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.

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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.

Book: Song of Spider-Man

"Song of Spider-Man"

As one can imagine, writing a Broadway musical has its challenges. But it turns out there are challenges one can’t imagine when collaborating with two rock legends and a superstar director to stage the biggest, most expensive production in theater history.

Song of Spider-Man is playwright Glen Berger’s story of a theatrical dream–or nightmare–come true. Renowned director Julie Taymor picked Berger to cowrite the book for a $25 million Spider-Man musical. Together–along with U2’s Bono and Edge–they would shape a work that was technically daring and emotionally profound, with a story fueled by the hero’s quest for love–and the villains’ quest for revenge. Or at least, that’s what they’d hoped for.

But when charismatic producer Tony Adams died suddenly, the show began to lose its footing. Soon the budget was ballooning, financing was evaporating, and producers were jumping ship or getting demoted. And then came the injuries. And then came word-of-mouth about the show itself. What followed was a pageant of foul-ups, falling-outs, ever-more-harrowing mishaps, and a whole lot of malfunctioning spider legs. This “circus-rock-and-roll-drama,” with its $65 million price tag, had become more of a spectacle than its creators ever wished for. During the show’s unprecedented seven months of previews, the company’s struggles to reach opening night inspired breathless tabloid coverage and garnered international notoriety.

Through it all, Berger observed the chaos with his signature mix of big ambition and self-deprecating humor. Song of Spider-Man records the journey of this cast and crew as a hilarious memoir about friendship, collaboration, the foibles of hubris, and the power of art to remind us that we’re alive.

This book was highly-recommended by a friend, and after having read it–I can see why.

Glen Berger takes us on the journey Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark began–from the moment he stepped on as the musical’s co-writer. As the book’s blurb already mentioned, we bear witness to everything the musical goes through– But, ultimately, we become privy to all the heart that was poured into the project by all the people involved.

Living in the Philippines, everything I knew about the Spider-Man musical fiasco, I learned online; and thus, I had taken everything with a grain of salt. After all, a musical that had a high rate of injuries couldn’t have been allowed to continue as long as Turn Off The Dark did. Right? So it was eye-opening to see just how much the online news got right… and how little was exaggerated, at least, as told by the memoir’s author.

But what happened behind the scenes weren’t just a series of unfortunate events. What really draws you in, if you choose to read this memoir, is the love that can be found in the words that Berger writes. Even at his lowest point, Berger shows the love he had–maybe still has–for the project and all the people who were involved in it.

What pushes you to read page after page is how much humor Berger puts into every paragraph, every chapter, even as the world they are building within the narrative is collapsing. It’s like that comic strip of the dog in a burning house. The one that doesn’t do anything, until the last box where he says “this is fine.”

The book recounts the events of a train wreck–and makes you like reading about it.

But what the book ultimately sells isn’t the insider story of how a promising musical became a spectacular failure; but rather how, against all odds, we will still risk everything for a shot at brilliance. At success. At an art that straddles the fine line between profitability and meaning. And the lesson that not everyone will make it, but it doesn’t mean we stop trying. Even when we fail over and over again.

The Song of Spider-Man is a must read for everyone who ever dreamed. The behind-the-scenes shenanigans and gossip that the book makes known to its readers are just icing on the cake.

Book: Deadma Walking

"Deadma Walking"

John and Mark are gay beshies for life whose friendship is put to the test when one of them has a terminal illness and asks the other to help him stage his fake death, wake, and funeral as his dying wish. The result is a comedy of ‘deadly’ proportions.

There aren’t a lot of instances when one would say that the movie adaptation is better than the book it originated from. But this is definitely one of those instances.

Deadma Walking was one of the more entertaining films during the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival–which is why, when my friend A Messy Desk gave me a copy of the published screenplay that film was based of, I immediately started reading it…and started applauding the changes made to the material to make it more palatable to viewers.

It’s not that the original material was bad… It’s just very heavy-handed. And it misses a lot of opportunities at the same time. That said, the final film version also manages to miss the same opportunities–but the actors really do a lot to save the screenplay’s less-than-stellar parts.

But this isn’t supposed to be a comparison. I’m writing about the version that was published–which is different from the one people got to see on screen, and is also different from the one that won an award.

Deadma Walking, the published screenplay, is a work in progress. The emotional meat of the story is there, and the characters of John and Mark are funny enough that you’ll be able to latch on to their crazy antics. But most of the time, it felt like reading a person’s inner thoughts without filters. It rambles. On and on. And there are a lot of plot developments that need to happen earlier, but don’t.

It’s a good screenplay, to be completely fair. It’s just doesn’t feel like a final draft. Just one that needed to exist because an editor was probably breathing down the writer’s neck, to get him to cough up a version before a printer’s deadline.

Final verdict? If you’re going to read this book, make sure to lower your expectations.

Book: Dead Ringers

"Dead Ringers"

What happens when you can’t even trust the face in the mirror?

Tess Devlin runs into her ex-husband, Nick, on a Boston sidewalk, and is furious when he pretends not to know her. Afterwards, Tess calls his cell to have it out with him…only to discover that he’s in New Hampshire with his current girlfriend. But if Nick’s not in Boston, who was the person she encountered on the street? Then there’s Frank Lindbergh, who left his grim past behind and never looked back. But now that both of his parents are dead and he’s back in his childhood home, he’s assaulted by an intruder in his living room–a man who could be his brutal, violent twin…if it weren’t for the fact that Frank is an only child.

Dead Ringers was an elusive find. My local bookstores don’t carry most of Christopher Golden’s recent books, so I usually end up ordering them online–or I trawl through bookstores when I’m out of the country to see if I can find them. I picked Dead Ringers up at a Forbidden Planet, if memory serves me right.

But was it worth the effort?

I liked the book enough. The premise was easy enough to follow, and Golden continues to be a master in providing haunting imagery… But as a whole, I found myself nitpicking on the story structure.

Reading the back cover, and starting the book, you get a sense that the horrifying “dead ringers” phenomenon is widespread. Although we mostly follow what happens to the aforementioned Tess and Frank, we also get a sprinkling of random characters who are affected by something supernatural. Which, again, creates this belief that something sinister is happening everywhere.

But then the circles our characters move in start to grow small. Which is fine if the story had been preparing us for that… But it wasn’t. So it felt like a sudden turn when certain revelations tell us that our characters are linked to each other. It also felt like a bit of a cop out for me. Because prior to the revelations, I was at the edge of my seat worrying about what happens next or how the story would end– And then, with the reveal of how the characters are linked to each other, I immediately knew how the story was going to get resolved. And I wished that the book would prove me wrong.

It did not.

Still, I don’t regret buying Dead Ringers. I still enjoyed the book for what it was. I just wish that Golden had gone a different direction to where the story ultimately ended up.

Book: This is Where the World Ends

"This is Where the World Ends"

Janie and Micah, Micah and Janie. That’s how it’s been since they were children, when Janie Vivian moved next door. Janie says Micah is everything she is not. Where Micah is shy, Janie is outgoing. Where Micah loves music, Janie loves art. It’s the perfect friendship–as long as no one finds out about it.

Is it racist if I say that I expected this book to be about race? No, not because of the author’s lineage. I read the synopsis and thought: “oh, okay. People frown upon their friendship because they’re not the same race.” Or, at the very least, because of wide difference in their social stature. Is one of them poor who only got into a private school because of a scholarship?

It’s neither of those things. The only reason no one can find out about Janie and Micah being friends is because Janie wanted that to be the case. Seriously. It’s…disappointing.

This is Where the World Ends has a nice hook, with two points of view spiraling from a catalyst, an event so big that it ends the world as they know it. Janie’s point of view shows us what their world is like before the “big event,” while Micah takes us through the aftermath. Which is a great idea, because it gives the novel and extra layer of suspense. But if you take out the gimmick, This is Where the World Ends reads like a half-baked John Green novel. One he wrote before The Fault in Our Stars.

Janie is a manic pixie dream girl. She’s the dream girl of the unpopular boy who has issues. She’s not a sympathetic character until she is changed by an event. Not the big event, no. Not yet, at least. But she is changed. And you see the potential in exploring this change. But author Zhang doesn’t explore that. Janie becomes more reserved, which is understandable. What I don’t understand is why Zhang doesn’t allow us in either.

Janie’s smaller event is more heart-breaking, more life-changing, and more powerful. The “big event” is an afterthought, a way to mark the beginning and the end. It doesn’t have the power to destroy a life. Not like Janie’s more personal and more intimate tragedy.

Because Janie gets raped. And it doesn’t get discussed. Not to the other characters, until one of them admits to feeling guilty. Not to the readers, until Micah needed to reach a breakthrough. And not to the protagonists. And, putting the book down, I thought–what was the point of writing a novel that doesn’t do anything but just put to paper something that can happen… Something that happens.

I know of people who do not like Thirteen Reasons Why because of its subject matter and its handling, and I get their point. But juxtaposed with This is Where the World Ends, I feel like Thirteen Reasons Why tackles the subject of rape and suicide better. Not because we get to confront the crime, or how the victim processes the event, but because it doesn’t pretend to know more. Thirteen Reasons Why had us following the perspective of someone who had no idea, and who blamed himself for not doing more.

Micah, in This is Where the World Ends, blocks from his memory every bad thing he doesn’t like. And he only uncorks when there is need to finish the story. When the book calls for catharsis. And by then, it feels like a cheat. It feels like the book only put the rape in so that the book would have a statement, and not be just another outcast and manic pixie dream girl young adult romance.

And that is not okay.

This is Where the World Ends could have been something more. Amy Zhang is an amazing writer. So amazing that she was able to make me continue reading, even when my brain keeps telling me that it does not like where the story is going. I loved her imagery, and her use of fairy tales. The gimmick of the before-and-after accounts, as I already mentioned, is a nice hook. And all of these are also the reasons why it’s so disappointing for me that the book dropped the ball on what counts the most: the treatment of its chosen subject.

Book: Smaller and Smaller Circles

"Smaller and Smaller Circles"

Payatas, a 50-acre dump in northeast Manila, is home to thousands of people who live off of what they can scavenge. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city whose law enforcement is stretched thin and rife with corruption. So when the eviscerated bodies of preteen boys begin to appear in the trash heaps in the rainy summer of 1997, there is no one to seek justice on their behalf–until two Jesuit priests, forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz and his protege, Father Jerome Lucero, take the matter of protecting their flock into their own hands.

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been trying to absorb more of what I’m consuming–whether it be a book or a movie, I try my best to learn from it. That way, I come out of the experience a little better.

In the case of Smaller and Smaller Circles though, I just put down the book wanting to stop everyone I know so I can tell them to read it. I wanted to share my joy at having read a book, one written by a fellow Filipino, that doesn’t turn the Philippines into a circle of hell, or idealize it too much that it’s no longer recognizable, or ignore it to the point that you forget the story is set in the Philippines.

It’s integral to the plot, the crime, and the consciousness of the killer that the setting be the Philippines. Certain cutting of red tape are only plausible because the story is set in the Philippines. The tragedies are bleak yet the hope is strong, and all of it is understandable because of how the Philippines is as a country.

And I’ve never realized how lacking other Filipino authors can be when dealing with our country, until now. We keep wanting to present the best of what the Philippines can be. Some want to highlight the poverty that is rampant in our country. Smaller and Smaller Circles just presents it as is. It is unapologetically Filipino without needing to rub the readers face in its identity.

Then there are the characters. Yes, forensic anthropologists in the Philippines sound made up–but they are real. Regardless of the career though, Father Gus Saenz’s most notable trait is his humanity. Both he and Father Jerome Lucero feel real because they’re not cardboard cutouts of what protagonists are supposed to be. They have normal conversation, they have fears–but they strive to do good.

It sounds simplistic to want to root for characters who want to do good. But consider the fact that I am writing this in 2017, where we’ve been bombarded with so many bad news and worsening global conditions. Can’t we all use a bit of good? And we get a double dose in Fathers Gus and Jerome.

There are other characters in the book, each one offering a different point-of-view into the crime. Every single one wanting to solve the crime for reasons that are both personal and professional. Some of them are infuriating, some of them less so. All of them have one goal though: to do a little good. Even if it’s a little misguided, a little unorthodox–or a little selfish. They are relatable. Understandable, even at their most despicable.

They make the novel richer. They make the crime that needs solving… something more.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is both terrifying and heart-breaking. It’s fast-paced, and it will get your blood pumping with the way author F H Batacan unravels the mystery. But when you get to the heart of the story–its horror lies in the fact that the crime is very plausible. That it really can happen. That it actually might have happened while we’re safely cocooned in our blissful ignorance. And when it’s done making your skin crawl, it will break your heart.

I’m going to stop there, lest I write something down the ruins the surprise. Let’s just say that Smaller and Smaller Circles is one of those books that you have to read as soon as you have the time.

Or, if you really can’t find the time, you can walk into any theater next week, beginning December 6, and catch Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero bring the characters to life in the film adaptation of the novel.

You won’t regret it.