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.

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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: One Crazy Summer

"One Crazy Summer"

A Recipe for Disaster?

Ingredients:
1 college junior, fired from summer internship
1 secret crush, the cute and flirty type
1 crush’s best bud, with a secret of his own

1. In a large bowl, mix together college junior and secret crush.
2. Gradually add in crush’s best bud.
3. Stir until best bud’s secret is revealed.
4. Let mixture rest in a sleepy provincial town.
5. Bake under the blazing summer sun until golden brown (be careful, batter might burn).

Tania’s summer is more than she can handle! Her cooking career comes to a screeching halt before it can even take off. Then, best friends Rob and Mateo enter the picture. Can she figure out her feelings for them, AND get the internship credits she needs to make it to senior year?

More than two years ago, I wrote about Ines Bautista Yao’s Only a Kiss; a book I called well-written–but not very engaging because the characters were too perfect. Well, I found a book of hers that was much older, and…

Tania is definitely more relatable than the characters from Yao’s other book. She’s the right mix of spunky and vulnerable, and she makes mistakes and learn from them. Secret Crush Rob and Best Friend Bobbi, who isn’t mentioned in the blurb, are also great characters–and are in clear supporting roles from the get go, which makes it weird that Rob is played up as a third party option in the synopsis. The only character I’m not feeling in this book is Best Bud Mateo, who feels like he belongs in Only A Kiss–because he’s too perfect. That is… until he’s not.

Like Only A Kiss, One Crazy Summer is technically well-written. Structure-wise, there’s a clear progression of where the plot is going and what the characters are feeling. But I found it really hard to engage with the book.

I think it’s maybe because Tania is pining over some other guy when a love story is unfolding in front of her? Or maybe it’s because there’s really no conflict in the story, especially when Tania starts to fall for Mateo? And then, suddenly, because things are already working out, we get a plot twist from Mateo. A twist that was, to be fair, already seeded in the narrative. It’s just… Felt forced. Like Yao realized she needed a last minute conflict so that the book could have a grand romantic gesture afterwards.

I didn’t like it. I felt like Yao could’ve used a different conflict to make the grand gesture necessary. Or, she could have used the love triangle the synopsis teased to give this book actual drama. Because, as it is, One Crazy Summer is just the story of a girl falling in love with a guy who she was forced to spend time with.

Writing it like that, a better conflict would be for Tania to realize that Mateo orchestrated things to make her fall in love with him. (He did not. Let’s make that clear.) Although if he had, I wouldn’t have wanted for Tania to end up with him. But that would have made a more engrossing conflict than the one we got.

Overall, is this a book I would recommend? Probably not for those who aren’t already fans of romance. But if you’re a romance reader, then maybe this book could be an exercise in improving a good material to something more grabbing.

Book: Marceline Cinco’s High School Survival Guide

"Marceline Cinco's High School Survival Guide"

It’s been a while since I had to write my own synopsis for a book, but here goes–

Marceline Cinco’s High School Survival Guide is about the titular protagonist falling in love with the newly transferred Declan Mendoza. Pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. She then tells her best friend that she doesn’t have feelings for Declan, before using an alternate social media account to befriend him and stalk him. What follows is a series of events that could have been prevented had Marceline been truthful from the get go. But, of course, where’s the romance in just being honest?

As you can see from that synopsis, I am not a fan of this book. And it’s a shame. Because, honestly, I thought the idea of a young adult lost-in-translation romance is a great premise. But the writer keep choosing the lazy way of pushing the story forward. Throughout the book, you can see the author pushing plots forward instead of letting it find its way.

It doesn’t help that main character Marceline Cinco is not likeable at all. Which is a feat, considering she has all the ingredients of a relatable character. She’s not well off financially, she has family drama, she has insecurities, and she feels inferior to her best friend. But instead of rooting for her, I found myself getting annoyed at how she goes about living her life.

She takes her best friend, who helps her financially, for granted. She’s more antagonistic than her never-do-well guardian. The wit she masks her insecurities with is more mean and more calculating than the story’s supposed antagonists–forcing the writer to make the antagonists above-and-beyond cruel for the reader to root for the protagonist.

And then there’s perfect Declan Mendoza who, even at his lowest point, is a Prince Charming. It’s… irritating. One, because he doesn’t feel like a real character. And two, because you don’t want him to end up with your heroine, because you know she’s just going to muck up their relationship anyway.

But most annoying about this book is that, when you reach the midway point, the only thing barring Marceline from her happy ending is the fact that she used a fake online persona to get to know the guy she likes. Now, had there been a deep secret exchanged between her fake persona and the love interest that could ruin relationships, I can understand why the revelation would be damning. But there was nothing said between them that could break off a non-existent romance!

It was much ado about nothing.

Really, the only positive thing I can say about this book is the fact that it has a nice cover. And the premise is sound, even though it didn’t realize its full potential.

Book: Si Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu’t Pitong Pusong

"Si Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu't Pitong Pusong"

Bago naglaho si Janus habang naglalaro ng TALA, nakita ni Manong Joey sa utak nito ang hinahanap nilang paraluman.

Sinundo ni Renzo si Mica sa Balanga para protektahan ito sa Angono at dahil may kaugnayan ito sa paralumang nakita ni Manong Joey kay Janus.

Samantala, nasa Kalibutan pa rin sina Manong Isyo para hanapin si Mira na malamang na nakuha ng mga mambabarang. Walang kaalam-alam ang lahat kung nasaan na si Janus hanggang sa makita ni Manong Joey na humihiwalay ang anino ni Renzo sa katawan nito at maaaring matagal na pala itong ginagamit ng Tiyanak!

Two years have passed since the second book off the Janus Silang series was released. Since then, the titular character has appeared in comics form, on stage, and was acquired by a television network to be turned into a soap opera. I don’t know what happens to Janus Silang in the future, but getting turned into a franchise seems to have worked in his favor. At least, novel-wise.

Janus Silang’s third book is the strongest offering from the series yet. Although I have qualms about author Edgar Samar’s decision to dive right into the action, I must say that the pacing in this installment is the most solid it’s been since the title first launched.

The characters all get proper development this time around–especially Mica. She who became almost an afterthought in the second book is given the right spotlight, and is used perfectly to balance the world of the fantastical with the normal. I also have to applaud Samar for Mica’s participation in this book, setting her arc up perfectly–and giving her a satisfying resolution. Well, a satisfying one for this book.

Plot-wise, Pitumpu’t Pitong Pusong has what it’s predecessors don’t: a clear structure of where the characters have come from, where they are going, and where they end up. Twists are used sparingly, making them more effective. And it is clear now that Samar knows where he is taking his story, whereas it seemed like he was just pulling things out of thin air before.

And most importantly, for me, the book doesn’t read like an educational book anymore. Old Tagalog words are still sprinkled throughout the narrative–but they feel more organically woven in, used by characters who understandably speak in a more archaic way. But in general, the words used by the novel are more colloquial. More relatable. Easier to read.

Honestly, when I picked up Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu’t Putong Pusong, it felt like a burden. I bought the book because I wanted to know how the story goes. After all, I do like the premise of the series. But after two books that weren’t as engrossing as I hoped it would be, I sort of lost hope that things would get better with the new book.

I’m glad that I was wrong.

Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu’t Pitong Pusong is the book that I always wanted the series to be. And I am praying that the next installments would keep this quality.

Book: Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon (Graphic Novel)

"Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon (Graphic Novel)"

Akala ni Janus, pangkaraniwang laro lang ang TALA Online.

Sunod-sunod ang pagbabago sa buhay niya matapos ang kahindik-hindik na pangyayari sa RPG tournament na sinalihan niya.

Pero nang matuklasan niya ang tunay na kaugnayan ng larong ito sa alamat ng Tiyanak ng Tabon, wala na siyang magawa kundi ipagpatuloy ang paglalaro!

[English Translation: Janus thought TALA Online was just an ordinary game. But after the horrifying events of an RPG tournament he joined, his life was never the same again. Now privy to the truth behind the game and its connection to the Demon Spawn of Tabon, he has no choice but to continue playing!]

That’s not a perfect translation, but neither is Janus Silang’s first foray into the world of comics.

On the plus side, the graphic novel iteration of Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon does cut out a lot of unnecessary exposition, and the really lengthy first act of the novel isn’t dragged out in comics form. On the not so good side? This version also cuts out a lot of the stuff from the source material that I feel were important.

Let’s be clear, I have no idea what went on behind the scenes to produce this comic book. I don’t know what decisions were made, and why they thought it was a good idea to condense a very exposition-heavy book into one very short graphic novel. So I’m judging this based solely on what I have in hand… Which is a really bad interpretation of the first Janus Silang novel.

I mean, just look at the inconsistency of the art. You have the wonderfully detailed world of TALA Online–and then you have the very bland pages of Janus’s life. I get symbolism, I do. But when things in Janus’s life started becoming crazy, shouldn’t that reflect as well on the art?

Never mind the fact that Janus doesn’t look like a teenager. Nor the fact that all the children look the same. (Heck, aside from a select few, almost all the characters look the same as well.) The biggest problem of the book is this:

It’s not friendly to those who are not familiar to the Janus Silang novels. None of the characters feel real. Your main protagonist lost all personality and doesn’t even develop. And the exposition suddenly cuts out and you’re supposed to glean information from art that, let’s be honest, doesn’t really convey its message very well. Had I not read the original material, I would have been lost as to what was happening, who were the good guys, and why the protagonist was so easy to persuade about things.

I feel like Anino Comics and Adarna House dropped the ball on this one. They shouldn’t have hurried this release because the source novel isn’t even old yet. They shouldn’t have limited the entirety of the first novel in just one comic book. And given the chance to reach a new audience with a different medium, they should have adapted the story to fit the new form of the story.

Is it too late to ask Adarna House to take back this graphic novel version and have them redo it? Properly, this time?

Book: Cover Story Girl

"Cover Story Girl"

1. She has amnesia.
2. She’s on the run from her father’s creditors.
3. She’s enjoying her last days on earth.

Ever since Jang Min Hee walked into Gio’s small museum, she’s given him one excuse after another about why she’s vacationing at scenic Boracay Island. Rarely has Gio’s neat and organized world been shaken like this. Soon he finds himself scrambling over rocks, hiding in dressing rooms, and dragging her out of bars. But how can Gio tell what’s true from what isn’t? Their worlds are getting unraveled–one story at a time.

I guess I unintentionally saved the best off the three widely-released romance class novels for last, and I have to give kudos to Chris Mariano for deciding to go with a male main character, and not an ideal one at that. Which is a breath of fresh air because, let’s face the facts, male love interests in romance novels usually fall under two types: the ideal man, or the bad boy who was secretly the ideal man all along.

Our main hero Gio is neither a bad boy, or the ideal man. He was just a guy trying to get by in his life, until Jang Min Hee arrives to add color to his humdrum life. It’s very much a Korean love story with a male character that acts distinctly Filipino.

What I liked about the novel best though isn’t the point-of-view. It’s the pacing. Chris Mariano has a good handle on how a love story should realistically unfold, without the dragging bits. She knows when to jump ahead in time, and when to expound on details. And the best part? It’s structurally sound.

I don’t think it’s a secret that even when I enjoy a story, I still find parts that I would want to do better had I been given a go at it. But this time, Cover Story Girl is great as it is.

Sure, there were still a few parts that made me pause to question if the character would really do something they had done, but they were few and they can be brushed under the all-encompassing rug of “love makes you do strange things.” And, in some instances, they can be attributed to the growth of the character as a person.

So in conclusion?

Cover Story Girl is as close to perfect as we can get in a local romance novel, and I would readily recommend it to other readers. I also look forward to reading whatever Chris Mariano writes next.