Friday, December 26, 2014

Book Review: Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #4)

The Dresden Files series is well-known for its wholesome reputation among the readers of the urban fantasy genre. The author of this beloved series, Jim Butcher, weaved elements from detective fiction and supernatural horror together into the fabrics of the story, and veiling it in the atmosphere of neo-noir. The resulting product, is a series of books that enchant readers with exciting actions, and stylish suspense.

Jim Buther has published 15 The Dresden Files novels up to date. I have read the first four books. Although I felt these books were a bit repetitive, but I still enjoyed them, because the characterization and the world building in these books are top notch. In my previous blog entry, I shared my thoughts about Grave Peril, the 3rd entry in the series, where the story concluded with a bittersweet ending. In Summer Knight, the 4th book in the series, the story of Harry Dresden continues, as he faces a new challenge with a stake of the highest caliber. I noticed as this series goes on, the size of Harry Dresden's challenge grows as well. Does a bigger challenge translate to a better story? Today, I would like to review Summer Knight, the 4th book in The Dresden Files series.

Synopsis:

Harry Dresden is a gifted wizard. In fact, he makes a living, as a professional wizard for hire, providing services such as: finding lost items, paranormal investigation and consultation; all these services can be purchased at a reasonable rate. In the past, Harry undertook some dangerous assignments, going toe to toe against a dark wizard, werewolves, and vampires, it's all part of a day in Harry's job. Needless to say, there are many occupational hazards in Harry's line of trade, the most recent one, was when Harry's girlfriend was turned into a vampire during one of Harry's assignment.

Since then, Harry became a desperate man. He worked day and night, abandoned his business, researching a cure for his girlfriend's vampiricism. Nine months later, Harry still hasn't found a cure. Worse still, Harry's business revenue has become a desert wasteland, all his bills are overdue, and he is about to be evicted from his office and apartment.

As Harry reached an all time low in his life, Winter Queen of Faerie approached Harry with an offer he can't refuse. Apparently, Summer Knight, the right hand man for Summer Queen, has been murdered. Winter Queen's contract to Harry is simple; find out who murdered Summer Knight. This seems straight forward? If only life can be so kind!

Soon, Harry found himself entangled in a web of faerie politics, and he also discovered, it just happens that the fate of the world depends on him solving this case. So yep, speaking of stress at work...

What I think about this book:

I think Summer Knight is a solid entry to The Dresden Files series, but it is not without flaws. The story in this book is compact, flying at a fast pace. Jim Butcher created suspense in this book, with a masterfully crafted plot around a murder mystery. The tension in this story is taut by the shadows of faerie politics, and the threat of an all out war that will end the world.

Just like other The Dresden Files novels, characterization is a strength in this book. Harry remains an interesting and likable character. Harry is a powerful wizard, but he has weaknesses, and he usually relied on his wits to deal with his opponents. This book also has a cast of memorable, supporting characters. However, I found the supporting characters in Summer Knight, somewhat paled, in comparison to Michael Carpenter, who was a secondary character in Grave Peril.

Summer Knight is a fun book to read. But I found this book to be repetitive, a problem that recurs in the previous 3 novels in this series. Harry often got beaten and wounded by his opponents, but he always survived it somehow, by drawing powers from his “inner reserve” at the last minute. This plot device was used several times in this book (and in the previous installments in the series). While it does create a sense of danger for the main character in the first few times, but as this series goes on, this plot device took a status of permanent residency, and it is cliched, a warrant for eye rolling moments.

When I weight the strengths and weaknesses of Summer Knight on a scale, this book still comes out as more positive than negative. It has a tight, well crafted story, acted by a cast of interesting characters. But there are some recurring plot device in this book (and the series in general), that made Summer Knight feels like just another “The Dresden Files book”. As a result, while this book is fun and entertaining, but I think need to take a break from this series, and read something different. Perhaps in the near future, I will return to the adventures of Harry Dresden. In the meantime, I would recommend The Dresden Files, to people who may be interested in detective fictions with a supernatural twist.








Book Review: Grave Peril by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #3)

Grave Peril is the 3rd book in Jim Butcher's supernatural, detective/urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files. This series' story revolves around Harry Dresden, a professional wizard who uses magical powers to solve paranormal crimes. In Gravel Peril, Jim Butcher ramped up the suspense and actions in the story, offering his readers with a (slight) break from the formulaic storytelling found in previous books. The result? I think Grave Peril is the best book in the series yet. Today, I would like to provide a book review, and share some of my thoughts about this book.

Synopsis:

Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe, that when a person dies, some immaterial part(s) of the person would depart from the withering flesh and live on?

In Harry Dresden's world, the existence of ghosts and spirits, is as certain as the law of gravity. Especially in recent days, when Chicago is besieged by deadly, tormented ghosts, rampaging throughout the city and wrecking havoc. The flourishing, paranormal activities provided Harry with ample employment opportunities. Together with his trustworthy friend, Michael Carpenter, a Knight of the Cross, this duo set out on a mission of “ghostbusting”. But first, they need to solve a series of puzzles, to determine who or what, is the mastermind lurking behind the curtain.

Along the way, the mystery deepens as Harry discovered, that many victims of these paranormal crimes have ties to him....

What I think about this book:

In my opinion, Grave Peril is the best book in The Dresden Files series yet. In terms of storytelling, Grave Peril doesn't feel as repetitive as the previous 2 books. Allow me to explain. In previous books, the stories often kicked off with a formulaic setting, where Chicago PD approached Harry with unsolvable murder cases. Jim Butcher started the story in Grave Peril differently. In this book, a reverse narrative was used at the beginning of the story, when Harry and his friend, Michael Carpenter, tried to track down a malicious ghost in a hospital. This means, the book throws its readers into the middle of actions at the start, building suspense around the core event in the story, while generating readers' interests around Michael, a newly introduced character who plays a central role in this book.

The characterizations in Gravel Peril, is as interesting and gripping as in the previous 2 books. Harry Dresden continues to be a likable character. Harry is portrayed as a courageous individual, who genuinely tried to do the right thing even if it costs him. He is also displayed a cynical attitude towards people with agendas. Harry's cynicism provided humorous reliefs on several occasions in this book, but it also offers readers a chance to glimpse into Harry's personality.

This book also introduced a new and likable character, Michael Carpenter. Michael, is a Knight of the Cross. In this book, Michael is depicted as a religious man, a faithful servant of the Almighty, and wields a sword (granted by the Almighty) against evils and demons. Michael and Harry have an interesting relationship in this book. i.e. Michael disapproves Harry's use of magic, because he believes that any supernatural power that doesn't come from the Almighty shouldn't be practiced. However, Michael is also a loyal, trustworthy friend to Harry. The 2 friends worked together as an unstoppable team.

However, Grave Peril is not flawless. I found the greatest weakness in this book, is a recurring story structure in all of Harry's encounters with his nemesis. During these encounters, Harry is always getting beaten by the baddies, then at the last minute, he would tap into his “inner reserve”, and find some "hidden" power to defeat his enemies to live another day. This happened at least 3 times in this book, and it is a repeating story structure in previous books as well. It makes a book feel repetitive and tiring. I can only hope Jim Butcher will stop doing this in the future books.

Overall, I think Grave Peril is better than the previous 2 volumes in this series. In this book, Jim Butcher successfully employed a reverse narrative in his storytelling, to build up the suspense in the story. The characterization is memorable and vivid. Despite the flaws of a repetitive story structure, Grave Peril is a gripping and exciting book, a solid entry to The Dresden Files series.








Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Fool Moon by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #2)

Fool Moon is the second book in The Dresden Files series. This series offers a unique mixture of detective/paranormal fiction, with elements from the horror genre. Fool Moon expands the story of Harry Dresden with a new adventure, featuring several returning characters from the previous book. At 340 pages, Fool Moon is a quick read, just like its predecessor. Today, I would like to share some of my thoughts about Fool Moon in a book review.

Synopsis:

Harry Dresden runs a very unique business in Chicago. He is the world's only practicing wizard for hire. Lately, Harry's business has gone from bad to worse. In fact, “worse” couldn't even begin to describe Harry's desperate financial situation.

As Harry struggled to pay for his next meal, a phone call came from Chicago PD, bringing a promise of employment. Apparently, there has been an unexplainable murder case, and the PD once again, has a need for Harry's specialty in the area of supernatural phenomenon. Harry was elated at this change of fortune, and he latched onto this job as a drowning sailor grabbing the last floating log in the sea.

Harry arrived at the crime scene to start his investigation. Upon his arrival, he noticed three clues: A savagely mutilated corpse, a set of paw prints, and a full moon.

Wait a minute, this seems too easy!

It looks like the answer to this murder case is a no brainier. Or, is there something else hiding from the plain sight?

What I think about this book:

I like Fool Moon, for the same reason I liked Storm Front, the previous installment in this series. Fool Moon continues The Dersden Files series with an interesting, exciting story submerged in the atmosphere of neo-noir. The writing style is vivid and impressionable. Author Jim Butcher did an excellent job at world building in this book. where scenes in this book are narrated with crisp, descriptive sentences, containing sufficient details to help readers visualize the scenes, without ever burdening the pace of the book with unnecessary details.

The pace of the story is fast and rapid, taking readers on a wild ride full of plot twists and unexpected surprises. The characterization is mostly good. However, I observed, while Fool Moon is a stand alone book in its own right, but it is very similar to Storm Front. Where the stories in both book followed the similar structure: 1) A gruesome, unexplainable murder took place. 2) Chicago PD hired Harry to solve the case. 3) Harry took the job, and land up taking out the bad guys, struggling against impossible odds while getting beaten to a pulp, detective John McClane style.

This means, despite Fool Moon being a different story to Storm Front, I felt a sense of repetitiveness while reading Fool Moon. It was almost as if I had already read a book similar to this one, where the only difference is Fool Moon has a new murder case. On top of this, there is another story element in this book, that gave off a sense of repetitiveness. This is where, several times in this book, Harry got beaten to a pulp, then at the last minute, he tapped into his last reserve of energy, overcoming the impossible odds. This happened at least 3-4 times in this book. The first time this happened, it immersed readers to feel a sense of danger for Harry. However, after this trope appeared a few times in this book, it quickly became tiring, as the initial thrill faded with the repetitive structure.

Having said this, Fool Moon is still a fun book to read. This book, like other The Dresden Files books, has a neo-noir touch to it, making it stylish. Furthermore, Fool Moon also has enough suspense, actions, and magic that will quench most readers' thirsts for a good, urban fantasy novel.







Friday, December 19, 2014

Book Review: Storm Front by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #1)

The Dresden Files series appear regularly on book review websites. It is often hailed as one of the best urban fantasy in the 21th century. 14 books from this series have sat on my bookshelf for many months, and I finally had a chance to start reading them. The first book in this series, is Storm Front.

What books are these, you asked? I would describe The Dresden Files as neo-noir, paranormal/supernatural detective fictions, sprinkled with flavors from the horror genre. If this sort of things interest you, then feel free to continue and read my book review. Hopefully my book review will be of some value, when you decide whether if you should make a commitment to read this series.

Synopsis:

Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, is the only practicing wizard in the world.

In fact, you can find his telephone number on a phone book, and he has an office in Chicago. What services can Harry provide? He is a private investigator, specializing in matters related to the supernatural. So next time, when something spooky goes bump in the dark of a night, who you going to call? Ghostbusters? Nope, Harry Dresden is the man for the job.

Chicago PD values Harry's special skills. After all, you'd be surprised at how many “day to day” crimes can only be solved by someone who possesses, “otherworldly”, abilities. The problem is, Harry's business hasn't being going well lately.

Fortune smiled on Harry, when Detective Murphy from the PD consulted Harry on a gruesome, mysterious murder case. The metallic smell of cold, hard cash urged Harry to work for the police, and take on this case. After all, even a wizard needs to pay bills.

But soon, Harry discovered by taking on this murder case, he is biting off more than he can swallow...

What I think about this book:

Being the first book in the series, Storm Front is surprisingly well written, kicking the series into gears with a powerful start. This book is 300 pages, short and sweet. It is also a stand alone novel. This means the story in Storm Front concluded at the end of the book, with no loose ends. The next installment in the series, will have a completely new story. So if you are the kind of reader who prefers stand alone novels, instead of books ending with cliffhangers, then this maybe the type of books for you.

I like the style of writing in this book. The story is narrated in first person, by the protagonist Harry Dresden. The first person narratives gave readers insights into Harry's mind and experiences, and it worked very well to connect readers to Harry's character, creating a deep sense of immersion. Storm Front also thrives on brilliant storytelling. The pace of the story is fast. The author structured the story with a series of puzzles, maintaining suspense, keeping the book interesting until the end, when the final answer is revealed to the readers. The result is a book that is a page turner. I finished reading this book in matter of a few hours, because the whole time I was reading this book, I just had to know, what was going to happen in the next chapter, so I couldn't stop reading it. The story in Storm Front is gripping and exciting, a very well crafted story considering this is the first book in the series.

This book also excels in world building. The author painted a neo-noir vibe in this book with vivid descriptions of sceneries, events and people. I would describe the atmosphere in this book as similar to the movie Se7en, or Frank Miller's graphic novel, Sin City.

In terms of characterization, I find the characters in Storm Front memorable and interesting. Harry Dresden is a likable character, he is kind of like Sherlock Holmes with magical powers. In this book, Harry is a wizard for hire with an interest past, using his magical powers to investigate paranormal crimes. He is powerful, but he also has weaknesses, and he often relied on his wits to overcome impossible odds (which also created comical reliefs on occasions). The supporting characters are well fleshed out, where the author assigned everyone of them with individual personalities and traits, and I speculate we will see some of them returning in future installments in the series.

For me, reading Storm Front was an exhilarating ride. I like the idea of a supernatural detective novel, styled in a neo-noir themed world. This book had enough mysteries and suspense to live up to the name of a detective novel. Meanwhile, it is also cast with robust, interesting characters. It has all the right elements to make a good novel. I had a lot of fun reading it. I would recommend this book, to people who are interested in urban fantasy, mystery, or crime fictions. In the meantime, I look forward to reading the next installment in the series, titled Fool Moon.



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Book Review: The Emperor's Tomb by Steve Berry (Cotton Malone #6)

 Every year, tens and thousands of tourists flock to China, to see the wondrous Terracotta army, and the Great Wall. These two archaeological remnants are culturally and historically significant. They were built by Qin Shi Huang (260-210BC), the first emperor of China. Furthermore, the Terracotta army has attracted enormous interests from around the world, making the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang a famous tourist attraction. However, Qing Shi Huang's actual tomb has never been found, and the final resting place for the first emperor of China remains a mystery. There are countless speculations and legends surrounding the tomb of Qing Shi Huang. Some of these legends even inspired movies and books in the popular culture. For example, the 2008 Hollywood blockbuster, Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, is inspired by the story of Qing Shi Huang's tomb.

It seems the story about Qin Shi Huang's undiscovered tomb also makes perfect story material for a thriller novel. In The Emperor's Tomb, International Best-selling author Steve Berry wrote a fast paced, geopolitical/conspiracy thriller based on Qin Shi Huang's hidden tomb. This is the 6th installment in Steve Berry's Cotton Malone series. I have read this novel, and I thought it was a good book. Today, I would like to provide a book review for this novel.

Synopsis:

Cotton Malone, a retired agent of US Justice Department, was enjoying his life as an antique book dealer in Copenhagen, Denmark. Malone's peaceful life came to an abrupt end, when he received a video. The video depicted disturbing images of his friend, Cassiopeia Vitt, being tortured by a mysterious man. Cassopeia's abductor demanded Malone to bring “an artifact” in exchange for her life.

The abductor's demand seemed simple, but there is a problem. Malone has no idea what this “artifact” is. As Cassopeia's life hangs on a balance, Malone sets out on a desperate mission to rescue his friend, a mission that will take Malone from Europe to Asia. Where he will encounter a deadly, ancient brotherhood, and discover astonishing, historical revelations that will shape the fate of the world for ages to come.

What I think about this book:

I have read 5 books in Steve Berry's Cotton Malone series, and The Emperor's Tomb is my second favorite book in this series, just after The Templar Legacy. Previous installments in this series, were mostly set in Europe (or the Middle East). In The Emperor's Tomb, Steve Berry changed the scenery, and unleashed his fictional creation, agent Cotton Malone, in China. This gives the series a refreshing feel.

In this book, Steve Berry blended history into a fictional story. Even though parts of the story are unbelievable, but what makes this book really interesting, is this book explored the 21th century, geopolitical climate, casting a special highlight, on the rise of China and the legacy of communism. It raised an age old question: Will China become a democracy?

The Emperor's Tomb is a page turner, the story is fast paced, and jam packed with explosive actions. I would describe this book as a blend between James Bond movies and Dan Brown novels, with a “Tom Clancy” styled twist.

In terms of characterizations, the protagonist, Cotton Malone, is a hybrid between James Bond and Robert Langdon. Brave and courageous, Malone a likable character, portrayed as an intelligent, knowledge man with a background in the military. The story also explored the background and the motivation of the antagonist, in great depth. However, I thought the character development in this book was lacking. For example, the heroes in this book didn't really change their outlooks about life, after they went through life-threatening dangers. But I've noticed the lack of character development seems to be a prevalent trend in most thriller novels. I wonder why?

Despite some shortcomings, such as the lack of character development, The Emperor's Tomb is an entertaining book. This book is set on an interesting, geopolitical premise that is relevant to the world today. The story is fast paced, a well crafted fiction tinted with history, shedding light to China's turbulent past during the Cultural Revolution. This book is the perfect way to spend a few relaxing hours on a weekend. I think readers who enjoy political/conspiracy/treasure hunt thrillers, will find this book a satisfying read .





Friday, December 5, 2014

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgement: I am the LORD.
                                                    
                                                              - Exodus 12: 12

Year 2014 sees the return of biblical movies in Hollywood. Earlier in March, Hollywood released Noah, a movie based on the flood narratives from the book of Genesis. Noah generated mass controversy, especially among the religious community, because under artistic license, the director took the liberty to re-interpret the biblical story about the great flood (but personally, I thought Noah was a good movie. It was artistically creative, but it also hit all the main theological points stressed by original bible story).

Later on in the year, Hollywood released a second biblical movie, Son of God, a movie adaptation for the story of Jesus of Nazareth. The story in Son of God was very faithful to the Bible, and the movie was praised by the religious community. However, Son of God received generally negative reviews from critics in the wider world. Personally, I thought Son of God was an unimpressive movie. This is not because I don't like the story of Jesus, it is because the storytelling in Son of God was dull and uninteresting.

So I suppose the question is, why can't Hollywood just make a biblical movie that is both interesting, while remaining faithful to the source material?

One director attempts to answer this challenge, by making a movie adaptation for the biblical Exodus. This movie, is called Exodus: Gods and Kings. Its director, is Ridley Scott, a prolific director whose career is decorated with several award winning movies. The trailer for Exodus: Gods and Kings showcased visually impressive scenes, but is this THE biblical movie that we have all being waiting for?

I watched this movie last night, and I wish to share some of my opinions about this movie in a review. Hopefully, my movie review will provide some useful information, for those who are pondering if this movie will worth their time and money.

Synopsis:

1300 years before Jesus Christ walked the earth, the Hebrews lived as slaves in Egypt for 400 years. The Egyptian masters treated the Hebrews unfairly, and the Hebrews suffered. These Hebrew slaves did not forget God, neither has God forgotten them. God had a plan, and He would deliver his promise, to free the Hebrews from slavery and bring them to a land of milk and honey.

The Almighty’s rescue plan kicked into motion, when Moses, a prince of Egypt, discovered the secret behind his birth and origin. What's the secret? Moses was a Hebrew. Following this revelation, Moses was exiled from Egypt. In Moses' exile, God appeared to Moses, and chose him to be His messenger, charged him with a mission to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt. But the Pharaoh, commanding the might of the Egyptian kingdom, wouldn't let the Hebrews go. The only hope for Moses and his people, was for their God to step in, and challenge the might of the Pharaoh.

Thus began a contest of power between a God and a king. In this contest, there can only be one victor.


What I think about this movie:

I have mixed feelings about Exodus: Gods and Kings. This movie has its moments of brilliance, but it also has elements which are bound to disappoint its audience. Let me start by sharing what I like about this movie.

First of all, this movie is a visual spectacle. The cinematography is impressive, the colors and contrasts of the pictures are beautiful to behold. Ridley Scott made excellent use of the 3D technology, to create breathtaking scenes with stunning depth (in 3D, this means the sense of depth “behind” the screen), and captivating display of “pop out” effect (in 3D, this means objects that appear to “come out” of the screen). If you are going to watch this movie in the cinema, then I will recommend that you spend a few extra dollars and watch this in 3D, it's worth it.

Secondly, while Ridley Scott did take the liberty, under the artistic license, to depict God as a child when he appeared to Moses (I will discuss this later), but in my opinion, from the plagues of Egypt, to the parting of the Red Sea, every story element from the biblical exodus is in this movie. This means Exodus: Gods and Kings, is largely faithful to the Bible. Furthermore, I also think this movie, unlike other, past Hollywood movies about Exodus, got the meaning and the message of the Exodus story correctly this time around. Allow me to explain.

In the past, Hollywood made 2 movies about the biblical exodus. The first one, is the 1954 classic called The Ten Commandments. The second movie, is a Disney animation called The Prince of Egypt. Both movies were very “Moses centred”. But a careful examination of the scripture does not, reveal the sense that the story was centred around Moses. Instead, the biblical exodus focused on the power contest between God and Pharaoh, where God ultimately proved to be the victor. Think about it, in the story of biblical exodus, it was God who brought the ten plagues upon Egypt, it was God, in a silent night, killed all firstborn (men and animals) in Egypt, making the Pharaoh relent. Finally, it was God who parted the Red Sea and provided the Hebrews with a way to escape. Moses didn't do any of that, it was all God and His plan.

In my opinion, In Exodus: Gods and Kings, this movie depicted the message of the scripture correctly. In this movie, Moses was portrayed as someone who was trying to do his best, but ultimately, he was just a man. So it was up to his God to bring the Pharaoh down to his knees, by inflicting Egypt with ten plagues, ending with a finishing blow where God killed every firstborn (man and beast) in Egypt. Here I must say, Ridley Scott depicted the ten plagues with such trauma and impact, and the audience gets the sense that the story of exodus (if true) is meant to be violent and disturbing, emphasizing the message from the original text: When it comes to God (if such an entity exists), it's better to be with Him than against Him.

This brings on the discussion about Ridley Scott's choice, of depicting God's appearance to Moses, in the form of a child surrounded by an aura of vengeance. Personally, I think this is the most interesting and brilliant part of the entire film. The depiction of God having a vengeful persona, definitely fits the descriptions and the personality of God in the Old Testament (by the way, the scene with the burning bush is also in this movie). Meanwhile, in this movie, Moses struggled to come to term with God's decisions to punish every Egyptian (including his former friends and families), while it was the Pharaoh who refused to relent. I think by portraying Moses this way, Ridley Scott build a link, where modern audience can draw on their own experience from reading the Old Testament and then resonate with Moses' experience (especially the parts where God commanded genocide and rapine, and setting up several divine laws which are, incomprehensible, when examined under our 21th century morality).

 I really like how Ridley Scott depicted God and Moses, and their relationship. There is an unmarked, but sincere honesty about it (i.e. instead of mind boggling religious apologetics, it was a display of sincere, deep questioning). And I can see my own reflection in the movie depiction of Moses, asking the same question, wrestling with the same issues about this God and his words.

Now, I will share what I didn't like about this movie. Firstly, I thought the movie opened in a confusing, irrelevant manner. The story attempted to use a battle scene, to establish the character for Moses and Ramses. In my opinion, the long battle scene failed to adequately introduce Moses and Ramses to the audience, and the story exposition was quite rigid and not very informative.

However, the weak opening is not as unforgivable as the ending of this movie. I found the ending of Exodus: Gods and Kings to be epically awful, and it completely ruined the film for me. This movie is 150 minutes in length. Out of which, about 120 minutes are centred around the events leading up to the Exodus (Moses' exile, return to Egypt, the ten plagues etc..), it climaxed at the scene when God parted the Red Sea, these parts are interesting and gripping. However, instead of ending the movie after the scene at the Red Sea, the movie continued (unnecessarily) for another 10 to15 minutes. This ending contains the scenes about the golden calf, and the ten commandments. But it was a rushed ending, where the movie ended with a few hastily stapled together scenes, with practically zero story expositions! Seriously, this has to the worst, and the most anti-climatic ending of all Ridley Scott movies.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is a movie with great potentials. When this movie is viewed in 3D, Ridley Scott's artistic visions thrives on vistas of breathtaking, visual spectacles. In terms of storytelling, this movie began with a somewhat confused opening, then it gradually eased into 120 minutes of gripping, interesting interpretations on the biblical exodus, while remaining faithful to the source material. However, the disastrous, anti-climatic ending greatly reduced whatever potentials this film promised in the trailer release. In the meantime, the audience will just have to wait and see, in the next biblical movie, if Hollywood will finally get it right.

P.S.
I wonder if there is an “extended cut, or uncut” version for this film, to be released in the future. If there is one, perhaps the ending would be better?














Thursday, December 4, 2014

Book Review: The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

How does a nation become the leader of the world? Is it through economic dominance? Or through military might? Some believe, a nation can become the leader of the world, if it can make its culture, THE culture of the entire world. i.e. If you can control the culture, then you control how people think about you (and themselves).

I think there is some truth in this. Looking at the world today, USA is no doubt, the leader of the world. But in my opinion, USA dominates the world, not just via superior military technology. Instead, I think USA's position of dominance, is secured by exporting and distributing its culture to the whole world.

Think about it, how many US media productions (such as movies, TV series, or music) have you engaged in this week? What about US fast food franchises, there must be a few in your suburb? Planning a holiday at an amusement park? Surely Disneyland will come to your mind?

I think a lot of people who are not Americans, have made US culture, their culture. In my opinion, to some degree, I think we all live in America.

But what about China, the fastest rising nation in the world? For a few decades, the Middle Kingdom has managed to pull off double-digit economic growth. China is an economic powerhouse, but China is also ambitious. It is not hard to predict, that China will (eventually) challenge US, for the position as the leader of the world. Will China's economic strength suffice, to usurp USA as the leader of the world? Or perhaps, China will need something extra? Something uniquely Chinese, that can send a powerful surge of cultural influence down to the international stage, to make the world feel like they “live in China”?

Based on this contemporary, geopolitical theme, international best-selling author Matthew Reilly wrote a sci-fi thriller called The Great Zoo of China. What sort of book is this? To give you an idea, the author said his book was inspired by Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park. I have read The Great Zoo of China, and I thought it was a very entertaining book. Recently, I met Matthew Reilly at a book signing event (he is a very nice guy). Today, I have decided to write a book review, to share some of my thoughts about this new book.

Synopsis:

Forty years ago, China discovered a rare species of animals. The Chinese government veiled this discovery in secrecy, hidden away from the eyes of the public. Meanwhile, they commissioned to build a zoo around the site of this discovery. After four decades, billions of dollars, and utilizing ten and thousands of men power, the Great Zoo of China is finally built. This is the biggest and the best zoo in the world, the size of Manhattan Island. When China reveals this zoo to the world, tourist attractions such as Disneyland and Yellow Stone park will be become a fading memory. The Great Zoo of China, will advance China to a strategic position to challenge US for cultural dominance in the world.

The only question is, what animals will be on display in this zoo?

The opening day for the zoo approaches. As an advertising strategy, the Chinese government invited a small group of VIP journalists from the US, to tour The Great Zoo of China. Among them, is Dr. C.J. Cameron, a herpetologist, age 36, who represents National Geographic.

This small group of VIP journalists, would become the first people in the world to witness China's astonishing discovery in this zoo. The Chinese government assured them, that their visit is totally safe, and nothing can go wrong.

But the reality is, things always go wrong. C.J. Cameron and her fellow journalists are about to step into, what may be the most disastrous zoo visit in the human history.

What I think about this book:

Ok, I will try my best not to show any spoilers in this book review. That is, I will try not to spoil, just exactly what animals are on display in The Great Zoo of China. (Although, by looking at the book cover, I think some people may be able to guess what animals are featured in this book). Nevertheless, I will describe The Great Zoo of China as: A sci-fi thriller that reads like an action packed, Hollywood monster mash blockbuster, produced with a multi-million dollar budget, set in the contemporary, geopolitical theme.

If you are the kind of person who likes the genre of books/movies I described above. Then I think you will like this book. Meanwhile, if you have read Matthew Reilly's books in the past and enjoyed them, then you will also enjoy this book. The Great Zoo of China, contains everything that defines Matthew Reilly's unique style. This is a fast paced story full of plot twists, packed with octane-driven actions of titanic proportions, surrounded by wild, creative imaginations. To be honest, when I picked up this book, I was a bit concerned that (given its story content) it would be a silly story. However, 20 pages into the book, I realized my worry was unnecessary. I think only Matthew Reilly can pull off a book like this, and make it fun but not cheesy.

Sure, the story in The Great Zoo of China isn't comparable to One Hundred Years of Solitude. But at the same time, The Great Zoo of China was never meant to be compared to a book in that sort of genre. The Great Zoo of China is unashamedly, meant to be a book that entertains, targeting an audience who already like the genre of sci-fi, action packed thrillers. Personally, I read all sorts of fictions, and I have the tendency to prefer fictions that make me think. While The Great Zoo of China provided more entertainment value than “think” value, but I still enjoyed this book tremendously. Why? The reason I read books, is because I like a good story, I like stories very much. The Great Zoo of China has a very good story, it's a simple story, but it is also well thought and carefully executed. For example, I particularly like how Matthew Reilly laid out scientific explanations for the fantastic animals that appeared in this book. In this book, even the most fantastical elements are grounded on a sense of realism.

I also like Matthew Reilly's writing style. It is very simple, and easy to understand. This doesn't mean his writings are dumb or stupid. It just means as a reader, I can spend more time to enjoy the story, instead of trying to decipher paragraphs after paragraphs of verbose writings. Reilly's writing style also created a book that flows at a very fast pace. The result? This book is a page turner, I finished this book (500 pages) in 3 sittings. Once you cracked this book open, it is really hard to put down this book and take a break.

This book also features a female lead character, C.J. Cameron. I believe this is the first time Reilly has cast a female lead in his books. While there is little character development in this book, but I do like C.J. Cameron. I think Reilly has given her a lot of character, and equipped her with an impressionable personality. I hope Reilly will write more books featuring C.J Cameron in the future.


So here I am, I have reached the end of my book review for The Great Zoo of China, without spoiling any story elements. I hope you found this book review useful. At the end of the day, I think The Great Zoo of China has a good, interesting story. The pace of the book runs as fast as lightning, jammed with explosive, non-stop action scenes. If you like sci-fi thrillers, or big budget, monster mash movies (or, if you are Matthew Reilly's fan), then you would probably want to check this book out. Once you open this book, make sure you fasten your seat belt, and prepare yourself for an unforgettable adventure!  

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett (DIscworld #26)

 What is time to you?

I think we humans, have an interesting way to define our day-to-day experience of “time”. For starters, we have the tendency to attach meanings and values to time. For example, we describe time with expressions such as: “I had a good time”, “this is a perfect moment”, “a waste of time”, “an agonizing moment” (so on and so forth). Then we also request time to behave in certain ways, with expressions such as “I wish time could go faster/slower”, or “I wish there was more time”.

The question is, are we saying these things, because time cares? Or, are we saying these things because we care?

Thief of Time, is the 26th Discworld novel. Like other Discoworld novels (such as Small Gods), Thief of Time wraps metaphysics and philosophy under the cloth of a comedic, fantasy story. It is a book that appears to be packed with light-hearted fun, where you can loose yourself in the depth of the author's imagination and creative power. At the same time, making you think furiously and seriously about yourself. In other words, this is my kind of book (the best kind of book, in my opinion). Today, I would like to share some of my thoughts about this book in a review.

Synopsis:

In our 21th century, market economy driven world, “time management” is an essential skill.

It should not be a surprise then, on Discworld, time management is also very important. In fact, time management is treated with such paramount importance on Discworld that, it is a duty literally managed by a group of dedicated, highly skilled experts called the Monks of History. On Discworld, saying you are a History Monk, is like saying “I know Kung Fu”.

Our story began, when a talented young man called Lobsang Ludd joined the Monks of History. Lobsang was placed under the tutelage of the legendary sweeper, Lu Tze, who discovered his late apprentice is a bit unusual. Meanwhile, in the city of Ankh Morpork, a beautiful, mysterious woman commissioned a master clocksmith called Jeremy Clockson, to build the mythical glass clock. This is a device that will bring the end of the Discworld, where the 4+1 Horsemen would ride out into the apocalypse.

Is this the end of Discworld?

What I think about this book:

I enjoyed Thief of Time. Like all other Discworld books, Thief of Time will make you laugh, feeling entertained, but it will also make you think.

I noticed Thief of Time is more plot driven when compared to other Discworld novels I've read in the past. As a result, the multiple sub-plots in Thief of Time converged, and revealed its central plot device quite early in the book. I speculate, some readers may appreciate the structure in Thief of Time, because the pace in in this book feels faster, when comparing to past Discworld novels.

Having said this, I still found Thief of Time a very complex book. While the story is simple, but it is complex because the strengths of the story, lies in the exploration of personalities in this book. Thief of Time is cast with a group of imaginative, memorable characters. Fan favorites such as Death and Susan returned in this book. However, Death is cast as a supporting character in this book, who acted as some sort of a “quest giver”. Susan is as an interesting character as ever. As Death's grand daughter, Susan wrestled between “what is logical” and “what is meaningful”, I think most people can relate with her journey.

This book also brought Lu Tze into the spotlight. He made an appearance in Small Gods, but much about Lu Tze was shrouded in mystery. In Thief of Time, Lu Tze became a major character alongside his apprentice, Lobsang. I like the character of Lu Tze. In this book, Lu Tze is given a Master Yoda/Mr. Miyagi role, to mentor his apprentice Lobsang. The story between this master and his apprentice, is packed with funny moments, but it is also an interesting commentary about education.

I also found the style of humor in Thief of Time, is somewhat different to other Discoworld novels. That is, jokes and humors still scattered throughout the book, but they carry less satirical effects. i.e. other Discworld books often commented on social phenomena, exploring philosophical questions via satires and parodies, but in Thief of Time, these things are (more often) explored via the story and the characterization itself. Despite the slight difference in the style of humor, I still had a broad smile on my face while reading this book.

Overall, each character in Thief of Time is depicted with distinctive, impressionable features. They personified the different aspects of the philosophical/metaphysical conjuncture between science, life, death, history, logic, existence, and religion. This is the type of book that will not just entertain you, but will also make you think. For example, in this book, there is a story about a monk called Wen the Eternally Surprised. When I read about Wen, I laughed real hard, then afterward, I felt the need to change my view about “boredom” (Do you want to know why Wen is called “Eternally Surprised”? I thought the explanation was gold. But Read this book and find out for yourself).

I think Thief of Time is an excellent book. From the first page to the last one, Terry Pratchett captured my imagination with a fun, eccentric world. A living, breathing world inhabited with vividly portrayed, interesting characters. The time I spent reading Thief of Time proved to be an exhilarating ride, full of laughter and thought-provoking moments. When I closed the book, I walked away, and got a few meaningful things out of it. I would highly recommend this book (and the entire Discworld series) to anyone who is looking for some good books to read.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Book Review: Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #20)

  When I was little, I believed in Santa Claus. On Christmas Eve, I used to hang up socks, then went to bed early. The following morning, I would get out of bed, feeling excited, ran to the socks to see what present(s) Santa Claus gave me. In those years, my parents told me, Santa Claus gave out gifts to good boys who behaved well. That kept mini-me well behaved, especially at the end of every year. (I did, eventually figured out, it was my parents who stuffed my socks with presents. But that's a different story).

Looking back at those memories about Santa Claus, I am often astonished at how powerful a belief can be. i.e. a belief in a fantasy, was enough to inspire a hyper-active, naughty child to behave well (for a limited period of time only). It's almost as if a belief in a fantasy, could create order out of chaos!

My opinion is, if we feed our human beliefs into a grinding machine fitted with gears of logic, coming out at the other end, we will (probably) find most of our beliefs, are fallacious in their elemental forms.

But the question is, can we be who we are, without beliefs?

In the 20th Discworld novel, titled Hogfather, Sir Terry Pratchett explored the power of belief (and many other things). Hogfather is a funny book, excellently written, and it is colored with the atmosphere of Christmas. In my opinion, Hogfather is a very good book to read for Christmas. Since we are one month away from Christmas, I would like to review Hogfather, sharing some of my thoughts about this book.

Synopsis:

On Discworld, Hogswatch is approaching.

Hogswatch, is a time for giving. Traditionally, on Hogswatch night, a mythological entity known as Hogfather, would fly across the sky in a sleigh pulled by 4 boars, giving out presents to children across Discworld.

This Hogswatch night, however, is unlike any other in the history of Discworld. Because Hogfather is missing! Drastic times call for drastic measures, as Death (with a capital D) volunteered to be the temporary replacement for Hogfather. It is hard to imagine the grim reaper dressing up as a jolly old man in a red robe, giving out presents to children on Hogswatch night.

With Hogfather missing, will denizens of Discworld see the sun rise again? The fate of Discworld is shrouded in mists of uncertainty.

What I think about this book:

I have seen the movie adaptation for Hogfather. While it was a good film, but I prefer the book. This book is funny and lighthearted. The characterizations are vivid and colorful as in other Discworld books. From the protagonists, Death and Susan, to the eccentric wizards at Unseen University, every character in this book is funny and memorable. They came to life under Terry Pratchett's pen (or keyboard?). I especially like how Terry Pratchett portrayed Death in this book. Death is an awesome character! Death is an anthropomorphic personification of, death. His mindset operates on pure logic, but Death's interest in humans led him to try and understand (sometimes even mimicking) humans with his 100% logical mind. The result? Readers are bound to a journey filled with endless laughter.

I also like Susan, Death's (non-biological) grand daughter. She is an equally awesome character as Death. In this book, she explored the meaning of life and death among the misadventures she found herself in. Other characters from previous Discworld books also took spotlights in Hogfather, such as the crazy wizards from Unseen University and Death of Rats. They provided loads of funny moments in this book.

The structure in Hogfather feels more “concentrated” in comparison to previous Discworld novels. That is, I often feel Discworld books start with a series of random events in the first 50 pages, then the story gradually made sense afterward. In Hogfather, the structure has less random events (in comparison to other books), but there are still sections of the book which appear to be pretty random. However, these “random” events do make Terry Pratchett's Discworld feel like a living, breathing place, which is another reason I adore Discworld books. For example, whenever I read a Discworld book, the city of Ankh-Morpork (resembling a fantasy version of London in Victorian era) always paints a colorful image in my mind, depicting a city teeming with endless possibilities and interesting, eccentric characters.

One of the strengths of Discworld books, is Terry Pratchett's genius way of presenting philosophy and social issues, in the form of satire/parody. Hogfather is no exception to this hallmark. In the short space of 350 pages, Terry Pratchett masterfully embedded a number of thought-provoking topics in a witty, comedic fantasy yarn. He invites his readers to explore themes such as; the power of belief, commercialization of Christmas, the concept of justice/mercy, economic redistribution, and computers. As I have mentioned earlier, in my opinion, I think the central theme of Hogfather is the power of belief. I also think this book provided a very interesting, stimulating perspective to look at the nature of belief. Let me just say, there is a section at the end of the book, where it entailed probably the best argument I've ever heard about “belief and life's meaning” (I think it is ultimate philosophy). I don't want to spoil anything, so I'd say to the would be readers, please go and enjoy this book, and feel free to come to your own conclusions about these matters.

Hogfather is an excellent book, it fits nicely with the mood of festival season. If you decide to read this book, then I hope you would enjoy it, and find it as meaningful as I did. Furthermore, it is one month away from Hogswatch...er.. no, I mean, Christmas. This is a time for giving, a time to be charitable, and I just want to share, I personally found a quote in this book especially meaningful:

Charity ain’t giving people what you want to give, It’s giving people what they need to get.

Happy holidays! Ho ho ho.





Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Review: Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #16)

  When it comes to music, my opinion is that we are the music we listen to (the same thing applies to books, movies etc..).

About 17 years ago, when I was in highschool, a friend introduced me to heavy metal/rock music. After that fateful day, my parents stepped on a journey of sufferance, where in the decade that followed, they endured the daily presence of high volume metal/rock music in their house, until I moved out. Looking back, I am often astonished by the fact, that my parents managed to stay sane in those years.

I think for people belonging to Gen X and older Gen Y group (such as myself), rock music was a shaping influence during our teenage years. For example, I am pretty sure, that all those Metallica and Nirvana CDs that I listened to while growing up, has somehow influenced my personality and the way I view life today. Indeed, people can become the type of music they listen to. Furthermore, no matter where you go on earth, where people go, music goes. If you can understand the music some folks are listening to, then you can understand them. But what is the magic behind music that it plays such a central role in the world of man? The 16th Discworld novel, titled Soul Music, is a book about music. It is also a humorous commentary about the music business.

Synopsis:

We've all heard of the phrase “soul music”. On Discworld, “soul music” is not just a metaphorical allusion....

When a young bard, Imp, arrived at Ankh-Morpork, he came to possess a mysterious guitar. After this union, the city of Ankh-Morpork is about turn upside down, by music with a personality, and it literally has rocks in it.

Meanwhile, Death has once again, entered a mid-career crisis and disappeared. In his absence, Death's grand daughter, Susan Sto Helit, was called to take up the family business of “undertaking”. But how will a blood and flesh human, such as Susan, fare in the job as the grim reaper?

What I think about this book:

Soul Music is split into two major plot lines. The first plot line followed Imp and his band, as they reached the celebrity status in the city of Ankh-Morpork. The second plot line followed the story of Susan and Death. I must say, I did not enjoy Soul Music as much as other Discworld novels. This is not saying Soul Music is a bad book. My problem is, I could not fully relate to the many inside jokes, and pop culture references in this book. I think people who have something to do with the music business, may be able to better appreciate these inside jokes and pop culture references. So if you are in this category, then perhaps you will enjoy this book more than I did. In other word, I could not fully appreciate the part of the story about Imp and his band (but I still found some of the jokes funny).

Having said this, I still like the humors in Soul Music. For me, the best part of the book, is relationship between between Death and Susan. Soul Music introduced Susan Sto Helit, she is Death's grand daughter (the daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort). In this book, Susan entered the story as a bright, but bored student at a boarding school in Ankh-Morpork. Susan didn't know she is Death's grand daughter, but Susan knew she is a little bit different to other kids at her school. As the plot unfolded in this book, Susan came to the knowledge about her personal connection with Death, and this part of the story focused on her exploration for the meaning of life and death.

I like the way Terry Pratchett characterized and portrayed Susan, she is a memorable and likable character. I also appreciated the golden wisdom in this book, when Terry Pratchett pointed out, that “education” is not necessarily the same as “learning”.

The writing style in Soul Music, is similar to other Discworld novels, where Terry Pratchett used words in witty, clever ways to create parodies and humors. Several plot lines developed separately, but gradually converged. This means Soul Music, like other Discworld novels, is a complex book. While it is not exceedingly difficult to understand this book, but a reader may feel the beginning of the book is filled with random events, and that the book is flowing at a slow pace. Similar to other Discworld novels, the pace in Soul Music sped up after 50 pages, as readers become familiarized with the different plots and characters. I found this is a trait shared by other Discworld books I've read in the past.

I did not enjoy Soul Music as much as other Discworld novels, but I still think it is a good book packed with funny jokes, memorable scenes (I especially love the scene when Death rode a motorcycle), tinging with some philosophical pondering about life and death here and there. People who has something to do with the music business, may be able to fully appreciate this book as an excellent, humorous commentary about the music business. Meanwhile, I like the introduction of Susan as a new, central character in Discworld series. I've heard there are more Discworld books featuring Death and Susan as central characters, and I look forward to reading them.








Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: Reaper Man by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #11)

Five exclamation marks, the sure sign of an insane mind
                                           
                                               - Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man

Many people compare Terry Pratchett to J.R.R Tolkien. I do not think such a comparison do Terry Pratchett justice. Personally, I would compare Terry Pratchett to Jonathan Swift, or Mark Twain, because these 3 authors often made sharp, crisp observations about the human society, and seek to expound their thoughts in the form of satires. Satires, when done correctly and well, can be very powerful and persuasive, while also giving its readers a good, hearty laugh.

Terry Pratchett's Discworld series are mostly satirical, fantasy/comedy novels. The beauty about Discworld books, is that even though they all fall under the umbrella title of, “Discworld”, but every Discworld book is also a stand alone novel, each with an individual, unique theme. The 11th book in this series, Reaper Man, is no exception to this tradition. After Mort, Reaper Man is the second Discworld book featuring Death as the central character. While this book is all about Death, but it is not gloomy or depressing. Instead, this book is jolly good fun but also meaningful. Today, I would like to provide a book review for Reaper Man.

Synopsis:

Discworld is a strange place. This is a place where death is not just an invisible, philosophical concept, but an actual, physical presence. On Discworld, the physical incarnation of Death took form as a 7 foot tall, scythe wielding skeleton. This fellow works tirelessly, day and night, collecting the souls of the dead, ushering them to whatever awaits for them in the beyond.

On a normal business day, in the house of Death. Three gray robed, mysterious figures appeared. They announced Death's “retirement”. The reason? Apparently Death is no longer suitable for his job, because he was developing a personality. But Discworld needs Death. What will happen to the dead, when Death no longer comes for them? There is no telling what's in store for Discworld, when Death is made redundant from his job.

What I think about this book:

Following Mort, Reaper Man is the second book in the Discworld series featuring Death as the main character. Apparently, there are five Discworld books featuring Death, and I am planning to read them all. Mort was a very good book, but I like Reaper Man a little bit more.

This book is beautifully written, some parts of the book will make you laugh until you are tumbling on the floor, but there are also heart warming, tear jerking moments to warrant a memorable reading experience. Every character in this book is colorful and impressionable, humors and jokes filled the book as starry stars in the sky. (For example, I especially love the ideas of anti-vitalism, wereman, and the anti-pasta! I leave the would-be readers to discover for themselves what these are) However, some readers may find this book starts slowly. I think this may be a trait in Discworld novels, where the author usually spend time to build up the story, by throwing random events into the first 50 pages of the book. But after the first 50 pages, Reaper Man raises steams, picking up its pace as the story gets going at a continuous rate. 

On the surface, Reaper Man appears to be a straight forward book, a humorous tale about the misadventures on Discworld, when Death is made redundant from his job. Yet, underneath this simple story, this book is so much more than just a fun ride. Allow me to explain:

The plot in Reaper Man follows two major story arcs. The first story arc follows the tale of Death after his “retirement”, when Death suddenly ceased to exist as a timeless creature, but starts living a life as a mortal. The tale of Death is very interesting. As a mortal creature, Death learns the joys and sorrows of living on borrowed time. Meanwhile, the second story arc follows the tale of Windle Poons, a 130 years old wizard who died but returned to Discworld as an undead (because of Death's absence). In this part of the story, as an undead, Windle Poons gradually discovered the irony that he was more “alive” as an undead, because he never “lived” in his 130 years of existence as a living man.

In Reaper Man, Death and Windle Poons explored life from two opposite ends of the spectrum (i.e. Death was a former immortal being made mortal, while Windle Poons was a former mortal now made immortal), but their stories converged to present this book's major theme to the reader; this is a book exploring what it means to be alive.

Reaper Man is a brilliant book. It is witty and meaningful, an unforgettable reading experience. I am a fan of Terry Pratchett's literary works. Reading a Discworld book is like stepping on a party bus full of funny but thoughtful satires, where he invites his readers to explore serious topics alongside all of the fun. These books are such a pleasure to read, and they also make me think and ask questions. I would recommend Reaper Man to anyone who is looking to read a good book.




Book Review: Mort by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #4)

 Can we be certain about anything? I don't know about you, but personally, I can't think of many certainties in life. Yet, there are two things I know for certain; the first one is the inescapable reality of paying tax (this comes yearly). The second one is the unavoidable reality of death (this will come eventually). Sooner of later, we will all meet death, when the grim reaper will swing the scythe of finality, cutting us down, collecting his due. While most people treat death/dying as a grim business, but author Terry Pratchett wrote a comedic fantasy book, taking a humorous look at death, where an anthropomorphic personification of Death (with a capital D) plays the role as a central character in his book. This book is the 4th installment in the Discworld series, it is called Mort. Under the guise as a comedic fantasy, this book explored death, a destiny shared by all things in the physical universe. This book is half joking, half philosophical, and I think it is worth a read. Here is my review for this book.

Synopsis:

They say death comes to us all. On the surreal world of Discworld, Death has a very literal presence, where he exists as an anthropomorphic personification. Death is a very professional fellow, dedicating his timeless existence to the business of “undertaking”, where he works diligently at collecting people's souls when their times are up.

When Death entered a mid-career crisis, he decided to take an apprentice under his wing. He offered a young boy, Mort, a position of apprenticeship. The job entitlement comes with free food, accommodation, and the exciting opportunity of entering the business of “undertaking”, under the tutelage of the grim reaper himself. Mort thought he has found the golden opportunity of a life time, but soon, Mort discovered this dream job, may be more than he can stomach.

What I think about this book:

About a month ago, I entered the universe of Discworld after reading Small Gods. I thought Small Gods was a fabulous book, where Terry Pratchett used a witty satire to portray religion. I appreciated the humors and the philosophy behind Small Gods, and I became an instant fan to Discworld.

Being a Discworld novel, Mort bears the Discworld trademark of being a comedy clothed in funny eccentricities. Terry Pratchett depicted his characters with over-exaggerated characteristics, this increases the fun factors in the story, making the characters colorful and impressionable. Some may find the pacing of the story a little bit slow in the beginning of the book, but the story picks up speed after the first 50 pages, turning into a light hearted adventure full of laughter and romance. Mort is also a very different book in comparison to Small Gods. It is not as dense, and the story is straight forward. However, one needs to pay attention to every sentence when reading this book, because Terry Pratchett embedded a considerable amount of themes, jokes, and wisdom behind what appears to be an irreverent, humorous story. This is the kind of book where I am sure I will discover new things upon a re-read.

This book is about death, but it is not grim or depressing. Instead, this book is really funny. While I was reading this book, laughter became my constant companion, the smile on my face lingered until long after the book's end. Meanwhile, under the waves of laughter, this book also provoked me to think about death, and what it actually means. In this book, the anthropomorphic personification of Death took on a physical form, as a scythe wielding, 7 foot tall skeleton wearing a hooded black robe. This image conforms the stereotypical, cliched depiction of death, but (in my opinion) the greatest humor resides in the fact that a skull has an unchanging facial expression, one that resembles a permanent, maniacal smile. By choosing to depict death this way, the author emphasized a fine point: Death is indifferent, he is the great equalizer. No matter who we are, from a king to a vagabond, death will come and collect us all when our time is up. All of our beliefs about that which lies beyond death, are human speculations. While death, is the only certainty in life. This makes all of our obsessions, worries and guesses about the “after life” laughable, especially if we linger on these unknowable things too much and overlook the significance of being alive.

Mort is the second book I've read in Discworld series, and this book is funny, meaningful, and thought provoking. I like the character of Death, and I found this character very interesting. I have no regret about the time spent to read this book, I only wish there would be more books about Death. The good news is, apparently there are other Discworld books featuring Death as the main character.

I can't wait to read them all.









Saturday, November 8, 2014

Movie Review: Interstellar

  Space, the final frontier for the human exploration. From our home, the 3rd rock from the sun, mankind stares into the black infinity of the space, marveling at the stunning sights of the celestial bodies, and wonder what is our place among the stars; “what is out there?” “Are we alone”? These inquiries have inspired many of our most celebrated technological inventions up to date. When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, this pivotal moment entered the river of history, as a giant, forward leap of the human evolution on earth. From that day and onward, mankind demonstrated our ability to leave the planet that gave birth to our species, to explore other worlds. Most importantly, we proved that we can survive out there.

Since then, powerful nations around the world have poured billions of dollars to further the pioneering of space exploration. Today, some have voiced their opinions, criticizing space exploration as a waste of valuable resources. However, what if one day, the continuous survival of our species can only be ensured by our ability to expand our existence onto other worlds? Director Chris Nolan, constructed a science fiction movie based on this hypothetical scenario, in a 2014 movie called Interstellar. This movie was rumored to bear reminiscence to the 1968 sci-fi classic, 2001: A Space Odessey. I have been waiting to see Nolan's space opera, since its announcement at the beginning of this year. On Friday, this movie was finally released in the cinema, and I was able to attend a screening of this film with eager anticipation. Today, I would like to provide a review for this movie:

Synopsis:

Cooper, a widowed father of 2 children, former NASA test pilot and an engineer, is a man with big dreams but born in the wrong time. In his time (in the future), the earth is no longer able to sustain humanity. Dust storms plagued the earth, destroying valuable food resources such as crops. The once flourishing human civilization transitioned into a dying, agrarian society, with a main focus on producing food resources.

Cooper chanced upon a discovery, where he came upon a secret NASA installation led by Professor Brand. Hiding from the eyes of the public, Brand and his team have been secretly working on a ground-breaking project. A project of paramount importance, it is the final hope for the continuous survival of mankind. Should this project bear fruition, then mankind will survive the dying earth, stepping into an interstellar future.

What I think about this movie:

I am uncertain what to say about this movie. I like most of the movie, but there are some places that I just couldn't appreciate. For starters, I found this movie fascinating, because it is mostly based on the idea of Einstein Rosen Bridge (wormhole). Meanwhile, many interesting scientific theories, such as relativity (and the twin paradox), singularity, gravity etc.. all served as fabrics, to be weaved and integrated together, forming a very clever plot.

Secondly, the technologies shown in this movie are actually believable. For example, the design of Cooper's spaceship is based on the design of the international space station, one that can simulate artificial gravity, allowing a fitful environment for astronauts to endure an extended period of stay in the space, without loosing too much bone mineral density and muscle strength. Furthermore, this movie is beautiful to look at. It is packed with breathtaking, stunning images of the celestial bodies, from a jaw dropping view of a black hole, to some intense scenes of wormhole travel, coupled with a constant note, resonating the vastness of the universe in the movie's background, this movie is a true visual spectacle to behold.

However, this movie is not just about showing beautiful images of the universe and introducing scientific theories. At its core, Interstellar is an emotional story about the spirit of human perserverence, triumphing against seemingly impossible odds. It is also a story about the human condition, the fears and love for one another, our failed dreams and how we deal with them, to find other ways to appreciate life. These themes are commonly shared across a spectrum of human experiences. Personally, I can somewhat resonate with Cooper's situation, because I too, have invested a lot of time and energy, to gain training and education in what was to be my dream, but unable to put my trained skills into practice due to the lack of opportunities in that field, and I was forced to turn to the next best widow of opportunity to go about life, learning what it is to find joys from contentment, realizing we are more than our professions.

However, while I agree a good story is usually based on the reality of the human experience, but unfortunately, this is also where the story of Interstellar over-extended itself a bit, especially in the last 20% of the film, leading to a somewhat far-fetched, disappointing finale. Having said this, the first 80% of this film is superb, with a well knitted story portrayed by stunning works of cinematography, based on interesting science. This is a movie that bears resemblance, in both tones and atmosphere, to the classic sci-fi movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

My second item of complaint about this movie, is the loud volume of background music. I found the volume of these background music too loud, not only does this become annoying, but many times I struggled to hear the dialogues exchanged between the characters on top of the soundtracks. This happened several times in the movie, and it is especially frustrating if you miss the critical dialogues (for example, I could not hear the narrations at the end of the film, because the volume of the soundtrack was too loud, and it interfered with the narrations, so I had to find it from Google after I came home from the movie).

After I watched this film, my opinion is that while Interstellar did not meet my expectations, it has flaws, but it is still a good movie. I think this movie is a visual spectacle, deserving to be seen in the cinema, where we can bear witness to the awesome grandeur of our universe, on a big, silver screen. The last 20% of this movie felt somewhat flat and uninspired, but its attempt to depict an emotional drama about the human condition, is partially (if not mostly) successful.