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.

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Book: Vintage Love

"Vintage Love"

26-year-old Crissy Lopez’s life is in dire need of a makeover. Her wardrobe revolves around ratty shirts and beat-up sneaks; her grueling schedule as a TV Executive leaves no room for a social life; and worst of all, she’s hung up on the Evil Ex who left her five years ago.

When her fashionable grand-aunt passes away and leaves behind a roomful of vintage stuff, the Shy Stylista inside Crissy gradually resurfaces. Soon, she feels like she’s making progress–with a budding lovelife to boot! But the grim ghost of her past catches up with her, threatening to push her back into depression. To finally move on, Crissy learns that walking away is not enough. This time, she needs to take a leap of faith.

If you come to Vintage Love looking for romance, you’d best look elsewhere. The love story told within the pages of this book is paint-by-numbers, and the male characters we are given don’t ever feel like real people. That said, if you do decide not to pick this book up, it’ll be a loss. Because Vintage Love, I feel, is a great love story–about loving one’s self.

I’ve learned to manage my expectations when it comes to local romance novels. Especially since they seem to be restricted to a certain number of pages. You can’t make a love story epic in 147 pages. That’s just the number of pages it takes to fall in love, and to get swept by the romance of it all. By the 147th page, you’re only getting to the meat of a love story: the conflicts. Because unlike other works of fiction where you can get invested in the main character within the first chapter, while you’re building your world and your conflict, love stories have to hook you in first with why you want to root for a certain couple to stay together–

Vintage Love does hook readers quickly, but you don’t root for the love story. Within the first chapter, you want Crissy Lopez to succeed–not at finding love, but at finding herself. Because, unlike in Save the Cake where we are forced to endure the mystery of what happened in the main character’s past, Vintage Love drops you right in the middle of the main character’s passion: film-making. Agay Llanera presents us a strong, independent woman who clearly isn’t happy with her life, but is making everyone else think she is.

Taking out the romance aspect of the book, I’m impressed with Llanera’s structuring of the plot. She makes a different use of death as a plot point, and uses examples instead of dialogue of how close the character is to the dead. The anecdotes and the way the character talks about the dead is a great way of establishing their relatioship without having to do extensive character-building. And while this particular relationship already ended in the first chapter, it clearly defines what happens in the main character’s life going forward.

Now, if we put the romance aspect back into the book, I’m not as impressed with the structure. We don’t get to know the male lead as well as we do Crissy, and it affects my need to root for their relationship. Bottom line: I didn’t care if they get together in the end. This is mostly because, as I mentioned earlier, the male lead doesn’t feel real. He’s not the end goal. He’s a plot device to get our main character to her actual goal: choosing to make herself happy. So when the inevitable relationship conflict happens, near the end of the book, I didn’t really care if the male lead goes. He’s served his purpose.

I can go on and on about what can make Vintage Love work better as a romance novel, but there’s really no need, is there? It’s already a good book. Just as long as you’re not here for the romance.