Book Review: Timeline by Michael Crichton

I first read this as a tattered library copy, almost ten years ago, when I was still in college.Even back then, I could see why the paperback was dog-eared and well thumbed through, its spine full of creases. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, but for many years, I was unable to find it in local bookstores since it’s not a new title, and reprints are harder to find. I was overjoyed when by chance, I found a copy at Book Xcess recently (I was going to the checkout counter and almost missed it).

Timeline is classic Crichton – clever, suspenseful and thrilling – and once you get going, it’s extremely hard to put down. If you love medieval European history and an action packed narrative involving people from the future being thrown into the past, then Timeline will keep you glued to its pages, and then some.

Synopsis 

A vacationing couple driving through the Arizona desert discover a wandering old man, who seems lost and incoherent. They bring him in to a local hospital, where it is discovered that he is an employee of a quantum tech company called ITC. However, he quickly succumbs to abnormalities in his blood vessels, and dies. On his body are detailed sketches of what look like floor plans for a monastery.

In southwest France, archaeology professor Edward Johnston heads a group of young archaeologists, studying the 14th-century towns of Castelgard and La Roque, under funding from the ITC. After an interview with a local reporter, the Professor, suspecting ITC of undermining their operations, travels to New Mexico to confront its CEO, Robert Doniger. During his absence, the professor’s students uncover disturbing artefacts in a sealed chamber at their excavation site – including a message from the professor supposedly written on a 600-year-old parchment, as well as his eyeglasses.

Four of the students – Andre, Chris, Kate and David – fly to ITC HQ to search for answers. There, they are informed that ITC has developed a quantum technology that allows for time travel, and that they need the group’s help to extricate the Professor, who is somehow stuck in the 14th century after travelling back there with a machine. 3 of them, Andre, Chris and Kate, return to the past with two guides, while David remains behind. Things quickly go awry once they arrive, with one of their guides being beheaded by a knight, and the other escaping back to the present, only for the grenade he pulled to detonate once he returned to ITC, destroying the laboratory. While the present day team scramble to repair the machines so the group will be able to come back home, Andre, Chris and Kate have less than 36 hours to find the professor before their batteries run out and they are trapped forever –  all while navigating a brutal time period where violence and power rule, and the slightest wrong move might mean death.

Verdict 

Like many of Crichton’s novels,Timeline is nicely paced and action packed; keeping the reader enthralled as to what comes next. Crichton’s novels usually follow a ‘formula’ – the stories typically start off by introducing a problem, or by highlighting that something has gone wrong. We see this in novels like Micro, which opens with people getting killed under mysterious circumstances (we later find out that they’re actually killer bots), and Jurassic Park, where an employee of InGen is brought with serious injuries from Lo Sa Raptor (we later find out = dinosaurs). Similarly, the lost and not-of-sound-mind employee the couple find in the desert sets the story up that not everything is going smoothly, and a shit storm is brewing.

Next, we’re introduced to the cast of characters. Like my favourite author Stephen King, Crichton’s protagonists often fall into a category, but instead of authors and writers (which King likes), they’re usually scientists and those in academia – but with athletic prowess (how else are they going to survive all the physical shit that’s going to be thrown at them?). I remember reading Micro and going ‘wow that’s convenient, that they’ve got all these characters that have just the right skill for a particular situation’. Timeline is no exception – but perhaps it is necessary to ensure that the characters have a higher fighting chance. (Imagine dropping me into the medieval era – the first thing I’d do is lose my glasses, and then stumble around blind, then get eviscerated by a noble. Probably).

There’s Andre, a researcher who is obsessed with the medieval era, and who (conveniently) knows how to joust, fight with a sword and a longbow, and speaks the local languages of the era. It seems he is made for medieval times – and jumps right into the fighting, with no hesitation of killing those who seek to harm them whatsoever. Kate, the architecture expert, is able to utilise her knowledge of the buildings to look for secret passages in the castle, helping the group to narrowly escape pursuit several times. She also has great reflexes and climbing prowess, enabling her to escape from dangerous situations. Chris, the comic relief, has the greatest character development, from a somewhat weak and whiny pretty boy to discovering a streak of bravery that lets him stay alive and also help his friends.

I really like how Timeline tries to make things seem more believable by incorporating aspects that most novelists would not think about. For example, I hate the fact that some books (and films) just drop their characters in the middle of another era and all the characters can speak the same language. Worse still, you have movies like Memoirs of a Geisha, where the actors are non-Japanese, and they all speak English in bad accents, lol. In Timeline, the predominant language used is Middle English, which is very different from the modern English we use today (reading the novel actually prompted me to go look up videos on Youtube), as well as languages like Occitan and Latin. To overcome this, the group have earpieces that automatically translate whatever is being said to modern English. But this doesn’t overcome the fact that some of the group are unable to speak in the language of that era, which proves to be a challenge when interacting with the medieval people they come across.

An interesting theme that is raised in the book is the accuracy of what is portrayed in history. What we know today of medieval times is largely based on what we have unearthed, in writing or records, but there is no sure way of capturing the way medieval people lived exactly, because so little of this history survived. Like the bones of dinosaurs, we’re able to guess as to how they probably looked like, but not how they behaved. Similarly, buildings and castles provide a very brief glimpse into medieval times, and we have certain records of things – but at the end of the day, where there is no concrete record, everything is mere speculation and subjectivity. The characters discover this when they time travel.

All in all, Timeline is a great science fiction-cum-action novel. If you love fast paced, action packed science fiction novels, and you like Michael Crichton’s works like Andromeda Strain, Micro, Jurassic Park and Sphere, Timeline provides a solid 8.5/10.

 

Book Review – The Lost World by Michael Crichton

Recently I reorganised my bookshelf (it took five hours wtf) and set aside some stuff I knew I wouldn’t be reading to be donated. These are mostly books I got from events, like How to Plan A Wedding, Tropical Spa Scrubs, etc. But when it came down to really giving away my fiction/non-fiction collection, I found myself reluctant. There are still many that I bought years ago but haven’t read, as well as old titles that I’d like to read again. I ended up picking up The Lost World by Michael Crichton  after seeing it at the bottom of a box. It’s still as good as ever.

To those who have never heard of Crichton, he was a genius at medical/science fiction. His best known work is perhaps Jurassic Park, which was turned into a critically acclaimed movie. This second novel, a sequel of sorts, was apparently written after fans and Steven Spielberg pressured Crichton into it, and it remains his only sequel (the rest of his novels are all stand alone). It kind of shows that his heart was not really in it, as it lacks the freshness and originality of the first novel, but it’s still a good read nonetheless, and an action-packed walk down memory lane for fans.

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Synopsis 

Six years after the disaster at Jurassic Park, rumours emerge of strange animal corpses washing up on the shores of Costa Rica. This attracts the attention of OCD rich boy narcissist and palaeontologist, Richard Levine. He convinces chaos theorist and mathematician Ian Malcolm, who survived the events of the last novel, to search for a ‘lost world’ of dinosaurs. They eventually learn of Site B on Isla Sorna, where the now-bankrupt InGen produced and raised dinos for their Jurassic Theme Park on Isla Nublar, where the events of the original novel took place.

Afraid that the Costa Rica government would destroy the dinosaurs, Levine hastily goes on an expedition to the island with a local guide, but goes missing. Malcolm goes to save him with a ‘rescue team’, consisting of retired engineer and university professor Jack Thorne and his assistant Eddie Carr, as well as two stowaway children Arby and Kelly, who were working as Levine’s research assistants for a school project. They also call animal behaviourist Sarah Harding, Malcolm’s former lover, but she was unable to catch the flight.

Hot on their heels is ruthless geneticist Lewis Dodgson and his group, from a rival corporation called Biosyn. Dodgson plans to steal eggs from Isla Sorna, but they bump into Harding while attempting to leave for the island. Initially friendly, Dodgson pushes her off the boat as they approach the island during a storm, but she survives.

Meanwhile, Malcolm and co have located Levine and they make observations on dino behaviour from a high hide. They also find Harding. They soon learn that Dodgson’s group arrived on the island and watch in horror as the group is attacked after attempting to steal Tyrannosaurus eggs. In the process, Dodgson injures a baby T-Rex. The soft hearted Eddie brings it back to base, where Malcolm and Harding grudgingly try to save its broken leg. Things quickly go downhill from there. T-rex parents are mighty mad and attack the trailer in search of their infant, velociraptors attack the high hide, and the group huddles in the old worker’s facility while awaiting rescue via helicopter.

Is there hope for escape?

Verdict 

The Lost World is a clear rehash of the first novel, down to the two young kids in the group (just like Lex and Tim), Ian Malcolm’s snarky commentary, and the narrative which starts off orderly before everything descends into chaos. In a sense, the storyline is rather predictable.

But that doesn’t mean the book isn’t worth a read! You have to give it to Crichton for his mastery in blending abstract, often complex subjects with real-life, everyday situations – which was what made Jurassic Park so appealing in the first place. The pace is action packed, with just enough to keep readers anticipating what comes next. While it definitely won’t live up to the brilliance of the first, I’d say that if Jurassic Park is a high-end steak at a fine dining resto, then The Lost World is a good ol’ fashioned one from your favourite local joint. Still satisfying.

*Just a note, the movie version is nothing like the book version. There isn’t a scene where the T-rex terrorizes the town.

Score: 7.5/10

Book Review: World War Z – An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Ah, film adaptations from novels. Sometimes I’m guilty of watching them before buying the books. Case in point: Lord of the Rings (which turned out to be my favourite book series of all time), the Shawshank Redemption and The Hunger Games. World War Z is another such example. After seeing Brad Pitt in action – escaping zombies in downtown New York, cutting an Israeli soldier’s hand off to prevent infection, dodging Zs on a plane – it was hard to resist grabbing a copy when I saw it on sale at a bookstore. The official title is World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, but I guess that would be a mouthful for movie audiences, hence the shortened version lol.

Note: There is little to nothing in common between the book and the film, other than the fact that they’re both about a zombie apocalypse.

Fun fact: The original script that got greenlighted for production was closer to the novel, but they scrapped it in favour of a more action-oriented one.

Synopsis:

The story is told through a series of interviews by the narrator, who is not named – but we know that he is an agent of the United Nations Postwar Commission and that the war with zombies is already over. The timeline traces back to Patient Zero in China, where the outbreak is said to have originated. The Chinese government begins to take measures to cover up the disease, but it still manages to spread through human trafficking, refugees and the black market organ trade – until a large scale outbreak in South Africa brings the plague to public attention.

The story then chronicles how different countries/organizations handle the crisis as they struggle not just to to contain and combat the infection, but also desperate human beings reacting to desperate times. Israel, for example, closes down its borders, but has to deal with an ultra-Orthodox uprising which leads to a civil war. Driven by opportunistic greed, some companies begin marketing placebo vaccines – with the government happily lying to the people in order to create some sense of national stability.

A period called the ‘Great Panic’ ensues, in which Pakistan and Iran destroy each other in a nuclear war, and zombies overrun New York City. The US military takes a stand at the Battle of Yonkers, but suffers a devastating defeat after realizing that their modern weapons and tactics are ineffective against zombies. Mankind was on the brink of destruction.

Finally, in South Africa, the government adopts the Redeker Plan, which establishes small sanctuaries of people with a high chance of surviving, whilst leaving the remaining groups of survivors abandoned in special zones to distract the undead. Horrible as it sounds, the plan works and other governments start implementing the same policy.

It’s not only the governments that are interviewed, as the narrator speaks to everyday people to get an insight into how life was like for them during the War. Readers are introduced to a young girl who fled with her family to the cold wastes of the US’s North(since zombies freeze in the cold) and when the food ran out, people resorted to cannibalism… including her own parents.

Three astronauts left on the International Space Station during the War describe how they observed mega swarms of zombies on the American Great Plains and Central Asia, and how it affected the Earth’s atmosphere, while a renegade Chinese submarine abandons the country and

The story shifts to how mankind slowly rebuilds some semblance of civilization. Rationing, reorganization and food cultivation become the new main pillars of society, as people with practical skills such as carpentry and construction are prized over pre-war, desk-bound jobs. Governments are also slowly taking back infected areas, as they are now better equipped, having learnt from previous fights on how to deal with zombies. Basic but effective weapons and trained dogs are just among some of their arsenal, but the story also describes how they had to deal with armed groups of rebels and hostile survivors.

The political landscape of countries have changed. Cuba becomes the world’s most thriving economy, China is now a democracy, Russia turns back to religious theocracy, and Palestine and Israel are finally at peace. While the threat is far from over, as millions of zombies are still active around the planet including in the depths of the ocean, the book ends on a hopeful note that slowly but surely, the world starts over from where it began.

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Verdict

I haven’t come across many novels that tell the story ‘backwards’ – that’s to say, you already know what has happened and the rest of the book just recounts events leading up to that conclusion (or in this case, the introduction). The only other one I know of is The Lovely Bones, which, although a favourite of many, did not make my ‘good book’ list.

With WWZ, however, this format makes for a very refreshing read. “How exciting can it be? Stuff has already happened, it’s more like a summary,” you might say, but I beg to differ. Brooks is a master of his craft: the story is objective and reads like a report, but injected with enough suspense and human elements to leave readers wondering what happens ‘next’. He also divides it into short sections (just like how you’d read a magazine/newspaper interview) and this technique keeps the reader spellbound and interested, as opposed to one long, draggy narrative.

Some of the recurring themes are that of survival and humanity. The undead is a constant threat, but ultimately, the heart of the novel lies in the interactions and decisions made by human beings in their fight to survive. There are shining examples of bravery, compassion and kindness, and equally horrific examples of callousness, ignorance, cruelty, and the dark side of human nature.

Brooks throws many uncomfortable moral scenarios which forces the readers to question themselves on what they would do in a character’s’ shoes.

Take, for example, the girl who escaped to the cold reaches of North America with her parents, where she witnesses a cheerful, helpful community turn on each other when food runs out. When the character falls sick and there is no food, she is delighted to be served hot meat broth – only to find out later that her parents had traded something of value for human meat, so that she wouldn’t die.

The Redeker plan, implemented by the S/A government, puts those with a high chance of survival above those with a slimmer chance, using the latter as zombie cannon fodder. In an ideal world, everyone can be saved, but Brooks forces the reader to consider what we would do to ensure our survival as a species.

The frightening thing about WWZ? It reads as ‘fiction’, but the scenarios it presents are very real. Not in the sense that the dead are rising up anytime soon, but our responses to threats – both on a larger scale as well as a personal one. It is a well written commentary on social and political issues, class, race, the psyche, and our instinct to survive no matter the cost. While most zombie apocalypse novels will have you on the edge of your seat wondering what happens to the protagonist, World War Z will keep you up well into the night, reflecting on our humanity. And that, to me, is the mark of a great novel.
Rating: 10/10

Book Review – Under the Dome by Stephen King

At a whopping 1100+ pages, Under the Dome by Stephen King is gargantuan.  It’s so lengthy they even divided it into Parts I and II.

I finished it within a week. It has been a long time since I read anything that fast – mainly coz with so many things to do these days, I get easily distracted. That’s the thing about King novels though: it’s hard to put down once you pick them up, coz you’re constantly wondering and anticipating what comes next.

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Synopsis: 

A mysterious barrier/dome has descended upon a small Maine town called Chester’s Mill, trapping its inhabitants within.

Things get chaotic. The town’s chief of police, Duke Perkins, approaches the dome, causing his pacemaker to explode. With his death, most of the power goes to Second Selectman ‘Big’ Jim Rennie, an egomaniac who, unbeknownst to many townspeople, runs a drug lab in the outskirts of town. He proceeds to sow fear in order to keep his hold on the town and hide his secrets, using any means necessary…even murder.

He orchestrates a food riot which he uses as an excuse to double the new police force, a dangerously trigger-happy group of his son’s Junior’s friends. He murders the local reverend who was in the drug operation and was on the verge of spilling the beans, as well as Perkins’ wife who had found evidence that her husband was investigating Rennie. To make matters worse, we discover that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree as Junior  himself has murdered two friends in a fit of rage… and that he’s also suffering from a brain tumour that causes violent behaviour.

Trapped along with everyone else is former army lieutenant turned short order cook, Barbara ‘Barbie’. Because the army plans to establish him as their inside man, Rennie frames Barbie for the murders and throws him into jail. He makes Barbie into a ‘boogeyman’, blaming him not just for the murders but for everything else – the drug lab, the food riot, etc, further sowing fear among the population so that they are too scared to think straight. Looting, shootings and chaos ensues.

A small group of people are not buying Rennie’s lies, and are trying to expose him and break Barbie out of jail before Rennie can conduct a public execution. They include the town’s physician assistant and his wife, Rusty and Linda, the local journalist Julia, kids Joe, Benny and Norrie (there are always kids in King’s novels: the kind that are smart, resourceful and often overlooked by the adults to their advantage), Reverend Piper Libby and grocery store owner Ed Calvert.

Time is running out, and the survivors struggle in a race against time to figure out the cause behind the dome before supplies run out, and stop Big Jim Rennie from destroying what’s left of town… and them.

Verdict: 

Under The Dome is not King’s best novel, but I think readers are willing to overlook that, simply because it’s King. It has his signature heart-pumping, fast-paced action that gets the reader on the edge of their seat.

While it’s a standard apocalpyse story formula, King has done well by focusing on the human relationships in the story, their behaviour, and how far people will go in order to survive.

There are many characters in the novel. While some are developed well, some seem to have fallen short of fleshing out before they die. Andrea Grinnel, the Third Selectman, for instance. She was a very promising character – being next in line behind Jim Rennie, Grinnel was a drug addict due to a back injury, but had risen from her depression and gotten her hands on documents incriminating Rennie which she planned to expose during the townhall meeting. But alas, before she could  do anything, she was killed, and had not even passed the documents to anyone – thus destroying the evidence forever and allowing Rennie to lead the rest of Chester’s Mill to their doom.

Big Jim Rennie is one of the most unpleasant villains I’ve ever come across – simply because I recognize such characters in the working world and I can imagine how easy it is for people to turn that way in an extreme situation.

There are, however, major plot holes which I didn’t really fancy. How the dome came about, for instance –  and the survivors’ last pitch effort to disable it. It just didn’t seem believable, despite this being a sci-fi/thriller novel where everything is possible.

Overall, Under the Dome is a moderately good Stephen King read, with just the right amount of action and story to keep you turning the pages.

Score: 6.5/10 

 

 

 

Book/Movie Review – The Maze Runner

A lot of films these days come from book adaptations – meaning that the book probably had a wide fan base before they decided to make it for the silver screen. Although I love books, I’m not ‘hip’ when it comes to choosing titles: which means that I probably read the ‘hot’ ones wayyyy after they have been published and the hype has died down.

In fact, I actually watched the movies before I read the books (like Lord of The Rings and Hunger Games). So The Maze Runner, the latest sci-fi/dystopian young adult movie, was no exception.

THE MAZE RUNNER TM and © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.  Not for sale or duplication.

I liked the movie because it had cute guys (felt like such a pedo until I found out later that the actors in them, who portray teenagers, are all around my age in real life. whew) AND a good story plot. The pace of the storytelling is just right and many of the characters are likable (even Gally, whose douchey-ness is understandable in the context that he just wanted to protect his own people and is suspicious of changes – quite different from the Gally in the novel who is just pure douche).

So while out browsing for my weekly book hoarding, I saw The Maze Runner series (there are four books) and decided to get it.9781910002117_2_Z

THE MAZE RUNNER

Author: James Dashner

Synopsis:

Thomas wakes up in a steel box filled with supplies, with no memories of who he is, where he’s at or how he got there. Being rudely jolted awake by a bunch of teenage boys hovering over him doesn’t exactly help – and no one seems to want to tell him anything. All he finds out is that he’s in a field called The Glade, and that everyone is stuck within it’s walls by a gigantic maze that shifts and changes. To make matters worse, the Maze is filled with Monsters called Grievers – huge sickening machine-beast hybrids that would either kill you or sting you with stuff that drives you nuts.

Not long after, the box which he came in from sends another ‘Greenie’ (slang for newbie at The Glade) – but this time, it’s a girl – the only girl ever sent all the years they have been there. She clutches a foreboding note, tells them that she’s the ‘Trigger’ and seems to have telepathic powers with Thomas – meaning they can talk to each other inside their heads. Before the bunch can really figure out what everything means, the maze mechanics changes – new sections open up, and they are attacked by Grievers. Now they must find a way to solve the mystery before all of them die inside, never knowing what is out there.

Verdict:

I admit that I had high hopes for the book, since the movie was quite enjoyable.Fans have compared the series to Divergent and The Hunger Games (which I love), so I was expecting some major kazam and nights staying up late reading.

I’m sad to say that Book 1 of The Maze Runner series was a disappointment for me.

Dashner loves using adjectives and verbs to the point of overkill. The formula of his writing style seems to be ‘dialogue’ followed by ‘description of feelings’. This means that after every single dialogue, the characters are feeling something or doing something. After a bit, it gets really, REALLY annoying. In the first few chapters of the book, nothing is explained, with Dashner preferring to confuse the readers as much as Thomas himself. Some critics have said that it was intentional, but for myself, I didn’t quite like it. Thomas in the book also seemed like one moody mofo, swinging from relief to panic to anger within a few sentences.

I also felt that Dashner wasn’t consistent with his characters ‘attributes’. For example, Minho, one of the Runners (people who explore the Maze), was extremely depressing and gave up as soon as he could when they were stuck in there overnight – Thomas, ever the hero, was the one giving encouragement. Fast forward a few chapters and the same Minho was suddenly giving prep talks on persevering, while Thomas was the one being sullen.

Although I understand that people can react differently in different situations, the change that Dashner uses is not smooth enough, making the characters seem like a bunch of bipolar teenagers.

Storywise, the movie did some tweaks – which were actually pretty  good. The same can’t be said of the novel – some parts seem clunky and dragged out, and were unnecessary to the plot.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t have redeeming points. After about 200 pages in, the book starts picking up the pace, and it does have it’s fair share of suspenseful moments.

All in all, I wished The Maze Runner Book 1 could have been a better reading experience. However, I think to compare it to The Hunger Games is a little… uhm, inaccurate. Oh well, to each their own.

Rating – 5/10

Read it for the: Interesting premise. I mean, how many books with people stuck in mazes do you get out there?

Movie rating – 7/10

Watch it for the: Hot gaiz. There is so much eye candy. Especially Dylan O Brien as Thomas, Thomas Sangster as Newt and Ki-Hong Lee as Minho.

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….Omg so hot.

Welp.. if you’re a guy… there’s always Teresa.

Nah, also watch it for the: action, character development (much better in the movie than the book, which is saying something coz the book is like 300+ pages long and the movie is only less than 2 hours), good acting chops and Gally (Eustace from Narnia all grown up!)