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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Theater: Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical

"Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical"

Being a maid is tough enough, but when Mely lands a job under a group of superheroes, she steps up to the unique challenge for the sake of her family. Based on Carlo Vergara’s one-act play and graphic novel of the same title, Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady the Musical revolves around Mely and Viva’s sibling relationship, made complicated by an unsettling past and a budding romance, all in the context of an ongoing war between the superhero and supervillain teams. The musical takes us through the journey of the characters as each tries to find his/her place in the world.

I’m torn.

On the one hand, I liked the musical enough that I want people to watch it.

On the other hand, I really want to break it down and remake it into something else. Something that’s the same, but also very different.

I actually wrote a very lengthy piece about the things I didn’t like about the musical, before I erased the whole thing. Because I wasn’t talking about the musical I watched anymore. I was already molding it into becoming a different animal altogether. I was turning it into something that was mine. And it’s not.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical is the truest form of a Carlo Vergara child that we will get… for now. And it is special child. Unique. Beautiful to many, and to its creator–but not to me.

And it pains me to say that. Because I really, really wanted to like Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical. Well, I really, really wanted to like it more than I do.

I don’t.

I’m not going to segregate my reactions from bad to good, because there really isn’t anything bad about the musical. But there’s a lot of good in here that I feel was wasted. Which is why I’m not one-hundred-percent raving about the musical.

And here they are:

Nena Babushka and the love triangle that had an imaginary angle. I loved Nena’s character. I loved how tragic her love was for Leading Man. (And I loved the innocence that actress Giannina Ocampo brought to her character’s affections.) Unfortunately, because Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady is really a story about Mely and her sister Viva, the love triangle between Mely, Leading Man, and Nena wasn’t explored. And this is one of the reasons why I am torn.

As already established, I loved Nena’s character. But if her story wasn’t really going anywhere, why include it in the first place?

Then, there’s the Kayumanggilas and Senyor Blangko–the scene stealers.

As the musical’s main villains, I know we were supposed to root against them. But from the moment they were first introduced, I couldn’t help but cheer whenever they would come on stage. They were just so much more fun than our protagonists. And, from the looks of it, the actors were having more fun too.

And Domi Espejo as Senyor Blangko was just… exceptional. As was Vince Lim as the adamant villain Henyotik.

This was a problem.

Because I was rooting for the villains. Even when I knew what they were doing was wrong and misguided. Even when they were doing despicable things. I prefered them because they were more fun.

This brings me to Viva. We got Kim Molina in the role and she was, quite simply, the star of the show. She carried the musical, and I don’t think she was supposed to. At least, I don’t think she was supposed to carry it alone.

But her character is the only one to actually take the hero’s journey. And although her character is the ditziest and easiest to manipulate–she’s also the only one you don’t want to hit in the head with a frying pan. Because you will feel for her. You will understand her.

And, as the curtains figuratively draw to a close, I wonder–did Carlo Vergara rewrite the premise of his one-act play to make the villain a hero?

I feel bad for Frenchie Dy, our Leading Lady, Mely, because she gave her heart and soul to the role–but her scenes were cheap change compared to the gravitas given to the Viva character.

Now, at the end of it all, can you see why I’m torn?

I can list down so many things I wanted the musical to do right, and to change–but I can’t bring myself to say that it was bad. Because it wasn’t.

It’s just a work in progress.

Which is why I want to urge everyone to watch the musical, to support it–and to speak their mind about it. Because I want it restaged. And next time, I want it to be better than it is now.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady The Musical continues its weekend run until June 7.

Haiyan Relief

"Haiyan Relief"

Much has already been said and written about Yolanda, the victims, the damages–and there are a dozen or so relief efforts already being done. I’m not a celebrity to organize my own donation drive, but I would like to write up a couple that I’m actively supporting.

Number one is Authors for the Philippines.

I don’t actually know how the drive started. I was just told of it by Alexa Loves Books over on Twitter. But I love what these authors (local and abroad) are doing for our country. They’re auctioning off a wide ranger of things to raise money; from Patrick Ness’s promise to name one character off his new book after a winning bidder, to the simpler autographed copies of books. These authors are awesome.

The auctions have already begun, and they will end on November 20.

Number two is the Books for a Cause sale happening this Sunday, November 17, at the third floor POS Building, Scout Madrinan, Quezon City–in front of Il Terrazo.

The sale is being headlined by prolific (and award-winning) director Jun Robles Lana alongside his husband Percy Intalan. They’re selling books from their personal collection, as well as books donated by the formidable RJ Nuevas, Elmer Gatchalian, and many others.

Again, the book sale will happen this Sunday, November 17, from 11 a.m. until supplies last.

There are a multiple of other ways to donate too, of course. You can donate through the Philippine Red Cross, the Kapuso Foundation, among many others.

If you want something in exchange for the money you’re donating, which you shouldn’t feel bad about, there are also a number of dine-for-a-cause establishments this weekend. There’s the Aid Couture auction and ukay-ukay being organized by the Philippine Red Cross.

A friend of mine is also accepting drawing commissions.

And that’s just some of them.

For those who can’t spare money to donate but want to help out, you can also volunteer your time in repacking stations like the Kapuso Foundation warehouse at Culiat, Tandang Sora; at the Ateneo Covered Courts; the DSWD office in Pasay; and many more.

There is no excuse not to do your part. But don’t feel bad if you don’t want to do anything. Don’t force yourself to do something you do not want to do.

Donate and help out through your own free will.

Filipino Friday: Something That I Want

"Filipino Friday"

I’ve been doing this book blog thing for three years now, and regular readers know that I read more international book titles than I do local ones. Mostly because there are more international titles than local ones.

And more importantly, there are more international book titles I’m interested in than local ones.

I don’t know if it’s because of my background, but I’ve been more exposed to local non-fiction books. To poetry collections too, but those are mostly published by university presses. It wasn’t until I started this blog that I even came across local fiction. Thanks in part to my fellow Filipino Book Bloggers who have introduced me to Trese, among many others. And, of course, to Summit Books.

But it seems I might have run out of books to read. I mean, technically, there are still a lot of books I’ve yet to read. But books that I’m interested in?

That brings me to the final Filipino Friday discussion for 2013: What do we, as readers, want to see in Philippine Literature?

Personally, I want to see more diversity. I have my preferred genre, but I won’t be selfish and say I want the local publishing industry to publish more dystopian fiction, or young adult books. Although, that would be nice. I just want more local books readers can pick through.

Right now, we have a lot of humor-based non-fiction that aren’t always funny; books published for the fans of local DJs and other celebrities; compilations of obviously fake true-life ghost stories; religious books, educational books, and books on how to succeed in life; the books for kids from Adarna; there’s the Precious Hearts romances, and their main competition whose brand I can’t remember; and then the very limited number of books that you cannot categorize from Visprint and Summit Books.

Suffice to say, I’ve read a lot of Visprint and Summit Books titles the past few years. Thing is, and I think a lot of Filipino readers would agree with me here, I want more.

For three years now, I’ve been going back to the argument that there are no Filipino readers. I hope that this is no longer a thought that local publishers subscribe to. Trese, although a comics series, has proven this not to be true for sure. Unfortunately, I cannot cite books to strengthen this argument. But that’s mostly because we don’t have a lot of local books to actually cite.

And most the books that are out there, are either something you wouldn’t want to brag about–or don’t get enough exposure.

Tomorrow’s the third Filipino ReaderCon. Where we talk books. And while I’m very proud of its existence, I must say that I’m also disappointed at the book discussion line-up: Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman? Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen? Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card? Only one group will be discussing a Filipino book: Walong Diwata ng Pagkahulog by Edgar Calabria Samar.

But can we really blame the book groups with their choices?

Again, it comes down to lack of options.

There will be no Filipino readers if there aren’t more Filipino books.

I do understand that that’s a double-edged sword as well. If more books are published, and yet readership still doesn’t pick up, are we effectively killing the local publishing industry? Maybe. Unless the books that do get published are actually good. And then readers will come.

Maybe work with the bookstores too. Have Young Adult shelves be stocked with local Young Adult books as well. But don’t just put the books there. Make it belong there. Make it look enticing to readers.

One of the things I’ve noticed when browsing through bookstores is that our local books look cheap. Put side by side with international titles, no one is going to notice the little books that look like they didn’t have enough to pay the graphic artist.

I know that I’m asking a lot off the publishers. But really, all that I’ve said can be summarized in one simple business term: Invest.

Invest in your books, and we will come.

Book: Zombinoy #4

"Zombinoy #4"

Zombie apocalyptic, big-time, end-of-the-world scenario of biblical proportions. Pinoy style.

And so we begin the second “season” of Zombinoy, where the first issue alone has more happening than the whole of the first season combined. Well, that’s not completely true, but it sure does feel like it.

I think the problem with the first three issues was that the people behind Zombinoy wanted to create the world first, to introduce the characters and the zombie plague at the same time. I don’t know why, but I think it may be because they wanted readers to connect to the characters first. Having read Issue #4, I don’t think they had to.

Issue #4 has us facing the problem of zombies in our land, with the Americans very gung-ho about helping us because of nefarious reasons. Prior to this, we had a lot of government drama that tiptoed around this issue. I think #4 had the better execution, as you’re seeing things in action while discovering that things are not what they seem.

The characters feel more real too, even though “screen time” is more spread out. At first, I attributed it to the fact that I’ve read the first three issues. I already know these characters. But that’s not exactly true. Zombinoy, while a brilliant idea, wasn’t completely remarkable nor was it unforgettable. The characters in this issue really lived and breathe, that despite not knowing who they were before, you already have a sense of who they are as a person.

The writing’s brilliant, actually. It shows just how much writer Geonard Yleana had grown from the time he wrote the first three issues to now.

I’m still not a fan of the art though. This is more personal preference though, as I’m not exactly an artist. It’s just that–the glossiness of the drawings and the shadings doesn’t fit with the world they’re trying to build. The Philippines is going to hell, and it’s presented in the cleanest way possible.

It’s a little jarring.

But it’s not something you can’t get over. Especially with a story as strong as the one presented here in the fourth issue. And if Yleana continues to grow, I can’t wait to see what he (and the rest of the Zombinoy team) has in store for us next issue.

Book: Heroes and Villains

"Heroes and Villains"

‘Heroes and Villains’ offers 17 racy, true stories about remarkable people who lived and interacted and did extraordinary things in the Philippines

There’s Enrique, Magellan’s slave, who stayed in the boat while Lapu-Lapu killed his master. And Philip II of Spain, after whom we were named, who married five wives without having to cut anyone’s head off. And the Hero of Makati, Pio Isidro del Pilar, farm boy from Culi-Culi, arrested and left for dead by the Spanish police, an early Katipunero who rose to become general of the Revolutionary Armyy and the Filipino Republic, traveling scandalously with a pretty mistress.

The stories may read like a tale of adventure or a gossip column, but they’re fully documented and supported by historical facts.

It does read like a gossip column, and the stories are supported by historical facts. But then again, for years and years, we’ve been taught falsified history by teachers and professors that were also supported by historical facts. Not that I’m discounting what Carmen Guerrero Nakpil has written. I’m just saying that, since none of us lived during the time these events happened, none of us can actually claim what really happened and what didn’t.

But that’s beside the point.

Heroes and Villains is mostly a fast read, mainly because of its gossip column type of writing. Which is genius, because masking history with gossip is one surefire way of people intrigued. If this was by design, I have to say that author Nakpil is a genius.

Unfortunately, not all of the stories are as juicy. And most of the stale stories appear near the end, which makes the read a bit disappointing (and boring) as the book winds down. I know the articles were presented in chronological order–arranged by when they happened–but I must wonder if it would have been had the author decided to jump around time, so the duds didn’t have to come one right after the other.

The last three articles were particularly sleep-inducing. The last one, the seventeenth “true story” especially so because it reads like a recap of the other sixteen stories.

That said, Heroes and Villains is still a must read. Especially if you’re looking for something that would help you remember our history. Gossip lasts longer than lectures, and Heroes and Villains provide gossip-like information with great style.

Book: Zombinoy, Season 1

"Zombinoy: Season 1"

I love zombies. Which is why it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, that I would pick up the Zombinoy title. I didn’t even look at the synopsis, I just saw the title and the cover–and I bought the first issue.

I didn’t think there was anything to write about Zombinoy back in May though. At the time, while I saw the potential in the title, I didn’t really think it had enough to merit an actual discussion. It defined the premise, and it presented its take: the world goes to hell but we still have human drama to make everything colorful. It was a selling point, but not the whole story.

Fast forward to a few months later, and the people behind Zombinoy releases the two other issues that would complete their first “season.” And while I’m still not completely sold, I am intrigued as to where they’re planning to take the story.

What is Zombinoy? It’s your typical zombie apocalypse, complete with a healthy cast full of drama, set in the Philippine setting.

We have a number of main characters who have yet to show any distinguishable traits, and a villain that’s supposedly scarier than zombies–bureaucrats.

So far, the only thing redeemable about the title is a character that starts out annoying and becomes a bit of a comic relief by the time the third issue rolls around.

Our main couple, Paulo and Clara, are so far one-dimensional and their respective families have been defined more by the roles they play and not the characteristics they possess. Well, there was that one scene with Ryan, Paulo’s brother, which was supposed to be a deviation of his stereotype. Except his stereotype wasn’t well-defined to begin with.

And then there are the other characters, the ones who are supposed to make things interesting. They don’t. One group of survivors seem to have been able to commandeer a ship, save dozens of the impoverished, and set up a semblance of a political structure in the same span of time it takes Paulo and Clara to go up and down the North Luzon expressway. Then there’s the villains.

I don’t know if the writer/s of Zombinoy is planning a twist that would put all twists to shame, but from the picture being painted in the three issues released so far, the villains are pretty clear cut. Black and white. And boring. So very boring.

Of course, I didn’t really expect much from the title when I picked it up. The one thing important to me at the time was that it was about zombies, and that it was set in the Philippines. It delivered on both accounts. Now, if it’s not too much to ask from the writer/s, I want the next “season” to surprise.

Now, let’s see what other people have written about the title:
Jumper Cable
Daily Blurbs