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: 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.

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: Save the Cake

"Save the Cake"

Twenty-eight-year-old Eloisa Carreon has come home to work at her family’s bakery as a cake artist after years of studying and working abroad. She yearns for the independence she had while living in New York and Singapore, but her overprotective parents and big brother monitor her every move. When she is tasked with creating a masterpiece for a high-society wedding, Eloisa meets handsome videographer Sean Alvarez. They discover a shared outlook on life and a mutual desire to escape the excesses of the nuptials. The attraction between them is undeniable, but Eloisa is weighed down by family expectations and emotional baggage from a past relationship.

With the wedding of the year fast approaching, Eloisa has a decision to make: Should she play it safe to avoid heartbreak, or take the risk on happiness with someone who can show her how to love again?

Ignoring the fact that the back blurb of the book was misleading, I’m still a little disappointed with Save the Cake. Not because I had high expectations to begin with, but because my expectations rose while reading the book.

When I pick up local books that are in English, there is always a tendency for the protagonists to read and talk like western characters. Which is why it was such a pleasant surprise to find that, from the moment we meet Eloisa Carreon, I knew she was a Filipina–even with her background in New York and Singapore.

I have to commend author Stella Torres for how grounded in reality her character feels. There’s just something about her, something I can’t put my finger on, that makes her breathe–that makes her come to life. She doesn’t feel fictional at all. Which means the author had done her job well with the character.

Something she also did well? The set-up. The first ten chapters of the book was a breeze to read. The author took time to establish the world Eloisa lives in, the family she lives with, and the people who orbit around her–but the pacing never lags. Everything is just right.

Until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know how Mina Esguerra’s Romance Class works. I don’t know if they have a deadline to beat, or if the novels were longer and had to be shortened for physical printing, or what. What I do know is that starting with Chapter Twelve, the pace suddenly goes into hyper-drive. It’s like there’s not enough time for everything to happen, and the structure suffers because of the breakneck pace the story suddenly employs.

The characters continue to feel whole though. Nothing changed with how they are written, with how they talk and react–but they are talking and reacting to things that shouldn’t have happened yet. New developments are shoveled in before the characters can even process what had just happened. The characters aren’t allowed to breathe. And this is a shame.

Because I would say that Save the Cake had a potential to be better, had it been allowed more time to stew. This is a romance novel, so why hurry through the romance? Why hurry through the nuances of a love story?

If you want readers to give local romance stories the time of day, then give them the time to fall in love.