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 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


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 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


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.

Saturday 6 April 2013


Foundation is one of my favorite science fiction series, and the original trilogy is often considered a landmark achievement for the genre. It won the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating out Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings. It was originally published serially in Astounding Magazine (1942-1950), but what started off as a number of interconnected short stories would eventually grow into a series spanning seven novels.

The story begins in the distant future, at a time when humanity is ruled by a Galactic Empire that stretches from one end of the galaxy to the other. At the very center of that empire lies the planet, Trantor, its capital. It is there that a scientist named Hari Seldon develops a branch of mathematics called psychohistory. It is described as a "science of mobs," and its sole application is in the prediction of future trends.

Upon applying his newfound science to the Galactic Empire, Hari Seldon discovers that the Empire is on the verge of collapse, and that it would take at least 30,000 years before it is returned to its former glory. But further calculations reveal that this period of "barbarism" could be shortened to as little as 1,000 years, if certain actions were immediately put into effect.

And so, the Foundation is established on the remote planet, Terminus. Its members are composed primarily of scientists, working under the guise of creating the Encyclopedia Galactica, a vast repository of human knowledge. Except their placement on the very edge of the galaxy has been carefully planned by Seldon, so that through the interaction of certain political and economical forces, they would effectively be able to reestablish themselves as the center of the new Galactic Empire at the end of the thousand years.

The concept of having our lives predestined is nothing new, except here we get to see it happen on a much larger scale, spanning centuries. Very few books have left me as blown away as I was after reading the Foundation Trilogy. It was rife with so many twists and turns. The later additions to the series were just as riveting of course, but not quite like experiencing these distant worlds and concepts for the very first time.

Friday 5 April 2013


Eragon is the first book in the epic fantasy series, Inheritance Cycle. It was originally self-published via print on demand in 2002, a time before the current boom in self-published ebooks. But perhaps most noteworthy was the fact that its writer, Christopher Paolini, was only 15 when he wrote the first draft, and 18 by the time it was ready for publication.

It was re-published by Knopf in 2003, after being discovered and acquired by one of its editors. Since then, the book has not only resulted in a 2006 movie adaptation, but gone on to sell, along with sequels Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance, more than 33.5 million copies worldwide, making the Inheritance Cycle one of the best-selling fantasy series.

The story itself is often considered unoriginal by critics. It takes place in a world called Alagaësia, and tells of a farm boy named Eragon, who, during a hunting trip, finds a magical stone that turns out to be an egg. It hatches into a brilliant, blue dragon he names Saphira, and the two of them form a bond with one another.

Learning about the bond, the king, Galbatorix, sends his servants to capture the boy and his dragon. But Eragon and Saphira escape to the safety of the wilderness. By the time they return, it is to find their home destroyed. And so begins their quest for vengeance, as they journey the land in search of the people responsible.

The book clearly follows a well-worn formula we have seen many times before, in movies like Star Wars and other books like Harry Potter. But the fact that the book has managed to find such success means it is a formula that still resonates with its intended audience. After all, as the saying goes, you shouldn't try to fix what isn't broken.

Thursday 4 April 2013


It is common knowledge that most of the Earth's surface is covered by water; around two thirds of it, if memory serves me correctly. Granted, most of that is oceans and salt water, and therefore not fit to drink. But we still have enough fresh water to sustain the nearly ten billion people that inhabit our planet.

Now, imagine a planet where the opposite proves to be true. A desert planet named Arrakis, where the most precious resource in the known galaxy is produced. Frank Herbert's Dune is the first book in the eponymous series that paints a picture of life on such a planet, and a book considered by many to be one of the greatest science fiction novels of all time.

The story opens with the arrival of the members of House Atreides - Duke Leto Atreides; his wife, Lady Jessica; and their son, Paul Atreides - who have left the comfort of their own planet for Arrakis. They've come to take over and oversee the production of the aforementioned resource, a mind-enhancing spice known as melange. But unknown to them, their appointment has been orchestrated to foster some underhand politics.

It doesn't take long before an attack by a rival House disrupts their fledgling administration. Duke Leto is captured, while Paul Atreides and Lady Jessica are forced to seek shelter with the Fremen, a group of desert dwellers. And it is there that Paul must continue to develop his mental abilities, while preparing for a day when he would be able to exact his revenge on the evil Baron Harkonnen.

The above summary doesn't even begin to do the depth of this book any real justice. Its pages are practically teeming with details great and small. Like the giant sandworms that hunt their prey based on how much noise their footsteps make. Or the special suits the Fremen wear to retain as much bodily fluids as possible. The world is so rich that a glossary of terms is needed (and included at the back) just to keep track of everything.

And therein lies my only problem with this science-fiction classic. The constant need to look up terms like Bene Gesserit and Lisan al-Gaib. Add that to the book's doorstopper length and a minor annoyance suddenly becomes a major concern. But I guess it is all required to create a world every bit as vivid as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia mean different things to different people. It is considered an allegorical retelling of the Christian story on one hand. It is also considered a vehicle for "soft-sell paganism and occultism," mainly due to its magical themes. But regardless of which side of the fence you've chosen to fall, there is little doubt that The Chronicles are seven of the most beloved children/fantasy books.

Published between 1950 and 1956, each book follows the adventures of several children in a magical world called Narnia. Over the course of the entire series, we get to learn more about that world and its inhabitants. It is a world that exists parallel to ours, where men and talking beasts coexist. And from the very first book, the reader is transported there, and made to care about its fate as their actions shape its future.

There is much debate concerning the order in which the books should be read i.e. in publication order or chronological order. I am one of those who prefer to read them in publication order, simply because The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is such a good place to start. It did a decent job of introducing Narnia and characters like the White Witch and the Christ-like lion, Aslan.

That said, my favorite book in the series is actually The Magician's Nephew (#1 in chronological order), primarily because my experience with it was influenced by the buildup from the five books before it. I can't even imagine how my favorite character, the White Witch (or Jadis as she is known here), would have come across, had her villainous ways not already been introduced in the first book.

But there is little doubt I would still consider her "a dem fine woman." I wonder what that says about me as a person.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Battle Royale

Before The Hunger Games, there was this other book called... okay, okay. I'm sure most of you must have heard this fact restated at least a thousand times by now. So I'll try my best not to let it overshadow the rest of today's post.

In Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, a group of junior high school students are kidnapped during an excursion. They awaken following a gas-induced sleep to find themselves on a remote island, where they learn they must battle one another in true gladiator style, until there is only one boy or girl left standing. It is all part of a government-funded program called (you guessed it) the Program, which was designed to instill fear into the minds of the general public, and by so doing prevent all thoughts of rebellion.

Ahem. I know I said I wasn't going to make any more references to The Hunger Games. But jeez louise, could the basic concept behind both books be any more alike if it tried? I mean, just reading the above synopsis over again and I find myself trying to remember which of the two books I am talking about here. But while both books share the same general idea, it is in the execution of that idea that each finds its respective audience.

The general word on the street is that The Hunger Games is a watered down version of Battle Royale, much the same way that Twilight is regarded when compared to Anne Rice's vampire books. Also, unlike Hunger Games, which was clearly set in a post-apocalyptic version of America known as Panam, Battle Royale takes place in an alternative reality, wherein Japan is part of "an authoritarian state known as the Republic of Greater East Asia."

Following its publication in 1999, it didn't take long before Battle Royale was adapted into a movie of the same name (2000). Since then, both the book and movie have managed to find a somewhat cult following, despite being heavily criticized for its subject matter and depiction of violence.

Monday 1 April 2013

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Today marks the beginning of the 2013 Blogging from A-Z Challenge. Throughout the month of April, participants would be blogging their way through the letters of the alphabet. My theme for this year's challenge is speculative fiction books, so I'll be highlighting some of my favorite science fiction, fantasy and horror books, all month long. And what better way to start than with one of the most influential fantasy books ever written: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Originally published in 1865, the book tells the story of a little girl named Alice, who follows a strange white rabbit (on an otherwise ordinary day) to Wonderland, a fantasy world inhabited by talking animals. It is a dreamlike tale that is really just (as the title suggests) a collection of loosely-connected adventures. Most of it involves Alice trying to figure out a way to solve one problem or the other, and their resolutions tend to be just as ludicrous as the problems themselves, if not more so.

One of the things that has endeared this book to readers for nearly 150 years is its cast of quirky and unforgettable characters. From Alice's childlike curiosity, to the Cheshire Cat's fading grin, and the Queen of Heart's tendency to pronounce on-the-spot decapitations; it is these characters that truly make this otherwise nonsensical story a worthwhile read for children and adults alike.

Alice in Wonderland has been repeatedly adapted into film, the two most popular adaptations being the 1951 Disney animated classic and the more recent Tim Burton version (2010). It has also influenced a string of other books (not to mention films like The Matrix and Sucker Punch), a few of which I would be highlighting in the days to come.

P.S: A special shout out goes to Arlee Bird, who started the Blogging from A-Z challenge in 2010. Thanks, Mr. Bird, for helping so many people in the blogging communities find one another.