The evils of man

I’ve never actually read anything by H.P. Lovecraft. I’m definitely planning to, being a horror fan and all. But everything I know about Lovecraft’s works, I know from the authors he inspired – and there are plenty. If the horror genre was a crime scene, you’d probably see about as much of Lovecraft’s fingerprints on it as you would Bram Stoker’s. Here’s one Lovecraft-inspired book that makes me want to read H.P.’s notoriously weird tales.

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Set in the 1950s, during the twilight years of the Jim Crow era, Lovecraft Country follows 22 year old Atticus Turner as he investigates the case of his missing father. Accompanied by his uncle and his childhood friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to follow his dad’s trail, only to get tangled up in a cult ritual. As he witnesses some unearthly events unfold, he soon realizes that racists aren’t the only demons living in America.

Lovecraft Country is one of the most enjoyable horror books I’ve read. I always found stories about cults extra creepy for a number of reasons. We know these groups actually exist, and that in itself is quite unsettling. Then there’s the idea that they study the occult, and that they do rituals to communicate with or actually bring forth entities from beyond our realm. (Honestly I’d rather not know what they’re doing.) Cults represent a tangible sort of evil, and in horror, the closer you are to the threat, the scarier it becomes.

What I really like about the book is the way Matt Ruff tells the story. Each chapter is like an episode of the Twilight Zone wherein you get a creepy stand-alone tale. As the story progresses, you’ll see how each of these mini stories converge to form a delightful tapestry of horror. And then there’s the social aspect of the book. It’s quite clear that Ruff intended to shed as much light on racism as much as he wanted to write about the supernatural. There are several elements in the story that are based on how things were in 1950s America, and I feel like the author gave a good depiction of what a lot of people went through during that era. Apart from being an exceptional work of horror, this book is a brutal reminder that men are more than capable of being monsters, too.

For more about this book, and to know more about the author and his works, visit bymattruff.com.

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When reality is overrated

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The year is 2044. Not much has changed, except maybe the world’s problems have gotten worse. There are no flying cars, no hoverboards, no self-tying shoes. None of the bright and shiny cities of sci-fi lore came to be, and unsurprisingly, we haven’t evolved much as a species either. Much of the population while their days away strapped on devices that allow them to live in a virtual world where their lives are exponentially more interesting. Known as the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, or OASIS, this online utopia has become humanity’s only refuge from the harsh reality that is Planet Earth.

Behind this widely popular program is eccentric billionaire software developer James Halliday, a recluse who lived out his final years developing a game that would, as they say, break the internet. On the day of his death, it was announced that he had been busy designing the biggest Easter egg hunt in history. The reward: his assets, amounting to $240 billion, and control of the Gregarious Simulation Systems, the most lucrative company in the world and owner of the OASIS. But Halliday didn’t make it easy. All the clues were embedded in things he had liked as a child; things that were recreated and hidden across the vast universe that is the OASIS.

And just like that, the world had a new obsession.

Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, everyone began binge-watching ‘80s films and TV shows, listening to old records, and of course, playing the most beloved 8-bit videogames. Everyone had a new hobby. But with that much on the line, you just can’t expect everyone to play fair, and some really vile elements prove that they are willing to do absolutely anything to get Halliday’s money and gain control of the OASIS.

The book follows protagonist Wade Watts, an exceedingly average boy whose barely livable circumstances make college dorm life seem luxurious, as he navigates his way through Halliday’s world on an epic egg hunt.

I almost wish I were born a decade earlier thanks to this book. Don’t get me wrong, I think the ‘90s was amazing, but the way the book talked about ‘80s pop culture sounded like so much fun. Every time the author referenced something I was not familiar with, I got the urge to Google it. I felt like I was part of the contest – like I wanted to know Halliday as much as the characters in the book did – and that’s part of what made this book so enjoyable for me.

Apart from being a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, this book also deals with some issues that are quite relevant in today’s tech-ridden virtual age. You’ll see the protagonist struggle to cope with real life problems while keeping up his rock star-esque persona online. You’ll see how it is so much easier for him to make virtual friends than to connect person-to-person. You’ll see his confidence falter at the idea of actually meeting his online amigos, even if he really wants to. The author explores the inner struggle that comes with living dualistic lives, and I think that is something that everyone can relate with on some level.

All in all, Ready Player One is both fun and serious, futuristic and nostalgic, real and virtual. You’ll stay up reading it the same way you stayed up playing Pac-Man.

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Sci-filosophy

I’m a hundred pages into my fifth novel for the year and it’s been an interesting ride thus far. We are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson is a sci-fi novel about a teenage boy named Henry Denton whose seemingly average life is disrupted by a series of alien abductions. He has no idea why he was chosen. All he knows is that the aliens have given him 144 days to decide whether or not he wishes to save mankind from an unknown catastrophe that will destroy the planet. All he has to do is press a shiny red button and everything will be okay.

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To most people, the choice seems to be an obvious one. But for sixteen year old Henry, it’s not exactly black and white. His boyfriend just recently committed suicide. His grandmother is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and is slipping further and further by the day. His relationship with his chain-smoking mom is going south. His dad left them a long time ago. His brother just got his girlfriend pregnant and dropped out of college. And the popular boy at school who makes fun of him when everyone’s looking and secretly makes out with him when they’re alone only complicates the equation. Beyond his personal life, world events haven’t been encouraging either, with rising tension between nations that are overly eager to jump-start a nuclear war.

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When everything’s falling apart, is the world really worth saving?

The book invites us to examine this question. And as you read along, you realize that the answer really isn’t as simple as you thought it would be – especially for Henry Denton.

I like how the book is both human and alien (literally and figuratively). One moment, Henry is struggling with every conceivable problem a high school kid can have. Next thing you know he’s immobilized on a slab inside a spacecraft for God knows what reason. The guy just can’t get a break.

What makes the book entertaining is its breadth. It gives you ample doses of genuine human struggle while having a compelling sci-fi spin. It challenges you to question the value of life and our existence as a species. It urges you to find meaning in our daily struggles. It makes you wonder what the point of living is, or if there is a point at all. It encourages you to ponder the infinite vastness of the universe and what role we’re supposed to play in it. The book gives you so many things to think about, and that’s always a good thing. I’m really looking forward to the remaining 350 pages.

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A year in books

It’s hard to believe I only started reading novels as a hobby two years ago. I wasn’t much of a book lover when I was still studying and the only novels I read back then were those that were required for English class. I didn’t even finish most of the books that were assigned to us and I was happy enough to get all the details I needed from online summaries (yes, I have a shameful past). It’s not that I hated reading, but anything that was required for school simply lost its charm. Luckily, however, I picked up the habit a few years down the road, and here I am tearing through as much fiction as I can.

I finished 10 novels in 2014 – a big improvement considering I spent several years prior with an annual book count of zero. When the year ended, I was determined to read more. I felt that although  I had read so much, there are still so many stories to enjoy; so many treasures waiting to be discovered.

These days I often find myself standing in the middle of bookstores wondering if I’ll have enough time to read every book I want to read. There are just so many stories! And I want to read as many of them as I can. So for this year, I set out to finish one novel for each month, and I’m happy to say I was able to accomplish my goal. Here’s a look at the twelve books that made my 2015 amazing.

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Book #1 – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I had a lot of fun with this one, and I imagine anyone who was ever a boy would, too. Tom Sawyer is a classic tale about a boy who did everything a juvenile male would; from escaping chores and corporal punishment, to roughhousing, to flirting with schoolgirls and getting into all sorts of trouble. Twain’s work is the embodiment of “boys being boys.”

Book #2 – Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Do not let the bad film adaptations dissuade you from picking up this novel. Shelley’s masterpiece, hailed as one of the cornerstones of science fiction, makes for an entertaining read. This cleverly written novel cautions against the sin of hubris and the dangers of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Read: Beyond pitchforks and torches

Book #3 – The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

This is why I don’t let classifications such as “children’s literature” deter me from picking up books. This illustrated novel is like a silent film on paper. Selznick’s illustrations give life to the story and make for a truly unique reading experience. The story is brilliantly conceptualized and will surely delight you from beginning ‘til end.

Interesting fact: The invention of Hugo Cabret is the first novel to win the Caldecott Medal, an award reserved only for picture books.

Book #4 – The Walled City by Ryan Graudin

Gangsters, drugs, prostitutes and three unlikely heroes crammed inside a walled city. This fast-paced dystopian fiction will have you turning pages as you follow the protagonists in their struggle to survive Hak Nam and escape the city of criminals before it’s too late.

Book #5 – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Set against the backdrop of 19th century New York, Wecker’s historical fiction is an epic tale that spans a thousand years. This is fantasy done right. I really liked how the author created very human relationships between two magical beings and the people around them. What’s even more amazing is the fact that this is only her first novel. I’ll definitely be on the lookout for Wecker’s future works.

Read more about the book and its author here.

Book #6 – Dracula by Bram Stoker

The king of horror stories. Mystery, suspense, adventure and a diabolical villain combine for a thrilling read. As with Frankenstein, no movie adaptation can ever do justice to this classic. Don’t make the mistake of lumping this book together with all the other vampire stories. The amount of creativity and originality that went into this novel is simply mind-blowing, especially if you consider the fact that it was first published in 1897. This book started it all. Literally.

Book #7 – Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Probably the most grueling book I’ve read so far. This is another historical fiction novel that draws on the real-life account of Charles Jamrach, a famous 19th century wildlife dealer, saving a boy from the jaws of an escaped Bengal tiger. The novel crafts a story of survival that revolves around Jaffy Brown, the boy Jamrach saved, who unfortunately gets involved in a failed expedition to capture a dragon.

Book #8 – Baltimore, or the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire by Mike Mignola

This dark fantasy/horror novel from the creator of Hellboy is both thrilling and enchanting. Mignola’s illustrations add to the eerie atmosphere of the book, and you’re sure to find yourself highly engrossed with each chapter. If you like stories of the supernatural, this book is definitely for you.

Read: The Mignola novels

Book #9 – The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

The book is about a dystopian world where much of the human population has been wiped out by a fungus that hijacks the brain and turns its victims to flesh eaters – but this isn’t your typical zombie apocalypse. Carey’s work is emotionally charged as it depicts the struggles of the five protagonists to keep, and in some cases, find their humanity amid all the hardships and tough choices they face along the way. I’m really looking forward to seeing the movie adaptation.

Book #10 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

This wasn’t the simple, happy family story I expected, and I’m glad for it. Alcott’s novel is more than the story of four daughters growing up. In its own way, it perfectly depicts life and all its twists and turns. This coming of age book is a reminder that not all things turn out the way you expect them to. That, in fact, very few things do. But while you may not get what you initially wanted, there could be other happy endings in store for you. This is one book that I’m excited to read again when I get older.

Read: Meet the Marches

Book #11 – The Number 7 by Jessica Lidh

This book caught me by surprise. The early chapters gave me what I would expect from young adult novels, but as the ending drew near, the story progressed to something much deeper. The closing chapters made me wish I could read more about the Magnusson family, but at the same time the length of the entire novel felt just right. Teenage problems and a mystery rooted in the protagonist’s family history make this an entertaining read.

Book #12 – Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Who wouldn’t want to read about a magical circus? Reading this novel was a complete joy from start to finish. It’s one of those books that, if you didn’t run out of pages, you’d just keep on reading. Finishing it almost felt like being in a real circus and not wanting to leave even when the show’s over.

And there you have it; 12 books in 12 months! As great as this year was, I’m hoping to read much, much more in 2016. There are so many classics that I have yet to get acquainted with and even more new authors who are putting out brilliant stories on the shelves. It’s definitely a good time to be a bibliophile.

 

Author’s note: Since this is a year-end post, I’d like to take the opportunity to send a big THANK YOU to everyone who took the time to check out my blog. I’m quite new at this and having people take interest in the things I share is such a treat. Always feel free to reach out – I enjoy and appreciate all the comments and exchanges. Have a happy new year, and may your 2016 be filled with adventure and wonder!

Weekend find

I found this book in the graphic novels section and suspected it to be an illustrated novel (meaning it’s still mostly text but it has some pages with illustrations on them). It turns out I was right, but I’m happy the misclassification drew my attention to it. I’m always on the lookout for good fantasy stories and this one shows a lot of promise – I really can’t wait to read it.

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The Trilogy of Two – the first novel from Lebanese-born author Juman Malouf.

“Identical twins Charlotte and Sonja are musical prodigies with extraordinary powers. Born on All Hallows’ Eve, the girls could play music before they could walk. They were found one night by Tatty, the Tattooed Lady of the circus, in a pail on her doorstep with only a note and a heart-shaped locket. They’ve been with Tatty ever since, roaming the Outskirts in the circus caravans, moving from place to place.

But lately, curious things have started to happen when they play their instruments. During one of their performances, the girls accidentally levitate their entire audience, drawing too much unwanted attention. Soon, ominous Enforcers come after them, and Charlotte and Sonja must embark on a perilous journey through enchanted lands in hopes of unlocking the secrets of their mysterious past.”

The protagonist dies (and that’s not a spoiler)

I just finished reading Daytripper, the 2011 Eisner Award winner for best limited series, written and illustrated by Brazilian twins Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. I must say, I didn’t expect to be THAT entertained by it. Partly because it’s about everyday life, partly because I haven’t read anything from the duo before so I didn’t really know what to expect.

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Daytripper deluxe edition from Vertigo Comics. Collects all 10 issues of the award-winning series.

First of all, let me praise Vertigo Comics for producing such a beautiful hardcover volume. I’ve always liked their deluxe editions but this is definitely one of my favorites as far as physical appearance goes. The art on the dust jacket is very inviting – colorful in a most soothing way, dynamic but gentle on the eyes.

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The design for the hardcover is the exact opposite, being black and white, but it is equally delightful. I like the clean white surface with the Bá’s illustration of Brás de Oliva Domingos, the book’s main character.

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I also like the black spine, accentuated by silver lettering, which gives the book its simple elegance.

Now, on to the story. Or, more accurately, stories. The book revolves around Brás who works as an obituary writer for a local newspaper. He dreams of someday publishing a book and following the footsteps of his father, who happens to be a world-renowned Brazilian writer. Sounds normal enough, right? Except each issue tells a different story from a different point in Brás’ life, and what makes it more interesting is that he dies at the end of each chapter. (Yes, you read that right.)

In one issue, Brás struggles with his job and his relationship with his father, and then he dies.

In another issue, Brás is a kid without a care in the world, and then he dies.

In another issue, Brás is a successful writer, recognized by everyone, and then he dies.

And each of his deaths happen at the most inconvenient, unexpected moment. You might find it weird, unappealing or even nonsensical, but taken as a whole, the book expounds on the fleeting nature of our existence, invites us to question the things we value, and ultimately dives head-first into the discussion on what living life really means. It is one of those rare works that can be considered a must-read for everyone – truly an emotionally-charged masterpiece.

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My favorite quote from the book: “There is no one way to live or to die. Will the choices you make to do the former affect how you’ll do the latter?”

Check out more from the creators on their blog: http://fabioandgabriel.blogspot.com/

The Mignola novels

If you’ve never picked up any of Mike Mignola’s works, you’re definitely missing out. Who is he, you ask? Well, you might have heard of his insanely successful comic book series Hellboy, which already has two big-screen adaptations and countless comic book spinoffs which continue to do extremely well in today’s market. Considering the fact that very few comic book titles even reach issue 100 these days, what he has done with Hellboy, and the world he has built around it, is beyond impressive.

Last weekend I finished reading one of his lesser-known works; an illustrated novel called Baltimore, or, the Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, which he co-wrote with Christopher Golden.

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The story revolves around three strangers who were summoned at a rundown tavern by our protagonist, Lord Henry Baltimore – a soldier who had a run-in with a vampire during an ill-fated campaign which forever changed him. As they await his arrival, the three acquaintances swap tales of their own encounters with evil and how each one came to know Baltimore.

Every chapter is in itself a short story and this makes the book very engaging. Mignola is a genius when it comes to horror/fantasy, borrowing from classical literature as well as folktales and mixing them with his own ideas, creating stories that are both familiar and new. In this novel, Mignola pays homage to classics including Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

And did I mention the book has pictures? Mignola’s art fits the genre so well. His simplistic illustrations and effective use of light and shadows complete the dark atmosphere of the book. Whether he’s drawing monsters, people, buildings or landscapes, his art never fails to enchant his work with his trademark eeriness.

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Baltimore is the first of three illustrated novels by Mignola which was released in 2007 and was later on continued as a comic book series. In 2012, he and Golden released two more illustrated novels: Joe Golem and the Drowning City and Father Gaetano’s Puppet Catechism. I read Joe Golem a few years back and it was one of the first few novels I read when I was starting to seriously get into books. While Baltimore drew inspiration from the classics, Joe Golem closely resembles Mignola’s Hellboy series, pitting a humanized golem against occult forces and a god-summoning cult leader.

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I have yet to get my hands on the third Mignola novel so for now I’ll be satisfied with the idea that there’s at least one good book that’s still out there waiting for me to snatch it up. Hopefully I’ll find it on one of those random days in a random bookstore at a time when I don’t expect to find anything good. (I love it when that happens.)

You may check out more of Mike Mignola’s art on his amazing website.