“Cell” by Stephen King

Like cheap whiskey, it’s very nasty and extremely satisfying.” wrote Stephen King describing his 53 rd book and 44th novel, “Cell“.

no smartphone, no

If you have a cellphone you are doomed: the girl on the right might survive.

Cellphones are everywhere these days and that is the cornerstone of this apocalyptic horror story. As he usually does, King takes the reader straight into the action, on a pleasant October afternoon in downtown Boston everything suddenly goes crazy. The protagonist, Clay, a phone-phobe was down from Maine touting his graphic novel.  Suddenly people attack strangers, break things and speak in wild inarticulate cries (“Gluh“, “Rast”), all as a consequence of the brain zapping that the book calls The Pulse. It has been delivered via cellphone. Only the few not using a cellphone are spared. The plot is simple. The pulse delivered through the mobile phone system  wipes clean a person’s mind and sends them back to basics, like a computer rebooted and they become unreasoning killers. The phone crazies evolve, they begin to flock together and develop a sort of telepathy.

By using cellphones, which have become the dominant form of communication in our daily lives, you simultaneously turn the populace into your own conscript army – an army that’s literally afraid of nothing, because it’s insane –

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My cellphone and the book

Those that didn’t hear the pulse and survived the bloodbath also group together and a struggle for survival begins. Clay joins up with Tom and Alice and heads north hoping to find his son in Maine (Stephen King’s home state). King keeps the number of principal characters  small, making it easy to follow. An antagonist emerges halfway through the novel as a leader of the phonies. Clay refers to him as the “Raggedy Man” another survivor band describe him as “the President of Harvard”, his first appearance comes in Clay’s dream, a dream he finds his fellow travellers have also had.

Tech satire or just another zombie tale? Stephen King gives a shout out to cyberpunk writers like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Neal Stephenson.

Jordan grinned radiantly.”Neal Stephenson’s a god.”

The phone-crazies do add an element of telepathy not usually found in the zombie genre. However, this is more a horror  novel than a cyberpunk offering and King is a master of the genre. Although, this novel isn’t in the same league as his earlier apocalyptic novel, The Stand, it is still a cleverly written tale crafted by a master storyteller, who knows how to keep the reader’s attention. Even a sub par Stephen King book is better than most novels on the market.

 

A film has been made of Cell but even actors of the calibre of John Cusack, Samuel L Jackson and Isabelle Fuhrman couldn’t save it from being awful, like many Stephen King adaptations it strays a lot from the book. The book starts in Downtown Boston, the film starts at the airport. In the film Clay (John Cusack) has a phone it just isn’t charged, in the book he doesn’t own a cellphone. I only managed to watch half of the film but I finished the book.

Cell Movie

Chaos in the airport

I would recommend the book with some reservations. There are better Stephen King books out there. I would recommend avoiding the film unless you are really into bad films.

My rating 3.5 out of 5

 

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“The Winter Queen” by Boris Akunin

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The Winter Queen

Boris Akunin is the pen-name of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, who was born in Tbilisi but has spent most of his life in Moscow.

This is the first Erast Pietrovich Fandorin mystery. The action is set in 1876. Erast is very young and reckless orphan, a novice in Criminal Investigation Department, still wet behind the ears. 

When a talented student from a wealthy family shot himself in broad daylight in Moscow’s Alexander Gardens, a death in keeping with a craze for a dangerous game of “American Roulette”.

American Roulette…You take a revolver and put in one cartridge. It’s stupid, but exciting. A shame the Americans thought of it before we did.

Our hero is not satisfied that it is a simple suicide. He starts digging deeper and eventually stumbles upon a vast conspiracy. 

Erast gets himself into some dangerous situations where in a James Bond like way he is saved at the last minute. His investigations take him from Russia to London and back. In London he narrowly evades adding his corpse to the pollution of the Thames of London’s Docklands. The background detail is engaging but the plot is a little thin and gets a bit ludicrous in the second half of the book. I also found there were too many characters to follow the plot easily.

My rating 3 out of 5

 

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“Enter Wildthyme” by Paul Magrs

Enter Wildthyme

Enter Wildthyme

Humour and science fiction is a difficult act to pull off. Even Douglas Adams struggled after the first two Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. This book is a wacky story, Iris Wildthyme of the title is a time traveller whose mode of transport is a London #22 bus, which unlike the TARDIS of Dr Who fame is “smaller on the inside”. Doctor Who already used a London Bus to travel through space in “Planet of the Dead”(2009). Iris’s nemesis is a murmuring poet called Anthony Marvelle with a gun-toting poodle called Missy as a sidekick.  Marvelle steals Iris’s pinking shears which are able to cut through the Very Fabric of space and time (Very Fabric is capitalised in the text and seems very like a Terry Pratchett touch). Travelling through the galaxy there seem to be no scientific problems to be overcome and communication with alien species is undertaken without any explanation of how they are communicating in English.

Much of the action centres around Darlington: “Darlington’s the entire gateway to the entire multiverse, believe it or not. “I find it difficult to suspend my disbelief. Simon who has been given a Darlington bookshop is a character like Arthur Dent or Rory in Dr Who, a rather clueless earthling taken along for the ride.

Oh, and there is a sentient vending machine called Barbra. I think maybe the author has had too much cheese too close to bedtime or something.

My rating 2.5 out of 5

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“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Double Down” by Jeff Kinney

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If you are familiar with the Wimpy Kid books, Greg needs no introduction,  this is more of the same formula, Greg a middle school slacker wants to sit around playing video games but his parents have other ideas for him. This is the eleventh book in the series, Greg like Bart Simpson doesn’t age. The timing is set around Halloween which for Greg means candy and trying to get an invite to the cool girl’s Halloween Party. As usual things don’t work out as Greg wants. To get to the party, he has to join the school band, but he has no musical talent and after getting a French Horn he can’t play his parents insist he persevere. The book also sees Greg and his long suffering sidekick Rowley attempt to make a horror movie with Gummy Worms and a shower scene. It is a quick easy read with some truly funny moments.

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ZOO-Wee Mama!

My rating 4 out of 5

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“Where’s my Jetpack?” by Daniel H Wilson

For a while this was my chosen reading matter for Reading in the Smallest Room.

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Where’s My Jetpack? with Matchbox Freeway Flyer

 

Daniel Wilson looks at all the gadgets and suchlike promised in science fiction books and films. Stuff like ray-guns, flying cars and underwater hotels. The tone is light-hearted, sometimes the humour seems a little forced.

There are thirty or so chapters each exploring a different item.

jetpack

contents

A chapter was usually sufficient to distract me from my early morning ablutions. There are illustrations by Richard Horne for each chapter in black, white and blue.

jet

The book published in 2007, already seems a little dated as some of the technologies like self steering cars, have made great advances in the past decade. Also, in architecture, the Burj Khalifa has sailed past Taipei 101 as the world’s tallest skyscraper.

I found the book nether sufficiently serious nor sufficiently humorous for my taste. It was at best mildly entertaining.

My rating 3 out of 5 (and feeling that maybe a little generous)

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Encylopaediae as raw material for art fun

Does anyone still use print encyclopaediae? There seem to be a lot of people throwing them out. I picked up some volumes of a 1955 Soviet Encyclopaedia for a lari (approx 41 cents)  a piece.

My grandchildren Lazare (2) and Elene (4) like playing with paint. So I thought I’d see what would happen if I gave them encyclopaedia to paint on instead of the usual paper. I’d already taken out some maps and illustrations, that I wanted to keep.

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three volumes some paint and some water

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Lazare and Elene get to work on some approved vandalism

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Elene gives the illustrated woman a red dress

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abstract expressionism over a map

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a touch of yellow to some bananas in Guatemala

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Elene’s pontillism

This seems a little like the wanton destruction of books to my inner librarian, but it kept the children amused for a couple of hours.

On Pinterest, there are other ideas of alternative uses for old encyclopaediae: Uses of Old Encylopaediae

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“Nemesis” by Isaac Asimov

Published three years before the death of one of the great masters of sci-fi in 1989, “Nemesis” is a stand alone novel. Unusually for Asimov there is a strong central female character in the shape of Marlene, a plain but highly intelligent teen, who is very perceptive about what others are thinking. Her character is developped as the story progresses.

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

Nemesis by Isaac Asimov

The Nemesis of the title is a Dwarf Red Star which is heading towards the Solar System. It hadn’t been detected earlier because it wasn’t very bright. The setting is  the twenty-third century, Earth is over crowded and 1% of humans have left for self-sustaining orbital settlements. Most of these settlements orbit various asteroids but one, Rotor has left the Solar System with a secret hyperspatial drive, to lock into an orbit around Erythro, a moon orbiting a gas giant orbiting Nemesis. Marlene is on Rotor but feels the attraction of Erythro, where the only life detected is on the tiny bacterial scale (erythryotes), enough to give the moon a breathable atmosphere but seemingly not enough to present a threat to the humans. Rotor is a white separatist’s dream being –

“Snow White,” said Fisher. “I never saw one black person there.”

Earth’s hope is in a prototype ship theoretically capable of superliminal travel, on board a crew of five volunteers including Marlene’s father.

Asimov has a science background and a career of prolific publishing. The physics and biology necessary in the story is presented in realistic detail, even if, for example, superluminal travel proves impossible in the future.

I read a lot of Asimov as a teen and it was interesting reading him again after so long. The pacing of the novel is good, encouraging page turning although the ending is a little predictable. I have seen many unfavourable reviews of this novel but I found it good, I found the characters interesting especially Marlene and the story entertained me.

My rating 4 out of 5

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No books finished in May

It has been a long time since I failed to finish a single book in a month. What has happened is I do most of my reading on the metro and whilst I’m still making many metro journeys, I’ve been distracted by a game on my phone. I used to look disdainfully at the other travellers on their phones, the digital generation addicted to their black mirrors.

The game I have been caught up in is 2048 a number puzzle game, many of you may know. You pair number tiles with the objective of reaching 2048 (2+2=4, 4+4=8….1028+1028=2048). I have managed to reach the goal of 2048 on 4 occasions, so now the game has less hold over me and I’m doing more reading again.

you win

There are a few books I’m “Currently Reading”. I expect to finish Isaac Asimov’s “Nemesis” very soon, there is also “Where’s My Jetpack?: A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.” which has short chapters on different technology that has yet to arrive, a great read for the smallest room. On my phone I started Pickwick Papers many months ago and more recently War and Peace, I’m just 3% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, so don’t expect a review anytime soon. There are also a few books on my shelves waiting to be read.

I expect to be reviewing a few books in June.

 

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“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak

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The Forty Rules of Love

Like In Kate Mosse’s “Labyrinth” here we have two parallel narratives—one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century. But the thirteenth century thread is set in Konya not Carcassonne. In the present we have Ella, an unfulfilled Jewish housewife in Northampton, Massachussetts, who is working part time for a literary agency. She is given a manuscript to read “Sweet Blasphemy“, where we find our 13th century narrative. “Sweet Blasphemy” is about the relationship between the famous poet, Rumi and the Sufi Dervish, Shams of Tabriz.

The contemporary story is told through Ella, who starts an intimate correspondence with the writer, Aziz Z. Zahara, a sufi, strangely of Scottish origin.

Like with Labyrinth, I found the 13th century narrative more compelling and almost resented, when it jumped to the present parallel narrative. Shafak tells the story of Rumi and Shams through many different narrators: Rumi’s family who are not happy with the arrival of Shams, and various townsfolk affected by Shams, the harlot, the beggar, the drunk, the zealot etc…

Shams is like a Paulo Coelho character bringing wisdom and forcing changes upon those around him especially his host, Rumi. Shams has a strong uncompromising personality, causing many to hate him. There is a Christ like dimension to Shams, he has seen his days are limited and wants to impart his wisdom, these forty rules of love, before his inevitable end. There is a conflict between Sufism, a religion of the heart and the strict sharia laws of the head. Shams meeting the zealots is like Jesus meeting the Pharisees.

It is an engaging and entertaining book. There are many parallels between the religious conflicts of thirteenth century Turkey and our own time.

My rating 4.5 out of 5

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“Revival” by Stephen King

Revival

Revival

Stephen King has written over 50 novels, of which maybe I’ve read half, he is a consummate storyteller. This story builds slowly, starting as a contemporary drama type book that creates complex characters, looks at themes of religion and family, and builds up an interesting three-dimensional portrait of a small community. But as the novel moves along, it becomes darker and creepier, you know you can trust King to ratchet up the tension.

The story is set over a long time period stretching from the sixties to the 2010s. Our protagonist, Jamie begins the tale as a young boy meeting a new young pastor in his district the Reverend Charles Jacobs. Jacobs is obsessed with electrical experimentation and shows Jamie a model of Jesus seemingly magically walking on the water.

Kids … Electricity is one of God’s doorways to the infinite.”

After a horrifying motor accident, Jacobs delivers  a particularly terrible sermon and leaves town. Many years later Jamie is a rhythm guitarist in his mid thirties addicted to heroin, he runs into Jacobs at a county fair with a sideshow making “Portraits in Lightning”. Jacobs cures Jamie of his addiction using what he terms his “secret electricity”. But Jamie senses that “something happened“. Jamie is cynical and researches into what happened to those Pastor Jacobs cured of various conditions using his “secret electricity”. He finds some unsettling after effects and worries about what might be Pastor Jacobs ultimate goal.

King is also looking at the fear of aging, he himself is long past the double nickel of dread.

“The three great ages of the Great American Male -youth, middle age and you look fuckin’ terrific.”

“I think for most people, life’s deceptive deliriums begin to fall away after fifty. The days speed up, the aches multiply and your gait slows down…”

The book’s electrical undercurrent reminds me of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and Stephen King’s earlier novel “The Tommyknockers”. Strangely, I picture in my mind the character of Rev Jacobs as the Doctor Who persona played by Matt Smith.

My rating 4 out of 5

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