Book: This is Where the World Ends

"This is Where the World Ends"

Janie and Micah, Micah and Janie. That’s how it’s been since they were children, when Janie Vivian moved next door. Janie says Micah is everything she is not. Where Micah is shy, Janie is outgoing. Where Micah loves music, Janie loves art. It’s the perfect friendship–as long as no one finds out about it.

Is it racist if I say that I expected this book to be about race? No, not because of the author’s lineage. I read the synopsis and thought: “oh, okay. People frown upon their friendship because they’re not the same race.” Or, at the very least, because of wide difference in their social stature. Is one of them poor who only got into a private school because of a scholarship?

It’s neither of those things. The only reason no one can find out about Janie and Micah being friends is because Janie wanted that to be the case. Seriously. It’s…disappointing.

This is Where the World Ends has a nice hook, with two points of view spiraling from a catalyst, an event so big that it ends the world as they know it. Janie’s point of view shows us what their world is like before the “big event,” while Micah takes us through the aftermath. Which is a great idea, because it gives the novel and extra layer of suspense. But if you take out the gimmick, This is Where the World Ends reads like a half-baked John Green novel. One he wrote before The Fault in Our Stars.

Janie is a manic pixie dream girl. She’s the dream girl of the unpopular boy who has issues. She’s not a sympathetic character until she is changed by an event. Not the big event, no. Not yet, at least. But she is changed. And you see the potential in exploring this change. But author Zhang doesn’t explore that. Janie becomes more reserved, which is understandable. What I don’t understand is why Zhang doesn’t allow us in either.

Janie’s smaller event is more heart-breaking, more life-changing, and more powerful. The “big event” is an afterthought, a way to mark the beginning and the end. It doesn’t have the power to destroy a life. Not like Janie’s more personal and more intimate tragedy.

Because Janie gets raped. And it doesn’t get discussed. Not to the other characters, until one of them admits to feeling guilty. Not to the readers, until Micah needed to reach a breakthrough. And not to the protagonists. And, putting the book down, I thought–what was the point of writing a novel that doesn’t do anything but just put to paper something that can happen… Something that happens.

I know of people who do not like Thirteen Reasons Why because of its subject matter and its handling, and I get their point. But juxtaposed with This is Where the World Ends, I feel like Thirteen Reasons Why tackles the subject of rape and suicide better. Not because we get to confront the crime, or how the victim processes the event, but because it doesn’t pretend to know more. Thirteen Reasons Why had us following the perspective of someone who had no idea, and who blamed himself for not doing more.

Micah, in This is Where the World Ends, blocks from his memory every bad thing he doesn’t like. And he only uncorks when there is need to finish the story. When the book calls for catharsis. And by then, it feels like a cheat. It feels like the book only put the rape in so that the book would have a statement, and not be just another outcast and manic pixie dream girl young adult romance.

And that is not okay.

This is Where the World Ends could have been something more. Amy Zhang is an amazing writer. So amazing that she was able to make me continue reading, even when my brain keeps telling me that it does not like where the story is going. I loved her imagery, and her use of fairy tales. The gimmick of the before-and-after accounts, as I already mentioned, is a nice hook. And all of these are also the reasons why it’s so disappointing for me that the book dropped the ball on what counts the most: the treatment of its chosen subject.

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Book: Smaller and Smaller Circles

"Smaller and Smaller Circles"

Payatas, a 50-acre dump in northeast Manila, is home to thousands of people who live off of what they can scavenge. It is one of the poorest neighborhoods in a city whose law enforcement is stretched thin and rife with corruption. So when the eviscerated bodies of preteen boys begin to appear in the trash heaps in the rainy summer of 1997, there is no one to seek justice on their behalf–until two Jesuit priests, forensic anthropologist Father Gus Saenz and his protege, Father Jerome Lucero, take the matter of protecting their flock into their own hands.

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been trying to absorb more of what I’m consuming–whether it be a book or a movie, I try my best to learn from it. That way, I come out of the experience a little better.

In the case of Smaller and Smaller Circles though, I just put down the book wanting to stop everyone I know so I can tell them to read it. I wanted to share my joy at having read a book, one written by a fellow Filipino, that doesn’t turn the Philippines into a circle of hell, or idealize it too much that it’s no longer recognizable, or ignore it to the point that you forget the story is set in the Philippines.

It’s integral to the plot, the crime, and the consciousness of the killer that the setting be the Philippines. Certain cutting of red tape are only plausible because the story is set in the Philippines. The tragedies are bleak yet the hope is strong, and all of it is understandable because of how the Philippines is as a country.

And I’ve never realized how lacking other Filipino authors can be when dealing with our country, until now. We keep wanting to present the best of what the Philippines can be. Some want to highlight the poverty that is rampant in our country. Smaller and Smaller Circles just presents it as is. It is unapologetically Filipino without needing to rub the readers face in its identity.

Then there are the characters. Yes, forensic anthropologists in the Philippines sound made up–but they are real. Regardless of the career though, Father Gus Saenz’s most notable trait is his humanity. Both he and Father Jerome Lucero feel real because they’re not cardboard cutouts of what protagonists are supposed to be. They have normal conversation, they have fears–but they strive to do good.

It sounds simplistic to want to root for characters who want to do good. But consider the fact that I am writing this in 2017, where we’ve been bombarded with so many bad news and worsening global conditions. Can’t we all use a bit of good? And we get a double dose in Fathers Gus and Jerome.

There are other characters in the book, each one offering a different point-of-view into the crime. Every single one wanting to solve the crime for reasons that are both personal and professional. Some of them are infuriating, some of them less so. All of them have one goal though: to do a little good. Even if it’s a little misguided, a little unorthodox–or a little selfish. They are relatable. Understandable, even at their most despicable.

They make the novel richer. They make the crime that needs solving… something more.

Smaller and Smaller Circles is both terrifying and heart-breaking. It’s fast-paced, and it will get your blood pumping with the way author F H Batacan unravels the mystery. But when you get to the heart of the story–its horror lies in the fact that the crime is very plausible. That it really can happen. That it actually might have happened while we’re safely cocooned in our blissful ignorance. And when it’s done making your skin crawl, it will break your heart.

I’m going to stop there, lest I write something down the ruins the surprise. Let’s just say that Smaller and Smaller Circles is one of those books that you have to read as soon as you have the time.

Or, if you really can’t find the time, you can walk into any theater next week, beginning December 6, and catch Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero bring the characters to life in the film adaptation of the novel.

You won’t regret it.

Book: Fear Street Super Thriller (Nightmares)

"Fear Street Super Thriller: Nightmares"

In The Dead Boyfriend, Caitlin has never had a real relationship before, so when she sees her boyfriend, Blade, with another girl, she completely loses it. As she regains her senses, she realizes that Blade is dead–and she has killed him. But if Blade is dead, how is he staring at her across a crowded party?

In Give Me a K-I-L-L, there is only one open slot on the cheerleading squad at Shadyside, and Gretchen Page must compete against the only girl who stands in her way–rich, spoiled Devra Dalby. The competition to join the squad is anything but friendly–and ends in murder.

I don’t know if it’s nostalgia, but I remember being a fan of Goosebumps books. This is why, when I saw the Super Thriller that compiles two of R.L. Stine’s most current Fear Street releases, I thought–Why not?

Well, here’s why not:

The Dead Boyfriend and Give Me a K-I-L-L aren’t very good horror stories. Scratch that. They’re not very good stories, period. The plot for both are pretty uninspired, and the horror and twists rely on withholding information from the readers–and deliberately misleading them.

And it doesn’t help that the main characters for both stories are extremely unlikeable. It’s like the author trawled through the internet to find the most abhorrent of teenage personalities, distilled them, and put them into Caitlin and Gretchen.

We’re supposed to root for these characters. But, as their stories progress, you kind of see why bad things happen to them. It’s because they’re not very good people.

Now, had that been the design, I would probably have had a different reaction; but both are treated like victims. Which, on The Dead Boyfriend, I kind of understand the reasoning why. Circumstances happened that were out of her control. Literally. But in Give Me a K-I-L-L, we are presented with the possibility that the main character is also our main villain. And that would have been more interesting. Way more interesting than the cop-out resolution that screams deus-ex-machina.

If I’m not mistaken, Fear Street is supposedly targeted at more advanced readers. Goosebumps, after all, are the books for “children.” But, based purely on what I remember from the Goosebumps novels I had as a kid, the stories in this “super thriller” aren’t more advanced. It’s actually borderline disrespectful to the intelligence of tweens, young adults–and even the children that are targeted by the more kid-friendly Goosebumps.

Book: The Grinning Niño of Barang (The Dark Colony Clasificado)

"The Grinning Niño of Barang"

In the oppressive midnight of Martial Law, a band of knights investigate a religious artifact in the festive town of Barang, Bulacan…

…Where, beneath the banderitas, an ancient evil awaits.

For the past couple of years, I haven’t been keeping up with the local literary releases outside of the Romance Class publications–so I was pleasantly surprised to find this title at the last Komikon. To be honest, I kind of gave up that The Dark Colony was going to have a second book, since it’s been four years since the first one came out.

Now, I didn’t pick this book up because of the synopsis. I didn’t even know that it wasn’t a comic book until I started reading it. All I knew, going into it, is that it’s from Budjette Tan, creator of Trese. And I have to give major props to JB Tapia because I didn’t even realize that it wasn’t Tan writing until I got to the Afterword. (Although, in hind sight, I should have. Tapia also wrote the first Dark Colony book. Tan just helped create the world. But the world-building is similar to Trese‘s, and it is exemplary.)

That aside, I thought The Grinning Niño of Barang was a more solid story compared to the first installment of The Dark Colony. The plot is straightforward, the objectives are clear, and the villain is fully realized. I wish I can say the same thing for the heroes though.

Don’t get me wrong. The protagonists aren’t stereotypes nor are they cardboard cutouts, but we see more of their weaknesses that they don’t feel balanced. I wanted to root for them. Badly. But as I reached the midway point, I feel like I only want to root for them because I didn’t want the villain to win.

On other other books, I would rave about the humanity of these characters. How they weren’t just heroes who come in and save the world. But when you’re reading a book about the supernatural, about good versus evil, you do want a bit of goodness in your heroes. Just a little bit of goodness can go a long way. And save for the narrator, none of the characters feel like someone you would want to root for in a fight. They’re real, yes, but not the heroes we would want.

Which is unfortunate, because I feel like The Grinning Niño of Barang succeeds where the first Dark Colony story failed: it gave us a clear story, a clear origin, and a fight to champion. It made us want to know more about this world, and the war that the good guys are fighting. Unfortunately, it also failed where Mikey Recio failed–it still didn’t give us a likeable character whose story we would want to follow.

Book: United As One

"United as One"

They hunted us for our legacies.
They are coming for you now too.
They know you have powers.
They fear how powerful we can become–together.
We need your help.
We can save the planet if
We fight as one.

They started this war.
We will end it.

I read this last year. I thought about skipping writing about this since it’s been so long, but the completion-ist in me didn’t want to go ahead to the new Lorien Legacies series without at least posting about the finale of the previous one.

So–

If you’ve been keeping up with the I Am Number Four series of books, United As One provides a very satisfying conclusion to the novels. The previous book, The Fate of Ten, stumbled in providing plot movement–and that actually leaves a problem for this last book. Which I will get to.

For the most part, United As One reads like a series finale of a television program. Things really come to a head, and you don’t know which of the protagonists will survive until the end. But the first few chapters felt a little cramped, with no wiggle room for breathing. I feel like some elements of United As One‘s first act would have benefited being introduced in the previous book.

I just hope they apply their learnings from the previous series to the one that’s currently being written now, Legacies Reborn.

And this is pretty much all I can write, because this is all I remember from my reactions after reading the book last year. There’s a lesson here for me as well: never disappear from blogging, unless you don’t have plans of ever returning.

Book: The Dark Prophecy (The Trials of Apollo, Book 2)

"The Dark Prophecy"

Go West. Capture Apollo before he can find the next Oracle. If you cannot bring him to me alive, kill him.

Those were the orders my old enemy Nero gave to Meg McCaffrey. But why would an ancient Roman emperor zero in on me (as Lester) in Indianapolis? And where is Meg?

Meg, my demigod master, is a cantankerous street urchin. She betrayed me to Nero back at Camp Half-Blood. And while I’m mortal she can order me to do anything…even kill myself. Despite all this, if I have a chance of praying her away from her villainous stepfather, I have to try. But I’m new to this heroic quest business, and my father, Zeus, stripped me of my godly powers. Oh, the indignities and pain I have already suffered! With impossible time limits, life-threatening danger… Shouldn’t there be a reward at the end of each task? Not just more deadly quests?

I am highly enjoying Rick Riordan’s new Percy Jackson series… And there’s got to be a better way of calling The Trials of Apollo while referring to the Greek and Roman mythological universe Riordan’s created.

That aside– The things I liked in the first book remain true here. Apollo might be a whiny wanker, but he’s endearing because of hapless helplessness–while maintaining his arrogance for previously having godly powers. This time though, he’s more aware of his shortcomings which is an amazing development to witness. Especially since he has another quest to face–and this time, he knows he can’t just rely on others to do things for him.

Meg takes a back seat for the early part of the book, but when she returns, we see her develop too. Not enough that we feel short-changed about not bearing witness to her character growth, but enough to see that this is not the same character who left our hero in the first book.

It is clear that Riordan loves this world more than the other ones he created. Or, at least, knows more about what he’s going to do in this world. There is love in how his main characters are handled, even when there’s only a passing mention of them. And there is a clear progression of where the characters, old and new, are going.

And speaking of characters; I am loving the addition of Emmie and Josephine to the series. The two were former hunters of Artemis, and are now guardians of a way station where demigods can rest. They’re unlike previous adult characters in that they clearly know when they’re in need of help, and when they can take charge. They have a very nurturing way about them that’s never existed in any of the previously introduced adults; while, at the same time, you know they are women that you mustn’t cross.

I love them so much that I feel more concerned about their fates than any of the other characters.

I also like the introduction to another mythology. Hopefully one that doesn’t get spun off into its own series, but rather married into the one we already know. Because with all these mythologies, and all of them having end of the world scenarios, it is becoming more interesting to me to see how Riordan marries the different kinds of apocalypses, more than seeing how he’s going to wrap up each one separately.

Another thing I’m liking about this series is how Apollo serves us a new point of view. Riordan’s heroes all complain about having gods interfere in their lives. And now we see a god try to navigate quests after quests, while having to deal with consequences of their actions–whether in previous books, or in established mythologies.

There is so much to like about The Trials of Apollo. And I am both excited and apprehensive about the next book. One part of me wants to see what happens next immediately. But another part of me, the one that still remembers Magnus Chases’s conclusion, is scared that the next book in The Trials of Apollo is a dud.

I guess I’ll just have to cross my fingers and hope for the best.

Book: My Best Friend’s Exorcism

"My Best Friend's Exorcism"

High school sophomores Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since fourth grade. But after an evening of skinny-dipping goes disastrously wrong, Gretchen begins to act…different. She’s moody. She’s irritable. And bizarre incidents keep happening whenever she’s nearby.

Abby’s investigation leads her to some startling discoveries–and by the time their story reaches its terrifying conclusion, the fate of Abby and Gretchen will be determined by a single question: Is their friendship powerful enough to beat the devil?

You know the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover?” Well, I bought this one because of its cover. Designed like a home video release of a b-movie, the novel really stood out on the table of featured books. So, amazing work to cover designer Doogie Horner and illustrator Hugh Fleming.

Now as for the content…

My Best Friend’s Exorcism reads like a novelization of a horror film from the mid-nineties. It was reminiscent of The Craft, a film about teenage girls dabbling in witchcraft. And I honestly can’t tell if I like it, the book, or not. I was entertained, for sure, but beyond that–

I only remember parts of the book after putting it down. I remember not finding the characters very likeable. I remember the strange exorcist and the even stranger exorcism. I remember the things Gretchen had done to their so-called friends… I remember parts that stood out, but the book as a whole felt like a retread of things that have already been done. Things I have already read or seen. And, obviously, that’s not good.

I liked how the book tried to explore the sensibilities of the eighties, and how universal denial and blame is. I liked how the main character wasn’t confined by the perceived limitations of her gender, that she kept attempting to solve her problems. And I liked the glimpse of megalomania in the exorcist–which I felt could’ve been explored more–

But I didn’t feel like the book did enough for these things I liked. Just when I thought the book was going somewhere interesting, it would hold back. It would go back to being a b-movie novelization.

Or maybe I kept hoping for it to become something that it wasn’t. Maybe it really wasn’t more than just a story about best friends dealing with the demonic possession of the other. I guess I should just be thankful that the book was entertaining. Because I don’t regret buying the book, and I don’t regret the time I spent reading it.

I just wish it were more.