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: Voices in the Theater

"Voices in the Theater"

Ever since her grandmother died, Samantha Davidson has been carrying a secret: She can hear voices–other people’s thoughts, some from the living, some from the dead.

Plucked from her roots and transported to another country, estranged from her family and friends, Sam joins a pioneering club in her new school that investigates paranormal activities.

As they examine the mystery behind a haunted theater inside the university, Sam starts to hear voices from those that are no longer earthbound.

Will she heed their voices as they accuse her of a dark secret she has buried deep in the past? Or will she surrender to the light offered by newfound allies and a love that caught her by surprise?

Will the many voices drown out the one voice she has long suppressed? Will she listen?

If I’m to be objective, there is nothing wrong with A.S. Santos’s Voices in the Theater. The plot is good and well-paced, and although some decisions made by the characters make me want to tear my hair out, I understand their choices are organic and not pushed by the hand of the author. There is really nothing bad to be said about the book–

But I still didn’t like it.

Here’s the thing: Voices in the Theater is marketed to be a horror novel. From its back synopsis, to its book cover, to the first few chapters– The story is clearly set-up to be a horror novel that deals with ghosts and unresolved issues. And I was fully on board with that. What I didn’t like was the sudden turn for the religious.

I mean, I completely understand having religious characters. The setting is the Philippines, characters are bound to be non-practicing Christians at the very least. And you can’t really take out religion when you’re dealing with ghosts and the afterlife. They come hand in hand.

Still, the book presents the main character as religiously neutral. Our entry point into the supernatural is science-based. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. And I felt like the story, and the writer, forced the main character into a religion by the end of the book.

The thing is: I would totally understand the religious deus ex machina had there been more visual cues from the way the book was published or presented. Going back to what happens in the story, there’s really nothing there that explicitly says the book wasn’t going to go the religious note. And aside from the first few chapters that established the back story of main character Samantha, the rest of the book does establish the necessity of faith.

But the turn to the religion still threw me off.

It could just be my fault for expecting something else. For wanting something else. It’s just… I’m not the book’s target market. And I wish I knew this fact before I bought the book. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a warning before I delved into the book expecting a horror story. That could have spelled the difference in how I received the novel after finishing it.

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: BGMBYN Act 1

"BGMBYN"

AR-1896, Spain. For an empire whose fleets link oceans, whose armies bridge continents, and whose faith binds nations to a common will – the Philippine insurgency, is but a cloud within “The Empire of the Eternal Sun.”

Aimless. Transient. Futile

…yet clouds, hold storms.

1896: Bagumbayan – explores an alternate reality where thieves become soldiers, soldiers become heroes. And a people, become a nation.

I picked this book up a few Komikons ago. It was one of the purchases I immediately started reading as soon as I got home, but work and life conspired to stop me from writing about it. Until now.

To be completely honest, I’m not a fan of how the book synopsis was written. Having read the book twice now, the synopsis doesn’t really sell the story inside. It gives you a vague idea of what to expect: an alternate reality, yes. But other than that? Thieves became soldiers in our reality. They even became heroes. As did the soldiers who believed in our future. We became a nation in this reality, no matter how tattered we have become since. So what sets the book apart from our world and our history? What makes it an alternative?

Author Redge Tolentino masterfully recreates a history that did not happen; reading BGMBYN feels like you’re reading information that really happened–and yet also know that it didn’t. The settings and characters he uses are familiar enough that it feels like we know where the story has come from and where it is going, until we don’t.

And, trust me. We really don’t.

It’s one of the more promising independently-produced book I’ve read in recent years. Like Naermyth before it, BGMBYN creates a Philippines that is fundamentally different yet feels the same; populated with characters that we are already familiar with–not because we’ve seen them before, but because we know their pain, their joy, and their dreams.

The story situates us immediately in the middle of conflict, allowing the characters’ actions define who they are. Trusting us, the readers, to pick up on what is happening through stock knowledge of Philippine history. It reveals differences not to twist the plot, but to define what sets this story apart.

BGMBYN is a story that yearns to be read. I just hope the sequel comes out before interest on the book dissipates.

Movie: The Greatest Showman

"The Greatest Showman"

“The Greatest Showman” is a bold and original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and the sense of wonder we feel when dreams come to life. Inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” tells the story of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a mesmerizing spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

Ever since I saw the teaser for The Greatest Showman, I knew I wanted to watch the film. I love musicals, and it has been so long since a proper movie musical was made, so I knew this was a film I’m going to want to watch in a theater.

And I was not disappointed.

I guess it helped that my expectations were managed. The film came out last year in the United States, and the reviews were less than phenomenal. People didn’t like the fact that The Greatest Showman glossed over the less-than-desirable characteristics of P.T. Barnum. Some thought the film was shoddily edited, and certain story threads were dropped and picked up willy-nilly. And a lot people said it just wasn’t that good. They were all correct.

The Greatest Showman wasn’t good, because it was something else. It was… transcendent.

Don’t get me wrong; the film could use a lot more fixing. Especially when it comes to how the story is told.

The film suffers from having to follow two separate threads from the moment Zac Efron’s character is introduced. Suddenly, on top of the P.T. Barnum main storyline that wanted to deal with inclusivity, acceptance, humility, and contentment–you also had to follow an interracial romance that was completely separate from the already-full Barnum plate.

The characters’ emotions don’t have a linear development; they provide what the script wants to happen, rather than the script following what the characters are feeling. And as such, there are a lot of character development that are waylaid because the film would rather barrel through the plot lines it wants to hit.

There are a thousand and one things you can point out where the film was lacking. Mostly in the storyline, in the character progression, and even in the directing. But there are just as many things to love about the film–mostly because of the cast and their passion for the film they made.

Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Keala Settle are truly exceptional in The Greatest Showman. The life they bring to the characters fill out what is lacking in their characters’ emotional development. Zac Efron and Michelle Williams complement their respective partners exceptionally, providing grace and elegance to the turmoil that is the conflict of the film.

The characters breathe because the actors behind them are giving them life. And because of their portrayals, you don’t notice until after the film has ended that said characters aren’t really fully-formed. The cast–all of them, not just the ones I enumerated–are the ones informing the audience of who their characters are; Not the story, nor their decisions in the story, but their acting.

I would also say it’s the cast that brings the songs to life. They inject their vulnerabilities into the songs, making them something more than just the words that accompany the melody. Listen to the dozens of “This Is Me” covers on YouTube, and then listen to Keala Settle’s version. The mix of fear, of uncertainty, and of strength she imbues the song elevates it into an anthem. So much so that you don’t notice how the emotional reprise within the song is abruptly cut short just so the song could go back to being a call to arms.

And then there’s Zac Efron and Zendaya’s “Rewrite the Stars.” There is restraint in the way the sing the song, a restraint that becomes heartbreaking when you see how it is directed on screen. And I mean that in a good way.

If you watch the film, you can see how director Michael Gracey pours love into his staging of the musical numbers. His direction heightens the emotions of the songs that pepper the movie musical. If only he had done the same for the transition scenes, the ones in between the singing.

But there’s not point in focusing on what might have been. The film is made. It is out in theaters. And if you’re looking for a reason to watch The Greatest Showman, watch it for the passion–of the cast, of the director, the choreographers, the costume designers, the production designers, and everyone else involved in the project.

Let their passion inspire you to dream, to accept, and to come alive.

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.

Book: Dead Ringers

"Dead Ringers"

What happens when you can’t even trust the face in the mirror?

Tess Devlin runs into her ex-husband, Nick, on a Boston sidewalk, and is furious when he pretends not to know her. Afterwards, Tess calls his cell to have it out with him…only to discover that he’s in New Hampshire with his current girlfriend. But if Nick’s not in Boston, who was the person she encountered on the street? Then there’s Frank Lindbergh, who left his grim past behind and never looked back. But now that both of his parents are dead and he’s back in his childhood home, he’s assaulted by an intruder in his living room–a man who could be his brutal, violent twin…if it weren’t for the fact that Frank is an only child.

Dead Ringers was an elusive find. My local bookstores don’t carry most of Christopher Golden’s recent books, so I usually end up ordering them online–or I trawl through bookstores when I’m out of the country to see if I can find them. I picked Dead Ringers up at a Forbidden Planet, if memory serves me right.

But was it worth the effort?

I liked the book enough. The premise was easy enough to follow, and Golden continues to be a master in providing haunting imagery… But as a whole, I found myself nitpicking on the story structure.

Reading the back cover, and starting the book, you get a sense that the horrifying “dead ringers” phenomenon is widespread. Although we mostly follow what happens to the aforementioned Tess and Frank, we also get a sprinkling of random characters who are affected by something supernatural. Which, again, creates this belief that something sinister is happening everywhere.

But then the circles our characters move in start to grow small. Which is fine if the story had been preparing us for that… But it wasn’t. So it felt like a sudden turn when certain revelations tell us that our characters are linked to each other. It also felt like a bit of a cop out for me. Because prior to the revelations, I was at the edge of my seat worrying about what happens next or how the story would end– And then, with the reveal of how the characters are linked to each other, I immediately knew how the story was going to get resolved. And I wished that the book would prove me wrong.

It did not.

Still, I don’t regret buying Dead Ringers. I still enjoyed the book for what it was. I just wish that Golden had gone a different direction to where the story ultimately ended up.