A writing challenge

Posted by Marie on Saturday, August 15, 2015 in , , ,
First, some explanations.

It was almost midnight. I was hanging around with my friends Joko and Jeeves last month in a cafe somewhere in Makati, when the topic of paranormal romance novel series came around. Joko loves these kinds of books to bits (guilty pleasures and all), and she was relishing telling us some of the ludicrous plots from such books. I then claimed that anyone can probably write a romance series (particularly one of those sub-genres, e.g. paranormal romance, horror romance, etc.) with just five set of random keywords.So Joko and Jeeves took me up to my statement, and a writing challenge was made. Here are the rules:

Objective: Develop a romance story out of five random keywords.
Detail #1: The keywords will be chosen by the other two participant.
Detail #2: One of the five random keywords is automatically "vampire".
Detail #3: You get to choose the sub-genre of your romance story.

So here are the other four keywords that Joko and Jeeves chose for me: El Filibusterismo , Darna, Bataan, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Needless to say, nawindang ako. :-P

Fast forward to this week.One of my book clubs, The Filipino Group, holds bimonthly meme challenges. And what do you know, for the first half of August, the meme challenge is called "Your Romance Novel". That is, you create your own romance novel via a writing structure provided by Tina, the meme challenge facilitator - a perfect opportunity to do Joko's bet. Two birds with one stone, ika nga.

So here we go, my proposed romance story.

Author's name: My own name. I'm going to be proud as hell if this will be published, hahaha!

Your genre: Fantasy Romance

Your novel's romance trope: Tina said to use this page. Browsing through it and because I'm bored with the usual tropes, I think the one that fits the most is "No Romantic Resolution".

Your title: Umm, "The Immortals"? Corny no?

Your setting: Primarily Europe, and the Philippines

Your villain: The fates, I guess

Your main characters / lead interests: 
(I believe that romance books with one character (usually the female) pining/dreaming/pursuing the lead interest (usually the male) is old-fashioned and frankly, boring. Both should be the main characters of the story, regardless of the gender (even if both characters are of the same gender)).

Juan Simoun de Cordoba, Duke of Almodovar del Rio
The son of a wealthy conquistador and a mestizo, he was born in 1650. His father died from a battle with the indios shortly after his birth, and his mother was forced to go back to her family. His first 18 years in the Philippines were happy despite their misfortune, and he was primarily raised by his mother and his Nana Sepang. What he did not know is that his father was the last son of an important family in Spain, and being his only known child, Simoun was his heir. He was forcibly taken from his mother and promptly shipped back to Europe. When he arrived at the Castillo de Almodovar del Rio, he has to quickly learn how to be a nobleman, including how to navigate through the dangerous waters of the royal court, and how to not get assassinated. He secretly swore to himself that he will somehow get back to the Philippines and his mother. But as the year go by, he became so comfortable with the idle life and comfort of being a duke, that he slowly forgot about his promise.

One dark and stormy night, as he got was traveling home from an all night revelry, his carriage was attacked by unknown assailants. All he saw were gleaming eyes. He felt fangs sinking painfully on his neck, then blackness overcame him. When he woke up, he was in his castle once again. During the next few days, he felt drastic changes in his body and spirit: he was becoming a vampire. To avoid suspicion, he left Spain, on the pretense of wanting to travel all over the world. In the next few years (which became decades), he learned through sheer willpower (and with the help of a mysterious mentor) how to adjust to his new life as a creature of the night, how to use his new found powers, and how to obtain some control on his now unavoidable thirst for blood. After a more than half a century he comes back to Almodovar del Rio with a new name, and pretending to be his own son. He then gathered his ducal influence, wealth, and power for a new purpose: to find a way to be human again.

Bernardina Carpio
The daughter of an engkantada and a datu, she was deliberately born to be the savior of the Filipinos against the Spanish invaders. Starting from childhood, she was trained in the art of warfare by her father, and in the art of magic and healing by her mother. She was never given a name (nor knew when she was born), and "Bernardina Carpio" was given to her by her nurse when she grew into adulthood, so that she can blend in with the population.Along with her great strength and immortality, she has the ability to change her skin, which she uses to help the oppressed by transforming herself into people we now recognize as revolutionary leaders or heroes. The downside is that she needs to "sleep" for roughly five years every half a century to recharge.

After two centuries of dedicated service to the cause, Bernardina grew restless. As she walked among the common folks, she grew envious of their freedom to choose their destinies. But she kept her quiet, since she knows her cause is too important, and the she shouldn't be so selfish. That is, until she met the strange brooding man from faraway Europe...

Your one paragraph synopsis (well, in this case, multiple synopses):
In dedication to Joko's vision of a perfect romance story, I see this as a series, at the very least, a trilogy.

Book 1 (1890):
Simoun meets and befriends the young author Jose Rizal. Rizal then takes inspiration from Simoun for his books (particularly the main character of his second book, El Filibusterismo), in exchange for stories about the Philippines. Simoun learns about about the various Philippine folklore and mysticism, including about the legend of the mysterious but powerful Bernardina Carpio. He travels back to his birth country, intent into finding the enigmatic woman, to convince or even force her into curing him. But he did not expect beautiful, untamed and strong Bernardina to be woman of his wildest dreams and eternal longing....

Book 2 (1945):
It has been a difficult decade for Bernardina. World War 2 had taken its toll on the Philippines. With the help of her assistant, the reporter/cartoonist, Mars Ravelo (who had been secretly drawing inspiration from Bernardina for his new comics, Darna), she had traveled all over the country in succor to the sick, the suffering, and the dying. And she felt, a different kind of lethargy too, the one she feels when it's time to go back to the mountains of Montalban for a five-year mystical sleep. But with the US ships on the horizon, and the first blasts of the bombs on Bataan (where Bernadina had established a small secret hospital), the so-called Liberation of the Philippines went underway. In the middle of the battlefield, she did not expect to see the figure of an enigmatic man she had knew quite well, and has dearly loved, from decades ago...

Book 3 (2015):
It is the world premiere of "In Life and Death", a true-to-life action/romance blockbuster starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Set in World War Two, it is the love story of a European and a Filipina meeting in the middle of the battlefield during the deadly Liberation of the Manila. Drawn out of hiding by curiosity and perhaps by destiny, Simoun and Bernardina meets by chance on the steps of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Will Simoun be able to convince her of to take a chance on him this time around? Will Bernardina be able to be free of her chains and take a chance of happiness with Simoun?


Is this a go or a bust? Do you think I can dupe someone into publishing this? So what do think?

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Top Ten All-Time Favorite Authors

Posted by Marie on Wednesday, April 22, 2015 in , , , , , , , , , , ,
So how did this came about?

There's this activity in one my book clubs (The Filipino Groups there in Goodreads), where the moderator told us to list down our top ten favorite authors of all time.

So okay, challenge accepted.

I'm glad it's top ten favorite authors and not top ten best authors because it's easier to just rely on my biased opinions (from which the latter is based on), rather than try to be an objective reviewer (from which the former is based on).

So anyway, here's my top ten favorite authors (in alphabetical order):

Jane Austen 

I like how polarizing Jane Austen can be. After all, most of her characters are very much preoccupied with parties, social chit chat, and other trivial matters. In a time when social standing and connection is a matter of life and death (sometimes literally), marriage is an essential undertaking, most especially for women. In a time when people are judged by their superficial looks and manners, how you bear yourself is very important, most especially for women. Austen wrote her books much like how women must present themselves in her time: seemingly modest, seemingly simple, seemingly light, seemingly trivial. To appreciate Austen, one must read deeper. Modesty belies the intensity of her drama (which, rather than explode outwards in Bronte-like bursts of passion, her characters prefer to implode inwards, with minimalist but accurate language). Modesty also veils the wit and the satirical tone of her texts, the ironies and (surprisingly for some people) the realism.

New readers should start with: Persuasion (then follow with Northanger Abbey) 

Ray Bradbury

I find it unfair when people describe Ray Bradbury merely as a science fiction writer. This is because while most of his story has some science fiction or fantastical aspects in them, it is the "heart" - the warmth, the optimism for the future, the down-to-earth human-ness - in his stories which makes them very good, and what defines them. There is a lyrical simplicity and honesty to his language. It is a language of sadness but also of hope, of kindness but also of cruelty brought simply because we are all merely human.

New readers should start with: The Martian Chronicles (then follow with his short stories, particularly There Will Come Soft Rains) 

Anton Chekhov 

Anton Chekhov knew people. He knew how they think and how they react. He knew that lives can be funny, melancholic, exciting, and mundane all the same time. His stories are a reflection of these. He wrote stories of characters who are both ordinary and strange. Of small dramas that have good and bad endings. He wrote of stories that are heartrendingly familiar, even to modern readers (for example, the very short story, "The Head of the Family" suddenly took me back to my childhood). He even wrote stories of oppression and cruelty, not just of the rich, but also by the poor. Rationality is seldom the focus, and his characters are primarily swayed by their emotions. No solution comes in endings, but mostly a complete presentation of the issue at hand. Life is such a complicated mess, and Anton Chekhov knew that.

New readers should start with: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories (particularly the titular story, and Ionitch) 

Arthur Conan Doyle 

Yes, I know that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote other stories besides the Sherlock Holmes canon. Unfortunately for Professor Challenger (I swear I'll try to put his stories in my TBR), it is Sherlock Holmes that I love the most. Arthur Conan Doyle had the ability to write characters that are so well fleshed out they seem to be real people (heck, some people really do believe that Sherlock Holmes and John Watson were real as you and me). His stories are a nice blend of comfortable tropes and brilliant storytelling. They are not meant to be deep (remember that these stories were first serialized in Strand Magazine), but there is a timeless quality to them and the characters, such at more that 120 years later, people still loves everything Sherlock Holmes.

New readers should start with: A Study in Scarlet (then follow with The Sign of the Four)

Franz Kafka 

Unsettling is the word that comes into my mind when I think of Franz Kafka. His stories are like dreams - strange things happen in it, and you recognize its strangeness, but you accept it anyway. Most of his story are familiar frustrations and anxieties: futile struggles against the bureaucracy, striving fruitlessly for one's goals, and of loneliness and alienation. I had found reading Kafka to be a personal experience - because it is useless to comprehend his stories rationally, your interpretation is as valid as anyone else's.

New readers should start with: The Metamorphosis (then follow with Amerika) 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

The same way with Ray Bradbury, I find it unfair to call Gabriel Garcia Marquez as solely a magical realist author, simply because he is so much more. The way he described scenes, places, and people are just so vivid. When he described the plantations of Macondo (for example), you can almost see the bananas swaying with the hot wind, while you shield your eyes from the unyielding tropical sun. And my God, the stories. The words present themselves as such that you feel them rather than read. You feel the slowness of time and the frustrations of the Colonel while waiting for his letter. You feel like the dread of the inevitable fate of Santiago Nasar. And One Hundred Years of Solitude is not a read, it is an experience.

New readers should start with: No two ways about it. Begin with the awesome One Hundred Years of Solitude. 

Vladimir Nabokov 

I was angry with Vladimir Nabokov in college. He manipulated my emotions. He made me like Humbert Humbert. Only on the second read (and with the help of my other book club) did I saw Humbert as the monster that he really is. It's not that there were no clues. It's just that Nabokov wrote Humbert Humbert with such charm that I had unconsciously ignored the alarms. Only in later years did I appreciate the preciseness of Nabokov's prose, the careful arrangement of words that had made me fall under Humbert's charm. My takeaway lesson from Nabokov is that readers should not judge books as good or bad merely from their empathetic reaction with the story or characters ("the story made me sad/the main character is a terrible person, and that is why I rate this as 0 stars"). One should also think of the way the story is made, the style, the prose, the character development, and many many more.

New readers should start with: Lolita (then follow with the wonderful Pnin) 

Ambeth Ocampo

One day in college, despite having a report deadline in PI 100, I finished the Ambeth Ocampo book collection in the UP Main Library. That's six books in two hours. That just show how accessible and easy to read Professor Ocampo's books are. He had made history so approachable and alive, especially for the young folks (I'm not sure I'm still included in this lot, hahaha!). Personally, I like reading Ambeth Ocampo's books in between heavy fictions. They are the perfect palate cleansers, not because they are pieces of fluff (for example, Meaning and History and Bones of Contention are meaty reads), but because of the welcome change of topic, and easier pace and tone.

New readers should start with: Rizal Without the Overcoat (then follow with Aguinaldo's Breakfast) 

Tony Perez 

Tony Perez dwells in the unusual. Not just the supernatural, mind you, (although he does head the Spirit Questors) but those that are beyond the normal. I hesitate to call it bizarre, after all bizarre is in the eyes of the beholder. Take Cubao, for example. The day gives it a matter-of-fact, business-as-usual look. But at night, Cubao takes a mysterious, seductive, and dangerous sheen. Tony Perez's stories are rife with characters with subversive thoughts and intentions. His language is gritty, grimy, and disturbing, and his story are full of twists and turns, sometimes for good, but most of the times, for the worse.

New readers should start with: Cubao Midnight Express (then follow with Cubao Pagkagat ng Dilim) 

J.R.R. Tolkien

Finally, J.R.R. Tolkien. Many of the fantasy tropes in fiction began with him. Because of the familiarity, people tend to get bored with him. Not me. I had re-read Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion so many times that I lost count. Bilbo, Frodo, Sam, and the rest of the Fellowship had become dear friends that every read's end brings a tear in my eye (yes, literally). I'm not really sure why I love Tolkien's stories to bits. Maybe it is the comfort that chaos and evil does not last, and that order will sometimes be restored, not exactly the way it was, but at least to some satisfaction of most people. That journeys does not really end, and people return from these journeys quite changed. And that stories goes on and on, even after you had read the last page, even after you had closed the book.

New readers should start with: The Lord of the Rings, (then follow with The Hobbit)

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What the heart contains / Ang nilalaman ng puso

Posted by Marie on Friday, February 13, 2015 in , , , , , ,
Oh, February. No time in the year can make someone assess the relationships in his or her life than in the so-called month of love. For me, the best way to celebrate February is to read a couple of books (of course!). These two anthologies focus on being human. And being human, it seems, consists of interacting with fellow humans. That can result to good things, bad things, pleasurable things, painful things, and stranger still - strange because this is where most humans naturally gravitate - a messed-up mixture of all four .

The first book is The Means of Escape, Penelope Fitzgerald's last, published posthumously. I had been a fan of Ms. Fitzgerald ever since I've read The Bookshop. I like the elegance of her language, and the deliberateness of her words. I had often wondered how long (how many revisions, changes, editing) did it took to write what A.S. Byatt, in her introduction called her "discreet, brief, perfect tales". I'm not so sure if I can call them truly perfect, but they very much seem to be. What I love about her stories is that they cannot be spoiled. You see, I like knowing the plot of a book first before plunging into it. If the book has interesting characters, good writing, and development that is not heavily dependent on the plot, I will probably still enjoy it to the bits despite knowing the story. While Ms. Fitzgerald's stories have interesting plots, it is the astuteness of her observations of the human heart and its interaction with fate that are the crux of her tales, and what ultimately made her stories brilliant. 

The stories in The Mean of Escape are that - studies of the sensibilities and absurdities of human behavior, as well as about the natural order and randomness of our lives. There are stories about morality ("The Prescription", "The Red Haired Girl","Our Lives Are Only Lent to Us"), while some are about social judgments ("The Means of Escape", "Not Shown","The Likeness"). There are mysteries ("Desideratus","Beehernz"), light hearted ones ("At Hiruharama"), and even a zombie tale ("The Axe"). My favorite stories are "The Means of Escape" (who is escaping from where?), "The Red Haired Girl" (kindness can save lives literally), and "Our Lives are Only Lent to Us" (so maddeningly Catholic, so maddeningly Filipino).

The second book is Tony Perez's Cubao Midnight Express: Mga Pusong Nadiskaril sa Mahabang Riles ng Pag-ibig. It is part of his Cubao trilogy. The other one is Cubao Pagkagat ng Dilim: Mga Kwentong Kababalaghan, which I've read in college in between required readings for PI 100 (Life and Works of Jose Rizal) in the basement of the UP Main Library. I had loved Pagkagat ng Dilim for all the dread that it had gave me, and it had been in my wishlist ever since. The third one is Eros, Thanatos, Cubao: Mga Piling Katha, which I had never seen.

Cubao Midnight Express is about love. Not the “normal” one with a normal start and normal endings (i.e. the stuff romance pocketbooks are made of), but those that are unconventional. These are stories of “hearts that are derailed by the long train tracks of love” (gosh, I really suck at translating :-P). 

Some of the stories are about people who become twisted because of failed love (the “First Trip” stories: “Tipanan” (Meeting) and “Pamamanhikan” (Courtship)). Some are stories about the absurdities resulting from people's search for love, sex, or both (the “Second Trip” stories: “Basted” (Busted), “Kaisplit” (Best Buds), and “Katalo” (Match)). And some are tragedies, as some love stories are wont to be, not just because it is eccentric or forbidden (“Balani” (Magnet), “Relasyon” (Relation)) because sometimes, even regular love will lead to a devastating heartbreak (“Ligaw” (can either mean ‘Wooing’ or ‘Lost’), and the story that distraught me the most, “Kirot” (Pain)).

Like Ms. Fitzgerald, Mr. Perez is also very much adept with his words. But unlike the former's elegance, Mr. Perez's language is gritty, grimy, and disturbing, like his muse, Cubao-by-night (to differentiate from her garish and commercial alter-ego, Cubao-by-day). We can see this adeptness in the repeating, disquieting chorus of "Pamamanhikan", the torturous English of "Basted", the colorful curses of "Katalo", and the empty idioms of "Relasyon". But my favorite story is his one of his more simple tales. As told in the point of view of a dog, "Kirot" tells of a love that is simple but true, unending and loyal - qualities that made the inevitable heartbreak so much more painful. But a dog does not know that he is heartbroken, only that he vaguely know that something is frightfully missing. The stories in the anthology, is like that - alarming in one form or the other, but each is beautiful in its own way.


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Tolkien for the Holidays

Posted by Marie on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 in , ,
Christmastime is J.R.R. Tolkien.

 As a kid, the holiday break has always been my chance to read Lord of the Rings in one go. Then in college, watching The Lord of the Rings film series was a December tradition with my friends, that later turned to watching The Hobbit trilogy post-college. I cannot remember a time that I haven't turned to Professor Tolkien for some holiday cheer. This year is no different. But this time, I'd took on Professor Tolkien's earlier works, particularly The Hobbit (published on 1937) and Letters from Father Christmas (published posthumously on 1976).

Anybody who had read Lord of the Rings most likely would have also read The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), or at the very least would have watched it on the big screen.

It is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet, normal hobbit living in the very normal suburbs of Bag End, Hobbiton. Hobbits are a race similar to men but shorter in height. The hobbits sensibly love creature comforts like second breakfasts and snug, comfy holes in the ground. Bilbo was recruited by the wizard Gandalf for a quest to the Misty Mountain, to recover treasures that were guarded by the dragon Smaug. He is joined by twelve dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, the King under the Mountain. A lot of things happened on the course of their adventures, culminating into a battle between different races, all vying for the dragon horde.

I had always read the story (yes, I forgot how many times I've reread the book) as being the tale of Bilbo Baggins' evolution from a scared, timid hobbit to a selfless hero and full-fledged leader. That a person sometimes starts his journey as one thing and comes home as another, changed irrevocably, (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but most of the times for both) is a constant theme in Professor Tolkien's stories, not just in his Middle-earth books, but also in his other writings. In The Hobbit, it can be summarized by Bilbo's poem during his return to Hobbiton:

"Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known."

As a veteran of the First World War, he certainly knows how war permanently changes people, exactly like how fierce battles and the death had changed Bilbo.

"One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." (Preface to the second edition of Lord of the Rings)

So yes, two conclusions. The first is that The Hobbit is not some silly Lord of the Rings prequel published primarily for kids; and two, that there's nothing like war and death to make you appreciate the things that you have and the existence of people who love you.

Let's now go to something lighter. In 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien's son, the then three-year-old John, received a letter from Father Christmas.

Father Christmas described in words, pictures, and even poems his house at the North Pole, his assistant, Polar Bear (or P.B.), his secretary, the elf, Ilbereth, P.B.'s mischievous nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka, and other various characters which includes snow elves, red gnomes, snow men, cave bears, and nasty goblins. For the next twenty years, these letters regularly arrive in the Tolkien household during Christmastime, while reply letters made by the children (John, then Michael, Christopher, and finally Priscilla) mysteriously vanish from the fireplace.

Throughout their childhoods, the Tolkien brood were regaled stories of the adventures and misadventures of Father Christmas, Polar Bear, Ilbereth, and the rest of his household, from the time the North Pole broke, to when they needed to move to another house, to when Father Christmas lit some of his wonderful fireworks to celebrate the holiday, to when P.B. got lost in the caves, to the times of the goblin attacks, and their successful defenses. It is very easy to note how strikingly similar Father Christmas to the wizard Gandalf, and, as you can see in the image on the right, P.B. to Beorn, the mysterious man-bear in The Hobbit.

The 1937 letter is funny because Father Christmas mentioned to the children that he initially though of sending them this book 'Hobbits' (which he had been sending loads to other children - mostly second editions), but he thought they might have already have many copies (duh) so he had instead sent them another 'Oxford Fairy Tale' (which I am now intrigued into finding a copy).

By 1943, most of Professor Tolkien's children had grown up (John is 26, Michael is 23, Christopher is 19, and Priscilla is 14). Father Christmas' missive that year was a letter of goodbye. He also notes that his messengers is calling the year "grim" (indirectly referring to World War II), but is glad that in the children's household, it is not as miserable as they were expecting it would be.

"... I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children."

Which the Tolkien children did. They kept the letters and, three years after Professor Tolkien's death, compiled it into a book with Christopher's wife as the editor. I personally like it. It is a testament of a father's love and willingness to provide boundless imaginative delight to his children. I am glad that the Tolkien family published it since it had now also provided joy to other children of various ages.

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