Jennifer E. Smith’s This Is What Happy Looks Like

Happy looks like sunrises over the harbor, ice cream on a hot day, the sound of the waves down the street, the way my dog curls up next to me on the couch, evening strolls, great movies, thunderstorms, a good cheese burger, Fridays, Saturdays, Wednesdays, sticking your toes in the water, pajama pants, flip-flops, swimming, poetry. What does it look like to you?

This is What Happy Looks Like

Ellie and Graham has been exchanging emails for a few months, sharing details about their lives, hopes, and dreams, but they don’t even know each other’s first name. Young movie star, Graham Larkin, jumps at an opportunity to visit the hometown of a girl he’s met on the internet to try to take their relationship from online to irl. Small-town girl, Ellie O’Niell, on the other hand, isn’t one to draw attention to herself. She’s been pretty content in the middle of nowhere with her mom and friends all her life; and besides, she’s got the summer poetry course at Harvard to worry about.

This is What Happy Looks Like is a young adult, romance novel from Jennifer E. Smith. Although I am generally not a fan of these kinds of fiction, the book is surprisingly not very difficult to get invested in. The peek into the online exchanges of Ellie and Graham, though nothing new, is a nice touch. The unsent drafts at the beginning of part 2 broke my heart. Smith did a great job with writing the characters, especially the mom; she, to me, was the most relatable. Smith’s descriptives and dialogue are consistently animated. I absolutely enjoyed the exchange between Ellie and her mother during the Fourth of July celebration.

Of the few things I thought the novel could’ve worked on was revealing how much exactly Ellie and Graham knew about each other before they met. Also, the writing, at times, especially in the first part, felt a little forced. Ellie’s appreciation for poetry, for example, just came out of nowhere and Graham’s reveal to Quinn was uneventful. Dividing the novel into two parts was unnecessary. I’m sure there would’ve been a more subtle way to show the passing of time. The plot, later, becomes a little too complicated and by then, all I wanted was for a denouement that didn’t call for some cheesy deus ex machina (which, thankfully, it didn’t).

This is What Happy Looks Like didn’t leave me with much, but that’s maybe because I’m not into the genre. It is a lighthearted, romance novel and for that, it is pretty good. It had me invested in the story and characters; and though a bit bland, it did have a satisfying ending. I honestly would pass on another Smith novel if something more my speed was available, but if you enjoy reading about young love and all its complications, the book is definitely worth picking up. There is also a sequel novella called Happy Again if you have read the book and are interested in more.

Haruki Murakami’s The Strange Library

The Strange Library is a short story by best-selling author, Haruki Murakami. The illustrated novel is about a boy who gets himself trapped inside a labyrinthine library. There, he meets a sheep-man and a girl who talks with her hands and they plan to escape the wicked librarian.


The Strange Library is a relatively short story. I finished reading the book in little over an hour but it took me a while to really digest the story. It is filled with more than a handful of confusing parallelism. It’s a great story, in that it leaves readers with a lot to think about.

Though short, the book is incredibly descriptive for its length. The mood during my first read-through was really heavy. Murakami made sure the reader would share in the boy’s anxiety and confusion. The mood during succeeding reads however, becomes tamer as I was reading to find answers instead of delving into the story.

The book itself is strange. The novel is bound by flaps that open vertically and there was more than one type size and color throughout the book. In a way it is very refreshing, and it’s reminded me how I’ve forgotten how to read books with pictures. The version I have is the one designed by Chip Kidd. There is an edition with illustrations from Ted Gossen which I would very much like to read soon.

If you are familiar with Haruki Murakami’s quirky narrative style, then I would definitely recommend picking up this book. If you, however, can’t tough it through Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, or haven’t read any of his books yet, The Strange Library may not be the best novel to start with.

Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children follows the story of Jacob Portman and his journey to find out the truth behind his grandpa Abe’s last words and consequently, discover a reality behind the peculiar stories he’s been told when he was younger.


Ransom Rigg’s first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, is a relatively good read. It stands with an engaging concept but that’s all it had for the most part. It doesn’t try hard to push the story forward, which is good in terms of pacing but has resulted to dull moments.  Asymmetrically, there are scenes that were written very vividly; probably a result of Riggs having a background in film. I honestly had nightmares about the book.

The book is littered with creepy pictures and letters that set the tone of the story in a way. Ransom Riggs has created a wonderful world, the story is well set and consistent.

The film, diversely, is excessively different from the novel. Although Riggs has responded positively to the changes, there was one big issue for me. From the several trailers, I could tell that Jake would be paired with a girl with the peculiarity of air – Olive, in the novel. My heart dropped, however, when instead of switching Emma and Olive, what happened was they completely swapped peculiarities where, Emma was now the girl who was lighter than air and Olive was the pyromancer. Maybe it’s just me being too set on seeing the flame-wielding tsundere I had come to love in the novel.

There were also big changes to the story line that I think were unnecessary. The out-of-nowhere ending, kind of created more loose ends with all of Jake’s loop jumping and such.

The pace at the beginning of the film also set me off. Usually a movie’s pacing becomes tighter when being translated from a novel but, I felt the development at the introduction felt too sluggish. Yet the friends I watched the movie with, who haven’t read the book, thought it was a pretty good build-up.

Both the novel and the film for Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, are equally satisfying in their respective rights. Although I do think the book made me more hyped to continue the series. I finished reading the book three weeks before the film came out and I would constantly catch myself reaching for the second book. It is definitely worth reading if you want to go on a fantastic, peculiar journey.

Joan Lowery Nixon’s The House On Hackman’s Hill

I recently came across an MTV post (yes, that MTV) about mystery books that kept you up in your elementary days. I guess they were trying to reach out to the MTV generation through a nostalgia card, but I haven’t read any one of the books in the list. What I remember reading in my middle school days was the Bailey School Kids Adventures and not one title from the series popped up in the list; one book, however, got my attention. The House on Hackman’s Hill by Joan Lowery Nixon was a book I remember having seen in my gran’s house.


The House on Hackman’s Hill, originally published in 1985, is a relatively short read. It is about cousins, Debbie and Jeff, as they go in search of the missing mummy of the Hackman House. The introduction gave me little motivation to keep reading; on the contrary, it became somewhat of a spoiler. It does pickup, however, as Mr. Karsten talked about his experiences at the Hackman House. And in a very satisfying way, the story comes full circle as the cousins relive the experiences of Mr. Karsten in the scary house.

One thing I did not appreciate was the shift of storytelling from third to first person by switching to the recounting of Mr. Karsten. I felt like it kind of cheated in terms of writing but it did create a more solid setting for the story in the process.

The House on Hackman’s Hill is a very good read for what it is. If you go into it without forgetting that it is a children’s horror-mystery novel, you will definitely have a good time. It does get a bit cheesy in some parts, but I believe that’s part of the appeal. Now, I’ve never read the book in middle school, but if I did, I’m sure it would have been a more substantial (re-)read.

Clara Vidal’s Like A Thorn

I recently decided to spend some time at my mom’s place for the past week for a change in pace. I thought I could get some writing done without my usual distractions but found new ones instead. One particular thing that caught my attention was Like a Thorn by Clara Vidal. I remember picking up the book during my first year of college at a used-book store. I didn’t think much of it during my first read-through; now, having met with people who suffer from mental health issues, I’ve gained a newfound respect and appreciation for the book.


The story is about Melie’s decadence into mental depression and serious obsessive compulsive disorder. The story of her confusion, fear, and unhappiness is beautifully crafted. Vidal slowly lures you in with curiosity and concern for Melie and then suddenly drops you in a maze of hopelessness and confusion when you least expect it.  It has several fits of ups and downs; giving you a light of hope one moment, then crushing it the next.

Like A Thorn is a book about the fear and confusion of growing up knowing that something is wrong but not knowing what. It is an outstanding read, but it is not very pleasant. The book subtly emphasizes of taking mental illnesses seriously, no matter the case.

Very recently, an initiative by the Philippine Psychiatric Association was started in order to protect the rights of the people with mental disabilities by petitioning the passing of Senate Bill 2450 Mental Health Act. The cause is supported by various personalities including RA Rivera, Rico Blanco, Jasmine Curtis Smith, and Agot Isidro. Visit to learn more.

I highly recommend the Like A Thorn if you want a peek into the mind of someone who is struggling with mental issues. I believe it is one of the more effective ways of spreading awareness about the mental disabilities.

Harlan Coben’s Six Years

I found Harlan Coben’s Six Years at a Booksale’s P20 pile. I read the first two pages and I was hooked. I wondered how an intriguing book would end up with a missing dust jacket on the floor of some used-book shop, just a couple of years after its original release date. So I picked it up and kind of forgot about it until earlier this year.

The book was honestly difficult to put down. I went through it in a little less than four days. I found a new appreciation for the thriller/mystery genre. If you haven’t yet read this amazing story, I suggest you do before continuing to avoid spoilers.

Six Years Book

Jake Fisher believes that he had found his one true love, Natalie, but has somehow ended at the back pew of a small chapel watching her marry another man. At the end of the ceremony, he is then forced to promise that he will no longer interfere with her life. He’s kept that promise for six years, until he happened upon the obituary of a Todd Sanderson – the man Natalie married. Things take a turn when he finds that the widow Todd has left wasn’t the woman Jake loved. He then begins to ask questions about Natalie and finds that it’s as if she had never existed. If there was no Natalie, who was the person Jake had spent a whole summer with?

Six Years set a wonderful mood that had me turning the page. The story has several intriguing twists that had me at the edge of my seat. Coben built a big-enough environment that consistently kept me invested in the story and a sense of longing that made me crave answers.

Jake’s persistent determination was something out of a fantasy, and sadly, that’s where my feelings for the book wavers. After being chased off by thugs, mobsters, and even his own best friend, Jake remains undeterred. I wouldn’t say the book lacked realism, but it was at times, unreasonable.

Another thing that disappointed me was the fairy tale ending. The book was, for me, one chapter too many. It felt like I was reading a novel that is one age category lower that when I had started. I understand that Coben is an avid thriller/mystery novelist and one thing that makes him this is the ability to leave no loose ends behind. However, I believe that the book can stand even without the sneak peek into what is Jake’s happily ever after.

I highly recommend Harlan Coben’s Six Years; it made me question my thoughts and feelings for myself and others. It also made me rethink my definition of what it is to know and love someone. It made me, at times, paranoid about the people around me but that’s just more proof of how much grip the book had on me.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned: A Holy Week Special

Are you there Satan? It’s me, Je.

As a member of a ridiculously religious family, I’d spend the first part of my childhood summer vacations (which here in the Philippines, starts from late March to early April), observing Holy Week traditions. One of these is going on Seven Churches Visitation trips. Locally known as Visita Iglesia, it is a tradition where, you guessed it, families visit seven churches, every single year, the same seven churches.

In light of this wonderful Catholic tradition, let me tell you about Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned. The first, and currently the only, work of Palahniuk that I’ve read, I recently finished the novel which was released in 2011, and is a prequel to his 2013, Doomed.

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Madison Desert Flower Rosa Parks Coyote Trickster Spencer, the only unadopted offspring of big-shot philanthropist, celebrity parents, is dead. Everything her Buddhist parents taught her about moral relativism, recycling, secular humanism, organic food, and expanded Gaia consciousness is wrong, and now she’s in hell.

Thirteen-year-old Maddy narrates her adventures in hell together with her newfound friends; a rocker, a nerd, a beauty, and a jock. She tours around the sights of hell across the Dandruff Dessert, through the Great Plains of Broken Glass, over the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, and beyond the Swamp of Terminated Pregnancies.

In her short time in hell, she learns about the structures of Hades, demonic entities, and divine laws about passing gas in elevators. At the same time she tries to remember the events and details of her death.

I’ve come across a lot of positive reviews for this book before actually reading it and found that there were several comments relating it to The Breakfast Club. Even Palahniuk described the novel as “if The Shawshank Redemption had a baby by The Lovely Bones and it was raised by Judy Blume” and “it’s kind of like The Breakfast Club set in hell.” I dwelt on the latter and read with too much expectation, until I realized that the novel has a story on its own and shouldn’t be read as a clone of any other work.

The book is filled with religious satire that would make any churchgoing grandma faint. Palahniuk presents each scene in a comedic manner while making you rethink your religious choices and moral ideals. He gives insight to the funny truths and paradoxes of most organized beliefs in a most interesting way.

Pick this book up if you want a great read during your Visita Iglesia trips or if you want to see how far you can go without crossing the line of unbelief. Either way, I’ll see you guys in hell.