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Cloud Atlas (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 14 May 2017 08:42

loud Altas - it's not one book, it's six!

Actually, it is only one book, a set of six stories told from differing human epochs. All the characters share a distinctive birthmark, a blemish in the shape of a comet on their shoulder. And all their stories link together very distantly, but, like instruments in an orchestra, all of them taken together produce a message to the reader. And the message can be bittersweet, yes, but uplifting too.

So, we have...

ADAM EWING - A San Francisco attorney who, in 1849, is on his return journey to his home from the far side of the Pacific, where he passes through various cultures and various barbarities, while suffering a brain parasite that might just kill him...

ROBERT FROBISER - A young composer and homosexual in the 1930s, who is forced to assist an aging maestro while crating his own magnificent piece, the musical perfection he will call Cloud Atlas. His story is told to us in letters to his once-lover, Rufus Sixsmith. Interestingly, he is reading Adan Ewing's Pacific account...

LUISA REY - In 1973, she is a feisty reporter investigating the corruption (and outright danger) around a west coast nuclear power plant. She meets the now older, now engineer Rufus Sixsmith in a stalled elevator, recovers his letters from Robert Forbiser after he is killed in a whistleblower attempt, and even while getting driven off a bridge and shot at by a corporate goon, she manages to hear Cloud Atlas in a record store...

TIMOTHY CAVENDISH - A seedy publisher in 2012, who is falsely imprisoned by his own brother in an old-folks home, he eventually escapes and returns to publishing, sparking his career's second wind with Half-lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery. Of course, he also publishes his own struggles as The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, which is made into a movie...

SONMI-451 - A fabricant working in a fast-food restaurant somewhere on the sprawling, polluted Korean coastline of 2144, Sonmi's unthinking, unquestioning routine is changed by the tinkerings of a bored PHD student. Eventually drawn into the political realm by anti-government rebels, she creates Declarations, a thoughtful piece of the rights of all sentients. In many ways, she is influence by an old movie she watched while in hiding, something about some man from long ago, Timothy Cavendish, who was also imprisoned and marginalized with old people. In the end, she is executed by the government.

ZACHRY - An old man in post-holocaust Hawaii, he recounts his own story, how his father and brother were killed by Kona raiders (and how he blames himself). He also talks about a group of high-tech traders who visit these lands. One of them, Meronym, elects to stay with his people for a time. His tribe all worship their goddess Sonmi. In the end, after the Kona overrun everything and enslave his people, Meronym sees him moved to a safer island.

Interestingly, the book progresses from the oldest time to the newest in a series of half-stories, leaving each character at some position in their life before moving onto the next. Zachery's story is the only one told in full, and after his, we resolve our tales in reverse order, until Adam Ewing gives us the book's payoff.

So yes, the stories wend like the ivy of the human spirit across the brick wall of injustice and slavery. You will see humanity at its beastly worse, with Christians enslaving natives, Koreans enslaving clones, and Kona horsemen brutalizing just about everything. In that, the book touches on the questions that any thinking human must ask in their lives - when looking at the world and how shitty it is, why bother? Why be good, why fight the good fight, why attempt to make an effort? And in a way, it answers just these questions (though, still, I have to admit that it is a downer to know that even with all these efforts and small success, the world does seem to be winding down in the end).

But I really liked this one. It held me even though I was in a tough week at work, working non-stop through day and night. While eating at my desk in the late, dark hours, I'd read about Zackery, of Somni, of Ewing and the others and know that even in a world of dark human misery, there are still twinkling stars of goodness.

Anyway, yes, it's a great read. The movie is fun in its own way (though it is a bit frantic in places, a lot more choppy, and takes a pass or two to understand. Further, they jam a happy ending on it (that Meronym's people have established a colony on another planet and lift poor Zackery into its utopia)). But the movie is worth watching, just as the book is worth reading. It's a strong recommendation from me. Have a go at it!


Last Updated on Saturday, 17 June 2017 20:31
Arabella of Mars (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 30 April 2017 09:06

kay, so the Napoleonic Wars are still taking place. There's that.

And there is colonialism. Again, a constant of the British Empire.

But then there is the fact that space isn't, well, space. It's full of air.

And with sailing ships that can lift on massive hot air balloons to low earth orbit, where they can set their sails and move about on interplanetary jet-streams and then, when they get to a planet, deploy heated chutes to come in for landing, yeah, so it's rather a different 1813 than you could imagine.

So young Arabella is a daughter of a rich landowner on Mars, interested in the ways and affairs of the natives (an English colony, of course. Why stop with India?), a pants-wearing tomboy. This latter fact causes her mother to decide that the frontier has made her too wild and packs her (and her sisters) back home. Now a societal prisoner of cold uninteresting England, poor Arabella pines for her native planet. Yet, while visiting relatives, she overhears her cousin Simon hatching a plot to travel to Mars and kill her brother and assume the family fortune. Locked away, it is up to Arabella to utilize her pluck, travel to Mars and stay Simon's assassinating hand.

So she'll be a busy girl.

Arabella of Mars calls on a number of period tropes for its telling, and that's fine. I recognize the bits of a girl shipping as a boy aboard a merchantman, of overhearing mutinous plans, of French space privateers and likely lads and mysterious Indian captains (a.k.a Nemo). And of course, we have the Indian Mutiny (cast with Martians) for the heroine to deal with.

So here's the deal on this book (first of a series, implied): just go with it. Yeah, it's silly and fantastic and difficult to explain to your literary chums, but it's fun. It's pretty much Treasure Island and Kidnapped cast in space, with a dash of steampunk and a gallon of daring-do. I have to admit that I enjoyed it. I think you will too. So go out and get this one. Just get over the air-in-space deal and you'll be fine.

(and this is coming from a guy writing a story about people travelling about the moon on ice-runner boats!)


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 April 2017 09:31
London Under (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 23 April 2017 14:39

nyone who's played a game within the last 40 years probably knows about D&D (Dungeons and Dragons). In its most basic form, players take the role of magic users and warriors and travel into the dungeon of a castle long swept away, to fight all the monsters who horde treasure therein.

Economically, it makes no sense. Biologically, it makes no sense. Rationally, it's a joke. But it's still fun.

But while a dungeon chock full of monsters who understand economic principles (and, seemingly, doorknobs) seems unlikely, equally unlikely are the places that exist beneath London. The remnants of old streets from Roman times. Ancient vaults, crypts, and cells. Passageways chiseled for purposes unknown. Even rivers, redirected beneath the streets to ease their passage (and stench).

And now the London Underground. And bomb shelters and redoubts from World War Two. And all those telecommunication lines, water lines, gas lines.


As a game designer, I think this would be a better game than silly old D&D. Rumors of cavemen from prehistoric times, of tribes driven under by the great fire, of cockroaches the size of your arm and rats the size of small ponies. Imagine the encounter tables!

So, yes, Peter Achroyd's fine book Under London was a delight to read. I picked it up in a used bookshop in Easton Pa while haunting about, killing time. Read a good chunk of it waiting for the bike shop to open. It works logically through its materials, briefly discussing London and its history (and belowground geography). Then we read about the first raw sewers and underground cells. The rising of the ground (through the gradual collection of dirt and filth) lifts the city, making first floors into cellars. Rivers are vaulted over. Then there is a good deal of information about bringing water in (as the population expands) and (well after the fact) taking it back out again. For me, I was quite interested in the section on the tube, including the stations build, abandoned, and in some cases, forgotten. A very fun book!

So, if you are standing around in bike shorts on a cold April day inside a tiny little bookshop, look this one up. Only don't try this in Easton - I already got that one!


Last Updated on Sunday, 23 April 2017 14:58
We are Pirates (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 16 April 2017 18:03

e are Pirates is a weird little book, and comes to us from Daniel Handler, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. And if you think this is another YA book, perfect for that "gateway" panacea drug you parents are always searching for your children to become readers... no. Not this one. Grownups only, here. Trust me.

So Gwen Needle is the young, frustratedly confused daughter of Phil Needle, mid-life-crisis guy who is currently involved in television productions (and if there is any place where reality is shaped to meet popular demands, it is here). Gwen has just enacted her right-of-passage-into-troubled-teenhood - shoplifting, of course. Caught and released into the toxic atmosphere of her parent's sick and failing relationship, she is "punished" by being sent to an old folks’ home to provide company and companionship for some of the older failing bulbs. And one Magoo, Errol, catches her attention. In his room he's got pirate books by the shelfload. And these she reads. And suddenly the idea of becoming a pirate (even in San Francisco Bay, on a boat used for lame pirate shows) becomes an out for her. She can find her freedom from her classes, from the boy who rejected him, and, of course, from her parents.

And assembling a small band of pirates (or, in the historical sense, misfits) she beings her short yet colorful journey.

And my word of warning - if you think this is a YA book where everyone waves cutlasses that don't bite, that people end up poorer but wiser, that people bungle to a laugh track and everything is just innocent hijinks, think again. There is blood on the deck, lots of blood. Pirates aren’t Disneytronics - they are murderous thugs, and released from the constraints that her father flails against, Gwen goes fully into it. Yes, the book is funny, but it is graphic, too. So don’t buy this book and have your children read it for you - grow a pair and read it for yourself.

Overall, I enjoyed this one. It was a good book, and I kept at it, even when the decks were red*.


* with Pizza.

Last Updated on Sunday, 16 April 2017 18:28

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