Book: Crystal Keepers (Five Kingdoms, Book 3)

"Crystal Keepers"

Cole Randolph still can’t believe the way his life has turned inside out. Stuck in a strange land far from his home, he has found his friend Dalton and has survived the first two kingdoms of the Outskirts, but none of that has prepared him for the magnetic highways and robotic bounty hunters of Zeropolis.

Ruled by Abram Trench, the one Grand Shaper who stayed loyal to the evil High King, the government of Zeropolis uses advanced technologies to keep tight control. Luckily, the resistance in Zeropolis is anchored by the Crystal Keepers–a group of young rebels with unique weapons.

On the run from the High King’s secret police, Cole and Dalton hope to find more of their lost friends and help Mira locate her sister Constance. But as their enemies ruthlessly dismantle the resistance, time is running out for Cole to uncover the secrets behind the Zeropolitan government and unravel the mystery of who helped the High King steal his daughters’ powers.

In Crystal Keepers, we finally get a story that feels original and not a retread of a previous adventure. As Cole and our other journeying protagonists enter the kingdom of Zeropolis, we’re treated to a world unlike we’ve seen in previous Brandon Mull novels–a technologically-advanced one.

The change of milieu really helps the storytelling feel fresh, as the checklist of things that need to happen author Mull employed in Rogue Knight doesn’t pop up here. The adventures are new, as are the dangers–which makes Crystal Keepers a page-turner. You don’t have an idea what’s going to happen next.

Now, I don’t know if this was a case of lowered expectations, but I really enjoyed reading the third installment off the Five Kingdoms series. Crystal Keepers feels action-packed without being overdone, and the pacing is slow enough to let the characters breathe and process what’s going on around them.

What I like best about this book is the fact that the writer is finally coloring in the characters that have, so far, only been mentioned and not seen. We’re starting to see how perception plays into the story, and how not everything is as black-and-white as previously thought. And yet, although a few chapters is given to the ongoing main arc, it doesn’t feel like a big break from the book’s own story line. It’s still pushing the book’s plot forward while pushing the bigger picture.

With the introduction of new characters, the ones we’ve been traveling with since the first book also come off a little better. To be honest, in Rogue Knight, our protagonists were starting to grate on my nerves. So the addition of new personalities and voices were very welcome, to water down my annoyance at the constant bickering between Cole and fellow traveler Jace.

There were still a few parts of the book that I wasn’t fond off–parts that felt obvious foreshadowing and device-planting. But on the whole, they didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the book. And I highly doubt that the intended readers of the series would be too discerning about obvious plot devices.

All that said, there is one twist that I’m still on the fence about.

In the first two books, there happened to be a great unexplainable being that’s causing mayhem in whatever kingdom they were in. Beings that turn out to be a personification of the princesses stolen powers. I was on the look out for the same device here, in the third book, but it didn’t appear until the last few chapters.

And, no, I don’t mean that it didn’t appear physically until the last few chapters. I mean that there was no sign of it at all until it needed to be the big villain.

Now, on the one hand, I really liked how Brandon Mull tried to change it up and not repeat what he did before. But, on the other hand, I’m not a fan of a third-act reveal of an enemy that needs to be defeated; one that the book needs to end big at that.

I guess I’ll just have to hope that this doesn’t happen again in the remaining two novels off the Five Kingdoms series.

I’m crossing my fingers.

Book: Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon (Graphic Novel)

"Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon (Graphic Novel)"

Akala ni Janus, pangkaraniwang laro lang ang TALA Online.

Sunod-sunod ang pagbabago sa buhay niya matapos ang kahindik-hindik na pangyayari sa RPG tournament na sinalihan niya.

Pero nang matuklasan niya ang tunay na kaugnayan ng larong ito sa alamat ng Tiyanak ng Tabon, wala na siyang magawa kundi ipagpatuloy ang paglalaro!

[English Translation: Janus thought TALA Online was just an ordinary game. But after the horrifying events of an RPG tournament he joined, his life was never the same again. Now privy to the truth behind the game and its connection to the Demon Spawn of Tabon, he has no choice but to continue playing!]

That’s not a perfect translation, but neither is Janus Silang’s first foray into the world of comics.

On the plus side, the graphic novel iteration of Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon does cut out a lot of unnecessary exposition, and the really lengthy first act of the novel isn’t dragged out in comics form. On the not so good side? This version also cuts out a lot of the stuff from the source material that I feel were important.

Let’s be clear, I have no idea what went on behind the scenes to produce this comic book. I don’t know what decisions were made, and why they thought it was a good idea to condense a very exposition-heavy book into one very short graphic novel. So I’m judging this based solely on what I have in hand… Which is a really bad interpretation of the first Janus Silang novel.

I mean, just look at the inconsistency of the art. You have the wonderfully detailed world of TALA Online–and then you have the very bland pages of Janus’s life. I get symbolism, I do. But when things in Janus’s life started becoming crazy, shouldn’t that reflect as well on the art?

Never mind the fact that Janus doesn’t look like a teenager. Nor the fact that all the children look the same. (Heck, aside from a select few, almost all the characters look the same as well.) The biggest problem of the book is this:

It’s not friendly to those who are not familiar to the Janus Silang novels. None of the characters feel real. Your main protagonist lost all personality and doesn’t even develop. And the exposition suddenly cuts out and you’re supposed to glean information from art that, let’s be honest, doesn’t really convey its message very well. Had I not read the original material, I would have been lost as to what was happening, who were the good guys, and why the protagonist was so easy to persuade about things.

I feel like Anino Comics and Adarna House dropped the ball on this one. They shouldn’t have hurried this release because the source novel isn’t even old yet. They shouldn’t have limited the entirety of the first novel in just one comic book. And given the chance to reach a new audience with a different medium, they should have adapted the story to fit the new form of the story.

Is it too late to ask Adarna House to take back this graphic novel version and have them redo it? Properly, this time?

Book: Remembrance, a Mediator Novel

"Remembrance"

All Susannah Simon wants is to make a good impression at her first job since graduating from college (and since becoming engaged to Dr. Jesse de Silva). But when she’s hired as a guidance counselor at her alma mater, she stumbles across a decade-old murder, and soon ancient history isn’t all that’s coming back to haunt her. Old ghosts as well as new ones are coming out of the woodwork, some to test her, some to vex her, and it isn’t only because she’s a mediator, gifted with second sight.

From a sophomore haunted by the murderous specter of a child, to ghosts of a very different kind–including Paul Slater, Suze’s ex, who shows up to make a bargain Suze is certain must have come from the Devil himself–Suze isn’t sure she’ll make it through the semester, let alone to her wedding night. Suze is used to striking first and asking questions later, but what happens when ghosts from her past–including one she found nearly impossible to resist–strike first?

The Mediator series was one of the things I really enjoyed reading back in high school and college; mostly because of the heroine who wasn’t always heroic and the supernatural element that, for the most part, wasn’t very complicated.

When I found out that Meg Cabot was following up the Princess Diaries wrap-up Royal Wedding with a new Mediator book, I was ecstatic. And then I started reading the book.

I guess I should learn the lesson of managing expectations. Again.

The Mediator series, for the first four books, were very short novels aimed at Young Adults. At the time, when you say a book is intended for the teen audience, it wasn’t very long. But, I’m guessing, when Harry Potter‘s length increased alongside its popularity, and people didn’t mind; the publishers must have realized that they didn’t need to limit the number of pages of a young adult novel. A good story will have teens reading, no matter the length of a book. So when the last two Mediator books came out in 2004 and 2005, the book was no longer restricted by a small number of pages.

Both Haunted and Twilight flourished with the additional pages. Meg Cabot was able to flesh out her characters more, and made Susannah Simon’s world more immersive. Which is why, when I picked up Remembrance, I was excited to crack open the book immediately. It follows the thickness of the last two Mediator books, and the synopsis at the back promised a great adventure.

A third into the novel though, I was asking myself–Why wasn’t anything happening? In the decade that passed, has Meg Cabot lost hold of Susannah Simon’s voice? Where are her friends? Why is she so hung up on just Jesse and herself when she was able to juggle having a social life on top of school and being a mediator before?

Things started picking up when Susannah finally moved on from being self-centered to start dealing with her ghost situation. From that point on, Remembrance started to read and feel like the old Mediator novels. Which brings me to ask:

Did the Mediator novels work in the past because Meg Cabot was restricted to a certain number of pages? Were they structurally sound and well-paced because the author wasn’t allowed to ramble on and on for fear of running out of pages to tell her story?

Maybe.

But what about Haunted and Twilight? Were they flukes? Or has Meg Cabot gotten used to writing her protagonists one way? As very talkative and very self-centered? Then again, the remaining two-thirds of Remembrance is good, and very reminiscent of Mediator books past. So was the first third just an example of an editor failing to reign in the writer’s meandering thoughts?

At the end of the day, I did still enjoy the book. And I still would like to see more of Susannah Simon, her stepbrothers, and the rest of her ghost-hunting crew. But, here’s to hoping that when a next time does arrive, we won’t be subjected again to a rambling first act that fails to actually subtracts from the protagonist’s likability.

Book: Moriarty

"Moriarty"

Days after Holmes and Moriarty disappear into the Reichenbach Falls’ churning depths, Frederick Chase, a senior investigator at New York’s infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, arrives in Switzerland. Chase brings with him a dire warning: Moriarty’s death has left a convenient vacancy in London’s criminal underworld. There is no shortage of candidates to take his place–including one particularly fiendish criminal mastermind.

Chase is assisted by Inspector Athelney Jones, a Scotland Yard detective and devoted student of Holmes’s methods of deduction, whom Conan Doyle introduced in The Sign of Four. The two men join forces and fight their way through the sinuous streets of Victorian London in pursuit of this sinister figure, a man much feared but seldom seen, who is determined to stake his claim as Moriarty’s successor.

Three years ago, I wrote that The House of Silk was Anthony Horowitz’s best work–even if it didn’t feel like a proper Sherlock Holmes novel. Which was fine, because at the end of the day, it was a fun read.

I wish I could say the same for Moriarty.

It took me two weeks to finish the book, putting the book down after every chapter because I just couldn’t muster enough interest to continue reading.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that none of the characters are familiar nor likable. I mean, Frederick Chase comes off very dumb for a supposed senior investigator, and Athelney Jones is trying too hard. And they don’t feel like fleshed-out characters, especially since they keep name-checking Sherlock Holmes and John Watson every chance they get.

But even if you replace Athelney and Frederick with Sherlock and Watson, I don’t think it would make any difference. The whole story itself doesn’t feel right; as if it overstayed its welcome.

And then there’s how the novel was wrapped up. I don’t think I’ve ever been this worked up about how a book ended. And not in a good way.

I mean, I’ve already suspected that there were external forces at play in the sidelines of the story. But the way it was revealed felt like a forced a-ha moment. It took away whatever good will I had left for the novel.

Moriarty is a very disappointing read.

Movie: Everything About Her

"Everything About Her"

Powerful but ill-stricken business woman, Vilma Santos navigates her complicated relationship with her caregiver, Angel Locsin and her estranged son, Xian Lim in this story about acceptance, love and forgiveness.

I wasn’t really planning on watching this film, so I didn’t have very high expectations coming in. And, to be completely fair to the film, I actually enjoyed the shenanigans as Vilma Santos tried her darnedest to be Meryl Streep in Devil Wears Prada, and Angel Locsin served her best Andrea (Anne Hathaway’s character from the same film). They both didn’t quite meet their goals but they were, at the very least, entertaining.

Then Xian Lim entered the picture, and everything went downhill after that.

Now, again in the spirit of fairness, it wasn’t completely Xian Lim’s fault. His character was all over the place, and that blame would either go to the writer, the director, or whoever was cutting the film. At least, that’s what I was telling myself until Xian’s big dramatic scene came. And I couldn’t stop laughing.

It was that bad.

Thankfully, the laughable acting is limited to two scenes. Both with Xian, true, but he wasn’t bad throughout the movie. Just with two very important, very dramatic scenes. Although, again with the fairness, it must not have been easy to find motivation for a character who doesn’t seem to have a reason for doing anything.

Which brings me to the biggest problem Everything About Her has: it focuses more on style over substance. Giving more weight to dialogue that can be quotable quotes instead of staying true to who the characters are. And what the viewers are left with is a convoluted mess of a film whose premise became as murky as the characterization of the main characters.

You see, the film is supposedly about a very hard, very independent woman who suddenly has to rely on a nurse whose method of taking care of someone is to be as familiar with them as possible. So she could cater to their needs before they even know they need it. Along the way, they’re supposed to find in each other someone that had been missing in their lives for so long: a child for the hard woman, and a mother for the nurse.

Now, had Xian Lim’s character been relegated to a supporting role, I think the film would have been better–more whole. As it stands, the film really was very entertaining and very clear prior to his characters arrival, as I already mentioned above. But his inclusion really throws the whole film askew. It was one thing that you don’t actually understand why he comes in in the first place, but he also complicates the Vilma-Angel relationship in a bad way. Because suddenly, it has to contend with a romance angle.

And it doesn’t work. Mostly because you never believe for a second that Xian is falling in love with Angel. And then there’s the fact that the film doesn’t really allow their romance to blossom because it’s more interested with the abandonment issues the three suddenly have.

Yes, it’s sudden. Because although the film begins with Vilma and Angel being well-rounded individuals with no hang-ups, the minute Xian enters the picture, they suddenly have issues about being left behind. And Vilma’s character suffers the most from this because, for the first part of the movie, it’s implied that she’s the one who had done the unintentional abandonment! And then, with Vilma suddenly being dependent on her need to be loved by a son who is being more of a diva than the diva the film’s title is referring to, Angel suddenly develops her own abandonment issues–that could’ve introduced and explored better had the romance angle never happened at all!

To top it all off, the film boasts of an amazing cast of supporting characters who, I feel, were all wasted because they weren’t given more to do. Michael de Mesa as the only friend of Vilma’s hard-to-love character could’ve also served as a sounding board for Xian’s character whose motivations were never clear–because the actor wasn’t that strong to convey it on his own. Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino’s presence in the life of Angel Locsin’s character was so negligible, she could’ve been an orphan raising her host of siblings on her own. Which is a shame, because in the three scenes Nonie and Angel had together, you can see the promise of a wonderful father-daughter relationship that could’ve been explored more, to highlight the journey Angel’s character is supposed to take.

But, no. We have to contend with being force fed Xian Lim’s character instead. Who, had he been given a clearer motivation, could have worked as a third main character. But he wasn’t. So he ruins the film instead.

I could probably go on further about the things I didn’t like about Everything About Her, so I’ll stop now. Let me just say that if you’re going to watch for Vilma and Angel, you won’t regret the ticket price. They deliver solid performances, even amongst the confused story-telling. But if you’re watching for any other reason? Lower your standards. Like, by a lot.

Book: Rebel Allies (I Am Number Four, The Lost Files)

"Rebel Allies"

You know the invasion has begun.
You know we are all that stands in their way.
You think we are alone.
You will see we have hidden allies.
They think they have won.
They are wrong.
They do not have our power.
They do not know the truth.
We have a secret weapon.

I enjoy the Lorien Legacies novels for being book-equivalents of summer blockbuster films, and I don’t really look at them for anything more than entertainment. So it’s always a pleasant surprise when I read The Lost Files novellas because they’re so much better than their main series counterparts.

Probably because they’re so short and they stick to one character’s point of view. The shorter format of the novellas make sure that the action is tight, and the pace is slow enough to allow readers to breathe. But it’s really the singular perspective that elevates the novellas from the main Lorien Legacies series. Because we don’t juggle multiple characters vying for their time in the spotlight, we can actually see the characters deal with their actions and develop into becoming more fully-realized.

In Rebel Allies, the three novellas feature former antagonist Mark James, new character Lexa, and how they teamed up to become an auxiliary team in the fight against the Mogadorians.

Mark James is one of my least favorite characters in the main series. He didn’t really serve a purpose before, other than be the third party to the romance angle of I Am Number Four. When they turned him into a supporting protagonist, he kind of lost his point. And I didn’t really know why there was a need to keep him around, when you already had humans in the main group who served a better purpose than he does, story-telling-wise.

Return to Paradise, his previous novella from a previous The Lost Files collection, further cemented the fact that he no longer had a purpose. And then the people behind the Lorien Legacies series wrote The Fugitive. And suddenly Mark James has direction again.

Unlike the humans in the main group, Mark James is the actual substitute for the majority of the human race. He who wants to do something to help against the alien threat, but is in actuality in over his head. And he doesn’t have an alien best friend who can bust him out of tight spots.

Mark James is painfully human, and that’s what makes his journey resonate more. His humanity. His vulnerability. And his realization that he is not the main character in this story.

Which serves as great foil for new character Lexa who doesn’t give a damn about the other characters. She is in this war for revenge. And it is very refreshing to see another alien character who isn’t extolling the good virtues of the Lorien people.

As the sidelined characters, Mark and Lexa are just the perspective the Lorien Legacies series needed. An outside view of the war that seems to be the be-all and end-all for the characters in the main series. They work well in the outskirts.

Which is why, although I loved them in these novellas, the two kind of felt like a deus-ex-machina device when they appeared in The Fate of Ten. Obviously there was a plan to bring them in the main series, after all, Mark James did come from the very first book– But I also really liked the idea of there being other stories that, although they are affected by the events of the main series, they exist only in the periphery.

It makes the world of Lorien Legacies bigger. More believable. Because not everyone crosses paths.

The series is ending with United As One coming out this year. There’s another The Lost Files collection coming out as well. But I hope the writers of this series still come up with more novellas featuring characters that don’t play major parts in the main series. Because the mythology they built is too amazing to waste in just one linear narrative.

Give your readers more than just the usual.

Book: Cover Story Girl

"Cover Story Girl"

1. She has amnesia.
2. She’s on the run from her father’s creditors.
3. She’s enjoying her last days on earth.

Ever since Jang Min Hee walked into Gio’s small museum, she’s given him one excuse after another about why she’s vacationing at scenic Boracay Island. Rarely has Gio’s neat and organized world been shaken like this. Soon he finds himself scrambling over rocks, hiding in dressing rooms, and dragging her out of bars. But how can Gio tell what’s true from what isn’t? Their worlds are getting unraveled–one story at a time.

I guess I unintentionally saved the best off the three widely-released romance class novels for last, and I have to give kudos to Chris Mariano for deciding to go with a male main character, and not an ideal one at that. Which is a breath of fresh air because, let’s face the facts, male love interests in romance novels usually fall under two types: the ideal man, or the bad boy who was secretly the ideal man all along.

Our main hero Gio is neither a bad boy, or the ideal man. He was just a guy trying to get by in his life, until Jang Min Hee arrives to add color to his humdrum life. It’s very much a Korean love story with a male character that acts distinctly Filipino.

What I liked about the novel best though isn’t the point-of-view. It’s the pacing. Chris Mariano has a good handle on how a love story should realistically unfold, without the dragging bits. She knows when to jump ahead in time, and when to expound on details. And the best part? It’s structurally sound.

I don’t think it’s a secret that even when I enjoy a story, I still find parts that I would want to do better had I been given a go at it. But this time, Cover Story Girl is great as it is.

Sure, there were still a few parts that made me pause to question if the character would really do something they had done, but they were few and they can be brushed under the all-encompassing rug of “love makes you do strange things.” And, in some instances, they can be attributed to the growth of the character as a person.

So in conclusion?

Cover Story Girl is as close to perfect as we can get in a local romance novel, and I would readily recommend it to other readers. I also look forward to reading whatever Chris Mariano writes next.