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.


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.

Movie: The Greatest Showman

"The Greatest Showman"

“The Greatest Showman” is a bold and original musical that celebrates the birth of show business and the sense of wonder we feel when dreams come to life. Inspired by the ambition and imagination of P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman” tells the story of a visionary who rose from nothing to create a mesmerizing spectacle that became a worldwide sensation.

Ever since I saw the teaser for The Greatest Showman, I knew I wanted to watch the film. I love musicals, and it has been so long since a proper movie musical was made, so I knew this was a film I’m going to want to watch in a theater.

And I was not disappointed.

I guess it helped that my expectations were managed. The film came out last year in the United States, and the reviews were less than phenomenal. People didn’t like the fact that The Greatest Showman glossed over the less-than-desirable characteristics of P.T. Barnum. Some thought the film was shoddily edited, and certain story threads were dropped and picked up willy-nilly. And a lot people said it just wasn’t that good. They were all correct.

The Greatest Showman wasn’t good, because it was something else. It was… transcendent.

Don’t get me wrong; the film could use a lot more fixing. Especially when it comes to how the story is told.

The film suffers from having to follow two separate threads from the moment Zac Efron’s character is introduced. Suddenly, on top of the P.T. Barnum main storyline that wanted to deal with inclusivity, acceptance, humility, and contentment–you also had to follow an interracial romance that was completely separate from the already-full Barnum plate.

The characters’ emotions don’t have a linear development; they provide what the script wants to happen, rather than the script following what the characters are feeling. And as such, there are a lot of character development that are waylaid because the film would rather barrel through the plot lines it wants to hit.

There are a thousand and one things you can point out where the film was lacking. Mostly in the storyline, in the character progression, and even in the directing. But there are just as many things to love about the film–mostly because of the cast and their passion for the film they made.

Hugh Jackman, Zendaya, and Keala Settle are truly exceptional in The Greatest Showman. The life they bring to the characters fill out what is lacking in their characters’ emotional development. Zac Efron and Michelle Williams complement their respective partners exceptionally, providing grace and elegance to the turmoil that is the conflict of the film.

The characters breathe because the actors behind them are giving them life. And because of their portrayals, you don’t notice until after the film has ended that said characters aren’t really fully-formed. The cast–all of them, not just the ones I enumerated–are the ones informing the audience of who their characters are; Not the story, nor their decisions in the story, but their acting.

I would also say it’s the cast that brings the songs to life. They inject their vulnerabilities into the songs, making them something more than just the words that accompany the melody. Listen to the dozens of “This Is Me” covers on YouTube, and then listen to Keala Settle’s version. The mix of fear, of uncertainty, and of strength she imbues the song elevates it into an anthem. So much so that you don’t notice how the emotional reprise within the song is abruptly cut short just so the song could go back to being a call to arms.

And then there’s Zac Efron and Zendaya’s “Rewrite the Stars.” There is restraint in the way the sing the song, a restraint that becomes heartbreaking when you see how it is directed on screen. And I mean that in a good way.

If you watch the film, you can see how director Michael Gracey pours love into his staging of the musical numbers. His direction heightens the emotions of the songs that pepper the movie musical. If only he had done the same for the transition scenes, the ones in between the singing.

But there’s not point in focusing on what might have been. The film is made. It is out in theaters. And if you’re looking for a reason to watch The Greatest Showman, watch it for the passion–of the cast, of the director, the choreographers, the costume designers, the production designers, and everyone else involved in the project.

Let their passion inspire you to dream, to accept, and to come alive.

Book: One Crazy Summer

"One Crazy Summer"

A Recipe for Disaster?

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: Marceline Cinco’s High School Survival Guide

"Marceline Cinco's High School Survival Guide"

It’s been a while since I had to write my own synopsis for a book, but here goes–

Marceline Cinco’s High School Survival Guide is about the titular protagonist falling in love with the newly transferred Declan Mendoza. Pretty straightforward, right? Wrong. She then tells her best friend that she doesn’t have feelings for Declan, before using an alternate social media account to befriend him and stalk him. What follows is a series of events that could have been prevented had Marceline been truthful from the get go. But, of course, where’s the romance in just being honest?

As you can see from that synopsis, I am not a fan of this book. And it’s a shame. Because, honestly, I thought the idea of a young adult lost-in-translation romance is a great premise. But the writer keep choosing the lazy way of pushing the story forward. Throughout the book, you can see the author pushing plots forward instead of letting it find its way.

It doesn’t help that main character Marceline Cinco is not likeable at all. Which is a feat, considering she has all the ingredients of a relatable character. She’s not well off financially, she has family drama, she has insecurities, and she feels inferior to her best friend. But instead of rooting for her, I found myself getting annoyed at how she goes about living her life.

She takes her best friend, who helps her financially, for granted. She’s more antagonistic than her never-do-well guardian. The wit she masks her insecurities with is more mean and more calculating than the story’s supposed antagonists–forcing the writer to make the antagonists above-and-beyond cruel for the reader to root for the protagonist.

And then there’s perfect Declan Mendoza who, even at his lowest point, is a Prince Charming. It’s… irritating. One, because he doesn’t feel like a real character. And two, because you don’t want him to end up with your heroine, because you know she’s just going to muck up their relationship anyway.

But most annoying about this book is that, when you reach the midway point, the only thing barring Marceline from her happy ending is the fact that she used a fake online persona to get to know the guy she likes. Now, had there been a deep secret exchanged between her fake persona and the love interest that could ruin relationships, I can understand why the revelation would be damning. But there was nothing said between them that could break off a non-existent romance!

It was much ado about nothing.

Really, the only positive thing I can say about this book is the fact that it has a nice cover. And the premise is sound, even though it didn’t realize its full potential.

Book: Turtles All The Way Down

"Turtles All The Way Down"

Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russel Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russel Pickett’s son, Davis.

Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.

Confession time: I’m a bit biased when it comes to John Green. I liked the first book by him that I picked up. Everything that followed was a reflection of that first book, until The Fault in Our Stars. Which I also liked at the time of reading, but quickly outgrew. There was something that’s very adolescent in the way John Green wrote his characters, and they don’t hold up when you read them again a few years later. So when I picked up Turtles All The Way Down, I had low expectations.

Aza is not an easy character to relate with. Not at first. And my problem with this is the fact that she’s our gateway to this story. A character that questions the reality around her. It’s hard to grab hold of that. It’s like entering a fantasy world, and being told by your host that everything is fake. Not even unreal. Straight out fake. And it takes some getting used to. Especially since for the first few chapters, we are merely spectators in an expository journey.

And then Aza and Davis meet. Again, since in the story, they already had a shared history. Normally, this is where I put a pause on reading to question the author’s motives. Really? We finally see chinks in our character’s armor when she meets the love interest? But Aza doesn’t see Davis as a love interest. Not yet. She sees in him a kindred spirit. It helps that they have a built-in history. One that we get to slowly rediscover with the characters.

With Davis, his father’s disappearance, and the complications their reconnecting brings, the story begins to pick up speed.

The characters begin to feel real.

Somewhere between Chapters three and six, I realized that I couldn’t put down the book anymore. I realized I related to Aza, and Daisy, and Davis–and yet none of them are stereotypes of a character. In my head, I began to debate the pros and cons for the possible endings to the relationships that the book was presenting.

The book became engaging. Unlike previous John Green books that felt paint-by-numbers, Turtles All The Way Down was pushed by chaos, by circumstances that was inherent to the characters and the plot, but never felt like a driving force even as they push the story forward.

And I love how the book deals with certain issues realistically. Maturely. And I like how the book ends with a promise.

Turtles All The Way Down lives up to the hype.

Book: Where Futures End

"Where Futures End"

Five Teenagers.
Five Futures.
Two Worlds.
One Ending.

One year from now, DYLAN develops a sixth sense that allows him to glimpse another world.
Ten years from now, BRIXNEY must get more hits on her social media feed or risk being stuck in a debtor’s colony.
Thirty years from now, EPONY scrubs her online profile and goes ‘High-Concept.’
Sixty years from now, REEF struggles to survive in a city turned virtual gameboard.
And more than one hundred years from now, QUINN uncovers the alarming secret that links them.

Five people, divided by time, determine the fate of us all. These are brilliantly connected stories of one world bent on destroying itself and an alternate world that just might be its savior–unless it’s too late.

In the future, who will you choose to be? And how will you find yourself before the end?

I was excited when I first started reading Where Futures End. The first story, Dylan’s development of his ‘sixth’ sense that allows him to see and enter an alternate world, wasn’t very original–but it was very engaging. Sure, Dylan was a character that we’ve met time and again in many fantasy adventure novels, but there was something in the way author Parker Peevyhouse wrote him that makes you want to see him get his happy ending.

And then his story suddenly ends.

Brixney’s story was strange. Original, yes– But also very familiar in our social media-obsessed world. Again, we get a character worth rooting for, and a predicament you want to see unfold.

And then her story suddenly ends.

I’m starting to feel restless. What is the author’s purpose in cutting the stories off? Why aren’t they being allowed to flourish? We’re being given promising beginnings with no middle, and no end– But then, I remember: the book blurb promises a last story that would link all of these vignettes.

The third story with Epony was more self-contained. A short story that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. My need for a satisfying story was quenched–even if the story itself wasn’t as good as the first two. And then when the fourth story with Reef ends, I’m starting to feel that my enjoyment of the book was diminishing.

Still. No matter. The final story promises to link all the stories together. I tell myself that it will work out, probably, because why else would people be saying the story was good. I started to hold on to the promise of the book blurbs. Of people saying the book was good–

And then I read the final story. A story that was supposed to link all the stories together. And it does, yes. But the stories were already linked in the first place. Reef’s story was spurned on by Epony’s. Epony’s by Brixney’s. Brixney’s by Dylan’s. And yes, technically the book didn’t lie when it promised an alarming secret that links all five stories.

But it’s a horrible link. It doesn’t tie up the stories together. They remain vignettes of half-realized premises that never became whole. Except the third story. And as I turn the final page, I find myself asking if the gimmick of linking these stories with a last story was realized because the author couldn’t find a way to wrap up the individual stories. That she couldn’t push the story forward to a satisfying conclusion.

Because the book ends and I don’t get the point of it all.

Because the book ends, and the weakest story in terms of originality and characterization suddenly becomes the strongest for actually having an ending and character growth.

Because the book ends, and all I want is the chance to go back in time and stop myself from buying it. Or, at the very least, warn myself not to expect anything from it. Can I do that? Can I go back in time and stop myself from hoping that this book would give me any satisfaction?