Cloud Atlas: Six stories in search of Ovaltine

A book review:

Spoiler Alert

If you plan on reading the book or if you plan on seeing the movie, this Cloud Atlas review may rain on your plan.

Book cover for "Cloud Atlas"

“Cloud Atlas” book coverThe movie, Cloud Atlas is due to be in theaters on October 26, and the trailer looked very interesting, so I decided to read the book and compare it with the movie. The novel, Cloud Atlas, is the third book by British author, David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas has won awards, including the British Book and the Nebula. Cloud Atlas is a collection of six related stories, described as a puzzle or a set of Russian nesting dolls. I think paper dolls would be closer.

Each of the six stories takes place in a different time and setting. Mitchell writes all but one in first person and that is where the similarity ends. Each story is written in a different style. Mitchell’s command of the narrative style of the 19th century, his inventiveness in terms of language, and detailed settings of the future worlds in stories five and six are impressive. Five stories are in two parts. Story six, in one piece. is in the middle of the novel and it follows the five half stories. After story six, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” Mitchell completes the other five in reverse order, with story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” resuming after six until he ends the novel by completing story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is written ala Herman Melville (the story takes place around 1850) by a thirty something American notary, Adam Ewing. We are introduced to Ewing as he waits on a South Pacific island. There’s been a shipwreck and along with Ewing, we meet his companion, Dr. Goose, an eccentric English physician. Following this story was tough sledding. Ewing learns about the victimized peace-loving Morioiris, enslaved by the Maoris (part of the evil “White Man” plan). All of this is revealed as Ewing witnesses a Moriori being flogged. When exploring the island, Ewing discovers thousands of carvings of faces. Frightened, he scrambles to safety and encounters a beating heart hanging from a tree. He speculates on what kind (hog, human?) but never solves the mystery. As his sea voyage continues via a Dutch ship, Ewing rescues a stowaway, Autua–the Moriori he saw being beaten. The mid sentence ending thing was annoying.

Story two, “Letters From Zedelghem” takes place in 1931 Europe, beginning in England then moving to Belgium. A young English musician/composer, Robert Frobisher, writes his best friend and lover, Sixsmith, telling him of his plans to travel to Belgium and exploit Ayrs, a famous composer who hasn’t written anything since contracting syphilis. Frobisher is something of a snot and the black sheep of his family. Leaving a trail of bad debts, he asks Sixsmith to send him money. Frobisher means to convince Ayrs that he, Robert, will help him to continue his work. Rather than Frobisher exploiting Ayrs, crafty old Ayrs takes credit for Frobisher’s new compositions. There’s no sympathy for Robert. He’s a narcissist and a schemer. Out of the blue, not related to anything else in the story, Robert finds the first half of Ewing’s journal. Also, we learn that Robert has a crescent shaped birthmark on his shoulder. We’re left hanging, the story unfinished. There isn’t been one character in either story whom I’ve found interesting, nor have I cared.

Story three, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” has two ties to story two (“Letters …”) and one to story one. Three is the only one of the six written in third person. It’s the 1970″s and we know this because Disco music plays. Luisa Rey, a journalist in her 30’s gets stuck in an elevator with Sixsmith, a sixty-something scientist and Frobisher’s friend from story two. Although they are strangers, Luisa and Sixsmith spend over an hour together feeling very comfortable talking. Luisa has a birthmark on her shoulder, just like Frobisher’s. Sixsmith has written a report, blowing the whistle on plans for a dangerous new energy plant–an atomic energy plant like Three Mile Island. And so the killing begins. First, Sixsmith, and you know Luisa’s on that list. Luisa is the daughter of a cop, a dead hero. There’s a hit-man named Smoke after her, and we leave the story as her car is plunging off a bridge and into some deep water. I found story three to be the weakest. The plot would have been at home on any Hawaii Five-O, Columbo, or Rockford Files episode. The characters were paper thin and totally forgettable.

Story four, “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” begins with a murder. A reviewer who panned a book is thrown off a balcony by the author. Oops, better be careful. Timothy Cavendish, the book’s publisher, is in his late sixties. When the book starts making money, Cavendish joyfully pays off debts until the imprisoned author’s thuggish brothers threaten him, demanding 60,000 pounds. Before he flees, Cavendish receives a submission: Half Lives, The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Cavendish begs his own estranged brother (Cavendish slept with his wife) for help and when the story breaks, Cavendish, courtesy of his sneaky brother, is trapped in an old folks’ home with a Nurse Ratched running things. This story was marginally more interesting because of Cavendish’s chaotic nightmarish journey, randy reminisces of past romances and Mitchell’s use of a florid narrative style. Mitchell showcases literary flourishes while the character declares: “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980’s with M.A.s in post-modernism and chaos theory.” Style-wise, the story goes from being The Lavender Hill Mob to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Alec Guinness as McMurphy.

Story five, “An Orison of Somni-451” is a dystopic science fiction piece set in Korea. Corporations run what’s left of a polluted world. The narrative is a dialogue between Somni-451, a rebel “fabricant” and the “Archivist.” Somni began her life as a customized clone, working for “Papa Song” a fast food franchise where fabricants serve twelve years, and then are rewarded with a glorious retirement in “Hawaii.” Tinkering with her programming results in a wiser, more informed Somni, who becomes a pawn of the “Union,” the rebel entity trying to upend the Establishment. Most of the story involves her on the run to rebel headquarters, where she will become a figurehead and mentor to facilitate a fabricant uprising. Along the way, Somni encounters a statue of Buddha and we encounter the first “author’s message,” when a nun explains the meaning of the symbol. Whenever I see an overt message in fiction I always think of Woody Allen’s movie, Bananas, or maybe it was Take the Money and Run, (I’m not sure but I do remember the joke ) where during dialogue the words “author’s message” keep flashing. This was the first story I actually enjoyed, but I noticed elements of other sci fi. The layered corruption and Asian setting evokes Philip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Somni’s reflection on the Union’s true purpose brings to mind O’Brien’s speech in 1984. And what really happens aboard that fabricant ship bound for Hawaii? Think Charleton Heston screaming, “It’s people!” Before her execution, Somni asks to finish seeing a movie, The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a connection imposed on the story, rather than an outgrowth of plot or character development. Why does Somni want to spend the remaining minutes of her life seeing a movie? Somni has a crescent shaped birthmark on her shoulder.

After story six, Mitchell completes the rest of the stories, starting with five. As I said, I did enjoy Somni’s story and I got a kick out of the wild prison break in the Cavendish story. The only intriguing part of Luisa Rey was her recognition of Frobisher’s music, a device I believe could have been used in the other stories effectively and also, Luisa’s hesitating when she passes The Prophetess, the ship in “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.” Frobisher’s suicide in story two made me shrug because he was so unlikeable. I read part two of story one, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” with the expectation that Mitchell would lock in a piece that would unite all the stories into one, universal narrative. I couldn’t find it. I read again, assuming I didn’t read it carefully enough.

The last two pages were pure “author’s message” and I was reminded of another movie, A Christmas Story. It’s 1939’s Middle-America and Christmas time. Ralphie, a nine-year old boy, schemes for a b-bee-gun to be under the tree. Ralphie is also a fan of Little Orphan Annie, and he has sent in all the boxtops to get a decoder ring. When it finally arrives in the mail, he eagerly listens to the radio show for Annie’s secret message, only accessible to those in the inner circle of decoder ring-bearers. Then, he locks himself in the bathroom, ignoring the wails of his younger brother who has “to go.” As he huddles in the bathroom, defiant and decoding, the secret message Ralphie discovers is “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.” Disgusted, Ralphie feels Little Orphan Annie has played him. When I read the rest of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,”I knew just how Ralphie felt.

A Door is a Door is a Door

PURITY: A Review


Purity CoverI finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, weeks ago. I didn’t hate it, but found it mostly forgettable. No character resonated; no conflict compelled me to keep reading. The only other work of Franzen’s I’ve read was The Corrections. That was several years ago, but I remember how I felt as the family disconnect played out. I could see the basement with its chair and the urine filled coffee cans. I remember how Alfred’s rejection of his wife and children fueled the dysfunction. Despite the problems generated by choices made by the three grown children, the book wasn’t about them; it was a portrait of a family and the misery of each member. In my opinion, Alfred was the root of the family’s disconnect, his role made overt by the onset of his dementia. I understood the way each family member defined his or her self and though disconnected, they were still a family.

Despite Purity’s lengthy back-stories, it never rang true. Pip, the main character, reminded me of one of my college roommates—the one with the freckled toes. Roomie never raised her voice, seemed very meek and accommodating but got an A in Passive-Aggression 101. She had a cow (didn’t appreciate) when I used a sprinkle of her nutmeg on my French toast. Henceforth, the nutmeg was hidden. Probably where the moon don’t show.

Purity is entertaining and witty. It captures the way the Internet has changed the world and Franzen’s take on millennials rings true. Pip’s search for identity and the identity of the one she hopes will sponsor her ambitions does recall Dickens’ Pip. But for all the plot twists, witty observations and improbable coincidences, in Great Expectations, Dickens invested his Pip with something more—a reflection on what it means to be human.

The vagueness of her origins (Pip’s mother won’t tell her who her father is, not even her real last name) has given Pip identity issues. Didn’t we all have them at that age? Like the spinster Miss Havisham, Pip’s mother, Anabel is a real head case, as are all the mothers in this book, which makes me wonder about Jonathan’s Franzen’s issues. Anabel is a feminist to the nth degree of the nth degrees. Ex.– Anabel’s long ago student film project entailed filming every square inch of her body and she suffered nervous exhaustion by contemplating each little piece. That’s one way to find yourself. In addition, Pip has massive college debt and Mom is dirt poor. Or is she?

Problem solver that she is, Pip decides to look for her dad. Or maybe “a” dad. She tries to seduce an older man, a fellow squatter in the house of questionable ownership where she resides. The move doesn’t go well and Pip is humiliated. When a houseguest urges Pip to take an aptitude test that will determine if she has what it takes to join an elite organization, lo and behold, Pip is the perfect candidate! This results in her agreeing to join an all girl cult down in Bolivia. In reality, it’s an all girl “expose the truth by hacking” group lead by a Julian Assange type, Andreas. While waffling over her decision, Pip begins an email exchange with Andreas. Andreas is charmed and amused when Pip releases her inner snark. You wonder why he bothers. Andreas has his reasons. Recruiting Pip was no accident.

The novel then divides into the stories of Pip, Andreas and two other characters, Tom and Leila. Tom and Leila are fifty-something investigative journalists who produce an online newspaper. They live together.

We learn that Andreas, born in 1950’s East Germany, was the precocious son of a Stasi (secret police) bigwig. His seductive, intellectual mother had fits that immobilized her. At twelve, little Andreas began to act out (excessive masturbation, drawing pictures of naked women and general weirdness). Not only did his mother get on his nerves, he was dealt another blow when a homeless man informed him that he, not the Stasi guy, is his father. That did it. While attending college he began writing politically incorrect poetry, not a wise choice in Communist East Germany. To escape prison, he hid in a church where he became a youth counselor. He “helped” young girls by seducing them. What a prince.

When he fell in love with the wrong girl, he protected her by killing her abusive stepfather. Guilt and the fear of getting caught continue to press on him. His angst reminded me of the Japanese girl ghost perched with her arms wrapped around the neck of her murderer at the end of the movie SHUTTER. He never shakes it. When the East Germany Communist Party collapses, Andreas frantically searches Stasi headquarters for his file. The nightmarish search recalled 1984 and the feared Ministry of Truth. Before he can be arrested the Berlin Wall comes down. Andreas seizes the moment and his talent for bullshit helps him become a media star when he announces a new world order. Soon after, he meets Tom, an American student who is researching his German roots. When Tom describes his wife Anabel and his unresolved feelings for her, Andreas unburdens himself to Tom and persuades him into helping him rebury the murder victim (the stepfather). This leads to a lifelong fear that someday, Tom is going to rat on him.


Through facial recognition software, Andreas finds Anabel and discovers that she has a daughter. One more thing: Anabel is an heiress who rejected her family and the billions she inherited. After determining that Tom is Pip’s father, Andreas sends Pip to spy on Tom. One thing leads to another and Pip ends up living with Tom and Leila. Tom wasn’t aware that he had a child. Anabel, as a parting gift, tricked him into fatherhood before disappearing for good. Struck by her resemblance to Anabel, Tom realizes that Pip is his daughter. Pip is unaware that Tom is her father. Tom doesn’t enlighten her. When Leila an accomplished journalist and self-assured feminist, misinterprets what’s going on, Tom tells Leila the truth but keeps Pip in the dark.

So—where was I? Tom is a dedicated newsman. His story details his fatherless upbringing by a neurotic mother who suffered lifelong stomach problems. The saving influence was the care of his normal half-sisters. His relationship with Anabel was a nightmare of narcissism masquerading as extreme feminism. Anabel’s libido was governed by the Moon and her mood swings were right out of Mommy Dearest.

When Pip meets them, Leila and Tom are a content middle-aged couple. After taking Pip under her wing, Leila invites Pip to live with them. Leila is still married to another man, Charles, a paraplegic. Charles is a one hit wonder novelist struggling to produce another masterpiece. Embittered and sarcastic Charles riffs on the competition—all the literary “Jonathans.” I’m sure Franzen meant to be self-deprecating but what I heard was “It’s tough to be me.”

When it seems that Pip and Tom are getting along too well, and before Tom explains who Pip is to him, Leila panics, remembering how years before she had taken Charles away from his first wife. Pip tells them Andreas sent her to spy and returns to Andreas whom she torments sexually, channeling her inner Estella by running hot and cold, never giving up the goods. She plays with him like a kitten batting a squeaky toy.

Andreas’ guilt results in an “other self” he calls “Monster.” Monster would like to hurt people. Out of spite for Tom’s and Pip’s rejection, Andreas reveals the truth to Pip. When he learns of Andreas’ role in Pip’s deception, Tom, who has repeatedly rejected Andreas’ offers of friendship, decides to confront him and accepts an invitation to visit the compound. Trying to provoke Tom into attacking him, Andreas taunts him with detailed descriptions of his sexual encounters with Pip. Tom doesn’t take the bait so Andreas invites him to take a walk. Andreas stands on the edge of a cliff, but for Tom, the view’s fine from several feet away. All revved up and no one to kill, Andreas/Monster jumps to his death.

Now that Pip knows who she is and how much money her mother has, the fog of indecision lifts and she sets to tidying up her life. Visiting the man in charge of her mother’s trust, she persuades him to buy the house her squatter friend is in danger of losing by promising to tell him her mother’s address. She convinces her mother to sign off on it and to acknowledge Pip’s identity as an heir. Anabel is childlike. Pip becomes the mother. Rejecting the lifestyle of the rich, Pip becomes a well-adjusted barista and starts a relationship with a boy she had once rejected. It’s a Victorian ending until Pip talks her mother and father into meeting. All goes well at first. Later, Pip listens while her parents scream at each other. Finally, something I believe.

As I mentioned earlier, this novel lacks a true humanity. In Great Expectations the character of Pip remains one of my favorite Dickens people. When he discovers that his benefactor is not the crazy but respectable Miss Havisham, but the old convict who swore he would never forget Pip’s kindness, I could relate as Pip struggled with letting go of the fantasy and honoring the truth. In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens wonders at all the doors in Paris. Each door hides a story. Different in detail, coincidence and outcome, each story is the same. We all struggle to find an identity while realizing that we’re just another story behind another door.

Purity is a story about a girl’s search for identity. She finds a name, nothing more.

Soul Food for the Average Reader



Slade House imageI have read three novels written by David Mitchell, including Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks and Slade House. A while back, I posted a review of Cloud Atlas, expressing my frustration with the novel’s lack of cohesiveness. What really connected these different stories and characters? The implication was that these characters in six different stories were the same souls. Many of the souls we engage in one life, we engage in the next. Mitchell ties them together with chance discoveries and birthmarks.

Despite a hasty explanation in the last few pages, the Cloud Atlas was all sizzle and very little bacon.

The Bone Clocks, his 2014 novel, showcases Mitchell’s prose. It is dazzling shorthand, a clever first person narrative that lets you know right away who these characters are and what’s important to them, but nothing goes deeper and for me, they’re all rather flat. The Bone Clocks begins in the 1980’s and ends in the 2040’s with the last of humanity struggling to survive on a polluted Earth. A runaway teen, Holly Sykes, connects several stories. She’s a bystander in the war between the Horologists and Anchorites. Horologists are immortal beings who share the minds and memories of human hosts. Horologists often choose to enter the mind of a dying newborn and they become that child until it’s time for the next host. Any human who is capable of consent must agree to be a host. Anchorites are humans who practice dark magic in order to continue to exist. Though, like Horologists they can share space and thoughts within another human, they choose to end human lives to extend their own physical existence. As the novel continues, Holly transitions from bratty teen to mother, then to widow. The last segment shows Holly at the end of her life living on an island, struggling to protect her family from the brute forces that arise when our sick planet can no long sustain life as we know it.

So why am I reviewing Slade House instead of The Bone Clocks?

I think that Slade House was written for readers like me, rather than for critics and academics. Yes, I know there are plenty of readers who adore Mitchell’s work. I enjoyed reading The Bone Clocks. His prose keeps you skipping along, but despite the supernatural battles, there’s little in the way of conflict resolution that builds satisfactorily. The most invested I became was when Holly’s daughter was missing, only to turn up after a frantic search. Like my response to reading Cloud Atlas, I found it difficult to care; nothing in The Bone Clocks touched me. In order to refresh my memory (sorry, much of that brilliant prose was utterly forgettable) I read several reviews and a synopsis.

One distraction common to both novels was the way Mitchell caters to the publishing world with characters like Cavendish (Cloud Atlas) and Hershey (Bone Clocks).

I found the insiders’ quips and snide observations about writers and writing annoying. In a review of The Bone Clocks (THE STAR online, 9/28/14) Priya Kulasgarian writes of the “caustic rendition of the literary scene” and how “high minded” readers would find this “self-indulgent . . . if you’re a little lowbrow like me . . . Crispin’s acidic cynicism is a delight to read.”

Then why did I hate these insider meta-jokes—this ripping away of the “fourth wall?

Maybe my brow is lower than Kulasgarian’s. After reading a number of sophisticated reviews of Mitchell’s work, I am confident in saying my brow is not higher.

I did learn of Mitchell’s plan to connect all of his novels into one humungous work of fiction, with characters from one title popping up, however briefly, in subsequent books.

I haven’t read all of his books. I’m positive that readers who have read them all are big fans. What matters to me is a story well told with characters that resonate and a story that I can remember longer than a day. Nifty prose, innovative structure and grand design are entertaining but beside the point unless I care what happens and why.

In Slade House, Mitchell gives us a short novel (239 pages—The Bone Clocks is 624 pages) with a simple structure of five first person accounts of characters falling victim to a pair of supernatural predators, the Grayer twins. Born in 1899 England, the Grayer twins, Jonah and Norah, are telepathic and determined to live forever, a goal that becomes reachable when they learn the arts of the “Shaded Way.” As in The Bone Clocks, the Shaded Way involves Horologists (see this post’s second paragraph) and Anchorites.

The twins are antisocial Anchorites. Since Horologists tend to dispose of any soul-sucking Anchorites they encounter, Jonah and Norah hide out in Slade House.  Built in the 1930’s for the purpose of luring and trapping victims, Slade House is a place tucked in a secluded London alley. Though the house was destroyed when German bombs took it out in WWll, time stopped in the 1930’s when the twins created an “orison,” a place outside of time and space. They want their physical selves preserved. To do that requires lots of tricks and the right kind of nourishment. They must eat a soul every nine years. Not just any soul—it’s got to be the soul of an “Engifted” (psychic) human. And so with their bodies stashed in the orison attic, they go grocery shopping every nine years by commandeering the bodies of various humans. Out of a mist, like Brigadoon, Slade House appears. Through various maneuvers, the intended victim enters the “lacuna” (the space where Slade House used to be and the site of their power). A variety of illusions take place until the victim eats or drinks the “banjax,” something that loosens the soul from the body. Then dinner is served.

The twins are a nasty pair, making unkind jokes about their victims. Each victim becomes the first person narrator of his or her demise.

In 1979 it’s awkward and peculiar eleven-year old Nathan, a Valium user and reluctant escort to his mother, a social climber. Next is the 1989 victim Detective Edmonds who looks for clues on what happened to Nathan. The seductive widow he encounters is really Norah, and when he climbs the stairs, portraits of prior victims line the walls. He recognizes Nathan and hears the boy whisper that he should look for things in the cracks, things that might be used to beat them. “Too late for you,” the boy tells him, “but pass it on to the next (victim).” The passage where Edmonds describes seeing his soul has stayed with me: “It’s almost see-through. Like gel, or egg white, and filled with shiny grains of dust, or galaxies, or… God it’s beautiful. Jesus, it shimmers. It’s alive, it’s mine . . .”

In 1998, the victim is Sally, a college student with a weight problem, a beautiful, supportive but distant sister (Freya) and a romantic nature. Sally is a member of a paranormal investigations group. Sally is also “Engifted,” a fact that brings her and the group to Slade House. Soon, Jonah and Norah dispatch all of the group but Sally and then impersonate the others while playing cat and mouse games, a way to “season” the soul for good eating with “a sprinkle of last minute despair.” As poor Sally tries to figure out what’s going on, she encounters the ghost of Detective Edmonds. Edmonds gives Sally something he found in the “cracks.” It’s a six-inch needle. As Sally observes her soul being eaten, she warns the twins: “someone’ll stop you one day…”

I would hope so. Is that someone Freya, Sally’s older sister?

It’s 2006 and the loss of her sister Sally haunts Freya, now a New York journalist. She interviews Fred, a witness to the disappearance of Nathan and his mother, and Fred describes the history of the Grayer twins and their unsavory magic. Alas, Fred isn’t really Fred and the barkeep isn’t a barkeep. You guessed it. It’s the Jonah and Norah show. Soon, Freya finds herself immobilized, her soul emerging as the twins prepare to chow down. Then the needle (found in the cracks) that was shown in Act Four appears again. Sally’s ghost makes good on that promise of “someone” to make the pair pay. Score one for humanity when Sal plunges it into Jonah’s neck. How’s that for “seasoning,” bitches? Freya still dies, but her soul remains hers. Not only is Jonah incapacitated, but also dinner plans are cancelled.

The next one is nine years away. What to do?

The answer is nothing until 2015. Dinner-to-be is Iris Marinus-Fenby, an academic specializing in paranormal phenomena. Mitchell fans know that Marinus is a character appearing in numerous Mitchell novels. In The Bone Clocks, Marinus is a Horologist. Jonah is weak and fading fast; Norah is desperate for a hearty meal to power up the orison, save her brother and herself from certain death. This time we know something they don’t. Iris seems an easy, juicy target, but things keep going wrong. Norah improvises and all is going well until Iris reveals her true nature. Jonah becomes a pile of ash. Just as Norah begins to die, she spots a pregnant woman and takes up residence within the fetus. Norah vows revenge and we have the setup for another Mitchell soul sucking tale.

I wish Mitchell would give his human characters in The Bone Clocks and Slade House more power.

The conflict was much easier to follow in Slade House because when we listen in on the twins, they spell out who they are and what they want; however, the humans remain clueless. In Dracula, Van Helsing explains the nature of Dracula’s evil. Jonathan knows what he’s up against and chooses to fight. In the war between the Horologists and Anchorites, we’re collateral damage, seen as pets or a natural resource. Horologists are the SPCA and the Anchorites are Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mitchell is very good at rendering character types, but for me, with the possible exception of Holly Sykes, there is no soul to eat.

Regardless, Slade House was a very good read, easy to follow and understand, though it abruptly ended when it should have been just starting.

Okay, Mr. Mitchell, I’d like some more, please.



Crimson Peak

Blood, Sweat and Fears

BEWARE–this review is full of spoilers.

 Crimson Peak  Crimson Peak is an okay ghost story about an American girl (with money) who marries an Englishman with a title, an old mansion, and a sister who likes poisoned tea and meat cleavers. Like the new bride on arriving at her new home, we find lots of motifs (the cold, the ratty mansion and more red than a mall at Christmas) but little in the way of scares, at least from anything supernatural. Yes, I know there were some moments where the undead plowed through a hallway carpet and rose from a vat of what looked like some super red preschool paint. The thing is, these devices don’t have the same effect anymore. The yawning death grin of Norman Bates’ mother scared the popcorn out of 1960’s audiences, but some times, and I’m talking to you, Guillermo, less is more.

I really enjoyed Mama, del Toro’s previous horror effort, but Mama, the actual ghost, with her absurdly elongated chin and little manic eyes looked like someone’s blind date nightmare. Much, much scarier was an earlier film of del Toro’s, The Devil’s Backbone. That one was truly eerie. Not only was the little boy ghost with a head of blood floaties like nothing I had ever seen, but the buildup to certain scares have stayed with me. Since I saw it for the first time, I avoid looking through keyholes.

One thing I’ve learned from watching Crimson Peak and Mama, del Toro’s latest scare-fests is if you’re the star and you die and come back from the dead, you get to be a good-looking ghost. In Mama, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau plays twins. One kills his wife and attempts to kill his children, and he dies as Mama’s first victim. One would assume, given his deeds, the dad would look like quite the troll in the afterlife, but noooo—he just looks sad.

The ghosts of all three victims of Crimson Peaks’ murderous brother and sister team, lost anything that might make them appealing and kept everything that rattled and oozed as they stalked poor vacant Edith (Mia Wasikowska). When she was a child, Edith’s dead mother appeared shortly after the funeral looking like a tar-drenched mummy with Halloween chattering teeth, ten-inch spikey fingers and wearing a funeral dress borrowed from Scarlet O’Hara’s Aunt Pitty Pat. So after being stalked by a number of gross looking ghosts, Edith tries to address what is eating (pardon the pun) the shades.

Alas, she discovers the truth. It’s murder and she’s next! But it’s complicated—She and Thomas (the brother) are in love and he’s having second thoughts. When sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) discovers that she and her brother Tom are no longer exclusive as a couple, hell hath no fury like Chastain. Seriously I would never want to have a fight with Jessica. She’s almost as manic here as she was in Zero Dark Thirty. A very fine actress, she steals every scene. And like every imperiled Victorian damsel, her old American boyfriend (Charlie Hunam—none of these actors are American other than Chastain), who makes it just in time to feel Lucille’s steel, saves Edith. Lucille, who makes quick work of the boyfriend, decides to teach Tom a lesson by shoving a knife through his face, and Edith has had enough. She takes Sister Dearest down, by whacking her with the business end of a shovel. Though the brave boyfriend, thanks to Tom, survives, Tom does not and his ghost distracts Lucille long enough for Edith’s shovel to make it count. And his ghost, looking rather gray, with blood floaties around his head, makes sad eyes at his soon to be out of there and on the way home bride. And for the star, Huddleston’s ghost, there were no chattering oversized teeth and no head parts with a gaping hole where your brains once sat. And Lucille? There’s not a hair out of place nor is there a bow untied as her ghost plays the piano. They wouldn’t dare.

In The Haunting of Hill House, what walked there, walked alone. And we never saw it. It was one of the scariest novels I ever read and the 1963 film, made of it, The Haunting, was incredibly creepy. During the 1999 remake, there were tons of scary special effects and each over-the-top one detracted. Though I love a good monster and a good acid-dripping alien, when it comes to ghosts, less is more.

LUMINARIUM: There’s nothing like a brain.

In commenting on the solar system family photo taken by Voyager 1, Carl Sagan referred to the “blue dot”  as home to every human who has ever lived.  Now,  we’re looking at potential lots on Mars,  and using real cash for virtual reality property. LUMINARIUM explores computer generated virtual reality as well as the different realities created by the brain itself.

LUMINARIUM is the second novel by Alex Shakar. His first novel, THE SAVAGE GIRL, a fantasy about Pop Culture, was a New York Times Notable Book.

LUMINARIUM begins in the New York of August  2006.  Protagonist Fred Brounian sits in a  black vinyl recliner as  someone attaches wires to a helmet that he’s wearing. Fred is a paid lab rat, part of an experiment  by neuro-scientists at NYU.   Several sessions have him wearing the helmet.  Each session will stimulate a different part of his brain. The aim, the attractive researcher explains,  is for Fred to experience an after-death “Rapture,” without the death part. The goal is to induce the “God” experience, freeing the subject from the “ignorance” of faith.

Fred, a thirty-something software designer, needs the money. Fred is paying for the hospital care of his identical twin brother and business partner George.

George, whose cancer has nearly consumed him, has been in a coma for months. George and Fred were CEO partners of a software company whose virtual reality program “Urth” “an anime style world of pastoral villages and underwater bubble towns…” should have made them  rich. A “best laid plan,” it fell apart when  911 happened.  Slick operators  stole the company. Quirky little Urth  now belongs to Armation, a military  enterprise  in Florida, where “a ready pool of Disney Imagineers, Pixar animators, and Electronic Arts programmers” convert Urth into a military simulations program.  George had wanted to start over and create a game of “spiritual evolution.” Fred  accused him of thinking “reality was up for grabs.”

Sam, George and Fred’s younger brother, is an executive in the new Armation order.  Sam is helping the move  to Florida, and suggested that Urth software would be useful in simulating urban disaster search and rescue.  Sam’s need for control is right out of the Steve Jobs playbook.  His social skills make Jobs look like Bill Clinton.

There have been  glitches in the new search and rescue program, and a suggestion of sabotage. Fred is the most likely suspect.  There were  hard feelings, but Fred needs his old job back.  Fred’s first lab rat session results in a hyper-awareness that causes him to shadow an old woman in pin-curls, who meanders into a store and shoplifts. This results in his arrest for shoplifting  tweezers. That’s right, tweezers. In addition, Fred receives emails from comatose George, a situation that threatens his already tentative hold on reality. As Fred struggles to regain stability in his life, the disorientation caused by the lab experiments, and more messages from George result in him questioning his sanity. He wonders if someone is playing a cruel joke.

Fred is surrounded by illusion and mysticism. His father is an actor and magician. Fred’s mother practices Reiki, a Japanese brand of energy healing. Mom believes that George emanates a healing energy from his hospital bed. As Fred tries to make sense of his expanded senses, the product, we assume, of the lab experiments,  we, along with Fred, have difficulty sorting out reality. Shakar’s use of stream-of-consciousness in these sequences reminded me of the movie Altered States with a swirl (the old woman’s pin curls, “this infinite pinwheel of shit,“The spiral had twisted shut again…”) of the senses that blurs the lines between different realities.

The cryptic emails from George contain the word “avatara.” Researching Hinduism, Fred discovers identical twin avataras, Nara and Narayana, who represent the human and the divine. The concept of “duality” is used throughout the novel. Fred clings to his identical twin. He reads stories to George about simultaneous twin occurrences, which “according to Carl Jung are …the dual manifestation of a single collective unconscious.” Fred questions how he could “stand the two-sided coin on edge“– experiencing the divine, the supernatural,  knowing that he would never be able to verify.  He wonders if existence is the result of some cosmic plan.  Is everything random?

Under all of this searching for alternate realities and the exploration of religions is the fear of death. Calendar pages mark dates leading to the fifth anniversary of the loss of the Trade Center Twin Towers. The enormity of this event permeates LUMINARIUM. Fred contemplates death, but can’t imagine not being somewhere.  New York copes, but is forever changed. Fred faces a future where he is no longer a  twin.

Creating different realities is a way of coming to terms with death. Besides the programs of various virtual worlds, Shakar takes us to a Florida mini-golf course , which is a virtual world modeled on pre-911 New York.  Armation Florida employees live in the planned community “Celebration,”  designed for controlled reality.  Pre-fab reality is predictable and as safe as the womb. Sam yearns for it; Fred is both attracted and repelled.

George coins the word “holomelancholia…the inevitable disappointment of virtual worlds.” This concept fascinates me. I wrote my second book (currently in revisions) in response to Kurzweil’s prediction of the utopias that await us via mind-uploading. In Bali Hai, the “post-biological destination” setting of my novel Babylon Dreams, everything is perfect but the past. Through mind-uploading, we can escape death, but we can’t escape ourselves. Our bodies wear out, but can the human spirit live on indefinitely? One thing that makes life worth living is the luck of the draw, the chance that dreams can be realized or  taken away. As Eric Packer, the protagonist of Cosmopolis (see my August 27, 2012 film review) did, I think eventually, we would all choose the “void.”

In his letter to readers, Shakar puts it this way: “How do we deal with a changed world, with a universe that one day seemed with us and the next seems to turn against us and oppose us at every turn?”

LUMINARIUM is the third literary novel that I have reviewed at length on this blog.  It is the first that I totally recommend. The stream of consciousness style is dense. The long paragraphs were a challenge to my short-attention span, but I kept on reading.  There were a few places where I felt he was doing a research paper rather than telling a story, but not too many to lose my interest in what happens to Fred. In his comments on LUMINARIUM  in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (September 2, 2011),  Christopher R. Beha remarks, “This premise, however ingenious, might have yielded a schematic novel of ideas, if Shakar weren’t so committed to showing his readers a good time.”  I feel that Shakar’s respect for his readers is reflected in this commitment to “show us a good time.”  Shakar gives us a complete, heartfelt story.  Telling a story well and entertaining readers should not be limited to genre writers. Along the way, Shakar looks for answers, but doesn’t claim success.

If mind-uploading happens before I face whatever waits on the other side of that coin, I would like to float around in a place like Shakar’s “Urth,” especially in one of those underwater bubble towns. Maybe I’ll find Ringo’s Octopus’ Garden.


Dronely the Lonely


Okay you’ve been warned about THE PASSAGE. So trudge along with me.

ImageThe Passage is a novel written by Justin Cronin, a professor of English at Rice University. It was published by Random House in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page of acknowledgements where the list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, Ballatine–you get the picture–this guy knows people. A look at his bio gives a hint as to why. He’s written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop –a great place to network I’m sure. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls  I think, would agree.

I don’t recommend The Passage.  Here’s an overview of the book and as I read the last page, my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall:

The book is 766 pages long.  The first 208 pages are really, really good–almost brilliant. The story begins with a five year-old girl (Amy), the child of a friendless single mother who abandons her at a convent. There’s a nun named Lacey, who is a survivor of civil war in Sierra Leone.  Hoping to care for Amy and keep her at the convent, Lacey tells little white lies.

Then, the narrative jumps to first person in emails where we learn about  research going on in the Amazon jungle. They’ve found a batman statue down there.  I don’t mean the super hero–this thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved and in a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death (one named Lear is grieving the death of his wife). Several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats; we’re left wondering what the scientists found before they became bat food.

We skip to a secret research facility. The military is busy with Lear’s help, experimenting on a dozen condemned murderers. This segment, with its seeping creeping dreams, experienced by the sex-offender personnel, as they record vitals and clean up the guano of the new “bat men,” who hang upside down in their cells, rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.

Two FBI agents recruit the death row inmates and this is where Cronin’s skill really shines. We meet Carter, a bewildered little man who is on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress, a housewife who rescued him from under a bridge and gave him work, a home and dignity. Carter, a gentle soul, accepts his fate. Wolfgast, one of the FBI men, grieves the death of his infant daughter. Wolfgast reluctantly recruits Carter, recognizing that the man is not a killer.  Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best; we see Carter’s enjoyment–amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.

Then, Lear wants to test the serum on a child.  Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner, are sent out to find one who won’t be missed. Back to Amy. Lacey takes Amy to the zoo. Amy makes the TV news when all the animals freak out and try to follow her. To Lacey, Amy explains cryptically” “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never explained to the reader and it happens way before any of the events that might have led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that it, along with Lacey’s prescience will be given an explanation. Not.

Wolgast tries to rescue Amy but is stopped by trigger-happy government guy Richards, a character who is the poster child for overkill–he kills all the nuns for pete’s sake. The writing has been so good so far that you forgive the cartoon excess. The best two hundred pages ends with Wolfgast rescuing Amy after she’s been given a giant dose of refined bat juice. The convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Somehow, Lacey tracks them down (she wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns) and we leave her as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) so that Amy and Wolfgast can get away. The last page of these 208 ends with Amy being alone with no one to protect her.

The rest of the book–all 548  pages begins almost one hundred years after the virals have pretty much killed the world. It centers on the “Colony” a small group of survivors located in California. Exposition is in the form of a document presented at a “World Conference” in “1015 av.” Okay, so we know that there’s a world and conferences and that mankind as a global civilization ultimately survives. Now back to the document–a first person account written by a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. Her name was Ida. Think The Stand’sMother Abigail.” Ida makes awful tea and blurts out remarks like she knows what’s going to happen. She doesn’t. The Colony survives by vigilance and keeping the lights on at night to keep out the virals and protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying and so in desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl–Amy who, after a hundred years has managed to hit puberty.  She can’t talk.

I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story, which jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative. Not one pops out. Cronin doesn’t give enough weight to any of them to make us care. I kept waiting for the writing to get better–to get anywhere near the caliber of the first section.  There’s a series of forays, attacks, discoveries and we finally learn that all forty something million virals are telepathically connected to one or the other of the original twelve convicts–like giant bee colonies and each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the original, then those connected will remember who they are and will hang around until the sun comes up until they burn and then fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. This all happens at the very end and what really frosts my shorts is that Cronin leaves us hanging. He doesn’t tell us how or when the world is saved. In fact, the last “document” presented at the “World Conference” reveals the assumed death of one of the major characters. We don’t know for sure because Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment then beginning the next segment by informing us that they were rescued by some fluke. This is lazy writing. Cronin knows better and we the readers deserve better. The ending was very frustrating and I felt had.

Unless you want to be really really annoyed, I don’t recommend The Passage.

Congratulations on your success Mr. Cronin. Next time give us a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.

McCammon’s “Swan Song” — Apocalypse Then

Colliding worlds, epidemics, vampires, aliens, zombies–writers just love ending the world and we just love reading about how it all goes down. Everyone dies, except us–or those characters who are our surrogates. One particularly gruesome ending has fallen out of favor–World War III with its mushroom clouds and the President in the War Room agonizing on whether or not to take Imagethe Ruskies with us into that bad night of a nuclear winter. He always does.

Because the world is different now from the world of the mid-eighties when McCammon wrote Swan’s Song, what limited appeal this novel possessed has all but evaporated. I’m a boomer and all boomers relate to the fear of global nuclear war; we grew up with it.  McCammon renders the nuclear nightmare in vivid detail, focusing on characters struggling to free themselves from environments that saved their lives but now threaten to become tombs. One particular bit of irony is a survivalist enclave dug into a mountain. There’s a gym, a movie theater, apartments, etc. and as always happens–the best laid plans go down. A whole mountain collapsing on you–take that survivalists. No control of your fate–all luck of the draw. Unlike Stephen King‘s The Stand, another end-of-the world scenario, we’re not invested in McCammon’s characters. I think that’s because he devotes so much of the novel to showing us how devastating an all out nuclear war would be, not just to humans, but to everything. It’s hard to say who the protagonist is– I guess it would be Swan–a young girl who can talk to plants and it is Swan who will save the world by giving pep talks to trees, grass, crops etc, spreading seeds and re-growing where ever she goes–a kind of “Swannie Appleseed.” Sorry, I couldn’t resist. The antagonist, similar to The Stand‘s Randall Flagg is a devil with a small “d.” The devil keeps whining about how it’s now “his” party and he gets to decide what happens, which is everybody and everything dies. I kept wondering–if he gets his way, what will he do for entertainment when everyone is gone? Of course he doesn’t win–Swan has his number and puts him in his place.

This novel was long–way too long–over 800 pages. McCammon could have carved out at least two hundred pages of that fruit and nut ingredient necessary to every apocalypse mix–the military mad men, the crazies and the religious zealots. The battle scenes were detailed and endless. In terms of characters–there’s lots of pat psychoanalysis but not much in the way of real people to care about. Like King’s The Stand, McCammon’s Swan Song indicates he doesn’t care a lot for the military or much in the way of government.

I know McCammon can write–I read Boy’s Life years ago and it was such a pleasure. I intend to read some of his other novels and expect I’ll enjoy them. One thing–I’m glad that threat of a nuclear winter is diminishing. On top of everything, there would be nothing to eat–unless of course you’re a zombie.