Book: Voices in the Theater

"Voices in the Theater"

Ever since her grandmother died, Samantha Davidson has been carrying a secret: She can hear voices–other people’s thoughts, some from the living, some from the dead.

Plucked from her roots and transported to another country, estranged from her family and friends, Sam joins a pioneering club in her new school that investigates paranormal activities.

As they examine the mystery behind a haunted theater inside the university, Sam starts to hear voices from those that are no longer earthbound.

Will she heed their voices as they accuse her of a dark secret she has buried deep in the past? Or will she surrender to the light offered by newfound allies and a love that caught her by surprise?

Will the many voices drown out the one voice she has long suppressed? Will she listen?

If I’m to be objective, there is nothing wrong with A.S. Santos’s Voices in the Theater. The plot is good and well-paced, and although some decisions made by the characters make me want to tear my hair out, I understand their choices are organic and not pushed by the hand of the author. There is really nothing bad to be said about the book–

But I still didn’t like it.

Here’s the thing: Voices in the Theater is marketed to be a horror novel. From its back synopsis, to its book cover, to the first few chapters– The story is clearly set-up to be a horror novel that deals with ghosts and unresolved issues. And I was fully on board with that. What I didn’t like was the sudden turn for the religious.

I mean, I completely understand having religious characters. The setting is the Philippines, characters are bound to be non-practicing Christians at the very least. And you can’t really take out religion when you’re dealing with ghosts and the afterlife. They come hand in hand.

Still, the book presents the main character as religiously neutral. Our entry point into the supernatural is science-based. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. And I felt like the story, and the writer, forced the main character into a religion by the end of the book.

The thing is: I would totally understand the religious deus ex machina had there been more visual cues from the way the book was published or presented. Going back to what happens in the story, there’s really nothing there that explicitly says the book wasn’t going to go the religious note. And aside from the first few chapters that established the back story of main character Samantha, the rest of the book does establish the necessity of faith.

But the turn to the religion still threw me off.

It could just be my fault for expecting something else. For wanting something else. It’s just… I’m not the book’s target market. And I wish I knew this fact before I bought the book. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a warning before I delved into the book expecting a horror story. That could have spelled the difference in how I received the novel after finishing it.

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Book: Kiss Me in New York

"Kiss Me in New York"

No one wants to be stuck at the airport during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. For Charlotte and Anthony, it’s a disaster.

She’s heading home to England after a horrible breakup ended the worst semester of her life. He’s just been dumped in the middle of JFK by the girlfriend he came to surprise.

On the spur of the moment, the two set out into the city together with a self-help book to guide them: Get Over Your Ex in Ten Easy Steps!

This romantic adventure is for anyone who sees the possibilities in a swirl of snowflakes at the top of the Empire State Building, and anyone who’s ever wondered if true love was waiting just at the other end of a ticket counter.

I bought this book impulsively because I was missing New York… and while I don’t regret reading it, I don’t know if I would’ve have bought it now that I know what’s inside. Not that it’s bad, it’s just…

Kiss Me in New York is a simple love story. Girl and boy meet. They get to know each other. They fall in love. And it all happens in a matter of hours. It’s a lot like Jennifer E. Smith’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, but while also being… less.

Now, judging technically, there’s really nothing wrong with the book. Our two characters, Catherine and Anthony, are not stereotypes. They are completely whole, and they have a lot of baggage between them. Plot-wise, there are no illogical jumps in how the characters feel, or react. They all actually feel very natural.

And in terms of romance? Kiss Me in New York has a healthy dose of, as the kids nowadays say, “feels.” You can feel a warm sensation whenever the book delivers a moment where the characters fall deeper for each other, even when neither one has realized it yet. The transition from strangers to friends to lovers is smooth.

Everything is too smooth.

Kiss Me in New York feels like a kid’s coloring book that was filled in by Michelangelo; like an expert has found extra time in their hands and wanted to showcase a work that was perfect–but doesn’t really give anything new. Or anything other than what was needed. And in a time where we have access to the whole world’s available literature, is now really the time to be giving just the basics?

On the whole, Kiss Me in New York is a book I would only recommend to people I don’t personally know. It’s inoffensive, it’s well-written… it’s safe.

That said, it did satiate my longing for New York. For the few hours I spent reading the book, it felt like I was there again.

Book: Choco Chip Hips

"Choco Chip Hips"

Sixteen-year-old Jessie, a baking aficionado, is shy, overweight, and worries too much about what people think. One summer, a family emergency makes her realize that life is too short to live on autopilot. Taking her life by the reins, she embarks on a journey that involves ditching the apron for a tank top as she hip-hop dances her way to new friendships, stronger family ties, and into her school’s most elite club.

I love this. There is nothing in the book that made me want to put it down; nothing that made me scratch my head or question the characters motives; nothing in this that made me want to rewrite or restructure. I even love the back synopsis that sells the story: because it effectively encapsulates what the story is about, it doesn’t give anything away, and it doesn’t heavily feature something that turns out to only play a small part in the novel. Which a lot of local books are prone to doing.

Choco Chip Hips is one of the few books I’ve read that I love as is, and would recommend to all and any readers who are looking to read a Filipino work.

But what about the book is so special?

It has heart. The story of Jessie is something everyone can relate to–no matter the gender, the age, or the station in life. Sure, not all of us have family emergencies during a summer vacation that forces us to reevaluate our life choices– But we all feel the things she feels. Her insecurities, her doubts, and most importantly, her joys… They are universal. And author Agay Llanera taps into those things with a deft hand. Never does the book feel like it’s too preachy, but it’s never nonchalant about how it deals with Jessie’s very real issues.

I love how the romance we’re given doesn’t take center stage, with the book focusing more on Jessie’s character and struggles. Llanera’s writing celebrates Jessie as a character, and the love story is just one of the many things happening in her life. The love interest shares equal importance with her family and her best friend, showing a reality that’s often ignored in fictional books about coming of age: the love that pushes us to embrace who we are isn’t always romantic love.

So to everyone out there looking for a book to read: pick up Agay Llanera’s Choco Chip Hips. You will not regret it.

Book: The Red Rising Trilogy

"Red Rising"

His wife taken. His people enslaved. Driven by a longing for justice and the memory of lost love, Darrow will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if he must become one of them to do so.

I’m doing something a little different this time; instead of posting about just the first book, I’m going to write about the whole Red Rising trilogy. Why? Because as I put the first book down, I realize that I really didn’t have much to say about the book, because while it was enough of an enjoyable read, it didn’t really feel like that much different from another dystopian novel. Specifically, The Hunger Games.

You have a caste system. The ones at the bottom are oppressed, and the ones on the top are the oppressors. You have a reluctant hero who is transplanted from the bottom to the top. And then the revolution begins. It’s not exactly paint-by-numbers, sure. Red Rising is different enough from Hunger Games that you don’t put it down and turn your back on it. But the only thing that really set it apart from the aforementioned dystopian series was the fact that author Pierce Brown is amazing at describing warfare.

Red Rising, during its first few chapters, was a little boring with all the exposition needed to set up the new world. But once the action starts? The whole book becomes a breeze to read. And I’m glad I’m not the kind of reader to just give up on a book just because I don’t enjoy the first part. Because the rest of Red Rising? It was exhilarating…even when it feels like it was running a very familiar course.

But I enjoyed it enough that I decided to jump onto the second book as soon as I can. And it’s Golden Son that really sets the trilogy apart from other dystopian series. Because our reluctant hero, as you can tell from the first book’s back synopsis that I quoted above, doesn’t remain a reluctant hero. He leads. And he makes mistakes. Multiple mistakes. And in a series that grapples with the idea of humanity, making mistakes is exactly what we want our characters to do.

Sure, it does get frustrating when things don’t smoothly for heroes. But that’s what makes for a good read, right? When your heroes, smart as they are, can still face obstacles that don’t look down on them; challenges that develop them even further.

Pierce Brown definitely delivers on great character development; most of which aren’t surprising, but only because the characters he created–heroes and villains alike–are so complete that none of their actions feel left-of-field, even during plot twists.

Both Golden Son and third book Morning Star show that the dystopian genre can still deliver fresh takes. They show that you don’t have to dumb down your heroes, or your villains, to make a compelling story. That you don’t have to rewrite the same story, dressed differently, just because the first one worked. Although, I must say, Morning Star does feature a few chapters where the narration becomes frustrating. Not because the writing isn’t at par with the rest of the series, but because it becomes a little obvious in holding facts back. I think it’s four chapters that could’ve been condensed to one, if Pierce Brown had employed the no-holds-barred storytelling he used in the first two books.

All that said, I’m still of the opinion that the Red Rising trilogy is one for the ages. A must-read for fans of dystopian fiction… Or and any sci-fi, fantasy, or warfare book lovers for that matter.

Book: BGMBYN Act 1

"BGMBYN"

AR-1896, Spain. For an empire whose fleets link oceans, whose armies bridge continents, and whose faith binds nations to a common will – the Philippine insurgency, is but a cloud within “The Empire of the Eternal Sun.”

Aimless. Transient. Futile

…yet clouds, hold storms.

1896: Bagumbayan – explores an alternate reality where thieves become soldiers, soldiers become heroes. And a people, become a nation.

I picked this book up a few Komikons ago. It was one of the purchases I immediately started reading as soon as I got home, but work and life conspired to stop me from writing about it. Until now.

To be completely honest, I’m not a fan of how the book synopsis was written. Having read the book twice now, the synopsis doesn’t really sell the story inside. It gives you a vague idea of what to expect: an alternate reality, yes. But other than that? Thieves became soldiers in our reality. They even became heroes. As did the soldiers who believed in our future. We became a nation in this reality, no matter how tattered we have become since. So what sets the book apart from our world and our history? What makes it an alternative?

Author Redge Tolentino masterfully recreates a history that did not happen; reading BGMBYN feels like you’re reading information that really happened–and yet also know that it didn’t. The settings and characters he uses are familiar enough that it feels like we know where the story has come from and where it is going, until we don’t.

And, trust me. We really don’t.

It’s one of the more promising independently-produced book I’ve read in recent years. Like Naermyth before it, BGMBYN creates a Philippines that is fundamentally different yet feels the same; populated with characters that we are already familiar with–not because we’ve seen them before, but because we know their pain, their joy, and their dreams.

The story situates us immediately in the middle of conflict, allowing the characters’ actions define who they are. Trusting us, the readers, to pick up on what is happening through stock knowledge of Philippine history. It reveals differences not to twist the plot, but to define what sets this story apart.

BGMBYN is a story that yearns to be read. I just hope the sequel comes out before interest on the book dissipates.

Book: Life with Kevin

"Life with Kevin"

Kevin Keller is back–and he’s brought some friends! Kevin’s made his move to the Big Apple, and Vernoica Lodge is not far behind! To succeed in New York, he’s going to have to learn how to make time for dating while juggling a high-pressure journalism gig. Will his new life in NYC be a dream come true or will the big city eat him alive? Kevin will learn one thing for sure: when it comes to city living, expect the unexpected!

Reading Life With Kevin was a lot like reading Elizabeth, the Sweet Valley spin-off miniseries that focused on one Wakefield Twin and her journey to find herself. The main characters are definitely more mature than usual, the problems they face are definitely more serious, but everything is still so whimsical even as they face real life adversaries.

And just like with Elizabeth, I feel like Life With Kevin has so much potential that the series doesn’t really explore, because it didn’t want to ruin the cookie-cutter life of well-loved characters. That’s why, even at their most down-trodden, you never empathize with them. Because you know everything will work out for them in the end.

That’s not to say the book wasn’t an enjoyable read. It’s nice fun fluff. It’s just that… Alongside Life With Kevin, Archie Comics also released a new series featuring the titular character and his friends as they would live in the current time. That series, featuring Archie at his clumsiest, manages to be more mature in its handling of conflicts than this mini-series where the characters are supposed to be the mature ones.

I mean, we get storylines where Kevin stands up for his beliefs at work…and by the next chapter, everything is back to status quo. Kevin doesn’t get reprimanded, and it’s not because he sparked a revolution–it’s because he’s good-looking. The characters here are supposed to be adults, but it feels like they’re the cast of Archie Jr.

So I can’t help but be a little disappointed. I guess I just set expectations a little too high for this.

Book: All That Darkness Allows

"All That Darkness Allows"

The moon takes on an ominous form, threatening mankind as it hangs from the heavens. A woman must confront her past and accept her fate when her dying best friend asks her to inherit an ancient power she might not be ready to handle. An LRT skip train sends passengers to an alternate dimension, where Manila is ridden with strange creatures hungry for flesh. A troubled little girl tiptoes around her stern mother after gaining a creepy new playmate. A mysterious, all-knowing entity manipulates the concept of time, sending a pair of friends on a decent into madness. A young ink aficionado unravels after getting a tattoo, possessed by an unknown force that threatens the very fabric of her being.

All these stories and more are part of All That Darkness Allows–a modern horror anthology containing 13 works of speculative fiction from today’s brightest young literary voices and the country’s most prolific authors in the genre. Written in blood and penned in the shadows, these are fearsome tales of terror and grief, sick humor and sheer evil, and how the macabre and the mundane can coalesce and coexist, allowing darkness to eventually take over.

Like with most anthologies, readers will not find all the stories in this collection likeable. Horror and personal taste are subjective after all. But I am happy to say that, unlike the last horror anthology I wrote about here, I did find way more stories to like this time around.

It helps that a lot of the stories shared in All That Darkness Allows have a reason for being; they were not written for jump scares of cheap thrills– You can see the authors testing the boundaries of what horror can be, and if what constitutes as scary before can still be considered as fearsome in our current day and age. Some of the stories will not put you at the edge of your seat, but it will give you a different kind of fear–of relating to what’s happening, of making you confront the possibility of what your actions might be, if the story was happening around you. It’s ambitious. And for the most part, the stories’ ambitions are achieved… which only serves to highlight the ordinary ones more.

I love that this anthology feels curated, like the editor picked the authors he knew would deliver the stories he wanted told. And I love that there’s an attempt to support the stories visually through photographs… I just wish they didn’t feel repetitive.

I love that All That Darkness Allows doesn’t talk up its stories too much, saying just enough in the back synopsis to draw readers in–but not overextending itself to make readers think the book is scarier than it actually is.

I love how the stories don’t dumb down its readers; there are no overly long expositions, no messy explanations, and no long-winding and unnecessary descriptions or paragraphs. All the stories are straight to the point, yet maintains its tone of foreboding feel. Although, to be honest, one story could use a little more tightening–but this could be written off as personal preference.

There are plenty to love about this anthology, and they definitely outweigh any less than positive feelings I may have about the book. This is the kind of book we need more of, situated around the many, many works that were taken from Wattpad, so that when our new readers want to delve into something more mature than the stories they’re used to, books like this can show them that the Filipino book industry is alive and diverse.