Selasa, 25 Mac 2014

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf


Posted: 24 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

It was with no small amount of excitement that I awaited the sequel to Lissa Price's Starters, a young adult novel about a dystopian future where rich old folks "rent" young teenage bodies to relive their youths. The book was dark, clever and layered, telling a gripping story while making astute observations about growing up.

However, the sequel – appropriately titled Enders – falls so short of its predecessor that I wonder if it was written by the same author. Whereas Starters kept me glued to its pages, Enders is a chore to finish. While Starters could hardly condense its plot into one book, Enders feels stretched and thin. Whereas Starters was fresh and fascinating, Enders feels tired and done to death. Come to think of it, was Price making some sort of meta commentary on the ageing process with her two books?

Following the downfall of Prime Destinations, the "body bank" that facilitated the rentals, at the end ofStarters, protagonist Callie Woodland is reunited with her younger brother, Tyler, and best friend, Michael, and is living comfortably thanks to Callie's ex-renter Helena's generosity. The computer chip implanted in Callie's brain at Prime Destinations, however, is still there, leaving her body vulnerable to being "hijacked" by someone with the right technology.

What's more, the Old Man – the mysterious, faceless villain from the first book – is still very much around, and is able to use the chip in Callie's head to communicate with her. So, Callie bands together with other former "Metals" like herself – as the teens with chips in their heads are called – in an effort to discover the truth behind the Old Man's plans.

It's a bland, meandering plot with not much else going on. The most fascinating part of Starters involves a sinister plot device about the geezers taking over much younger bodies, but Enders hardly explores that. Instead, the book is about a whole bunch of things: Callie wanting to get that chip out of her head, defeating the Old Man, figuring out if her dad is really dead, etc, etc, etc. Price throws so many things at us that there's little space to explore any of them with depth. It's a struggle figuring out what the main point of the novel is.

In the absence of a strong central theme, all the small flaws in Starters are amplified in Enders. Callie, who appeared a little impetuous initially, is full-blown irritating and immature here. "I don't talk to liars, you lying liar!" she hurls out eloquently during a climactic point.

Furthermore, Price's depiction of this society, where all middle-aged adults were killed in the Spore Wars, starts to make less and less sense the more you read about it. And her love for plot twists and surprise endings, nicely handled in Starters, is on overdrive in Enders as she chucks "big reveals" at us one after another, while removing everything that caught our interest in the first book.

Callie's love interest Blake, so prominent in Starters, is shuffled aside speedily without explanation. And while Price keeps talking about how important Tyler is to Callie, we hardly see him in much of the book. Meanwhile, her relationship with Michael, so sweetly outlined in the first book, is clumsily handled here.

As these established relationships are poorly dealt with, however, we're introduced to a whole slew of new characters, most of whom leave little impression. There's also a new potential romance for Callie, which isn't just jarring but becomes increasingly unconvincing as the story progresses.

Enders is an apt example of a problem that's plaguing the young adult fiction genre, the tendency to rush out books or a series based on a concept instead of a fully-fleshed narrative. Alas, it takes more than one great idea to tell one great story.

The Hotel on Place Vendôme

Posted: 24 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Paris has, for some two centuries, held an extraordinary fascination and appeal for American writers. The long list of scribes from across the Atlantic who chose to live or spend a creative sojourn in the French capital includes Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Henry Miller and poet-musician Jim Morrison.

To this illustrious list we can add a professor at a college in the New England state of Maine, whose bestsellers The Widow Clicquot (2008) and The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World's Most Famous Perfume (2010) have, in recent years, placed her in the premier league of literary American Francophiles.

Tilar Mazzeo became intrigued by the Hotel Ritz in Paris while researching The Secret of Chanel No 5. On leafing through declassified documents on the wartime activities of style icon Coco Chanel, she felt another book coming on. And this is the gratuitously fascinating result.

But it wasn't as breezy an undertaking as one might think. Mazzeo was actually warned by an elderly widow who fought in the Resistance against recounting the wartime history of the Hotel Ritz as a giddy collaborationists playground.

If truth is the first casualty of war, this is doubly true in enemy-occupied cities. The "collective French national fantasy" – now rather frayed – is that everyone aided and abetted the Resistance. However, the reality is that only a few brave souls did. Inevitably, the hotel's WWII years constitute most of the book, though Mazzeo also includes the establishment's history from its 19th century construction right up to today.

No simple dry litany of facts (that so often make up historical non-fiction), this story is told in a rather intimate tone, giving it an engaging warmth rarely found in such works. It's also cinematic, a film noir in many shades of grey, and swarming with dramatis personae and their endless intrigues and betrayals.

Indeed, this story of shadowy lives, mysterious deaths and dangerous liaisons feels ripe for a Hollywood adaptation, albeit a sensitive and appropriately art-house one. We learn how lavish and rowdy dinner parties continued even while the French capital was under siege during WWI, and of the hotel's surreal indifference to – and insulation from the privations of – that horrific conflict, which took around 1.5 million French lives.

During the next world war, German troops occupied their own wing of the hotel. One such "guest" was Gestapo founder General Hermann Göring. Nazis, moneyed expats, war reporters, well-heeled mischief-makers and assorted Parisians all managed to co-exist in this parallel universe through Europe's darkest years.

The hotel also became a hub of informal and illicit commerce with perfumes, jewellery and furs being sold for francs and reichsmarks. Coco Chanel was the principal retailer and amassed a fortune flogging Chanel No. 5 to the Nazis. Her own German lover, Hans von Dincklage, found her scent part of the irresistible seductive package, despite severe penalties for fraternising with the enemy.

We also read of the ferocious competition for scoops among the press corps stationed at the hotel. The notion of fair play swiftly went out the window once the guns started firing on various fronts around Europe.

Inevitably, one of the larger-than-life characters here is Ernest Hemingway, and his legendary passion for the hotel's wine cellar, which he basically drank dry before other war correspondents (such as photojournalist Robert Capa) could get to it.

A whole chapter is given to the liberation of Paris, and the desperate dealings and double-crossings that ricocheted around the hotel in its aftermath.

Mazzeo is a top-grade storyteller whose aim is true – and shines a beacon on the evidenced truth, no matter how sordid. Duly, the book contains extensive bibliographic notes. "We all live in the long shadow of this history," she states, after illustrating how the many weird vignettes told here shaped the future. And Mazzeo's remarkable history of the Hotel on Place Vendôme drives this truism home with élan.

American Vampire: Second Cycle #1 (ongoing)

Posted: 24 Mar 2014 09:00 AM PDT

American Vampire is the Eisner Award-winning series by Scott Snyder (Batman) and Rafael Albuquerque, about a new bloodline of US bloodsuckers – as opposed to classic Euro ghouls – that possess new powers and weaknesses.

The series focuses on two characters from that species, former Wild West outlaw and original American vampire Skinner Sweet – whose origin was written by Stephen King, no less – and his first "offspring" Pearl Jones, a former Hollywood actress. In the First Cycle, the 34 issues followed them through different decades of US history, from the late 1800s to the 1950s.

Now, after a year-long hiatus, Snyder and Albuquerque have returned to the title that launched their careers and established Snyder as one of the hottest comic book writers in the industry. According to Snyder's footnote at the back of American Vampire: Second Cycle #1, the first issue of the saga's so-called "second half" is designed as a "jumping-on point" for new readers.

If you've already heard of Snyder through of his acclaimed work on the DC New 52 Batman book, then this is the perfect place to start reading what is arguably his best work so far. American Vampire: Second Cycle #1 is stunning.

Snyder starts with a four-page prologue set in 1811, in which he sets up a mysterious and devastating new enemy that's even more fearsome than the US bloodsuckers, before jumping to 1965, where Sweet and Jones have moved on from their former "jobs" working for the vampire-hunting organisation, Vassals of the Morning Star.

Having lost her husband at the end of American Vampire #33, Jones now lives alone on her ancestral land, which doubles as a refugee home for isolated vampire kids. Sweet, on the other hand, has fallen back on old habits and is a chopper-riding outlaw. From the striking cover, which mirrors that of American Vampire #1, to the visceral images of Sweet chomping down on some gun runners, Albuquerque's artwork is both comfortingly familiar and wonderfully fresh.

But it's Snyder and Albuquerque's partnership that really makes this title brilliant. Though Snyder has worked with other artists on two spin-off miniseries, Survival of the Fittest with Sean Murphy and Lord of Nightmares with Dustin Nguyen, Albuquerque brings out his characters and stories the best. They suck us back into the world of American Vampire as if they never left, reacquainting fans with old friends, introducing readers to new characters, and setting up a premise that promises to be bigger than anything else.

"The honest truth is that being away from this series crushed me," writes Snyder. "I've been dying to get back on American Vampire (as has Rafa) all year. So in San Diego this past summer, Rafa and I made a pact: Not only would we never step away again, but we would make this half of the series the best material we've done on the book, hands down."

Well, Scott and Rafa, judging from the great work you've done with this first issue, I'd say you're off to a brilliant start.

Collected editions of American Vampire are available in the graphic novel section of Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC. Visit, e-mail or call (03) 21648133. Single issues of American Vampire: Second Cycle can be ordered from virtual comic store Earth 638 (visit, e-mail or call 012-6631584, 


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