Friday, 27 December 2013

2013 in Review: Looking Back

My week-long "2013 in Review" series of posts ends today, with a look back at the year. But first, a quick rundown for those just joining in. On Monday, I revealed my favorite books for the year. On Tuesday, it was favorite songs. On Wednesday, favorite albums. And yesterday, I short listed my favorite movies. Today, I'll be touching upon just a few of the things that shaped 2013.



2013 marked the arrival of a new generation of video game consoles, even though the first entrant into this brave new world, the Nintendo Wii-U, was released all the way back in November, 2012. I don't own any of these consoles, yet, but I see myself getting a PS4 sometime in the not-too-distant future. I've all but lost my faith in Microsoft, following their announcement (and eventual reversal) of the Xbox One's DRM and always-on policies.


2013 was also the year that the world lost one of its last true legends. Madiba, as he was known back home in South Africa, was a man that stood for many things. He stood for freedom. He stood for equality. But most importantly, he stood for reconciliation. His actions would help bring down the walls of racial segregation brought about by apartheid. He will forever be remembered as a beacon of hope for generations to come.


Much like I did at the start of last year, I started this year with a bunch of writerly goals. To summarize, I planned on writing a new book entitled Proxies. I also planned on having a greater online presence in the various social media channels, amongst other things. Well, as things presently stand, I am yet to finish the book, nor has my online presence grown by any measurable standard. To the contrary, I think it has taken a hit.

So what happened then?

Looking back, at the time I set those goals, I didn't envision that I would be taking a desk job shortly thereafter. Prior to now, I've only ever taken freelance gigs. I did a two-month stint as a IT instructor once, and that was it. So needless to say, I never envisioned just how much time this desk job would be taking away from my writing. Do I regret any of it? No. Not really. It was a logical next step in this road called life. I'll just have to find a way to make things work. More on that next year.

Thanks for visiting, and see you again on the other side.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

2013 in Review: Favorites Movies

Warm Bodies



There's nothing like the smell of zombie love in the morning. And as repulsive as that might sound, that's the concept behind this zombie romance movie adaptation. It's a concept that was briefly explored in the 2008 remake of Day of the Dead (quite possibly the worst zombie movie of all time). But what keeps it fresh here is the performance of British actor Nicholas Hoult as the lovestruck zombie, R.

Pacific Rim



Who says you can't do an intelligent movie about giant robots beating the sh*t out of giant monsters? Definitely not Guillermo Del Toro. The director behind Pan's Labyrinth (one of the most visually stunning movies in existence) adds another visual masterpiece to his résumé. Pacific Rim not only puts the Transformers movies to shame, it also raises the bar for all subsequent Kaiju (that's Japanese for giant monster) movies to come, like the upcoming remake of Godzilla due next year.

Man of Steel



Zack Synder's reboot of the Superman franchise failed to strike a chord with most critics this year. But what it lacks in thought provocation, it more than makes up for in raw, visceral, superhero action. Put simply, Man of Steel packs more action (and of course punches) than last year's The Avengers, even though it lacks that movie's overall charm and appeal. Still, we need to consider that this is just the beginning of something bigger. So as far as beginnings go, I'd love to see what comes next.

Gravity



As a kid, I spent unhealthy amounts of time gazing up at the stars, fantasizing about becoming an astronaut someday. I wonder if I would have felt the same way if I had seen Gravity back then. The first facet of this movie that struck my fancy (after I'd learnt it was in the works) was its two cast members. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play two astronauts trying to survive the aftermath of a mission gone wrong. And while I wouldn't want to trade places with either of them, watching their struggle for survival is an experience I don't mind going through over and over again.

World War Z



Rounding out my list of favorites this year is yet another zombie movie adaptation. But unlike Warm Bodies, which felt a bit dumbed down in order for it to appeal to its primarily teenage audience, World War Z didn't feel dumbed down at all. It was also one of the biggest blockbuster movies this past year, a fact that pretty much ensures we'll be getting a sequel sometime in the near future.

And the winner is...

Gravity



Alfonso Cuarón has done it again. He has left us with another science fiction masterpiece. Gravity would go down in history as one of the genres finest. Everything from the visuals, to the score, to the acting, to the cinematography, oozes with perfection. No other movie, over this past year, has triumphed on so many fronts. And with the awards season already underway, it would be interesting to see just how many nominations and awards Gravity would rack up.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

2013 in Review: Favorite Albums

First off, Merry Christmas, everyone. 'Tis the season to be jolly, after all. Secondly, this year (like the two before it) was a good year for music. It is becoming increasingly harder to limit my list of favorites to ten finalists. So on that very note, here are just a few of my favorite albums for 2013.

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories



It's been eight years since the release of Daft Punk's Human After All. Between then and now, fans have been blessed with a second live album (Alive 2007), not to mention a commercially-successful soundtrack album (Tron: Legacy). But what we truly needed was what we finally got this year, a worthy successor to their second studio album, Discovery. Highlights include Within, Instant Crush and Doin' It Right.

Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience



Justin Timberlake is another artist that has been out of the music game for a while, despite making a few guest appearances following his 2006 record, FutureSex/LoveSounds. He'd spent most of the last seven years focusing on his acting career, even appearing in the critically-acclaimed 2010 movie, The Social Network. So you should understand why the first part of his 20/20 Experience album went on to become the highest selling album of the year, moving over 900,000 units in its first week alone. Highlights include Pusher Love Girl, Suit & Tie and Strawberry Bubblegum.

Disclosure - Settle



This time last year, I remember proclaiming that Zedd's Clarity was "the most impressive debut by an EDM artist I've heard." Little did I know that I would have to retract that statement so soon. Settle is not just one of the most impressive debuts, but also one of the finest EDM albums in recent memory. The UK duo of brothers Guy and Howard Lawrence have created a sound that harkens back to the days of Artful Dodger, when 2-step garage was all the rage on that side of the pond. Highlights include Latch, Defeated No More and January.


Avicii - True



True is yet another impressive debut by an EDM artist. So if you haven't guessed it already, 2013 was a great year for EDM. I've had nothing but love for Avicii ever since he collaborated with David Guetta for the song, Sunshine, a song that earned the pair a Grammy nomination for the effort. So, of course, expectations were high for True. But rather than conform to genre expectations, Avicii decided to craft a record that pushes that genre forward in new and interesting ways. Highlights include Wake Me Up, Hey Brother and Dear Boy.


Britney Spears - Britney Jean



It is no secret that I am a longtime fan of Britney Spears. Only a few of the pop artists who graced the world stages way back in 1998 can be seen today (Another of which also made my list of favorites this year. Can you guess who?) With her latest effort, Britney Jean (as her friends and family call her) decided to come out with something more personal and introspective, without losing any of the earworm goodness her music is known for. Highlights include Work B*tch, It Should Be Easy and Chillin' With You


Kanye West - Yeezus



Imagine an album so edgy, not to mention full of itself, that they didn't even bother to release it with any kind of printed cover. Yeezus is that album, and only someone like Kanye West could convince a major label to get behind that idea. Described by many as one of the most shocking hip-hop releases till date, Mr. West has cooked up something even darker than 2011's My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy. Highlights include Black Skinhead, New Slaves and Guilt Trip.


Icona Pop - This is... Icona Pop



The Swedish duo, Icona Pop, rose to fame with the help of their hit single, I Love It. They've since followed that success with an EP (Iconic) and a full-length album (Icona Pop). But the album, This is... Icona Pop, marks their international debut. And what a debut that is, with 11 standout tracks, each begging to be left on constant repeat. Highlights include I Love It, We Got the World and Ready for the Weekend.


Empire of the Sun - Ice on the Dune




The Australian duo of Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore make up the group, Empire of the Sun. Ice on the Dune is their sophomore album, a follow up to 2008's Walking on a Dream. The album opens with an orchestral arrangement, and from that moment onward, you are rewarded with what ultimately amounts to one relentlessly fun pop album. Highlights include Old Flavours, Awakening and Disarm.

Lady Gaga - ARTPOP



If you're someone like Lady Gaga, who keeps raising the bar with each subsequent release, the pressure to deliver each and every time must be unimaginable. Except she keeps on churning out great music, making it look almost effortless. But don't be fooled. What we have here is a woman in her prime. And ARTPOP is the perfect vehicle for that woman's singing and songwriting prowess. Highlights include G.U.Y., Do What U Want and Mary Jane Holland.

Various Artists - The Hunger Games: Catching Fire




The one thing I miss the Twilight movies for are their associated soundtrack albums, a trend that has been retained for Liongate's current series, The Hunger Games. Very rarely can you judge the quality of an album by merely looking at the tracklist. But ever since I saw the list of artists contributing to the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire soundtrack, I could just tell it was going to be one solid record. Highlights include Atlas (by Coldplay), Elastic Heart (by Sia & The Weeknd) and Lean (by The National).


And the winner is...

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories



Random Access Memories is not only the best Daft Punk record till date, but also my favorite album for the year. It is electronic dance music at its finest, even though it doesn't remotely sound like what we've come to expect from the genre. Daft Punk haven't exactly reinvented that sound, just torn down the walls that distinguish it from its contemporaries. The most noticeable shift for the duo is the inclusion of live instrumentation. But their trademark use of vocoded vocals remains on display throughout. The album dabbles between quite a few electronic and non-electronic genres, but somehow still winds up sounding like a sonic whole.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

2013 in Review: Favorite Songs

Capital Cities - Safe and Sound


Even though Capital Cities' Safe and Sound has been around since sometime in 2011, it really didn't start making waves until earlier this year. The duo quickly followed its new-found success with the release of their debut album, In a Tidal Wave of Mystery, an album that was largely panned by critics.

Nicki Willaims - Glowing


South African born singer-songwriter Nicki Williams did her country proud with this dance club anthem. This was after several songwriting credits, and a debut single with a title I wouldn't exactly call radio-friendly.

Daft Punk - Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams)


Get Lucky was the song that gave Daft Punk the mainstream success they've always deserved, coming so close to reigning supreme on top of the Billboard Hot 100. But it was prevented from reaching that summit by another song I have chosen not to mention, nor include in my round up of favorites (Take that, Robin Thicke).

Miley Cyrus - We Can't Stop



That shock-provoking MTV VMA performance aside, 2013 was the year that Miley Cyrus finally proved to the world that she had outgrown her Hannah Montana persona. And what better vehicle for that transition into womanhood, than the Mike Will produced club banger, We Can't Stop?

Daft Punk - Instant Crush (feat. Julian Casablanca)


While nowhere near as mainstream (not to mention ubiquitous) as the French duos other song on this list, Instant Crush has a similar level of appeal, from the vocoded crooning of The Strokes frontman, Julian Casablanca, to the synthesizers and beat change that signal the arrival of the chorus.


DJ Kent - On Top of the World (feat. Liquideep)


South Africa is represented once again on my 2013 list of favorites, and this time it's through the pairing of DJ Kent and the duo, Liquideep. On Top of the World perfectly captures that feeling you get when you're with that special someone.


And the winner is...

Daft Punk - Instant Crush (feat. Julian Casablanca)


There is a point in every book/song/album, when you can instantly tell whether or not the entire body of work is truly great or praiseworthy. For me, the first time I listened to Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, that moment came during Instant Crush, when Julian Casablanca stops singing and the instrumentals slowly fade with the final chorus of the song. It was one of those moments so rare in music today, where you're torn between pressing repeat, or waiting to hear which other sonic pleasures might be waiting for you right around the corner.

Monday, 23 December 2013

2013 in Review: Favorite Books

It's that time of the year again. And no, I'm not just talking about the season to be jolly. I am referring of course to my week-long year in review series of posts. And much like I did last year, I'll be starting this year's series by highlighting my favorite books for the year.

I didn't read nearly enough books this year, at least not enough that were released during the year in question. So I'll be highlighting just three favorites from the small pool of books I did manage to read. Without further ado, those three favorites are:

Inferno (by Dan Brown)


Of the three books I am highlighting this year, Inferno (or Robert Langdon, #4) was easily my most anticipated. So you can imagine my disappointment when the finished product didn't quite live up to my expectations. The biggest issues I had with this book were its long-winded narrative and its adherence to the formula already set by the previous books in the series. Nonetheless, Inferno still had its moments, not to mention enough thrills and plot twists to be considered a worthy addition to the mega, bestselling series. But as things presently stand, Angels and Demons (Robert Langdon, #1) still holds the title of my favorite book in the series.

The Cuckoo's Calling (by Robert Galbraith)



The Cuckoo's Calling was easily one of the most critically-acclaimed novels by a debut author this past year. Except it wasn't written by a first-time author. The internet was set abuzz in the month of July when it was revealed that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for none other than J.K. Rowling, an announcement that effectively saved the book from obscurity, turning it into an instant bestseller. The book itself is J.K. Rowling true and true, with her trademark rich characterization and well-written dialogue on display throughout. And much like she did with The Casual Vacancy the year before, she manages to prove once again that her writing can thrive beyond the boundaries of the Harry Potter universe.

Allegiant (by Veronica Roth)



Allegiant is the third and final book in the Divergent series, a trilogy of science fiction/dystopian books for young adults. And much like The Cuckoo's Calling did earlier in the year, the book managed to generate quite the buzz, albeit between the members of its fan-base, due in part to its somewhat surprising end to the series. I was one of the few who actually found the book's conclusion satisfactory enough. And I would refrain from saying anything more about that ending, so that I don't ruin it for others yet to experience the story. But it would be interesting to find out what people beyond the book's fan-base think, especially with the first book's movie adaptation just months away now.

And the winner is...

The Cuckoo's Calling (by Robert Galbraith)



From the moment I'd learnt that J.K. Rowling had released another book (and that we were all three months late to the party), I had made reading The Cuckoo's Calling my topmost priority. And from the get-go, I could just tell that the book was going to be the start of something special. The Cuckoo's Calling is a detective story, a genre I don't dabble into too often. But you don't really need to enjoy reading such books, for you to appreciate this one. The best part is it has been confirmed to be the first book of a new series of Detective stories, all of which are to feature the book's main character, Cormoran Strike. Whether or not this new series has any hope of becoming anywhere near as popular as Harry Potter is a matter up for debate. But I personally can't wait to get my hands on book #2.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

The Morning Star (A Prelude to Guardians & The Lost Paradise)


It's been a while since I made any new book announcements, mainly because I haven't been writing and publishing nearly as much as I should be. And it was roughly this time last year that I first unveiled The Morning Star, as a free ebook awarded to anyone that signed up for my mailing list. Now, that ebook is available to the world at large:

Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H7J05HA
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H7J05HA

Hopefully, they'll be more releases to follow sometime in the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

IWSG: NaNo Fail :(


It's the first Wednesday of the month, and time for another round of Insecure Writer's Support Group posts. The IWSG was started by Alex J. Cavanaugh, sci-fi writer and blogger extraordinaire. You should definitely pay his blog a visit, if you haven't already. For more information about the group itself, you can also visit www.insecurewriterssupportgroup.com

Right. In case you haven't guessed it already from the title of my post, I took the bull by the horns this past November... and I was trampled silly. So I guess my insecurity for the month centers around my failure to win my first ever NaNo. But things are so hectic at work right now, that I haven't even had time to ponder over it.

In retrospect, writing 50,000 words in one month, whilst grinding it out at my day job, was a bit over ambitious and optimistic. I work Mondays through Saturdays effectively, but I figured if I was able to write full turbo every Sunday in November, maybe, just maybe, I'd be able to win the challenge. Well, now I know better.

I haven't even tallied my actual total for the month. That's how hectic things are. I almost even forgot that today was the first Wednesday of the month. Now I am hastily typing this post, stealing looks over my shoulder and hoping that my boss doesn't come strolling my way. The bane of being a slave to the corporate world.

But like I said in a previous post, NaNo isn't all about winning. It's about getting that much closer to having a complete novel. So I am going to cherish the words I did manage to get down this past month. All 20,000 or so of them. And why not!? After all, they were good words (well, mostly). Plus it sure beats kicking myself over the words I didn't write. :)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

IWSG: Slow and Steady


Yep. I'm back. It's been, what, eight months since I last posted as part of the Insecure Writer's Support Group. Wow. Time really does fly when you're... slaving it out in a 9-5. I never meant to stay away that long. But I'm here now, and at least I'm writing again, all thanks to an earlier commitment to take part in this year's NaNoWriMo.

But first things first... The Insecure Writer's Support Group was started by Alex J. Cavanaugh, a sci-fi writer and blogger extraordinaire. The purpose of the group is to allow members to share with one another their various challenges and triumphs. The group posts every first Wednesday of the month.

Right. My insecurity for the month centers around the 50,000 words I'm supposed to be writing. So far, I've written somewhere south of 5,000 words. Haven't even tallied my daily totals. Needless to say, I'm yet to get back into the groove, even though we're almost one week into NaNoWriMo. But of course, there's still plenty of time to catch up.

Or is there? I better get back to writing.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

NaNoWriMo 2013


That's right, folks. I've decided to take the plunge. Come day after tomorrow, I'll be joining more than 150,000 writers around the world. Together, we'll be striving to attain a shared goal: to write a novel in the span of one month.

NaNoWriMo (for those who don't know) is short for National Novel Writing Month. It is a creative writing project, wherein participants are expected to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. The project takes place annually, and I have considered taking part ever since I first heard about it a few years ago. So after much deliberation, not to mention a much-needed shove in the right direction from my significant other, I'll be procrastinating no more.

How I'm going to manage to write 50,000 words in-between the 9-5 and GTA V sessions is beyond me. But NaNoWriMo isn't all about winning. It's about getting words on paper. Besides, the only thing worse than failing to win is not trying at all.

Anyone else doing NaNo this year?

Monday, 21 October 2013

"Guess Who's Back?"


And, no, it isn't Slim Shady, even though I await the arrival of the Marshall Matters LP 2 with considerable interest. It's been a while, I admit, and I feel quite ashamed that I don't have any progress worth reporting, at least as far as my writing is concerned.

I set some hefty goals at the start of the year, but I feel no closer to achieving any of them. NaNoWriMo is just around the corner, which seems like a perfect opportunity for me to catch up on my word count. But between the 9-5 and freelance projects, I am beyond strapped for spare time.

But enough about me and my writerly woes. A lot has happened since I was gone. A certain blogging buddy of mine got engaged. The Ninja Captain released the third and final book in his space opera series. We've been graced with a summer of blockbuster movies like World War Z, Man of Steel and Pacific Rim, not to mention great music from the likes of Daft Punk. And I'm sure all that is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, guys, what did I miss?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Apologies


It's been a while, so I really don't know how to begin this post. I've been away mostly because I went over to the dark side recently accepted a 9-to-5 job. It's nothing fancy, but the job description sort of aligned with where I was with my writing, namely at that point where I intended to make a greater effort at leveraging social media to find my audience.

The problem now though is that the initial workload has been a little crazy, with countless deadlines to meet. Hopefully things would settle down sometime in the foreseeable future. But until then, all plans to finish my W.I.P. have been put on the back burner. I still have every intention to finish it before the year runs out, so good luck to me.

In my brief hiatus, I not only managed to miss my third straight IWSG posting (sorry, Alex), but my email address got hacked yet again. All the contacts in my address book were spammed as a result. Even my blog wasn't spared, and the spammy link found its way into one of my posts through the Mail-to-Blogger e-mail address I'd set up for posting via e-mail. I have since taken down said post. I've also been forced to change my password for the umpteenth time now.

Sorry to any who happened to witness the spammy post before I got the chance to take it down. I sincerely hope it won't happen again.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Reflections on the 2013 A-Z Challenge


Another shiny survivor's badge can only mean one thing: that we've come to the end of another Blogging from A-Z Challenge. Throughout the month of April, I'd been blogging my way through the alphabet, as I highlighted 26 speculative fiction books. And just like last year, participants are expected to give their thoughts and feelings in a reflections post.

I was so burned out by the time I clicked publish on my Z post that I didn't even realize the IWSG was posting the day after. So sorry, Alex. I promise to do better next month. My original plan was to schedule all my A-Z posts beforehand, so I would have more time to visit other blogs. But I ended up scheduling them on a daily basis instead. I still managed to visit a few blogs though, and I've made some new blogging buddies too.

The major difference between this year and last year was the fact that I wrote and scheduled all my posts on an actual computer, as opposed to a smartphone. This had a tremendous impact on the quality of my posts, and the speed with which they were written. I was able to nail the formatting down to my satisfaction, rather than have to leave everything to chance. I was also able to embed Youtube videos, something I could never do with Mail-to-Blogger.

It's been an interesting 26 days, but what really crowned my joy was having the friends I made during the last Challenge along for the ride once again. You know who you are. Thanks, guys, for making the 2013 Challenge every bit as enjoyable as the previous one.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Zombie Survival Guide

Disclaimer: The following post is nothing more than an excuse to talk about the upcoming movie, World War Z.


Today is the last day of the 2013 Blogging from A-Z Challenge. Throughout the month of April, I featured some of my favorite speculative fiction books, as I ran through the 26 letters of the alphabet. By so doing, I have also discovered quite a few books I wouldn't have read otherwise. These books have covered the full spectrum of the genres under the speculative fiction umbrella, namely science fiction, fantasy and horror. The last book I'll be featuring is one that crosses the line between these genres and non-fiction.

The Zombie Survival Guide is precisely what it claims to be: a practical handbook on how to survive in the event of a zombie apocalypse. It was written by Max Brooks, and published in 2003. Its pages are filled with what should be considered best practices in the wake of such a threat. Mr. Brooks lends the whole thing some credibility by ending with a chronological account of zombie encounters, hinting at the inevitability of an impending zombie outbreak.

Following the publication and success of The Zombie Survival Guide, Mr. Brooks wrote a follow-up novel entitled World War Z. It was released in 2006, and it traces the events surrounding a ten-year global war with the undead. Unlike its predecessor, it was written with a much darker tone, but still manages to retain the former's humorous nature. In other words, even if you don't believe in zombies and such, these books are still worth checking out for their underlying humor alone.

The last decent zombie movie from a major Hollywood studio (that I can think of) was Warm Bodies. So you can imagine my excitement when I first saw the preview for World War Z. The Brad Pitt produced movie is currently due for a midsummer release, and it stars none other than Brad Pitt himself. I think it is only natural for fans of the genre to celebrate its coming release, if only because it could bring to the genre the mass appeal that would ensure that more movies like this get made.

And just in case you haven't seen it yet, I'll leave you with the awesome trailer that's got others like me clamoring with excitement.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Yesterday's Gone


Yesterday's Gone is one of several ongoing serials by writing duo, Sean Platt and David Wright. It is a post-apocalyptic thriller started in 2011. It was modeled after popular TV series like Lost and 24. Each "episode" is typically around 20,000 words in length, and at the end of a six-episode season, all the episodes therein are repackaged as a novel-length omnibus. The premise of the series is simple: on the 15th of October, at precisely 2:15 a.m., a vast majority of the people on Earth vanish.

The story follows an ensemble cast of characters, who awaken the morning after the night in question to find their various towns and cities completely deserted. These include a journalist who is haunted by the fact that he didn't find enough time for his family when it mattered, and a serial killer who makes a transition to antihero when it becomes apparent that his usual prey has been replaced by something much more sinister. And much of the fun is in watching how these characters inevitably cross paths with one another.

The first book that came to mind after seeing Yesterday's Gone for the first time was Left Behind. And indeed, the similarities between the two cannot be ignored, even though those similarities end with their shared premise. In the latter, it is a much smaller group of people (the true believers) who vanish overnight, and they presumably vanish to a better place. Here, it is the vast majority who disappear, and from what I can tell you from the little I have read (season one), they didn't exactly vanish to a better place.

Yesterday's Gone works because its writers have managed to find a way to keep the ball rolling. From the very beginning, the reader is left with one of several questions. Where did everybody go? Why have some been left behind? What role does the government have to play in all this? How are the characters ever going to survive such overwhelming odds? And just when it seems things are finally adding up, a new twist is introduced that blows all previous theories out of the water.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Xenocide



Xenocide is a science-fiction novel by Orson Scott Card. It is the third book in his Ender's Game series, and was published in 1991. The first two books in the series, Ender's Game and Speakers of the Dead, are renowned for winning both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and I am indeed ashamed to admit I am yet to read any of them. But I was pretty strapped for a speculative fiction book worthy enough to highlight for letter X in the ongoing A-Z Challenge. The following synopsis has been lifted straight from the book's Amazon page:

The war for survival of the planet Lusitania will be fought in the hearts of a child named Gloriously Bright.

On Lusitania, Ender found a world where humans and pequininos and the Hive Queen could all live together; where three very different intelligent species could find common ground at last. Or so he thought.

Lusitania also harbors the descolada, a virus that kills all humans it infects, but which the pequininos require in order to become adults. The Startways Congress so fears the effects of the descolada, should it escape from Lusitania, that they have ordered the destruction of the entire planet, and all who live there. The Fleet is on its way, a second xenocide seems inevitble.


Now then. This is the part where I am suppose to weigh in with my thoughts, or say something witty about the book. But since the book in question is still buried deep in my TBR pile, I'll leave the weighing in to those familiar with the story. Anyone?

Friday, 26 April 2013

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a beloved American fantasy book written by L. Frank Baum, and first published in 1900. It is best known for its 1939 movie adaptation, a film that is considered one of the most iconic films ever made.

The story begins with a young girl named Dorothy, who is whisked away from Kansas by a raging cyclone (along with her house, and her dog, Toto) and deposited in the land of Oz. Her very arrival puts an end to the reign of the Wicked Witch of the East, who is unfortunately crushed to death by her falling house, thereby freeing the race of little people living there (called the Munchkins) from her tyranny.

Dorothy is welcomed by the Good Witch of the North, who tells her that the Munchkins were prepared to accept her as their new ruler. But when Dorothy expresses her desire to return home, she is told that only the great Oz could grant that desire, a powerful wizard who rules over the land from his castle in the City of Emeralds

In order to reach the Emerald City, Dorothy must journey down the yellow brick road. Along the way, she is joined by an unlikely cast of allies. These include a scarecrow who desires a brain so he could be human; a tin woodman who desires a heart so he could learn to love once again; and a lion who desire courage so he could become the king of all beasts. And they all come to believe that only the great Oz could grant their desires.

Is it just me, or did this classic childrens' book have a disturbing amount of decapitations? It was like one moment they were frolicking through the woods and enjoying the scenery, and the next they were hacking the heads off wolves and other nasties. This was especially surprising since, like most people, I'd seen the 1939 movie before reading the book. And while the entire book could be accused of being formulaic, it is only because it helped introduce that formula, which is still being used till this very day.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Vampire Lestat


The Vampire Lestat is the second book in The Vampire Chronicles. It was published in 1985, and formed part of the basis for the 2002 movie, Queen of the Damned. It is the first book in the series to be told exclusively from Lestat's perspective, after Louis' less-than-favorable portrayal of the character in Interview with the Vampire.

Following the events of the previous book, Lestat spends more than half a century in hibernation. But he is awakened by the sights and sounds of the 1980s, in particular, the music of a band called Satan's Night Out. He joins the band as lead singer, renaming it to The Vampire Lestat, and he uses it as a vehicle to achieve both fame and grandeur. He then proceeds to narrate how he'd become a vampire.

Lestat was born in 18th century France, to an aristocratic family that had fallen on hard times. Growing up in the countryside in his father's dilapidated estate, Lestat had always harbored dreams of fame. One day, he escapes to Paris with his friend, Nicki, in a bid to realize those dreams. But he was to meet with fate instead, and he is transformed into a vampire by another named Magnus, who then abandons him after the act.

Lestat inherits Magnus' estate, and relishes his newfound powers, but his joy is short lived when he is payed a visit by his mother, who had fallen gravely ill. Unable to bear losing her, Lestat transforms her into a vampire as well, expecting that they'd spend the rest of eternity together. But like most vampires, she quickly loses interest in him following the transformation, and she seeks adventure elsewhere.

Lestat then meets another vampire named Armand, from whom he learns about his maker, Marius, one of the oldest known vampires. He immediately becomes obsessed with finding Marius, and he journeys around the world, leaving a trail that would hopefully lead Marius to him.

The Vampire Lestat is considered the best book in the series by many. It covered a lot more ground than book one, and also showed us a different side of the titular character. Lestat is one of my favorite antiheroes, known for his arrogance and lust for power. And while I can see why The Vampire Lestat could be considered the best in the series, I'd still reserve that honor for Interview with the Vampire, simply because it was where we were first introduced to Anne Rice's take on the vampire myth.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Underland Chronicles


The Underland Chronicles is a young adult fantasy series by Suzanne Collins. The five books in the series were published between 2003 and 2007. They follow the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy named Gregor, and his two-year-old sister, Boots, who discover a place called the Underland after falling through a hole behind their washing machine.

The Underland lies directly underneath New York City. It was first settled by humans some 600 years prior to the time of the stories. These people, led by a man known as Bartholomew of Sandwich, built the stone city of Regalia as their new home. Over the years, they become paler due to their lack of exposure to sunlight. And the overlanders (that's us) live completely oblivious to their existence.

The Underland is also home to a number of other races. These include giant versions of what we call rats, bats, cockroaches, spiders, mice and ants, each with its own  settlement. Most of them live in isolation from one another, but there are few who are allied, like the humans and bats for instance, and others still who are at war with one another. Much of the conflict in the books centers on the war between humans and rats.

Throughout the series, Gregor and Boots become subject to the prophecies of Sandwich, who had foreseen their coming to the Underland, and had written those prophecies to guide their adventures. And so in each book, the siblings end up embarking on a quest that causes them to journey through the Underland. There are always several twists and turns along the way, and only by the fulfillment of these quests do they learn the true meaning of the prophecies involved.

Suzanne Collins is better known for her other young adult series, The Hunger Games, largely due to the ongoing series of movies based on those books. But The Underland Chronicles is every bit as praiseworthy, even though it is clearly geared towards a slightly younger audience. It has a better cast of characters, like the ill-mannered rat, Ripred, and the mean-spirited princess, Luxa. But the most interesting character in the bunch is Gregor, who aside from looking after his little sister, also has to embrace his role as savior of the Underland.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Twilight


I'm pretty sure I'll be losing some credibility for this post. But what can I say? You've got to give credit where credit is due. I was one of those who flocked to read Twilight due to the hype that preceded the release of its 2008 movie adaptation. Like others, I was just hoping to see what all the hubbub was about. Little did I know at the time that the Twilight saga would end up overstaying its welcome, all thanks to those movies.

Twilight was published in 2005, and it was there that we were first introduced to Bella Swan, who had just moved to Forks, Washington, to live with her father, Charlie. A new town meant a new school, and Bella tries to adjust to both. The narrative doesn't shift into gear until one day in class when she is paired with Edward Cullen, a mysterious boy who for reasons unknown to her seems to find her repulsive.

The next time they are paired together, Edward seemed to have overcome that repulsion somewhat, and the two of them forge an unlikely friendship over time. Then one day, Edward inexplicably saves Bella from being crushed in the school parking lot, by stopping an out-of-control car with his bare hands. Edward dismisses the feat when confronted about it, and Bella begins to suspect that he was something not quite human, a suspicion that would eventually lead her to a discovery that would forever change her life.

Of all the books in the series, I still favor the eponymous Twilight. This is probably because the infamous Bella-Edward-Jacob love triangle wouldn't rear its ugly head until the second book, New Moon (I was on Team Jacob by the way). I also expected the other books to dive deeper into the vampire origin story, an expectation that was sadly never met. So back then, the first book and the entire series seemed so ripe with potential. It's a shame it all had to end for better or worse in Breaking Dawn.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Sphere


Sphere is the second of the two Michael Crichton books I am highlighting for the A-Z Challenge. It was published in 1987, and subsequently adapted into a movie in 1998. It tells the story of a team of scientists who have been assembled to investigate the origins of a spaceship that has been lying on the ocean floor for more than 300 years.

Norman Johnson is the oldest member of that team, a middle-aged psychologist who'd written a report for the U.S. government, describing how to handle first contact with Unknown Life Forms (ULF), a request he'd assumed was nothing more than a joke. The team is transported from one of several naval ships gathered above the spacecraft, to a deep sea habitat that has been built to better aid in their investigation.

During their first expedition, they discover that the spacecraft was not of alien origin, but actually an American space vessel from the future. According to the records logged on its computers, it was caught in a black hole and then sent back in time, where it subsequently crashed into the ocean. But further investigation reveals a strange spherical artifact in the ships cargo hold, which was clearly not man-made.

Shortly thereafter, the team is severed from the rest of the fleet by a storm, and they are told they would be stranded in the habitat for at least one week. This leaves them with nothing to do but continue their investigation, the purpose and origin of the sphere eventually becoming an obsession for the individual members of the team. But their study is disturbed by a series of strange occurrences. This includes the sudden manifestation of a ULF named Jerry, who communicates with them through the habitat's computers.

Sphere is without a doubt my favorite Michael Crichton novel. It perfectly captured the sense of isolation experienced by the inhabitants of the habitat, and at the same time, the feeling of distrust that crept between them when things started to go wrong. Most of that is reminiscent of the John Carpenter movie, The Thing, another science-fiction story that explored our inherent fear of the unknown. Except Sphere delves even deeper into the darkest recesses of the human mind.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Running Man


The Running Man is a science fiction novel by Stephen King. It was originally published in 1982, under his Richard Bachman pen name. It was one of few novels to be published under that name (before its association to his more popular brand was leaked to the general public), all of which were collected into an omnibus titled The Bachman Books. It was later adapted into a 1987 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the main character, Benjamin Richards.

Ben Richards is a man running out of options. He is out of work and unable to fend for his family. His 18-month-old daughter is sick, and his wife has been forced into prostitution. He is just one of many citizens living in the slumlike Co-Op City, the dregs of a dystopian USA where the economy is in shambles. For such people, there is only one hope for a better life: by becoming a contestant in one of the violent game shows aired by the Games Network.

After a grueling application process, Richards is one of two contestants selected for the network's highest rated show, The Running Man. It is a show wherein contestants are hunted down like fugitives. For each hour he manages to stay one step ahead of the authorities, Ben (or more precisely his family) would receive a hundred dollars. He would also receive a hundred dollars for each "hunter" or law enforcement officer he kills. And if he somehow manages to last the full thirty days duration of the show, he would win the grand prize of one billion dollars.

The Running Man is yet another book that bears considerable similarities to The Hunger Games. It is a comparison that has been drawn by even the King himself. With an ending that is worthy of a Quentin Tarantino screenplay, it is no wonder why fans of the latter are always quick to point out the former's negative outlook. Personally, I enjoyed reading both titles, but would probably give The Running Man the one-up, if only because its story wasn't built around silly love triangles.

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Queen of the Damned


The Queen of the Damned is the third book in The Vampire Chronicles, picking up right where the previous book left off. Most people might remember it for its 2002 movie adaptation starring Stuart Townsend and the late R&B singer, Aaliyah, which also covers material from the second book in the series, The Vampire Lestat.

Following the events of the previous book (which I'll be highlighting next week), the vampire underworld is thrown into a state of turmoil by the awakening of the ancient vampire queen, Akasha. Countless vampires fall victim to her limitless power as she searches for the very vampire who had awakened her, Lestat. Many also experience shared dreams about a pair of twin sisters who seem to be in distress.

In a bid to understand the significance of these dreams, a counsel of sorts is held by a group of vampires. One of them is a woman named Maharet, known for keeping records of her mortal relatives and their lineages. She reveals that she is in fact one of the twins seen in the recent dreams and visions, then embarks on her story, which traces the history of vampires back to Ancient Egypt.

Meanwhile, Akasha catches up with Lestat and takes him to various remote locations around the world, where she incites the women she finds to "kill the men who have oppressed them." The full extent of her plan is made known when she goes to meet Maharet and her gathering of vampires. She intends to get rid of 90 percent of the men in the world, thereby creating a "new Eden" where women will worship her like the goddess she aspires to be.

The Queen of the Damned is quite possibly the goriest book I have read. There was so much blood sucking and bone crushing that I can easily see many people taking issue with this. Aside from that, its take on the origin of vampires is reason enough for me to recommend it (along with the entire series of course) to anybody remotely interested in the subject matter.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Percy Jackson & the Olympians


Percy Jackson & the Olympians is a fantasy series by Rick Riordan. The books are based on stories from Greek mythology, and are well noted for reimagining events and characters from these stories, placing them in a present-day setting. Each book tracks the development of the eponymous main character, Perseus, who becomes the subject of a prophecy that would determine the fate of the titular Olympians.

Percy Jackson is a teenage boy suffering from dyslexia and ADHD. He is also the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. And he is not alone. All through human history, the Greek gods have had affairs with mortals. The children of such unions are the heroes of legend known as demigods, who aid the gods by embarking on quests on their behalf. Except not all demigods were inherently good.

Following the events of the Second World War, which according to the books was started by disagreements between demigods, the gods of Olympus came to an all-important decision. The three most powerful gods - Zeus, Poseidon and Hades - were made to promise not to father more children with mortal women, since such children tended to be the most unstable of all the demigods.

But of course, the promise is eventually broken, and Percy is born. And like all other demigods, he somehow ends up attracting all sorts of monsters from myth and legend, all of them seeking to destroy him before he is strong enough to hunt them down. In order to learn how to defend himself, he attends Camp Half-Blood, a summer camp where demigods are trained in preparation for a life in service of the gods.

The Percy Jackson books are fast-paced adventures where the characters are constantly faced with challenges. They are also quite comical, which gives the series most of its appeal. The first book in the series, The Lightning Thief, was adapted into a 2010 blockbuster movie, while The Sea of Monsters (#2 in the series) is presently slated for a late summer release. I was one of those who found the first movie considerably disappointing, so hopefully they'll be able to get things right this time around.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Oath


Frank Peretti is a bestselling writer of supernatural thrillers with Christian themes. He has been called "a sanctified Stephen King" and his books have sold more than 15 million copies collectively. His debut novel, This Present Darkness, dealt with spiritual warfare between angels and demons, and the role our prayers have to play in such warfare. In The Oath, he tackles the subject of sin and its many ramifications.

Following the death of a nature photographer named Cliff Benson, his brother, Steve, journeys to the mining town of Hyde River to ID the body they'd found in the woods, which was missing a head and an arm. Cliff, who had been out camping with his wife, Evelyn, is believed to have been killed by a rogue bear. But Steve finds that hard to accept, being an expert in such attacks. He launches further investigations into the matter, and he is aided by a woman named Tracy Ellis, the Sheriff's Deputy.

It doesn't take long before their investigation ruffles a few feathers in the sleepy little town, with most of the townsfolk being reluctant to help them out. According to Tracy, they were all sworn to an oath of secrecy that was included in the town charter when it was founded many years ago, which prevented them from sharing what they knew with anyone from outside their town. The only person willing to help them is a man named Levi Cobb, a mechanic resented by the townsfolk for his morals.

While the investigation is going on, a series of deaths and disappearances also sweep through the town. Tracy informs Steve that the townspeople believe it is being caused by a giant dragon, a belief they have passed down from generation to generation, used to explain any and every strange occurrence in their town. Except Levi doesn't regard the dragon as mere myth. And when the townspeople learn he has broken the oath by sharing part of their secret, they are willing to go to any lengths to contain the leak.

The first thing I love about The Oath is its unique blend of fantasy and horror. Then there is the story itself, which I feel would lend itself perfectly to a special-effects-laden blockbuster movie, if only Hollywood was inclined to adapt such stories. I also love the fact that its Christians themes, while clearly present, were presented with just the right amount of subtlety. In other words, the book didn't feel preachy at all, which I think is what defines a great Christian fiction book.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Neuromancer


Cyberpunk is without a doubt my favorite science-fiction subgenre. It deals with near-futures where technology, typically owned by megacorporations (as opposed to governments), is used in unintended ways to augment everyday life. One of the biggest names associated with the genre is William Gibson, author of the Sprawl trilogy. His 1984 book, Neuromancer, helped shape the genre into what it is today.

In Neuromancer, a washed-out computer hacker named Henry Case is given a chance to get back into his trade. Having been caught stealing corporate data from his employer, Case was injected with a mycotoxin, damaging his central nervous system and leaving him incapable of jacking into "the Matrix," a virtual reality representation of cyberspace. He is approached by Molly, a mercenary working for an ex-military officer named Armitage, offering to repair said damage on the condition that Case helps them break into a highly-protected computer network.

Case accepts the offer, undergoing the operation needed to fix his central nervous system. But in order to ensure that he kept his end of the bargain, Armitage informs Case that sacs of the mycotoxin have also been implanted into his blood vessels, and they've been built to dissolve gradually. This would give Case just enough time to complete the job and secure a remedy, before he is crippled by the mycotoxin all over again. As they prepare and recruit the aid of other specialists, Case and Molly also begin investigating Armitage. The trail would eventually lead them to his employer, Wintermute, an artificial intelligence seeking to connect with its other half, the eponymous Neuromancer.

Neuromancer is recognized as the first novel to win the science-fiction triple crown, namely, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Philip K. Dick Award. It took me a while to really get into it, but once I became familiar with William Gibson's writing style, all the elements fell into place and the story quickly transformed into the page-turner it was intended to be.

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Man in the High Castle


Philip K. Dick is another one of my favorite science-fiction writers. He is perhaps best known for the posthumous success of several movie adaptations based on his novels and short stories. This includes the Ridley Scott classic, Blade Runner, a 1982 movie considered by many to be the finest science-fiction movie ever made.

The Man in the High Castle is one of his most praiseworthy accomplishments. It was published in 1962, and it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel the following year. It is primarily noted for bridging the gap between the alternate history and science fiction genres. The narrative takes place fifteen years after World War II, and it features an ensemble cast in a version of history where the Axis Powers won the war.

Following the assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, the novel's timeline forks in a different direction from our own. This crucial change in history leads to the U.S. being unable to recover from the effects of the Great Depression. They are therefore unprepared for the Second World War, and the entire Navy fleet is destroyed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese conquer Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and the rest of Oceania, while Nazi Germany defeats the USSR. Thereafter, both nations continue to wage war upon the United States, until it is forced to surrender in 1947, bringing an end to the war.

By the time the story begins, the Japanese have already established themselves in the west coast, in what is known as the Pacific States of America. The Nazis on the other hand own the east coast, with a concentration camp located in New York City. Both superpowers are locked in a cold war, with the Nazis also experiencing an internal power struggle, following the death of their Führer. At the same time, the Japanese are made aware of Operation Dandelion, a plan by the radical Goebbels faction to attack Japan with nuclear weapons.

The Man in the High Castle was my first foray into alternate history, with most of its science-fiction aspects taking place in the background and outside the core story. Its depiction of the United States under a fascist regime is simultaneously intriguing and disturbing. If there ever was a novel I wanted to see adapted into film, then it's most definitely this one. Thankfully, they've been recent talks of a four-part miniseries to be produced by Ridley Scott. I really hope it doesn't get lost in development hell.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Lord of the Rings



This time last year, I was busy declaring my undying love for a certain movie trilogy. And now it seems I've come full circle. In a way, it only feels natural to talk about both versions of the Lord of the Rings in this order, since I saw the movies well before reading the book. But my first journey to Middle-earth was actually through a 1990 computer game. This one to be precise:




It's amazing to think that this game was once heralded as having state-of-the-art graphics. What I remember most fondly about it though was that it featured clips from the 1978 animated film, and I think that was what ignited my current love for the Lord of the Rings. The video I posted does a pretty decent job of laying down the foundation of the book's plot, so I think I can go straight to the facts and my thoughts.

The Lord of the Rings is often regarded as the definitive fantasy novel by fans of the genre. It was first published between 1954 and 1955 (in three separate volumes, even though it was written and intended to be read as one king-sized novel). Since then, it has gone on to sell more than 150 million copies, making it the second best-selling novel of all time (bested only by the Charles Dickens classic, A Tale of Two Cities).

I didn't start reading the book until fours years after the last of Peter Jackson's movie adaptations was released in 2003. And it took me another four years just to get to the end of it. Why? I don't know exactly. Maybe it was the fact that I already knew how everything would turn out. Or perhaps the long-winded passages describing every mountain, river and valley down to the last detail. But considering the fact that the book took twelve years to write, I'd say I didn't do too bad.

It was only after going back to read the book could I fully appreciate the amount of work Peter Jackson put into the movies. He took something that was already epic in its own right, then somehow managed to make it even more so. Most of that came at a price though, since he had to cut out a lot of the source material in order to make the narrative in the movies tighter.

The most memorable omissions were some of the few laugh-out-loud moments to be found in the book. Like the conversation between Gandalf and Saruman after the destruction of Isengard. And the playful banter between Gimli and Faramir about the fairness of the Lady of the Wood. It was these little things that made going back to read the book worthwhile in my opinion.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Khaled: A Tale of Arabia


Khaled: A Tale of Arabia is a fantasy novel by F. Marion Crawford. Originally published in 1891, it tells the story of a genie (the kind from Islamic folklore, not the pop culture variant that grants three wishes) that is made human as punishment for killing another man, an Indian prince who had been meaning to secure the hand of a beautiful princess named Zehowah through lies and false promises.

By very design, genies do not possess a soul, and are therefore condemned unless they can show by their actions that they believe in God. As part of his punishment, Khaled is promised a soul at the end of it on one condition: that he is able to make the princess, whose suitor he had slain, fall in love with him instead. But unknown to him, the princess in question is a very strong-willed woman who doesn't believe in love.

So Khaled is made human, and through divine intervention (and some logical reasoning on the part of the bride to be) he is able to win Zehowah's hand in marriage, the only child of the sultan, meaning he would become ruler of the desert kingdom of Riad upon the sultan's passing. The day after the wedding ceremony, he is immediately forced to prove his worth as future ruler against an enemy invasion.

Khaled leads the armies of Riad, and shows enough bravery and swordsmanship to rally them against the enemy. They drive the invaders out of their city, and continue to hunt them down as they attempt to flee across the desert. Upon his return, he tells Zehowah of all his exploits, hoping to finally win her love. But the princess, though impressed by all of it, still doesn't believe that love is a required component of their relationship. And so begins his quest to find a way to win a place in her heart.

Khaled was one of several books I read specifically for the A-Z Challenge, because lets face it, I haven't read that many speculative fiction books, not to mention those beginning with the letter K. But I'm sure glad I read this one, because Mr. Crawford's depiction of Arabia, its people, their ways and their customs is nothing short of beautiful. His descriptions tend to be long-winded though, a complaint that can be held against just about every classic fantasy story ever written.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Jurassic Park


This is the first of two Michael Crichton books I'll be highlighting for this year's A-Z Challenge. And of the two, this one is the more popular (if not his most popular), largely due to its 1993 blockbuster movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg.

In Jurassic Park, scientists have found a way to clone dinosaurs using DNA recovered from mosquitoes trapped in fossilized tree resins. And what better way to put that scientific breakthrough to good use than to create an island-wide theme park filled with said dinosaurs. The operation is funded by John Hammond, the billionaire CEO of InGen, a company that specializes in genetic engineering.

To make sure "Jurassic Park" is ready for the general public (despite evidence pointing to the contrary), Mr. Hammond hires a paleontologist named Alan Grant to make an assessment of the facility. He is accompanied by Ellie Sattler, a  paleobotanist, and in a show of goodwill, Mr. Hammond's very own grandchildren. They are introduced to Ian Malcolm, a mathematician who believes the park is subject to the laws of chaos theory.

And just like clockwork, Ian Malcolm is proven right when a shady InGen employee named Dennis Nedry tries to steal a number of frozen dinosaur embryos, in a bid to sell them off to a rival company. He shuts down the facility's security system in order to reach the embryos, but the island is hit by a tropical storm during the theft. The dinosaurs escape, and needless to say, all manner of chaos ensue.

Michael Crichton is one of my favorite writers, even though most of his science-fiction books tend to follow the same pattern, wherein a team of scientists (each a specialist in his or her respective field) is assembled to investigate an ongoing or potential crisis. We saw this happen in The Andromeda Strain, Congo and Sphere. And the same formula works just as effectively in Jurassic Park.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Interview with the Vampire


Interview with the Vampire is the first book in The Vampire Chronicles, a ten-book series by Anne Rice. It was first published in 1976, and adapted into a movie starring Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise in 1994. The story is told in the form of an interview between a young reporter and a 200-year-old vampire named Louis.

Much of the story deals with Louis' experience with Lestat, the vampire responsible for giving him the "dark gift." Louis' autobiographical account begins in 1791, shortly after the death of his brother. It was at this moment of grief that he was approached by Lestat, who despite seeing Louis' desire for death, came offering him the very opposite: immortality.

Louis is turned into a vampire, an experience that is described as both excruciatingly painful and glorious. He slowly struggles to adapt to his newfound abilities and thirst, and refuses to give into their monstrous nature. But Lestat's waywardness eventually forces them to abandon his indigo plantation, after they are almost discovered by the plantation workers for the monsters they've become.

They escape to New Orleans together, where Louis begins to consider moving off on his own. In a bid to prevent this, Lestat transforms a dying six-year-old girl Louis had previously fed upon into a vampire, forcing Louis to stay and look after her. She is named Claudia, and the three of them live together in an apartment for more than 60 years, before Claudia grows weary of being forever trapped in a child's body.

Claudia and Louis end up hating Lestat for turning them into vampires, a fact that isn't helped by Lestat's selfish and arrogant manner. So they devise a plot to destroy him and travel abroad to Europe, where they hope to encounter more of their kind, and perhaps learn something of their vampire heritage.

The first time I read Interview with the Vampire, I was running a fever and pretty much bedridden. But I couldn't stop reading in spite of everything, which pretty much sums up how I felt about the book. While others tend to favor the subsequent additions to the series, mainly because they delved deeper into the vampire mythos, Interview with the Vampire will always occupy that special place inside of me.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Harry Potter


This is a post I've been meaning to write since the day I started this blog. I've been putting it off until a time when I'd be able to give it the treatment I felt it deserved. But as the saying goes, there is no time like the present.

Like most people my age, the Harry Potter books have had a huge impact on my growing up years. Just take a glance at my bookshelf to the right and you'd get an idea just how huge. These books have been credited with everything from sparking a genuine interest in reading, to glorifying witchcraft and whatnot. The purpose of this post is not to take sides in such arguments, but to remind us why none of that matters.

Harry Potter is the story of an orphan who discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is a wizard, and that he has been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he is to learn how to make use of his inborn magical powers. But like any regular preteen, Harry struggles to adjust to his new school, not to mention a magical world he was previously unaware of.

The books aren't all about flying broomsticks and butterbeers though.

Harry's parents were killed by Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard seeking complete domination of both the magical and non-magical worlds. He would have killed Harry Potter too, except the curse rebounded, leaving Harry with a lightning-shaped scar, and Voldemort a mere, powerless husk of his former self. But the thing about wizards like Voldemort is that they don't stay powerless for very long.

The books follow a rather rigid formula. Each one covers a different year in Harry's magical education. They all open during the summer holidays, with Harry usually lamenting his stay at number four, Privet Drive. Then about midway into the book, the action moves to Hogwarts and we are introduced to the new Defense against the Dark Arts teacher, who of course ends up playing a pivotal role in Harry's life that year.

The only book to attempt to break from the above formula was the final one, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There the bulk of the adventure is spent by Harry and friends hunting down horcruxes (objects enchanted to house bits of Lord Voldemort's soul, thereby bestowing him with the closest thing to immortality), while at the same time trying to elude capture by the wizarding authorities.

There are so many things to love about Harry Potter that I wouldn't even know where to begin. There's the amazing cast of unforgettable characters, who we get to watch develop from one book to the other. Then there's the world itself, which exists within our own, but is infinitely more interesting. Till today, I still get a warm feeling inside just thinking about Hagrid's hut.

To fully appreciate their brilliance, one must go back and read each book in the series at least a second time. Only then would you be able to see just how carefully plotted the entire series was. My favorite one is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, simply because it was there that we are first shown the sheer scale of the wizarding world, with wizards from all over the world attending the Quidditch World Cup, and Hogwarts playing host to students from other schools for the Triwizard Tournament.

With over 450 million copies sold (till date), Harry Potter is the bestselling book series of all time. Even if you'd somehow managed to miss out on the books, chances are you've run across at least one of their blockbuster movie adaptations. And if you haven't, then I must applaud you for your dogged resistance to popular culture (and ask how you've been able to get an internet connection running in that cave of yours).

Monday, 8 April 2013

The Green Mile


Stephen King is not only one of the most successful writers in the profession, but one of the most prolific too, with more than 50 books under his belt. He is also known for embracing nonstandard approaches to publishing, like in 2000, when The Plant was released as e-book installments, long before Amazon dreamt of making Kindles. The Green Mile is another such book, which was written and published in serial form.

Originally published in 1996 as six monthly installments, The Green Mile is a throwback to the days of Charles Dickens (whose books were mostly published as serials). In it, an old man in a nursing home recounts his days as a death row supervisor. His name is Paul Edgecombe, and his story takes place in 1932, at a prison known as Cold Mountain. It centers around his experiences with an inmate named John Coffey, a hulking black man who'd been convicted of the rape and murder of two white girls.

In the days leading up to his appointment with an electric chair, John shows considerable remorse for his actions. But things take an unexpected turn when he is revealed to possess certain powers, healing Paul of a severe urinary infection just by laying hands on him. This leaves Paul conflicted with the court's decision to have John electrocuted, and the role he'd have to play in it, a confliction that would eventually bring Paul to the realization that maybe John wasn't guilty of the crime he'd been accused of after all.

The Green Mile works as both a series of individual chapbooks and a complete whole. Each installment was written with subtle reminders of the story so far, and ended in such a way that the reader is left wanting more. Most importantly, there were no breaks in continuity, nor did the quality of the overall story suffer as a result of the speed with which it was written. Then again, this is Stephen King we're talking about here, the much lauded and undisputed king of horror.