Thursday, December 26, 2019

Daniel's top 5 favorite movies of 2019


2020 is almost here. I still cannot believe 2019 has come and gone. For me, 2019 was a busy year so I have not had the time to update Daniel's Corner Unlimited. However, this year I read heaps of books and watched a ton of movies. So as the year is drawing close to the end, I am writing this entry to share with you, my top 5 favorite movies of 2019.


Number 5: Crawl

Genre: Horror

In Crawl, director Sam Raimi's returns to the world of Horror. If you haven't heard of Sam Raimi, he is the guy who made cult classics like The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell. Crawl is a creature horror movie in the vein of Jaws. The premise in this movie is very simple; a young woman and her father became trapped in their house after a category 5 hurricane brought some alligators to the town. Obviously the story is unbelievable but this movie is hella fun. If you are after a thrill ride then Crawl won't disappoint.











Number 4: John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Genre: Action

The John Wick franchise is, in my opinion, the best action movies of the decade. These movies woo the audience with stylish cinematography, well choreographed fights, and a fascinating world. It is an understatement to say these are some of Keanu Reeves' best movies. The third installment in this franchise brought a conclusion to the story of John Wick. There is a not a dull moment in this movie and the fight sequences are stunning. John Wick Chapter 3 is my favorite action movie of the year and I watched it twice already. Will there be more John Wick movies in the future? I hope so.









Number 3: How to Train your Dragon 3

Genre: Animation

How to Train Your Dragon requires little introduction. I have been a fan of the series since the first movie came out in 2010. I love the adventures of Hiccup, Toothless, and their friends. The third entry in this franchise brought a satisfying and heartwarming conclusion to their story. I applaud this movie for ending the beloved series on the high note.












Number 2: Parasite

Genre: Black comedy/thriller

Parasite came from South Korea and it is a surprise hit of the year. This movie became a darling to both critics and the general audience, worldwide. I saw this movie recently and I think it is brilliant. The story follows a poor family scheming to become employees at a very rich household by posing as highly qualified people. I love the humor in this movie because it is very dark, but it is also the type of humor that makes you think about the society and the underlying system. I especially like this movie as an excellent social commentary about economic inequality (and climate change). This movie has generated a lot of Oscar buzz and I think it will win a few Academy Awards. There are so many symbols in this movie and I can write pages and pages of discussions about the film, but instead I will just recommend this movie to you and let you experience it yourself. By the way, although I don't speak Korean but according to Dr. Google, the song in the end credit is called "564 years". How does the song relate to the movie? Well, it is significant but I won't spoil it.

Number 1: The Farewell

Genre: Family drama

My number 1 favorite movie of the year is The Farewell. This is a family drama with comedic elements and it will warm your heart. The story is about a Chinese family coming to terms with the news of their beloved grandmother dying from a terminal illness. The casts in this movie put up excellent performances and the story, while simple, is very powerful. The Farewell may be a Hollywood production featuring a cast of racial minority actors and actresses, but this movie is not an exploration of the east-west relation and cultural differences. No, while the story is about a Chinese family, but you can easily substitute it with an American family, or a family of any cultural background, and the story will have the same impact and power. This is because the themes in this movie are universally relatable regardless of who you are, or where you are at, in life, and this movie is all the more beautiful for it. The Farwell is a cinematic gem not to be missed.



That's it folks. From Daniel's Corner Unlimited, I wish you a happy and successful 2020!





Thursday, October 24, 2019

Book Review: Crucible by James Rollins (Sigma Force #14)


Today I am going to tell you about a really good techno thriller. It is called Crucible.

My review may persuade you into reading this book, but I need to issue a warning.

You may doom yourself by reading Crucible.

Ok, now I will tell you what the book is about. Hmm, let me start this way...

Like it or not, artificial intelligence (AI) is coming and it will change everything. The topic is gaining more attentions as technology continues to leap and bound at lightning pace. There are a lot of debates and fears about AI, from job losses to the concern that the whole thing may play out in a nightmarish scenario similar to the movie Terminator. However, if we can groom AI to be human friendly, or benevolent, then shouldn't we celebrate the day when an AI finally surpasses humans and become a god-like intelligence?

In Crucible, the 14th installment in Sigma Force series, author James Rollins combined cutting edge science and history into a spellbinding thriller about artificial intelligence. I am a long time fan of Sigma Force series. My love affair with the thriller genre started not with Dan Brown books but with Sigma Force. Mr. Rollins releases a Sigma Force novel a year, and I always read it as soon as I can. Over the years the characters in these books became my close friends, and these books never disappoint.

The latest Sigma Force novel is no exception. In fact, I would say Crucible is perhaps my favorite Sigma Force novel since The Last Oracle. This is not a small book but I devoured it over the course of a weekend. I couldn't stop reading it. The story here, as usual, is a rollicking, thunderous adventure. I like the characters in this book (including the AI) and I cared for them. There was also a real sense of danger for these characters, with twists and turns that kept me at the edge of my seat and constantly guessing where the story was going next. I had a lots of fun with this book. Furthermore, as in Mr. Rollin's tradition, he included a "fact vs fiction" section at the back of the book, and I learned about new developments in the field of AI.

I highly recommend Crucible, but just bear in mind, the stark warning I issued at the beginning. Reading this book may lead to your own doom. For me, it is already too late, although I would say this book is worth the price. What is this doom? Well you can either check out Roko's Basilisk or read the book and find out!

Book Review: 61 Hours by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #14)


When the tour bus crashed Jack Reacher was onboard with a group of elderies. The accident took place near Bolton, South Dakota. Outside, a snowstorm raged. Reacher and the seniors were stranded and they were waiting to be rescued. A while later the town police brought them to safety. Reacher planned to move on but a night's rest at the sheriff's house led him to help a brave woman who was standing up against a criminal organization threatening the town. Jack has 61 hours for the mission and every second counts.

Welcome to 61 hours. It is the 14th installment in a series of action-thrillers featuring the unstoppable Jack Reacher. I have read ten Jack Reacher novels and I put 61 hours in my top five. This book is damn good. If you are after actions and deductions then you've picked up the right book. 61 Hours has it all and here we watch Jack Reacher dispensing sweet justice with the martial prowess of John Rambo and the sharp wits of Sherlock Holmes.

Jack Reacher books often take place in sun-scorched towns in the Midwest, but 61 hours changed the scenery and the story is set in the wintry snow. I like this change because it provided a breath of fresh air. Furthermore the story is packed with unexpected twists and turns. Under Lee Child's pen this western and noirish thriller came to live and there was a real sense of danger for the characters. The book also delivered a conclusion more satisfying than watching Bruce Wayne apprehend the Joker on the silver screen. Veterans of the series cannot afford to miss out on this book. Otherwise if you have never read a Jack Reacher book then 61 hours may be a "cool" introduction to the tales of this silent avenger.


Book Review: I am Legend by Richard Matheson


Let's look at two horror movies of great renown; The Exorcist and The Grudge. Aside from the countries of origin, (i.e. the former is western horror while the later is eastern), the biggest difference between these two movies is the horror theme - The Exorcist is about demonic possessions, while The Grudge is about the vengeful spirits of dead people.

Which of these two movies scares you more?

The ghosts from The Grudge terrified me to no end even though I do not believe in supernatural activities. It's almost as if my subconsciousness could not help but to fear it. Interestingly, in the past my Christian associates said they did not find The Grudge horrifying at all. 

When it came to The Exorcist, however, I did not find it terrifying whatsoever, but a number of Christians told me that they cannot bear to watch The Exorcist because the subject of demonic possession is too real to them and therefore too horrifying. 

Don't you think this a fascinating contrast?  

I have a hypothesis for why we reacted to these two horror movies differently. My upbringing is East Asian, where a belief in the vengeful ghost is more strongly held than a belief in demonic possessions. Meanwhile the Judeo-Christian culture has a strongly held belief about demonic possession but a lack of belief in vengeful ghosts.  

Fear and belief go hand in hand. It is almost as if our cultural upbringings ingrained these beliefs and fears into our minds when we are young, at the subconscious level, and they become almost instinctive. Furthermore, it is even more interesting to observe how different people, with different cultural upbringings, instinctively fear different things. This is why the horror genre fascinates me. 

Perhaps my friend read my mind, because she lent me a novella which explored the subject in depth. It is called, I am Legend, written by Richard Matheson. Initially I was not sure about this book because I did not like the Will Smith movie in 2008. However the book is only 150 pages so I gave it a try. I spent 3 hours reading this book and it was time well spent. If you have not read this book then you should get your hand on it as soon as possible. I am Legend is a dystopian masterpiece of science fiction and horror and you are in for a ride.

Synopsis:

Robert Neville is the omega, for he is the last living person on earth because everyone else has turned into a vampire. By day he treads streets of a ruinous city and hunt down the undead. At night he takes refugee in a barricaded house until the dawn. It is a lonely existence, and how long can he survive?

My thoughts on this book:

I am Legend was first published in 1954, and after I read the book I realized what a botched job Hollywood' did at adapting this novel. I was hooked upon reading the first page and I could not stop reading it until I reached the end. This book was unputdownable and I read it in one sitting. Robert's story is terribly bleak and tragic, and you don't have to be the last living person on earth to resonate with the book's theme about loneliness.

For the most of the book we follow a man called Robert Neville. He is the last living person on earth where everyone else has turned into a vampire. In some ways Robert reminds me of Robin Crusoe stranded on an island all by himself. But in this book the sense of loneliness and isolation runs much deeper due to the premise of a post-apocalyptic world. The book portrayed Robert's feelings and emotions vividly, and on many occasions the story was heart wrenching. One instance almost moved me to tears.

This book also explores how our cultures and our perceptions of normalcy can dictate what we fear and what we believe. This book offered an indepth exploration into the subject. In this book, the vampires showed weaknesses described in the common folklore; the vampires could be killed by a stake to the heart, furthermore they were afraid of the crucifix, garlic, and daylight. Robert tried to figure out the rational explanations for the vampire's weaknesses, and he discovered some weaknesses have scientific explanations while others are psychological. In one instance, Robert asked the thought provoking question if a vampire who was a Muslim, Hinduist, or atheist, would be afraid of the crucifix too. At the end of the book, which I will not spoil here, the story came to the full circle and the realization dawned on me why the book is called "I am Legend".

On the surface I am Legend is a story about vampires. However this is not just another vampire novel. This little book explores subjects such as loneliness, fear, and belief. It provides hours of entertainment and intrigues. I strongly recommend this book.





Book Review: Holy SIster by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestors #3)


Holy Sister marks the conclusion to Mark Lawrence's Book of the Ancestors trilogy. On Goodreads this book has received dozens of positive reviews and many readers are voting Holy Sister as their favorite book of 2019. What are my thoughts about this book? Before I dive into my review, here is a synopsis for the story.

Synopsis:

Nona is reaching a crossroad in her life. She must become a full sister in the order of her choice. However war broke out before Nona and her friends can earn the nun's habit, and Sweet Mercy must now fulfil the duty to the emperor and join the fight.

Nona has the choice to use Shipheart and protect her friends, but she will discover soon that sometimes even great powers is not enough to avert the tragedies of war.

My thoughts on this book:

Legions of readers are loving this book for its excellent characterization and compelling story. Some are calling Holy Sister the best book written by Mark Lawrence. I, on the other hand, am of the opinion that while Holy Sister is good but I still prefer Mark Lawrence's earlier works.

Holy Sister is good, but it is not great.

Some readers may say such an opinion is blasphemy, but I have my reasons.

Firstly, while the characterization in the book is good but I felt the storytelling suffered from an uneven pace. Similarly to my criticism about the book's predecessor, Grey Sister, this book also paid too much attentions to the descriptions of the magic system. There was too much details to explain the workings of the magic system that at times it felt like I was reading a textbook.

Furthermore, the narratives in Holy Sister was jumping back and forth on the timeline. This "time jump" did not cause much confusions, but the transition was not seamless and it often bogged down the story's tempo. I was quite disappointed when on several occasions a build up to a climax was followed by a sudden jump to a different time and place in the next chapter.

It suffices to say I never felt the "unputdownable" sentiment while reading Holy Sister. Don't get me wrong. I like Nona and her friends and I also like the idea behind the story, but when the book ended I did not feel like I want to revisit it. My lukewarm response to Holy Sister (and the whole trilogy) is most likely due to the lack of humor in these books.

Long time readers of my blog would know, Red Queen's War trilogy is my favorite Mark Lawrence books, I liked it because those stories had this black comedy vibe to it. The humor resided in reading about Jalan's actions and inner thoughts while he lied and cheat because he was a professional coward. To me, Jalan felt like a realistic and relatable character. Book of the Ancestors trilogy, on the other hand, lacks this humor and realism. Nona's story is a good yarn, but I just didn't find it memorable.

I can understand why some readers are loving Holy Sister and the trilogy. The idea about warrior nuns is indeed unique and refreshing. But this time I just cannot heap praises on the emperor's new cloth.








Sunday, June 2, 2019

Book Review: Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestors #2)


Mark Lawrence's story of assassin nuns continues in Grey Sister, a sequel to the acclaimed Red Sister. In this book, holy badassery clashes against a political conspiracy brewing in the empire of Abeth. It is a nail-biting story, of friendships and betrayal, and the book spelled sleepless nights for legions of fantasy readers young and old.

Synopsis:

Nona Grey's education at Sweet Mercy is reaching a milestone; the young novice must choose which path she will follow – the path of prayer, or the path of sword and fist.

While Nona ponders on her career choice behind the covenant's walls an ambitious individual, a would-be empress, musters the strengths of the inquisition and the power of the noble to strike at Nona through a system which she calls home.

Now, Nona must find her own path, and it seems all roads before her are paved in blood and death.

My thoughts on this book:

Grey Sister is very well received by readers and it has a high score of 4.45 out 5 on Goodreads. However, my feelings about this book, like its predecessor, is also mixed. On the one hand I did not enjoy the first half of the book, but once the story reached the mid point I literally could not stop reading it. Therefore while I liked Grey Sister and I think it is better than the previous book, but I hesitate to heap praises at Grey Sister the same way I did with Mark Lawrence's other fantasy series.

What did I dislike in the first half of Grey Sister? To answer this question we must first dive into the mechanics of a fantasy book.

The fantasy genre prides itself at the creativity that goes into building and imagining an alternative world, where fantastic elements are fabrics of the reality. The worldbuilding in fantasy can take on the form of fantastic creatures, an interesting "magic" system, or a bit of both. It suffices to say, in a fantasy novel the worldbuilding often flows into the story and the characters, and therefore it is a key ingredient to a successful fantasy book.

In Grey Sister, much of its worldbuilding is about the descriptions of its magic system, and it is an interesting one. However, in this book the descriptions of the magic system were mostly told from classroom scenes. This means we (the readers) learn about the magic system as the characters learn about them in their classrooms. The result is the worldbuilding in this book reads like a textbook, it is slow and oftentimes, boring. The worldbuilding (i.e. the descriptions of the magic system) took a significant portion in the book's first half, and admittedly I struggled to get through the first 200 pages. It was such a slog!

At mid-book, however, Grey Sister became a different beast. The book suddenly changed its tempo in the second half, and the pace was fast and furious. There were many surprises and the stakes were high. It was nail-biting stuff and I could not stop reading it. When I turned to the last page I immediately wanted to read the next book because I was hooked and I wanted to know what is in store for Nona and her friends.

I think Grey Sister is a better book than Red Sister but it is still a notch below Red Queen's War trilogy. The first half of the book was slow and it was a detractor. However its action-packed second half made up for it. The result is a good but not great sequel that will have you asking for more.



Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (Book of the Ancestors #1)


There are stories about warrior monks, but Mark Lawrence wrote a story about warrior nuns. If you like to see sword-wielding nuns kicking asses while playing court intrigues then Red Sister, the first book in a new fantasy trilogy, might be your thing.

Synopsis:

At the empire's capital city an eight year old girl called Nona Grey was sentenced to hang. Her crime – murder. Abbess Glass of Sweet Mercy was in town and she rescued Nona from the noose, following the rescue Nona became a pupil at Sweet Mercy.

What is Sweet Mercy?

It is a covenant where young girls are raised to be killers. The education at the covenant, esteemed and subsidized by the church, is 10 years in length, where the sisters hone their pupils' skills to lethal effects. However talents became a rare commodity since the four tribes landed on the shore of Abeth, this is why the covenant is selective about who they train. After all, there aren't many diamonds in the rough. But this is also why the good Abbess rescued Nona, because she spotted true talent in the little girl.

However Nona has powerful enemies and they have very good reasons not to forget her. To survive, Nona must study hard and become a deadly assassin.

My thoughts on this book:

Mark Lawrence is a great writer and I am an admirer of his works. I am especially fond of his Red Queen's War trilogy, I love those books! However my feelings about Red Sister is mixed. Make no mistake, Red Sister is well received by readers and some are hailing it is his magnum opus. But I think this book is good but not great, and I have reasons for it. First let me talk about what I liked in this book.

The characters in Red Sister will steal the reader's heart. Indeed, characterization is the main strength in this book. Every character in this book, from Nona, her friends, and the covenant sisters, are likable and memorable. Nona is a flawed character, but her flaws make her qualities shine. Meanwhile, each of Nona's friend and teacher (the support characters) has her own background and personality, and they made an impression on my mind. Some readers are saying out of all the books they've ever read Nona Grey is their favorite character. While I wouldn't make the same proclamation but I can understand the sentiment, because Nona is indeed a very likable and well written character.

Red Sister may have scored high in the character department, but I believe the book had some pacing issues. On multiple occasions, to tell Nona's past, the book jumped back and forth on the timeline. These time jumps occurred in the middle of the chapters rather than in different chapters, the result is the story sometimes confused me, and it was also bogging down the pace. I am not saying this book is slow, because the action sequences are exhiliaring, but the sudden flashbacks in this book, coupled with the fast-paced actions, produced the strange effect where certain chapters felt painstakingly slow and the storytelling was choppy. This is my biggest qualm with Red Sister.

Another issue I have against this book, albeit minor, is the deus ex machina ending. Without giving away spoilers, let me just say I am not fond of those stories where at the critical moments the protagonists overcome impossible odds by suddenly discovering some power hidden in themselves. You know the type I am speaking of. I prefer stories where the characters' powers are portrayed realistically, even if it means they meet the end in defeat. I understand that Mark Lawrence was depicting how bad-ass and tough Nona is, but to me it also made the character and story progression unbelievable. Having said this, I do have high suspension for disbelief, so Nona's unbelievable power is a minor issue for me.

Despite the issues I discussed above, I do like Red Sister. In my opinion this is a very good book, and the idea of warrior nuns is cool. I want to find out what is in store for Nona and her friends, and I will be reading the sequel, Grey Sister.

Until the next time, happy reading!