Deja Vu: There and back again.

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This weekend, I read Déjà Vu, a First Contact novel by sci fi author, Peter Cawdron. The big question is always: Are they friend or foe?

It’s the beginning of the 22nd century as we meet Jess, a young astronaut. Jess is busy doing maintenance while floating outside a huge spaceship, orbiting the Earth days before blasting off to a distant star system.

Cawdron’s strength is with moment- to-moment details that put you there. Another is his extensive knowledge of what’s going on in astrophysics and where it might lead.

Jess is tired and eager to complete her tasks so that she can re-enter and get some decent sleep. Jess’s spacesuit has become uncomfortable. A strand of hair is driving her nuts and she struggles to ignore it as thick padding on her fingertips makes push buttons a challenge.

Like Jazz, the protagonist of Cawdron’s My Sweet Satan, Jess must cope with shifting realty. In Jess’s case, reality shifts again and again.

The scene replays, but instead of the Earth, Jess sees another planet, a massive gas giant ringed in ice. Jess and we as readers are confused when we’re back to maintenance and the pesky strand of hair. The scene repeats, but Jess sees the strange planet again as she experiences her death when her ship explodes.

And there’s something else—lots of eyes and they’re all looking at what’s left of her.

Then she’s outside the ship again. Not so fast, what’s going on? We and Jess want to know. Jess starts questioning her reality and begins to mix it up, ditching the chores and doing space somersaults as her alarmed crew members panic. Then Jess finds herself in several familiar/unfamiliar environments, including Africa where she’s being chased by a lion and then slogging through a snowscape.

Wtf is going on? We and Jess want to know.

By force of will, Jess has escaped an amusement park time loop (you-are-there) VR fun ride and now finds herself in a huge part-time science lab. Her sudden manifestation startles the young scientists who have been tinkering with what’s left of her, taken from the pieces of her ship, destroyed thousands of years earlier. Much of Earth was destroyed when another spaceship bound for this same system exploded before it left orbit.

Humanity made its way back technologically and here we are! What’s left of Jess is a chunk of brain resting in a glass jar with some wires. Okay! I love VR!

Jess is understandably upset. The young scientists do their best to make her VR life comfortable and she learns that everyone is neuro linked to “Veritas,” a super Google. Jess makes the best of it, including ignoring the flirtations of a young maintenance worker whom she calls “Pretty Boy.” Then Jess is attacked by the many-eyed aliens. Because the bad ET’s don’t know that she’s virtual, she and her brain jar escape with Pretty Boy’s help.

Pretty Boy takes Jess and her brain jar to see his grandfather, Gal. We learn that humanity is confined to a few small domed settlements on a hostile moon.

The oppressors are a coalition of AI’s and the many-eyed aliens who look like sea slugs. Gal gives Jess a whole new robot body that looks just like her. It’s a fem-bot with a cute little cabinet in the chest for her brain jar.

When Gal asks why the many-eyed slugs would want to help the AI’s, Jess (she’s an astro-biologist) tells them that it’s all about what’s for dinner and we’re on the menu.

The aliens track Jess and her friends down and Jess grabs a flamethrower, sweeping it through rows of eyes ala “Say hello to my lil’ freh’ you alien bastards!” At last, taking one alien out, Jess dies in battle.

It is thousands of years later and Jess finds herself back on Earth. Her welcoming committee is a woman and a cow.

Humanity is back, but like the time after the other spaceship exploded, making half of the Earth uninhabitable, it’s been a struggle. Everyone is dirt poor, emphasis on the dirt. Somehow, Jess has been brought back, brains, body and all to the far future where there is no indoor plumbing. Regardless, everyone knows who Jess is and she’s treated like Beyonce. Why?

Jess has been brought back for a purpose. She’s going to the Moon

in a spaceship built from plans ala Apollo 11. I’ll leave it there, other than to say that before the denouement, Cawdron gives a detailed account of what the Apollo astronauts overcame, the importance of what they achieved and why people need to know.

I really enjoyed this book and read it in two sittings. The unpredictable plot kept me invested. As to what happens at the end, does Jess complete her mission? I’ll say this: In Galaxy Quest, a film made several years ago, a character’s motto is

“Never give up; never surrender!” Some of us never do.

book link: http://41QCRVkvJ7L.jpg

The Last Werewolf: Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair

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The Last Werewolf: Moonlight becomes you; it goes with your lair, a review

***Spoilers***

last werewolf  THE LAST WEREWOLF, written by Glen Duncan, was published in 2011.

THE LAST WEREWOLF is the eighth novel for Duncan and a sequel, TALLULAH RISING followed in 2012. As might be expected, Marlowe, the protagonist of THE LAST WEREWOLF, is a werewolf.In a first person narrative,  He informs the reader that he is “the last weewolf.”.

The opening sentence announces that second to the last werewolf (“The Berliner”) just bit the dust courtesy of Grainer, a “Hunter.”

Grainer, a man with small hard eyes who has Native American ancestors works with WOCOP. WOCOP keeps track of supernatural shenanigans, including vampires (down to fifty “families’) and werewolves–down now, to only Marlowe.

Marlowe killed and ate Grainer’s father, so it’s not just business; it’s personal.

Marlowe is funny, literate and when it comes to the low down on the lupines and the vamps, very informative. Even though, by his own admission Marlowe has killed and eviscerated thousands. He delights in the terror he causes before he chows down on his victim. Marlowe is shaken by the news that Grainer beheaded “The Berliner” rather than just shooting him with a silver bullet. Why so squeamish?

I wished I liked Marlowe and cared whether or not he lives to feed under another full moon. I don’t.

Besides creating Marlowe’s vivid dark humor, Mr. Duncan’s use of language is dazzling. “The hand I lifted to wipe my face was the impatient ghost of the other hand, the hybrid thing, heavy, elegant, claw-tipped.” He employs numerous allusions, including quotes throughout- such as Blake’s “Did He who made the lamb make thee?” There’s a semester’s worth of literature in these nods: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“We’re like Connie and Mellor’s at the end, apart, chaste,…”) The ill-fated Harley, Marlowe’s “familiar” tells him “You’ll actually be flying private charter as Matt Arnold.” Duncan’s style is “Literary” with a capital “L.”

Marlowe is over two hundred years old–middle-aged by werewolf standards.

Werewolves can live to be four hundred or so. Along with literature, there are nods to what’s current in 2012–Obama’s “Audacity of hope,” “American Idol,” and so on. Duncan also gets the jump on his critics by having Marlowe say, “I can think back to a time when something like this would have annoyed or at least amused me, that the democracy Westerners truly got excited about was the one that made every blogging berk a critic and every frothing fascist a political pundit.”

I particularly liked Duncan’s knack for boiling down complex concepts into a sentence or two.

In describing his state of mind after meeting Tallulah, a “she” werewolf, Marlowe says “I’ve stopped abstracting. This is love. You stop bothering about the universal, the general, get sucked instead into the local and particular. When will I see her again? What shall we do today?” His prose is lush–so lush that at times I found it intrusive–then plain annoying. “The little combat flurry had left me with a post-adrenaline heaviness, worsened now by the predictability of the picture revealed by joining the dots.” Sometimes you say wow and other times–enough already.

Okay–so here’s where I get all “Church Lady” (a 1980’s Saturday Night Live character for those of you who don’t know) on you.

Marlowe takes pains to provide us with his sexual preferences–detailing the ins and outs of his encounters with prostitutes–especially the “ins.” He describes various orifaces–“the moist crinkle of Madeline’s anus,’ “I had oral, vaginal and anal sex with her (in that order; I repeat, I’m not a misogynist.)” After meeting Tallulah, his she-wolf-dream-girl–“I wanted to go back to her clean and put my nose in her cunt and my tongue in her sweet young asshole.”

All righty. I think we get it! I’m not a prude. My second book has a considerable amount of erotica.

But, in my opinion Marlowe’s obsession is a tad overkill, pardon the pun. TMI people! You get the feeling that Duncan’s put a lot of himself into the old wolf-man. Whatever. I suppose that you can make the case that dogs greet each other by sniffing rear ends so it stands to reason that Marlowe might find them a particular focal point.

I have two structural issues with this book and one on theme.

Duncan introduces the idea of “Quinn’s book.” Quinn’s book might have information on the origin of werewolves. Written by a 1930’s archeologist named Quinn, Marlow has been seeking it for years. After using it as a carrot to lure Marlowe into cooperating with vampires who now have it under lock and key, Duncan just drops the device, having Marlowe decide that to know how werewolves originated is pointless. No fair–Duncan. Marlowe may not care, but we, the readers do.

Marlowe, as a character, doesn’t change.

Although he finds in Tallulah a reason to live, she’s really an extension of him. It’s self-love and the same narcissism that allowed Marlowe to choose to live by inflicting gory horrifying death on thousands enables him to be “in love” with someone who can share his hedonistic existence.

By creating an antagonist like Grainer, Duncan fails to have Marlowe come to terms with his prolonged existence.

The monotony and the cost to his humanity can be avoided because Marlowe’s wits and resources are engaged by being the object of “The Hunt.” This book was very interesting and at times, engrossing.

Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Duncan was slumming.

He’s showing the genre world how it’s done. In the process, he engaged my brain, but never my gut. I just never cared, and in fiction, that’s what keeps you turning the pages.

 

The Passage: Dronely the Lonely

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The Passage: Dronely the Lonely, a Review

WARNING: BIG SPOILER ALERT–GO NO FURTHER IF YOU PLAN TO READ THE PASSAGE.

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. Random House published The Passage in 2010. Before I began to read The Passage, I read the back page, a list of acknowledgements. This list contained many famous names like Ridley Scott, higher ups at Random House, Creative Artists Agency, Orion, and Ballatine. In other words, he knows people. In addition, Cronin has written some award winning material and earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a great place to network. Plus, Justin Cronin is cute. All of those Rice girls likely agree.

 Here’s an overview of The Passage. As I read the last page, here are my reasons for wanting to throw it against a wall.

Cronin’s The Passage is 766 pages.  The first 208 pages are really, really good, almost brilliant. The novel begins with the plight of a five year-old girl Amy, Amy’s  friendless single mother abandons her at a convent. We meet a nun named Lacey, 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 changes to first person in emails that detail research that is going on in the Amazon jungle.

They discover a batman statue in the jungle.  I don’t mean the super hero. This thing sports fangs and attitude. The US military is involved. n a horror novel, that’s never good. The scientists aim to conquer death. One scientist, Lear, is grieving the death of his wife. While in the jungle, several scientists are killed and eaten by vampire bats. We’re left wondering what secret the scientists discovered before they became bat food.

Now, we’re back at secret research facility. The military, with Lear’s help, experiments on a dozen condemned murderers.

Plagued seeping creeping dreams, the sex-offender personnel record vitals and clean up the guano. The new “bat men” hang upside down in their cells! This part of The Passage rivals the vampire dreams of Salem’s Lot. It’s very scary.

When two FBI agents recruit a death row inmate, Cronin’s skill really shines.

We meet Carter, a bewildered little man on death row for accidentally killing his benefactress. His victim, a housewife, 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. He knows the man is not a killer.  Carter’s journey to the research facility is Cronin at his best. We see Carter’s enjoyment. He is amazed at the America that his poverty and friendlessness denied him.

When Lear wants to test the serum on a child  Wolfgast and Doyle, his partner attempt to find one who won’t be missed.

That child is Amy. When Lacey takes Amy to the zoo, the little girl makes the TV news. All the animals freak out and try to follow the little girl. Amy explains that “They know what I am.” Okay, except that this whole segment is never revisited. We never find out what about Amy made the animals crazy. The zoo scene happens way before the events that led to Amy’s weird behavior. You assume that the zoo incident, along with Lacey’s prescience, will be given an explanation. Not.

Wolfgast tries to rescue Amy but trigger-happy government guy Richards stops him. Richards is the poster child for overkill.

The guy kills all the nuns for pete’s sake! At this point, 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. Then the convict batmen get free and kill everyone. Lacy wasn’t home when Richards killed the other nuns. Alive and determined, Lacey finds Amy. We leave Lacey the nun as she distracts the batmen (later called virals) allowing Amy and Wolfgast to 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 remaining 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 Ida, a woman who was the oldest person at the “Colony’. 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. The adults protect the “Littles” (as in Lord of the Flies “little-uns”) who stay segregated in a schoolhouse. Unfortunately, the batteries are dying. In desperation, the “Watchers” turn on the forbidden radio, hoping to signal for help. It comes in the form of a teenage girl. After a hundred years, Amy has managed to hit puberty.  She is also mute.

I could name some of the zillion characters who continue the story. The novel jumps from one character to the other in a third person narrative.

Not one character 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. 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, each convict is a queen bat-bee. If you can kill one of the originals, then those connected will remember who they are. Then they’ll wait until the sun comes up. These queenless virals will burn. And they fly to that great hive in the sky. Right. This all happens at the very.

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. Cronin has a habit of killing someone off at the end of a segment. The next chapter informs 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.

Though much of it is engrossing, I can’t recommend The Passage.

I suspect others might disagree, I found much to like and a lot that was frustrating.

Here’s Lookin’ at You, Kid. The Bird Box—a review

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     ***Some Spoilers***

 

The Bird Box, a novel by Josh Malerman

Cover of Josh Malerman’s novel, The Bird Box (from Wikipedia)

Through years of reading horror novels like Josh Malerman’s The Bird Box, some images have lingered in the fight-or-flight part of my brain, especially the flight part.  When Stoker’s Count Dracula crawled like an insect up the steep castle wall, the vampire bug image scored high on my scare-o-meter.The thing that Danny Torrance saw in the forbidden room  of The Shining‘s Overlook Hotel creeped me out bigly.  In King’s Salem’s Lot, another Danny (Glick), a vampire boy, floated outside his classmate’s window in the dead of night. After reading that one, I kept the curtains closed after sundown for quite awhile. After reading The Bird Box, I may keep them closed during the day.

It’s all about perspective though.  I discovered scarier kids than vampire Danny when I taught middle school.

In my own book, The Demon Rift, there is plenty of horror and gore, but little in it would make a reader keep the lights on. I focused on characters in a high stakes conflict. My characters were in the dark, but readers knew more. The Bird Box keeps us all guessing.

In The Bird Box, both characters and readers are in the dark—literally. 

The plot is simple: In a post-apocalyptic world, a young woman named Malorie struggles to save herself and her two small children by attempting a perilous river journey. Because seeing anything outdoors is to invite madness and certain death, she and her children wear blindfolds as they make their way.

Five years earlier, almost all of humanity committed suicide.

The reason?  It began when random people saw something. Whatever it was, seeing it meant instant madness and using whatever means of self–destruction was handy. There were no police sketches of these lethal visitors and no selfies with aliens. Instead, there were deadly snapchats. You snapped and then destroyed yourselfWhat was random, spread quickly. Now, few people are left.  Unlike the thing that haunted Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, in The Bird Box, these creatures don’t walk alone; they’re downright social.

In his novel, The Bird Box, Malerman renders the beginning of the invasion in broad strokes.

The vagueness of the threat, the inexplicable nature of it, makes short work of the bewildered human race. Leave the house without a blindfold and something’s likely to greet you. Hear a noise outside? Don’t pull the curtains to sneak a peak. They consider uncovered windows an invitation. The consequences of seeing these creatures are not limited to humans; animals often suffer the same fate, though some are less vulnerable. Birds demonstrate the strongest resistance.

Behind the house, near the well, Malorie keeps a cage full of birds, “The Bird Box.”  Their agitation can signal trouble.

During the torturous river trip, Malorie depends on her children’s acute hearing, as blindfolded, she tries to stay alert. Watching from the riverbanks, dangerous  animals stalk them. And something on the river is following their little boat.

Thoughts dance in and out of her mind as she rows, revealing fragments of her shattered life.  

She remembers leaving the house behind. She thinks of her younger sister, an early victim of the invaders. We learn that casual sex caused Malorie’s unplanned pregnancy. She recalls the people who took her in and  saved her life by allowing her to stay with them. We’re told little about her rescuers. Age, physical characteristics and a barely sketched history introduce them all. None are really defined by who they were before the disaster.

More important, is who these people became when the unthinkable happened and necessity made heroes of ordinary people.

On occasion, The Bird Box narrative shifts to the struggle of the others who had lived with her in the house. Their blindfolds secured, members of the group felt their way using broomsticks as they searched for supplies in deserted buildings. Looking for canned goods, their groping hands often found the soft decay of bodies. Still, the group didn’t return until they found what was needed to survive. Day to day existence was bravery of a different sort. Gripping the handle of a water bucket, house resident Felix was terrified by sounds he could not identify as he inched along the path to the well.

Both scenes highlight the will and courage of Malorie’s rescuers. Both scenes are slow-moving nightmares.

In Chapter Seven, Tom, the resident Malorie most trusted and relied upon, tells her of an attempt by one of the group to learn more about the invaders. After detailing the precautions they took, he describes the horror of the resulting suicide. Tom seeks to define the unseen entities and their destruction of humanity. “It’s a consensus now. Something living is doing this to us. , . . Whatever they are—our minds can’t understand them. They’re like infinity . . . too complex for us . . .our minds have ceilings . . .”   Or to quote A Few Good Men and Jack Nicholson “You {we} can’t handle the truth!” The hidden madness of one of the group results in the sabotage of their defenses and the death of all save Malorie and her children.

At last, we learn the shattering details of the day she gave birth, an event that showcases Malorie’s strength as the protagonist of The Bird Box.

She becomes a survivor whose uncompromising control of her four-year old children is her only hope of saving them. Dingy walls, stained with trauma, encompass the bleak world of her children.  Pieces of picture frames form makeshift trails that guide them when, blindfolded, they venture out to fill buckets with well water. Thinking of her children’s future, Malorie despairs. When someone making random calls connects with the house’s landline and leaves a message, she learns of a small but thriving community twenty miles away by river. The river is close, less than a quarter mile from the house. If they can make the trip, she and her children are welcome to join. Malorie remembers a rowboat she had stumbled upon years earlier.

In Chapter Nine, as she rows, she “struggles to put a name to the invaders. . . .

“they are not creatures . . . a garden slug is a creature.  Demon. Devil. Rogue. Maybe they are all these things . . . Do they know what they do?”  Echoing Tom, she concludes: “They are more than monsters, they are infinity.”  In one chilling scene, her son tells her that he can hear something walking on the river. Soon, it’s in the rowboat with her and it’s waiting as it gently tugs the edge of her blindfold.”

Malorie knows she must remove her blindfold in order to choose the right fork of the river and save her children.

Like many children, I feared the dark, often pulling the covers over my head. As I read The Bird Box, I recalled those fears–the times when I shivered beneath the blankets while something in the dark waited patiently.

 In The Bird Box, Malerman never pulls the covers down.

The monster in The Bird Box remains stored in the dark closet of memory, along with other things that go bump in the night. Faceless monsters are the scariest ones–worse than ghosts, even worse than floating, crawling vampires.

Maybe I’ll get a parakeet. Better safe than sorry, at least that’s what my cats tell me.

Note: In September of 2017, a Netflix film version of The Bird Box, starring Sandra Bullock as Malorie, will begin production. (per Deadline/Hollywood, Mike Fleming, July 19, 2017–deadline.com) Deadline/Hollywood The Bird Box