Saturday, August 25, 2018

A Book Review: The Midnight Palace by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I used to think the gothic genre is dead.

Mind you, I have always enjoyed a gothic novel as long as the story was creepy and intriguing, like Dracula and Frankenstein, for examples. However, I was under the impression that the genre no longer has its practitioners. My impression was proven wrong, when I discovered Carlos Ruiz Zafón and his book, The Shadow of the Wind, which made me realize the gothic genre is alive and well.

I adored The Shadow of the Wind as well as its two sequels; its story was beautiful and harrowing, and I was spellbound by it. The Shadow of the Wind opened up a new vista in my reading world. In the months that followed I specially seek out the works of Zafón, and I read and enjoyed all of them. Carlos Ruiz Zafón entered my list for favorite authors.

Two weeks ago, during a regular visit to my local library I came across The Midnight Palace, which I haven't read. I quickly loaned this book, as this is one of Zafón's earlier works prior to The Shadow of the Wind.

Set in the 1930s, the story began on a street in Calcutta. Under the cover of night, an English lieutenant took flight with a pair of baby twins under his arms. At the cost of his own life, the brave lieutenant delivered the twins, a boy and a girl named Ben and Sheere, to places of safety. Many years later, upon their 16th birthday, Ben and Sheere's lives suddenly came under threat by an assailant, whose past was shrouded in mystery. All clues pointed to a spectacular building in Calcutta – The Midnight Place, and only the twins' loyal friends could aid them and face the terror lurking under its shadows.

I did enjoy reading The Midnight Palace, but I don't think this book is as good as Zafón's later works. Make no mistake, Zafón wrote as brilliantly here as he would in his later works, and it is not hard to see how he would go on from here and write a masterpiece like The Shadow of the Wind later on. The writings in this book is top notch. So why am I saying this book is subpar to Zafóns later works? Is it the characterizations?

Well, no. This book's characterizations were surprising good, considering its short length of 200 pages. Zafón gave each character a personality of his and her own, and these characters made up a memorable and likable bunch. Having said this, I do think the protagonists, Ben and Sheree, were not portrayed with enough depths, and so the ending (which I will not spoil here) lacked the emotional impact that it could have had on the readers. This also means, I think this book would have benefitted from a longer length, where Zafón could use the additional spaces to address the character developments.

What is really holding this book back, I opine, is the worldbuilding. Hang on, am I really saying Zafón's worldbuilding is lacking here? Ok, I understand my opinion may raise some eyebrows. After all, Zafón is renowned for his vivid and beautiful depictions of Barcelona in The Shadow of the Wind and Marina, and I adore those books because of it. So what is it about the worldbuilding in this book that I found lacking?

Let me explain.

Zafón's works, especially The Shadow of the Wind series, as well as Marina, are Spanish Magic Realism novels. What is magic realism? It is a film, literary, and visual art genre where the aesthetics and the style has magical elements blended with the real world. In a magic realism novel (or film), the story presents "reality" and "magic" as the same stream of thought, and thereby presenting the magical elements in a straightforward manner. But magic realism is not the same as the fantasy genre. No, because fantasy is set in the fantasy world, where magic realism is set in the real world. Moreover, what really sets magic realism apart from fantasy is the purpose of the magical elements; in magic realism, the author uses the magical elements to highlight the character's inner experience and perception of the world, to illuminate and help us look at our reality in a different way. An example for magic realism would be Martin Scorsese's movie, Hugo (a very good movie, BTW! Check it out if you haven't seen it yet).

Zafón's works, including The Midnight Palace, are all rooted in the vein of magic realism. The Shadow of the Wind was successful, because it used the magical elements to flash out the characters' inner emotions and experiences about their pasts, love and hatred, and in the process making its readers reflect on these things in our reality. The Midnight Palace attempted to do the same, yet it came short of it, because in this book Zafón used not magic, but supernatural elements, and the story failed to adequately address the origin of this supernatural occurrence. In other words, this book had a supernatural agent in the story, but it failed to explain how did this supernatural agent came to be. Mind you, I am not asking if such a supernatural agent is "possible. No, as an avid reader of the fantasy genre I have no problem with authors using supernatural elements to tell stories. What I am saying here, without spoiling the story, is that Zafón did not address "how" this agent, an agent whose identity is the crux of the story, became supernatural. Instead, Zafón glossed over it, and as a result the story lacked the power that Zafon was trying to communicate.

Is The Midnight Palace a bad book? No, definitely not. This book may not be as good as Zafón's later works, but it is still a very good read. Under Zafón's pen, Calcutta transformed into a place of mysteries and intrigues, and his characters left lasting impressions on my mind. I think this book is still fun and worth reading, and it will find admirers among Zafón's fans.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

Fear,” he used to say, “fear is the most valuable commodity in the universe.” That blew me away. “Turn on the TV,” he’d say. “What are you seeing? People selling their products? No. People selling the fear of you having to live without their products.” Fuckin’ A, was he right. Fear of aging, fear of loneliness, fear of poverty, fear of failure. Fear is the most basic emotion we have. Fear is primal. Fear sells. That was my mantra. “Fear sells.”
                                                       - Max Brooks, World War Z

World War Z is a great example of why some books can never be adapted into movies properly. Furmore, this book is also the proof that people who don't read but only watch TV and movies are missing out, big time. If your impression of World War Z is based on the Brad Pitt movie, then scrap it, because the source material is not an action adventure story found in the Hollywood blockbuster. No, the book is so much more than movie.

This book is as original as it is ambitious. It reads like non-fiction, told in the form of a compilation of interviews. In this book, the readers followed an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission (named Max Brooks), as he travelled around the world and interviewing the survivors of a "world war" against the zombies. The zombies, were the human victims of a viral outbreak, but the origin of the virus remained unknown. However, the official patient zero was found in a remote village in China, where the virus spread to the rest of the world through human trafficking, refugees, and black market organ trade.

This book is divided into 4 sections: 1) before the viral outbreak, 2) the mass panic during the viral outbreak, 3) the world war against the zombies, and finally, 4) the aftermath of the great war. In this book, Max Brooks interviewed no less than 100 people from all over the world, and they are from all walks of life; including a Chinese doctor, a Central Asian refugee, a Mossad agent from Israel, a Russian priest, a pharmaceutical tycoon from the US etc... The book has a very big international cast, and the scope is ambitious and breathtaking. When I was reading this book, it made me feel as if I was watching a documentary program about history. Normally I don't associate the zombie genre with realism, but this book felt real, like something that could, and had already, happened.

But how can a story about zombies feel "real"?

When I started this book I was expecting a "zombie horror story". 20 pages into the book, however, it defied my expectations. I was surprised to discover that zombies made very little appearances in the book. Instead, I realized this book was actually about geopolitics, and it explored themes such as survivalism, fear, and uncertainty.

I will briefly discuss each theme:


I particularly enjoyed reading about the geopolitics in this book. The many scenarios in this book are grounded on the real geopolitical history in our world. For example, at the onset of the viral outbreak, the Chinese government attempted to cover up the news, by escalating the tensions across the Taiwanese strait and then diverting the media attention to it instead. This is not a far fetched scenario, considering the Beijing government does have a history of media censorship, and they are still threatening to invade Taiwan. Furthermore, the book also explored how the Three Gorges Dam became China's Achilles Heel during the zombie war. Another example is that during the viral outbreak, Israel built a great wall to block out the infected victims and the zombies, but they also accepted Palestinian refugees on the basis that every human being saved is one less zombie to fight. However, the young, zealous Palestinians were suspicious of the Israeli government, and they thought the refugee policy was a trick to lure Palestinians into concentration camps. Meanwhile, a civil war broke out in Israel because the Zionists thought their government betrayed Israel by taking in the Palestinian refugees. These are just some examples of the geopolitics in the book, there are many others, such as in Russia, Mexico, Cuba, the Korean peninsula, Japan, so on and so forth. As I said, the scope of this book is breathtaking and ambitious, almost every nation has her own shining moment in the book.

Fear and uncertainty:

This book also explored themes such as fear and uncertainty. It highlighted how fear and uncertainty underpin the principles for our society and economy. Here is an example, at the onset of the viral outbreak, the US retreated into isolation, where the pharmaceutical companies and the government reached an agreement to produce and sell the placebo vaccine to the public. This way, the government could prevent an outbreak of mass hysteria, while the pharmaceutical companies can rip sizeable profits. However, this cover up eventually blew up, because the news got out that the vaccine was placebo and there is no cure to the zombie virus. What followed was a mass panic and a total break down of the society.


World War Z is primarily a war about how mankind survived an extinction event. Whenever survival is concerned, things often tread in the grey areas of morality. For example, in this book, at the onset of the zombie war, humanity was losing every battle. Mankind's salvation finally arrived with the "South African plan", which saved humanity from total extinction. What was this plan? It was similar to the scorched earth strategy used by the military. Except that in scorched earth strategy, you sacrifice the lands and resources, but in the "South African plan", you sacrifice masses of people to the invading zombie hordes while some people retreat and survive, thus our species can continue. This part of the book was particularly interesting, because it pushed the boundary of morality – when facing an extinction event, what is more important? The survival and the continuation of our species? Or is upholding our much treasured egalitarian value more important?

The above descriptions are just giving you a taste for this book, but there is a lot more to say about it, and I am unable to discuss the full scope of the book in a single book review. It would suffice to say this book narrated how (almost) every nation in the world dealt with the zombie virus, each according to its own cultural, social, and geological history. World War Z is fictional, but this book made me feel as I was reading history. The geopolitics and the themes in this book both feel real and authentic. On the surface, the book is about projections of "what could happen" if such a global pandemic does break out, but at its heart it is a commentary about our world and the nature of society. World War Z sent a shiver down my spine, and it is not because of the zombies, but because some of the things mentioned in this book are actually happening in our world today. This is the most interesting book I have read this year. It is thought-provoking. I highly recommend it to my fellow readers.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

A Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeymoon

When the Librarian handed me a book called Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, she commented on how the book was "unputdownable". Despite her assurance of the book's quality, I was not thrilled. In fact, I was thinking to myself, "man, this one looks like chick lit. Not my type of book!"

I borrowed the book anyway, because my book club prescribed this book in July. I spent the next three nights reading the book and it surprised me. This book defied my expectations at every turn. This book reminded me of why you should never judge a book by its name. This novel is not chick lit, nope. Instead, I discovered a touching story about kindness and dealing with past traumas.

The book tells the story of one Eleanor Oliphant, a young lady whose life was "fine". Eleanor lived in an apartment, she worked in a stable job, and every Friday night she celebrated the weekend with a frozen pizza and some vodka, followed by a chat with her mom.

All of this goes to say that Elearnor was doing "ok" at making a living. Her life was carefully structured, always on track. However, she avoided social interactions. This is because Eleanor didn't have good social skills, and she had the tendency to speak what she thought.

Life brought its own surprises when Eleanor met Raymond, who is an IT geek from her office. These two became unlikely friends. An intentional act of kindness followed, and it transformed Eleanor's life, where she discovered that life should be more than just "fine".

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the debut novel for Gail Honeymoon. This novel won multiple awards and apparently a movie adaptation is on the way. I am grateful to the person who suggested this book to my book club, because this one is worth reading.

You might develop the impression, that this book is a contemporary romantic comedy, but I can assure you it is not. The opening chapters of the book introduced me to Eleanor Oliphant, and she was a bit isolated and self-centred. Eleanor had a contradictory nature; she was very clever but also naive, and she was harsh but also vulnerable. In the beginning I did not like Eleanor. However, as the story went on, the author provided me with more information about her, and I began to understand why Eleanor acted the ways she did. From there, this book explored the psychological effects from childhood trauma. At times, the story was gut-wrenching. However, this book does not spell gloom and doom, because this book reminded me of a powerful, but simple truth - that it is never too late for any of us, and that an act of kindness, no matter how small, or unintended, can cause profound changes in someone's life and then expanding into others', just like how a pebble landing in a still pond can create small ringlets which turn into large ripples.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Blu Ray movie review: A Quiet Place

Shhh, be quiet! If you make a sound, you die!

Imagine yourself in a world where to survive is to remaining silent. If you cough, you die. If you cry, you die. And if you accidentally step on something sharp, then better bite down you lips than let out a moan lest you die.

Such a world would be a very quiet place.

Why should you stay silent? Because there are these monsters, you see, they are blind predators but they can hear very well, and the human flesh just happens to be their favorite snack. Unless you have a death wish, then you better stay quiet.

Very, very quiet.

That, is the premise for A Quiet Place, a science fiction horror movie which came out earlier this year. I missed the cinematic run, but I had the chance to watch this movie on blu ray. And? A Quiet Place is currently, my favorite movie of 2018. This movie is unique, it is intense, and it had me glued to my seat for 90 minutes. Most importantly, this movie deeply moved me, and it did so with only 2 or 3 lines of dialogue.

"Moving and emotional", are you kidding Daniel? You are talking about a horror movie, mate! Well, just because a story belongs to the horror genre doesn't mean it cannot be meaningful and emotional. I mean, Charles Dickens'  A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, yet at its core is a story about the redemption of one man. So I say, A Quiet Place is similar; it is a survival horror story, but at its core lies a story about a family dealing with grief, and it is also about the parents' worst fear.

A Quiet Place is set in a post apocalyptic world, where monsters are lurking in the shadows, hunting humans for food. The world in this movie is desolate, cities are abandoned with little but ghostly traces of people who used to live there. The movie did not explain the monsters' origin, they are just the fabric in the reality. These monsters are blind, but they hunt with their superb hearing abilities. The story focused on a family, a couple with their three children. To survive, this family adapted their daily life to minimize the sounds they make. For example, they do no speak but use sign language, and they carefully marked down the house's floorboards, so when they walk the floors won't creak, so on and so forth. Living in such a world took a heavy toll on them, as the family was dealing with the grief that came from losses and tragedies.

I have never seen a movie like A Quiet Place. In today's cinematic world where most blockbusters are either superhero movies or franchise sequels, A Quiet Place stands out as a beacon of originality. Finally, Hollywood is giving us something new. Everything in this movie, from the productions, the story, the characters, to the sound engineering, is excellent.

The run time for this movie is only 90 minutes, but it is perhaps the most intense cinematic experience I ever had. There was so much suspense in this movie, and it walked on a fine line between thriller and horror. I don't usually feel edgy or scared when I watch this type of movie, but when I was watching A Quiet Place, I held my breaths and sat at the edge of the couch, the whole time. I felt a real sense of danger for the characters. I feared for them. This is when I can tell a movie is good.

The characterizations in A Quiet Place are masterfully done. This is a character-driven story, with only 4 major characters in the film. For a story about a family, it portrayed the dynamics of their relationships vividly and realistically. For example, the husband had a relationship to his wife that was different to how he related to his son, but it was also different to how he related to his daughter, and vice versa. Meanwhile, this family was constantly in life and death situations, where they were communicating their innermost emotions for each other, in the sign language. What would that be like if it was you? Making sounds is fundamental to how we express ourselves. Not only do we speak, but we also make a range of different sounds, from screaming, crying, to slamming the door, to communicate how we feel, both physically and emotionally. But how will we adapt to a world where our survival depends on remaining silent? How will living in such a world change our humanity? This movie explored these themes in the context of a family drama, with the backdrop in elevated horror, and it is very powerful.

A Quiet Place comes very close to being a silent film, yet its sound engineering was a feat, a great achievement. Most of the movie took place in silence, but during the action scenes, the sound effects added suspense to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the family drama played out with the beautiful, but harrowing soundtracks in the background. When people watch horror movies they usually yell and scream and laugh, but not for this movie. When people watch A Quiet Place, they will become so immersed in the atmosphere and the story, such that they won't make a sound.

I love A Quiet Place, but it is not a perfect movie. A few things in this movie required too much suspension of disbelief. However, one should keep in mind this is a fictitious story, and with any fictions you can pick out flaws in logic and rationality. Why? Because it is harder to weave perfect lies than telling rough facts, so to speak. This also means, one misses the point of fictions by thinking too much about the rational and logical consistency of a fictitious story. Therefore, I usually measure the quality of a fictional story, not by how logical or rational it is, but by its underlying meanings. A Quiet Place, when viewed from this angle, is a beautifully told story. This movie delivered great entertainments, but it was also an emotionally satisfying experience.

I watched this movie on blu ray (1080p), and the video quality of this disc is demo material. The pictures are sharp and clear, where the colors and the special effects looked natural instead of artificial. Meanwhile, this disc shines in the audio department. From the sound of the whistling wind, to the roars of the monsters, the disc's audio offered an unforgettable cinematic experience. The special features on this disc is somewhat lacking, however, but it still contained enough materials to satisfy those who wish to know more about the movie's makings. 

If you can only watch a few horror movies this year, then shortlist A Quiet Place. This is one of the best in 2018, and it is currently my favorite movie of the year. This movie is an instant horror classic. It is very re-watchable, and I think it is worthwhile adding the blu ray to your collection. This blu ray disc excelled in visuals and audio, it is the kind of disc to show off your home theatre system. Really, it is that good! If you haven't seen A Quiet Place, then grab some popcorns, relax on your couch, then sit back and enjoy this film. But remember to stay quiet. Yes, stay very, very quiet. You never know, what monsters can hear you while they are lurking in the dark! Shhh....