Monday, August 26, 2013

The Distance Between Us (Kasie West)

The trope is as old as Cinderella, as Bathsheba. Still, readers continue to be fascinated by the rich guy-poor girl romance. Some days I might complain why we keep on falling for this story, but then I'd have to come out and admit that I'm not entirely blameless. [Full disclosure: My longest obsession with this was over Hana Yori Dango, a manga turned anime, more popularly known in Manila as the Taiwanese drama Meteor Garden or as its recent Korean reincarnation Boys Over Flowers. Somebody just gave my high horse a good slap on the behind and it went off running without me.]

But what I enjoyed about Kasie West's The Distance Between Us is that it infused the trope with a needed amount of levity and spirit. I was expecting something akin to Pretty in Pink but I was pleased that I didn't get it. Here, Caymen helps her mother run a struggling doll store that caters to rich collectors. Two things she likes poking fun at are dolls and rich folks. But when Xander Spence walks into her shop, she finds herself striking an unlikely friendship with him. Together, they question labels and explore the boundaries of the world they thought they knew.

As the cover implies, this is a romance. It evolved at a steady pace, which made their relationship extremely believable. Caymen's character -- sassy, snarky, and loyal -- is a breath of fresh air for me. I like how she's sarcastic but not hard. Her insights and her banter with the people around her keeps things from being too predictable. She was one of the reasons I couldn't put this down! Aside from constantly worrying about her mother's shop (which she personally doesn't care too much for), she's candid enough to admit that she doesn't know what to do when she gets to college. While that may not stack up against the more dramatic issues of YA literature, I appreciated its purpose in this story. Xander has all the self-assurance that one would expect from someone as rich as he was. Caymen takes it for arrogance in the beginning, but I really liked how Ms West shows that there was more to him. He is confident without being abrasive, encouraging without being patronizing. The supporting characters, from Caymen's friends to her mom, were also tightly-drawn.

I had a few concerns with the story, but nothing that really took away from my enjoyment. There was a plot twist coming, which Ms West had already primed the reader to expect, but when it came it was unlike what I was thinking that it jarred me. But upon re-reading, I finally picked out the subtle hints that pointed to that direction. They weren't a lot but if I had been sharper during my first read, I might have had less misgivings about the twist. The story also tends to skew deeper into wish-fulfillment territory. Not a bad thing of course, because the drama and the pay-off can be greater, but I wish it had been more consistent. Still, this was more a personal preference than anything. Caymen and Xander really won me over that I was ready to forgive everything. Overall, The Distance Between Us is something I'd heartily recommend to someone looking for a sweet and charming contemporary YA book.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Scribbled: Cover Story

If you've been following this blog, you would also know that I've been working on a romance novella called Cover (Story) Girl. One of the things that I enjoyed most about this whole process is watching the cover come together, something which my friend and former boss, Mike Calvan, volunteered to do. I readily jumped at the offer, because I know how skilled he is at illustrating and designing. Even if he's done countless of billboards, print ads, TV storyboards, and brochures, he has yet to design a book cover, which made both of us very excited about this project.

(Note before you proceed: Not every illustrator/designer will work this way. Mike and I are good friends so he's very generous with his talent. We've also worked together for many years and have built an efficient system between us. If it's your first time working with a designer, it's always good to have a general idea of how s/he works -- portfolio, timetable, expectations, etc -- before entering into a contract.)

I knew Mike wasn't going to read a romance book so instead I gave him a detailed brief, similar to what we expect from our advertising clients. It outlined the novella's characters, the setting, the synopsis, and all the important events. It also explained to him what I basically wanted: a cover that had tropical elements, a light K-pop feel, and a large title font. Simple, no? How he would interpret this is up to him -- that's what he does best after all! But to show him my perspective of things, I added links to Korean/Japanese videos and movie posters for inspiration. (You know, just to be clear that I meant something closer to this than this.) Artists and designers usually appreciate initial direction so that they know where to take the project. Make a wish list or even a list of things to avoid -- and don't change your mind halfway! Trust me, it will help both of you stay on track.

After about ten days, Mike showed me two different cover ideas. The sketches (or thumbs or croquis) were accompanied by pegs so that I could imagine the final product better. He also recommended some illustration styles that he could do (not shown here).

I think I was swayed by the Niji no Megami poster. It's one of my favorite movies.

After weighing the pros and cons, I decided to go with the sketch on the left. I love the way that it establishes that the novella is about an island romance. It also manages to include the calamansi muffin (an important element in the story) in a smart yet subtle way. Though I liked how eye-catching the other cover was, I thought that might be more appropriate for a younger-themed work. The left one definitely answered what I requested.

Next, Mike worked on the background, which he applied it to different layouts. I had to pick one again and this is what won:

I like the white and flirty font, but something bolder would be more readable.

By then, Mike had already moved on to the main image. Because we had clear direction since the beginning, we didn't need to go back and forth on the details. Now it was just a matter of putting everything together and tweaking things here and there. I placed my trust in his skills because I know he wouldn't steer me in the wrong direction.

At this point, we even discussed what they should be wearing. These were Mike's first sketches; the final illustration looks different.

Gio and Min Hee, sitting on a muffin island...

Initial pass at the front and back cover layout. The clouds have parted!

Making a book cover takes a lot of hard work. But collaborating with Mike was such a painless and enjoyable experience. I really appreciate how much time and effort he devoted to Cover (Story) Girl, as though it were his baby, too. He kept me updated and showed me his works in progress. He even applied the final illustration to wallpapers, bookmarks, postcards, and other things we could think of. In the end, I have a lovely cover that captures the spirit of the story I had written. What more can an author want?

So if I haven't said it enough: Maraming salamat, Boss.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Contemporary Quickies: Pinoy Romance Novellas

Filipino readers have never been really short on romance. The National Book Development Board (NBDB) 2012 Readership survey cites that 25% of their respondents read this genre (second only to the Bible). Bookstore shelves are overflowing with foreign and local titles. The country's biggest mass-paperback romance line dominates the market with a variety of series. Yuppies and millennials turn to Summit paperbacks for their own kind of kilig.

Add to that mix these new Filipino contemporary romance novellas. They're all published digitally and independently, making romances even more accessible to a larger market.

First is Katrina Ramos Atienza's Well Played, a re-telling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice set in UP Los Baños. Los Baños is a town in Laguna, and is home to hot springs, science and research centers, and a university at the foot of mystical Mt Makiling. It's definitely a unique setting for a teen/NA read.

In the story, Patrice is a varsity football player who gets caught up in a little boarding house drama. Her best friend Dia is hitting it off with the campus hottie. Their younger friend Deenie is determined to break into social circles. To top it off, Patrice has to deal with winning soccer matches while matching wits with her cold and arrogant classmate Neil. I found myself matching the characters with their Pride and Prejudice counterparts (some were easier than others) and also familiarizing myself with some college/frat terms. I really appreciated the glossary because of it! All in all, it's a tightly-packed read for someone looking for more than the usual teen romance.

Next is Agay Llanera's Vintage Love. Crissy's beloved Mama Maring passes away, leaving Crissy to find new homes for her grand-aunt's fashionable clothes and other vintage finds. It's not easy to let go of something, especially since Crissy herself is still dealing with a failed long-term romance. Enter Vince, vintage shop owner and all-around nice guy, who manages to catches Crissy's eye.

Reading this book made me wish that the local contemporary romances I had read in my twenties were as sweet. Props to the author's writing style; I liked how urban the situations felt, yet still brimming with charm and sweetness. I didn't feel that it had to try too hard to be current. Crissy and Vince were both believable, complementing each other's personalities and really making the romance between them (and their conflict) highly probable. It has the most 'conventional' premise among these three novellas, but I thought it avoided the genre's pitfalls quite well.

Last but not the least is Chrissie Peria's All's Fair in Blog and War. Travel bloggers Five and Jesse are opposites, but that doesn't stop the Macau Tourism Board from matching them up as tour buddies during a familiarization trip to Macau. Sparks fly as soon as they meet, but the two of them gradually transition to something more.

Even though the author blogs about food and not travel IRL, she does an excellent job in turning the setting into an important element of the story. It makes a great backdrop for all the kilig moments that Five and Jesse find themselves in. The novella is also a perfect travel companion itself, a fast-paced and enjoyable story that you can read during a plane ride. Despite the foreign setting, it's peppered with lots of interesting Pinoy tidbits -- Pinoy naming conventions and the local blog culture, among others -- reminding the reader of where its heart truly lies.

All three books bring something different to the romance table. They each have their own flavor and strengths. One day, you might find yourself in a Cubao X vintage shopper mood; the next, you might feel some boarding house nostalgia. And even if you aren't a Filipino reader, you may find yourself interested on how we live and love on this side of the world! You won't regret trying these out. You can get your digital copies of these titles through Amazon and Smashwords -- just follow the links.

It should also be noted that author Mina V. Esguerra is a vocal supporter of Filipino chick lit and self-publishing. In fact, both Ms Llanera and Ms Peria's novellas were products of Mina's online romance writing class (full disclosure: I took that class, too). So congratulations to the authors and to Ms Esguerra. It's truly an exciting time to be a Filipino romance author -- and reader.