Tuesday, November 1, 2016

This Emotional Hurricane

To them I’m probably just a complex jigsaw combination of false hopes, a lady-shaped nightmare with a smile made of sunlight. To them I’m probably just a poor parody of a wench from 500 Days of I’ll-Break-Your-Heart-Anyway. The girl who chose to not choose them.

I keep on wondering if it is so bad opting to protect my heart instead of tying it to theirs. Wanting to keep it warm and unscathed instead of risking it in a field I do not know how to play in. Am I being too selfish for not wanting to get hurt? I have collected so much pain before and I don’t think I’m ready to add more.

The problem starts with hope, I guess. Of limits and understanding that “no” means “no”. The problem is we speak different tongues when it comes to the interpretation of these fleeting things.

Tracing the root of all my faults takes me back to this one fact: I always crave a piece of someone’s soul when I talk to them. This world is so fond of building walls that I consider it a treasure if someone ever lets me peek through a crack and lets me see, for a handful of vulnerable moments, what universes they are made of--what galaxies of dreams they keep in the coves of their hearts, what stars are burning in them that keep them going when they wake up to rains of doubts. Maybe I have become addicted to this and just became too afraid to admit it to myself.

I could not pinpoint the moment where this began. Perhaps after I got drunk on so much fiction I started to blend it with my all too chaotic reality? Is this a side effect of constantly tapping into the nearest emotional source when I’m piecing together a poem? When losing myself in the music of dead songwriters? When I’m trying to make sense of all the color splatters on paper when I’m trying to paint? When I’m fighting to stop myself from shredding bedsheets and vandalizing hotel walls?

You see, I want to claw away at the trivialities. I want genuine listeners. I want sounding boards. In return, and with their consent, I want to drown in the clouds of their thoughts, because sometimes mine are too dark a place to wander in. Sometimes my head isn’t a good refuge, that while in there I sometimes find bruises on my knees after getting up from a fervent prayer. Monsters were born within the walls I’m building, and it was me who made it so. So yes, I try to get it, that tiny peek at someone’s soul. Small talks often just skitter on my skin and drop to the ground, forgotten by the loose minutes that we use to gauge the person we’re trading words with.

When they’re honest enough, I offer a bit of myself too, because that’s only fair, right? That’s what friends do. I offer it willingly--a slice of my galaxies, a glimpse at the warps and black holes in it. My problems and fears and happiness. Trust as the beginning of good friendship. The visits in each other’s solar systems only became too pervasive, only became unfair, when the other party demands more. No, they don’t want to be friends anymore. They demand to see my whole universe. They demand to own it. They demand they become my sun.

But don’t you see, love? My universe is under repair. It is so close to crumbling, and I intend to get it in order first before letting anyone be a part of it. I’m barely holding it together with my scraped fists, I’m panting and catching my breath to keep the stars aflame, I’m wrestling my personal demons when they are threatening to devour every space in me, and I’m dying, I’m dying, I’m dying every day so I would keep myself alive. I want to be alive some more, please? Is it too much to ask? When I say I cannot let you in, your heart is not the only one disintegrating into dust.

So to the guy who left a trail of hyperboles in your wake when I turned you away, the guy who scribbled horns on my personality and showed it to everybody behind my back, I guess I cannot blame you. Sorry you misinterpreted me when I listened to your darkness, sorry you thought I was your light. I’m not, and never will be. You can weave all the fictionalized version of a tale where I like you back, but I’m not going to be sorry for choosing myself. Know that you can still be happy, though. Know that the rainbow’s just around the corner.

To the stranger who taught me the Physics of Letting Someone Down (the energy is inversely proportional to the one you use to lift someone up), thank you. Thank you for adoring all my madness, from my fascination with the moon to the randomness of my derailed thoughts when insomnia won’t let me rest. I hope you understand when I refused to be “yours”. You told me you wish sometimes that I would like you back, that you missed me when we don’t talk, that you love me and the poetry in me. I’ll admit I can’t force myself to believe all those, but I hope you keep your own heart intact and use it to care for the other girl who seems to be the person here who can give you what you want (I know about her, yes). She doesn’t deserve to be just someone’s Back-Up Plan.

To the guy who tiptoes on the same wire that I do...you’re kind, and I don’t think I’m the right recipient of that kindness. You said you thought of me when you went to this faraway country, and when you got home you gave me a proof of that. I don’t deserve it. That poem too ancient that your tour guide cannot translate it? The satisfaction of knowing that you “made me happy”? I don’t deserve it all. It would be so easy if I could just hand my feelings to you in a teacup, but I can’t. I’m empty now in this side of my life, and I can’t give anyone what they want. What you want.

To the girl who said I broke her heart and won’t tell me why when all I did was open up...I wish you all the joy you are trying to find. Playing a game of this kind is not on my list anymore; understand that I have so much on my plate that I want to throw up when I see them all. I don’t need puzzles like this, and I won’t chase for answers you wrap in mystery to bait me. I’m exhausted. Just try to be happy, all right?

My fault here, I think, is that I don’t always subscribe to just shutting people off. I say “no” but instead of letting them just crash to the ground, I cup my hands together so I’ll know they’ll have a soft landing. That’s the mistake--they think of that as affection in disguise, they think of my actions as a signal to not take my “no” seriously. What am I supposed to do to that? What am I supposed to do with myself?

It’s my fault that I’m at the eye of all these emotional hurricanes. I thought I’m getting them safe to the shore when in reality I’m wrecking them some more. But who could understand that it affected me too? This hurricane didn’t just break these people. It fractured me, too.

This has been too much, but letting this all out is a relief. Someday, perhaps when I’m done mending my universe, I’ll let someone in and smoothen all the cracks in it, all the traces of the broken parts. Maybe by then, I'll know why I did what I did. Maybe by then, as they say, all these hurts will make sense.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Science fiction, literary fiction, post-apocalyptic
My rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5 stars)

The last wedge of chocolate you chewed on. The fading flavour of coffee on your tongue. The last note of your favourite song that hung in the air. The creased page of the last book you read. The excited shriek you let out when you caught a virtual creature in a hip game-app. The uneven but beautiful smile of a friend. The soft, persistent kiss of someone you love. The familiar dissonance of the city—the honking of cars, the prattling strangers on the sidewalk during rush hour, the tired sighs of commuters as they wait for the next jam-packed train…

When the world as we know it comes to an end, what would you miss?

How much of the things we have today do we unwittingly take for granted? How much of the inconsequential things do we put so much weight on? How much of these actually matters when we are left with nothing but the actual thing that mattered—our lives?

Emily St. John’s Station Eleven will make you stop in your tracks and contemplate on these questions.

Coming up with an all-encompassing synopsis for the novel is a bit difficult. In essence, it is a post-apocalyptic patchwork of anecdotes, but it does not seem to sound like any of the novels in the genre that hit the shelves recently. It does not have anti-heroines that notice something wrong in the system and spark a revolution; it does not construct Big Brother-esque societies or its Brave New World counterparts, despite the obvious pop culture sensibilities on the subject that linger in it. At its simplest, it depicts the quotidian lives of people before and after the civilization disintegrated—before and after a devastating flu pandemic wiped out more than half the population on the planet.

The novel focuses on The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of theatre artists who have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive by performing in towns. The story leaps back and forth in time and introduces characters outside the troupe that still ties to it via a brush of fate. We meet an actress that managed to safekeep a piece of comic well into wrecked world; an overwrought prophet who believes he is the Messiah; a stranded group of “quarantined” passengers who makes the airport their new home; a frustrated surgeon who perhaps holds the key to slowly re-starting a civilization; and the late Hollywood actor that serves as all these characters’ subtle line of connection.

Alternating the gloomily lyrical with the hopeful, Station Eleven is the kind of novel that leaves glowing imprints on both the mind and the heart of its readers. It lunges into the commercial playpen of “What Happens After the End” that fills today’s bestseller shelves to the brim, but it refuses to be interned in the malignant recycles of what a piece of dystopian literature should be like. It carves a niche of its own and gets its message across with a tone knotting together poetry and prose.
The storytelling, although unconventional enough to bewilder readers in the beginning, unfolds its beauty in a leisurely pace.  Sometimes I stop to reread a few passages, which will then prompt me to look around and realize how fortunate I still am to be experiencing the world we have now.

Since for the most part the novel sews together slice-of-life type of narratives, the story is justifiably not plot-driven. The whole thing is laid out for the readers to experience, thanks of course to Mandel’s excellent world-building. Following the troupe can make you feel like you are part of it, too. You get to feel like you are walking among its members, your skin sun-drenched and your feet sore from being protected only by slippers fashioned from old tires; you clutch your violin or your flute in one hand and knives or guns in the other, knowing that being part of a harsher world forces you to juggle being a creator and a destroyer at the same time. And then there are the idiosyncrasies, the intricate map of overlapping relationships of your dysfunctional family, fractured often by frivolities but pieced back together by your need to be with each other.

(And though I am enamoured with how the troupe was fleshed out, my favourite parts are always with a secondary character who only gets his story told at the latter part of the novel. I enjoyed every bit of his chapters, from the dreamy notions that make him straddle the line between sanity and madness to the way he led the slow rebuilding of their worlds starting from their own corners of the airport.)
It is easy to lose oneself in the novel, with the tone being mostly elegiac and its subject matter with a strong potential to be close to one’s heart. Station Eleven allows you to actually see what’s in front of you and urges you to enjoy these temporary things while they are still there. Shrouded with the melancholy of a poem and the haunting tang of reality, it is arguably one of the most darkly poignant books that celebrate the world as we know it.

In the end, it is a long piece about gratitude…and I’m deeply thankful that I managed to put my hands on this novel.

Five stars for a great read.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga
Genre: Young adult
My rating: ★★★★

Poems may get written because of it, songs may pull out their lyrics from it, and stories may be born from its dark womb, but there is irrefutably nothing beautiful about depression. It is not your garden-variety sadness; it is an ugly monster seeking shelter inside you, consuming all the happiness it can find there and eating up a bit more of you until you feel like an empty husk. It attaches itself to you like an additional vital organ, one that pumps away hollowness into your veins. It makes each day too hard to meet, and makes even the thought of smiling feel like a demanding chore. Ultimately, it can urge you to believe that dying—suicide—is a better alternative than living.

While it is established that depression and/or suicide are not pretty things, it still gets to be the bleak little muse of many of today’s YA bestsellers. The steady stream of these books hangs onto the twisted trend “depression is the new vampire”, though fortunately for us, many authors treated the subjects responsibly. I have not read a lot of them, but I think I have tasted enough in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to name a few. I distanced myself from the YA shelves for a while when it started to get too bandwagon-y, but I gave them a shot again through Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Blackholes. I am glad I did.

The story follows sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel Seran who, after her father committed a crime that rocked her small town, has developed a morbid little hobby: plotting her own death. Her problem is that she is not brave enough to do it alone. So when she finds a website with a section called Suicide Partners, she is convinced she has found the solution—Roman, a teenage boy haunted by a family tragedy, is also looking for a partner.

The two then start a suicide pact, inadvertently forming a bond that is grounded on their own deaths. They even set a date. But when the countdown starts and their remaining days alive deplete, Aysel begins doubting if they should go through their plan at all. She must decide if she will go on to take the plunge with him or try to make Roman see the will to live and consider their potential energy together.

Unapologetically moving and largely cerebral, My Heart and Other Black Holes is a story that wears depression as a gloomy overcoat but conceals a warm, enormous heart beneath it. I love how the dreary tone of narration is sharpened by piercing honesty yet softened at times with bursts of hope and humour (which, to my surprise, is not always of the gallows kind).

I liked how the author laid out two kinds of depression side by side and gently picked out the differences through the behaviour of the main characters. Aysel and Roman acknowledge that their depression are two different beasts, and they learn to understand each other’s damage without judgment. Their interactions are hard to not like, from their teasing to their understandably dark heart-to-hearts. They seem so natural, and I attribute it to Aysel being an honest narrator.

The plot is not really unique; even the synopsis at the back of the book speaks of an ending that is a predictable non-secret (the keyword is “transformative love”, which in turn dictated the carrying theme of the book). And even without that, the ending is something you can smell from a mile away, so yes: this is a tale of a damsel-in-distress and a bachelor-in-a-binder who chose to be accomplices to each other’s destruction but somehow ended up saving each other.

To be fair, the book hints of this perspective too. The whole “you saved me” theme is more underscored in Aysel’s case so it is not easy to see, but squint and you will perceive it in the case of Roman. Even if in the end he feels the same way for Aysel, he still thinks the world is a pretty dreary world to live in. He will need counselling, he will need people to talk to, and he will need to fight the urge to give in to the lure of ending his own suffering. The author is not sugarcoating that.

Now, we get to where I think the novel gets a not-so-little faux pas. Personally, I think depression is not something that romance can easily scoop you out of; it is something that you have to individually grapple with and may take years—eternities—to win against. Talking to other people may help, but the battle is still with you. Nobody can slay the monster inside you but yourself.

Somehow, though, I am grateful that the ending has a hopeful note…if only for the benefit of the depressed souls who may choose to pick this up. However, I reiterate that this may still give the false idea that love alone can magically cure depression. I half-hoped that the author would choose not to go down that way, that romance will not be the sole reason for the choice for survival, but I guess we're still in the YA section after all?

Looking at it another way, Aysel did need someone to enlighten her about what she is going through, though it must be noted that she stood up against the "black slug" living inside her on her own volition. She and Roman started off as friends, and I could attest to how friendship can work wonders to your well-being and mental health. I liked how the author toyed with the notion that the two characters are still fumbling with the idea of romance between them; there is a part near the end where Aysel admitted that she is in love with Roman, and backpedaled with a subtle remark about how he might think she was misusing the term. It gives an "are we or are we not" vibe to the whole thing between them, even though the readers may roll their eyes if we ever deny that the author is not waving the "romance" neon lights. I still wished they stayed friends, though. It could have had a bigger impact.

Lastly, I think the novel could have been so much better with an epilogue. After all, Aysel did have a life before Roman came into the picture. There is the lingering question about her father (I stopped questioning it when I thought she was not really in a hurry because she would not take the plunge at all; I also totally see how this was a way for our girl and her mother to reconnect, but STILL),about her siblings, and about everything else that have made her spiral down into depression in the first place. That may be a lot to cram in an epilogue, but taking a peek into the future would have been nice.

Despite its obvious flaws, I would still say I liked this novel. It is a story of two people with a knowledge that their pains are fingerprint-like in their uniqueness, but know that it would not stop them from being each other’s crutch. It is a story of two damaged souls who learned not only to navigate but also fill the cracks of each other’s brokenness. It is a story of acknowledging that you have to save yourself before you can save somebody else. And more importantly, it is a story about living more than dying.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: Bone Gap

Author: Laura Ruby
Genre: Magical realism, contemporary, young adult
My rating: ★★★★ 

“The face that the world sees is never the sum of who we are.” I was thumbing the blurb’s print on the roughish dust jacket of Bone Gap when my fingertips stopped at this line, the last one dangling at the end. It struck a chord with me. Lately I was contemplating about appearances, about the metaphorical masks we put on when we bottle up feelings or when we don’t want the society to judge us for who we really are. With its ambiguous synopsis, would the book be able to quench my curiosity?
It did, but in a way I did not expect.

The story unfolds in the small town of Bone Gap, which couldn’t have been more aptly named. Patched together by sleepy cornfields, neighbourly bonds, and gossips with little to no drop of truth in them, the Midwestern farm town is full of gaps—instances and realizations where people could just slip into when they think they no longer want to be part of the town. Brothers Finn and Sean O’ Sullivan, for instance, have been orphaned twice, first when their mother hightailed it to Oregon with a new man and second when the inexplicably beautiful Roza disappeared from their lives.

The town did not think anything is amiss with Roza’s disappearance, as they are used to people leaving them. But eighteen-year-old Finn knows Roza did not leave on her volition; he saw her being kidnapped by a man whose face he could not quite describe. Since he could only identify the man by the way he moves—“like a cornstalk in the wind”—the police and the people of Bone Gap starts doubting him, even believing that he has helped Roza go away. Finn could handle that. What he could not is when his brother Sean seems to side with the town…which is not really that surprising, since Sean has given his heart to Roza the night the mysterious girl appeared in their barn after escaping an unknown evil.

In a series of events that marries dream and reality, the readers are introduced in a world awash with mystery and magical realism. I love how the story cradles Easter eggs lifted from the pages of D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, with the starker ones pointing to the tale of Persephone and Demeter. The prose, which bears the beauty of lyricism and the subtlety of poetry, are helpful in binding the different realities of the novel together. I initially did not know that the book is tinged with fantasy, which is why it took me by surprise when the magic in it turns out to be not merely metaphor but real magic. It was a nice touch, especially when you get to pick out the references to other literature.
Most of the characters are indelibly endearing. Finn, who earns the nicknames Moonface, Sidetrack, and Spaceman for always seemingly drifting and not looking anyone in the eye, is a precious character whose development throughout the novel is palpable. I love how his “distractedness” became also useful in making the third-person POV a little unreliable. This makes the chapters enchanting to read, with essential twists at every turn.

The novel also dips its edges into romance, but not of the cloying, sweet kind. Pretty boy Finn finds himself uncontrollably enamoured with Petey, the feisty and not-so-pretty bee-eyed daughter of the town’s beekeeper (much to the bafflement of the whole Bone Gap, of course). A heart-aching revelation explains this unconventional attraction, but headstrong Finn refuses to back down. His love for Petey is real, no matter what.

Fairytales drop by here, too, but in a style that reverses their Disneyfied formula. Whereas the traditional ones include poor, pretty girls in the dirt who get swept up and brought to castles to live the life of princesses, the one we have with Bone Gap includes a poor, pretty girl who actually enjoys working in the dirt and is not interested in a living in a castle with you, thank you very much. Stockholm syndrome is eschewed here in the process.

Unfortunately, the poor, pretty girl in question—Roza—shapes up to become the story’s Mary Sue. She is beautiful to a fault, charming enough to captivate the whole town (and basically everyone she gets in contact with, including otherworldly abductors), and in possession of little “flaws” that are not flaws at all. In other words, our little Polish girl is just too good to be true. I believe that with more believable imperfections (and a bit more of personality development), she could have been more humanized.

But over all, the story is still good; it is up there with my “most unputdownable” list. It dissects what real heroism is—should it should always involve brawn and good looks, of Knight-in-Shining-Armour treatment, of definite hubris on the sides of saviourism? Or is it enough to have bravery and steadfast belief in the midst of doubters and critics, of a good heart beaten by disquiet but unbeaten by hopelessness?  Here, the princess did not get saved by her prince, but by another young man with a disability he did not know and a need to get himself a family again. Here, the prince shuts off the world and retreats inside himself to brood and simmer in stoicism. Here, a not-so-pretty maiden gets her heart broken by a love that she thought made her beautiful, only to be washed away by a reality that sneakily hid itself in masks. Here, we are reminded that true love does not require seeing what others could, if it could already see what it needed to in order to remain alive.

Four stars for an amazing read.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Quarter of a Century

I spent the first minutes of my birthday slumped and sleepy in a bus ride home after working overtime, hugging the company-issue jacket tighter around me to protect myself from the blast of the bus' AC. It was 12:07AM when I checked. Outside, the ever-busy EDSA was a racing blur; on the radio, REO Speedwagon was belting out "Can't Fight this Feeling" (I remember the driver singing along).

Inside my head, I was grasping at the newest reality of my life: I'm finally 25.

There shouldn't have been a Eureka moment for it; I already know I'm an adult, and I've long accepted the challenge. Still, the realizations hit me like a hammer to the head: TWENTY-FIVE, AIRIZ! There would be more of this. More OTs in the future. More bills to pay. More problems to wrestle with. More pain and heartaches. More snags, more glitches, more bumps in the road. More inner demons that gnaw at my heart at night, officially waving their fancy "Quarterlife Crisis" nickname as their All-Access Pass to the most fragile of my dreams.

But that'd mean there would be more of the good stuff, too. More memories to make. More artworks to churn out. More poetry to craft. More places to travel to and fall in love with. More strangers to turn into family. More laughter with friends. More distances to run. More TV shows and plays and flicks and musicals to rave about. More books to devour. More songs to listen and unleash our karaoke spirit to. More star-strewn skies to marvel at. More stories to write, more stories to share, more stories to live. More people to love and love and love. Thousands more of minutes to spend breathing. Millions more of seconds to spend living.

So I spent the rest of my birthday with people who matter the most to me--family--and thought, this isn't so bad. I'm terrified, true, but this can't be too bad. While this marked me another year older, this also gave me another chance to build a better version of myself. So let all the goods and the bads of this life come, and let 'em shape me into what I really want to be in this life. I may be a freaked-out, lost millennial, but along the way I know I'll find the right path to my destination. ­čśŐ #birthday

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review: Ten Thousand Skies Above You

Author: Claudia Gray
Genre: Science fiction, young adult, contemporary, romance
My rating: ★★★★1/2 (4.5 of 5 stars)

If someone hands you a ticket to an alternate universe—a reality different from where you are standing now—where would you want to be? The universe where you took that big risk that might have made your dreams come true? Probably the reality where a certain person did not leave you and killed half your soul in the process? The dimension perhaps where you opted to embrace this person’s heart instead of slowly poisoning it with hurt?

We may reel in these thoughts in the form of sighed regrets and weakly disguised daydreams, but for Marguerite Caine, the concept of multiverse is more than just a bittersweet notion of what-might-have-been. It all started when her life was turned upside down the day her physicist parents invented a device that allows a person to travel between parallel universes—the Firebird. Marguerite learns the benefits and perils of using the Firebird after her first travels, back when she was driven by rage and revenge after the “death” of her father. One long string of misunderstandings (and countless misadventures) later, Marguerite once again finds herself leaping across dimensions to save Paul, the love of her life, from powerful enemies who want to use the Firebird for their own dark plans. Paul’s soul is splintered into four pieces that are trapped within other Pauls in alternate realities. Before her enemies catch up with her, Marguerite must save Paul and his other-world counterparts.

In this follow-up to A Thousand Pieces of You, Claudia Gray launches into yet another mad, white-knuckle romp of a dimension-hopping quest that slaked my anticipation for the series. It is startlingly addictive despite looking like, at first glance, a gimmick-laced sequel that forced itself to latch onto the idea of its parent. The sceptic in me initially frowned at the whole “splintered soul, collect them all” thing, having encountered this trope in many stories before. But the book proved to be larger and more intricate than the clich├ęd premise; the author executed it with one bang of a literary gunshot that blew me away completely.

Like its predecessor, Ten Thousand Skies Above You also teems with scientific jargon, love, adrenaline rush, different flavours of Machiavellianism (ah, the very spice of this book!), the blend of romance and mathematics making up what we like to call destiny, and the twists that will keep its audience at the edge of their seats. Knowing that it did not in any way suffer being the second book in the trilogy is refreshing; the story stands solidly on its own, unlike others that are only churned out to serve as hollow bridges for the first and third books.

With our heroine’s feelings for our handsome bachelor-in-a-bind moving the plot along, it is understandable that romance will eat up a substantial part of the story; moreover, it also coincides with how the events were wrapped up in the preceding novel. Gray, thankfully, made it so that every page was not saturated with typical YA mush—just enough fluffy romance to oil up the gears and keep the tale going.

But keep in mind that not all romance was pure cheese and cloying sweetness. It may be true that a person has other versions in the varied spectrum of parallel universes, but Marguerite has a staunch faith in the consistency of one’s soul. She believes that a person may have ten thousand variations, but they’re all the same at their core. So when she bumps into a counterpart of Paul that shows a darker, crueller side—a counterpart that does not feel a dollop of genuine care for the Marguerite of his world—she begins to question the strength of their love across universes. This is an intriguing emotional turn, one that shakes our heroine’s resolve and reveals more layers of her personality.

Characterisation, of course, is still top-notch. With many characters leaping from one version of themselves after another, they have to manipulate their behaviour in order to convince the mirrored counterparts of their world that they have not just commandeered the body of their other selves. The author once again proved that she is adept at making characters pop out of the pages no matter how many versions they may have, having done it flawlessly in A Thousand Pieces of You.

I’m particularly enamoured with how she shaped up Marguerite more—she already did a good job with her in the first instalment so I was surprised she did something better here. It is a common formula for badass YA heroines to be written as pseudo-superhumans, with “weaknesses” endearing enough to be chalked up as additional quirks. The author opted not to subscribe to this recipe. So while Marguerite maintained her spunk and softness as well as the relentless questioning on the morality of life-hijacking, she uncovered that side of her that just wants to eschew reality for a while after it has taken its toll on her. This humanizes her otherwise too heroic makeup.

Wyatt Conley, the main antagonist, has been given a heftier identity here. I like my bad guys in various shades of grey, not all-wicked in a cardboard-thin kind of way. He was but fuzzy evil figure in the A Thousand Pieces of You so I’m happy his character is given weight and personality here. He is more complex than I realize; I can’t wait what the author has up her sleeve for him in the next book.

Gray’s nimble hands also did good with the ever difficult world-building, a very significant element that will decide the three-dimensionality (ahem) of the trilogy’s universe. For this instalment, we have a war-torn San Francisco, the criminal underworld of a murkier New York City, a mesmerizing Paris where another Marguerite keeps a shocking secret, and a couple more baleful, futuristic universes that Marguerite takes dangerous trips to. It seems challenging to mould them fully in a novel that is barely 500 pages long, but the author managed to make it work! I believe that the way she expertly populates the settings with her characters has something to do with it.

Overall, Ten Thousand Skies Above You has been an enjoyable ride, one that I can’t help but pick up again the moment I finished it. The story ends with a gripping cliffhanger that will make the last book in the series—A Million Worlds With You—a surefire wild ride. With the first two novels proving to be true-blue unputdownables, I have expectations high for the finale.

4.5 stars for that exhilarating experience!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bits of Art, Beats of Heart

There are times when being an adult becomes almost synonymous to being a robot, in a sense that you must stand as if you're not hurting despite the emotionally wrecking storm ravaging around you. But even robots run out of batteries; even wind-up figurines halt. So your inner kid, exhausted of sobbing quietly inside the suffocating cage of your heart, knocks at you and asks permission to be let out. Can I have fresh air? she requests bashfully, tears in her eyes. I want to breathe for a while.

So you let her out. You reach out for your pastel pencils, your paintbrushes, the dusted tubes of watercolors, the box of soft pastels from your shelf. You start creating again. You start breathing again.

Art, as you know it, is both an escape and a jail. For one, you have to reach back out to the memory that hurt you before. You know the process like the back of your hand: you search for it, wade through the pain, until you find the beauty in it. There is always that one gem beneath the folds of darkness. As you close your fingers around it, you start putting colors on the white.

The particular train ride home that tortured you? The time your ever-smiling mask ached so bad because of the all-teeth grins you always flash (the fake ones! the fake ones!)? The moment your blood ran cold when you realized you are not who you think you are and will probably never know? They have their own beauty in them, too. You actually draft a whole poem for them, take out a couple of lines and have it incorporate into your splashes of paints and smudges of colors. You give them names, because you think it somehow give their existence a tiny reason of  being being. This is it. This is the prismatic offspring of your loneliness and overthinking.

And in those countless moments, you feel like you are both dying and being reborn at the same time.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Review: A Thousand Pieces of You

Author: Claudia Gray
Genre: Science fiction, young adult, contemporary, romance
My rating: ★★★★1/2 (4.5 of 5 stars)

Taking short-term AWOLs from our realities to soak in our daydreams is completely and understandably human. We might not always admit it, but we enjoy wallowing in unlived possibilities. But what if those possibilities exist in the form of alternate universes? What if our romantic pockets of what-might-have-beens are real in every sense of the word—that there’s a universe where the person you adore loves you back, a reality where you chose the other path that might have changed your life forever, and a dimension where you became a person you never expected to be?

Claudia Gray’s novel A Thousand Pieces of You revolves around the idea of a multiverse, with an added bonus: you can actually leap through all of these dimensions as long as a version of you exist in them. But what it makes clear is that there is more to this concept than the pretty chassis of being able travel into a parallel reality and meeting a parallel version of yourself.  This tale, at its best, elegantly crosses the high-wire of the chosen premise’s complicated science and the too romanticized structure of these What-If Worlds.

The book follows the story of Marguerite Caine, the artistic daughter of two brilliant physicists that invented a device that allows a person to travel between dimensions—the Firebird. Being the only right-brained person in a house full of scientists, Marguerite tilts the family picture off-kilter, but charmingly so; they are perfectly content, parents and sisters and hyper-intelligent assistants alike. The happy picture only cracks one day when her father is murdered. Vowing to avenge him, Marguerite and her friend Theo hop through several dimensions to chase Paul Markov, the prime suspect and one of her parents’ enigmatic prot├ęg├ęs. But in the middle of her gritty and dangerous tour of the multiverse, Marguerite uncovers truths that befuddle her resolve for revenge and make her question her heart. Is Paul really behind the death of her father? Or is the crime really more sinister and complicated than she imagined?

Mesmerizing and deliciously addictive, A Thousand Pieces of You came as a pleasant surprise to me. After encountering a barrage of Young Adult novels that hitched a ride in the sci-fi train in an effort to cast its audience net wider, I did not set my standards high for this. I thought I have seen this kind of dodgy promotion in YA dystopias before; I thought this would be just a mushy romp about regrets, swaddled by a love story centered on yet another husk of a heroine (or worse, another Bella Swan). I have long been disenchanted by such commercial moves that thrive in this part of the lit industry, which is the reason why I abstained for a while from the genre. If anything, curiosity teased me to pick this up. How would a newer contemporary YA author approach this concept? The only other books that I devoured on the topic was the elegiac The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and the toothsome, video-gamey InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves.

Thankfully, the book proved me wrong. While it is still a story about love, it does not simmer in romance like it is the fuel that keeps the words flowing. I admire how the storyline is woven in an intricate web of Machiavellian schemes, betrayal, rage, and the ever-changing rules of each world that our heroine jumps into. Of course, the bond of fate and love (and mathematics, as the readers are frequently reminded) between the main characters are the common denominator between each universe. The fact that the author does not underscore the romance part every time an opportunity pops up helps the reader relish in it when the author does decide to focus on it. In its stead we get fragments of indulgent fantasy and tons of engaging scientific explanations...notwithstanding the constant propensity of our main character to squirm from technobabble.

World-building is a tricky cogwheel in a multiverse. Fleshing out one world is in itself a toilsome task, how about constructing several believable ones? The author branches out the tale from the contemporary world where the main storyline begins to (1) a futuristic London, where holographic social media populate the streets more than actual face-to-face conversations do; (2) Imperial Russia, precariously replete with cutthroat politics; (3) an underwater world eerily similar to the labor colonies in Chang Rae-Lee’s On Such a Full Sea; and to (4) a dimension pretty similar to where it all began, except with a few different choices taken by the characters. I understand how making these all pop out realistically in less than 400 pages is going to be impossible. The most developed one, if only because Gray dedicated a big chunk of the story to it, is in Russia. I admired how the transitions between these worlds are seamless…reader-wise, that is. (It is quite rocky for our characters in there, like that time when Marguerite literally falls down a flight of stairs as she takes over the body of her other self in a different dimension.)

Characterization here steps up on a delightful, Inception-esque notch. In the changing universes, the main Marguerite must try to learn how her other versions will act, which means she has to manipulate her behaviour to con people that she is perfectly normal and did not just hijack that dimension’s Marguerite’s body. That is basically a character attempting to fit into a different mold of her character. I adored her in that sense, and even beyond the fourth wall. I did not fall for her at the get-go; she appeared to be a messy stew of emotions in the beginning, a portrayal of angsty teen leads that I became so tired of before. I was indifferent towards her for the first few chapters. Over the course of the story, though, I learned to like her. She is both soft and spunky, fired up alternately by rage and love, emotionally confused, and, even if she has too much on her plate for being a harried dimension-hopper, still has time to worry about the morality of taking over another person’s body while they carry out their self-assigned missions.

Now, Paul? He’s a different beast entirely. Aside from the very obvious multitude of a person's—Paul's—versions in other universes, I guess one of the reasons the story bears A Thousand Pieces of You as its title is that we get to see many fragments of him across the book: we get glimpses of him through flashbacks and Marguerite’s observations, and we spend only a few moments with him when he appears in the dimension where the main Marguerite is in. Logically, the most complete portrait of him is his bashful bodyguard version in the long section of the story set in Russiaverse, which in a way is not him at all. Now, illogically, despite not having a stitched-together presentation of him, he is the character that tugs at my heartstrings the most. Selfless almost to a fault, shy, mysterious, he will do anything for the Caines without asking anything in return. He does not even care if Marguerite loves him back or not. His heartbreaking tragedy here is that when he finally gets his chance with her, he finds himself in competition with none other than a version of himself…a version that the girl actually loves. Yes, not him. The other him. It is a truly unconventional love triangle, where the guy is present in two corners and still does not quite win.

(Speaking of love triangles, let us kindly not include our darling Theo into that. I love the guy; he is your typical hipster, happy-go-lucky brother-that-isn't who totally has your back. I just guess he just does not fit into the romance equation in this book, no matter how charming of a character he is. It is just a choice between Paul and…well, Paul.)

A certified unputdownable treat, A Thousand Pieces of You is one of those YA books that can make me believe in the genre again. It is nowhere near perfect, but it is amazing in its own right. I cannot wait to get my hands on its sequel, Ten Thousand Skies Above You.

4.5 stars for a brilliant experience!

Sunday, January 3, 2016

A New Chapter

A new chapter, a new dawn, a new blank slate. Despite being perhaps the most timeworn metaphors that pop up alongside our fresh lists of resolutions, I think these words still hold power to drive people to wake up, to stand up, and to work on becoming better versions of themselves in the next 365 (or is it 366?) days of their lives. They are still some people’s only wick of light amid the gloom that might have veiled their previous year; they are still some people’s tank of hope after an exhausting quest to get past twelve-month-ful of hurdles. Sure, the year 2015 could not have been all hardships, but nothing re-energizes us more than an opportunity to start anew.

So whatever your clich├ęd “new” somethings this 2016 may be, embrace them and let them propel you forward. Grab this chance to fire yourself afresh, to wash away the bittersweet aftertaste of 2015 that might still be hitchhiking on your back. Make this your year your best one yet!