Thursday, December 26, 2019

Daniel's top 5 favorite movies of 2019


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


Number 5: Crawl

Genre: Horror

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











Number 4: John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Genre: Action

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









Number 3: How to Train your Dragon 3

Genre: Animation

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












Number 2: Parasite

Genre: Black comedy/thriller

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

Number 1: The Farewell

Genre: Family drama

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



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





Thursday, October 24, 2019

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


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

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

You may doom yourself by reading Crucible.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Book Review: I am Legend by Richard Matheson


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

Which of these two movies scares you more?

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

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

Don't you think this a fascinating contrast?  

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

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

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

Synopsis:

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

My thoughts on this book:

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

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

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

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





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


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

Synopsis:

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

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

My thoughts on this book:

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

Holy Sister is good, but it is not great.

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

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

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

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

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

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








Sunday, June 2, 2019

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


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

Synopsis:

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

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

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

My thoughts on this book:

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

Synopsis:

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

What is Sweet Mercy?

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

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

My thoughts on this book:

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

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

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

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

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

Until the next time, happy reading!








Sunday, March 31, 2019

Book Review: The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R Carey


Don't be deceived by the cover of The Girl With All the Gifts. This is not a YA novel. This book, written by M.R. Carey, is a post-apocalyptic, science fiction thriller, it is quite bleak and depressing even for this genre. Despite its sad and oppressive tone I recommend it nonetheless because it is both a moving tale and am interesting take on the genre.

Synopsis:

Melanie is 10 years old and she lives in England. Every morning three soldiers strap her to a wheelchair and wheels her from the cell to the classroom. Melanie is not alone, there are many other children like her. They all live in a walled fortress because they were told there are "hungries" outside and they want to eat people.

Why do the adults strap the children to the chair? To Melanie and the children this is a good question, but the cell and the classroom are all these children ever know, so maybe this is just the way things have always been. The mundaneness and the lack of freedom bother Melanie a little, but Mr. Justineau makes it bearable. Melanie loves Mr. Justineau, she teaches the children history and greek mythology. Melanie loves those stories.

One morning, Sergeant Parks and his men came to Melanie's cell as usual, but this time they did not take her to the classroom. Instead, Parks told Melanie that she has a special appointment with Dr. Caldwell. This is the day when Melanie's life will change forever.


My thoughts on the book:

If you must choose to either save a child or save millions of people, what will be your choice? This moral dilemma is at the centre of The Girl With All the Gifts. The story follows a small handful of characters. Helen Justineau, the school teacher, represents the choice of saving a child. Dr. Caldwell, the scientist, represents the choice of saving millions of people by sacrificing a little girl. Meanwhile, Melanie is the little girl to be sacrificed. However the story has a twist, because Melanie is not exactly a girl but something more.

I liked the theme and the exploration of this moral conundrum, but I think Dr. Caldwell's character was a bit thin. The book portrayed Caldwell as an antagonistic character, and I was ok with it, but she was one dimensional and her motivation seemed unrealistic to me. I think the author could have added more depths to Caldwell's character. As a result, the book's theme was hampered by Caldwell's weak characterization, and the conflict in the story was overly black and white.

My second issue with the book is the treatment of "junkers". But what are the "junkers"?

Minor spoiler ahead:

In The Girl With All the Gifts, humanity faced an extinction event where an epidemic was turning every living human into mindless cannibals. Or, zombies, if you like. There were three types of "humanoids" on earth; 1) The survivors who barricaded themselves into walled cities and compounds, 2) the zombies, and finally, 3) The junkers, they were large bands of scavengers, while they were not infected, but the survival challenges wiped out every trace of their humanity. In this book, the junkers had a big role in the world. Yet, the book used the junkers as a plot device. They were the catalysts, to move the characters from location A to location B. Crucial information about the junkers, such as their origins, their motivations, their social structure, so on and so forth, were missing. The bare bone treatment of the junkers was a disappointment given their significant role in the book's world.

Other than the two above mentioned issues, this book is excellent in every other way. Melanie herself was an interesting and likable character. Her journey from innocence to the shocking discovery of her true identity was heartbreaking. Meanwhile, Helen Justineau was an intriguing character, who, out of a deep guilt, sought salvation by protecting Melanie. Finally, Sergeant Parks was a fascinating character. Parks appeared to be a ruthless man at the start, but as the story went on his character showed surprising depths. I think Parks was the most honest out of all the adult characters in the book.

The book also scored a bonus point for its worldbuilding. The zombie genre is very popular. While in most zombie stories people were turned into zombies by "some virus", but the stories never explain exactly how the virus turned people into those shambling, flesh eating corpses. I mean, it is all good and well to say some virus turned people into zombies, but how does the virus work? The Girl With All the Gifts defies the trope, because it went into details to explain how the infection worked, including the biological details of how the virus affected the human brain and its neural networks. 

The Girl With All the Gift is a very good book. While Dr. Caldwell and the Junkers could have been better written, but as a whole this is a heartfelt story with memorable characters. Most importantly, it is a refreshing take on the zombie apocalypse genre. 

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Book Review: Kellanved's Reach, by Ian C. Esslemont (Path of Ascendancy #3)


I think Malazan is perhaps the best fantasy series ever written. There isn't a series in fantasy quite like it. In fact, if there is such a thing as "War and Peace" for fantasy, then Malazan is probably it. Yet, Malazan is not the creative imagination of one man, but two; Steven Erikson, who authored the series' canon, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Ian C. Esslemont, who authored 6 companion novels to Book of the Fallen, as well as a prequel trilogy called Path to Ascendancy.

Although these two authors are writing stories set in the same universe, but their books differ vastly from each other. While Steven Erikson is well known for his quality writing and philosophical depths, Ian C. Esslemont approached the storytelling in a way more traditional to the fantasy genre. Each author tells the Malazan story in his unique voice, and the result is spectacular.

Long time readers of my blogs would know that I am a big admirer of Erikson's Book of the Fallen series. I adore it for the characters, the stories, and most importantly its exploration for the problem of suffering. However, I never read Esslemont works until I picked up Dancer's Lament and Deadhouse Landing in 2017.

Dancer's Lament and Deadhouse Landing belong the cycle of Path to Ascendancy, it is a prequel trilogy to Erikson's Book of the Fallen series. The trilogy narrates the misadventures of Dancer and Kellanved, both are key players in Book of the Fallen series. I loved both books, but the wait for the concluding installment was 18 months long. When the final book, Kellanved's Reach, finally became available at the book seller's website it was like magic. I have high expectations for Kellanved's Reach because of my love for the first two books, and I am very happy to report that the book did not disappoint, although I think there are minor issues in its structures.

The story picked up from the end of Deadhouse Landing. Petty feuds and wars raged across the city states in Quon Tali. Meanwhile, our upstart mage and assassin, Kellanved and Dancer, now control the southern seas and the Malaz city, they are a power to be reckoned with. However, Kellanved could care less about the politics and the war strategies, because the little mage from Don Hon has his eyes set on an ancient flint spear and uncovering its ties to an Elder race of legends. His friend, Dancer, is sceptical and therefore reluctant about chasing after this myth about an army of dusts and bones. But the eccentric mage can be persistent, therefore the duo set out once again in another misadventure into the unknown, and their journey will pave the way to the birth of an empire.

I like Kellanved's Reach, it is a very good book. For those who have read Book of the Fallen this book has many Easter eggs and it also sets up the stage for the canon. This book is more true to the Malazan fashion where the story features dozens of characters and multiple plots. While one would expect such a complex story to be a sizable volume, yet Kellanved's Reach is curiously short, for the book is only 330 pages. I enjoyed the book, it is fast-paced and rich, but I couldn't help but feel the book was a bit rushed and another 100 pages would have improved the story expositions. As a result, while Kellanved's Reach is a good conclusion to Dancer and Kellanved's misadventures, but the two preceding volumes are better than this one by a notch.

The book features many characters. Some are newly introduced characters, and some returning characters from the previous books, and finally the book marks the entrance for some big players in the Book of the Fallen canon. For example (spoiler ahead) I was jumping up and down in excitement when Onos T''oolan appeared in the late chapters. However, I also feel that Esslemont should have explored each character more. I mean, I was disappointed that Dassem only has a minor role in this book. Furthermore, Dancer and Kellanved are almost like secondary characters themselves in this installment. All in all, while the characters in this book are as interesting and memorable as always, but I could not help but feel that book could have explored these characters a bit more, that the book feels rushed.

Every Malazan book finish with a "convergence" event, where the multiple plots and characters finally clash in a crescendo. Kellanved's Reach has the convergence event too, and it was spectacular. However, after the climax the story continued on for another 50 pages. While the last 50 pages tied up the loose ends for the subplots but it is, inevitably, anticlimactic It just feels like those last 50 pages are in the wrong place, they should have appeared before the convergence rather than after. This is yet another example where a lengthier book and more story expositions could have made Kellanved's Reach better.

In the end, Kellanved's Reach is still a very good book and a worthy installment to the Malzan saga. I had a great time reading it. But at the same time, the book feels rushed and it could have been better if Esslemont had written an additional 100 pages to better explore the characters and their stories. Therefore while I like Kellanved's Reach but I think it comes slight short of both Dancer's Lament and Deadhouse Landing. Having said this, Kellanved's Reach is still a great conclusion to the trilogy, and it is definitely worth reading if you are a fan of the Malazan series.







Saturday, February 23, 2019

Book Review: The Labyrinth of the Spirits, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #4)


The enamouring story of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books concludes with The Labyrinth of the Spirits, this is the fourth installment in the series. I was dying to read this grand finale and the wait was excruciating, especially since the translation from Spanish into English took two years. The day the bookseller delivered the book to my doorstep I thought it was a trick. I opened the parcel and found a big book wrapped in a dust jacket as beautiful as it is inviting, it was almost as if the book was whispering into my ears: "Shall we begin"?

Synopsis:

In 1938, the Spanish Civil War took Alicia's parents from her and gave her an injury for life. Alicia was only nine years old. Twenty years later Alicia grew up to become a top investigator for Spain's secret police. Despite being good at her job, Alicia was weary and she wished to retire. Her boss, Leandro Montalvo, granted her retirement on one condition – she must solve the case about the strange disappearance of Spain's Minister of Culture, a man called Mauricio Valls.

Alicia travelled from Madrid to Barcelona with her partner, a big and experienced cop called Juan Manuel Vargras, to investigate this case. Their investigations uncovered a piece of bizarre but vital clue, a book called The Labyrinths of the Spirits, written by one Victor Mataix. The duo followed the clue and unearthed a terrifying secret tied to the Franco regime which also involved David Martin, Julian Carax, and the Sempere family.

My thoughts on this book:

The Labyrinth of the Spirits is a massive tome of 800 pages, but it reads like a piece of crime detective noir, fast-paced and thrilling. The book has numerous plots and sub-plots, but they are all connected to the central mystery, which was revealed one layer at a time like peeling off the onion skins. This is an intricate and beautiful story, you will want to loose yourself in this book and explore every corner of it. I was especially shocked and moved by the descriptions of life in Franco's regime. I mean, I have lived in the western world for the most of my life, and while in the western society there are a lot emphasis and stories about how communist states oppressed the life of its citizens, but there aren't many stories and emphasis about how the fascist regimes can be equally as oppressive. I wonder why? Perhaps it is because the West has made communism its only enemy so fascism is deemed more tolerable? But surely totalitarianism can go under any slogan, right? Anyway, I digress.

The book introduces a new protagonist, Alicia Gris, a femme fatale who wrestled with a wound she sustained from the Spanish Civil War, when she was still a little girl. Alicia's wound is both physical and emotional, and the book did an excellent job at translating how her wound shaped her into the person she was. I like Alicia, she and Fermin are my favorite characters in the series. Where Fermin has a good humour and roguish charms, Alicia is mysterious, seductive, but also subject to sympathy.

A host of characters appeared in this book alongside Alicia. Some characters, such as detective Vargras and Leandro, are new characters. These new characters are well fleshed out, I especially like Vargras, who is like a rugged bear, and his relationship dynamic to Alicia, one that bears resemblance to a father and and his daughter, was vividly portrayed. Meanwhile, many of our beloved characters from the previous entries returned in The Labyrinth of the Spirits; Daniel, Bea, Senor Sempere, Isaac, and of course, Fermin. This book continued their stories and then gave each a fitting conclusion. The book also rewarded the long time readers by finally revealing the fates of both David Martin and Julian Carax, who were the main characters in The Angel's Game and The Shadow of the Wind respectively. In other words, not only did The Labyrinth of the Spirits introduced a new protagonist and a new mystery, but it also tied up every story threads in the end, and the conclusion is beautiful yet bitter sweet. You will remember these characters long after you waved good bye to them.

The Labyrinth of the Spirits is the grand finale I have been waiting for, and it did not disappoint. In fact, the book exceeded my expectations. The Shadow of the Wind is my in my list of top 5 books of all time, and I like The Labyrinth of the Spirits as much as The Shadow of the Wind, so this is saying a lot about the love I have for this book. Now that I have read the entire series, I realized Zafon is a genius, because you can enter this literary maze from any book in the series, yet still reach the heart of it. I love this series. This is one I will revisit many times in the future.






Saturday, February 16, 2019

(Re-read) Book Review: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #3)

A number of my most beloved books, are about books. To name a few; The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. But my favorite of the lot is Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. The story is set in Barcelona in the early to the mid twentieth century, with a historical backdrop in turbulent times such as the Spanish Civil War and then General Franco's ultranationalists, fascist regime. It is a grand story about the lives of people who found themselves under the circumstances, it is a story of their struggles and loves. The series began with a stunner called The Shadow of the Wind, and it is followed by The Angel's Game, a fascinating meditation on the role of myths and the nature of beliefs. A couple of weeks ago I decided to revisit this series, and since then I have been loving the re-read experience. In the re-reads I discovered details which escaped my eyes previously, and I also came to appreciate the characters and the stories even more. My re-read has carried me to The Prisoner of Heaven, this is the third installment in the series, and it is also a direct sequel to The Shadow of the Wind.

Synopsis:

It was Christmas time and the year was 1957, white snow decorated Barcelona into a winter palace. For the Sempere family it was a time of joys and celebrations; Daniel and his wife Bea welcomed the arrival of a baby, while their best friend, Fermín Romero de Torres was finally tying the knot with a wonderful lady.

The mood of celebration, however,  evaporated on the day when a dark stranger stepped into the Sempere bookshop. This mysterious man brought with him a terrible old secret from the early days of General Franco's reign. The secret dragged Fermín and Daniel into a lethal game of exposing Barcelona's forbidden history, about a man known as the prisoner of heaven.

My thoughts about this book:

At 270 pages,
The Prisoner of Heaven is a lot shorter than its two predecessors. The quality of writing in this book is top notch, and it is on par with the previous books. However, having read this book for the second time, I now see The Prisoner of Heaven more as a bridge to connect the previous books to the future story rather than a stand alone novel. Mind you, I still like The Prisoner of Heaven, yet I cannot help but feel the book is unable to stand on its own and it should have been a part of the next installment. This is especially since the book finished with a cliff hanger and it is quite short.

The Prisoner of Heaven took place in two different timelines; one is set in 1959, the other is set in 1941. In the 1959 timeline, the book reunited the readers with Daniel and Fermin, each is a fantastic character in his own way. Along the duo also marked the return of our beloved support characters, such as Bea, Isaac, Señor Sempere, and Bernada. Meanwhile, the plot set in the 1941 timeline shed some lights into the mystery of David Martin and some of Fermin's past life, and it will answer some of the remaining questions from The Angel's Game. The characters who appeared in both timelines are memorable and likable. However I would say Fermin stole the show with his remarkable wits, and his roguish yet honorable character.

There is a shocking reveal in The Prisoner of Heaven. I am currently half way through The Labyrinth of the Spirits (the concluding installment in the series), and from the hindsight I can see how The Prisoner of Heaven connects the previous two installments with the fourth installment into a grand story, while also keeping them stand-alone books. It is almost as if the whole series is a maze with multiple entries, and one can choose to venture into the maze from any entrance yet still reaching the heart of the maze. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a stunning piece of literature with lovable characters, a compelling story, and intricate worldbuilding. I feel as if Zafon wrote these books for me, and this is telling me that these books are very close to my heart, and I believe there are many kindred spirits out there who feel the same. I highly recommend The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series.

Stay tuned, next time I will review the final book in the series, The Labyrinth of the Spirits, a whopping tome of 800 pages.




(Re-read) Book Review: The Angel's Game, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #2)

My re-read for The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series took me to The Angel's Game. This is the 2nd installment in the cycle. This book is a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, and it differs to the previous book by a great deal. When I read this book two years ago I thought the ending was a bit confusing. It was too abstract, but I liked 80% of the book. This re-read has changed my opinion about the book, and I came away with an understanding of its significance in the entire series.

Synopsis:

In the vibrant city of Barcelona stood an abandoned tower house, its walls and bricks echoed with the memory of a tragic past. Meanwhile, David Martin, a budding novelist, took residence in this forsaken mansion and made a living by writing penny dreadfuls under a pseudonym.

David was struggling with an impossible love, and he was also tormented by the memories of a troubled childhood. Not even his beloved books could shelter him from the onslaught of despair. When David's world reached the point of collapse, he received an invitation from a French publisher, Andreas Corelli, to write a book so powerful that can change hearts and minds.

My thoughts on this book:

The Angel's Game is a Faustian journey where the readers and the book's protagonist descend into a world of mystery and ambiguity. This is a story about the tragic consequence of love turning into obsessions, and I especially like the book's meditation on myths and the nature of belief systems, it is profound and thought provoking. Meanwhile, the story's theme reminded me of Dorian Gray and the works of Edgar Allan Poe, it blends mystery with romance, with splashes of horror in between.

The book is well written just like The Shadow of the Wind even though it is an English translation. In fact, the entire series was translated from Spanish into English by Lucia Graves. This opens the question whether if the excellent writings testify the skills of the author or the translator. A lady from my book club has a friend who can read Spanish, and according to her, the English translations are very faithful to the Spanish originals.

The worldbuilding in this book is superb. In this re-read, I took my time with the book and I noticed details which I didn't see before. Zafon's Barcelona is a living and breathing city with shadow-haunted mysteries and deep intrigues. Many secrets and plot twists were hidden in the story, but Zafon kept them close to his chest and revealed them very late in the book. There are multiple story threads in this book and the transitions were seamless. The Angel's Game introduced David Martin, a new protagonist who plays a central role (minor spoiler) in the rest of the series. The story narrates David's rise and fall in the literary world after he took on a strange contract to write an unusual book. The story kept me guessing whether if David's ordeal was supernatural or the product of his own imaginations, and there was a good tension between these two possibilities. Other than David, the book also introduced Isabella, a support character whose identity, when revealed in the end, will shock veteran readers of the series, while also setting up the premise for the follow-up story. This also means one can enter The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series from The Angel's Game instead of The Shadow of the Wind.

Out of all characters who appeared in the book I like Isabella the most. She is charming and her qualities left a deep impression on my mind. As for David, I feel sorry for this ill-fated novelist, especially since the ending left rooms for doubt whether if his ordeal wa a result of a mental illness or that of a supernatural encounter. I have already read the 3rd book, The Prisoner of Heaven, and I am currently reading The Labyrinth of the Spirits, which is the final installment in the series, I can see the ambiguous ending in The Angel's Game was intentional. I can also assure you, my gentle readers, that the next two books answer the mystery about David. Therefore if you are confused by the final chapter in The Angel's Game, then make sure to continue and read The Prisoner of Heaven.

I still prefer The Shadow of the Wind to The Angel's Game, but after this re-read I see the book in a different light. The first time I read The Angel's Game I liked 80% of it but I found the ending confusing. In this re-read I came to appreciate those 80% even more, and most importantly now I understand the ending was written in a manner, not only for the book to be a stand-alone story, but it is also a connecting piece to a grand narrative and the theme in the series, it is very clever and intricate. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books is a series for lovers of stories, and it is a place where I will revisit time and again in the future.






Saturday, January 26, 2019

(Re-read) book review: The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #1)


Two years ago I discovered a treasure called The Shadow of the Wind, it is a novel written by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, an author from Spain whose talents extend into music compositions. The Shadow of the Wind was the first book in The Cemetery of Forgotten Books series, it is a gothic thriller set in the mid 20th century Barcelona. The Cemetery of Forgotten Books became my close companion for many wintry nights, and I was spellbound by its mysteries which haunted the gothic buildings under the ashen sky. Three installments from the series were available at the time; The Shadow of the Wind, The Angel's Game, and The Prisoner of Heaven. I devoured all three novels in a month. I loved them.

However the series was incomplete. At the time, the English translation for the fourth and the final volume was still in the works. Therefore I was forced into an agonizing wait until recently, when the English translation for the final book is finally available. While I was waiting for the trusty bookseller to ship the fourth novel to my home, I decided to revisit the series, beginning from the very first book. This is my first time re-reading a book, and having read The Shadow of the Wind, my favorite book, for the second time, I can testify that re-reading your favorite book is like visiting an old friend.

Synopsis:

The story took place in Barcelona and the year was 1945. The city was recovering from the bleeding wounds of the Spanish Civil War. It was a misty morning, and on the street a father and a son walked hand in hand. The father, an antiquarian book dealer, was taking his son, Daniel, to a secret place known as The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. Young Daniel mourned the loss of his mother, but among the sea of forgotten books he found solace – a mysterious book titled The Shadow of the Wind, written by a little-known author, Julián Carax.

Daniel became fascinated with Julián. He searched for more of Julián's works, only to discover that a shadowy individual had set himself on a quest to destroying every book written by Julián. As a result, the book in Daniel's possession was one of the last surviving books penned by Julián Carax.

Who was hiding in the shadow and destroying Julián's books? And why? Daniel's search for the books of his favorite author might awaken Barcelona's dark secret.

My thoughts on the book:

My 2nd visit to The Shadow of the Wind made me realize the joys of re-reading a book. This time, I was in no hurry to discover the plot, and so I made new discoveries about this beloved novel. Furthermore, I could better envision the book's world and its characters, and I noticed some humors and quirks which escaped me previously. This time I greeted the characters as if they are my old friends, and together we treaded the labyrinthine streets of Barcelona to relive this story of love, of hatred, and of the dreams that live in the shadow of the wind.

Zafon wrote beautifully, and in this re-read I came to appreciate his writings even more. Although it has been 2 years since I read the book, but I still have memories about the major plot twists and reveals, and this allowed me to view the story's structure from a high level. I came to appreciate the intricate and the seamless way in which the multiple story threads were put together. In my spare time I engage in a number of hobbies, but I forgot about my other hobbies when I was reading The Shadow of the Wind. Just like the last time, this book hooked me in the moment I read its opening paragraph. Who needs a TV when you can read a book as good as this?

I let out a sigh of content when I closed the last page of the book. I was eager to re-read the next installment, The Angel's Game, but I also decided to myself that not only will I start to re-read more books, but this is also not my last visit to The Shadow of the Wind.











Saturday, January 12, 2019

Book Review: The Hard Way by Lee Child (Jack Reacher #10)


Jack Reacher sits in a cafe. He likes the coffee here. It is his new favorite place in New York. Reacher watched a man cross the neon-lit street and drove a Mercedes away. A few minutes later, a stranger walked into the cafe and asked Reacher to describe the driver's face. The stranger, the man, spoke with a British accent and Jack figured he had military trainings. Probably ex-special force. Probably ex-SAS.

Why would someone like that be interested in the driver and the car? The strange ordeal seized Reacher's attentions. The stranger, the ex-SAS guy, took Reacher to see his boss, one Edward Lane. It turned out that Lane runs a mercenary band for hire and he is pretty rich. All that $$$ also made Lane a target. Someone kidnapped his beautiful wife and stepdaughter. The ransom, one million dollars.

Lane offered Reacher a job; find Lane's wife and stepdaughter and he would reward Reacher handsomely. But there is a catch – no cops.

Reacher may be one hella hunter but the case has little clues, so this time he has to do it the hard way.

The Hard Way is the 10th installment in Lee Child's super duper thriller series. It is about a man called Jack Reacher. The series needs little introduction because it has sold over 100 million books. Let's just say like many others I am a fan of these books. Meanwhile, if you haven't read Jack Reacher and you like action thrillers, then do yourself a favor and check out a book called Killing Floor.

The Hard Way is a very good addition to the series. This one is a bit different to Lee Child's other books. The highlight in this book is Jack Reacher's ability as a crime-busting detective than an one man army. This also means there is little fight scenes in The Hard Way. The book consists mostly of Jack Reacher searching for clues and piecing the puzzles together. It is a full on detective noir. One would have expected this book to be slower than Reacher's other adventures. Surprisingly the story in The Hard Way is fast paced, there are many unexpected twists and the story is suspenseful.

However The Hard Way is not a one man show. A cast of supporting characters appeared alongside Reacher and each had a unique and important role in the plot. I cannot say too much about the supporting characters without revealing some spoilers, but in this book the characters' motives were believable, and as the story unfolded some of them really surprised me.

Lee Child wrote The Hard Way in his signature style; the writings are hard boiled, punctual, and he used short sentences. The story is set in New York, and the writings painted a noirsh tone to the world and its characters. When I was reading this book, it felt as if I was watching a detective movie set in the night time of a buzzing metropolitan. This is a refreshing change to the series, considering other Jack Reacher books were often set in rural US towns.

The Hard Way is a very good thriller novel. It is easily in my list of top 5 Jack Reacher books just after Killing Floor, Gone Tomorrow and Worth Dying For. If you like Jack Reacher books then you cannot afford to miss this one out. On the other hand, if you are a newcomer to Jack Reacher's journey to dispense justice, then The Hard Way might be a good place to start.


Saturday, January 5, 2019

A Book Review: Boomerang, by Michael Lewis


For many people, the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 is a fresh memory. It has only been a decade since the day we learned there is no such thing as "too big to fail". 

GFC 2008 was a spectacular disaster, and today the world is still feeling the pains. What caused it? We know the culprit in the US was the subprime home loans. But what about in the other parts of the world? Why was the Greek government close to bankruptcy? Why did the real estate market in Ireland tumble? Why did the banks in Iceland fall down like dominos? Why did the German government have to rescue their banks? And perhaps most importantly, what is the lesson to learn from all of this, and will history repeat itself, only this time on a bigger scale?

In December my book club read Boomerang, by Michael Lewis. If you haven't heard of Michael Lewis, then perhaps you have heard of the 2015 movie, The Big Short. The movie was based on one of his previous books (a non-fiction book of the same name). Boomerang is a continuation from The Big Short, where Michael Lewis extended his investigations to the international waters, and unveiling what went on behind the curtains of those countries hit hardest by GFC 2008, namely; Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany, and then finally, the US.

In this book, Michael Lewis detailed how debt was the common denominator behind the economic downfalls in every country, but there is also a great diversity in the manner each country spent their cheaply borrowed credits. Between 2002 and 2008, it became very easy to borrow money. In Iceland, the entire country turned into a giant hedge fund, where the bankers used the money to engage in aggressive acquisitions of foreign assets, which they bought and sold at grossly inflated prices. In Greece, the government wasted the loans on a mass spending spree, thus dragging down the banks with their public debts. In Ireland, the loans fueled a construction frenzy, in which they built an oversupply of homes and sold them at hyper inflated prices. The German bankers, meanwhile, purchased mountains of subprime loans from the US and bonds issued by Greece, all the while thinking those were "risk free investments". Finally, in the US, they incurred mass public and private debts because people wanted to live above their means.

Boomerang described how each country spent their loans and created the economic bubbles, each in their unique ways. The author attributed the diversity of money spending to the national cultures. Some people criticized the author for cultural stereotype. I am not a scholar in this field, so I don't know the role of national cultures in these affairs. However, I do think there is a common theme behind it all – GFC 2008 was a result of people wanting to live above their means, and sacrificing long term interests and common good in exchange for short term gains.

Boomerang is funny, but it is also scary. The stuff that people did was nothing short of incredible, in a bad way. You would have expected to find this sort of stories in satires and parodies like Discworld, but not in the real life! Yet, the stuff mentioned in this book is our recent history. Truth, is indeed stranger than fiction! This is why the book is also scary. I mean, take a look around, and start paying attentions to news in the financial world, does it look like the world has learned the lesson?

I highly recommend Boomerang.