Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Vesuvius Isotope smolders occasionally but never erupts


It’s inevitable that novels such as this one will be compared to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” so let me get that out of the way right now -- Brown practically single-handedly rejuvenated a genre of fiction which incorporates the elements of ancient history, religion, mythologies, conspiracies all mixed up with elements of modern science and politics -- and THE VESUVIUS ISOTOPE is solidly in that realm.

I should mention that Brown’s Da Vinci Code was largely derivative of UMBERTO ECO'S masterful novel, FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM. But whatever the case, after Brown sold about a hundred ba-zillion copies of his low-brow version of Eco’s epic, it was no surprise that many new writers followed suit, and so that’s why I say it’s practically a new genre.

In The Vesuvius Isotope instead of a brilliant Harvard professor of symbology we have world-class Ph.D. biologist, Dr. Katrina Stone. Instead of a mystery involving the tangled ancient dealings of the Catholic Church dovetailing with arcane pagan belief systems, we have the multifaceted mysteries of ancient Egyptian religion.

The start of both novels are even similar. They both launch with the discovery of a dead body that is naked. In the case of the Da Vinci Code it is the curator of the Louvre. In the Vesuvius Isotope it is the husband of biologist Katrina Stone - her husband happened to be one of the world's leading scientist.

So in both books a morbid naked discovery launches the characters on a journey of international intrigue. This entails a globe-trotting search across spectacular venues of the ancient world to solve a vexing mystery. In Brown’s book it’s cracking the so-called Da Vinci code. In this book it’s a search for an ancient remedy for cancer possibly developed by none other than Queen Cleopatra herself.

Unfortunately, and for the sake of full disclosure, I consider Brown’s Da Vinci Code to be among the worst novels ever written. I agree with Salmon Rushdie who said The Da Vinci Code is, “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name,” and Stephen King who said the Da Vinci Code is, “the intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.”

But wait a minute -- Is it even fair to make the comparison? After all, a visit to author KRISTEN ELISE'S WEB SITE reveals her day job is actually that of Ph.D. biologist and cancer drug research specialist, the same as her Katrina Stone heroine. Elise says it was her work with a certain isotopes that inspired the plot of this book.

And yet, I think anyone can see the similarities I point out between "Vesuvius" and "Da Vinci."

Okay, with that caveat -- and clearing the table to leave all comparisons behind -- how does The Vesuvius Isotope stand on it’s own? In my view, not very well. This is a first-time novel definitely not ready for prime time. My reasons have nothing to do with unfortunate resemblances to The Da Vinci Code. For me The Vesuvius Isotope falters all by itself on many levels, including:

* The narrative does not sustain a consistent feeling of tension and urgency. That’s because the author frequently stops the action for detailed explanations (lectures) of historical facts, personalities and situations. The ancient history background is necessary to provide context for what is happening today -- but it means a full-stop in unfolding the plot. A more skilled writer would be able to weave these elements together more seamlessly.

* Overuse of flashbacks, dream elements and introspective interludes inside the head of the main character. The author relies heavily on flashbacks to flesh out characters and provide background context -- but she goes to the “flashback well” far, far too often, creating a choppy, disjointed feel to the narrative -- which is also often confusing.

* Cliche elements: As just one example, The Dr. Jeffrey Wilson character seems plucked out of a Harlequin Romance novel. He’s amazingly handsome, a multimillionaire and brilliant. He won the Nobel Prize before the age of 40! He looks fantastic while naked with his “lean surfer's body.” He not only has blue eyes, but “smoky blue eyes” (the vaunted ‘smokiness’ is mentioned no less than four times). His “sandy locks” fall seductively onto his forehead. Ladies, this delicious hunk is not only sweet, thoughtful, kind and romantic -- he loves wine, museums, flowers, Paris and surprise gifts -- he’s available!

Well, after all, this is fiction.

But there are other cliché gimmicks as well: Such as the old Hollywood ploy to bump somebody off via ye olde: “rigging the car brakes” and the hackneyed, “monkey around with the oxygen tanks of the scuba gear.”

One of the biggest drawback of the book for me is this: A murky enemy that only emerges toward the end. We eventually find out who the nefarious forces are -- but the troublemakers are only revealed in the final scenes.

Why is this a problem? Because a really thrilling novel pits a frightening, twisted, evil and devious enemy against the heroic goodness of the protagonists. In order for us to be afraid for the heroes, we need a vivid picture of how loathsome the enemy is. We need to see them, fear them and hate them. The worse the enemy, and the more viscerally defined, the more we will be afraid for our heroes. We'll also be satisfied when the creeps are defeated in a big show down at the end.

But in this novel, we only get hints of shadowy figures involved in some conspiratorial operation are scheming to trip up the do-gooders. For some reason, they don’t want a miracle cure for cancer to be found, but we don’t know why. (Certainly it must be the pharmaceutical giants, right? No, you would be wrong!) When the "big reveal" does finally come, it has all the climactic punch of a friendly game of darts.

Certainly other readers may disagree entirely with my take on The Vesuvius Isotope. Without guile I say that I hope a lot of other readers would buy this book, read it, and then come back here and tell me if my take is spot on -- or if I’m nuts.

Your reviewer, Ken Korczak, is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pherick Morton: A Life and Beyond Begins With Great Promise But Quickly Devolves Into a Swamp of Preachy, Pretentious Irrelevancy


About once a year among the more than 100 books I read per year there is always one that vividly stands out to receive “Ken’s Crash and Burn Award.” This is for books which start out with extreme promise, but then veer disastrously off course, never to recover.

In the case of PHERICK MORTON: A LIFE AND BEYOND, author PETER MESSMORE was cruising toward a rave review through the first third of the book, but then the narrative gets utterly lost, and the reader is confronted with one downright absurdity after another.

The author does a terrific job of creating unique, believable and nuanced characters who are instantly interesting. He embeds them in themes that promise to be rich in possibilities -- the conflict of fundamentalist religious beliefs confronting the world of hard rational science devoid of spirit -- in this case, super-advanced robotics.

To add even more flavor we have a background clash of a tough-as-nails international union boss striving to organize “the working class” set against the lofty world of corporate and scientific elites.

But then it all devolves into a miasma of soporific detail. The author attempts to leverage what is essentially a biography of a fictional character to drive the narrative, which is no substitute for an actual plot. There is an attempt to keep us interested by killing off a major character every 40 pages, or so, and the author adds a couple of soap-opera-like twists, but it all falls flat.

There is scene after scene that ends up having no bearing on the ultimately vague conclusion the author has in store.

For example, we get niggling and inexplicable diversions wherein the character obsesses about a marketing logo for his robotics company. There is a pointless detailing the kind of domestic cleaning robots he plans to build (you know, like the Roomba, which has already been around for more than 10 years, though this is the year 2030). Then there is the agonizing description of the fancy, pretentious house Pherick is building; the details of this clog the narrative like so much flotsam washed up to lay dead on the page.

Pherick Morton himself is a creepy character in many ways. For example, he is obsessed with genetic purity. There is a scene where he and his wife are consulting with a genetic specialist in their quest to birth a perfect child via a surrogate mother. It's like something out of a ghoulish eugenics training manual.

It would be kind to describe Pherick as a morally ambiguous character. An unkind reviewer might peg him as a self-absorbed ego maniac who easily rationalizes his use of illicitly-gained wealth -- as in when Pherick’s father supplies him with smuggled blood diamonds, some of which Pherick promptly fashions into a necklace to hang at the throat of his beloved wife. He also has one cut to serve as her engagement ring.

Blood diamonds are called so because they fund weapons procurement for brutal war lords in Africa. The results is the violent deaths of countless innocent people, including women and children. They are often obtained via child slave labor -- since Pherick is supposed to be a genius, he should know this -- he knows how his father obtained the booty -- yet he chooses to use these diamonds as his ultimate symbol of love.

He also trades illicit diamonds to pay for his brother’s brain surgery -- rather than paying medical bills the way the rest of us do -- through hard work, our own resources, or with a legitimate appeal to society. But not Pherick. He rationalizes by promising to give an amount equal to his dirty gains to charity at some later time -- you know, after all his own needs and material goals have been taken care of first.

Pherick’s conception of spirituality is fantastically bland.

Even though he receives visitations from no one less that Jesus himself while meditating in a cave in Israel, these visions do little to alter his ambitions to make gobs of money -- he buys houses, cars and the sundry material creature comforts the “real Jesus” would have found anathema.

Toward the end of the book, Pherick has earned a half-billion dollars, enabling him to retire in luxurious ease. Thus he is able to focus on his spiritual quest. He endeavors to formulate an enlightened philosophy -- but what we are eventually presented with is a warmed over interpretation of Gnosticism which anyone could glean from Wikipedia.

Pherick also establishes what is portrayed as a cutting-edge, new kind of religion free of dogma and hierarchical structure, which has nothing on the Unitarian Universalist model (and many others) that have already been around for centuries.

Most of the action is set in the future about 20 years hence, but the author has no feel for creating a world that feels any different from our own. Except for the occasional appearance of a smartphone, the action here could just as easily take place in the 1950s as the year 2030.

The final scene depicts Pherick in the afterlife, a realm depicted in a way that is amazingly mundane, clumsy and absurd. It's ridiculous, including a part where Pherick meets his old dead professor. This man reports he has been having sit-down meetings with Yeshua. (While alive, the professor had always maintained "Yeshua" was the true "Jesus.”)

The professor tells Pherick lamely: “(Yeshua) has interacted with professors before -- but not many.”

Say what? The great Yeshua is fussy about which guy with tenure and Ph.D he’ll talk to? Hmmmm. Doesn't seem to be too much of an equal opportunity Savior of All Mankind. Maybe Yeshua favors the rabble from lower society, you know, like undergraduate English majors? I don’t know, but I digress.

There are many other problems with this book as well, not the least of which is the peculiar woody way dialogue is handled -- the characters speak to each other like robots -- but I think you all get the gist of my view by now.

Your reviewer, Ken Korczak, is a former newspaper reporter, government information officer, served as an advocate for homeless people as a VISTA Volunteer, and taught journalism at the University of North Dakota for five years. He is the author of: MINNESOTA PARANORMALA