Book: Corpse in the Mirror

"Corpse in the Mirror"

Remember Voices in the Theater, and how I didn’t like the book? Well… I read the second book. Why would I do that, you ask? Well, because I made the stupid mistake of buying the second book before I bought the first one. Like I did with the Twilight saga. So instead of letting the book go to waste, I decided to give A.S. Santos’s trilogy another try.

Samantha Davidson’s powers have been growing. Now, not only can she hear other people’s thoughts, but she can also sometimes see things through others’ eyes. They aren’t much—momentary glimpses, really—but these are dark things. Twisted things. Things she can’t bear to watch. But since she is the only one who can see them as they happen, she may be the only one who can prevent them from happening again.

Putting the book down, the first thing I thought was–this book is more cohesive than the first one was: from the way the story was structured, to the novel uses its characters, all the way to how it handles religion. That said, I still feel like it suffers the same crisis of faith as its predecessor.

But let’s start with the good things.

Although we don’t learn more about our main protagonist in Corpse in the Mirror, we do see a development in her relationships with the other characters–from her family, to the other members of the organization she’s with, and the guys she’s being paired with. One of the most noticeable differences in the two books is that Samantha is no longer left alone for stretches of time. She’s always interacting with someone, and that helps readers know more about who Samantha is without having to write paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition.

There’s also less spotlight on characters who don’t actually do anything to propel the story forward. The first book had a few characters introduced who ended up not really contributing anything to propel the story forward, and it was really frustrating thinking about how we wasted pages on getting to know them, only for them to not really matter at all. This book has streamlined the characters to just the essential; and though we do get to meet new people, it never feels like they’re taking up valuable time away from the main players.

The romantic subplot and dilemma doesn’t feel forced. Although one of my biggest problems with the first book is carried over, in that our protagonist Samantha is inexplicably besotted with an angel, the conflict we actually get in this book doesn’t really stem from said angel. Author A.S. Santos actually offers two viable options for Samantha to agonize over, and you can understand why she can fall in love with either one.

And the best part about said subplot? It actually supports the main storyline of Samantha seeing a corpse in a mirror, and doesn’t take away from the actual problems that the protagonist is facing.

Corpse in the Mirror actually makes me want to read the book that follows it. Which I will. But before I do, I want to talk about my number one problem with A.S. Santos’s trilogy.

Religion.

I am not a religious person. And I love that Samantha is agnostic. It opens her character up to readers who aren’t of the Catholic persuasion. And I also love that Author Santos actually posits the problematic relationship of the paranormal with religion through our main character and several peripheral characters in the book. The problem is being addressed. But that doesn’t mean the problem is actually being resolved.

Because at the end of it all, we know we’re never really going to be able to separate faith, superstition, and the supernatural. Especially here in the Philippines. So I feel like being upfront about Samantha’s lack of religion is something the author can look into in future printings of the book. Lean into the fact that Samantha isn’t just dealing with the paranormal for the first time, in a foreign land. But that she’s also doing so with no religious affiliations, and that it’s one of the things the book tackles.

As it is, I think one of the reasons why I was able to appreciate Corpse in the Mirror more than the first book in A.S. Santos’s trilogy is because I am fully aware of the religious leanings of the story now.

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Book: Don’t Tell My Mother

"Don't Tell My Mother"

With an overly zealous mother as her guide, 19-year-old Sam has never had problems navigating through Christian suburbia before. But all that changes when she befriends and becomes intrigued with Clara, her widowed neighbor and the village’s social outcast. When their friendship grows into the “unnatural,” Sam is forced to examine her upbringing and come to terms with who she really is.

Don’t tell the author, but I’m not completely in love with this book. I mean, it starts out well enough. Brigitte Bautista’s words have a nice melody that makes reading Don’t Tell My Mother a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even notice that I was almost finished with the book until I got to the last few chapters.

So why don’t I love it? Because of the ending. Or the possibility that the ending promises. It’s pretty open-ended, yes, but it’s leaning heavily into the happily-ever-after that I feel doesn’t fit well with the narrative we were given.

Don’t get me wrong: I do want the characters of Sam and Clara to have happy endings. It’s just… Nothing in the book made me feel like they belonged together in the end. I felt like they were each other’s stepping stones to somewhere greater. Somewhere braver. But not somewhere together. It felt off.

Now, if you tell me that author Bautista has a sequel in the works where we see that the characters are still working their issues out, or where we see their relationship further develop, then I might change my mind about this book and just say that I love it and would recommend it to anyone–

But right now I’m treating Don’t Tell My Mother as a stand-alone romance novel. And that’s why, right now, I’m saying it’s a story that could have used a little bit more development. Or maybe a dozen more chapters to work on the relationships of the main character, and the plot, and the conflict… and the resolution.

All that said, I reiterate the fact that Bautista does have a gift with words. Having read a few LGBTQ novels now, I feel like she’s the first to have been able to convey the confusion of her main character well enough to make it palpable. And although Sam’s background isn’t very rare, Bautista does a great job at making it unique and interesting.

Unique and interesting doesn’t mask the fact that a relationship isn’t completely developed though. It’s not enough that the characters are. For readers to root for a couple, you need to make sure the readers understand what they are to each other, what they bring in each other’s life. And the promise of what could be is never enough.

Unless I completely missed the mark with this novel. I read it as a romance novel, as advertised; so if it’s about Sam’s journey of self-discovery and self-love, then… Nah. The ending we got would read even worse for me.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see myself recommending Don’t Tell My Mother to anyone.

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.

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: 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.