Book: The Fireman

"The Fireman"

No one knows exactly when or where it began. A terrifying new plague is spreading like wildfire across the country, striking cities one by one… Dragonscale, a highly contagious, deadly spore that tattoos its hosts with beautiful black and gold marks–before causing them to burst into flames.

Harper Grayson, a compassionate, dedicated nurse treated hundreds of infected patients before contracting the deadly virus herself. When the outbreak first began, she and her husband, Jakob, had made a pact: they would take matters into their own hands if they became infected. To Jakob’s dismay, Harper now wants to live–at least until the fetus she is carrying comes to term.

Convinced that his do-gooding wife has made him sick, Jakob becomes unhinged, and eventually abandons her as their once-placid New England community collapses in terror.

But Harper isn’t as alone as she fears: a mysterious and compelling stranger, a man wearing a dirty yellow firefighter’s jacket and carrying a hooked iron bar, straddles the abyss between insanity and death. Known simply as The Fireman, he strolls the ruins of New Hampshire, a madman afflicted with Dragonscale who has learned to control the fire within himself, using it as a shield to protect the hunted…and as a weapon to avenge the wronged.

Halfway through The Fireman, I was already starting to piece together what my eventual blog post about the novel was going to be like; about the monstrosity in human beings, and the humanity that can be found in those perceived as monsters. This thesis stuck with me until I put the book down.

The thing is, when I started typing the book’s synopsis for this post, I found myself wanting to write about the synopsis instead. Because, while interesting and intriguing, the book synopsis is also misleading as to what the novel is truly about.

In it, we get a sense of the Fireman as this truly mysterious being whose presence will dictate whether the world would survive or fall to ashes. But The Fireman is about so much more than The Fireman, or Harper for that matter.

Imagine the comic book series of The Walking Dead. Imagine that you didn’t have to wait a month for each installment of the issue. Imagine the series if it weren’t being stretched out to last for as long as possible. (No shade. I still find The Walking Dead comic book series interesting and entertaining, unlike it’s television counterpart.) Imagine having an ending for The Walking Dead. Now take out the zombies, but keep the apocalypse, the factions, and the conflicts in what it takes to be human. That’s The Fireman.

It’s a study on humanity and monstrosity, and how we usually mistake one for the other because of appearances.

Joe Hill is a master at painting this world with just his words, all the while putting meaning behind the visuals he is drawing up for the readers. The way he describes the characters, their changes, and the relationships they create continuously push his message of solidarity, of compassion, and of so many other things.

Then you finish the novel and go back to the synopsis, and you can’t help but wonder: why the focus on just that? I understand the novel is called The Fireman, but why focus on just one aspect of his being? Why box Harper to just her relationship with Jakob?

Sure, Harper’s failed marriage with the unhinged Jakob plays a big part in how everything unfolds. And yes, the Fireman does have a big role in the story that is being told. But to limit the scope of the novel to just the two is doing the novel a disservice. Harper’s pregnancy and her relationship to Jakob, and the Fireman aren’t the be-all and end-all of this novel.

To anyone who has yet to read the novel, don’t bother reading the synopsis. The novel is wonderfully written, and is, in my opinion, Joe Hill’s most mature work yet. You won’t regret cracking the tome open and entering this world.

Movie: Captain America, Civil War

"Captain America: Civil War"

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” finds Steve Rogers leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps-one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

When I watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was a little underwhelmed. Although I did enjoy watching the film, I had notes throughout on what I would’ve have done (storytelling-wise) that could have made the film better. But, now that I’ve had a few months to have some perspective on how I felt about the film, I understand that I was coming from a place of high expectations. The first Avengers film struck me speechless, and I was expecting the same for Age of Ultron. That was unfair. So when I first saw the trailer for Captain America: Civil War, I told myself to manage my expectations.

The Captain America films has been my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The First Avenger was an amazing film that perfectly told the story of the classic Captain America and made it palatable to modern viewers. The Winter Soldier topped that by twisting expectations, and delivering the most non-superhero film that starred a superhero. In both films, the cast of characters had been manageable. There were only a handful, and each one of them played an integral part in telling the story. And then here comes Civil War with the problem that truly plagued the second Avengers film: an overly large cast with rich stories that remain untapped. Each one bursting to tell their own journey.

Civil War served them all well, without forgetting the fact that this is a Captain America film. That this closes his trilogy.

And what a closer it is. (Seriously. The film’s last shot? Not counting the after credits? It gave me goosebumps.)

I don’t know how many times my jaw dropped watching this film. The fears and questions I had while watching the trailer were all explained away, and most of the stuff that internet people have been concerned about made a lot of sense for me. As the credits rolled, all I could think of was this: I didn’t have to manage my expectations at all. Because while Civil War is no Winter Soldier, the film is still a solid Captain America film. And that is what’s important, right?

Civil War has more superheroes than either one of the Avengers films, but each one plays out their part and stays in their lane. A few breakout as scene-stealers, but none of them steals the movie from Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. Not even Robert Downey Jr., who tones down his Tony Stark to give his most somber portrayal of the character since he was first handed the iron helmet. And it works.

Everything works.

There have been a lot of reports that it’s Spider-Man who people will remember from watching this film, but I disagree. Spider-Man is set-up wonderfully, yes. Tom Holland does give a nuanced take that balances the drama of Tobey Maguire’s version with the levity of Andrew Garfield’s take on the hero. But this is not his film to steal. He serves a purpose, and one of his scenes actually underlines the movie’s theme without being blatant about it. His scenes still pushes the Captain America story forward, while providing a break from the film’s serious tone. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still leaves Spider-Man’s story to whoever will be writing the webslinger’s own film.

As they do for the Blank Panther who makes quite the splashy entrance, and yet doesn’t overpower the strengths of the other characters.

The writers and directors Anthony and Joe Russo must be commended on using characters that haven’t been established yet to further the plot, without making the plot about them. They serve their purpose, but their own stories are purposely left out for their own films, without making moviegoers feel like they were shortchanged with these characters.

And I love how they use the absence of certain characters to push the story even further, to make the characters more three-dimensional.

But the best part of the film is how the number of superheroes isn’t overwhelming. Which… If these are the people working on the next two Avengers films? I think we can all rest easy, because we’re in good hands.

Captain America opens today in the Philippines. And I would like to thank my friend Chris Cantada for inviting me to the premiere of the film last Monday, April 25.

And, obviously, I didn’t get into the nitty gritty details of the film. I keep having to check myself that I’m not dropping spoilers by accident. But, if you’ve already seen the film and want to discuss it with me, hit me up in the comments. (This also serves as a warning to other readers to not read the comments section, if you don’t want to be spoiled.)

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 through to the character he’s sticking 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: The Spectacular Now

"The Spectacular Now"

So, my beautiful fat girlfriend, Cassidy, is threatening to kick me to the curb again, my best friend suddenly wants to put the brakes on our lives of fabulous fun, and my dad, well, my dad is a big fat question mark that I’m not sure I want the answer to.

Some people would let a senior year like this get them down. Not me. I’m Sutter Keely, master of the party. But don’t mistake a midnight philosopher like me for nothing more than a shallow party boy. Just ask Aimee, the new girl in my life. She saw the depth in the Sutterman from that first moment when she found me passed out on the front lawn. Okay, so she’s a social disaster, but isn’t it my duty to show her a splendiferous time, and then let her go forth and prosper?

Yes, life is weird, but I embrace the weird. Let everyone else go marching off into their great shining futures if they want. Me, I’ve always been more than content to tip my whisky bottle and take a ride straight into the heart of the Spectacular Now.

Life defines who we are and how we perceive things.

Reading The Spectacular Now, halfway around the world and on the eve of a new year (not to mention my remaining days as thirty-year-old), was a little cathartic. It’s a book that, I feel, I would have enjoyed and analyzed-the-hell-out-of had I read it during the Christmas break stuck in my room while ruminating where my life is going next– But I was in New York City, traversing the metropolitan on my own with no worries and no meaningful connections.

Although I was far from being the master of the party, I was Sutter Keely for thirteen days, while I navigated a foreign city with a not-a-care-in-the-world attitude. I was experiencing the spectacular now.

It was very lonely.

This, obviously, affected my enjoyment of the novel. I could see myself in Sutter and I can see where his life is going. I can see where my life was going through him. And I felt an intense dislike for the events that were unfolding. But from the moment I met Sutter Keely, I already knew where his story was heading.

I really didn’t like it.

I guess this is where I make a disclaimer about the book being well-written and the characters breathing like real people. And that’s true. But I’m not a book critic who earns his living reviewing books online or on paper. I’m a reader who posts my reactions to the books I read. And The Spectacular Now paints a too-bleak picture that I really cannot get myself to like.

On the other hand, the novel has given me something that none of the other books I read in 2015 have given me: the motive to change my life. So, in a way, I can say that this book is life-changing.

One of the questions that The Spectacular Now posits is whether you should live for the future, or if you live in the moment. By the end of the novel, and by the end of my trip, I find my answer: it has to be a mixture of both. You have to live in the moment, but you can never forget that there is always a future that will be affected. If not yours, then someone else’s.

Although I already knew that, The Spectacular Now drives the point deeper in me. Because the time to just play around is over, but it doesn’t mean you have to stop living in the moment either. You just have to find the balance.

And it will be a constant struggle.

Movie: Honor Thy Father

"Honor Thy Father"

After years of financial struggle, Kaye and Edgar are finally on a roll. Kaye has made millions promoting her father’s investment scheme to her friends and fellow Pentecostal parishioners at the Church of Yeshua. But their world unravels instantaneously one day when Edgar swings by his father-in-law’s house to find the place ransacked and the old man gone. It doesn’t take long for Kaye’s friends to turn on the couple, who go to the fiery bishop for help. But he’s not exactly generous, preoccupied as he is with raising money for a new temple (and with the promise of extravagant kickbacks). The parishioners continue to demand their money back, and Kaye and Edgar start receiving death threats. When the tension erupts in violence, Edgar decides to seek the aid of his criminally inclined family.

What is there to say about Honor Thy Father other than the fact that it was beautifully made? Director Erik Matti and Cinematographer Ber Cruz made even the tightest and dirtiest look cinematic. The first thought in my head coming out of the cinema was that this is the film that will become part of film class curriculum.

Meryll Soriano and Krystal Brimner were the standouts when it came to acting, delivering nuanced performances that made their characters feel strikingly real. Perla Bautista and Boom Labrusca both delivered solid support as well, making their presence felt without taking away the focus from the lead actors.

And then there’s John Lloyd Cruz.

I’m not a fan of John Lloyd, to be honest, but there’s something about his ticking-time-bomb performance that I felt really captured the essence of the film. That said, I like him better in the scenes where he doesn’t have lines, the ones where he lets his actions and reactions speak for him.

If you have seen and enjoyed Heneral Luna, you have to watch this film. It has the core of an independently-produced film with the budget of a mainstream movie–so we get the best of both worlds. And all I have left to say is that, I think Honor Thy Father is the best film off the past year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. So watch it.

Show the mainstream media that there is room for films like this. For stories that aren’t cookie-cutter romances, and aren’t trope-filled horrors, and aren’t slapstick comedies. We’re always lamenting the dying movie industry because it’s inundated with movies that cater to the escapist nature of the Filipinos, and yet most of those complaining don’t even bother watching films like this when they come out.

The movie industry will stay in its deathbed unless we support the films we want more of. If we want more quality films, it’s time to put money where our mouths are.

Book: Save the Cake

"Save the Cake"

Twenty-eight-year-old Eloisa Carreon has come home to work at her family’s bakery as a cake artist after years of studying and working abroad. She years for the independence she had while living in New York and Singapore, but her overprotective parents and big brother monitor her every move. When she is tasked with creating a masterpiece for a high-society wedding, Eloisa meets handsome videographer Sean Alvarez. They discover a shared outlook on life and a mutual desire to escape the excesses of the nuptials. The attraction between them is undeniable, but Eloisa is weighed down by family expectations and emotional baggage from a past relationship.

With the wedding of the year fast approaching, Eloisa has a decision to make: Should she play it safe to avoid heartbreak, or take the risk on happiness with someone who can show her how to love again?

Ignoring the fact that the back blurb of the book was misleading, I’m still a little disappointed with Save the Cake. Not because I had high expectations to begin with, but because my expectations rose while reading the book.

When I pick up local books that are in English, there is always a tendency for the protagonists to read and talk like western characters. Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise to find that, from the moment we meet Eloisa Carreon, I knew she was a Filipina–even with her background in New York and Singapore.

I have to commend author Stella Torres for how grounded in reality her character feels. There’s just something about her, something I can’t put my finger on, that makes her breathe–that makes her come to life. She doesn’t feel fictional at all. Which means the author had done her job well with the character.

Something she also did well? The set-up. The first ten chapters of the book was a breeze to read. The author took time to establish the world Eloisa lives in, the family she lives with, and the people who orbit around her–but the pacing never lags. Everything is just right.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how Mina Esguerra’s Romance Class works. I don’t know if they have a deadline to beat, or if the novels were longer and had to be shortened for physical printing, or what. What I do know is that starting with Chapter Twelve, the pace suddenly goes into hyper-drive. It’s like there’s not enough time for everything to happen, and the structure suffers because of the breakneck pace the story suddenly employs.

The characters continue to feel whole though. Nothing changed with how they are written, with how they talk and react–but they are talking and reacting to things that shouldn’t have happened yet. New developments are shoveled in before the characters can even process what had just happened. The characters aren’t allowed to breathe. And this is a shame.

Because I would say that Save the Cake had a potential to be better, had it been allowed more time to stew. This is a romance novel, so why hurry through the romance? Why hurry through the nuances of a love story?

If you want readers to take local romance stories the time of day, then give them the time to fall in love.

Book: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between

"Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between"

On the night before they leave for college, Clare and Aidan have only one thing left to do: figure out whether they should stay together or break up. Over the course of twelve hours, they retrace the steps of their relationship, trying to find something in their past that might help them decide their future. The night leads them to family and friends, familiar landmarks and unexpected places, hard truths and surprising revelations. But as the clock winds down and morning approaches, so does their inevitable goodbye. The question is, will it be goodbye for now or goodbye forever?

If what we see of Clare and Aidan’s relationship in this book is any indication of what their relationship will be like in the future? I hope the answer to the question is goodbye forever.

Obviously, I didn’t enjoy the book. It wasn’t so bad that I had to stop reading, and my displeasure didn’t reach throwing-against-a-wall levels, but I must say that if I had a chance to tell my past self not to pick this book up? I would.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between is an exercise in futility. From the first chapter, we are told that at the end of this very long night, our main characters will find a reason to stay together–to risk a long-distance romance. So the night is supposed to strengthen them as it leads them to “familiar landmarks and unexpected places, hard truths and surprising revelations.

And it sort of does.

And then it doesn’t.

Reading the book, I had to wonder: did the author even know where she wanted the book to go? Did she know what her characters really wanted? Or was this a writing exercise that got published because her previous efforts sold well?

I’m not bitter here. I’m not a novelist trying to get my first novel published. But seriously, Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between feels like something that one would find trawling through the Wattpad catalog. And even saying that, I feel like I’m going to offend some Wattpad writers.

There is nothing special about this book, and even it gimmick of a “scavenger hunt of memories” falls flat because the characters themselves give up on it halfway through. I don’t even know what the book wants to say except: people always break up, but because this is a romance novel, the protagonists will still find a way to each other.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I started reading this book. Entertainment? An escape? An interesting take on love? Whatever it was, I didn’t find it. But I did learn a lesson:

Don’t trust a popular author to always deliver a good story.

But, like I always say whenever I write anything about books I ended up not liking? Don’t take my word for it. Check out the blurb, find other bloggers who read the book. What didn’t work for me might have worked for someone else. Just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean it’s unlikable.

Give the book a try–

But maybe borrow the book, instead of buying your own copy. Just in case you end up not liking it too.