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.

Television: Encantadia

"Encantadia"

Eleven years ago, when I was still in college, local network GMA-7 embarked on an ambitious journey to create a fantastical world where magic and monsters exist. And although my initial intention in watching the first episode were less than honorable, I was instantly hooked.

Encantadia was nothing like anything else on television–in the Philippines or abroad. Sure, we had the Lord of the Rings, but that was a cinematic event. On television, Game of Thrones was still six years away, the Shannara Chronicles had ten years more to go. One of the earliest completely fantastical television shows, Legends of the Seeker, began in 2008. And all of those are television programs that aired once a week with a lot of time to prep and produce each episode. Encantadia was a soap opera that aired five days a week.

I’m not saying that to build up an apology for what the program was–mostly, because if you’ve seen the original series, there really isn’t anything to apologize about. Encantadia rolled with the punches and dealt with limitations and restrictions through twists that made the show all the more interesting to watch.

A new generation of viewers were born in the era of Encantadia then. Smart viewers. Viewers who liked to be challenged. Viewers who then dreamed of seeing more programs like Encantadia.

I was one of those viewers. Fast forward to ten years later, and I’m now part of the team that’s shaping the “requel” of the series that got me interested in Philippine television again.

Now, before you ask– “Requel” was a term coined to distance the new Encantadia from the string of remakes being done by the local television networks. From MariMar, to Panday, to Pangako Sa ‘Yo, the series of old soap operas being remade for new viewers was leaving a sour taste in the mouth of their target markets. It’s either the remakes were too similar to the original, or they were too different.

That’s what Encantadia 2016 is striving to avoid.

By re-telling the original story with new twists and new information, new viewers will be able to follow what happened before without boring the viewers who have seen the original run (or has since streamed the original series on iFlix). We’re reshaping the narrative so things that happened originally are told in new and surprising ways. That way, we get to keep the old fans on their toes–while tipping our hat to the fact that they know where things are going.

But all of these retelling serves only one purpose: it’s to get all viewers (old and new) abreast to the ending of the original series. It’s to familiarize everyone again with the characters that were loved before. It’s to set up a new chapter alongside the old ones.

Because a “requel” isn’t just a retelling. It’s a sequel too. And I am telling you: the fan in me? The one that dreamed to write his own fantasy series because of the original Encantadia? He’s very giddy at the plans that are being set up and planted in the first part of Encantadia 2016.

I am promising you: this is going to be one heck of a ride.

Encantadia airs weeknights after 24 Oras, on GMA Network in the Philippines.

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.

Book: Only a Kiss

"Only a Kiss"

When she was nine-years-old, Katie knew she wanted Chris to give her her first kiss. It wasn’t because she was in love with him (no way, he was her best friend! Besides, she was in love with his fourteen-year-old brother), it was because she could make him do anything she wanted.

Besides, it didn’t really mean anything. It was only a kiss after all.

But then things started to change. They grew up. They parted ways and went to different high schools. And other girls and boys–well, just one particular boy–came into the picture, throwing their lives upside down.

Told from the alternating points of view of Katie and Chris, this love story between two best friends will tug at your heartstrings and leave you thinking how the simplest things can mean so much.

Technically, Only a Kiss is a well-written book. Objectively, I have nothing bad to say about the story. Subjectively… I really didn’t like the characters. Especially as we get to know more about them. Especially as they grow up.

I have always advocated for realistic characters, so I don’t understand why neither Katie nor Chris is resonating with me. They’re real. They breathe. And author Ines Bautista-Yao writes them so well that I wouldn’t be surprised to meet these two in real life. But I still, for the life of me, couldn’t bring myself to like them.

Is it because I couldn’t relate to them?

Katie and Chris are real, yes. But they’re also perfect people. Too perfect, in fact. Katie is good at bossing people around, and she gets things done without ruffling feathers. Chris is good at sports, great with the ladies, and an awesome artist too. And I know people like this. People who are too good to be true–and yet are real people. And I am not them.

Yes, Katie and Chris make mistakes. But unlike me, their problems all revolve around love. Which, I guess, is because the book I’m reading is a romance novel. But, at the same time, it’s making me feel inadequate.

How can I like characters who make me feel insecure?

Why couldn’t Chris be the opposite of his older brother who Katie liked for so long? Why does he have to be perfect? And why, if he’s already perfect, does it take Katie so long to realize she has feelings for her best friend?

Why is Andrew, that one particular boy, so perfect too? With his nice demeanor, and his altruistic outlook in life, and his love for Katie?

And Katie… Where do I start with Katie? She’s beautiful, she’s smart, she’s good at what she does, she’s an amazing girlfriend, a thoughtful friend, a pragmatic person–

They’re all so perfect, yet so real–and so boring.

The central conflict of Only a Kiss is the love triangle between Chris, Katie, and Andrew. But there is no real love triangle. It’s pretty clear from the get go who Katie will end up with–because while both boys are perfect, and nice, and is someone you can root for–neither one actually does anything grand that would make you root for one or the other.

As a reader, I didn’t have any stakes as to what’s going to happen. Reading Only a Kiss is like reading a the blog of a rich, nice girl. It’s something you do because you like the person, and you want to support that person, but if you’re honest with yourself, you’d rather be doing something else.

Of course, as I always say, this could just be me. There will always be other people who like the books I don’t like. Don’t form an opinion based on just this reaction. Read what other people have written about Only a Kiss:
Amy Reece
Ron Reads
Her Book Thoughts

Or form your own opinion. Since I promote local books, I would rather promote this well-written (if bland) novel, than most of the published Wattpad stories that have no business being published.

Oh, and one last thing: Only a Kiss has one of the best book covers I’ve seen in local publications. Good job, people of Chamber Shell Publishing.