Book: Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat

"Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat"

A world that’s full of mystery and wonder. This is the world of Andong Agimat.

Yeah, the book synopsis doesn’t really give much away–but then again, Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a graphic novel. If it had a normal synopsis, it might have given the whole story away.

Yes, that’s a dig on how very short Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is (and most other local graphic novels).

The thing about Arnold Arre is that he is a master at creating these fascinating worlds based on what we know and on what is real, mixing the two to produce something that’s familiar yet new, shockingly present yet timeless. It was apparent in Mythology Class and in Trip to Tagaytay, but it’s on a completely different level here in Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat.

For something that was produced in 2006, this book still holds up really well. I credit this to the fact that Arnold Arre’s works are always grounded on human emotions. The new edition’s foreword has a lot to say about the author being unsatisfied, and how that underlines the story that the book is telling. But I would beg to differ. I think Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is all about fear: The fear of power. The fear of loss. The fear of excelling. The fear of being ordinary.

The fear of the inability to change.

Our main character, Ando, has a very checkered past; one that he’s trying to atone for, and feels that he will never leave behind. His past is what pushes him to be a hero–but it’s also what haunts his every moment, waking or otherwise.

Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a study on that fear–of never being more than what one has already become. Even after all the heroics, Ando never feels he is worthy to be a hero. So he doesn’t try to be one. That is, until he’s forced to.

This is where my complaint comes in. Arnold Arre creates this world with a very rich mythology: you have people yearning to be special, and being given the opportunity to do so at the risk of losing their innocence; you have an epic romance that spans lifetimes–and one that is more recent and more hurting; you have villains that have layers upon layers… And we get one rescue story out of this very rich world that the author created.

I don’t know if it’s the soap opera writer in me talking, but I felt cheated off the possible growth and development the characters could’ve had. I felt like the layers he gave the villains could have been explored more, while going into the backgrounds and drive of the protagonists at the same time.

I felt unsatisfied, to borrow a word from the book’s foreword. And it’s not something I want to feel after reading an exceptionally good book. Because Ang Mundo ni Andong Agimat is a very good book–

It’s just also frustratingly short. It ends as quickly as it begins, leaving you wanting for more. And you will want more. So I guess that means I will only recommend this book to people who like getting hurt by their favorite books. Because this book will hurt you. And it will also quickly become a favorite. So if you’re a fan of being left wanting, then pick this book up. If you’re not… you might still want to pick the book up, and then join me in trying to find a way to get Arnold Arre to revisit this world 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: BGMBYN Act 1


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.

Book: All That Darkness Allows

"All That Darkness Allows"

The moon takes on an ominous form, threatening mankind as it hangs from the heavens. A woman must confront her past and accept her fate when her dying best friend asks her to inherit an ancient power she might not be ready to handle. An LRT skip train sends passengers to an alternate dimension, where Manila is ridden with strange creatures hungry for flesh. A troubled little girl tiptoes around her stern mother after gaining a creepy new playmate. A mysterious, all-knowing entity manipulates the concept of time, sending a pair of friends on a decent into madness. A young ink aficionado unravels after getting a tattoo, possessed by an unknown force that threatens the very fabric of her being.

All these stories and more are part of All That Darkness Allows–a modern horror anthology containing 13 works of speculative fiction from today’s brightest young literary voices and the country’s most prolific authors in the genre. Written in blood and penned in the shadows, these are fearsome tales of terror and grief, sick humor and sheer evil, and how the macabre and the mundane can coalesce and coexist, allowing darkness to eventually take over.

Like with most anthologies, readers will not find all the stories in this collection likeable. Horror and personal taste are subjective after all. But I am happy to say that, unlike the last horror anthology I wrote about here, I did find way more stories to like this time around.

It helps that a lot of the stories shared in All That Darkness Allows have a reason for being; they were not written for jump scares of cheap thrills– You can see the authors testing the boundaries of what horror can be, and if what constitutes as scary before can still be considered as fearsome in our current day and age. Some of the stories will not put you at the edge of your seat, but it will give you a different kind of fear–of relating to what’s happening, of making you confront the possibility of what your actions might be, if the story was happening around you. It’s ambitious. And for the most part, the stories’ ambitions are achieved… which only serves to highlight the ordinary ones more.

I love that this anthology feels curated, like the editor picked the authors he knew would deliver the stories he wanted told. And I love that there’s an attempt to support the stories visually through photographs… I just wish they didn’t feel repetitive.

I love that All That Darkness Allows doesn’t talk up its stories too much, saying just enough in the back synopsis to draw readers in–but not overextending itself to make readers think the book is scarier than it actually is.

I love how the stories don’t dumb down its readers; there are no overly long expositions, no messy explanations, and no long-winding and unnecessary descriptions or paragraphs. All the stories are straight to the point, yet maintains its tone of foreboding feel. Although, to be honest, one story could use a little more tightening–but this could be written off as personal preference.

There are plenty to love about this anthology, and they definitely outweigh any less than positive feelings I may have about the book. This is the kind of book we need more of, situated around the many, many works that were taken from Wattpad, so that when our new readers want to delve into something more mature than the stories they’re used to, books like this can show them that the Filipino book industry is alive and diverse.

Book: Deadma Walking

"Deadma Walking"

John and Mark are gay beshies for life whose friendship is put to the test when one of them has a terminal illness and asks the other to help him stage his fake death, wake, and funeral as his dying wish. The result is a comedy of ‘deadly’ proportions.

There aren’t a lot of instances when one would say that the movie adaptation is better than the book it originated from. But this is definitely one of those instances.

Deadma Walking was one of the more entertaining films during the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival–which is why, when my friend A Messy Desk gave me a copy of the published screenplay that film was based of, I immediately started reading it…and started applauding the changes made to the material to make it more palatable to viewers.

It’s not that the original material was bad… It’s just very heavy-handed. And it misses a lot of opportunities at the same time. That said, the final film version also manages to miss the same opportunities–but the actors really do a lot to save the screenplay’s less-than-stellar parts.

But this isn’t supposed to be a comparison. I’m writing about the version that was published–which is different from the one people got to see on screen, and is also different from the one that won an award.

Deadma Walking, the published screenplay, is a work in progress. The emotional meat of the story is there, and the characters of John and Mark are funny enough that you’ll be able to latch on to their crazy antics. But most of the time, it felt like reading a person’s inner thoughts without filters. It rambles. On and on. And there are a lot of plot developments that need to happen earlier, but don’t.

It’s a good screenplay, to be completely fair. It’s just doesn’t feel like a final draft. Just one that needed to exist because an editor was probably breathing down the writer’s neck, to get him to cough up a version before a printer’s deadline.

Final verdict? If you’re going to read this book, make sure to lower your expectations.

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: 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.