Thursday, January 29, 2015

No singular variety but rather a multiple range of truths

January is the great detective Sherlock Holmes' birthday month and he has been my childhood hero for a decade so I decided to celebrate him this year by reading and reviewing four Holmesian anthologies and this is the third for that rundown. A collection edited by Michael Kurland (who also happened to contribute his own story for this one), My Sherlock Holmes has quite an interesting unifying theme to its thirteen pieces. Where other anthologies still often make use of Dr. John Watson as its first-person narrator, this volume allows other characters from the canon to share their perspective of events regarding never-before-published cases of the great detective. Ranging from the familiar ones to the most obscure, some of the tales span for more than ten pages with two of three of them savory in length and pace. According to its general introduction, My Sherlock Holmes borrows the stylistic approach of the famous Japanese story Rashomon where each character has his or her own version of the truth. True to that essence, some of the stories presented are conflicting accounts from some of the canonically established representations of Watson's narratives about certain cases. Others are new concepts altogether that challenge the preconceived notions we have about Sherlock Holmes and his relationships with people or crime-solving itself.

Of all the thirteen, I can recommend seven of the stories. A lot of these stories prove to be challenging, admittedly, because the length surprisingly exceeds what I'm normally used to with anthologies such as this. For some, such length is justifiable and has made the entire story enjoyable and exciting to read while a few others just bored me to no end. My absolute favorite of all has to be Call me Wiggins by Norman Schreiber whose primary POV is the former Baker Street Irregular urchin of the same name. What I love about this story is the fact that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson makes a fictional appearance as one of Holmes' closest friends and Wiggin's mentor. Dodgson is more popularly known as the author Lewis Caroll who wrote the immortal Alice stories. The story presents the simplest of mysteries and yet inevitably the most tragic and it's such a whimsical and delightful look at one of history's most eccentric writers and his relationship (granted it's fictional) with the great detective. It's just really awesome for a Caroll fan like me.

Other gratifying stories are The Incident of the Impecunious Chevalier by Richard Lupoff that explored the POV of Agustin M. Dupin, Edgar Allan Poe's own great detective, who suffered much criticsm from Holmes in A Study in Scarlet so this is the story where he aims to remedy that misconception; The Dollmaker of Marigold Walk by Barbara Hambly that is written in Mary Morstan's POV concerning a series of abductions that are akin to that of the Jack the Ripper; Mycroft's Great Game by Gary Lovisi which is an amazing alternate interpretation of the events of The Final Problem regarding the deathly confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty; and Michael Kurland's own contribution piece Years Ago in a Different Place that explores the early friendship between Holmes and Moriarty in college where an unfortunate fallout between them occurs during Holmes' very first criminal investigation. We also have characters we have never considered prominent before such as Amelia Pettrigrew who is supposedly the second wife of John Watson after Mary, and she is present in Michael Mallory's The Riddle of the Young Protestor, where she gets to do some deductive reasoning herself concerning an antique treasure hunt riddle.

Finally, we have And the Others by C.D Ewing, whose format reads much like Chuck Palahnuik's novel Rant where the writer supposedly gathered interviews and testimonials from Gregory Lestrade, James Mortimer, Arthur Conan Doyle himself etc. about the things they remember the most about the great detective. In addition, we also have stories written in the POVs of Irene Adler, Sebastian Moran, and Reginald Musgrave. These stories were okay but not instantly captivating unlike the others mentioned above but they are notable because these characters are well-known.

My Sherlock Holmes is a fairly decent and worthwhile read for anyone who considers himself or herself a Holmesian aficionado. There are great gems to found in this volume whose lengthy narratives are justifiable because of the tantalizing content they delivered.


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Scarlet Threads and Skeins We Unravel

"The moment seemed to sum up my extraordinary friendship with Sherlock Holmes. Together, we had stood in many a drawing-room, many a library, and in our own rooms in Baker Street, examining evidence, discussing the significance of trifles, sifting through the debris of shattered lives, searching for truth and justice."

Continuing with my second anthology to read, relish and review for Sherlock Holmes' Birthday Month is Murder in Baker Street edited by Martin H. Greenberg., Jon L. Lettenberg and Daniel Stashower. This collection is composed of eleven compact tales of hard-boiled cases that are conventionally delivered in the typical Doyle-esque Victorian classic narrative which works to a certain extent in the seven stories that I favored the most. I was fresh from the heels of the first anthology I read (Twenty-Two Hundred Baker Streets) so I think comparing and contrasting these volumes has been unavoidable. It's truly an apples-and-oranges scenario, however. While Twenty-Two Hundred was a volume that focuses more on alternate-universe scenarios and speculative fiction, the stories in Murder in Baker Street are all set in the established canon timelines with a few tweaks where Holmes and Watson were able to meet certain real-life figures (such as Bram Stoker) or become privy to witness the effects of inventions that they were never able to be acquainted with in Doyle's original stories.

In the editors' introduction, they specifically stated that they wanted their collection to stay true to the essence of Arthur Conan Doyle's characterization and formulaic writing and if you're like me who will always prefer the canon over anything else (including visual adaptations; however, Elementary to me is the closest one that captured the partnership of Holmes and Watson and the sheer attention to detail and procedural investigation that Doyle have employed whenever Holmes unravels a case) then this volume will please you if it's strictly based in a purist's perspective. The authors who contributed their stories have certainly made a stellar effort to incorporate the exceptional elements that made Doyle's Sherlock Holmes timeless and critically-acclaimed in the first place, including the atmospheric grime and smog of London with all its horrors and wonders.

Each tale is self-contained as most of Doyle's short stories tend to be where a seemingly mundane or inexplicable problem at hand is brought by a client (who may be a victim, perpetrator or both) to 221b Baker Street where the world's only consulting detective and loyal bibliographer and friend reside. There the investigation starts which breathlessly or sometimes patiently unfolds until we get to the part where a twist or a solution is revealed that could either be very shocking or rather simple yet elegantly detailed and satisfying nonetheless.

Out of the eleven stories, I enjoyed seven the most. These are (1) The Man from Capetown by Stuart M. Kaminsky, the first story that establishes the setting and tone of the entire anthology; (2) The Siren of Sennen Cove by Peter Tremayne where a religious man visited Holmes after the detective's retirement to solve the mystery behind a series of shrunken ships in the coast; a very whimsical Moriarty story called (3) The Case of the Bloodless Sock by Anne Perry; (4) A Hansom for Mr. Holmes by Gillan Linscot that is narrated by another character, a modest cabbie who wanted nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes until he gets caught up in an assassination attempt; the very straightforward yet amusing puzzle-story (5) The Adventure of the Chesire Cheese by Jon L. Breen; (6) Darkest Gold by L.B Greenwood which had Watson trying to fool Holmes with a disguise as he follows his friend to a rather dangerous scheme involving a married couple and an ethnic tribe; and, finally, (7) The Remarkable Worm by Carolyn Wheat where Holmes and Watson get commissioned for their very own wax figures to be displayed in the London Museum yet they somehow ended up stumbling upon a terrible family affair. These were charming stories that hit me with nostalgia the strongest.

This anthology will be better appreciated if you've enjoyed the Doyle canon itself since the style and linguistics of the stories here are more conventional and in line with how the original author has written Holmes and Watson as well as the cases they solve.


Monday, January 12, 2015

...however improbable must be the truth

January is the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes' birthday month. His creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle assigned him the 6th of January 1854 as his birthday and, growing up, I have always celebrated this date in my own special way. This year, he just turned a hundred and sixty-one years old, if you can believe it. That's a century and a half of legacy already! Because of such a tantalizing breadth of tales, Holmes and his loyal companion, best friend and bibliographer Dr. John Watson have been adapted to film and television throughout the years and these crime-solving partners were most recognizable in the present for the Guy Ritchie films starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, the BBC adaptation Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and, my most favorite of all, Elementary starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as a female Watson.

But my Sherlock Holmes will forever be Jeremy Brett of the Granada series in the late nineties because his performance simply captured the eccentric, bipolar and often callous sleuth whose unquenchable thirst for puzzles and off-putting practices and habits have alienated him from the rest of the polite Victorian society. Brett's interpretation of the character was eclectic; bursting with energy one moment and brewing in melancholy and lethargy the next. His Holmes might be a logical automaton but his personality was richer and diverse--unpredictable and playful; grim and despairing. It was timeless for me; Doyle's very vision fully realized on television screen and every time I re-read the original books themselves (composed of four novels and fifty-six short stories in total), Jeremy Brett is who I picture. So to celebrate my Great Detective's birthday for this year, I decided to spend the next four weeks of January reading four Holmesian anthologies written by other authors. My first pick is Two-Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets.

As much as I uphold that Doyle's canon version is the Sherlock Holmes I will forever and dearly hold onto, the editor of this anthology, David Thomas Moore, has a different opinion on the matter. In his introduction, he claimed that the canon itself never appealed to him, most possibly because of the era it was set in and the conventions of the genre that Doyle was writing in. He owed his favorite version of Sherlock Holmes to the "revisionists" of the modern times which is to say he liked his Holmes and Watson in settings and scenarios that hopefully challenge the archetypes they represented for so long, but such stories should still be able to keep their essence and spirit intact in spite of the more liberal interpretations. In Two-Hundred and Twenty-One Baker Streets, the fourteen stories Moore has collected for this volume are guaranteed to be quirky, absurd and imaginative with premises and plots that I myself would never even think of which was why my enjoyment was immense while reading each piece because they are mostly speculative fiction in scope (a very underappreciated genre), even if there are a few of them that just didn't work for me.

Looking back, I actually considered ten out of these fourteen to be well-written enough to sustain interest and excitement, if not instantly unforgettable pieces I would like to re-read again. My notable favorites out of these ten are A Woman's Place in which Mrs. Hudson's role as a landlady has more to its appearance and function than what it seems; The Innocent Icarus where Victorian society is majorly composed of people with superpowers while Holmes belongs to the minority of ordinary mortals, and he has to work the old-fashioned way to develop and expand his intellectual acumen; the leisurely creepy The Lantern Men about the metaphorical significance that ghost hauntings become for people who are either hypersensitive or neglectful of their own lives; and, finally, we have Parallels which is a delightfully meta story concerning teenage girl-versions of Holmes and Watson (Charlotte and Jane) where Jane is a fanfiction writer online who weaves slash fics about Sherlock and John (of whom I assume must be the BBC adaptation characters) as a way to cope with her own internal conflict regarding her relationship with Charlotte.

As for the six other stories, I really did find them oddly endearing in some form or another, and these are Half There/All There set in bohemian sixties of New York Cities where Holmes and Watson are lovers, partaking in recreational drugs and small-scale mysteries; The Adventure of the Speckled Bandana in which a celebrity fakes his own death; Sherlock Holmes as a demon summoned by a Chinese scholar to solve petty crimes was featured in The Final Conjuration; the carnival-themed A Scandal in Hobohemia has Holmes living as a psychic in drag named Sanford "Crash" Haus who meets an African American doctor named Jim Walker; A Study in Scarborough where Holmes and Watson are real people who became celebrities because they made a career out of their cases by adapting them into episodes for a radio show; and All the Single Ladies where a female Sherlock Holmes helps John Watson, a doctor working in an all-girls school, from being implicated in a serial rape case.

The other four are The Rich Man's Hand, The Patchwork Killer, The Small World of 221B and Black Alice.

All fourteen stories in general have Sherlock Holmes and John Watson set in alternate universes with plots so convoluted, endlessly confounding and yet surprisingly entertaining that would either intrigue anyone who is open with such self-indulgent fan-fictions or infuriate one who is less inclined to appreciate this thematic anthology as a concept and collection. I fall on the former category. There are just plenty of consecrated awesome moments in a lot of these pieces that I could not get enough of (and even wish there is a sequel for some of them) so I definitely can recommend this. Regardless, this is still a polarizing volume because, as imaginative as the settings and characterizations are, I could discern that they are mostly written for shock value or for a whimsical effect that may be slightly pandering on a surface level. There aren't enough meat to the stories that you could digest and claim that they're bloody brilliant and substantial.

If you are looking for a collection that featured hard-boiled mysteries and conundrums, then this isn't it, so it's up to you if you still want to try it. Otherwise, this was a fun anthology.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

"I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer"

DUNE intimidates me. 

I don't think I could ever recall a time that I became almost terrified to review a book and share my most intimate thoughts about reading it until now. I confess that I don't know anything about Dune until three years ago when I made the active decision to explore what the science fiction genre has to offer. I researched a lot of online lists regarding the most critically-acclaimed books and Dune was the one that keeps appearing all the time so I know that it must mean something so I ventured into buying it one afternoon in August last year when my laptop's battery charger quit on me suddenly, so I was offline for the rest of the day. And my world in that moment has never been the same since I started reading it. Everything about doing so was unplanned and it couldn't have been more perfect. Just seventy-four pages in and I knew I was reading something special already.

The magnificence of the novel is often subtle yet clear-cut in an inexplicable manner that leaves me at loss for sufficient words; and I am one who always knows what to say when it comes to the literature I read. So far, I've read Flowers for Algernon, Childhood's End, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Shrinking Man, Ender's Game, and Speaker for the Dead, sci-fi wise, and all of these books have widened my perspective and weakened me in the knees because of their unanticipated emotional impact--but none of them can compare to the enigma and sheer elegance that Dune was. A few novels are intricately beautiful, able to scar you with a lasting impression and not only does Frank Herbert accomplish that; he also elevated the genre to me, personally, into a breadth and quality that makes the world of Dune so intimately familiar to readers regardless of the futuristic setting it was created in. Written in the sixties, futuristic doesn't truly reflect the scope of this novel. The locations may be set on a different planet (the desert planet Arrakis which is supposedly rich in spice melange) but the politics, economic divisions, diversity in culture, religious archetypes and superstition somewhat resemble ours--often in the most chilling sense.

But what truly sets Dune apart from other science fiction books is the absence of artificial intelligence. There are no sentient machines here. There is only a human civilization from a thousand years from now, one that is not so different from what we have now, able to develop advanced technology as well as enhance the mental and physical skills that define humans as a species that continue to thrive and evolve, both as individual and society. The world and people Herbert have created are mostly Middle Eastern in concept and influence; a great number of the terminologies in descriptions, dialogue and characterization are Arabic. There are also Islamic overtones that populate the pages but to define Dune in those simplifications alone would be insufficient. There is a varied list of religions, as well as a comprehensive explanation regarding the political dynasties and technology of Herbert's creation. This is only the first novel of a timeless series that spans decades. It belongs to the subgenre of "soft science fiction" which usually focuses more on the social sciences (anthropology, political science, psychology) which for me is what makes Dune both less and more accessible to new readers. More often that not, when we think about science fiction, we think about AI and conflicts between humans and machines so if you're the kind of reader who enjoys these things in other mediums such as television and movies (I know I do), Dune may take some time to get used to. However, if you're one who can enjoy an expansive universe with sprawling family sagas and cultural nuances, then this book will persistently intrigue and ultimately hold you prisoner.

It is a story of a mother and son foremost, and they are two of the most compelling characters in the book who readers will follow closely during their respective self-explorations and strenuous journey into the unexplored territories of the desert planet Arrakis. Lady Jessica is a Bene Gesserit (described as "an exclusive sisterhood whose members train their bodies and minds through years of physical and mental conditioning to obtain superhuman powers and abilities that can seem magical to outsiders"). She is the concubine and beloved companion to the duke Leto Atreides and their son Paul was touched by a destiny that challenges the norms and comforts of the regime he is a part of.

Paul and Jessica as characters and their relationship with each other remain as my favorite aspect of the story. In a sense, this book can be viewed as Paul's coming-of-age story as he slowly but surely accepts his role in spite of its overwhelming dangers and implications. No one in the book has undergone such a crucial transition than this main protagonist. Dune serves like play in three acts where the middle part is where Paul's endurance, identity and mental strength are tested and the very last act solidifies his accomplishment as the new leader of a world that is forced to keep up with him or else.

I would assert that Lady Jessica is the most empowered and admirable female character I've ever read in fiction, and it's mostly because of her pragmatism, unshakable sense of self and autonomy, as well as her skills as a Bene Gesserit which for me shatters the conventions of how women (fiction and in real life) are usually perceived as emotional creatures with fickle passions and impulses. Lady Jessica stands above this, and always lets her head rule her heart but it does not make her frigid or callous. In fact, it has made her so endearing and easy to sympathize with especially whenever she makes decisions whose impact cannot be underestimated. She recognizes the power she has because of her training as a Bene Gesserit, and equips herself with it quite impressively and in service to the people she loves (like the duke and her son). However, the prejudice and negative bias towards her kind are still heavily highlighted. The Bene Gesserit are duped as "witches" because of the superstition that prevails among outsiders when viewing their craft from a distance. Men are always suspicious of her motives, always believing she is capable of the worst (and she is, but cautions herself against it). It's refreshing me for me as a queer woman to encounter a female character who doesn't weaponize her sexuality or deceive men for her own self-serving needs. Lady Jessica is far from perfect but she is poignantly humanized by her actions, thought processes and devotion and faith towards her son Paul. She's a remarkable specimen, that much is certain, who is wise enough to know that she can't know everything or give absolute guarantees about the things she does know. 

Paul and Jessica may take the center stage but other characters, supporting allies and villains alike, are just as well-rounded and memorable. I personally adored Kynes, Chani, Stilgar, Galleck Hurney and the elusive Princess Irulan who opens each chapter with excepts from her writings which set their tone. These short excerpts are reflective, often taken from various teachings and commentaries regarding science and spirituality as well as cultural analyses that the princess herself has taken a valued interest and investment in. She is only later introduced as a character by the ending chapters of the novel but her pieces throughout the book have served as narration devices which are consistently atmospheric and insightful. 

I would like to recommend Dune to everyone I know but I also recognize how challenging this work of fiction could be. This is not something you can pick up casually. It is the kind of book that is meant to be savored. I find that re-reading it again right after finishing it has even heightened my understanding and appreciation. The truth for the matter is the minute you start reading the first five chapters of the book, you are transported directly into the events without any kind of backstory. You just have to find your way from there and it can get confounding at times but it's also very exhilarating because the world of Dune slowly unfolds before your eyes in a small manner first (with the Atreides household moving to the Arrakis planet largely inhabited by the Fremen) until it sets up the wider stage later on. One of the most beguiling plotlines of the story is the Fremen as a desert society, and the spice melange as the source of their livelihood which is also a substance considered to be most important if not profitable. It certainly reminds me of the Spanish and Portuguese expeditions back in the day that we studied Philippine history in school, where they explored the continents to establish colonies and to look for spices (which eventually led them to my country in the first place). There are discussions about economics regarding the spice being harvested in Arrakis, as well as the cultural practices of Fremen when it comes to water, a substance they consider very much a scarcity so acquiring and preserving it involves a series of bizarre rituals.

 Dune is a classic for many reasons. There is just so much to consume and digest here that will not always be readily accessible so multiple readings of the entire novel itself is something I highly suggest. It gets better every time you willingly emerge yourself with the people and cultures within its pages. It took me two months to finish the first two parts. I then stopped for four months and picked this up again just last December. Its magnetic hold on me never loosened even during such a hiatus. I don't think I can compare Dune to anything else (though some could draw comparisons with a series from another genre, J. R. R Tolkien's Lord of the Rings). In that sense, just like LOTR, Dune does stand as a testament of its own making and legacy. 

DUNE fucking intimidates me. But I nonetheless love Dune with all my mind and spirit, heart and soul.