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: Kiss Me in New York

"Kiss Me in New York"

No one wants to be stuck at the airport during a blizzard on Christmas Eve. For Charlotte and Anthony, it’s a disaster.

She’s heading home to England after a horrible breakup ended the worst semester of her life. He’s just been dumped in the middle of JFK by the girlfriend he came to surprise.

On the spur of the moment, the two set out into the city together with a self-help book to guide them: Get Over Your Ex in Ten Easy Steps!

This romantic adventure is for anyone who sees the possibilities in a swirl of snowflakes at the top of the Empire State Building, and anyone who’s ever wondered if true love was waiting just at the other end of a ticket counter.

I bought this book impulsively because I was missing New York… and while I don’t regret reading it, I don’t know if I would’ve have bought it now that I know what’s inside. Not that it’s bad, it’s just…

Kiss Me in New York is a simple love story. Girl and boy meet. They get to know each other. They fall in love. And it all happens in a matter of hours. It’s a lot like Jennifer E. Smith’s The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, but while also being… less.

Now, judging technically, there’s really nothing wrong with the book. Our two characters, Catherine and Anthony, are not stereotypes. They are completely whole, and they have a lot of baggage between them. Plot-wise, there are no illogical jumps in how the characters feel, or react. They all actually feel very natural.

And in terms of romance? Kiss Me in New York has a healthy dose of, as the kids nowadays say, “feels.” You can feel a warm sensation whenever the book delivers a moment where the characters fall deeper for each other, even when neither one has realized it yet. The transition from strangers to friends to lovers is smooth.

Everything is too smooth.

Kiss Me in New York feels like a kid’s coloring book that was filled in by Michelangelo; like an expert has found extra time in their hands and wanted to showcase a work that was perfect–but doesn’t really give anything new. Or anything other than what was needed. And in a time where we have access to the whole world’s available literature, is now really the time to be giving just the basics?

On the whole, Kiss Me in New York is a book I would only recommend to people I don’t personally know. It’s inoffensive, it’s well-written… it’s safe.

That said, it did satiate my longing for New York. For the few hours I spent reading the book, it felt like I was there again.

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: 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.

Movie: Walang Forever

"Walang Forever"

Mia, a celebrated writer of romantic-comedy films, is at a turning point in her life which makes it difficult for her to believe that love could last. Everything comes to a head when Ethan returns, only for her to find out that he has become a cynic of lasting love because she broke his heart.

Walang Forever wears its heart on its sleeve, and that’s a good thing. Because out of the four movies I’ve seen this Metro Manila Film Festival season, this is the only one I actually enjoyed watching. One, because it didn’t try to be too clever for its own good. And two, because it didn’t capitalize on any popular love team. Story was king.

It also helped that Jennylyn Mercado is proving herself to be the romcom lead to beat.

I only have four gripes with the movie: the splicing together of scenes in the exposition-heavy beginning that could’ve done with a bit more cutting, the climactic confrontation between the two leads which I felt could’ve used some tweaking in dialogue, the too-vague planting of the main conflict and its reveal, and the acting decisions of the guy who played Aldus–

But, at the end of the day, I think the movie was well made. My gripes are just nit-pickings at things that I felt could have been improved more, but in no way detracts from one’s enjoyment of the movie. Walang Forever proves that Filipinos are just as capable at making romantic movies that tug at hearts and tear ducts both.

I also have to commend Kim Molina for her acting in this film. Out of the four films I’ve seen, she was most deserving to win the Best Supporting Actress Award– And I’ll leave it at that.

If you enjoyed English Only, Please last year– you’re bound to enjoy this one as well. So if you haven’t seen Walang Forever yet, do check the film out while it’s still in theaters. Support quality films!

Book: Vintage Love

"Vintage Love"

26-year-old Crissy Lopez’s life is in dire need of a makeover. Her wardrobe revolves around ratty shirts and beat-up sneaks; her grueling schedule as a TV Executive leaves no room for a social life; and worst of all, she’s hung up on the Evil Ex who left her five years ago.

When her fashionable grand-aunt passes away and leaves behind a roomful of vintage stuff, the Shy Stylista inside Crissy gradually resurfaces. Soon, she feels like she’s making progress–with a budding lovelife to boot! But the grim ghost of her past catches up with her, threatening to push her back into depression. To finally move on, Crissy learns that walking away is not enough. This time, she needs to take a leap of faith.

If you come to Vintage Love looking for romance, you’d best look elsewhere. The love story told within the pages of this book is paint-by-numbers, and the male characters we are given don’t ever feel like real people. That said, if you do decide not to pick this book up, it’ll be a loss. Because Vintage Love, I feel, is a great love story–about loving one’s self.

I’ve learned to manage my expectations when it comes to local romance novels. Especially since they seem to be restricted to a certain number of pages. You can’t make a love story epic in 147 pages. That’s just the number of pages it takes to fall in love, and to get swept by the romance of it all. By the 147th page, you’re only getting to the meat of a love story: the conflicts. Because unlike other works of fiction where you can get invested in the main character within the first chapter, while you’re building your world and your conflict, love stories have to hook you in first with why you want to root for a certain couple to stay together–

Vintage Love does hook readers quickly, but you don’t root for the love story. Within the first chapter, you want Crissy Lopez to succeed–not at finding love, but at finding herself. Because, unlike in Save the Cake where we are forced to endure the mystery of what happened in the main character’s past, Vintage Love drops you right in the middle of the main character’s passion: film-making. Agay Llanera presents us a strong, independent woman who clearly isn’t happy with her life, but is making everyone else think she is.

Taking out the romance aspect of the book, I’m impressed with Llanera’s structuring of the plot. She makes a different use of death as a plot point, and uses examples instead of dialogue of how close the character is to the dead. The anecdotes and the way the character talks about the dead is a great way of establishing their relatioship without having to do extensive character-building. And while this particular relationship already ended in the first chapter, it clearly defines what happens in the main character’s life going forward.

Now, if we put the romance aspect back into the book, I’m not as impressed with the structure. We don’t get to know the male lead as well as we do Crissy, and it affects my need to root for their relationship. Bottom line: I didn’t care if they get together in the end. This is mostly because, as I mentioned earlier, the male lead doesn’t feel real. He’s not the end goal. He’s a plot device to get our main character to her actual goal: choosing to make herself happy. So when the inevitable relationship conflict happens, near the end of the book, I didn’t really care if the male lead goes. He’s served his purpose.

I can go on and on about what can make Vintage Love work better as a romance novel, but there’s really no need, is there? It’s already a good book. Just as long as you’re not here for the romance.

Book: One More Chance

"One More Chance"

Is love enough to make a person feel fulfilled and happy?

Meet Popoy and Basha, two lovers who believe they are destined to be together forever. Practically inseparable, everyone around them knows there can be no Basha without the ever strict Popoy. Nor would Popoy exist without his damsel, Basha.

But when one of them realizes their feelings for each other can no longer make them feel content, they resolve to search for themselves outside of the safety of each other.

Will Popoy and Basha find happiness apart, or will they learn to give love One More Chance?

If I were to answer that question? I was happier when Popoy and Basha were apart. Much happier. To the point that I breezed through the parts of the book where they weren’t together, and I fell in love with the character of Basha: a woman who saw how important it was to find herself, to save herself from a destructive relationship… Who became a better person for it.

And that oft-quoted scene where Popoy said “she loved me at my worst. You had me at my best?” I’ve always thought it was an epic piece of dialogue that made you feel for the male lead. Now that I know the context of the scene? I wanted to punch Popoy in the face. Multiple times. And I don’t know if I would’ve felt the same way had I not read the book and watched the film instead.

The thing about novelizations is that no matter how close to the material a writer gets, you can’t help but add nuances and thought into the characters. I have never seen One More Chance as a film so I have no way to compare the two, but I do feel like Popoy got the short end of the stick in the novelization. Sure, we get an equal amount of time between the two characters and their motivations. But while Basha comes off as a sympathetic character, Popoy comes off as a douche most of the time.

Unless that’s how it was with the film too. I wouldn’t know. It’s just that… Throughout the book, I never thought Popoy deserved Basha. Which is why I really appreciated the fact that they weren’t forced to live happily ever after. Because I feel like Popoy should do more to earn Basha.

And he will get a chance to do that, when A Second Chance, the sequel to the 2007 film, comes out on November 25. Because of course One More Chance would have a sequel. Basha didn’t really get the closure she needed, and as romantics, Filipinos will always look for that happy ending.

I’m just hoping that however it ends, the characters would stay true to themselves. That they choose what would make them happy, and not what would satisfy the fans of the original film.

All that said, I have to commend writer Juan Miguel Sevilla for a well-written novelization that really gives body to the characters–and does not rely on knowledge of the film. The novelization of One More Chance can stand on its own. And the artwork by married couple Elbert Or and Lorra Angbue-Te add a much appreciated romantic whimsy to the whole package. I have to say though, the editor should do a better job at proofing the book. There were a number of glaring pronoun confusion within the book.

[Disclaimer: I was approached by ABS-CBN Publishing Inc to write about this book, but this is not a paid advertisement. The thoughts I wrote down are my own.]