Sunday, June 17, 2007

Review: Philippine Genre Stories, Issue Two

I promised myself that I would review Philippine Genre Stories' second issue a long time ago, for the sole reason that I wanted to compare it to the first one. I'll be honest here and say that comparing one publication to another -- like, say, Pinoy Amazing Adventures and Philippine Genre Stories -- are like putting together apples and oranges: They're completely different things at heart, and sometimes it's hard to make a fair comparison. Comparing the first issue and the second issue of a single publication, however, is like comparing two apples to each other: One of them's most definitely the richer, the riper, and perhaps the more succulent one... and you have to decide which is which. Did the magazine improve after a few months, or did it go a little farther down the crapper? Comparisons like that, I suppose, make for fair questions.

I will say again, though, that I'm not some qualified martini-guzzling critic. I'm just a guy who reads stories like these, and who occasionally has a hand in writing them every now and then. I try to look at these writings from the point of view of a person who sits on both sides of the fence: I may sound like a biased judge at times, but I try to make up for it by being my own devil's advocate. If I think that a story's good, I ask myself where it needs improvement. If I think that a story's bad, I ask myself what I enjoyed about it.

When I wrote my review of PGS's first issue, I transcribed those reactions I had written and e-mailed to each individual author into one long blog post, then added a few more comments on the side. I use this same approach here, although I've tried to sound a lot less wordy and a lot more straight with the authors in question. The fact that I'm disseminating this stuff in the first place invites anyone to further discourse: I don't hold the primary definitive opinion to anything and everything, and I don't pretend that I do.

And regardless of how things turn out, I'd still recommend picking up and reading a copy before going through these reviews. The digest retails for a mere P100.00 in most places, which is not such a bad price when we realize that we purchase a bunch of other novels to the tune of five hundred smackers (or worse) each. And with PGS, you get six completely different stories to pick and read at your leisure. Buy it and have a look.

Now I must get to the reviews before I start boring you all. Don't forget -- spoilers abound below, so be careful. Here there be dragons, and other beasts besides.

Beneath the Acacia (written by Celestine Marie G. Trinidad)

Dear Ms. Trinidad,

I have to say that I liked your story.

As a mystery, it works in a remarkable manner. It has a detective of dubious background, a colorful cast of characters, a set of very subtle clues, and more than a few red herrings that kept me occupied throughout the tale. What got my attention, however, was how you managed to incorporate all of these elements into a mythical Filipino setting: I think that the story manages to blend the concepts of fantastic nature and human motivation without sacrificing the consistency of the setting or the quality of the mystery. I felt that it was a very Filipino story and a good whodunit at the same time.

Most of the issues I had with the story were relatively minor. I thought that it was written in a very slow and leisurely pace, for example, and while that's probably okay with other readers, I prefer a mystery that motivates me to take a close look at each and every detail. I also fear that readers who are unfamiliar with Filipino mythology may not get some of your more obscure references -- particularly the reference to a "realm" inside the kapre's tree and the relevance of Juan's true identity. The relationship between Juan and Maria Sinukuan also seems to be a little one-sided: I keep wondering if the young man does nothing but irritate her, and I keep wondering why the young deity does nothing but oppose him. I would have liked to see these characters fleshed out a bit more.

While I don't think that the story was perfect, it still made for a good read. This story combined the setting and the intended plotline very well, and I feel that that's rare when you work with genres like these.

Having worked with them before, I'm of the belief that it's difficult to do a good mystery. What makes me marvel at "Beneath the Acacia" is not just the fact that it manages to pull off the short detective story, but that it somehow manages to set this in a mythical Filipino context. It's definitely a different approach, and it delivers in spades.

The Scent of Spice (written by Crystal Gail Shangkuan Koo)

Dear Ms. Koo,

I felt that "The Scent of Spice" was an interesting story. I thought that it was of good quality and effective storytelling, but I also think that it could have somehow been more consistent with regards to its resolution.

I liked the style in which your story was written, probably to the point where I can say that I felt that it was better than anything else in the book. The alternative storylines that weave among each other in the text were a very nice way to emphasize the parallels between your two stories. In effect, I feel that this allowed each one to help the other: Any questions that the first storyline raised had answers that could be found in the second one, and vice-versa. And in effect, both of them aided in building one complete story of love found and love lost, with a small sliver of hope yet remaining in the end.

The details were also done very well. I found both storylines to be extremely distinct, considering the constant references to modern technology and pseudo-fantastic titles. It's interesting how two inherently different settings can somehow manage to form a legible story together.

If there was any place where I feel that the story ran into problems, though, it was in the climax and resolution. The story seems to imply that Jim was interested in his female flatmate, yet somehow figured that she didn't feel the same way about him. Unfortunately, the story doesn't give much information about Jim's point of view beyond how his writings tell it, and I feel that this sudden turnaround is more than a little abrupt. It left me scratching my head, wondering if I had missed something that happened between the two characters when my mind wandered for a second. I don't think that it killed the ending for me, but I think that a little clarification here would have helped me immensely.

All in all, however, I thought that your story was interesting. I thought that it was an engaging read, and that it provided a nice example of what you could do with the interplay between two different narrations.

I liked the realism inherent in this story. Ms. Koo surprised me at the end of her narrative when she revealed that she had gotten all the call-center-type technical details from a friend; She had me convinced that she had the experience to write such things.

Beacon (written by Nikki Alfar)

Dear Ms. Alfar,

I'll honestly say that I didn't think much of "Beacon" when I started reading it, but I did see my opinion turn around in the end. It was a debatable reversal, however, and it took me a while before I could finally decide whether I felt that it was a good story, or otherwise.

I found "Beacon" to be incredibly subtle. Hearing the characters narrate the story from four different points of view wasn't merely a style choice; I was able to gain some insight into each of their respective personalities and motivations through this method of storytelling. You mentioned that Aidan was gay and that Serai was Asian; I was able to notice both of these during my read, yet for the life of me I couldn't figure out which passages were the ones that gave them away.

Despite the major style points, however, I had my issues with the story in general. I felt that the ongoing theme seemed strangely generic ("Every few eons, a mystic portal opens through which the armies of darkness enter this world to... well... do whatever it is that a bunch of demons and monsters do"), and I thought that Jed's narration made for a bad start -- it was close to incomprehensible, from the way I read it. "Beacon" also left me in the dark as to the general setting; I felt that so much attention was given to the central 'savior-of-the-world' identity that most of the background details remained unfinished.

In short, I felt that the story left me confused for most of its telling, only to recover quickly once it became obvious as to what the Beacon really was. Given that the characters' narrations seem to progress in this direction as well, however -- we start out with Jed's near-gibberish and end with Stone's summarized truth -- I wondered if this was perhaps deliberate, that the whole tale symbolized a move from confusion to clarity. In the end, I eventually had to admit that I liked the characterization, and that I liked the revelation at the end... so I'll grudgingly admit that your story feels okay. I'll probably argue that point with myself forever, though.

As much as I eventually decided that I had a favorable opinion for "Beacon", I have to admit that if I had to make the choice today, then "Beacon" would be at the bottom of my quality list for this issue. This opinion persists despite the fact that I have a whole bunch of these stories clumped together with regards to the quality scale... I just think that "Beacon" is the least redeemable of all of them. I feel that it's good, but I also feel that it's the worst among a set of good stories.

Looking back on both this and my review of Vin Simbulan's "Wail of the Sun" back in the first issue, I'm starting to wonder if I may be biased towards works of this genre. I just find it strange, mind you, that PGS has published exactly two pure Fantasy stories so far, and that I have somehow relegated both to the far ends of my perception. So if you're reading this, Mr. Simbulan and Ms. Alfar... I'm just saying that it could just be me.

The 101st Michael (written by K. Osias)

Dear Ms. Osias,

I'll be blunt here: I don't think that "The 101st Michael" is a great story. I do, however, think that it's a good story, and I'll understand perfectly if some groups are willing to see it as a great work.

I'll also admit that the concept didn't seem interesting at first glance -- I initially felt that it was a father-and-son tale set in a stereotypically sci-fi future, with bits and pieces of some weird "Michael" narrative sandwiched in between the passages. I remember thinking that the setting and the plot direction most definitely did not complement each other, until the story hit me with the truth of exactly who the "Michaels" were and what they had to do with the characters in question. At that point, I leafed back to the first few pages, skimmed the story all over again, and wondered about how the whole thing made sense all of a sudden. At its heart, it's a love story... although it's obviously not the kind of love that I see in a lot of stories. Moreover, I offer you additional points for presenting a unique, inhuman character who nevertheless has some very strong, inhuman motivations.

My quibbles about the story are somewhat scattered. I can understand the need for subtitles, for one, and while the "Michael" designations are okay with me, I thought that the "Christopher's anchors", "Ignacio's mission", and "Eric's repentance" labels contributed absolutely nothing to the story. Eric, for that matter, felt like a useless character to me -- he only seems to be there because the story needs one more section of narrative before the big reveal.

Ultimately, I thought that "The 101st Michael" was nice. I felt that it had an excellent theme, a well-fleshed-out relationship between the two main characters, a remarkable antagonist, and one very nasty plot twist. It was the latter element that certainly made me raise an eyebrow halfway through the telling.

I have to hand it to the publishers here: The cover was incredibly subtle. I expected an archeological dig of sorts in the ruins of an ancient Manila, and instead I got a strange little thriller-love story hybrid. That's the best way to deal with plot twists, I suppose: You have to act as though there's nothing out of the ordinary about the story at all.

The Saint of Elsewhere (written by chiles samaniego)

Dear Mr. Samaniego,

On the one hand, I saw your story as a bunch of strange psychobabble coupled with some complex hypotheses on the interplay of time, space and destiny. On the other hand, I found it to be a remarkably sentimental story, something about twisting the whole of reality for the sake of locating a single perfect moment.

I have to admit that the style is interesting. From what I've read so far, it doesn't seem to emphasize tangible description as much as it does emotional impact, and I think that it puts more weight on the nostalgia as a result. Then there's the ending, which gives me the impression that everything that happened somehow didn't exist, or perhaps forces me to consider the fact that it all happened somewhere, sometime, or someplace else. Whatever the case, it only heightens the change that comes over the main character, and puts forward the possibility that he's probably still out there... somewhen.

I found the story difficult to read, but perhaps I'm just not accustomed to the style of writing. I had to read it twice before the concepts would start to sink in.

I had one major comment on the story, however, and that involved the scientific gobbledygook scattered throughout the text. I feel that it interrupts the dreamlike narrative; I didn't like getting absorbed in reading emotions, senses and nostalgia, only to run into a wall of technical explanations that I could barely understand. I'll particularly admit that it's very Zen to have an old man give a technical explanation of our perception of reality, and then say that it's entirely wrong... but it also leaves me with the impression that I sat through a needless bit of text when I could have been progressing further along the story. I suppose that it's meant to show the contrast between the scientific and the enlightened views, but for me it relegated the scientific argument to be nothing more than a mere irritant, something that spoiled my reading at various intervals.

Was it good, then? Yes... I did like the narrative, and I believe that I did understand the story. I think that I would have really enjoyed it under different circumstances, though.

"The Saint", in fact, was the most difficult of the submissions to review. I felt certain that I liked it, but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why. And when I can't figure things out, I tend to write and write and write and ramble on in the vain hope that understanding will come.

The Final Interview (written by Sean Uy)

Hello, old goat. It's nice to see that you're still at it.

Your story has one of the most interesting premises that I've seen so far: It somehow manages to blend a staple of fantasy literature with the setting of the modern world, and give me the impression that it makes perfect sense. How a lucky bastard like you could possibly come up with stuff like this still makes me wonder.

With that said, a story doesn't run on premise alone. I have issues with the pace at which the text flows, particularly those areas where the thoughts of the characters intersperse with their dialogue. Despite the fact that he's the centerpiece of the entire work, I would have liked to see Hazhenaas get more screen time -- he's barely there for so much as half the story. And of course, your weird fetish for ellipses still shows.

I'll admit that your work's somewhat readable this time, but I'd advise that you shape up a bit if you want to get a few more things published. You could stop putting off writing your stories till the last minute, for example.

After Hours (written by Anne Lagamayo)

Dear Ms. Lagamayo:

A short story, I suppose, deserves a short letter with a brief critique.

I liked your story, especially considering that the image at hand could have been interpreted in many different ways. It's short, it's concise, and it still manages to note a little twist at the end right where the reader expects something to happen. Part of me thinks that it's a little abrupt, but I'll concede that the story didn't have much of a word limit to work with. If anything, it actually makes the most of what it has, and I'm not surprised that it gained top privileges among a good number of submissions.

I hope to encounter your work again, perhaps with longer writings so that we can see what you can do with the prospect of more words at your disposal.

The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Issue Two

Finally we come to the collection in general. Was this better than the first one, then? Did my one hundred pesos buy me a little more in terms of quality? I'll say yes... but I'll also say that the publication still has a ways to go.

I don't know when the digest decided to come up with advertisements, and I expect that there was a lot of debate in the decision to accept them. At this point, however, I thought that the advertisements didn't compromise the magazine in any way... so I suppose that the managers of PGS can probably sleep well at night knowing that. They weren't too excessive and they didn't interrupt my reading in any way... although it felt kind of weird turning to the next page of Mr. Samaniego's dreamy narrative to find a Modess ad staring me right in the face.

The surprise improvement of the issue, however, lay in the illustrations that accompanied each work. I found them to be quite entertaining -- it's one thing to have to slog through a story to divine its secrets, and it's another thing to glance at an illustration and wonder what the author has in store for you. These pieces of artwork actually ended up influencing the sequence in which I read the stories -- because I have a preference for Elbert Or's art, I ended up reading the stories that accompanied his illustrations before I got to the ones with Alex Drilon's.

I would normally have some suggestions for improvement at this point, but I can't seem to think of any right now. It could be that PGS has already gone beyond its initial "awkward" phase. If there's anything important that it needs to do right now, it's the fact that it must come up with a regular production schedule and gain a consistent reading audience in the process. Beyond that, I still have yet to encounter an issue that exceeds the value of its cover price in my book... but that's more an issue of my standards than it is the fault of the publishers.

And now... I've been writing for hours. It's time to put down my keyboard, publish this thing, and prepare for the tide of public opinion to come.


Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

There's an Anne Lagamayo in your sister's batch. Same girl?

Hilarious (and honest) self-review, by the way. But I think you should cut yourself some slack. Haven't read your story, but I'm sure it's better than what your unforgiving inner critic thinks. Besides, even lucky bastards deserve praise from time to time. :)

Sean said...

Ailee: I'm not sure... I don't know Anne Lagamayo personally, although that would be an odd coincidence.

On the old goat's review, I figure that he deserves a swift kick in the pants every now and then. My words here did turn out to be consistent with the reviews from a couple of other people, though, so at least I don't think I was too far off the mark. :)

Anne said...

Hey, I replied to your email a few days ago, I hope you got it. :)

And did you sister, by any chance, go to ICA? :)

Sean said...

Anne: I did get your e-mail last week, thank you. :) I've been too busy to answer a lot of e-mails, though...

My sister did go to ICA, by the way. In fact, I just asked her the other day if she knew who you were. (Yes, she said.)