Thursday, October 23, 2014

Vignette Films get the Murakami treatment

After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Review by Michael Isenberg

After Dark The 1990s were the age of vignette films: loosely connected collections of intersecting story lines. Notable examples were Pulp Fiction, Pret-a-Porter, and anything directed by Richard Linklater. The Simpsons even tried their hand at it, with the episode “22 Short Films about Springfield.”

Haruki Murakami brings the vignette film to the printed page in his 2004 novel After Dark. Like its Hollywood forbearers, After Dark takes place in a compressed time period—a single night between midnight and 8:00 AM. Murakami and the vignette film are a match-made-in-la-la-land, both are chock full of bizarre characters and situations. In the character department, After Dark has:

  • College student Mari Asai, who we first encounter as she sits in an all-night Denny’s, smoking cigarettes, reading a book, and slowly drinking coffee. She clearly does not want to go home, for reasons we have yet to learn, but they seem to have something to do with her older and more beautiful sister…
  • Eri Asai. Everyone loves her; she got her first modeling job in middle school. Being a Murakami novel, there has to be at least one storyline with a supernatural aspect, and this is it. The lovely Eri has got herself trapped in an empty office inside the screen of a TV set. This is also the sequence where the resemblance to movies is most explicit—the action is narrated from the point of view of a moving camera.
  • Lady wrestler Kaoru. “Built like a barn.” (As the author of my own novel with a lady wrestler heroine, how could I not love After Dark?). Now retired from the ring, Kaoru runs a “love hotel,” where a guest has just beaten up a prostitute and taken off. After seeing that the girl gets treatment for her injuries, Kaoru puzzles out how to find the client.
As always, Murakami sucks the reader into the Tokyo urban landscape. In this case, the venue is an “amusement district” with “giant digital screens…loud-speakers on storefronts…A large game center crammed with young people; wild electronic sounds…Even at this hour, the karaoke club pitchmen keep shouting for customers.” For some reason, one detail that stayed with me was a stairway that cut up a hillside between two streets; I saw lots of those when I visited that part of the world.

Towards the end, with dawn approaching, the author tells us what it’s all about:

A cycle has been completed, all disturbances have been resolved, perplexities have been concealed, and things have returned to their original state. Around us, cause and effect join hands, and synthesis and division maintain their equilibrium. Everything, finally, unfolded in a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light. None of our principles have any effect there. No one can predict when or where such abysses will swallow people, or when or where they will spit them out.

That may violate your English teacher’s rule, “Show, don’t tell,” but in the capable hands of Murakami, it works.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A crazy world with its own logic

Full Asylum by Michael Isenberg
Review by Michael Sheldon

Full Asylum is a fun read. Government heavy-handedness is nicely skewered with only the slightest exaggerations. In the same vein, Isenberg’s portrayal of the culture of cutthroat competition within and between tech companies appears to be all-too-realistic. Brutal office politics, crony capitalists, and a variety of nincompoops in roles they aren’t suited for make for a wild rumpus. The wrestlers are probably the only characters here with big enough egos to please Ayn Rand acolytes. Personally, the gentle, daffy Madam Butterfly is my favorite.

Michael Sheldon is a writer based in Seattle, WA. His forthcoming novel, The Violet Crow, will be published by Liberty Island. Read Michael’s short fiction at

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Swag Bag Reviews: Sabrina the Teenage Witch meets Roger Korman

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina No. 1
Review by Kerey McKenna

 The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Cover. Source: Next up for a Swag Bag Review is The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina No. 1 appropriately hitting comic book stores for Halloween 2014. After last year’s debut of Afterlife with Archie, in which America’s favorite teenager and the Riverdale gang fight their way out of the a zombie apocalypse, we see the more mature occult treatment given to Sabrina the Teenage Witch. Set in the 1960’s (the decade that Sabrina stories first appeared in Archie Comics) the story takes its cues more from its horror contemporaries in the 60’s and 70’s like Rosemary’s Baby, The Little Girl that Lives Down the Lane and Dark Shadows than sit-com contemporaries Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. While Sabrina herself is a lovely (dare I say, ENCHANTING) young witch, her origins as laid out here are a macabre tale of Faustian deals and double crosses.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Interior. Source: With great artwork (the color scheme predominantly in the “Halloween Colors” of black, orange and white) and writing reminiscent of the creepiest pre-code Tales from the Crypt stories, this was certainly a treat to receive in the swag bag this year. In contrast to the action packed survival horror of Afterlife with Archie this book is taking its time brewing up a cauldron of horrors on a slow simmer that will pay off later.

As an extra surprise (like the house that gives out FULL SIZE CANDY instead of FUN SIZE) the issue also includes a reprint of Sabrina’s first appearance. The reprint of Sabrina’s debut for me highlighted how much Sabrina’s initial character premise owes to another beautiful blonde, Kim Novak in Bell, Book and Candle.

The title is rated TEEN. So not the thing for very young readers who know Sabrina through her animated TV series or re-runs of the Melissa Joan Heart sit-com. But certainly worth a look if the premise of Sabrina the Teenage Witch by way of Roger Corman holds any intrigue for you.

Kerey McKenna is an avid comic book fan residing in Massachusetts. He delves into both the new releases rack and the bargain bin in search of interesting fare.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Book Review: C.S. Lewis’s The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower. Image source: Cambridge University Library After my last post — I wrote a critical review of a book and the review was subsequently discovered by the book’s author — I decided to review a work by an author who’s dead, just to be on the safe side.

In January 1964, Walter Hooper, former secretary to C.S.Lewis, arrived at the home of the recently deceased Lewis to find a bonfire in its third day. C.S.’s older brother W.H. was burning the writer's papers. Horrified by the prospect of gems of the English language lost forever, Hooper persuaded the elder Lewis to let him take those papers that had not yet gone up in smoke. “There were so many,” Hooper writes, “that it took all my strength and energy to carry them back to Keble College.”

“That evening,” Hooper continues, “while glancing through them, I came across a manuscript which excited me very much. Yellow with age, but still perfectly legible, it opened with the words: ‘“Of course,” said Orfieu, “the sort of time-travelling you read about in books — time-travelling in the body — is absolutely impossible.”’”

The lines quoted by Hooper were the beginning of an unfinished story, The Dark Tower, not to be confused with the series of Stephen King books with the same name. The Cambridge scientist Orfieu goes on to explain another type of time “travel” that would be possible — viewing distant times through a device in much the way we view distant places through a telescope. The time device would, by analogy, be called a chronoscope. Orfieu and his assistant Scudamor had built such a device, and proceeded to demonstrate it for their fellow scholars. But as night after night in the lab unfolded, it became clear that the world on the other end of the chronoscope didn’t correspond to any past or future they could identify; it was a sinister world symbolized by an idol with myriad bodies but a single head. Yet that world had some disturbing resemblances to their own: the dark tower where the action took place was a dead ringer for the Cambridge University Library. And one of the people working there was a dead ringer for Scudamor. When Scudamor’s fiancĂ© also appears in Othertime, and finds herself in danger, Scudamor impetuously rushes the chronoscope, with disastrous consequences.

In some ways it’s unfair to critique The Dark Tower — there’s no way to know what problems C.S. Lewis would have fixed had he finished the story. Nevertheless, I will mention a couple things. First, there were too many characters; they had few distinguishing features, and I found it hard to tell them apart. Second, the explanations of Othertime were too involved (there were graphs). Of course, it was written in another time — an internal reference suggests 1938 — before Captain Kirk and Dr. Emmet Brown explained to us how parallel universes and alternate timelines worked. Indeed, The Dark Tower is the earliest example of a parallel universe story that I’m aware of — by which I mean a story that not only features a world in another dimension, but one where the people and places of our own dimension have counterparts. Perhaps the audiences of the ‘30s needed these explanations.

The Dark Tower is also the product of another time in that it was written in an age when harried writers did not rush to complete a TV episode every week, and overworked publishers didn't accept or reject a novel based on the first six words; at least that's how I imagine it. In any case, authors took their time to unfold their stories and craft their sentences. Personally I like that type of writing, so I enjoyed The Dark Tower very much. I was saddened when it ended abruptly after about 60 pages, with Scudamor trapped in Othertime, uncertain whether he’ll ever find his way home.

Happily, a friend of mine has undertaken to finish the story in the form of a radio play. More on that project as it unfolds.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Book Review: Mark Capell’s Edyl – Island of Immortality

Once again, in spite of my best intentions for Nerds Who Read, I find myself reviewing a political book. I blame Amazon. It told me that Edyl – Island of Immortality by Mark Capell was “Recommended for You.” So I downloaded to my Kindle and started reading.

I found it entertaining and it kept my attention, but I can’t help wondering why Amazon recommended it to an ornery libertarian such as myself: it seems to be a manifesto for Occupy Wall Street.

Edyl takes place about 100 years in the future, when the 1% has achieved its sinister objective of replacing all government with a corporation (known as the World Organizing Committee, or WOCO), and thereby bogarting most of world's wealth, along with all of its sunshine, clean water, fresh fruit, and massage beds. And immortality – WOCO has discovered the secret of eternal life. But since the world has limited resources, this secret cannot be shared with just anyone. People must compete for it. Once a year, thousands of individuals who have reached the tops of their professions are nominated for the Edyl Sporting and Cultural Olympiad. They travel to Edyl Island, home of the immortals, where they vie to be named the best at art, weightlifting, plumbing, and so on. The closing ceremony is the grand March of the Immortals, when the winners pass through the Golden Gates to the “island proper.” There they will undergo the immortality procedure and begin their new and lengthy lives in the sun. So basically, Edyl Island is Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis with an Olympic Stadium.

And mind readers. The narrator, known only as R77K through most of the book, is a rising, mid-level employee in the WOCO “Reading Department”, a sort of telepathic NSA. R77K is assigned to spy on the thoughts of three of the contestants. Two are typical enough: Lena is a nineteen-year-old rock star and Ollie is a championship runner. But it’s the third target that sets off alarm bells in R77K’s mind: Darrick – a contract killer. Clearly dirty work is afoot at the Edyl Olympiad. The mystery deepens when Darrick completes an assignment and reports back to his handler, a shadowy figure whom he calls Mr. Croak (because of his ability to cause people to croak). Croak tells him, “You might just have fired the first shot in a revolution.” But whether it is a revolution for good, and whose side he’s on, he doesn’t say.

The world of Edyl is imaginative, but the prose is not. Although clear, it lacks good lines or clever turns of phrase. And most of the characters just don’t pop for me. I never had a good feel for who R77K, Olly, and Darrick were. The happy exception was Lena, a vivid portrait of a teenager who thinks that, unlike the adults in her world, she has all the answers. And yet, in spite of her superior wisdom, she lives in a state of constant emotional turmoil. I said she was vivid, not endearing.

I also thought the author missed an opportunity in that we never see the WOCO hacks relishing the spectacle of the contestants competing for their lives, a la the Roman colosseum. Perhaps he'll use that in a sequel.

The ending was somewhat unsatisfying. Although Croak eventually explains everything going on behind the scenes, and we learn who is revolting against whom, it turns out that people who are supposed to be good guys did some real harm to the contestants, for reasons that were never clear to me.

Still, I did get caught up in the story, and I haven’t given up on Mr. Capell. His CafĂ© Insomniac looks promising and I look forward to reading it soon.

UPDATE (29 Sep): The author responds...

Edyl is one long interior monologue, and people don't think in imaginative prose.

I was honored to receive this, and it raises an interesting question about literary theory: to what extent should the monologues and dialogue in a novel resemble the way we think and talk in real life?

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Movie Review: Atlas Shrugged III: Who is John Galt?

Atlas Shrugged III Movie Poster It’s not my intent for Nerds Who Read to be a political site. But political content aside, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is enough of a science fiction story in its own right that a review of the third and final installment of the big screen version is not out of place here.

The film premiered on Friday amid reviews that make Ray Rice look like a pacifist. No doubt you’ve seen the long lists of things that are wrong with it, and I see no need to repeat them here. They’re all true.

But here’s what's right with it:

  • Kristoffer Polaha as John Galt. He carried the film. (So he was Atlas.)
  • Peter Mackenzie (Mr. Thomson). Although I'm sure Rand would say he was too forceful for a character whose sartorial trademark was wilted shirt collars, I liked his performance; he reminded me of Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.
  • Scene with Kristoffer Polaha and Peter Mackenzie
  • Among the minor characters, Francisco d’Anconia, Hugh Ackston, Dr. Hendricks, and Ellis Wyatt
  • Cinematography. Technically, this was the best movie in the series. Gorgeous panoramic Colorado mountainscapes. Pure eye candy, as you can see in the trailer.

  • Music. I'm sure this is one part of the movie Rand would have loved. Again, I refer you to the trailer.
  • The Speech. Having a 60-page speech in a work of fiction is problematic to begin with. As a professional novelist, I’m downright offended by the breach of good storytelling. Transferring it to the screen is perhaps the most challenging part of making an Atlas Shrugged movie, but the filmmakers stepped up to the challenge. I especially likee the 1/2 second or so blank screen at the beginning. Excellent use of the dramatic pause.
  • Moment when Dagny sees Galt among the railroad workers
  • Cameos by Ron Paul, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck (although is it significant that they weren't in Galt’s Gulch, among those worthy of being rescued from the destruction of the world?)
  • SPOILER: Eddie Willers gets to live.
  • Samantha Mathis wasn't in it.

In spite of its many flaws, I loved this movie. Unfortunately, due to the poor reviews, ASIII is unlikely to be in the theaters for long. So go see it. But hurry.

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A long journey, but worth the trip

Book Review: A Storm in Tormay by Christopher Bunn
Review by Michael Isenberg

A Storm in Tormay by Christopher Bunn tells the story of the boy Jute, who’s a cross between Peter Pan and the Artful Dodger. As the story begins, Jute is robbing a wizard’s house. He’s been given detailed directions to retrieve a box, and strict instructions not to open it, on pain of having his throat slit. Jute finds the box but when he touches it, it opens on its own. Inside is a dagger, on which he cuts himself.

Was it an accident, or did the dagger choose him, the way wands in the Harry Potter universe choose their wizards? Like those wands, the dagger possesses great power, and absolutely everyone is after it: among them, the wizard Nio whose house was robbed, the shadowy leader of the Thieves Guild, and his mysterious client, the not-quite-human servant of an unknown but sinister master.

But they’re wasting their time. The magic in the dagger is gone. It's inside Jute now. As his powers grow, he finds himself in the midst of an epic battle between good and evil, with the lives of the inhabitants of Tormay hanging in the balance.

Mr. Bunn has an excellent ear and dialogue is one of his strong points. Birds and rabbits say exactly what would be important to birds and rabbits, if they could talk. A group of children who set off to rescue people sound exactly like children who set off to rescue people.

But without doubt, the strongest point of the book is its characters. My favorite was the ghost of an old wizard, who attached himself to Jute and never shut up. I also liked some of the semi-villains, especially Nio, who reminded me of the second of the title characters in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and Smede, the hardworking but greedy accountant for the Thieves Guild. Both of these characters, regrettably, die (sort of) early in the story, and one of my two criticisms is that I wish they had stuck around longer.

My other criticism is that Tormay is a large country, and I badly needed a map to keep track of its many duchies. Perhaps Mr. Bunn will put one on his website some time soon.

At 748 pages, A Storm in Tormay is a long work. As I read it, there were times when I wondered, where is he going with this, and is it worth it? If you find yourself in a similar position, I have two words of advice: keep reading! All the pieces do come together in a feel-good ending.

A Storm in Tormay can be purchased as three separate works, The Hawk and his Boy, The Shadow at the Gate, and The Wicked Day. However, I recommend buying the entire trilogy. Not only is it a better deal, but A Storm in Tormay is really one long story in three parts, not three separate books. You’ll want the whole thing.

In an afterward, Mr. Bunn promises to “return to Tormay and discover some other stories that must be told.” I hope that’s soon!

Michael Isenberg is the author of Full Asylum, a novel about politics, freedom, and hospital gowns. Check it out on