Reading at Random: March-September 2021

Hey, blog! Long time, no update. Yes, I am alive and reading, something I am quite grateful for. 😊

Anyway. Even as our world becomes much more of a hot mess that aliens avoid us at all costs (haha), I’m still randomly checking off some titles from my reading backlog. I’m actually not done with one of them, and most of these are short komiks and graphic novels. But reading is reading, and it’s good therapy whatever the circumstance.

Click on the following shortcuts to get right to the short reviews, or just keep scrolling down:

Reading without fear

Reading at Random #1: "Tarantadong Kalbo" by Kevin Eric Raymundo

First up on this pseudo-recap is the first volume of Tarantadong Kalbo, a.k.a. artist Kevin Eric Raymundo’s alter ego. This volume collects all the one- to four-panel comic strips Raymundo published on social media throughout the record hellhole year that was 2020.

Raymundo’s comics cover a wide range of topics: from the funny and toxic aspects of Filipino culture to the current news headlines, long-standing political and societal issues, daily life in the COVID-19 era, and the endless gaslighting + plunder + murder + shamelessness + bungling of the Duterte dictatorship. His quick takes and quicker turnaround times are super impressive – you can expect a new comic from him on the day or the day after something newsworthy happens! But his potent mix of humor, truth, and context on every panel is equally awesome. There’s no need for excessive dialogue or explainers; Filipinos will get it immediately, although some jokes will definitely be lost in translation for non-Filipinos.

You can finish the whole volume in a day and you’ll definitely laugh all throughout, but the real messages of every page will hit you in the gut. Sometimes, it’s not funny at all. It’s downright terrifying.

One good example of this would be the two-part “Politikal ang Komiks” (page 85-86):

I felt the same way while reading Joel Pablo Salud’s Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto: underneath the wit are the massive fear, anxiety, and stress that come with the current times and terrors. Then again, as Raymundo himself would say, there’s nothing worse than living your life in fear. And activism isn’t just about holding mass protests, signing petitions, lobbying, etc. Art can also be activism:

You can buy Volume 1 of Tarantadong Kalbo + and pre-order Volume 2 – from Komiket and Secret HQ.

It’s back… but I kinda checked out while reading it

Reading at Random #2: "Fugitive Telemetry" by Martha Wells

The next book features the return of a familiar face: Murderbot. Yep, it’s back!

Fugitive Telemetry is the sixth installment of The Murderbot Diaries, a.k.a. the ongoing adventures of Martha Wells‘ ultimate snark ‘n sass space master. It follows the full-length novel Network Effect in release order, but story-wise its events happen between that and the preceding novella, Exit Strategy. We’re also going back to novella-length storytelling here, so you can be done with this title in a day or two.

This time around, Murderbot has to help humans with a murder investigation on Preservation Station, its new home. The change in scope (massive space adventure to compact murder mystery) adds some variety, and was nice to see. A few characters from previous installments also make appearances here and help out in some matters, but Murderbot has to work with a different set of humans for the majority of the novella. Of course, these new humans doubt it every step of the way.

It was great to see Murderbot working with other characters and figuring out how to solve problems in new ways. Ultimately, it solves the Big Mystery and does right by its new allies. It’s a predictable result, but you kinda expect it here. Overall, Fugitive Telemetry doesn’t make any drastic changes to the series’ formula.

But I also have two comments:

  • Wells seems to have doubled (or even tripled) down on the asides here, putting parentheses within parentheses within parentheses in a literary version of Matryoshka dolls. It’s cute, but it gets real tiring after a while.
  • I was not as engaged or invested in this story as I was for the previous ones, even if this novella seemed shorter than the others. I don’t quite get why. I hope I’m not getting sick of Murderbot!

You can buy the e-book version of Fugitive Telemetry from Amazon.

A problematic journey

Reading at Random #3: "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" by Guy Delisle

I loved to travel back in the Before COVID (B.C.) times. But being stuck in one place right now doesn’t mean I can’t read about other people’s journeys to other places.

In keeping with my interest in… uh, non-touristy destinations (e.g., Chernobyl), I went through a digital copy of Guy Delisle‘s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea last June. This graphic memoir covers Delisle’s two-month animation contract in isolationist North Korea during the early ’00s. Back then, very few foreigners were allowed into this hermit kingdom. And once they are in, it’s for a limited time only; and they have to follow many spoken and unspoken rules if they want to keep their privileges.

Ah, privilege, that unfair advantage lorded over the masses turned modern buzzword. As an expatriate, Delisle and his colleagues had a lot of privileges even if their movements were tightly controlled by their government-assigned guides. But readers also see what Delisle got only glimpses or clues of: the physical, mental, and psychological repression/subjugation of its citizens. This is emphasized via everyday work and conversations, museum and mall visits, and tourist showcases.

One particular showcase involved what’s in the cover art: eight-year-old North Korean girls playing what looks like piano accordions with full-on frozen smiles on their faces. In a surprising and disgusting moment in the graphic novel, Delisle actually called these kids “little savant monkeys” on page 157.

Umm… excuse me??? MONKEYS???

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That unveiled racism really bothered me, for obvious reasons. But a quick reread of Pyongyang showed me more of what I missed the first time around: dashes of sexism/misogyny and overall White-boy pompousness:

  • Page 9: About his Pyongyang hotel room, Delisle described it as “cold and impersonal, just like they like them in Asia.” Haha, no, colonizer. Don’t.
  • Delisle also portrayed Chinese workers in a stereotypical way, with poor Chinese dialogue to match:

You don’t have to be psychic to know they’re Chinese. They leave the door open, watch television in their underwear… and yell to each other from room to room until late into the night.

Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, page 38
  • The apartment building I live in had plenty of these mainland Chinese workers during the POGO boom of 2018/2019. There were some consistently reported problems, like their spitting inside elevators, littering in public/shared areas, and smoking inside rented units plus loud noises past standard hours. Yes, they can be unruly. But presenting all of them as having a single negative behavioral pattern was uncalled for. Some of these so-called lowly workers were the first to help me out and be kind to me just because, while my own people couldn’t be bothered with basic decency.
  • Page 48: Delisle called a hotel worker putting water rations in his hotel fridge at 7 AM a bitch for being noisy and not reading the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign he put on his doorknob. Yes, that’s annoying, and I would be pissed off too. But who are you calling bitch, bitch?

Our guide is truly stunning, and listening to her graphic descriptions, I think up a few tortures of my own that I wouldn’t mind inflicting on her.

Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, page 169

And I’m honestly disappointed in myself for missing Delisle’s condescension for North Korea and non-Whites in general on my first pass. Rereading it made me realize that even as Delisle highlights daily life under an oppressive, soul-sucking regime, he also seems to think the North Koreans 100% chose to live this way and to not do better for themselves, or that they’re not as smart or worthy of respect as others, e.g., Westerners like himself.

I wish I were as fast in seeing the warning signs as these reviewers on Goodreads. But having so many problematic panels go over my head also makes me wonder how much ingrained racist/misogynist shit (picked up from my upbringing and culture/society) I still have in me for it to happen in the first place, or how easy it still is to pass offensive beliefs and remarks off as sarcasm and humor.

This graphic memoir could’ve been good. But Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea became a clear exhibit of how White people can perceive and treat Asians in their own countries. Unfortunately, not much has changed – the Juche and global racism/misogyny remain.

You can get a digital copy of this memoir on comiXology. And this is the first work of Delisle’s that I have ever read. Please tell me his succeeding graphic memoirs are much better than this. Please…???

One fucking huge frog

Reading at Random #4: "Bakokak" by Gerry Alanguilan and Kevin Ray Valentino

Next is a quick read from the late writer and comic book artist Gerry Alanguilan (whose earlier work, Elmer, is a favorite of mine) and indie graphic artist Kevin Ray Valentino.

Bakokak has an amazingly uncomplicated storyline. A giant mutated frog shows up in Metro Manila and starts destroying things and eating people. The Filipinos caught in its path seek refuge or try to leave the megacity. The government relies on the army to save the day… by bombing Manila. (Ummm… yeah. Counterintuitive, no?) Unfortunately, the frog survives the first attempt.

A doctor named David Dalangib (the “Hero”) shows up and unveils a particularly gross and gruesome solution: a mechanical fly with countless corpses strapped to it and a massive bomb as its payload. The frog eats the mecha-fly and is bombed from the inside. This time, everyone is saved. The graphic novel ends with panels showing Metro Manila’s destruction.

Thanks to Bakokak‘s under-100 page count, you’ll be done reading it in an hour or even less. And if you enjoy reading stories involving Godzilla or King Kong, you’ll love its disaster-movie vibe. I mean, it has all the “essentials”: two feuding Alpha Male characters, nameless female characters apart from little Jing (because why bother, right? Also: sarcasm!), and several two-page illustrations of Big Action Moments. 😂

It was also fun to see the Philippines have a Facility for Philippine Defense, along with Valentino’s visual callouts to Alanguilan’s previous graphic novels Wasted and Elmer (fried chicken, LOL). The black-and-white artwork is gorgeous, and a perfect match to the story Alanguilan wanted to tell. I’m looking forward to seeing more art from Valentino in the future!

Before I forget… That panel near the end (with kids killing a frog because a frog killed their friends) made me sad for a few days. And there’s a glaring crime, story-wise: So Dalangib just stored dead people in the Facility? How long did he do this for, and did he have the families’ consent for the corpses to be used against aliens???


I bought my copy of Bakokak from Komiket and Secret HQ.

Reading five new stories from the underworld

Reading at Random #5: "Trese: Bloodlines" by Mark Gatela, Brandie Tan, JB Tapia, Brian Balondo, Marvin del Mundo, David Hontiveros, KaJO Baldisimo, and Budjette Tan.

I have been a fan of the Trese series for years and years and years. But now is probably the best time to be a fan. Visprint released a seventh volume in 2019 before it closed, and the earlier volumes are slowly being re-released by its new publishers Avenida Books and Ablaze Publishing in the US.

And then there’s the hit Netflix animated series:

Trese: Bloodlines is the second spinoff graphic novel (following Trese: Stories from the Diabolical), but with a twist. It reminds me of Paolo Chikiamco’s Mythspace Volume 1 in that this graphic novel has a lot of participants. The full list: Mark Gatela, Brandie Tan, JB Tapia, Brian Balondo, Marvin del Mundo, David Hontiveros, KaJO Baldisimo, and Budjette Tan.

Having multiple cooks also means some creators’ characters make cameos here. It feels strange to see other people dabble in the Trese universe. But Dakila, Payaso, and Detective Michael Andara’s appearances can be compared to Alex Trese and the Kambal’s extended cameos in Skyworld 1 and 2. Their makers are all friends, and they all make komiks. It shouldn’t be a surprise. 😂

Here’s a short rundown of the five new Trese stories:

The Visions of Miranda Trese, Budjette Tan and Baldisimo
  • This introductory story by the original series creators gives readers a glimpse of the many possibilities in the growing Trese universe – much like a What If…? type of situation.
  • It’s also a good refresher course on who Alexandra’s siblings and parents are, not to mention a peek at what could have been if Miranda Trese were still alive.
Takutan: A Verdugo Mission, Tapia
  • This story has a more violent and ruthless portrayal of Carlos “Verdugo” Trese, whom I last saw in Trese Volume 6 (High Tide at Midnight).
  • It also highlights his and Alexandra’s differing methods toward justice and keeping the peace. Alex is diplomatic but decisive; Verdugo is downright gruesome. He does not hesitate to “go there” to accomplish his goals, much to Alex’s frustration.
  • The illustration style here leans toward The Matrix, with Alex looking a lot like Trinity.
That Kind of Hunger: A Fr. Matthias Trese Case, Hontiveros and Balondo
  • This time around, Fr. Matthias is the protagonist. His task is to exorcise an evil creature from a young woman’s body in the middle of a horrible underworld ritual manned by substitutes.
  • This story had major potential, but the extensive text-based world-building ruined it for me. They should’ve put in more illustrations or panels as extensive blocks of text take away from the komiks experience. TL;DR: Too much telling, not enough showing!
  • The primer story should also be at the beginning instead of at the end. To me, that’s just bad pacing/storytelling.
Iunctura: A Fr. Trese and Dakila Deviation Story, Hontiveros and del Mundo
  • It retains Fr. Matthias as the protagonist. But now, he has to go to a different dimension or plane to disrupt a “Tiangge” or election among the seven rulers of the seven realms of Hell in order to reconfirm or reprove his faith.
  • It’s a deeply religious story involving Hontiveros’ copyrighted character Dakila and a Malevari armor disguise (from the previous story).
  • TBH, I hate/super-dislike this story because of the religious angle, and there are (again) long blocks of text and word/info dumps that would be better off in a Hontiveros novel than a Trese comic. It’s still not my jam, even if the info dump is at the beginning of the story for this round.
Personal Demons: An Alexandra Trese and Detective Andara Deviation Story, Gatela, Brandie Tan, and Baldisimo
  • Alex Trese teams up with ex-cop Andara (a copyrighted character by Gatela and Brandie Tan) to finish the fight the elder Andaras had with the demon Gabâ.
  • The illustrations are similar to the original Trese style, but with Alex now sporting a semi-punk look with cropped hair and the Kambal looking like hot boyband members in their crop tops. I don’t mind. 😉
  • This was a good teamup. However, I would’ve loved to see an explanation of how Trese met the deceased Andaras in the first place, and how Andara got a tikbalang’s knuckles as weapons.

Overall, it’s a good collection of stories. But I am also looking forward to reading more of the original series (including the out-of-print Volume 7) – and seeing fewer info dumps!!!

You can buy Trese: Bloodlines via Komiket/Secret HQ and Avenida Books.

Too close to home

Reading at Random #6: "A Hole in My Life: Battling Chronic Dizziness" by Philippa Thomson

I was diagnosed with superior semicircular canal dehiscence (SSCD) – also called semicircular canal dehiscence syndrome or SCDS – around this time last year. It’s a rare vestibular/balance disorder characterized by (among many other symptoms):

  • Constant headaches and ear/head pressure
  • Bad episodes of dizziness, vertigo, and drop attacks triggered by physical movements and noise
  • Nystagmus or involuntary eye movements
  • Hearing loss in one or both ears
  • Loss of balance
  • Mild to severe noise intolerance, and
  • Autophony (or hearing noises right inside your head, like your own voice and heartbeat, and your eyes blinking and your joints moving).

I swear all of this is fucking odd if you don’t know what’s going on.

The cause? A thin or missing temporal bone in my right inner ear, which I could’ve been born without or which deteriorated over time. The cure? Surgery, either via middle cranial fossa or transmastoid repair. Either way, someone has to drill into my head and plug that damn hole.

Oh, and since SSCD is a hearing and balance disorder, I am now technically and legitimately a person with disability (PWD).

I don’t know anyone else living with my condition, and I have been told by local doctors that the Philippines has no SSCD specialists (yet…?). So everyday life can get heavy and depressing, with me feeling like I am surviving and fighting this all alone. Meanwhile, everyone else takes their hearing and balance for granted, and has no idea of or interest in exactly how debilitating “simple” actions and movements and noises can be for me.

These are the very reasons why Philippa Thomson’s 2016 memoir, A Hole in My Life: Battling Chronic Dizziness, was 100% required reading for me. I first heard of this book through the Norway-based The SCDS Society, an organization that also runs a support group on Facebook for SSCD sufferers and caretakers. Right now it’s the first and only first-person account of life with SSCD; the medical solutions/interventions available to her; and the years of hardships in navigating a cruel, uncaring, expensive, and inflexible healthcare system.

Obviously, I can relate heavily to Thomson’s experience, particularly with the symptoms and sequence of events she detailed in her first five chapters. While reading, I felt a bit of comfort to know I’m not imagining things, overreacting, or exaggerating. SSCD is real and debilitating, and ableism is still rampant in society. These early chapters let me know I am not alone; my feelings of helplessness and anger and isolation and desperation are fully valid; and healthcare workers and practitioners can’t and won’t always offer knowledge, sensitivity, or support.

Thomson’s sixth chapter onward shifts the discussion toward surgery + more years of medical and personal hurdles. This is scary for me because this could be my future as well. And my prospects aren’t looking good, with a pandemic and other long-term conditions to handle alongside SSCD. Diagnosis is just the beginning – the fight hasn’t even begun yet.

Here’s my last remark about this book: as always, it’s not a template for everyone with SSCD. This is just one life experience from a White woman living in a Western country (Scotland) with a relatively stable healthcare sector and personal support system. Her circumstances and challenges and solutions differ greatly from mine, a Filipina with preexisting lifelong conditions and a smaller support system living in the healthcare-hungry Philippines. My experience could go the same way or an entirely different route, and so could/would other SSCD patients’ experiences.

You can buy the e-book version of A Hole in My Life on Amazon.