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: 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: Crash

"Crash"

Life’s too short to slow down, and no one knows this better than the young, the rich, and the screwed up.

In ‘The Faster They go…,’ the kids of The M of A and the P face the biggest, most dramatic situation their pretty heads and shiny hair have to fave ever: they are NOT invited to the biggest open party of the season! That sucks, really, especially if you already planned on who you’re wearing, right? Shit.

In ‘The Harder They Crash,’ things take a turn for the worse as they realize that surviving through the school year means dealing with the biggest threat they have to face: each other. With hearts racing, and hormones raging, there’s no stopping now.

Two exciting stories, one not quite unreal sequel. Brace yourself. You’re in for a ride.

I’m confused. It hasn’t been that long since I put down the first book in Siege Malvar’s Not Quite Unreal series, but I seem to have lost all grasp of what’s going on. Is it because the book doesn’t immediately pick up from the events of the first novel? Maybe.

What I do know is this: the writing is tighter, and characters are given space to breathe, even at the expense of diminished ‘screen time’ for others. Good things. Unfortunately, this also highlights the book’s weakness: its lack of focus.

Roles, the first novel off the Not Quite Unreal series, made the collective cast its main character. While everyone had different goals and different story lines, it all connected to one thing: the role image plays in the lives of people. Crash, on the other hand, had no uniting theme.

We know who the characters are. We know their dreams. We know where they are going. But, like Glee in Season 4, the characters don’t seem to know who they are in relation to each other anymore. It’s one major weakness that makes Crash pale in comparison to its predecessor. Because, suddenly, instead of having one major character, we have a bunch of minor ones who are scrambling at the tiny scraps of pages they are given to work with.

Crash lives up to its title. Which isn’t necessarily a good thing. The stories crash. And clash. And I wonder if this is the book the author wanted to write. Because while the writing is cleaner, it also doesn’t feel like the Malvar we read in Roles and Wakasang Wasak: books written before and after Crash, respectively.

What happened?

The book cuts off at another cliffhanger, pretty much promising a third book in the series. But seeing as Crash was published five years ago, one has to wonder what’s taking Visprint so long to publish it. Have they dropped the title? Or is Malvar taking his time in writing the follow up?

Whatever the answer may be, I just hope Malvar brings back the magic of Roles that he lost in Crash: the sense of unity that made readers want to like this bunch of unlikeable rich kids.

Book: Will Grayson, Will Grayson

"Will Grayson, Will Grayson"

One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers cross paths. Two teens with the same name, running in two very different circles, suddenly find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, culminating in heroic turns-of-heart and the most epic musical ever to grace the high school stage.

I have to say, out of all the John Green novels I’ve read–this one is the best. Maybe it’s because he wrote it with someone else. But I think–I hope–he does take something from this exercise. I haven’t read his latest book yet, so I wouldn’t know. But Will Grayson, Will Grayson takes off so much from other Green novels because the author is forced to include three new characters that aren’t part of his hit formula.

In Will Grayson, Will Grayson, we get two characters with the same name but are from the different sides of the personality spectrum. The funny thing is, the two are essentially the same–except, they dealt with their fears and insecurities differently. One unconsciously became a shadow of a much bigger personality, while the other rejected all offers of connection.

David Leviathan’s Will Grayson is the latter. And he’s the more interesting character, in my opinion, because he’s filled with so much self-hatred that it pours of him–and it affects his relationship with everyone. And he tries so hard not to care, but he can’t help but do. Especially when it comes to his mother. Whereas John Green’s Will Grayson is of the stereotype the author has created for all his heroes. A little quirky, unpopular, friends with someone big (this time, literally and figuratively), and hopelessly in love with a girl too cool for him. Forced to face each other, the two Will Graysons bring out something different.

And that’s when the book became interesting.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson, unlike other John Green novels isn’t just about coming of age. While it is that, it focuses more on the importance of connection. How other people affect us, and how we (in turn) affect them.

What I like about it the most is it’s a young adult novel that doesn’t celebrate standing out. Because, really, not everyone can stand out. What makes any one of us special, if all of us are special? This book talks about how, no matter how different you might be, you have someone you’re the same with. Whether by interest, by love, by family–or, by name. And yet, at the same time, the things that make us common are the things that make us who we are. It’s the things that shape who we become.

And in the era of the me generation, a story about people who help someone else stand out, is the one that stands out the most.

From the books I’ve read this year, Will Grayson, Will Grayson is a clear front runner for being a favorite.

But what do other people think?
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Movie: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

"The Perks of Being a Wallflower"

Based on the best-selling novel by Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a modern classic that captures the dizzying highs and crushing lows of growing up. Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a moving tale of love, loss, fear and hope-and the unforgettable friends that help us through life.

No expectations. That’s very important when watching movies adapted from books. But I’m not always successful with, even, lowering expectations. Especially with books I really liked. And I failed once again while watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But you know? It didn’t matter.

Adaptations have a tendency to cram everything loved from a book into the film version. This movie doesn’t do that. Maybe it’s because the person who wrote and directed the movie was also the person who wrote the book. He knew what needed to be in the film. And he knew what it could do without.

Whatever reservations I had for the book didn’t materialize while watching the film adaptation. Unlike the novel, the movie didn’t feel like it was just another coming-of-age film. From the moment it opens, you could feel its identity.

And that’s another thing I liked about the book that I forgot to mention. While it felt run-of-the-mill at first, it quickly established its own identity.

Which then translated really well on screen.

Again, maybe it’s because it’s not a direct adaptation. Maybe it’s because the author was also the creative mind and hand behind the movie.

At the end of the day though, it doesn’t matter what may be the reason. What’s important is that the movie works.

I’m not a fan of Logan Lerman. Mostly because I didn’t really like the film adaptation of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and he’s front and center in that film. But in The Perks of Being a Wallflower though, Lerman plays a great lead.

I was afraid that Charlie’s problem of being too emotional would look weird once it’s off the pages. But Lerman plays the role with a quiet intensity that the crying does feel very natural. It’s not cinematic at all.

And the innocence he carries with him is so palpable that you really do believe that Charlie, even with his good looks, can be an outcast in their school.

The only problem I had with his acting was when he was kissing Emma Watson. Jealousy at him being able to kiss Emma Watson aside, he has a tendency to drop the innocence of Charlie whenever he kisses his leading lady. Or even the girl who plays his girlfriend. Thing is, if it had been just Sam (Emma Watson’s character) who he kisses without innocence, I think I would’ve let it go. It fits with the character anyway. But it’s not a one-off thing. And it really doesn’t fit the character he builds throughout the movie.

Emma Watson and Ezra Miller also shine in the movie. But I feel that, because the movie had to focus more on Charlie’s life, their characterization and arcs had to be sacrificed. Which, I feel, shafted the actors who were brilliant. But, for the sake of the movie, it was a wise decision. The film was much more focused than the book because of it.

The one actress who really does get shafted is Nina Dobrev. Her character is the one I really rooted for, while reading the book. She was the one who really had to go through sufferings to learn and become a better person. Which, seeing as the movie narrowed its focus on just Charlie, had to be cut out. And I understand. The movie is all the better for it.

But I still can’t help but feel sad that it had to be cut out.

What didn’t get cut out though, and which I really enjoyed, was The Rocky Horror Picture Show sequences. In the book, it had a much bigger significance, as it symbolized Charlie’s growing emotions. I’m not sure what it added to the movie though, aside from the eye-candy. And seeing people’s surprised reaction at the shot of Susan Sarandon singing “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me.”

Overall, I say the film is perfect. Even more so than the book. And this is the first time I’m saying this since The Lord of the Rings got translated into the big screen.

And it doesn’t matter if you’ve read the book or not. The movie doesn’t disappoint. I urge you to watch it.

Book: Can True Love Survive High School?

"Can True Love Survive High School?" by Natalie StandifordHolly, Madison, and Lina are looking for true love. But how can you tell when it’s real? What is true love anyway?

For the answers, open this book and read on…because Holly, Madison, and Lina are about to run smack into the truth about love!

So I picked this up from a book sale to do some light research on what teens these days like to read about. Wrong move. For one thing, I forgot to check the publication date: 2005. It’s already six years later, so I’m sure kids nowadays are way past the stories presented in this book. Though, I must admit, I did learn a few things from reading the book. Number one being: anyone can get published–so long as you know to ride the popularity wave.

No, I’m not saying the book was horrible. It was better than Twilight, at the very least. But it does read a bit like a very PG-rated version of Gossip Girl. Then again, this is the third book from the series. And I have no prior knowledge of what happened in the books before–and the books after. To be clear, I’m basing my reactions off just this one book.

Can True Love Survive High School? has three stories running alongside each other: an epic romance, an unrequited love, and jealousy. All of them were half-baked, and only the latter two actually tried to co-exist together. It’s not like the author didn’t know how to write–it was more like she was too lazy to actually flesh out the characters and their stories.

Let’s start with the epic romance. Our protagonist in this story, Holly, is not part of the romance at all. She’s a bystander. Between a geek girl who does an emotional 180 degrees at the start of the book, from not wanting to have a boyfriend to almost eloping with a boy she barely nows. Instead of focusing on the dangers of falling in love so deeply, with a stranger no less, we are treated to Holly’s pining of having an epic romance of her own–of her living vicariously through Britta. Instead of taking on the ramifications of such sweeping love, or seeing the actual love blossoming, it’s mostly Holly’s thoughts on Britta’s romance that we get treated to. Half the time, I was expecting Holly to find out that Ed, the guy Britta falls in love with, is actually a scammer after her parents’ money. Now that would’ve been a more interesting story.

For the unrequited love, we have Lina who is in love with her teacher Dan–but not as in love with him as Britta is with Ed. No, she’s just in love with him enough to pretend to be a twenty-something woman living in India who corresponds with Dan through e-mails. She has a perfectly good-looking boy who is obviously in love with her, doing everything he can for her to notice him, but she would rather hatch a plan on how to make said teacher fall in love with her. And what’s the plan? Go to the teacher’s house for a dinner party, hide in his bedroom after the even–and casually appear to offer her help in cleaning up after everyone. How romantic, right? Of course the plan gets shifted later on, during the actual party, to involve some kissing. From a teacher who is obviously straight-laced and is obviously not interested. Right.

And last but not the least, we have jealousy. Madison has a boyfriend. But that’s not stopping her from liking a swimmer from school. Who has a girlfriend. Who is promiscuous. And Madison’s plan is to tell the swimmer how promiscuous his girlfriend is, in hopes that he would cry on her shoulder–and ask her to be his girlfriend instead. Did I mention that Madison has a boyfriend? A boyfriend that another character describes as “sexy”? Oh, and later in the book, Madison kisses a guy who isn’t her boyfriend nor the swimmer. And she liked it. And she said that she wasn’t going to tell her boyfriend. Okay.

So, no. I did not like this book at all. I thought the characters were too self-centered, and I’ve already pointed out the things I didn’t like about the stories. And the fact that they’re half-baked. And I am actually regretting my decision to buy this. If only I could turn back time… But I can’t. So instead, I’ll just leave a warning for everyone: beware of the book, and read at your own risk.

Now I’m going to go and read something else–so I could get this book off my head.

Book: Breathing Underwater

"Breathing Underwater" by Alex FlinnTo his friends, popular and handsome sixteen-year-old Nick Andreas has led a charmed life. But the guys in Nick’s anger management class know differently. So does his ex-girlfriend Caitlin. Now it looks like the only person who doesn’t realize just how far from perfect Nick’s life has become is Nick himself.

I admit it. The main reason my interest was piqued by Breating Underwater was because it was written by Alex Flinn. Whose works I’ve seen so far have been retellings of fairy tales. So when a book of hers popped up that was not based on any fairy tale, I was hooked. It also helped that the blurb in the back cover was short and to the point–while being interesting enough that you’d want to see how the story unfolds.

Now, the book was a breeze to read. Alex Flinn clearly has a good hold on storytelling, as she weaves the story of our protagonist Nick Andreas. Except, while telling the story, our protagonist doesn’t seem very heroic at all. He’s not even anti-heroic. He doesn’t possess any qualities that would make a regular reader root for him. In fact, I found myself being annoyed at Nick’s apparent disregard for the obvious most of the time. But the thing is, and this is just my opinion, this annoyance to Nick’s denial/delusions is the perfect companion to how the story unfolds.

To understand Nick, we have to get to know him. So let’s start with a backgrounder: Nick is a popular guy in school. That is, until a certain altercation between him and his girlfriend sent him to court–and saddled him with a restraining order. According to everyone, Nick has a temper and hits girls. But Nick denies these allegations. When he gets sent to an anger management class, Nick is forced to write a journal about his relationship with his now ex-girlfriend, and the event that sent them to fight each other in court.

And it is near the beginning of the story where we get two separate points-of-view of what happened–from the same person. As Nick tells the story in real-time, we are told that he is innocent. That he loves Caitlin dearly. And that he is only going to the anger management classes to do everything in his power to win her back. But when he starts writing about his relationship with Caitlin on his journal, Nick tells a different version of the events. A version in which the allegations against him seem to be true. And yet, Nick can’t seem to marry the two perspectives together.

Alex Flinn has done a great job at dealing with the issue of anger management with the juxtaposition of the events as Nick sees it–and as he remembers it. But what, I think, made the whole thing work was the fact that Nick absolutely refuses to accept his actions as wrong–until he was put in the position where he had to bear witness to the actions he was guilty of. My only concern with regards to this is that Nick’s turnaround seemed instantaneous. Of course, days, weeks and months pass in between events. But because the author chose not to mention the passage of time beyond the date that starts each chapter, it does seem disconcerting that Nick would go from being a jerk to being a self-aware jerk in between two chapters. I had to do a double take on the dates to see that Nick does seem to have processed his wrongdoings and is sincerely trying to correct it.

More than the story of Nick’s anger management issue though, is the underlying story about friendship. About how much is too much when sharing secrets. And about the question of a friendship’s validity–when you don’t trust them enough with your secrets.

Breathing Underwater is a great work of fiction. It’s also a great conversation piece between friends–and even between students and their counselors. I loved how Alex Flinn gave character to the adults in the story: none of them are plain paragons or villains; all of them have different facets–and all of them are flawed.

Would I recommend Breathing Underwater to other people? Yes. But let’s see what other people have to say about the book:
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