Sunday, November 20, 2011


Rollback by Robert J. Sawyer
Tom Doherty Associates, 2007
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765311085

Dr. Sarah Halifax decoded the first-ever radio transmission received from aliens. Thirty-eight years later, a second message is received and Sarah, now 87, may hold the key to deciphering this one, too . . . if she lives long enough.
A wealthy industrialist offers to pay for Sarah to have a rollback—a hugely expensive experimental rejuvenation procedure. She accepts on condition that Don, her husband of sixty years, gets a rollback, too. The process works for Don, making him physically twenty-five again. But in a tragic twist, the rollback fails for Sarah, leaving her in her eighties.
While Don tries to deal with his newfound youth and the suddenly vast age gap between him and his wife, Sarah struggles to do again what she’d done once before: figure out what a signal from the stars contains.

My Thoughts:

Robert J. Sawyer expertly explores ethical dilemmas and alien contact in his intelligent, highly readable novel Rollback.  It is 2048. Astronomer Sarah Halifax, who had been one of the leading astronomers at SETI and the one person who translated the first message from the Draconians in 2009, is now 87. When the Draconians send an encrypted reply, wealthy industrialist Cody McGavin offers Sarah a rollback - a rejuvenation procedure that will result in her being like a 25 year old physically - so she can help decipher the second message. Sarah demands that the procedure also be given to her husband of 60 years, Don. The procedure works for Don, but, sadly, not for Sarah. 

While coping with her physical frailties, Sarah ponders the key to solving the encrypted message from the Draconians. At the same time Don struggles with being essentially an 87 year old man with the body and health of 25 year old. While their bond of 60 years continues, Don has to face some tough moral choices while Sarah is working, hoping to solve the puzzle before her death.

Sawyer succeeds in Rollback because he takes a couple themes - rejuvenation and contact with aliens, concentrates on the big picture and the questions that might arise, and then reaches a conclusion in a story that doesn't demand a sequel. Even though this is an alien contact story, it's really mostly a story about moral dilemmas and choices. The narrative mainly focuses on the effects of the rejuvenation for Don and the choices challenging him. One of the opening quotes is from Jonathan Swift, "No wise man ever wished to be younger." But is that true? And if you were to suddenly be returned to a young adult at age 87, how would you cope? What choices would you make?

I have one problem with Rollback. Honestly, the young Don got on my nerves a bit. Even though he is now physically 25, he still is 87 and has still been married to 60 years to Sarah. I would have thought he'd be more in touch with many of the life lessons he must have learned in that time. I think the main root of any problem I have with the story is that it is definitely told from a male point of view - and I am not male. So, while the ending of the story Sawyer is telling didn't work quite as well for me, a case could be made that Rollback will work for the majority of the targeted readers of science fiction who are male.

All of that is likely a minor quibble with what is a very enjoyable, intriguing, provocative novel. Sawyer is an accomplished writer, he knows how to tell a story, and he has all the awards to prove it.  
Highly Recommended


It had been a good life. 

Donald Halifax looked around the living room of the modest house that he and his wife Sarah had shared for sixty years now, and that thought kept coming back to him. opening

 “Everybody, everybody!” shouted Carl. He was the elder of Don and Sarah’s kids and always took charge. “Your attention, please!” The conversation and laughter died down quickly, and Don watched as Carl raised his own champagne flute. “I’d like to propose a toast. To Mom and Dad, on their sixtieth wedding anniversary!” pg. 16

 “Well,” said Sarah, sounding as though she couldn’t believe that she was uttering these words, “Lenore says a reply has been received.” 

“What?” said Carl, now standing on the other side of her chair. 

Sarah turned to face her son, but Don knew what she meant before she spoke again; he knew precisely what she meant, and he staggered a half-pace backward, groping for the edge of a bookcase for support. “A reply has been received,” repeated Sarah. “The aliens from Sigma Draconis have responded to the radio message my team sent all those years ago.” pg. 18-19

On March first, 2009, a radio message had been received from a planet orbiting the star Sigma Draconis. The world had puzzled over the message for months, trying to make sense of what the aliens had said. And then, finally, Sarah Halifax herself had figured out what they were getting at, and it was she who had led the team composing the official reply that had been sent on the one-year anniversary of the receipt of the original signal. pg. 20

"....we think the message is....encrypted. Not just encoded for transmission, but actually encrypted - you know, scrambled so that it can't be read without a decryption key." pg. 24

"But rejuvenation, well, that's like a code rewrite - it's a real fix. You don't just look young again; you are young." His thin eyebrows climbed his wide forehead. "And that's what I'm offering you. The full-blown rejuvenation treatment." pg. 41

"I'm not regressing, am I?"

...."I'm so sorry," she said, very softly.

"I knew it," said Sarah. "I - in my bones, I knew it." pg. 55

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Transformational What?

Transformational What?

(A guest post by Alon Shalev, author of The Accidental Activist.)

At a recent author's panel, I was asked what genre I write. I replied: “Transformational fiction.”

“What’s that?”

I was asking for it. I have adopted a phrase I heard from the presenter of a workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference a couple of years before but never heard it used since.

I responded along the lines: “I write about change – ordinary people who want to help fight a social injustice and in doing so experience a life-shifting internal change.”

What followed was a meaningful conversation about the theme that runs through my books. In A Gardener’s Tale, the protagonist helps a young outcast become a meaningful and respected member of the community. In The Accidental Activist, my central character is a self absorbed computer programmer who takes up the struggle against a multinational corporation who is trying to silence protestors in order to get laid (well kind of), but discovers he can harness his talents to help improve the world.

I have written three other manuscripts and, in each, the protagonist goes through a transformative process. Unwanted Heroes will be released in January and tells the story of a young man who befriends a mentally disturbed war veteran and uses his talents to help the old man come to terms with his past and rebuild his life. As I wrote my novels, I never planned this common theme until The Accidental Activist was being critiqued.

The man who asked the question came up to me afterwards and we began discussing which social causes we each volunteer in and when we finished, I felt he had bought my book because of our newly formed connection. We have remained in touch and he later became, and still is, a regular contributor to Left Coast Voices.  I love to share my passion about social injustices and utilize my writing to cultivate relationships that can help empower us all to work for a better world.

I have tried to make my website fit that transformational flavor: the Richard Wright quote, the request to purchase my book at an independent bookstore and showcasing non profits and causes on the Left Coast Voices blog.

And so I will go out into the world and introduce myself: Alon Shalev. I write transformational fiction. And maybe one day, the person I am being introduced to won’t respond: “Transformational fiction – what’s that?”

Maybe one day they will even say: “Alon Shalev? Yeah I read your novels.”


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. More on Alon Shalev at

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Accidental Activist

The Accidental Activist by Alon Shalev
Three Clover Press, October 2010
Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780981955353


David meets Goliath in the law courts of England in the 1990's. The advent of the Internet is leveling the playing field as a multinational corporation tries to silence two young political activists in a riveting court case that captivates the political and business world's attention.
The company will try anything (sex, espionage, bribery and coercion) to stop or win this case. In fighting the corporation, a self-absorbed computer programmer discovers romance and a way to change the world one mega-pixel at a time.

My Thoughts:

The Accidental Activist by Alon Shalev is a novel based upon the McDonald’s libel trial that took place in England in the 1990’s. In the novel two young activists, with nothing but raw determination, take on a multinational corporation that tries to silence them. At the same time a young computer programmer discovers the power of the internet after he sets up a website to support the cause of the woman he wants to have a relationship with.

I'm torn on this one. On one hand I really was engrossed in the actual story of the legal case. It totally held my attention and was, in truth, the reason I accepted a review copy. It's always inspirational to read about ordinary citizens taking on multinational corporations and some of their nefarious practices. It was also very interesting to learn about Great Britain's archaic libel laws that were still in place in the 1990s. The courtroom drama part of The Accidental Activist was riveting.

On the other hand,  I also experienced two less than stellar impressions.The rather graphic sex scene at the beginning of the novel seemed out of place, especially in comparison to the rest of the novel. To be honest, I would have stopped reading right then except for the fact that I had promised to review the novel. I was glad I kept reading because the scene was a fluke. The novel improved dramatically and I was hooked... but that just reinforced the awkwardness of the early sex scene.

The other thought I had was this: Since it is set in the 90's during the time when the internet was just emerging as a powerful tool to influence people and spread information, the setting also had the effect of making the novel feel dated because the internet is now so much a part of our daily lives. The 1990s wasn't that long ago, but, in the case of technology, it was. Keeping this dichotomy in mind while you are reading will be helpful. It's likely any "historical" novel that is actually set in rather recent times will induce the same feeling.

All in all, I enjoyed The Accidental Activist and would Recommend it, especially if you enjoy courtroom dramas.

Come back tomorrow for a guest post by author Alon Shalev where he discusses his "Transformational Fiction."

Disclaimer: I accepted a copy of this novel for review purposes.


 “The truth, Your Honor, is that I got involved because of a woman, the defendant.”  opening

 I looked at myself in the mirror—for only the eighth or ninth time that hour. A smooth-shaven, pathetically optimistic Romeo peered back, reassuring me that, should the Juliet of my dreams turn up at tonight’s party, I was surely in with a chance. pg. 1

“Here’s the deal. You’re having a miserable time, and I need to get out of here quick. You have a car. I need a lift. You drive me home, and I don’t invite you in. Impress me with your conversation and we’ll stop at my local on the way and I’ll buy you a drink. Whatcha say?” pg. 5

“Tomorrow I’m busy.” She paused, thought for a moment then her face lit up. “But I will see you Sunday, noon at Hyde Park Corner. Then, my brave knight, I’ll treat you to lunch.”
“Hyde Park Corner. I haven’t been there for a while.” Actually, I couldn’t recall when I had last been there, no doubt incidentally passing through. “It’ll be crowded. How will I find you?” pg. 8

As we walked through the park, Suzie explained about their campaign to stop oil drilling somewhere in South America. Her adrenaline was still flowing from the speech, and her words were filled with excitement.
She didn’t stop talking until we reached the restaurant she had chosen. It was a crowded place with simplistic décor and natural pine furniture. The high roof and long windows made the place naturally light. A vibrant energy exuded from my fellow diners, a contrast to my largely fast-food culinary experience. pg. 14

We both laughed. Then she squeezed my arm and looked up—her face serious. “Getting involved with me will throw you in at the deep end, you know. But if we’re going to have any chance together, well, this is my life. You understand?”
I nodded. “Yeah I do.” I didn’t have a clue. pg. 19

When he finished, I turned to Luke. "What happened? Where's Suzie?"

"They've been arrested, mate, Suzie and Bill. They'll charge them with libel. Seems we've pulled the tiger's tail too hard and it's decided to take us seriously. The others arrested will apologize. They're people with jobs, assets and dependants. Suzie and Bill will go to court." pg. 42

"British libel laws are archaic. They haven't been revised literally in centuries. With libel, no one is entitled to legal representation. In fact, they enjoy very few rights." pg. 43

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision by Gary Braver
Tom Doherty Associates, 2011
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780765309761

Following a biking accident on icy Boston streets, grad student Zack Kashian lapses into a coma. When he wakes up on Easter, months later, muttering the Lord's Prayer in the original Aramaic, the media is set abuzz about the "Miracle Man." Religious fanatics flock to Zack's hospital bedside, though he claims to be an atheist.
Zack's revival also catches the attention of Dr. Elizabeth Luria, who heads up a small team of neuroscientists secretly researching near-death experiences (NDE). Their objective: to determine if there is anything to the claims of NDE victims about floating down tunnels into the celestial light and meeting spiritual beings. Is all that evidence of the afterlife? Or is it just neurobiology, as Sarah Wyman, one of Luria's young researchers suspects.
For personal reasons, Luria is desperate to prove the afterlife exists. So are her wealthy, evangelist backers, who can't wait to announce the greatest discovery in human history: that God exists. A discovery that would at last reconcile science and religion. A discovery that would end the world's religious strife and unite all humanity.
Yet Zack's experiences are anything but heavenly. While he and Sarah struggle to understand his horrific out-of-body experiences, they have no idea that sinister forces have taken an interest in them. Forces to whom near-death experiences are utter blasphemy—deceptions by Satan himself. They enlist a menacing agent who, in the name of God, will stop at nothing to terminate the project and all involved.

My Thoughts:
In Tunnel Vision by Gary Braver an atheist graduate student, Zack Kashian, lapses into a 12 week coma following a bicycle accident. He attracts the interest of religious zealots when he says The Lord's Prayer in the original Aramaic while still in the coma. He later finds himself involved with a team of neuroscientists who are being privately funded by an evangelist to research near-death experiences (NDE) in an attempt to prove that people are wired to find God. Another religious group hires an assassin to kill those involved in the project. Zack finds himself inadvertently caught in the middle of a war between science and two religious extremes. And everything isn't quite what it seems...
This is a fast-paced scientific/medical thriller based on current research in neuroscience that people are wired to find God. Author Gary Braver, the pen name of Gary Goshgarian, does an excellent job keeping the suspense going as the risks increase.  Additionally there are plenty of clever plot twists. The science behind the novel was obviously well researched, as are the religious discussions. The large amount of theology in the book might bother some readers, but they are handled well and tie in completely to the plot. This one is a page turner!
Highly Recommended
Source: Won a copy from TOR at Caribousmom

It was the dead man - Karen's John Doe, his toe tag in her pocket - still naked from the waist up, still barefoot, EKG electrodes still visible on his chest - shuffling down the empty corridor toward the exit with no pulse, no heartbeat, no blood pressure, no body functions, flatlined and moving on his own power. Prologue, pg 16-17

"Thought I'd died and gone to heaven."
"You did. Two jacks staring at you from Anthony's hand, and you draw another. Don't you believe in counting?" Damian said. "Bro, you take some wild-ass risks."
"But I won," Zack said.
"Yeah, on pure luck. 'Least you don't have to play beer money for a while."
"More like blood money. Found a clinic that pays thirty bucks a pint."
"You mean you're selling your blood?"
"I'm down thirty-six hundred on my Discover card, and they're threatening court action."
"Maybe you should stop gambling." pg. 18

In a protracted moment, Zack saw the fatal error. His front tire slammed into the jagged edge of a pothole. In the next instant—played out in weird slow motion—the front wheel snapped to the left, sending him flying over the handlebars and coming down dead smack on the top of his head into the base of the crosswalk lights.
In a fraction of a second, Zack was suddenly looking down from someplace above, seeing himself lying crumpled across the curb with his head at the base of the pole and his bike on its side, the front wheel at a crazy angle. In that sliver of awareness, he knew he was viewing things from an impossible perspective. And just as he tried to make sense of it, the moment blinked to total black. pg. 20-21

"This is Kyle Kerr. I'm the resident physician at the emergency center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Your son Zachary is here. Unfortunately, he was in a bicycle accident and is in our intensive care unit." pg. 22

"What if this is punishment?" she asked.
"Punishment for what?"
"For not believing. What if this is God getting back at us?"
"My guess is that this was an accident pure and simple," Kate said. "You're a dedicated teacher who does volunteer work for abused children. If God's in a punishing mood, He's got the wrong person." pg. 27

"If something good happens, people claim their prayer was answered. If something bad happens, it's because your prayer wasn't good enough. It's all a sham. God's a sham." ....
Damian put his hand on Maggie's shoulder. "He'll wake up," he said. "God has faith in him."pg. 33

"And what do you think are the motivations of evil?"
"I never thought about that. I guess lots of motivations - power, money..."
"No, only one: revenge. It is the one true source of evil in the world. All other motivations - power, money, lust - they're mere variations. Revenge. It's what Satan taught mankind. It's his sole motive: getting back at God...." pg. 52

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Random House Publishing Group, 2010
Hardcover, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400069262

When Henry receives a letter from an elderly taxidermist, it poses a puzzle that he cannot resist. As he is pulled further into the world of this strange and calculating man, Henry becomes increasingly involved with the lives of a donkey and a howler monkey—named Beatrice and Virgil—and the epic journey they undertake together.
With all the spirit and originality that made Life of Pi so beloved, this brilliant new novel takes the reader on a haunting odyssey. On the way Martel asks profound questions about life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity.

My Thoughts:
In Yann Martel's fable-like novel Beatrice and Virgil, author Henry L'Hote, who had a wildly successful first book, gives up writing after his second book is rejected by his publisher. He and his wife, Sarah, move to a large city where he concentrates on living. Henry stumbles into an awkward relationship with a taxidermist, also named Henry, who wants his help in writing a play about a donkey and a howler monkey named Beatrice and Virgil. This relationship between the two Henrys and the play is clearly hinting at hidden but much darker secrets. 
Beatrice and Virgil has received a host of mixed reviews since its publication. It seemed to polarize readers to such extremes that the widely vacillating reviews resulted in my procrastinating on reading Beatrice and Virgil because I enjoyed Life of Pi so much. As is sometimes the case I should have just read Beatrice and Virgil sooner and ignored the people who were probably disappointed that it isn't Life of Pi part 2.
Now, I agree with those who concluded that Martel takes a long time to get to the point of the novel, but, in contrast, following along on the journey did not disappoint me. I felt like it made the ending more powerful because of the stark contrast it presents to the rest of the novel. It is allegorical and Martel certainly gives the reader plenty of clues about the true subject matter of the play.  As the description intimates, these clues cover life and art, truth and deception, responsibility and complicity.

Written in simple language but filled with symbolism, Beatrice and Virgil  is a dark novel, especially at the end. (At this point it is probably not a spoiler to mention that it deals with the holocaust.) Most certainly Beatrice and Virgil  will make the reader think about the cruelty men inflict upon each other.
very highly recommended


Henry’s second novel, written, like his first, under a pen name, had done well. It had won prizes and was translated into dozens of languages. Henry was invited to book launches and literary festivals around the world; countless schools and book clubs adopted the book; he regularly saw people reading it on planes and trains; Hollywood was set to turn it into a movie; and so on and so forth.
Henry continued to live what was essentially a normal, anonymous life. Writers seldom become public figures. It’s their books that rightly hog all the publicity. Readers will easily recognize the cover of a book they’ve read, but in a café that man over there, is that . . . is that . . . well, it’s hard to tell—doesn’t he have long hair?—oh, he’s gone. opening

Henry had written a novel because there was a hole in him that needed filling, a question that needed answering, a patch of canvas that needed painting—that blend of anxiety, curiosity and joy that is at the origin of art—and he had filled the hole, answered the question, splashed colour on the canvas, all done for himself, because he had to. Then complete strangers told him that his book had filled a hole in them, had answered a question, had brought colour to their lives. The comfort of strangers, be it a smile, a pat on the shoulder or a word of praise, is truly a comfort. pg. 4-5

But fiction and nonfiction are very rarely published in the same book. That was the hitch. Tradition holds that the two must be kept apart. That is how our knowledge and impressions of life are sorted in bookstores and libraries—separate aisles, separate floors—and that is how publishers prepare their books, imagination in one package, reason in another. It’s not how writers write. A novel is not an entirely unreasonable creation, nor is an essay devoid of imagination. Nor is it how people live. People don’t so rigorously separate the imaginative from the rational in their thinking and in their actions. There are truths and there are lies—these are the transcendent categories, in books as in life. The useful division is between the fiction and nonfiction that speaks the truth and the fiction and nonfiction that utters lies. pg. 6-7

He stopped writing; the urge left him. Was this a case of writer's block? He argued later with Sarah that it wasn't, since a book had been written - two in fact. It was more accurate to call it writer's abandonment. Henry simply gave up. But if he did not write, he would at least live. pg. 20

Still, art is rooted in joy, as his music teacher had pointed out. It was hard after rehearsing a play, or practicing a piece of music, or visiting a museum, or finishing a good book, for Henry not to ache for the access he once had to creative joy. pg. 24-25

Virgil: Slice a pear and you will find that its flesh is incandescent white. It glows with inner light. Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark. pg. 50
Virgil: I was thinking about faith.
Beatrice: Were you?
Virgil: To my mind, faith is like being in the sun. When you are in the sun, can you avoid creating a shadow? Can you shake that area of darkness that clings to you, always shaped like, as if constantly to remind you of yourself? You can’t. This shadow is doubt. And it goes wherever you go as long as you stay in the sun. And who wouldn’t want to be in the sun? pg. 103

Friday, November 4, 2011

King Rat

King Rat by China Miéville
Tom Doherty Associates, copyright 1998
Trade Paperback, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312890728

Something is stirring in London's dark, stamping out its territory in brickdust and blood. Something has murdered Saul Garamond's father, and left Saul to pay for the crime.
But a shadow from the urban waste breaks into Saul's prison cell and leads him to freedom. A shadow called King Rat, who reveals Saul's royal heritage, a heritage that opens a new world to Saul, the world below London's streets—a heritage that also drags Saul into King Rat's plan for revenge against his ancient enemy,. With drum 'n' bass pounding the backstreets, Saul must confront the forces that would use him, the forces that would destroy him, and the forces that shape his own bizarre identity.

My Thoughts:

In King Rat by China Miéville Saul Garamond's father is murdered under mysterious circumstances the night Saul returns to London. Saul, who was asleep at the time of the murder, is left implicated in the crime. After being questioned by the police and left locked up in a cell, a mysterious figure, King Rat, breaks Saul out of jail and the adventure begins in London's underground and sewers, with the music of Drum ‘n’ Bass, mixed strangely with the flute, always in the background.

King Rat is a murder mystery, urban fantasy, and horror story, that uses rewritten folk lore and mythical characters to tell the story. China Miéville reworks the story of the Pied Piper and includes King Rat, Anansi the spider, and Loplop the king of birds, as characters. In his version the Pied Piper is an evil psychotic killer. This is a dark, gritty narrative set in the garbage strewn alleys, sewers and the underbelly of London.

There are some similarities to Miéville's Un Lun Dun. As in any good myth, in both a seemingly normal person has a destiny or task that they must complete to save others from a deadly outcome. While King Rat is set in London, Un Lun Dun is in an alternate London. King Rat is, however, a far darker and menacing tale and a very urban fantasy.

This was China Miéville's first novel and probably would be considered the start of his "new weird" genre of literature. In some ways I wish I knew Drum 'n' Bass music in order to hear the musical background pulsing throughout the novel. On the other hand, I could have looked into it and didn't, so my lack of total understanding didn't prohibit me from enjoying the tale.  Admittedly, I enjoyed Perdido Street Station, Un Lun Dun, and The City and the City more, but King Rat is highly recommended.


I can squeeze between buildings through spaces you can't even see. I can walk behind you so close my breath raises gooseflesh on your neck and you won't hear me. I can hear the muscles in your eyes contract when your pupils dilate. I can feed off your filth and live in your house and sleep under your bed and you will never know unless I want you to. opening

His father would probably be waiting for him. He knew Saul was coming back, and he would surely make an effort to be welcoming, forfeiting his usual evening in the pub to greet his son. Saul already resented him for that. He felt gauche and uncharitable, but he despised his father's faltering attempts to communicate. He was happier when the two of them avoided each other. Being surly was easy, and felt more honest. pg. 15

"Mr. Garamond," he said. "I'm sorry to have to tell you that your father is dead."
Saul gazed at him. That much was obvious surely, he felt like shouting, but tears stopped him. He tried to speak through his streaming eyes and nose, but could issue nothing but a sob. He wept noisily for a minute, then struggled to control himself. He sniffed back tears like a baby and wiped his snotty nose on his sleeve. The three policemen stood and watched him impassively until he had controlled himself a little more.
"What's going on?" he croaked. pg. 22-23

“I’m the big-time crime boss. I’m the one that stinks. I’m the scavenger chief; I live where you don’t want me. I’m the intruder. I killed the usurper, I take you to safekeeping. I killed half your continent one time. I know when your ships are sinking. I can break your traps across my knee and eat the cheese in your face and make you blind with my piss. I’m the one with the hardest teeth in the world, I’m the whiskered boy. I’m the Duce of the sewers, I run the underground. I’m the king."....
I’m King Rat.” pg. 34

He was swallowing with anxiety. He was remembering his father. This was the key to everything, he thought; his was the catalyst, the legend that would make sense of the surreality which had caught him up in its gusts. pg. 43

"You're a special boy, Saul, got special blood in your veins, and there's one in the city who'd like to see it spilled. Your mum was my sister, Saul.
"Your mum was a rat." pg. 44