Book: Don’t Tell My Mother

"Don't Tell My Mother"

With an overly zealous mother as her guide, 19-year-old Sam has never had problems navigating through Christian suburbia before. But all that changes when she befriends and becomes intrigued with Clara, her widowed neighbor and the village’s social outcast. When their friendship grows into the “unnatural,” Sam is forced to examine her upbringing and come to terms with who she really is.

Don’t tell the author, but I’m not completely in love with this book. I mean, it starts out well enough. Brigitte Bautista’s words have a nice melody that makes reading Don’t Tell My Mother a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even notice that I was almost finished with the book until I got to the last few chapters.

So why don’t I love it? Because of the ending. Or the possibility that the ending promises. It’s pretty open-ended, yes, but it’s leaning heavily into the happily-ever-after that I feel doesn’t fit well with the narrative we were given.

Don’t get me wrong: I do want the characters of Sam and Clara to have happy endings. It’s just… Nothing in the book made me feel like they belonged together in the end. I felt like they were each other’s stepping stones to somewhere greater. Somewhere braver. But not somewhere together. It felt off.

Now, if you tell me that author Bautista has a sequel in the works where we see that the characters are still working their issues out, or where we see their relationship further develop, then I might change my mind about this book and just say that I love it and would recommend it to anyone–

But right now I’m treating Don’t Tell My Mother as a stand-alone romance novel. And that’s why, right now, I’m saying it’s a story that could have used a little bit more development. Or maybe a dozen more chapters to work on the relationships of the main character, and the plot, and the conflict… and the resolution.

All that said, I reiterate the fact that Bautista does have a gift with words. Having read a few LGBTQ novels now, I feel like she’s the first to have been able to convey the confusion of her main character well enough to make it palpable. And although Sam’s background isn’t very rare, Bautista does a great job at making it unique and interesting.

Unique and interesting doesn’t mask the fact that a relationship isn’t completely developed though. It’s not enough that the characters are. For readers to root for a couple, you need to make sure the readers understand what they are to each other, what they bring in each other’s life. And the promise of what could be is never enough.

Unless I completely missed the mark with this novel. I read it as a romance novel, as advertised; so if it’s about Sam’s journey of self-discovery and self-love, then… Nah. The ending we got would read even worse for me.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see myself recommending Don’t Tell My Mother to anyone.

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Theater: ‘night, Mother

"'night, Mother"

A supposedly normal evening in the mother-daughter household is shattered when Jessie announces to her mother Thelma that she plans to kill herself before the night is over. The play happens in real time. Over the course of 90 minutes, Thelma desperately works to convince her daughter that life is worth living.

I didn’t know anything about ‘night, Mother when I came to watch it. I was told only two things: the actors were phenomenal and the story was ‘heavy.’ While waiting to get in the theater, my friend informed me that there was going to be a trigger-warning at the start of the production. Which, I admit, scared me.

Theater has always been an escape for me. More than television, more than movies or even books, it’s theater that allows me to let my mind loose. This is why I have a preference for musicals. Bright, loud, happy musicals that present a simple problem that they then resolve with a dozen or so songs. Sure there would be crying, some time’s there’s righteous indignation, but the end is almost always the same: you are given a semblance of a solution. You will be made to think, but you will also have closure.

Plays aren’t always as considerate.

‘night, Mother revolves around the relationship of one daughter with her mother–and, as the synopsis above says, her plan to kill herself before the night ends. Her matter-of-fact announcement is actually what jump starts the whole play. And ‘heavy’ is an understatement for the ninety minutes that follow her announcement.

But what makes ‘night, Mother heavy? Why is there a need for a trigger warning, and why are there mental health specialists at the end of the production to help the audience process what happens in the play?

The material was written in the early 80s. As shared by director Melvin Lee, ‘night, Mother was first produced in 1982. Back then, the daughter’s planned suicide is an inciting incident–not the focal point of the play. True enough, while watching, it is not the suicide that moves you from one emotion to another: it’s the relationship between the two characters.

There are many ways to read the play. Director Lee posits that it’s about two different mind sets, two generations trying to stay relevant in each other’s lives and failing. The difference is while one point-of-view is remaining stubborn and steadfast, the other is ready to throw in the towel. My own take is that it’s a commentary on societal expectations; that it scrutinizes the way other people want us to behave, as opposed to who we actually are.

The suicide as a symbol can be read as giving up–but it can also be about taking back power. It really depends on where you stand in society: are you the one making decisions and maintaining hierarchy? Or are you part of the generation that wants to break out of the box?

But, again as Director Lee points out, something has changed in the last almost forty years. In the last five years alone, actually. People are more aware about mental health issues now. And suddenly, the surface drama of a person committing suicide isn’t just a symbolism anymore. It’s a very real possibility. And this is what’s pushes the conversations about the production.

Sure, actresses Eugene Domingo and Sherry Lara are both astounding. The set design by Ben Padero is exceptional. And TJ Ramos provides a haunting tone that you don’t actually notice until the end, which means he did spectacular work. So many people should be getting recognition with PETA’s adaptation of Marsha Norman’s ‘night, Mother, and yet everyone is talking about only one aspect of the play:

Suicide. And depression, in connection to it.

Those are not topics I’m qualified to talk about, let’s be real. They are subjects that I, admittedly, have had thoughts about. But the bottom line is this: I’m not a specialist. I’m not an expert. I’m someone online who has read things about the two, who may have depression and is dealing with it. That still doesn’t mean I can write about these things in a way that would be of comfort to those who also deal with them.

So here’s my advice: talk to someone about it. Find help. Here in the Philippines, we supposedly have a suicide prevention hotline (+632 804-4673) but don’t rely on just that. Google for counselors near your area. Risk opening up to a trusted friend.

Beat the stigma.

Being depressed and having suicidal thoughts doesn’t make you any less of a person. You matter.

Going back to ‘night, Mother, if you think you can handle a play that deals with suicide and a person’s thought process in ending her life, then catch the final weekend of the play today (March 16) until Sunday (March 18, 2018) at the PETA Theater in Quezon City. Then stay, after the play, to talk about your concerns–or to listen to other people’s experiences.

Be open.

Book: They Both Die at the End

"They Both Die at the End"

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure–to live a lifetime in a single day.

What do you do when you’re told you’re going to die within the day? It’s a great question, and I love that They Both Die at the End tries to answer it in multiple ways. We have two main characters that are very different from each other, who then fate brings together to help them grow. I love that author Adam Silvera doesn’t go for the saccharine and goes deep into thoughts that most people probably have had, about what to do when confronted with the idea that they are about to die.

I love the book… but I’m not in love with it. Probably because it veered into romance territory near the end.

Spoiler alert?

I’m not going to say much. It’s just– I thought the book was amazing, and the way Silvera handled the multiple points-of-view was particularly outstanding. I love the way he threaded the stories together, and how passing characters in the beginning make quite an impact in the latter chapters.

But the love story felt out of place for me.

I understand that the characters would grow to care for each other. That they would grow to love each other. And there were hints throughout the book about the eventual… relationship development. It was not sprung on us. I just felt like, if the book really wanted to go there, they could have prepared the readers better. Or have been more upfront about it. As it was… the romance in the latter part of the book made me like it less.

Still– I do still love the book enough to recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a great story. Maybe other readers don’t (or won’t) feel the same way I do about the love story in the end.

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.

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: 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.