Book: Voices in the Theater

"Voices in the Theater"

Ever since her grandmother died, Samantha Davidson has been carrying a secret: She can hear voices–other people’s thoughts, some from the living, some from the dead.

Plucked from her roots and transported to another country, estranged from her family and friends, Sam joins a pioneering club in her new school that investigates paranormal activities.

As they examine the mystery behind a haunted theater inside the university, Sam starts to hear voices from those that are no longer earthbound.

Will she heed their voices as they accuse her of a dark secret she has buried deep in the past? Or will she surrender to the light offered by newfound allies and a love that caught her by surprise?

Will the many voices drown out the one voice she has long suppressed? Will she listen?

If I’m to be objective, there is nothing wrong with A.S. Santos’s Voices in the Theater. The plot is good and well-paced, and although some decisions made by the characters make me want to tear my hair out, I understand their choices are organic and not pushed by the hand of the author. There is really nothing bad to be said about the book–

But I still didn’t like it.

Here’s the thing: Voices in the Theater is marketed to be a horror novel. From its back synopsis, to its book cover, to the first few chapters– The story is clearly set-up to be a horror novel that deals with ghosts and unresolved issues. And I was fully on board with that. What I didn’t like was the sudden turn for the religious.

I mean, I completely understand having religious characters. The setting is the Philippines, characters are bound to be non-practicing Christians at the very least. And you can’t really take out religion when you’re dealing with ghosts and the afterlife. They come hand in hand.

Still, the book presents the main character as religiously neutral. Our entry point into the supernatural is science-based. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t. And I felt like the story, and the writer, forced the main character into a religion by the end of the book.

The thing is: I would totally understand the religious deus ex machina had there been more visual cues from the way the book was published or presented. Going back to what happens in the story, there’s really nothing there that explicitly says the book wasn’t going to go the religious note. And aside from the first few chapters that established the back story of main character Samantha, the rest of the book does establish the necessity of faith.

But the turn to the religion still threw me off.

It could just be my fault for expecting something else. For wanting something else. It’s just… I’m not the book’s target market. And I wish I knew this fact before I bought the book. Or, at the very least, I wish I had a warning before I delved into the book expecting a horror story. That could have spelled the difference in how I received the novel after finishing it.

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Book: All That Darkness Allows

"All That Darkness Allows"

The moon takes on an ominous form, threatening mankind as it hangs from the heavens. A woman must confront her past and accept her fate when her dying best friend asks her to inherit an ancient power she might not be ready to handle. An LRT skip train sends passengers to an alternate dimension, where Manila is ridden with strange creatures hungry for flesh. A troubled little girl tiptoes around her stern mother after gaining a creepy new playmate. A mysterious, all-knowing entity manipulates the concept of time, sending a pair of friends on a decent into madness. A young ink aficionado unravels after getting a tattoo, possessed by an unknown force that threatens the very fabric of her being.

All these stories and more are part of All That Darkness Allows–a modern horror anthology containing 13 works of speculative fiction from today’s brightest young literary voices and the country’s most prolific authors in the genre. Written in blood and penned in the shadows, these are fearsome tales of terror and grief, sick humor and sheer evil, and how the macabre and the mundane can coalesce and coexist, allowing darkness to eventually take over.

Like with most anthologies, readers will not find all the stories in this collection likeable. Horror and personal taste are subjective after all. But I am happy to say that, unlike the last horror anthology I wrote about here, I did find way more stories to like this time around.

It helps that a lot of the stories shared in All That Darkness Allows have a reason for being; they were not written for jump scares of cheap thrills– You can see the authors testing the boundaries of what horror can be, and if what constitutes as scary before can still be considered as fearsome in our current day and age. Some of the stories will not put you at the edge of your seat, but it will give you a different kind of fear–of relating to what’s happening, of making you confront the possibility of what your actions might be, if the story was happening around you. It’s ambitious. And for the most part, the stories’ ambitions are achieved… which only serves to highlight the ordinary ones more.

I love that this anthology feels curated, like the editor picked the authors he knew would deliver the stories he wanted told. And I love that there’s an attempt to support the stories visually through photographs… I just wish they didn’t feel repetitive.

I love that All That Darkness Allows doesn’t talk up its stories too much, saying just enough in the back synopsis to draw readers in–but not overextending itself to make readers think the book is scarier than it actually is.

I love how the stories don’t dumb down its readers; there are no overly long expositions, no messy explanations, and no long-winding and unnecessary descriptions or paragraphs. All the stories are straight to the point, yet maintains its tone of foreboding feel. Although, to be honest, one story could use a little more tightening–but this could be written off as personal preference.

There are plenty to love about this anthology, and they definitely outweigh any less than positive feelings I may have about the book. This is the kind of book we need more of, situated around the many, many works that were taken from Wattpad, so that when our new readers want to delve into something more mature than the stories they’re used to, books like this can show them that the Filipino book industry is alive and diverse.

Book: The Shadow Men

"The Shadow Men"

From Beacon Hills to Southie, historic Boston is a town of vibrant neighborhoods knit into a seamless whole. But as Jim Banks and Trix Newcomb learn in a terrifying instant, it is also a city divided–split into three separate versions of itself by a mad magician once tasked with its protection.

Jim is happily married to Jenny, with whom he has a young daughter, Holly. Trix is Jenny’s best friend, practically a member of the family–although she has secretly been in love with Jenny for years. Then Jenny and Holly inexplicably disappear–and leave behind a Boston in which they never existed. Only Jim and Trix remember them. Only Jim and Trix can bring them back.

With the help of Boston’s Oracle, and elderly woman with magical powers, Jim and Trix travel between the fractured cities, for that is where Jenny and Holly have gone. But more is at stake than one family’s happiness. If Jim and Trix should fail, the spell holding the separate Bostons apart will fail too, and the cities will reintegrate in a cataclysmic implosions. Someone, it seems, wants just that. Someone with deadly shadow men at their disposal.

The Shadow Men starts strong. Authors Christoper Golden and Tim Lebbon dive right into the premise of their novel, and our protagonists don’t wait around before taking action. And, this is a good thing, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book that the entire story happened in just two days. Suffice to say: a lot happened, and there was no point in the novel where I paused, annoyed or otherwise, because of long pauses in action just to deliver exposition.

The clincher? The Shadow Men actually had a lot of exposition to cover. Especially since it had to establish two other Bostons existing with the one that’s supposedly in our world. But authors Golden and Lebbon are such experts at their craft that the exposition is delivered with the action–something you would think is more common in action novels, especially popular ones, but you’d be surprised.

But The Shadow Men‘s strength in delivering the action is also its one weakness. With so much happening, there were times that I had to go back and reread certain passages because I was starting to get confused. That, and there were moments when the action felt repetitive. Get caught. Run. Rinse, and repeat.

Aside from (just) one instance of this though, The Shadow Men is a stellar book. It ranks as my second favorite Hidden Cities novel, following the London-based Mind the Gap. It pulls no punches, never dilly-dallying when it comes to hitting the plot points, which had the effect of making readers (me, specifically) feel the adrenaline coursing through the characters–leaving us breathless.

I use the term “summer blockbuster movie” a lot when it comes to the I Am Number Four books, because of its penchant to prioritize action over character development and still remaining very entertaining. Following this logic, The Shadow Men would be something akin to an “epic movie” in which the action serves to make the viewers’ pulses race, as much as it pushes the characters to develop.

The Shadow Men came out in 2011. No other Hidden Cities book came out again after this. I hope that it’s because Golden and Lebbon are still looking for the perfect city and the perfect story to continue their series, and not because the publishers don’t want another one. Because I want another one.

Book: Remembrance, a Mediator Novel

"Remembrance"

All Susannah Simon wants is to make a good impression at her first job since graduating from college (and since becoming engaged to Dr. Jesse de Silva). But when she’s hired as a guidance counselor at her alma mater, she stumbles across a decade-old murder, and soon ancient history isn’t all that’s coming back to haunt her. Old ghosts as well as new ones are coming out of the woodwork, some to test her, some to vex her, and it isn’t only because she’s a mediator, gifted with second sight.

From a sophomore haunted by the murderous specter of a child, to ghosts of a very different kind–including Paul Slater, Suze’s ex, who shows up to make a bargain Suze is certain must have come from the Devil himself–Suze isn’t sure she’ll make it through the semester, let alone to her wedding night. Suze is used to striking first and asking questions later, but what happens when ghosts from her past–including one she found nearly impossible to resist–strike first?

The Mediator series was one of the things I really enjoyed reading back in high school and college; mostly because of the heroine who wasn’t always heroic and the supernatural element that, for the most part, wasn’t very complicated.

When I found out that Meg Cabot was following up the Princess Diaries wrap-up Royal Wedding with a new Mediator book, I was ecstatic. And then I started reading the book.

I guess I should learn the lesson of managing expectations. Again.

The Mediator series, for the first four books, were very short novels aimed at Young Adults. At the time, when you say a book is intended for the teen audience, it wasn’t very long. But, I’m guessing, when Harry Potter‘s length increased alongside its popularity, and people didn’t mind; the publishers must have realized that they didn’t need to limit the number of pages of a young adult novel. A good story will have teens reading, no matter the length of a book. So when the last two Mediator books came out in 2004 and 2005, the book was no longer restricted by a small number of pages.

Both Haunted and Twilight flourished with the additional pages. Meg Cabot was able to flesh out her characters more, and made Susannah Simon’s world more immersive. Which is why, when I picked up Remembrance, I was excited to crack open the book immediately. It follows the thickness of the last two Mediator books, and the synopsis at the back promised a great adventure.

A third into the novel though, I was asking myself–Why wasn’t anything happening? In the decade that passed, has Meg Cabot lost hold of Susannah Simon’s voice? Where are her friends? Why is she so hung up on just Jesse and herself when she was able to juggle having a social life on top of school and being a mediator before?

Things started picking up when Susannah finally moved on from being self-centered to start dealing with her ghost situation. From that point on, Remembrance started to read and feel like the old Mediator novels. Which brings me to ask:

Did the Mediator novels work in the past because Meg Cabot was restricted to a certain number of pages? Were they structurally sound and well-paced because the author wasn’t allowed to ramble on and on for fear of running out of pages to tell her story?

Maybe.

But what about Haunted and Twilight? Were they flukes? Or has Meg Cabot gotten used to writing her protagonists one way? As very talkative and very self-centered? Then again, the remaining two-thirds of Remembrance is good, and very reminiscent of Mediator books past. So was the first third just an example of an editor failing to reign in the writer’s meandering thoughts?

At the end of the day, I did still enjoy the book. And I still would like to see more of Susannah Simon, her stepbrothers, and the rest of her ghost-hunting crew. But, here’s to hoping that when a next time does arrive, we won’t be subjected again to a rambling first act that actually subtracts from the protagonist’s likability.

Book: Carry On

"Carry On"

Simon Snow is the worst chosen one who’s ever been chosen.

That’s what his roommate, Baz, says. And Baz might be evil and a vampire and a complete git, but he’s probably right. Half the time, Simon can’t even make his wand work, and the other half, he sets something on fire. His mentor’s avoiding him, his girlfriend broke up with him, and there’s a magic-eating monster running around wearing Simon’s face. Baz would be having a field day with all this, if he were here–it’s their last year at Watford School of Magicks, and Simon’s infuriating nemesis didn’t even bother to show up.

This book left me breathless, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Rainbow Rowell first introduced Simon Snow in Fangirl as a fictional character within a fictional world. That means we should already know something about Simon Snow, right? Well, partly.

Thing is: Author Rowell isn’t writing the Simon Snow from Fangirl, and neither is she writing the “canonical” Simon Snow. The Simon Snow in Carry On is her own creation based on the foundation she built for his previous use. And, I might be wrong here, but I also felt like she was writing Carry On for readers who didn’t read Fangirl. Which would make sense. But I also feel like this is the reason why Simon Snow’s characterization felt rushed.

Simon Snow doesn’t earn his right to be a reader’s hero, because from the get-go, he reads like a whiny brat who always has to get his way. And I know that he’s supposed to be an amalgamation of every Chosen One we’ve met in the past decade, but those Chosen Ones had a number of books under their belt–they developed from naive innocents into saviors who had the right to whine. To feel bad about their destiny. To question their roles in the grand scheme of things.

Simon Snow had one chapter. And not a prologue at that.

It’s a testament to Rainbow Rowell’s ability to hook readers that one doesn’t just put down Carry On and move on to another book. Although Simon is an insufferable git, Rowell gives us two other characters who you would want to stick with: Penelope Bunce, and the mysterious Lucy. And it’s through them that I found a reason to continue reading.

Carry On is actually a masterful chosen-one story, with Rowell subverting tropes and writing amazingly flawed characters. The plot is well structured, and the big bad is threatening throughout–and even especially after the reveal of his identity and his role in the grand scheme of things. So I kind of feel bad that I’m not a hundred percent in love with the book.

Maybe it’s because of the love story. Because unlike in Eleanor & Park, or in Fangirl, or in Landline, or in Attachments–there’s nothing about Simon Snow nor Baz Pitch one would want to root for. Sure, it was obvious from the get go that they were into each other, but there was nothing about their romance that made me want to root for them to end up together.

I wanted them to solve the mystery, to save the world, and maybe have happily-ever-afters. But end up together? Why would I want that, when I’ve seen nothing about the growth of their relationship? Why would I want that when all I know about their relationship is told through anecdotes that does nothing to advance their character growth.

This is the first Rainbow Rowell book I’ve read where I didn’t fall in love with the love story. I just felt… nothing. No, that’s not true. I felt sorry for two supporting characters who were obviously in love but never got back together. But for the main couple?

I didn’t feel like Simon and Baz earned their happy ending together.

As a chosen-one story, I would recommend Carry On to fans of Harry Potter, and the Hunger Games trilogy, and especially to fans of the Inheritance saga. But as a love story? There are better books out there.

There are better Rainbow Rowell books out there.

Book: iZombie

"iZombie"

Gwen Dylan’s got a dead-end job and a best friend who’s barely there. The dude she hangs out with is kind of a dog, her town’s social scene sucks the life right out of you, and it seems like any time she meets an eligible guy, his job gets in the way.

But Gwen’s not the girl she used to be.

She’s a zombie.

Her best friend Ellie is a ghost. Her buddy Scott is a were-terrier. Her town’s a feeding ground for a pack of beautiful but bitchy vampires. Her new crush belongs to a centuries-old secret society of monster-hunters. And her dead-end job? Digging graves by day…and digging them up for a snack at night.

See, Gwen’s got to eat at least one brain a month or she turns into a shambling monster straight out of a midnight movie. But every brain she eats contains a lifetime of memories–and her latest meal came with a side order of unsolved murder.

Now Gwen and her friends have to find the killer before they, too, fall victim to a fate worse than un-death…

It took a year, and a television adaptation, to get me to decide that I do want to read iZombie. And after another month of waiting (because I had to order through Amazon)… I devoured the whole series in one sitting.

iZombie, the graphic novel series, is exceptional. And I can’t believe I waited so long before I read it. It’s very different to the witty television series that Rob Thomas created off the material though. Because once you’ve read the books and watched the series? You would know that they are two completely separate beings. Two very amazing things. But we’re here to talk about the graphic novels. And I must say:

I absolutely hate the fact that there are no more stories about Gwen, Ellie, and Spot. The three are such fun characters that, from the get go, you know you’re going to enjoy hanging out with them–and that you’re going to root for them to survive the craziness the series immediately promises.

And iZombie really doesn’t hold back on the crazy.

From zombies who have lived for thousands of years, spirits who become trapped in the bodies of animals, vampires who have a no-kill policy, and a legendary hero that comes back to life–the series has them all. And the best part? You don’t even question them, because they’re part of the fabric that creators Chris Roberson and Michael Allred weaves beginning in their first issue.

But, I feel like getting into the iZombie bandwagon late worked out well for me as a reader because I was able to devour the story in one sitting. I don’t think I would have liked it as much had I been forced to wait for issue after issue–because the crazy that made it so fun to read, spread through time? It would have also infuriated me to no end.

With all that said though, what I really just want to say is: if you haven’t read the iZombie graphic novels yet–go find them. Read them. Enjoy them.

Book: Ang Lihim ng San Esteban

"Ang Lihim ng San Esteban"

Unang beses na magbabakasyon si Jacobo sa San Esteban sa Ilocos, at magkahalong pananabik at kaba ang dala ng biyahe papunta sa probinsya ng mga magulang niya. Siguradong marami siyang matutuklasan tungkol as kasaysayan ng kaniyang pamilya mula kay Lola Carmen! Ngunit hindi niya inaasahang may mas malaking lihim sa mga lumang bahay at multo ng San Esteban. Ang mga ito kaya ang susi sa misteryong pilit na ikinukubli ni Lola Carmen?

Quick translation: It’s Jacobo’s first time to visit San Esteban in Ilocos, and he’s feeling a mix of nervousness and trepidation about the trip; wondering if the town would live up to the stories he’s been told growing up. But what he didn’t expect was that he would discover a big secret about a house in San Esteban. A secret that his own grandmother is working hard to keep.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but whatever it was… It wasn’t what the book turned out to be. Although, to be fair, I think I already judged the book in the first chapter–when the author made a twelve-year old travel to a provincial town he’s never been to on his own. Now, unless this was a recounting of real events, I see no reason why he couldn’t have been taken there by his parents.

It all goes downhill for me from then on. Jacobo isn’t really developed as a character. If I’m to compare him to someone from current literature, he’s a Bella Swan. He exists solely to become an anchor for readers to attach to. His inquisitiveness is his only redeeming trait, and that’s only because we need him to be inquisitive for the story to move forward.

The book introduces many characters with potential to make the main story more… engaging. But the author drops the ball on all of them. The town jokester who turns out to be really friendly with the nuns is wasted as he becomes a sidekick to our bland hero, and the mysterious clairvoyant appears only once–to make us think that something ominous was about to happen–only for that warning to actually ruin the story because suddenly our hero is trapped in a house with nowhere to go.

That is, until he decides to break rules. And by then, it’s already too late. We’re already 80% into the story, and the remaining pages only serve to wrap up a mystery that never became mysterious in the first place.

I wish I could say something more positive about this book. I really do. But I’ve already sat on this book for two weeks now. I can’t think of anything nice to say about the book. Nothing at all.

But the folks over at Good Reads seem to have found something to like about the book. So why don’t you also check out what they have to say? Maybe I missed something.