Book: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

"Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda"

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly-gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an e-mail falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been e-mailing with, will be jeopardized.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his e-mail correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year had suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out–without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

Would you believe it took a movie trailer to sell me on Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda? That said, I wasn’t even aware about this book’s existence until I saw the trailer. I really should schedule more trips to the bookstore. Then again, I should finish the books that are still waiting to be read first.

But first, let’s talk about the book that I have read:

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is a good book; it’s well-written, well-paced, and the characters are not caricatures. Then again, that’s a given–the book did win an award from the American Library Association. So it also shouldn’t be a surprise that the book is all kinds of great.

Not just one kind. All kinds.

See: LGBT stories are not usually for everyone. Yes, a lot of us can relate to the feeling of being alone, of being different, or being excluded–but at the end of it all, we don’t have the same problems. We don’t need to come out or have to endure taunts, teases, and bullying. But what’s great about this particular book is that, while it has the taunts, and teases, and bullying–it also has something that other LGBT stories struggle with: a dilemma that non-LGBT people can relate with. In this case: risking a possible happy ending to do what is right.

Simon is a not-so-openly gay teenager who is in love with someone still in the closet. That’s not something cis teens have to worry about–not even when they partners are of a different race, or a different age group. But the genius behind this book is in its premise: a teenager risk ruining a potential happily-ever-after by standing up to his blackmailer.

If you take out Simon’s gender preference, the story still holds. Sure, you’re still going to be reading about a gay teenager and his life–but the core emotion that pushes the story forward: that of wanting a happy ending and the fear of losing it is not gender-specific. It’s something that speaks to everyone. And that’s brilliant.

I loved the parents that Author Becky Albertalli gave our protagonist. They’re fun, but they also know when to draw the line. They’re a little too ideal, sure, but who wants to read about kids fighting with their parents? If the main premise revolved around that, why not–but when you’re reading a love story that has nothing to do with parental approval, adding a layer of disapproving parents can get pretty exhausting.

Simon, the character, can get infuriating at times. But I think that’s by design. He’s imperfect, marred by lack of experience and self-awareness–and it’s one of the reasons why he falls into the blackmailer’s hands in the first place, and the book addresses this.

His sexuality is treated as a matter of fact; there are no explorations, no questioning, and debating– The book establishes his homosexuality as a norm and quickly moves on to the premise of the novel: which is the blackmail, and Simon not wanting to lose his happy ending.

Honestly, reading Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is very refreshing. Sure, it still tackles characters having to come out, but other than that–it reads like other young adult romance novels. Two people fall in love, a problem presents itself, and a challenge is overcome for them to end up together. It’s an LGBT book that treats the LGBT like they should be treated: normally.

So I’m definitely putting this book on my list of recommended readings. And I’m also definitely looking forward to watching how it gets adapted into a movie. Because the trailer, as I already mentioned, is so good it got me to buy the book its movie is based on.

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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: Where Futures End

"Where Futures End"

Five Teenagers.
Five Futures.
Two Worlds.
One Ending.

One year from now, DYLAN develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world.
Ten years from now, BRIXNEY must get more hits on her social media feed or risk being stuck in a debtor’s colony.
Thirty years from now, EPONY scrubs her online profile and goes ‘High-Concept.’
Sixty years from now, REEF struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard.
And more than one hundred years from now, QUINN uncovers the alarming secret that links them.

Five people, divided by time, determine the fate of us all. These are brilliantly connected stories of one world bent on destroying itself and an alternate world that just might be its savior–unless it’s too late.

In the future, who will you choose to be? And how will you find yourself before the end?

I was excited when I first started reading Where Futures End. The first story, Dylan’s development of his ‘sixth’ sense that allows him to see and enter an alternate world, wasn’t very original–but it was very engaging. Sure, Dylan was a character that we’ve met time and again in many fantasy adventure novels, but there was something in the way author Parker Peevyhouse wrote him that makes you want to see him get his happy ending.

And then his story suddenly ends.

Brixney’s story was strange. Original, yes– But also very familiar in our social media-obsessed world. Again, we get a character worth rooting for, and a predicament you want to see unfold.

And then her story suddenly ends.

I’m starting to feel restless. What is the author’s purpose in cutting the stories off? Why aren’t they being allowed to flourish? We’re being given promising beginnings with no middle, and no end– But then, I remember: the book blurb promises a last story that would link all of these vignettes.

The third story with Epony was more self-contained. A short story that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. My need for a satisfying story was quenched–even if the story itself wasn’t as good as the first two. And then when the fourth story with Reef ends, I’m starting to feel that my enjoyment of the book was diminishing.

Still. No matter. The final story promises to link all the stories together. I tell myself that it will work out, probably, because why else would people be saying the story was good. I started to hold on to the promise of the book blurbs. Of people saying the book was good–

And then I read the final story. A story that was supposed to link all the stories together. And it does, yes. But the stories were already linked in the first place. Reef’s story was spurned on by Epony’s. Epony’s by Brixney’s. Brixney’s by Dylan’s. And yes, technically the book didn’t lie when it promised an alarming secret that links all five stories.

But it’s a horrible link. It doesn’t tie up the stories together. They remain vignettes of half-realized premises that never became whole. Except the third story. And as I turn the final page, I find myself asking if the gimmick of linking these stories with a last story was realized because the author couldn’t find a way to wrap up the individual stories. That she couldn’t push the story forward to a satisfying conclusion.

Because the book ends and I don’t get the point of it all.

Because the book ends, and the weakest story in terms of originality and characterization suddenly becomes the strongest for actually having an ending and character growth.

Because the book ends, and all I want is the chance to go back in time and stop myself from buying it. Or, at the very least, warn myself not to expect anything from it. Can I do that? Can I go back in time and stop myself from hoping that this book would give me any satisfaction?

Book: How I Paid for College

"How I Paid for College"

It’s 1983 in Wallingford, New Jersey, a sleepy bedroom community outside Manhattan. Seventeen-year-old Edward Zanni, a feckless Ferris Bueller type, is Peter Panning his way through a carefree summer of magic and mischief. The fun comes to a halt, however, when Edward’s father remarries and refuses to pay for Edward to study acting at Julliard. So Edward turns to his misfit friends to help him steal the tuition money from his father. Disguising themselves as nuns and priests, Edward and his friends merrily scheme their way through embezzlement, money laundering, identity theft, forgery, and blackmail. But along the way, Edward also learns the value of friendship, hard work, and how you’re not really a man until you can beat up your father–metaphorically, that is.

How can you not pick up a book with a subtitle saying “a Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship, and Musical Theater?” The moment I laid eyes on the book, I knew I was going to pick it up, buy it, and love it.

And I did all three.

Edward Zanni is as zany as a character who loves musical theater can get. And although he can be a bit much… Okay, a lot much… sometimes, his character is still vulnerable enough that you can’t help but root for him. Which, I feel, is very important when writing a very flawed protagonist. (I’m looking at you, Sutter Feely.)

That said, I don’t think I would have liked this book as much as I did if it weren’t for the ensemble. Edward is surrounded by an amazing group of supporting characters who make his misadventures fun and never cringe-worthy. From the vivacious Paula who, surprisingly, is the most scrupulous of their merry band, to Kelly who is just full of surprises; from Doug, the jock who keeps breaking stereotype, to Natie, the budding criminal mastermind. And Ziba. The most understated character who underlines the exact reason why this book is different from all the other young adult coming-of-age novels that are out right now.

How I Paid for College doesn’t hold back from the fears, the mistakes, the fuck-ups, and the sexual confusion of teenage years. They’re all here, and they’re all presented without fanfare or big build-ups to epiphany. The novel doesn’t rely on the formula of what a coming-of-age novel is supposed to be, because real life doesn’t follow any guidelines–so when we hit the emotional beats? They’re all the more relatable.

But what I love most about the novel is how it doesn’t try to make readers cry. Throughout the heartaches and the hardships, Edward Zanni remains true to the character he’s associated with: the Ferris Bueller type mentioned in the book blurb. He cannot be unhappy. He cannot be caught crying. So when it does finally happen, he’s experiencing a breakthrough that is also shared with the viewers.

It feels earned.

And then, although already implausible, the novel grants what anyone living in a musical world needs in their stories: an outrageous happy ending. And yet it works. And it’s the perfect end to the whole affair.

And now I can’t help but rave about the novel. It’s definitely something anyone who loves the world of theater, and who has been a part of theater, will enjoy. Marc Acito wrote a gem of a story that’s truly entertaining and, although set in the 80s, still relevant.

Now, if only he had done the same for Allegiance

Book: Sorta Like a Rock Star

"Sorta Like a Rock Star"

Ever since her mom’s boyfriend kicked them out, Amber Appleton, her mom, and her totally loyal dog, Bobby Big Boy (aka Thrice B), have been camped out in the back of Hello Yellow (aka the school bus her mom drives). Still, Amber, the self-proclaimed princess of hope, refuse to sweat the bad stuff. But when a fatal tragedy threatens Amber’s optimism–and her way of life–can Amber still be… well, sorta like a rock star?

I have a love-hate relationship with Amber Appleton. On the one hand, I love how optimistic her character is. I love that she loves helping people. But then, I really don’t like how she expects people to thank her for things she’s done. I hate the fact that she’s, for the most part, a hypocrite. She doesn’t do good things for the sake of doing them–she does them so she could feel good about herself.

Which is why I have to commend Matthew Quick. Off the three novels I’ve read off him, I think Amber is his most realistic character yet. She’s not a perfect person, and she’s not claiming to be. She has insecurities, she has misguided beliefs…and yet, at her core, Amber is someone you would want to root for. Not because she’s always striving to be better, but because she also makes mistakes.

Amber is one of us.

And I wasn’t a fan of hers for around half of the book. There’s just something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. That is… Until the ‘fatal tragedy’ happened. That’s when I empathized with her. But it was also then that I stopped connecting with her. Because in the events that occurred after that, I became more invested with the characters that revolved around Amber. Like Donna. And Private Jackson. And Father Chee. Even the football jerks. Amber stopped becoming an active character.

I don’t know if it was designed that way. Maybe. Because emotionally? It worked. As Amber became the receptacle for help, a role reversal from her being the giver of help in the first half, we see the emotional pay off for all the characters who were introduced.

This is when readers with a soft spot for good deeds will become emotional messes.

But I don’t consider Sorta Like a Rock Star as a good book. Although I liked how Matthew Quick wrote the main character, and I liked how the story unfolded, I still feel like the emotional punch in the end was a cheat. Out of the three Quick novels I’ve read, I continue to hold The Silver-Linings Playbook as his best one.

As for other people though… Let’s see what they thought of the book:
The Divining Wand
What’s Not Wrong?
Opinionated? Me?

Book: Tabi Po

"Tabi Po"

Isang lalake ang bigla na lamang nagising sa loob ng isang puno sa gitna ng kagubatan na walang alaala kung sino siya at saan siya nagmula. Ang tanging alaala lang niya ay isang imahe ng babae na nakikita niya sa kaniyang panaginip, at ang tanging nararamdaman niya ay isang matinding gutom na mabilis na namumuo sa kaniyang walang pusod na sikmura. Isang gutom na mapapawi lamang ng laman…at dugo.

To translate, the synopsis says “A man wakes up inside a tree in the middle of a jungle, with no marry of who he is or where he comes from. The only thing he remembers is the image of a woman he dreamed of; and the only thing he feels is an insatiable hunger forming in his bellybutton-less gut. A hunger than can only be appeased by flesh…and blood.

It’s Good Friday in this part of the world, but I’m going to be a deviant and write about a graphic novel that’s not exactly Lenten friendly. No, I’m not trying to make a statement. It’s just that, out of my loot from this year’s Summer Komikon, this is the one I wanted to write about first.

Obviously, because it’s good. It’s so good.

Most of the time, when I write about comics, I write more about the story than the art. That can’t be the case for this book though. That’s because the art tells just as much of the story as the text does.

A few days ago, I wrote about how text necessitates history and time to let readers familiarize themselves with characters. That’s not the case with comic book stories because it’s as much a visual medium as it is a text-based one. A good artist would take the writer’s words and build a world through them. An exemplary artist would take it a step further, developing a universe with those words. That is, of course, if there’s harmony between the two minds. So imagine what happens when the writer and the artist is one and the same?

Tabi Po is an exceptional work of art that also happens to tell a story. But it can also be the other way around: it’s a masterful telling of a mythological creature’s origins that also happens to be a magnum opus.  It cannot be one or the other though, because when the dialogue stops, the art continues the story. Not that any of the dialogue are superfluous. The lines delivered underlines the story that the art is trying to tell.

Am I starting to sound like a douche? Apologies. That’s how much I am affected by this book. It is stellar, it is groundbreaking… well, maybe not groundbreaking… But it is awesome.

And I implore you to pick up a copy. You will not regret reading Tabi Po.

If you’re too cheap to buy the printed copy though, check the story out online.

Book: Stargirl

"Stargirl"

Stargirl. She’s as magical as the desert sky. As strange as her pet rat. As mysterious as her own name. And she captures Leo Borlock’s heart with just one smile.

But when the students of Mica high turn on Stargirl for everything that makes her different, Leo urges her to become the very thing that can destroy her: normal. In a celebration of nonconformity, Newberry Medalist Jerry Spinelli weaves a tense, emotional tale about the perils of popularity–and the inspiration of first love.

I’ve received a lot of recommendations for this book. And it’s strange how long it took me to get to this book. But I’ve read it now, and wow, I can understand now why people keep recommending this book.

Stargirl is one of a kind. And I’m not just saying that about the character. The book is also one of a kind. The way it handles the issue of conformity, of popularity, of doing one’s best to carve their own identities while also fitting in with everyone else.

The book is a memoir of sorts. Of a time gone by. Of a girl who could have been, but never was. Of being innocently mean, and unapologetically naive. And our main character, Leo, doesn’t shy from pointing out the mistakes he made–of the things he did that ruined the possibility of a happily ever after for him. And it’s refreshing.

It’s an honest look at what it’s like to be a teen. Or, at the very least, of how our character saw himself as a teenager. I’m almost thirty now, and this is how I remember myself when I was younger. Feeling on top of the world. Feeling loved. Feeling the crushing humiliation whenever I became the center of unwanted attention. Feeling the burning despair of being pointedly ignored by people whose approval you want.

We all wanted to be liked. And that’s what the book is about. That’s what the book underlines, by introducing a character who doesn’t care what other people think of her. And it shows us how impressions and the need for approval can either stunt our emotional growth, or make us better people.

Stargirl is a wonderful book that would fit very well in high school libraries. To remind teens that the world will judge you, that the world will force you to conform into societal molds that are deemed acceptable–that you might grow into a person you don’t actually like…but that you have the power to change what you don’t like.

That in the end, what’s important is that you like yourself.

Now, let’s see what other people have to say about Spinelli’s Stargirl:
The Geek Girl Project
Readers by Night
Build Enough Bookshelves