moon where a young girl with a terminal illness bravely counts her priorities in both a surprising and expected maturity.

My favorite category has to be When Traveling with Children, Be Sensitive to their Needs. Composed of five stories, three of them really stood out for me. First is the spooky story Bruhita where two boys encounter a strange girl of the namesake; Azamgal where an obsessed fan writes to a fantasy writer he idolizes to give him some notes about his ongoing novel series, but then his letters became increasingly demanding; and, finally, Sunboy which was far too close to home for me; a man has to take care of his mentally-challenged younger brother who is fixated on the sun. It was a story that was challenging to read because of how the lead character's feelings and thoughts about his younger brother closely resemble mine which made it so uncomfortable for me.

The later stories surprised me because I did not expect for some of them to be...smutty and erotic but that was also quite a pleasant shift of narrative focus. In Understand the Culture, Alfar gave us the satirical fairy-tale pieces East of the Sun, and Ever After. The former was something exceptional where a young girl was kidnapped and raped by a half-horsed man (tikbalang from the Filipino folklore) and was determined to make something of a happy ending for herself in spite of all this. We also have Messiah which is a play on the Gabriel and Virgin Mary story, and The Many Loves of Ramil Alonzo which makes use of both prose and poetry to account the narrator's misadventures with women he loved and lost.

Get to know the Locals, the last of the categories, featured two stories I have read before from other anthologies: Strange Weather which is the very first Alfar tale I encountered where two weather gods battle it out; and the excerpt from A Door Opens: the Beginning of the Fall of the Ispancialo-in-Hinirang. There are other stories in the categories mentioned for this volume that I didn't care to mention because they weren't favorites but they could be your cup of tea.

Vividly crafted and irresistible, How to Traverse Terra Incognita is a rich tapestry you will have the utmost pleasure navigating. A few of the volume's stories will enchant and intrigue you while others you didn't take that much time to contemplate at all will suddenly creep in later in the day, and will make you want to know more about their characters and places. That certainly happened to me and it's probably why I believe this anthology is something I will re-visit again. Perhaps by that time the uncharted territories herein will finally make themselves known to me and become my home.


RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Sunday, November 23, 2014

"Dancing with a poem humming in your head"


There was one night when a man came in and bought a bottle of storm clouds. He claimed to be a poet. "I needed the rain," he said. "I couldn't write in this goddamn heat."
"What did he pay for that?" I asked.
"That's just a week's supply of storm clouds," Ana said, "so I only asked for six months of his life. I'm going to use that for my sunflowers. That way, they wouldn't wait for a long time--isn't that fantastic?"
I hoped the man wrote good poems.
Loss, I believe, is a theme in fiction that's difficult to capture resonantly in prose but authoress Eliza Victoria's anthology was essentially able to bottle it in a condensed volume that features sixteen tales ranging from horror, science fiction and fantasy. Curiously entitled A Bottle of Storm Clouds, the thematic bulk of Victoria's short stories is usually about losses and the dangerous and often pitiful coping mechanisms creatures of brevity such as ourselves can only cling onto in order to survive tragedies.

I can't even begin to describe the impactful deftness of Victoria's style. I once described her prose to be "Chandleresque" but this was more present in her novella Dwellers which was a supernatural mystery/psychological horror piece about cousins who can inhabit other people's bodies as vessels. In this volume, that same quality is still present but with less noir and more infused with fantasical inclinations, considering Victoria writes generally for the speculative fiction genre. This collection of hers, in my opinion, offers some of the best short stories I have ever had the pleasure to read.

We have her mediations on quasi-science fiction tales such as Intersections and Parallel which both deal with alternate universes and the repercussions of attaining the ability for dimensional travel. Other sci-fi pieces are Earthset and The Just World of Helena Jiminez, the latter of which was part of the Diaspora Ad Astra anthology I reviewed last month. We also have Night Out that tackles prostitution and homosexuality in a more futuristic setting. Victoria's writing is never delicate when telling these stories and I will not have them told in any other way. Nothing about her fiction is painless as it is a very earnest examination of the things that have the ability to destroy us.

Her horror stories can be both folklore-oriented such as Sand, Crushed Shells and Chicken Feathers and Ana's Little Pawnshop at Makiling St. or makes use of more metaphorical monsters like in An Abduction of Mermaids and The Storyteller's Curse. Even her fantasy has some grounded truth to them which can be found in her reimagining of the Cain and Abel biblical story in Reunion. Other times they can just be short and spooky such as the final story in the collection entitled Once in a Small Town which is I think under 500 words.

My personal favorites have to be the very first story I read from her (featured in the anthology, Demons of the New Year) named Salot; the surprising Sugar Pi about a highschool mathematical genius and his best friend on a quest to figure out the last digits of Pi; the satirical The Man on the Train which is a quintessential bereavement story; a deconstructed Aswang story called Monsters; and the enchanting Siren's Song that is probably the longest piece of the collection, and one that stayed with me in a blinding moment of terror and acceptance.

I once again recommend another accomplished Eliza Victoria book. I am so happy that I decided to pursue her writing after coming across Salot months ago. This is a very imaginative and memorable anthology of speculative fiction and, if you're a Filipino who can access this at your local bookstore, then you're missing out if you don't pick this one up soon!

RECOMMENDED: 10/10
* An impeccable, spellbinding volume that cuts and wounds
 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

"I am no bird. No net can ensare me"


Unlike the titular heroine herself, I would much rather be DIGNIFIED than HAPPY. I have that much pride and entitlement, and I admit openly that my autonomy and self-reliance were the most useful tools that kept me ever so hard and strong that you cannot break me--especially my heart which only cracks in some places but can be readily restored, more fierce than before. Reading this novel and Jane's story with her Mr. Rochester has brought me sheer, reckless joy and yet at times the deepest of sorrows as well.

They say the most unforgettable books we've read serve as a looking-glass where all our fears and desires are reflected back to us and we dare not flinch away from. Well, I gazed into Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and saw again the first person I was ever in love with. The girl I loved with passion was simply called Lei who was only thirteen when we met while I was five years her senior. She was my Jane and I was her Rochester...and she was the only one in the world who had the capacity and good sense to truly break my heart.

Reading about Jane Eyre's childhood rife with alienation and spiritual defeats was like rediscovering Lei again who sought me out and bravely shared her tales of woe and whose youth has struck me to be such a queer thing because it surprised me to learn that she had been through so much grief at such an age. I instantly found myself enjoying Jane's company in her narrations for this book even with her imbued bitterness so unnatural for an impressionable little girl to possess because it was how Lei's own sorrow tasted during our conversations that could go on for hours on end. Sensible, modest and with a touch of vulnerability that can shame you, my Lei was a contradiction who doesn't even know it. Like Jane who always has a good head on her shoulders yet still dreams to rest it on the clouds, my Lei at was capable to claim a wisdom only reserved for adults twice her age and yet still she remains quite innocent, unknowing and willing to believe in impossible heroes. And I was her hero as Rochester was to poor, sweet Jane.

I should have known even then that stories like ours is ultimately going to be a rather tragic one.

As I continue on exploring and sifting through Jane's reveries, exultations and frustrations to untangle her deepening fondness and affection for her Mr. Rochester, its warmth began to sting me but I repeatedly placed my hand on top of it like I was a stubborn child playing with a candle, daring herself to endure the heat as if it's a worthy accomplishment to succeed in. It reminded me so cruelly of my Lei's infatuation with me which was a quiet sort of bliss that engulfed me before I even knew it had the power to cripple my every thought and breath. With enough distance but still quite bitterly acquainted with the feelings Jane is caught up in with Rochester (for I was at the receiving end of that not long ago and knew that it can be a persistent intoxication), I understood the attraction festering between them--its magneticsm, the loudness of it--and I'm embarrassed to admit now as I write this that I knew the effect its glow can have on someone of Rochester's proud and unyielding countenance because I share his indulgences and reservations if not his person altogether.

I knew Jane loved Rochester in a self-aware blindness that accepts readily even the faintest of flaws because that was how my Lei welcomed me; not just with loving arms but with an open mind that challenged me, intrigued me, enchanted me to pry it completely and solve it for myself.

And I knew Rochester loved Jane with a desperation he will never admit because I never had either until today. Rochester loved Jane for her youth which he believed he never had and therefore had always craved. He loved her for her strange ideas and the impressive ways she could still stand out to him even when she's being inconspicuous. He admired the skilled way she reads him when he had long ago believed he was indecipherable. I know these are the reasons he loved her because this was how I loved Lei. I didn't fall or stumble my way into feeling the way I felt for this girl--I decided it with a precision and intensity. Whilst Jane's love was gentle, patient and resilient, Rochester's was a fire that threatens to cauterize or devour, depending on his whim and the moment that would inspire it. I knew I must have exhausted Lei too but I poured everything into her knowing she will open her palms to catch every drop as Jane had with Rochester, her master, her Edward and hers alone.

And though independent and perpetually discontent as I was, I allowed myself to believed that I was Lei's.

I allowed someone to have me.

Like Rochester was with Jane I was always secure with her and never doubted her allegiance. I worship her in my own possessive way, giving her tokens, written testaments and poetry not to flatter her or limit her but to celebrate her as my chosen one, and she, like Jane, would feel abashed and think herself unworthy of the most grandeur of gestures. She would seek to temper my roaring passions with a brief kind word, to soothe my romantic trifles with the simplest yet the most elegant of ways. It was puzzling that she had given herself wholly to me yet will not suffer the immensity of what having me back would entail.

It's funny that her love like Jane's love does not burn hot but steadily flows like a cleansing stream, appeasing me especially in my darkest moods. Every time I read Jane instantly able to stand up for herself when Rochester unconsciously tries to overwhelm her, I think of the times when Lei held her ground against me. All she ever demanded from me is to be myself without exaggerating romance, fabricating my happiness, or testing the bonds that hold us together.

Jane expected this little from Rochester too because to her he was enough; no more, no less.

Rochester also believed Jane will understand him even if he was in his most unintelligible and unknowable and yet he had made terrible mistakes in life before and continues to doubt that he is someone made for love. I too had these moments of sheer self-loathing and disgust and I don't think I will ever let go of such harrowing self-deprecating notions. Nothing was sweeter than my solitude so I considered it such a miraculous development when I gave Lei permission to trespass and prove me wrong.

I did say that a love this contradictory is bound to be ultimately tragic and just like Jane, Lei had deserted me not to be cruel but to be responsible. To her it was the best course of action, the only possible way not to damn us both. She believed her sacrifice would make us happier in our separate existences, and I begrudgingly allowed her cold reason to prevail because I wanted to be dignified. What else does my woman of intellect and an ego that matches its size have to else to contend with? But I committed an omission of truth as well--I once again clung into that desperate belief that I was unfit for love and therefore unfit for her so I cannot possibly have any right to make her stay. She left because it was what I deserved. There is no doubt in my mind that Rochester welcomed these ideas too and that they cut him deep and true.

Alas, this wasn't the book review you wanted to read but I wouldn't rewrite it because this contains the testament of my cowardice and hope as reflected back to me by these two characters who resemble two people in my life I used to know, who dared themselves to love each other and partake in all the consequences it entailed. This is letter to the girl I once called mine, the one I gave five years of my life to until it came to its conclusion just earlier this year. I watched her grow up and, subsequently, outgrow me.

For my part I have never felt older than when I was with her, and I liked that feeling; it gave me repose and made me think about my mortality more often than I should. It kept me alert then, unafraid to take on risks, reminded me that life in its brevity doesn't always require me to be dignified but rather to be happy, always more importantly, happy..

I suppose I should take comfort that at least, in this fiction, Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester had a happier and more enduring ending. And so I kiss this book with trembling lips as I close it, never to be opened again unless I feel particularly nostalgic and most humbled.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10
Its inarguable deftness in prose, and the intimate portraits of characters woven into each chapter have a savory quality to them which will surprise and move readers.
 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Beyond the stars"


The last installment for the Stranger Fiction anthology trilogy is composed of fifteen stories on the genre of speculative science fiction and this is a collection that is personally the most polarizing of the three. I'm fairly new to sci-fi myself since I only started actively reading from it two years ago but I know enough to both enjoy and criticize a literary work in this genre. Unlike the horror and fantasy collections that I previously read(Demons of the New Year and The Farthest Shore respectively), Diaspora Ad Astra has been quite dissonant in scope especially since I don't think a lot of Filipino authors write sci-fi and there isn't exactly a market or demographic in my country that also reads, let alone celebrates, this genre.

As stated in the Foreword of this book, Filipinos don't exactly have our eyes set on the stars or any futuristic landscape when it comes to our fiction as well as in our lives and priorities in general. We are a culture steeped in superstition and spiritual reflection which is why we thrive with our myth-making when it comes to monsters and paranormal entities. But tales and parables on scientific discovery and space travel? We just don't care much for it. Some of us have formed a perplexing association between science fiction and Western influence considering we are also a developing third-world country whose ambitions have usually more to do with pragmatic desires and needs as oppose to those that go beyond what we can readily perceive, what is most tangible.

Simply put, science fiction stories are inaccessible to Filipinos because we don't exactly have a strong space program or a very present scientific community that could inform or encourage us to look up at the skies and dare ourselves to imagine other alien civilizations that could exist.

But perhaps that feeling is only dormant. Everyone, after all, at some point in their lives questioned whether or not we are alone in the universe, or if we could ever leave this planet and build a new home in another. This anthology had encompassed such stories. I think this is why Diaspora Ad Astra will prove a mighty challenge as a reading exercise for people who are not familiar with the genre itself and may have negative pre-conceived notions about Filipinos writing sci-fi stories in the first place. Luckily, I'm neither, and that is why this anthology was vibrant and challenging, a puzzling literary specimen that exhausted and thrilled me in varying degrees. Not all of the stories appealed to me, however, but those that two were maddeningly memorable and deliciously insightful.

I thoroughly loved to pieces the following six stories: Oplan Sanction by Alexander Marcos Osias, The Cost of Living by Vince Torres, the satirical A List of Things We Know by Isabel Yap, The Day the Sexbomb Dancers Invaded Our Brains by Carljoe Javier (that was unexpectedly comedic and quirky); and the endlessly fascinating oneshots Ashes////Embers by Dannah Ruth S. Ballesteros, Gene RX by Katya Oliva-Llego and Robots and a Slice of Pizza by Raydon L. Reyes.

Some stories were more personal oneshots that contemplate the standing of a Filipino or the entire nation in space exploration/colonization like Ina Dolor's Last Stand by Raymond P. Reyes, Taking Gaia by Celestine Trinidad, and Space and Enough Time by Anne Lagamayo; or or how to generally cope with the gradual loss of individual expression as presented in Eliza Victoria's Rizal.

Others managed to only confuse me because of their brevity and vagueness (The Keeper by Audrey Rose Villacorta, Lucky by Raven Guerrero and War Zone Angel by Emil M. Flores) while one story was something I couldn't figure out (or maybe I did but I just couldn't be sure) even though I re-read it thrice now (The Malaya by Dean Francis Alfar).

It took me a whole month to finish this collection but I also felt that I became a better reader after doing so. I'm very pleased that there are Filipino authors who do strive to write in the science fiction genre, and I certainly hope there will be more in the not-so-distant future.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10
 

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Radiant against colossal dark"

"...a privilege of the haunted, radiant against colossal dark. Loud as can be."
I only knew Karl R. De Mesa because he was the lead editor for the Filipino horror fiction anthology from the Strange Series trilogy, Demons of the New Year. This is the first time I have ever read a fiction work of his though I've seen two of his collected essays in the shelves of the nearest bookstore from where I work. I've already been captivated by a certain Filipina fictionist (Eliza Victoria) since last month, and I figured that I could still make room for one more, especially since De Mesa has a very intriguing literary background (he works as a journalist and is also a musician), and seems to share my passion and almost scholastic interest for tarot card-reading. This collection of his is composed of four novellas, each mind-boggling and intricately written, all of them somehow interrelated with one another.

The first noticeable thing about De Mesa's prose is that it more than matches the strangeness and otherwordly quality of his plots and characters. The descriptions are potent and have a hard edge to them are not always a pleasant or an easy thing to peruse through. From the very first story entitled Angelorio, De Mesa's world of fiction seems to be overcrowded with unknowable creatures, each with a unique perspective to share. I haven't read a story as fun and yet just as confusing as this one, honestly. I was taken into very surreal landscapes and seemingly paranormal events as seen through the eyes of two characters; a rich man/former junkie with a terminal illness who wishes to make an unexpected deal with the creature that lives in this mysterious club called Club Angelorio; and a veteran photo journalist, hoping to make a comeback by capturing some of the club's more prestigious and even mythical aspects.

I have enjoyed reading this story a lot even if the last few scenes leading to that anticlimactic ending were confounding. It certainly felt like I was missing something (which, luckily enough, was a purposeful direction by the writer himself. The next stories have a vague connection with this first story).

Still, there was no reason for me just yet to connect things yet. The second story, which is the titular New of the Shaman of the collection, was probably the most interesting of the bunch, given its literary style where De Mesa made use of fictionalized radio interviews, television news coverage, newspaper clippings, etc. as the vehicles to tell the story. I have never read anything like if before save perhaps Chuck Palahnuik's Rant (which, from what I recall, is composed of pages of pages of witness accounts about a certain person of interest) and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (on the aspect where the events unfold in Gotham through the news coverage to give the effect of urgency and realness as the violence escalated in the city, as if the readers are the citizens themselves). That's exactly how the second story made it seem and it was a very invigorating reading experience because of that, considering I myself have a broadcast journalism background, so it was fun for me to read a fiction story through the use of scripted dialogue alone.

Basically, News of the Shaman follows the media coverage of the trial concerning a very famous 'shaman' (medicine man) named Don Cruez who allegedly murdered the legal representative of a certain powerful business corporation (that was also clashing with said shaman because Don Cruez is a self-proclaimed freedom fighter and activist who had been trying to take down said corporation). The most stand-out aspect of this story had to be the radio interviews hosted by a leftist station who seemed to politically align themselves with Don Cruez. I think it's safe to say that this story is the one with the most striking style because it wasn't prose which made it really enjoyable to read.

The third story once again featured the photo journalist from the Angelorio story as its sole narrator. I must confess that as disturbing and grim as Faith in Poison was to read, something about its overall appeal did not click with me. It's probably because I never liked the narrator in the first place, although very interesting and gruesome stuff happen around him and to him as I read this story. Something about it feels very out-of-place though but it's by this story that I also made some connections with the first two (though News of the Shaman feels like a story written to establish the setting and socio-political atmosphere that De Mesa imagined the Philippines has become; where shamans and occultists have become a sort of separate entities of the state who would challenge corporations and even the government itself; a very beguiling concept but I only wished it was established more).

It was only by the last story that made me change my mind about my rating for this book. I originally wanted to give it three stars and two of those are mostly for the second story which I maintain had a great sense of style with its experimental take on telling a story through the use of scripts and interviews alone.

Now Bright Midnight mixes both prose and that said style. We get excerpts from a certain biography which included interviews and then we move ahead with an actual story in prose format. The story follows the rise, fall and reunion of a rock band called Shadowland (they were featured in one of the radio interviews in News of the Shaman where the lead singer Miguel showed staunch support towards the shaman Don Cruez). What I loved about this story is the fact that I finally cared about the characters. Each band member was put in a spotlight and it certainly felt like I was watching one of those VH-1 documentaries about fallen musicians who were so talented and yet so tortured all the same. The tortured artist in question is the lead guitarist Joaquin whose death was such a personal blow for the band and its members on varied personal levels. It was beautiful and sublime, the way this particular story built up and unfolded. There were genuine moments of sadness, loss and discord among its characters that I truly felt for, so I was very much invested when they decided to do a reunion concert for their fans and as a tribute to the late Joaquin whose music had a that kind of magic (both as a metaphor and a literal manifestation) which had touched their lives in ways that can only be expressed through a performance of the lifetime.

De Mesa, a musician with an indie band himself, showcases his understanding about this kind of life and career choice, which made his characters very easy to relate to and sympathize with. He also took the time explaining the wonders of musical instruments and the people who have the skill to play them, infusing both informational texts and literary interpretations with a a delicate, symbiotic balance.

In a nutshell, News of the Shaman is quite exceptional in its storytelling and definitely something you must read if you're into quirky, experimental speculative fiction. I'm definitely interested enough to check out the author's other works.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

"We are doomed because we are connected"



I first encountered Eliza Victoria in her short story submission for the Filipino horror anthology Demons of the New Year entitled Salot and it was a piece that stayed with me because of its ambiguous ending and fascinating characters whom I wished she expounded on some more. Heck, I even personally tweeted her one time and asked if there is a sequel because I couldn't get enough of it and she responded that there was no more that she could offer me. I was heartbroken but it also ignited my interest further so I ventured on to discover more of her fiction.

She once again dazzled me for her submission in Alternative Alamat entitled Ana’s Little Pawnshop on Makiling St., and eluded me for her submission in the fantasy anthology The Farthest Shore entitled The Just World of Helena Jimenez which I had to read twice to fully understand.

So, as you can see, my first impressions of the work of this authoress have been quite intoxicating. Now you can just imagine my glee once I was able to purchase this novella of hers--and was absofuckinglutely blown away by the simplicity yet elegance of her plot and prose.

Surprisingly yet admirably enough, Dwellers only has less than two hundred pages and yet that very length is something Victoria made the most of. The story is about two cousins with the power to inhabit the bodies of other people of their choosing. That's how the story starts, with these two men right after they freshly occupied the brothers Louis and Jonah and began settling down in their new home. The novel is written in the first-person perspective of the new Jonah who is from here on serves as the eyes of the readers as the story unfolds.

Part of the ongoing mystery is that we never learned about the cousins' real names to the very end yet perhaps it's not what really matters at all.

In addition to this, Dwellers operated in a two-fold level of storytelling where we get the main plot which is about the mystery surrounding the lives of the brothers they have inhabited--especially once they found out one night during a blackout that the brothers have stored a dead body in the freezer down the basement. On the other hand, the secondary subplot starts in the middle of the novel where we get a flashback story concerning the cousins' tragic lives permeated by a complicated family history, and why they chose to run away from it all.

What I enjoyed most about Dwellers is the amazing pacing and direction of each chapter that both relish on keeping the readers on their toes as we ourselves slowly uncover the dark secrets of the brothers Louis and Jonah alongside the cousins. I also easily developed great sympathy for the cousins, particularly the one who is narrating everything as the new Jonah. Victoria has gracefully wove a psychological mystery novella with an unmistakable poignancy pouring out from the confines of its narrative which in turn speaks of the darkness and desolation of human struggles and conflicats that more often than not will always weigh down our lives.

One of the chief villains of the story even makes this big speech that truly drove the theme home: "We're doomed because we are all connected. But alone, we won't survive. Even if you all follow the rules, someone, somewhere, won't and it will be the end of you...We are infinitesimal. We are too small and our lives are too brief to make a difference."

I can't give away too much of the story anymore but I can guarantee that everything about the tone, atmosphere and theme in Dwellers will chill you to the bone. This is a marvelous novella that further seals the impact of Victoria's literary style. She certainly has a fondness for ambiguous endings where she never gives us a fixed resolution of her equally thought-provoking and surreal stories. In fact, once you turn the very last page, you are left with a feeling of emptiness and perplexion but, personally, it worked quite well.

It has certainly made the entire novella a painfully unforgettable one that is open to many interpretations.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10
*Darkly sublime and unforgivably enticing with its layers of mystery and drama

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"Upon new landscapes and escapades"


Published by the University of the Philipppines Press, the Strange Fiction series is a trilogy composing of anthologies on the horror, fantasy and science fiction genres. I finished the horror anthology entitled Demons of the New Year last month and it was an absolute favorite volume of mine. For this fantasy collection composed of twelve stories, there are so many imaginative and intriguing worlds here that I found myself very fortunate enough to explore; while there are a few others that I just couldn't connect with in a deeper level. Still, what each writer brought to the table is commendable; their lush descriptions of landscapes, characters and themes truly gave life to the pages they were written in.

Edited by Dean Francis Alfar and Joseph Frederic F. Nacino who are actually certified speculative fiction authors themselves, The Fathest Shore is a hefty exploration of mythical and fantastical stories that can be distinctly Filipino or generally otherwordly. The stories that for me illustrated captivating and vivid tales are Alfar's Strange Weather whose lyrical prose is both hard-edged and tender in scope, demonstrating the author's great command of language and symbolism; Nikki Alfar's Emberwild which tackles the indulgences and ills of societies, particularly how women have to be in servitude of such bad habits; the uncomfortably piercing satirical piece by Eliza Victora entitled The Just World of Helena Jimenez which readers need to pay close attention to in order to fully enjoy the story (As a growing fan of Victoria's work, I was surprised by this piece's verbosity which is so unlike her usual style, yet ultimately it worked wonders for the story).

Finally, my most favorite piece has to be Light by Kate Aton-Osias which stayed in my mind for days because of the potent nature of its prose. It's about anthropomorphic beings in league of Neil Gaiman's character Dream from The Sandman, and the whole thing definitely leaves readers wanting for sequels. It's simply one of those short stories that warrants an expansion, possibly into a full-length novel. It was that intriguing and multi-dimensional. 

Notable stories that I enjoyed are Queen Liwana's Gambit Rodello Santos (which was an amusing take on making deals with devils); the feminist deconstruction of a fairy-tale-like story, They Spoke of Her in Whispers by Bessie Lasala and Vincent Simbulan's poignant In the Arms of Beishu. Unfortunately, I found it often difficult to fully engage with the rest of the stories (such as Crystal Koo's Wildwater and Rite of Passage by Dominique Cimafranca, whose brevities felt slightly anticlimactic; and the equally confounding stories, Spelling Normal by Mia Tijam and J.F Nacino's Brothers in Arms). I would admit that though Siege of Silence by Paolo Chikiamco had a daring premise, my interest started to dwindle as the story progressed which is a shame because I did want to enjoy this story but certain details just take me out of it.

Although the last batch of stories received quite a lukewarm response from me, they may be your cup of tea so you might as well check them out as well. But I assert that Strange Weather, Light, Emberwild, and The Just World of Helena Jimenez for me are the best that the anthology has offered. Now I'm pretty excited to read the last volume of the Strange Series trilogy which covers science fiction written by Filipinos.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10
Crafted with a variety of purposeful and mediative literary styles, each story featured in The Father Shore is delightful and sublime in their own special way.

Monday, August 25, 2014

"The gods are futile guests of literature"

"Sometimes I feel like there's a tendency--even amongst Filipinos--to view the Philippines as a footnote on the world stage. Yet there's so much that is unique and beautiful in Philippine culture, if only we would take the time to learn it. Philippine mythology has much to offer the world. This anthology, we hope, has opened a doorway. We invite you to step through it." ~Paolo Chikiamco
This is an anthology that has made me even prouder of my cultural roots, particularly when it comes to a Filipino's ability and capacity for myth-making, and the eleven short stories (plus a supplement comic story) that comprise this volume are testaments to that quality. I absolutely love it when a book manages to not only pleasantly surprise me but also cast a spell on me while reading it and Alternative Alamat knows exactly how to weave magic in the prose of each story and how best to wield its power to entice and hypnotize anyone who reads it.

Each story in this collection is a re-imagined tale of a famous or obscure folklore/myth or figure from the Philippines and I can honestly say that the ones I'm not familiar with are the tales that captured my imagination the most and stayed with me long after I finished them. In Alternative Alamat we get to enjoy the modern interpretations of some of the well-known Filipino myths as explored in stories such as “Conquering Makiling” by Monique Francisco (a playful look at the most popular diwata Maria Makiling and the idea of her taking human lovers); Eliza Victoria's “Ana’s Little Pawnshop on Makiling St.” (which showed how the changing times affected the way of living among supernatural entities); and the tantalizing and enigmatic piece “Keeper of My Sky” by Timothy James Dimacali (that accentuates the poignant dichotomy found in every creation and ending present in the universe).

There are also cautionary stories about losses and gains that result from either bad decisions or an individual's sheer strength of will (“Harinuo’s Love Song” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is quite reminiscent of Neil Gaiman's Stardust but with a bitter ending; whilst “The Alipin’s Tale” by Raymond G. Falgui is a story that ends with an optimistic challenge in regards to our ability to free ourselves from the enslavement and confines of the status quo). We also have a story (“The Last Full Show” ) written by Budjette Tan, who is known mostly for his comic book series Trese, where he decided to reveal a softer side to the titular character of said series and is surely not to be missed by any Trese fan.

We also have stories that provide us with insights in the manner and inner workings of myth-making and superstition in general (“Offerings to Aman Sinaya" by Andrei Tupaz; “Balat, Buwan, Ngalan” by David Hontiveros; and “A Door Opens: The Beginning of the Fall of the Ispancialo-in-Hinirang” by Dean Alfar) but my most favourite stories of this collection have to be Raissa Rivera Falgui's “The Sorceress Queen” that tells the unique tale of Maryam of Marinduque, a proud monarch who will not bow down to patriarchy or the men who wish to subdue her through promises of love and devotion (even if the price of denying such pleasures is loneliness and desolation), and Celestine Trinidad's “Beneath The Acacia” which interestingly used a folklore as a mere backdrop to tell a detective story which aims to solve a very intriguing crime.

The supplement comic story "Upo" by Andrew Drilon was brief yet quite endearing in its style and execution (it's a story of origin regarding a certain vegetable).

I believe that there is an online copy available so you are very much encouraged to check out this anthology. You have my word when I say that reading Alternative Alamat will be an amazing (and gratifying) use of your time.

RECOMMENDED: 10/10

Monday, August 18, 2014

"We live in a haunted world"


I used to be the literary editor for my college paper about three years ago, and I decided that the literary folio's theme is going to be about our fear and fascination of monsters. I maintain that the monsters that plague our lives are mostly products of self-creation; a mere metaphor for our tortured or unsatisfying way of life. In that collection, the stories also got to feature literal monsters, ones that fuel nightmares and hunt us, demanding for blood. I mention this here because it's definitely the reason why this particular anthology published by the UP Press has intrigued me to no end.

Demons of the New Year had a lot of amazing things going for it. Firstly, it's a horror fiction from my country the Philippines which is already a readily commendable trait, seeing as I've always believed that we have some of the most enticing paranormal lore out there as well as perplexing and creepy superstitions deeply rooted in our collective national consciousness. This anthology was certainly able to deliver these qualities that I've always loved and appreciated about Filipino horror. Edited by rising-star horror fictionist Karl R. De Mesa (whose fictions are definitely just as enjoyable and disturbing) and Joseph Frederic F. Nacino, this volume is composed of ten short stories and a bonus comic story by De Mesa and illustrated by Gani Simpliciano. It's also a part of the ongoing Strange Fiction series that also published fantasy and science fiction anthologies (The Farthest Shore and Diaspora Ad Astra respectively, which I will read soon enough).

What is offered in this volume are some of the most imaginative, poignant, quasi-religious and uncomfortably exciting tales about demons in general; all of which are uniquely tailored to the things we fear, crave and deny the worst about ourselves.

My absolute favorites are definitely Brother and Sister (a re-imagining of Hansel and Gretel), Salot (a story that I couldn't get out of my head because it reminded me of a few childhood encounters with the unknown), K-10 Mushroom (a parable that tackles if not satirizes malicious intentions of organized religions), The Different Degrees of Night (whose prose personified the city of Manila in a way that's reminiscent of how Scott Snyder did with Gotham for his Batman stories) and Best Served Cold (where 'business of the soul' takes a whole new comedic meaning). The rest were good one-shots (The Kambubulag which reads like an entry for creepy pasta; Grotesquerie, Little Hands, Little Feet, Dark Moving Houses and Demon Gaga). The comic story The Magdalene Fist was a surprising supplement that I would want to read the continuation of soon (if there is any).

In a nutshell, this is a worthy addition to anyone's library and a rather delightful reading exercise to be had if you are that eager, preferably during a slow afternoon or, better yet, a solitary night in a quiet corner somewhere in your house.

Let the demons in this book come alive.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10
 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"How easy for a mask to be a blindfold"


I'm going to level with you now: you must pick this up one of these days and read it. You'll be glad you did. I spent about a week reading and reviewing each issue included for this stellar graphic novel written by the current Batman writer for New 52, Scott Snyder, and illustrated by artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla alternatively. Comprised of ten issues from Detective Comics #871-881 from the old DC continuity, The Black Mirror is set right after Bruce Wayne's supposed death and so, in his absence, the role of Gotham's Dark Knight was filled in by no other than Dick Grayson, the first Robin. Though it's not Wayne underneath the cowl, Dick as Batman is definitely a daring and compelling one.

In Snyder's stories about him being Batman and as illustrated by Jock, Dick faces questions similar to a person who is having an identity crisis, particularly on the aspect of his roots. Though intimately familiar with Gotham's horrific landscapes and feels personally obliged to protects its people, Dick never felt that he belonged in this city of nightmares and most of his character conflict stems from the fact that he's a bird constantly trying to be imprisoned in a cage by forces which he could not always comprehend but nonetheless fights back with much vigor and resilience. In Dick, we get a Batman whose contemplative monologues are as self-centered and personal as they could get with some touch of vulnerability and self-doubt here and there, the likes of which we have never seen in Bruce Wayne before (though Snyder will go on to write Bruce in a more humanized sense in Zero Year for New 52 later on).

His issues follow him in his investigations and findings pertaining to Gotham's usual scum and criminal element yet more often than not he gets caught up in a cycle of deception and greed that forces him to re-examine the way he views Gotham and his role and participation in all of its endless stream of violence and despair. I found Dick to be remarkably admirable yet pitiful as well especially in those quiet moments when I see glimpses of the Boy Wonder who is still lurking somewhere in the more matured and fiercer fighter Dick has become after leaving the Robin persona behind. It gives his Batman a presence that lacks the hardness that Bruce placed into it but still manages to be just as formidable. Jock's art and illustrations of Dick gliding across pages or diving into places remind you that this is the Robin we all love and who is now all grown-up and yet someone who remains as an adventurous aviator who longs for freedom and can only achieve it when he's flying over the dark city he is bound to serve.

In fact, those brief moments he soars in the skies are the happiest that Dick has ever been, right until he lands back on earth and faces the evils and malevolence that is required of the Dark Knight he now has to embody.

The secondary key character for the other half of the issues is Commissioner Jim Gordon. His issues are illustrated wondrously by Francesco Francavilla whose limited color palette of dark colors (hues of orange, red, blue and purple) make the stories a chilling visual adventure as it is able to echo the depths of horrors that Snyder's writing purposefully and, at most times, masterfully brings out with atrocious clarity. In these issues, we see Gordon stumble upon an enigma he could never seem to get a hold of in solving, one whose dark nature perplex and wound him most: his own son James Jr. whose psychosis brings devastation wherever he goes. Now that he's back in Gotham, James Jr. has unleashed uncomfortable memories that his father had buried for so long. Each issue builds up to the ultimate collision and, just like with Dick, Jim Gordon needs to meet the reflection he sees in the glass and recognize that its potential for evil has gotten stronger and he may not have enough time to stop it.

The Black Mirror may as well be Snyder's audition for becoming the current writer for New 52 Batman and if that is the case, then it was rewarded graciously with much deserved praise in the end because this was such an impressive body of work, I must say. His poetic prose when describing Gotham City as a living character and not just a setting piece in his stories is something we can now read and appreciate in his The Court of Owls storyline. I would recommend this to anyone, long-time Bat-fan or novice.

This is a rather moving yet very tragic story about the inconvenient truths in people's lives and how chaos can be the most undiscriminating force of nature that often rules the choices we make; and  that the ideals we cling onto and comfort ourselves with may be more fragile than we are led to believe--much like the people we love the most can be the very ones who will have the ability to betray and destroy who we are.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Hoping is what kept most men from living"

 
Considering this is a Richard Matheson book, an author who is probably best known for his horror stories, I have initial expectations that this was going to be a scary venture in the same manner as Hell House was when I saw the movie as a child and later on read the book. But in the first fifty pages or so of this novel, my expectations were met in a different way yet it was also something more satisfying which could be what Matheson has intended when he wrote it.

The Shrinking Man tells the story of Scott Carey who was one day sprayed with a radioactive chemical by accident, and found himself physically shrinking since. The novel perfectly opens with a very terrifying description of Scott being chased down by a spider. At first glance, this book seems to be a very simplistic survivalist story about one man's struggle to endure a hopeless circumstance--but the existential horror that is the overall thematic scope of the plot is definitely its most intriguing aspect. This could almost be an episode in Twilight Zone and that's probably the strength of Matheson's work as a horror writer.

In The Shrinking Man, he gives us a chilling glimpse at the visceral terror of physical helplessness. Scott Carey's anxiety is not just about being erased from existence entirely but it's also about the gradual loss of his relevance as a person of flesh and blood. A man who used to be six-foot tall, he now has to deal with the emasculation of his role both as a husband and father. Scott may be shrinking into a size that's even below his kid daughter, but he still has the same needs and entitlement as any grown man does--and the harrowing and pitiful ways he tries to hold onto these things but fail are almost hard to read for me.

Matheson needs to be commended for his clear-cut prowess as he delicately approached the writing of this story with such an earnest tone even though it has an absurd premise. What Matheson and the readers end up with is a massively heartfelt tale about the importance of spiritual optimism and the ways that a man can still see a point in living despite the uncertainty and despair he faces. The book can also be seen as a deconstruction of masculine roles in society and what happens when those very rigid notions are inspected and essentially stripped away which is the case with Scott Carey's character as we put ourselves in his position of estrangement from the tangible reality including his family.

The Shrinking Man ended with a sincere resolution that is bittersweet and unexpected; Scott Carey has feared about non-existence because he had only defined it in terms of the human context, neglecting the reality that the nature of the universe is not as black-and-white as our own limited perspectives as mortals. Scott Carey, now in his microscopic size, is fortunate enough to witness the everyday miracles of life especially now that he's removed from human bias and that for me is by far the most uplifting kind of pay-off in a science fiction novel that explored such an existential journey. This is a great book filled with engrossing psychological reflections about primal survival instincts and resignation to an inevitable outcome.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10
* A tedious build-up that was able to find its perfect prose rhythm once the protagonist continues to grow and thrive himself in spite of his physical shrinkage.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"To fallen heroes who fight for another day"

In every list of the greatest Batman stories ever written, this is always on top of the pile (rivaled once in a while by his other work, Year One, if not followed closely by Alan Moore's The Killing Joke). Naturally, I was excited to start reading this although I cheated on myself a little because I did watch its animation adaptation last year. But having the chance to read the source material myself, I started to understand why this was such an important work when it was released about the same time Watchmen was in the late eighties. I was unfortunate enough to be born in the nineties so I wasn't there to see firsthand how Batman's narrative evolved in the comics and I was quite envious of those who were there to witness what Frank Miller accomplished when he wrote The Dark Knight Returns; considering how much of its impact still echoes in the modern interpretations of Batman and his villains to this very day.

Still, that also means that I can view this piece of literature objectively without being swept away by its legacy. I can honestly say that this was a challenging work visually. Klaus Janson's art is at times incomprehensible to look at. In the course of the story, that could either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how it was utilized by Miller's narrative. At its best, the art manages to haunt the pages, giving it a fragmented yet lingering imagery, all the while capturing both the dissonance and melancholy of the plot quite effectively. At its average, the art tends to confuse readers because it doesn't have the refinement most mainstream comics now possess. Some pages may come off as draft sketches of what the actual scene is supposed to look like in a more finished template.

I suppose that is Janson's artistic style and it mostly appealed to me in the course of my reading, but there were a few moments that I don't know what I'm looking at and I had to pay extra attention to the scenery in case I overlook or miss something very vital.

As for the writing, Miller has clearly created something meant to last even when you're only at the first ten pages or so. This may have been groundbreaking at its first publication, yes, but I believe that for someone in my era, this could still be appreciated casually even if you are not familiar of its historical importance. This is not the kind of Batman story where it's just another action-oriented adventure featuring theatrical villainy and clear-cut resolutions. The Dark Knight Returns stands out because it tried to break down what Batman is supposed to represent in our own fragile psyches and build up the suspense and drama from there. Miller's Batman is an old man who retired from vigilantism to give way for Gotham to thrive as a society; only to watch it fall apart to chaos when a new breed of juvenile delinquents pollute the streets. Probably the most interesting piece of narrative device Miller used in TDKR is the media coverage panels. It certainly feels like you are a part of the ordinary citizens of Gotham tuning in to your television screens and watching the violence and mayhem escalate right outside the comfort of your homes. I certainly felt like that.

Additionally, Batman is not a noble, sympathetic hero in this book--nor does he need to be. I believe that only the truest Batman loyalist understands that the Dark Knight earned his place in comics not because he is always a good little soldier but because Batman is the kind of warrior who is resilient and resourceful and always at his best when cornered by the worst; and who ultimately makes the right choices even if the results are not always going to be in his favor. That is the overall message I got from The Dark Knight Returns as someone who considered him as a childhood hero. I related strongly to the female Robin of this book, Carrie, who I believed recognized that the man she idolizes is not someone who always deserves such tenacious admiration but is still someone worthy of the good fight when push comes to shove. There are a couple of instances in TDKR that Batman truly repulsed me but Miller never forgets to make sure that readers can at least understand why he had committed such actions and that they may be the only course of action left to do in the grand scheme of things. Batman never hesitates to always walk into that abyss; to dare go where no sane, self-respective 'hero' would.

Another thing to discuss in this review is that significant moment that further made The Dark Knight Returns memorable; and that is the all-out battle between Batman and Superman which would make any fan of either or both heroes who have yet to read this pick it up if only for those scenes alone. It is certainly an intriguing take on the strained relationship between Superman and Batman who couldn't be more different and at odds with each other than in this book.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10
* Deftly written with a candor and appreciation that does not patronize nor belittle what Batman is all about, Miller and Janson incorporated some of the darkest yet still optimistic themes in this arguably the greatest Batman story ever written.