Monday, February 09, 2009

Book/Magazine Review: Story Philippines Volume One 2009

Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.

The latest issue of Story Philippines just came out and the first thing that grabs me is the design which is the best that it's ever been: beautiful illustrations preceding each story and a thematic layout (one has a notebook motif for example) in each piece. There are six stories in this issue with half of them having a speculative fiction element.

"Tiramisu with Eggplant" by Neoli Lancel Marcos is what you get when you combine literary fiction techniques with a Choose Your Own Adventure narrative. For example, your first scene includes an opening sentence that's a blocky paragraph long and features details that add verisimilitude by including cliches of local traffic. Later on (depending on which path you take), there's eggplant and the objective correlative it represents, as well as a reflection of the main character on how her mother affected her personality. Reading this is actually short, considering you don't select all the diverging branches. There's the additional value of re-reading as one tries out the other choices and this is unfortunately a reviewer's nightmare (how many times do I have to re-read this to write a fair review?). As far as technique goes, it's actually well done and whether it's description or tackling characterization, it's quite impressive. Hopefully, we see more longer work (or rather one that doesn't follow this format) from the author in the future.

"One Last Ticket to Ride" by Roel Sta. Romana Cruz feels like a one-one trick pony. The quality that stands out the most is the author's style as there's a certain beat to it that makes it enjoyable to read and compelling. Even the last scene is an exercise of the author's ability to mince and shape language. It's through this technique that we gain access into the mindscape of the protagonist, an amoral drug addict. Aside from that, the rest of the piece can be summarized as drug addict doing reprehensible things to obtain drugs and eventually finds himself in rehab. Nothing new there but it's a scenic ride along the way.

"Cross" by Marguerite Alcazaren de Leon can be divided into three sections as the same scene is played out from three different narrators. It's a brave attempt to tell three different perspectives but I think it ultimately falters. The problem is that the second narrator stands out as the cream of the crop: de Leon avoids the stereotypical seductive female and instead sells us a fully-fleshed out character. The first and third narrator, not so much. The author is clearly at her best when writing female characters, which the first one isn't. As for the third narrator, de Leon attempts a second-person narrative, perhaps in an attempt to distinguish the character's voice, but I honestly don't think it was necessary or benefited the piece. That's not to say these other scenes were not well-written, merely competent and ho-hum. de Leon has her grandiose moments which makes you fall in love with her writing but unfortunately it comprises just one third of the story.

"The Day the World Lost Its Gravity" by Camsy Ocumen is a quick and short piece featuring an ensemble cast as she shows us snippets of their lives during this pseudo-apocalypse. Ocumen is great when it comes to these touching scenes but because of the breadth and length of the piece, the characters feel more like tools in the service of the story at best or cardboard cut-outs at worst. The author has her fundamentals down but due to the length and the predictability, the ending didn't strike the emotional resonance it was attempting.

"The Bridge" by Yvette Natalie U. Tan is probably the strongest piece in the magazine. The author accomplishes this not through tricks but by sheer storytelling technique. Right from the get-go, Tan provides an interesting hook and conflict. Along the way, the author fleshes out various characters as well as giving us snippets of Philippine culture through details. It's interesting that when it comes to the antagonist, Tan obliquely refers to her without specifically mentioning her name although those familiar with Filipino history will have no problems figuring out this insinuation. The foundation of the story is character and the eventual dilemma our main character faces. That's not to say the writing is perfect. For example, I do feel there's one character that felt extraneous, the child of the antagonist which is only present simply to propel the story and elicits more questions than it answers. Still, for the most part, the story works and is quite rewarding.

"The Housekeeper" by Madeline Rae Ong feels like three scenes squeezed into one although unlike de Leon's "Cross", the delineation isn't clear cut. The first scene is most propelled by dialogue and immediately hooks readers with the mysterious topic of conversation. The second scene begins with the protagonist encountering a broken-hearted customer and while there's nothing technically wrong here, it felt dull and trite. It's a scene that's essential to the story though, especially since it explains the story's conceit. The third scene tries to be dramatic and builds upon what's been established and I feel it's a partial success. Not a bad story but there's an obvious low point.

For the most part, this was an enjoyable read. Some of the stories aren't the best that they could be but that's not to say they don't have their own sets of strengths.

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