Sunday, November 18, 2007

Review: Philippine Genre Stories, Issue Three

The third issue of Philippine Genre Stories came out three months ago, in the middle of my busy season. While I was able to pick up a copy before mid-September was upon us, I've only been able to read bits and pieces of it between extended meetings, training sessions, and long periods of overtime. (Then again, every single month of the year would probably qualify as my "busy season" nowadays.)

This time, however, the news does not lie in what has changed since issue two -- rather, it lies in what hasn't changed. The cover layout is similar to that of the second issue, and the internal page format looks the same. That implies that the publication is starting to "get into its groove", so to speak -- it's adopting a look and feel that it will most likely have for a while.

As with the first two issues, I'm going to be reading through all the works inside and sending my comments to their respective authors. Issue three has an eclectic ensemble of writers, and ends up acting as a mixture of mystery, horror and personal introspection. For some reason, it seems to jettison the more traditional selections of high fantasy and hard sci-fi in favor of more modern-day settings. While I'm not saying that it's bad -- I welcome it, as a matter of fact -- it's a little surprising, and I wonder if this was a deliberate move on the part of the editor/s.

One thing that you'll notice with my reviews this time is a lack of additional comments at the end of each letter. I decided to leave these out and instead concentrate my reactions in each message itself; I mean, is there anything about each piece that I should keep from the authors? I'm still going to run the "personal correspondence" angle, though, despite the fact that Philippine Genre Stories has a forum for peoples' comments now.

For that matter, I'll also expect to finish this post over a number of days. It's not easy to read and review each of the seven stories in the magazine, much less write up the e-mails and copy them to this blog entry. So I'll take an alternative approach this time -- I'll re-read each of the stories in random order, then put up my comments once I've messaged their respective writers. You might want to catch up with this entry every now and then as a result; I'll be updating it until all my reviews are up.

And, as with both of my other reviews, my disclaimers still stand: I'm just a writer, I'm just a follower of the craft, and I'm just a part-time reader on the side. I'm not an award-winner, I'm not an authoritarian, and I'm not an official critic. But I do call them as I see them, I do try to see the good and the bad in each story, and I do believe that opinions shouldn't hide behind shyness, impudence or anonymity. If you agree or disagree with anything that I say, please feel free to discuss in my comment boxes; I'll try to be as civil as I can.

Oh, and... before you read, just remember: Here there be spoilers aplenty.

Twinspeak (by Elyss Punsalan)

Dear Ms. Punsalan:

I feel that your story uses a lot of elements that would normally be called "disparate": Fraternal twins who share a telepathic bond, a connection between dreams and real-world developments, and of course, the dragensik oombra. Moreover, it's told in an ambitious style that distinctly characterizes Ryan and Rina, who have little in common with each other despite their siblinghood.

For starters, I think that it's very original. I find myself wondering if the "night dragon with scholarly inclinations" is an actual mythological creature, or if its presence was spun from pure cloth. I also like the fact that the story takes place between two people with a supernatural bond -- and that an essential element involves one of them helping the other in the face of animosity. It gives the fantasy a very "human" look and feel.

I am, however, not certain if it works as a whole. I felt as though the result was a patchwork of ideas that ended up reading as a story. The night dragon, for example, didn't get a lot of background; Ryan's misfortunes could have been caused by any otherworldly creature, as far as I was concerned. The notion that one twin's "luck" could have somehow been transferred to the other is a little hard for me to believe. And I'm not very receptive towards the story's opening -- I feel that the notion of a dead cat produced some very morbid undertones that may have affected the rest of the tale.

All in all, however, it's a worthy effort from somebody who hadn't written for a while. I'm expecting a lot from your story in the Dragon anthology, and possibly some more details on a certain night dragon with scholarly inclinations...

Homer's Child (by Paolo Chikiamco)

Dear Mr. Chikiamco:

I felt that "Homer's Child" had a very interesting premise, and I felt that it was a very interesting story. On one end of the spectrum, I was a little tickled that somebody would actually try writing about animated stuffed toys. On the other end, I was surprised that the resulting story turned out so well.

To start with, I liked Basil. I felt that he was a character who I wouldn't mind reading about in further installments; I saw him as somebody who had the curiosity and the perception to investigate cases like these on a regular basis, yet who could somehow make short quips inside his head, primp himself in front of prospective girlfriends, and generally think outside the box. Ironically, I ended up liking him more than Muppet -- although it made me wish that the stuffed cheetah had a better part in the story.

Beyond characterization, though, I felt that it was a good mystery. The way I saw things, the story didn't present me with a lineup of possible suspects and slowly reveal who it was; instead, it gave me a good idea as to the actual culprit and forced me to wonder just how the deed was done. There should really be some style points involved when people realize that the fantastic premise had little or nothing to do with the physical crime at all.

I had a huge problem with the exposition, however. The story tends to ramble at odd points -- sometimes the action comes at a reasonable pace, and sometimes everything slows down just so that a little background material can be explained. Despite the fact that your piece concentrates on the concept of the Homeridae, I couldn't see it as important to the story at all. I think that you could literally cut away every single reference to them, go with the concept of an investigative reporter who solves cases with his stuffed toy companion (seriously speaking), and end up with a much stronger story. But I suppose that that's your call.

Of everything that I've read in Philippine Genre Stories so far, yours is the only story or which I would really want to see a sequel. That says something, I think.

Y (by Sharmaine Galve)

Dear Ms. Galve:

If there was anything that amused me about "Y", it was the implication that it belonged in the science-fiction genre. I don't dispute that assumption, mind you -- in fact, I fully support it. It still amuses me, though, as the story doesn't have much of the technological discussion that is normally found in a lot of sci-fi.

I love "Y" for its subtlety. If you don't mind my saying so, I feel that your story should be packaged in a textbook so that writers can somehow get educated about how to do this right. It somehow manages to throw the reader a lot of details without sacrificing the consistency of the narrative: We know that the protagonist's name is, we know what he does inside a locked room all day, and we know what his marital relationship is like. It brought all this to the point where I was able to clearly imagine how Alfred's world looked. That, I think, is quite an achievement for a story that consists of little more than his ravings.

In a way, it's actually kind of sad that Alfred would look upon life and human relativity from a purely clinical standpoint. He strikes me as the sort who believes that he can manufacture love and emotion from scratch. I get the feeling that all this is meant to touch a few nerves and make readers angry. I didn't feel anything beyond sadness, though, right up to the point where he ends up feeling an unnatural, ironic attraction towards a physical brain.

On the flip side of the coin, I feel that the story has a distinct weakness in Alfred's tendency to ramble. The style is subtle, yes, but the catch is that it seems to take forever for the story to get to the point. I felt that the whole thing was a setup to emphasize the twist at the end -- that is, the location of the second Grade A mind and Alfred's morbid fixation with it -- but its brevity was a bit of a letdown for me. I mean, I had to slog through ten pages' worth of exposition before I arrived at anything even remotely resembling a climax. It feels odd having to listed to a continual flow of statements, only to run into the break at the end.

In your write-up, you mentioned that this story was a bit of a hodgepodge of ideas. I say that you managed to blend these ideas well, but that I think you came to a bit of a bump at the end. I still think that it was a good read, though.

Tuko (by Miguel Escaño)

Dear Mr. Escaño:

A few months before the third issue of Philippine Genre Stories came out, it was "Tuko" that sold it for me. I liked the excerpt that was posted on the PGS blog, and I liked the look of the cover illustration. And now that I'm writing you this letter, I have to say that I liked the story as well.

I've only heard of the "tuko" superstition once or twice, and I feel that it deserved some fleshing out. What I got from your story was an excellent take on this, something that came neatly wrapped in creepiness and suspense without any cheesy shock value. For a horror story, it didn't scare me much... but for a story, it did keep me glued to the pages. I felt that it was compelling, and that the slow succession of events was very effective. It was, in a way, like watching a man move towards his own self-inflicted doom, knowing that he only had a mere skin-crawling sensation of the forces at work.

If there was a flaw in your work, I felt that it lay in the exposition. I just think that there could have been a more subtle way to explain some background elements in the story. When entire sections are needed just to explain why the tuko's call is so significant, or to fill in the background behind the main character's job, then I feel that it's more boring than efficient. I think it distracts from the action, and I think that it prevented me from getting the full impact of the story. I just feel that the exposition could have been done is a far more subtle manner.

Regardless of my quibbles, I felt that "Tuko" was well worth the attention I gave it. I'm happy to feel justified over a story that I wanted to read well before it was actually published.

The Devil is in the Details (by Charles Tan)

Dear Mr. Tan:

As much as it pains me to say so, I didn't think of "The Devil is in the Details" as comedic. It had a few good quips scattered around the story, yes, but I didn't come away thinking of it as a comedy. Instead, it gave me the impression of an essay that was disguised as a piece of literary writing.

That's not to say that it isn't good, though. I found it to be an interesting read -- for something as straightforward as your style was, I felt that it questioned a lot of stereotypical assumptions. I'm pretty sure that most people have asked themselves at one point or another as to what they would do if they ever met the devil face to face, and most of us have probably already come up with "solid" excuses to avoid eternal damnation. Your story gives the devil a hell of a rebuttal (so to speak), and turns the situation
completely on its ear: Did we honestly think that the devil couldn't grant us true love? Did we honestly expect the devil not to offer a straight contract devoid of the fine print? Did we honestly expect that it would be offered to us in a quiet manner with some very obvious digs at time pressure?

In short, I felt that the story was quite sharp. It doesn't ask us for permission to sign the contract in blood -- it slits the nearest vein and pushes the quill into our hand.

I have my differences with the ending, if only because I could never actually figure out whether or not the man decided to accept the devil's offer. He went for true love, sure enough... but did he ask the devil for a chance to earn it? Was his ex-wife's appearance, his wedding ring's showing up, and his impending reconciliation all a part of the deal? I'm not sure exactly what happened in the end.

And finally, I did come away with the notion that this was an essay in literary format. I feel that it's meant to make us think, more than it means to tell us a story. From an essayist's point of view, I believe that the work is successful -- I mean, it made
me think for a bit -- but from a storyteller's point of view I'm not so sure. The events felt a little vague for me, especially when it came to the ending.

Dreamtigers (by Robert Frazier)

Dear Mr. Frazier:

If I read my introductions right, "Dreamtigers" was first published over twenty years ago. For something that's over two decades old, I feel that it still retains a certain "freshness"... as though the subject matter and treatment haven't changed much over the intervening years.

I felt that the atmosphere was the best part of the story. The narration gave me enough details to imagine the setting and the characters, but I feel that it never gave away so much as to clue me in on exactly what was happening to Tou. I think that this resulted in a rather creepy sensation -- it implied that I was seeing a dead man walking here, and that a protagonist armed with the modern medical sciences could do little to help him. There is a constant image at work in the story -- that of a tiger on the hunt -- and this makes for some morbid moments.

I was also somewhat amused at the ending, where the protagonist takes refuge in the African lands of his memory. Does he know that there are no tigers in Africa? Does he wonder if he's truly secure in such a dream?

I did have one concern with the story, which involved the "field-journal" style of narration. I felt that the gap between entries was often too wide; it was difficult for me to read the protagonist's observations over one day, only to pick up on the next entry after a week had passed (and other events had presumably taken place in the interim). As a result I felt as though some background details had been left vague for me -- I find it difficult to identify the members of Tou's family, for example, or figure out the capacity in which Fenneman and the protagonist are involved with the refugees.

Ultimately, however, I felt that the story was beneficial in that it gave a very nice treatment for a strange, more-or-less supernatural subject. It also explored the fact that the nightmare syndrome is by no means limited to the Philippine context, and I feel that it added to the mythology surrounding the condition. In short, I felt that it was an effective story, and that the fifteen minutes I spent reading it made for a worthwhile experience. Thank you.

Muse (by John Philip Corpuz)

Dear Mr. Corpuz:

When I first saw the illustration for the writing contest in issue number two, I wondered what kind of twisted mind could possibly come up with a story for such a picture.

When the "almost accepted" entries went up on the PGS blog, I marveled at their creativity, and wondered just what the winning writer submitted in order to best those works.

Then I went through your entry, and I wondered how five hundred words could make for such a hell of a read.

I think that it was the subtlety that made it good. It didn't waste time trying to explain its setting; instead, it opted to throw the details into our faces and let us figure everything out. I ended up imagining a world where inquisitors existed, where artists could bind their own muse and leave dying words in return, and it all added up very well. The slight twist at the end was just gravy. I would have liked to see some more explanation of the habits and foibles of muses (and how they can kill under the right circumstances), but everything was already all right as it was. Simply put, it was a good read.

Now, of course, I wonder what you could possibly do with higher word limits. But that will have to wait.

The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Issue Three

As of 3:19pm SGT on November 25, 2007, I've completed all seven reviews for this issue and submitted them via e-mail to the corresponding authors.

I've mentioned before that this issue takes on a new angle -- every story in PGS3 concerns a pseudo-modern setting in some way. There are no magical universes here (save for Corpuz's work), no high technologies, no cat-girls frolicking in sugar-sweet animé-type surrounds. I'm wondering if this was a conscious decision on the part of the editor, or if this was mere coincidence.

I feel, however, that this is the strongest selection of stories in a PGS issue so far. Every entry here was of quality material in one way or another. I initially had doubts that Robert Frazier's work would either thin out the "Philippine" aspect of the publication or stick out like a sore thumb, but it doesn't. Instead, I find that it provides a remarkable counterpoint -- I'm going to be constantly comparing it against Miguel Escaño's "Tuko" for the foreseeable future.

The art is really starting to grow on me -- I look forward to seeing Elbert Or's interior work from every issue onwards, and I feel that the cover art for PGS3 is as "saleable" as it gets; this is the kind of art that makes me want to open the book and see what's inside.

I'll say that this is the best issue so far, if only because all the managing decisions seemed to have come together on this one: The art makes the book attractive to readers. The inclusion of "Dreamtigers" provides open ground for discussion. The focus on modern settings brings about the impression that one doesn't have to concentrate on the traditional sci-fi/fantasy universes in order to write for those genres.

The only catch, I think, is that it none of the entries haven't yet dislodged my clear favorite among all the stories published in PGS. But then, that's a tough act to follow.

It's been three months since this issue came out, and the next one is probably around the corner. So... while the bookstores still have copies to burn, you should pick one up and give it a good read. You owe it to yourself, I think.


Charles said...

Thanks for the feedback and taking the time to read all of our stories. =)

sharmaine galve said...

hi Sean, as Charles said, thanks for taking the time to read our stories as well as reviewing them one by one, complete with suspense :). i'm taking note of your comments to improve my writing and watch out next time for these faults. thanks again.

Sean said...

Charles: You just keep writing, and I'll keep reading. Heh. :)

Sharmaine: Well... my comments aren't necessarily correct or consistent, so you might want to take them with a grain of salt. Better yet, ask other readers for their opinions if you can; for all I know, my opinion is the exception rather than the norm.

sharmaine said...

But the points you raised really are true. So thank you because they are very enlightening.

Sean said...

Sharmaine: Unfortunately, I'll only be able to believe that if a bunch of other people start posting their reviews as well. (And yes, that's a very unsubtle hint to the members of the audience.)