Book: Mr. Kiss and Tell

"Mr. Kiss and Tell"

The Neptune Grand has always been the seaside town’s ritziest hotel, despite the shady dealings and high-profile scandals that follow its elite guests. When a woman claims that she was brutally assaulted in one of its rooms, then smuggled out and left for dead by a staff member, the owners know that they have a potential powder keg on their hands. They turn to Veronica to disprove the woman’s story.

But the case is a convoluted mess. The accused employee is no longer in the country; the security footage shows the woman entering the hotel, but there is no evidence that she ever left; and the victim is someone from Veronica’s past who has no good reason to trust her. As Veronica works to fill in the missing pieces, the one thing that becomes clear is that a dangerous predator is still on the loose…and that he’s one step away from striking again.

Previously on Veronica Mars…

In our titular detective’s debut in print form, authors Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham re-established the world of Neptune, California. As Veronica took on a case very close to her heart–while also padding her wallet–she also took us on a tour of what her town looks like now: a little more grown-up and a little more corrupt, while continuing to feel like the same town we left more than ten years ago. We saw them set up how the father-daughter relationship between Veronica and Keith had matured, and we saw how Veronica is with friends Wallace and Mac. It felt like a reintroduction to the Veronica Mars world.

And now, we’re getting the second episode.

If The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line felt very much like an episode of Veronica Mars, Mr. Kiss and Tell feels even more so. In fact, it feels more Veronica Mars than the entirety of the television series’s third season. This time, we get an even more closer look at what Veronica’s life is now that she’s returned to Neptune. We see familiar names crop up: Weevil, Duncan, and even the Sinclairs; and we see Keith working with Cliff McCormack again to right the wrongs of the corrupt justice system that Don Lamb (who also gets a name check) started way back when he told Veronica to go see the Wizard.

Oh, and Logan also exists in this book.

But let’s begin with the things I loved about Mr. Kiss and Tell.

If the debut novel gave us twists and turns and red herrings galore, the second book presents a pretty clean-cut mystery. And while the mystery serves as the a-plot of the novel, the b-plot is the one that really pushes the novel to great heights. Now that authors Thomas and Graham have re-established the world, I feel like they’re pushing for Neptune to grow even further than what the television series (and the movie) allowed before. And while I grew not to be an advocate of this when Buffy went to the comics world, I can’t help but feel reassured with what Veronica Mars is doing. Mostly because Thomas and Graham are showing us the journey to a new Neptune. Mr. Kiss and Tell is the episode that bridges the pilot that sold viewers into trying a new series, and the rest of the series that populates and makes rich a whole new world.

We’re getting a whole new Neptune in print form! And the authors are using established characters to push that change!

Keith, Cliff, and Weevil take center stage in the b-plot that will create new dynamics in (hopefully) future novels. And this is the backdrop to the a-plot that takes Veronica back to who she was before she left for Stanford, to a past plot that wasn’t completely resolved in the series and creates wonderful tension in this novel.

And, unfortunately, it also underlines why I’m not a fan of Logan continuing to be part of the series.

Yes, I did say that I don’t mind the Logan-Veronica relationship. But I may have said that too soon. Mostly because the Logan in the Veronica Mars movie was dealt in small doses. We barely had any Logan in the first novel. Now that he’s present for most of the book, I feel like Thomas and Graham are scrambling to clean up a character that wasn’t a moral fit to Veronica.

Here’s the thing with actor chemistry. It messes up stories. Kristen Bell is wicked good, and Jason Dohring sparkles when he’s in scenes with her. I understand why the writers would want the two to keep interacting, and from there, it felt like natural progression for their characters to fall in love. But novels do not have the luxury of having actors sell their characters. In print form, Logan would’ve been just a jackass rich-douche who doesn’t deserve Veronica. But fans want them together. And the film promised them to be end game. And now we’re seeing a ret-con of the character. Well, what feels like a ret-con. I must commend Thomas and Graham for actually trying to explain the changes in Logan. But at the end of the day he doesn’t feel like Logan. He feels like a new character. A new character that, based on the callbacks to the past in the a-plot, Veronica Mars doesn’t really need.

Yes, you read me right. Veronica Mars doesn’t need a love interest.

What Veronica Mars needs though? Is more growth. In more future releases, whether in print or film form.

Book: Only a Kiss

"Only a Kiss"

When she was nine-years-old, Katie knew she wanted Chris to give her her first kiss. It wasn’t because she was in love with him (no way, he was her best friend! Besides, she was in love with his fourteen-year-old brother), it was because she could make him do anything she wanted.

Besides, it didn’t really mean anything. It was only a kiss after all.

But then things started to change. They grew up. They parted ways and went to different high schools. And other girls and boys–well, just one particular boy–came into the picture, throwing their lives upside down.

Told from the alternating points of view of Katie and Chris, this love story between two best friends will tug at your heartstrings and leave you thinking how the simplest things can mean so much.

Technically, Only a Kiss is a well-written book. Objectively, I have nothing bad to say about the story. Subjectively… I really didn’t like the characters. Especially as we get to know more about them. Especially as they grow up.

I have always advocated for realistic characters, so I don’t understand why neither Katie nor Chris is resonating with me. They’re real. They breathe. And author Ines Bautista-Yao writes them so well that I wouldn’t be surprised to meet these two in real life. But I still, for the life of me, couldn’t bring myself to like them.

Is it because I couldn’t relate to them?

Katie and Chris are real, yes. But they’re also perfect people. Too perfect, in fact. Katie is good at bossing people around, and she gets things done without ruffling feathers. Chris is good at sports, great with the ladies, and an awesome artist too. And I know people like this. People who are too good to be true–and yet are real people. And I am not them.

Yes, Katie and Chris make mistakes. But unlike me, their problems all revolve around love. Which, I guess, is because the book I’m reading is a romance novel. But, at the same time, it’s making me feel inadequate.

How can I like characters who make me feel insecure?

Why couldn’t Chris be the opposite of his older brother who Katie liked for so long? Why does he have to be perfect? And why, if he’s already perfect, does it take Katie so long to realize she has feelings for her best friend?

Why is Andrew, that one particular boy, so perfect too? With his nice demeanor, and his altruistic outlook in life, and his love for Katie?

And Katie… Where do I start with Katie? She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s good at what she does, she’s an amazing girlfriend, a thoughtful friend, a pragmatic person–

They’re all so perfect, yet so real–and so boring.

The central conflict of Only a Kiss is the love triangle between Chris, Katie, and Andrew. But there is no real love triangle. It’s pretty clear from the get go who Katie will end up with–because while both boys are perfect, and nice, and is someone you can root for–neither one actually does anything grand that would make you root for one or the other.

As a reader, I didn’t have any stakes as to what’s going to happen. Reading Only a Kiss is like reading a the blog of a rich, nice girl. It’s something you do because you like the person, and you want to support that person, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’d rather be doing something else.

Of course, as I always say, this could just be me. There will always be other people who like the books I don’t like. Don’t form an opinion based on just this reaction. Read what other people have written about Only a Kiss:
Amy Reece
Ron Reads
Her Book Thoughts

Or form your own opinion. Since I promote local books, I would rather promote this well-written (if bland) novel, than most of the published Wattpad stories that have no business being published.

Oh, and one last thing: Only a Kiss has one of the best book covers I’ve seen in local publications. Good job, people of Chamber Shell Publishing.

Book: Ang Lihim ng San Esteban

"Ang Lihim ng San Esteban"

Unang beses na magbabakasyon si Jacobo sa San Esteban sa Ilocos, at magkahalong pananabik at kaba ang dala ng biyahe papunta sa probinsya ng mga magulang niya. Siguradong marami siyang matutuklasan tungkol as kasaysayan ng kaniyang pamilya mula kay Lola Carmen! Ngunit hindi niya inaasahang may mas malaking lihim sa mga lumang bahay at multo ng San Esteban. Ang mga ito kaya ang susi sa misteryong pilit na ikinukubli ni Lola Carmen?

Quick translation: It’s Jacobo’s first time to visit San Esteban in Ilocos, and he’s feeling a mix of nervousness and trepidation about the trip; wondering if the town would live up to the stories he’s been told growing up. But what he didn’t expect was that he would discover a big secret about a house in San Esteban. A secret that his own grandmother is working hard to keep.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was… It wasn’t what the book turned out to be. Although, to be fair, I think I already judged the book in the first chapter–when the author made a twelve-year old travel to a provincial town he’s never been to on his own. Now, unless this was a recounting of real events, I see no reason why he couldn’t have been taken there by his parents.

It all goes downhill for me from then on. Jacobo isn’t really developed as a character. If I’m to compare him to someone from current literature, he’s a Bella Swan. He exists solely to become an anchor for readers to attach to. His inquisitiveness is his only redeeming trait, and that’s only because we need him to be inquisitive for the story to move forward.

The book introduces many characters with potential to make the main story more… engaging. But the author drops the ball on all of them. The town jokester who turns out to be really friendly with the nuns is wasted as he becomes a sidekick to our bland hero, and the mysterious clairvoyant appears only once–to make us think that something ominous was about to happen–only for that warning to actually ruin the story because suddenly our hero is trapped in a house with nowhere to go.

That is, until he decides to break rules. And by then, it’s already too late. We’re already 80% into the story, and the remaining pages only serve to wrap up a mystery that never became mysterious in the first place.

I wish I could say something more positive about this book. I really do. But I’ve already sat on this book for two weeks now. I can’t think of anything nice to say about the book. Nothing at all.

But the folks over at Good Reads seem to have found something to like about the book. So why don’t you also check out what they have to say? Maybe I missed something.

Book: Marvels

"Marvels"

Welcome to New York. Here, burning figures roam the streets, men in brightly colored costumes scale the glass and concrete walls, and creatures from space threaten to devour the world. This is the Marvel Universe, where the ordinary and fantastic interact daily. This is the world of Marvels. Collecting Marvels #0-4, by award-winning creators Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.

I don’t know when it happened, but I think I’ve fully become a Marvel fan. I mean, I will still like Batman movies and television efforts of the Flash, but when it comes to choosing to purchase a Marvel or a DC comic? A Marvel title would always win. And after reading Marvels, my love for the Marvel universe is all the more underlined.

This was my realization: Marvel knows their market is diverse and accepting of out-of-the-box concepts. And so they welcome diverse and out-of-the-box concepts, and are willing to believe in them. Of course, this is hardly a surprising realization. Marvel, after all, is the company who risked everything to build a film production outfit to make movies they want made. And I love them for it.

Before I dive into Marvels, I want to thank my friend Chris Cantada for recommending the collection. While I love reading comics, I don’t really actively seek them out. So it’s really helpful when a friend recommends a title. Or a reader. You guys can recommend titles to me too. Recommendations are always welcome.

Now, with that out of the way, let’s talk about the collection:

Marvels is the story of superheroes told from the perspective of the ordinary people. Our main character is a photographer who becomes witness to many of the fantastical things that have been happening in and around Manhattan–and has gone through the different stages of being exposed to such things.

Instead of superhero origins, we are thrust into the background with the people who have been living in the boroughs before, during, and after each battle. We are made to be one of them. And it is, pardon the pun, marvelous.

One of the more interesting parts about comics, especially in Marvel, is how each superhero is received differently by the bystanders. You have the X-Men who are despised and reviled; you have Captain America who gets celebrated at every turn; the Fantastic Four are celebrities, while Spider-Man is continuously painted as a bad guy even as he saves New York time and time again. And now, finally, we get a take on the way.

We fear the unknown.

Whenever something out-of-this-world crazy happens in our world, we are aghast. We are afraid. And then we become curious. Now, imagine if that out-of-this-world crazy thing is capable of thought. What if it’s human? Or human-looking? The fear is amplified. Because we know what we’re capable of, as human beings. We know what they can be capable of too. And we know that they can be more because they are more.

Until they become heroes, and then we celebrate them.

But until when do we celebrate the powerful? History has shown that the public makes or breaks a celebrity figure. We are the ones responsible for the Justin Biebers, and the Miley Cyruses, and the Lindsay Lohans. We put them on pedestals and make them feel invincible. We are the ones who make excuses for them when they do something… less than clean-cut. Until such time when we feel we can’t control them anymore. And then we start painting them in a bad light.

This is the thesis of Marvels. Until when is a hero a hero? Who hails them as heroes?

We do.

The power of the super-powered isn’t as powerful as public perception. And the responsibility to be fair and just isn’t in the hands of the Marvels. It’s in ours.

And I applaud Marvels for its clear depiction of this power.

Book: Hold Me Closer

"Hold Me Closer"

Watch out, ex-boyfriends, and get out of the way, homophobic coaches. Tiny Cooper has something to say–and he’s going to say it in a song.

Filled with honestly, humor, and ‘big, lively, belty’ musical numbers, Hold Me Closer is the no-holds-barred (and many-bars-held) entirety of the beloved musical first introduced in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, the award-winning bestseller by John Green and David Levithan.

Tiny Cooper is finally taking center stage…and the world will never be the same again.

What in the world did I just put down?

Hold Me Closer: the Tiny Cooper Story spins off from one of the few John Green novels I could stand: Will Grayson, Will Grayson–and I credit David Levithan for this. So when I found out that Levithan was releasing a book based on the most entertaining character off the Will Grayson book, I thought it would be a fun read. I wish I could say I was right.

I wasn’t wrong, let’s be clear. Hold Me Closer is not in any way a bad book. It is entertaining. But it’s definitely not the book I was expecting from David Levithan. Then again, I wasn’t expecting Every You, Every Me either–so it’s not like this was unprecedented. But unlike Every You, Every Me, I can’t fathom why Levithan would write this book. It’s not experimental. It’s not ground-breaking.

Hold Me Closer brings nothing new to the table, and I feel like I wasted the five hours I spent reading it.

The book isn’t actually a book in the most traditional sense. It is a book–for a musical Tiny Cooper wrote in the Will Grayson, Will Grayson book. But it’s not a new story. Its Tiny Cooper’s life told with songs. And we’ve already had a glimpse of Tiny Cooper’s life in the aforementioned book. The worst part is how this book ends before the source book does. So there really is nothing new in Hold Me Closer.

I guess that’s the risk of doing something like this: publishing a plot device, and pushing it to stand on its own. You have to rely on readers’ nostalgia and good will. But you know what else you can do? Give something new. In the source book, we only get glimpses of Hold Me Closer. So it shouldn’t have been hard to do. But the spin-off didn’t spin. It just took parts of the source book we already know and put it to song. And dialogue. And stage direction.

Hold Me Closer is entertaining. I’ll still give it that. But at the end of the day, for a book to be good, there has to be substance. Which I didn’t see or feel while reading this book. I guess I’ll just have to be grateful that the book wasn’t longer.

Of course, other people will have other opinions about the book too. Let’s check some of them out in the following links:
Caught Read H&nded
BookieMonster
The Young Folks

Book: Fresh Off the Boat

"Fresh Off The Boat"

Assimilating ain’t easy. Eddie Huang was raised by a wild family of FOB (‘fresh off the boat’) immigrants–his father a cocksure restaurateur with a dark past back in Taiwan, his mother a fierce protector and constant threat. This is the story of a Chinese-American kid in a could-be-anywhere cul-de-sac blazing his way through America’s deviant subcultures, trying to find himself, ten thousand miles from his legacy and anchored only by his conflicted love for his family and his passion for food. Funny, moving, and stylistically inventive, Fresh Off the Boat is more than a radical re-imagining of the immigrant memoir–it’s the exhilarating story of every American outsider who finds his destiny in the margins.

Confession: I picked Fresh Off the Boat up because I am loving the ABC family-friendly version of the book that’s currently airing on television.

I had never actually seen the book before, and only found out about its existence after all the hoopla surrounding the TV show prior to airing. And even then, I couldn’t find a copy of the book. I had to have a copy transferred from one branch of my favorite bookstore to the one I always frequent–just so I could read it. I’m not a fan of e-book reading. Hence the trouble of acquiring a copy. You can buy the book off Amazon or other e-book sellers for way cheaper. And buy it, you should. Because the book is an unapologetic look at what it’s like to grow up as something that a majority of the population around you isn’t: a different race.

One of the reasons why I loved the series Fresh Off the Boat was the fact that I could relate to what TV Eddie’s family was going through. The family may be Chinese, and most of what they’re doing are very Chinese, but the story they’re telling is universal for all minorities: we just want to be treated normally regardless of the size of our eyes, or the color of our skin. Sure, I’m Chinese too, but if you read the comments online from the show’s viewers, you can see that the love isn’t coming from just Asian viewers.

The book isn’t that.

Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat is universal in which you can understand what he’s going through not because he’s Chinese–but because he’s different. Different. He doesn’t stand out, he sticks out. And that is something not just immigrants can relate to. Sure, Eddie had a different upbringing, he had a different set of culture and tradition to explore growing up, but at the end of each chapter–Eddie is a human being who makes mistakes, who gets wronged, who learns. You know who else does that? Everyone else.

While Eddie’s internal struggles can speak to everyone though, his external ones can be alienating. This is where race comes in: how his parents show love, how he is treated by his peers, and everything else. This colors who Eddie becomes more than his DNA. He is a “yellow man” because this is how he is perceived, and because this is what people want him to be. But Eddie isn’t just a “yellow man.”

In the series, the character of Eddie’s mom is frustrated at Eddie for wanting to embrace American culture because he likes hip hop music and baggy jeans. He gets called out for wanting to be like everyone else. That isn’t the Eddie we meet in the book. Eddie is proud of his culture. Hip hop isn’t his way of embracing America, but a way to relate to what is happening to him in America. And the Jessica Huang we meet in the book is far from being the lovable stickler that the television series is painting her to be.

Confession #2: After reading the book, I did find myself comparing the television series to the source material. And I agree with author Eddie Huang’s assessment that the show lacks teeth and is a watered down version of the experiences Eddie had. But, at the same time, I don’t think half of the show’s viewers now would enjoy watching the book’s stories brought to life. It’s too real. And it’s too specific.

The show is about an Asian-American family who is trying to stay afloat in a land where the line between standing out and sticking out is always in favor of the “white.” The book is about Eddie. Chinese-American Eddie. As it should be. It’s his memoir. But while I felt for Eddie while reading his memoir, I couldn’t relate to many of the things he was going through. Eddie’s life isn’t a television show that can be resolved with a lesson at the end of each day. It’s his life. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, and it is what life should be. But it is not my life.

As Dong from the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt once said, “your experiences are not universal.” And it’s not just true for the white man. It’s true for all of us.

But we learn through what other people have gone through.

The book is different from the television series I am currently enjoying, and that is perfectly fine. Because the television is bringing new people, more people, to Eddie’s world. Hopefully, like me, they would want to know more too. And then they’ll see, just like me, that the book Eddie Huang wrote about his life is just as entertaining as the television series derived from it. And that it is sharing a more important story, if not as universal.

Theater: Manhid

"Manhid"

What price is our freedom? MANHID is set in an alternate present day Philippines where the EDSA revolution failed; this musical features heroes and villains with superpowers, and a people sick with Kamanhiran (Apathy).

I want to heap accolades for Manhid. Mostly because it’s rock opera musical accompanied by ballet. Also because it creates superheroes out of characters from Filipino epics. And because of its history of being conceived by Aureaus Solito, with music from Eraserheads. The whole thing screams epic. And it is epic.

Unfortunately, so was its running time.

This is my biggest bone to pick with Ballet Philippines’ production of Manhid. It was trying to match the length of an epic, complete with side stories and interludes–turning it into a hodgepodge musical confused on whether it wants to speak out against injustice, or if it’s a juxtaposition of two love stories set against the backdrop of a revolution. In a time where short-form social media is king, you would’ve thought the creative forces of Manhid would’ve taken one look at the script and realized that at more than two-hours long, the musical was just too long. And too long not because characters are being developed, and are being loved. It was too long because each now plot twist needed explanation. Each new plot twist needed a backing musical number that tells instead of shows what the story wants to say.

Manhid is a gem–but one that needs to be polished. Just because this is how it was written more than two decades ago doesn’t mean you have to hold the true to the book. Stories like that of Manhid is supposed to reflect the times. And while most of the musical is still relevant today, important devices are visibly outdated now. Like, for example, lead character Bantugan’s job as a writer for a local tabloid. Decked out in a white sleeveless zip-up with headphones and a wrist-mounted computer, Bantugan’s entire personality screams techno-savvy individual. So why is he working as a reporter for a tabloid? No, I’m not looking down on tabloids, but they’ve been passe for some years now. Broadsheets are the new tabloids, and their online presence is way more visible now than ever before. Broadsheets online are the new mass-friendly tabloids with their clickbait headlines. If Ballet Philippines could update Bantugan’s look, why couldn’t they have updated his devices too? You’re not changing the musical, just the way the audience can relate to the characters.

Which, to be quite honest, was a hard thing to do. One, because there were too many characters. Two, because we get thrust into the story of Manhid with barely a brief of what world we’re about to enter. We get a spoken word introduction, and suddenly our lead characters are singing and dancing on stage and we have no idea what’s going on. It wasn’t until halfway through the second song before I realized that factions were being formed, that good guys were being hunted down by bad guys. And I only realized this because lead character Lam-Ang tells supporting character Dilim that the government attacked the club she was working at because they wanted to get to her.

Had the world been established better in the opening number, we wouldn’t have needed the clunky dialogue between Lam-Ang and Dilim. We would’ve just squirmed in our seats as we awaited their fate. As the villains closed in to the heroes. Instead, we scratched our heads at the action unfolding in front of us. The ministry of humanity was enjoying a show when a woman suddenly shows up to disrupt the peace. A fight ensues. And then the woman takes the lead singer of the show. If the dialogue didn’t say that Lam-Ang was saving Dilim, you can spin this off as an insurgent attack on the safety of the government.

And that could’ve been played with. But, obviously, the creative forces wanted people to relate to the insurgents. They want us to feel. Not to be numb. Hence the show’s main title and theme. But how can you care about heroes you know nothing about? Superman started with a destroyed planet. Spider-man had a dead Uncle Ben. Zsazsa Zaturnnah had a love interest whose safety was being threatened by colorful dominatrix aliens. We care about their fight because we know what they’re fighting for. In Manhid, we learn about our lead character’s fight as the first act wraps up. And that is the only time we see actual motivation from our heroes. When, during a musical number on how there came to be super-powered human beings, they fall in love with each other.

I don’t know how important the love story is to the main story arc. I know it’s important for one of the characters, for Allunsina, who you can say is the audience surrogate. But in the grand scheme of things, the love story of Bantugan and Lam-Ang felt shoe-horned. It felt like the creative forces just wanted to give heft to something that just wasn’t working out.

But, to be fair, as the first act wraps up, so does my complaints. Acts two and three had better pacing, and it also had a better grip on showing instead of telling. It also has a better love story between hero Urduja and the villain Radya Indarapata. It was still incredibly long, but time starts to fly faster because the story is now succeeding in absorbing the audience. I mean, there were still times when a break on stage becomes jarring, but overall, the last two thirds of the musical was more phenomenal than its beginning.

Ballet Philippines found a stellar cast to bring to life the characters of Manhid. I’m not completely sold on Lam-Ang, but I have to blame the material more than the actress. Bantugan’s vocals kept getting overpowered by the band, but he was serviceable. Apolaki’s forced conyo accent was funny, and I hope that that was intentional. And Dilim’s voice? Wow. The actors that shone the brightest though was Urduja’s, with vulnerability lacing her every word, even as she shows how strong her powers are; Radya Indarapata’s gray moral compass was conveyed majestically, and was most heartbreaking in his final moments; and Mamalahim-ma. There’s nothing I can say about Mamalahim-ma that will do justice to the power she brings on stage–which is an irony since she’s the only lead actor without an actual power.

And then there’s Allunsina. Played by Gold Villar with a fun abandon, Allunsina captures attention immediately even during the less-than-wonderful first act. I don’t know if some of her lines were just ad-lib, but everything out of her mouth feels natural, feels true to her character, and even at her most scathing, she was the most relatable and lovable in the cast of characters. Probably because her character felt the most true.

Allunsina is the star of Manhid.

Now, I could continue to go on and go on about Manhid, but the bottom line is this: it’s a great musical. It is. It just didn’t live up to the hype, and to my expectations.

But I have to commend Ballet Philippines (and Tanghalang Pilipino) for taking a risk in bringing back this rock opera musical. I hope next time they do, they don’t just update the costume, I wish they’d update the material too.