Movie Review: Dean Spanley

  Charming film depicts “novel” reincarnation

Dean Spanley filmRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

I recently discovered Dean Spanley, a 2008 British film that is my second favorite metaphysical movie in recent years (after What Dreams May Come). This delightful gem of a film moved me in ways reminiscent of Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain

Story: Dean Spanley is the very archetype of a bland churchman: affable, conventional, prudent without being a prig. Only his keen interest in the transmigration of souls and almost excessive enthusiasm for dogs betray any shadow of eccentricity. And then, richly primed with a few glasses of Imperial Tokay, he slips over the threshold between past and present and remembers an unusual reincarnation. Or are his memories no more than fancy? (from Amazon)

My take: Starring Sam Neill as the Dean, this adaptation of Irish author Lord Dunsany’s short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley illustrates with great clarity and joy the inner life of the Dean’s previous incarnation as a dog. The lush yet restrained camera work of Fiji/New Zealand director Toa Fraser paint his rich memories vividly and poignantly, set to New Zealand composer Don McGlashan’s stirring score.

Through the character played with wide-eyed brilliance by Peter O’Toole, we learn that, despite decades of grief and sorrow, one is capable of change; one can again experience joy. And that’s a message worth watching.

Although longlisted for the 2009 Orange British Film Academy Awards for Adapted Screenplay (Alan Sharp) and Supporting Actor (Peter O’Toole), the film went straight to cable in the U.S. (thank gods for Netflix).

Sweeping vistas, dotted with sheep that pop straight up like panicked cats, immerse you in the sense of what it may have been like to roam free across the woods and fields of turn-of-the-century England. In dignified, stately language appropriate for a Dean of Divinity, Mr. Stanley recounts his memories of those magical days, his grasp of time loosened by a glass of Tokay: “ . . . And then we slept, that most divine of states. The dream dreams you, rather than the other way round.”

Gentle motifs wend through the story, such as “’It’s the little things that try us,’ said the man of the pygmy judge,” along with Zen—and yet thoroughly British—observations: “There’s no point to regretting things that have gone to the trouble of happening.” These asides thread the story with dry humor and wisdom that viewers greet with both a smile and a nod of affirmation.

Just when you think the story has reached a most illuminating and satisfying conclusion, it continues on for a few more beats, culminating with an unexpected twist and a sentiment that I agree with most heartily: “As to the question of reincarnation, I resolved to wait and see, albeit with more anticipation than hitherto.”


Dean Spanley, an adaptation of Lord Dunsany’s short novel My Talks with Dean Spanley
Miramax Films, Atlantic Film Group (UK) and General Film Corporation (NZ), 2008
Running time: 100 minutes


Book review: Unison (The Spheral)

  Simultaneous lifetimes give reincarnation novel a fresh feel

Unison (The Spheral) reincarnation fiction visionary novelRating: 4 out of 5 stars

What if you could go back and try, again and again, until you got it right? The Groundhog Day premise of “Unison” is familiar, but Papanou keeps it fresh with a futuristic utopian/dystopian setting and some visionary plot twists.

Story: Illness has been eradicated in Unity thanks to a healing implant, and criminals are cured with virtual reality therapy. In this seemingly idyllic community, Damon 1300-333-1M is condemned to relive his life until he uncovers a suppressed memory. Attempting to help him remember his clouded past is a woman who communicates with him in visions and dreams, but a frightening premonition keeps diverting him to a cabin where a dangerous encounter leads to his friend’s death. The tragedy will play out for lifetimes to come and open his eyes to the truth about Unity and himself. To break the endless cycle of his life, Damon must confront his darkest fears and unveil a memory that’s too painful to remember. Only then can he discover an even more profound truth that expands beyond his mind and the Universe. (from

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Ultimate karma in real time gives this spiritual/metaphysical/visionary novel its structure and theme. In Unison, karma plays out in the form of a single lifetime that loops again and again, and certain characters have the ability to remember the lessons from previous lifetimes (eventually). The idea is that, not only does fate or destiny or karma affect serial lifetimes, it also affects a single lifetime replayed many times, allowing us to make key decisions over and over again until we are satisfied with the outcome.

Papanou tackles that fine line between individual choice and predetermination and tries to demonstrate how both can exist in parallel–all with a careful emphasis on avoiding freighted words specific to religions, such as karma, God, reincarnation, etc. In keeping with the futuristic setting of the novel, she instead chooses analogies that evoke technology such as uploads and downloads of memory at death and birth. 

Fresh metaphors illuminate the spiritual theme, such as music. One character in the orchestra with Damon is uncomfortable with the idea of fate or destiny–“the idea of being played by a hand I can’t see.” Damon replies that we actually “play” ourselves. Everyone has their own constant frequency that exists forever within the grand symphony of the “Progenitor.” Each string vibrates independently, but the tones resonate in unison. Each individual’s frequency is endless, and every unique tune, so to speak, is downloaded at birth in a constant cycle of life.

Damon exemplifies a principle that is laid clear by the structure of this novel: “What keeps me going is that with each passing lifetime, I realize how little I know–how little anyone knows. The quest for understanding the implications of that truth is both maddening and thrilling. . . . It’s a constant reminder to me of what if means to be free.”

My take: Despite taking the time to replay eight of Damon’s lives, Unison is tautly written and engrossing. A multitude of finely drawn and fascinating characters enliven Damon’s journeys at every turn. Papanou’s world is just as finely detailed, veering from utopian to dystopian and then to something beyond them both as the world and the characters evolve. The ending feels a bit rushed, but perhaps that’s understandable since The Spheral appears to be a series.

An interesting aspect of this reincarnation novel is that it deliberately avoids religious overtones. It simply presents the structure of the universe(s) in such a way that seemingly mystical events (such as living multiple, simultaneous lives) are easily explainable because of the laws of that universe. The reader learns about esoteric practices and principles without the obscuring layer of religion that so often fracture universal truths instead of reveal their logic and uniformity. As do the characters in this well-crafted, fascinating book, you get to choose what to make of it yourself.

Unison (The Spheral), by Eleni Papanou
Philophrosyne Publishing, 2013
Paperback, 563 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Infinite Sacrifice

Delightful historical vignettes can’t overcome weakness of reincarnation theme

Infinite Sacrifice LE Waters spiritual fiction metaphysical novel new age fictionRating: 4 out of 5 stars

When I view Infinite Sacrifice as four interconnected vignettes, I fall in love with the characters and their personal triumphs and tragedies. Each vignette is a first-class example of short historical fiction. However, when I read the book  as spiritual fiction with a reincarnation theme, the novel falls short. Reincarnation is used more as a trope to tease the reader than as a substantial theme that reveals insights into the life of the soul.

Story:  Maya’s shocked to discover it’s not the heaven she imagined; in fact, a life of adventure begins the moment you die. Zachariah, her faithful spirit guide, explains the rules of the dead: in order to regain complete awareness and reunite with loved ones, all souls must review their previous lives. Maya plunges warily into her turbulent pasts as a sociopathic High Priest in ancient Egypt; an independent mother protecting a dangerous secret in glorious Sparta; an Irish boy kidnapped and enslaved by Vikings; and a doctor’s wife forced to make an ethical stand in plague-ridden England. All the while, Maya yearns to be with those she cares about most, and worries that she hasn’t learned all of heaven’s most vital lessons. Will she be forced to leave the tranquility of heaven to survive yet another painful and tumultuous life? Or worse, accept the bitter reality of having to go back alone? (From

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Low. Between incarnations, Maya must review four of her past lives and integrate the lessons from each. Although the historical vignettes are very well researched and written, there is virtually no spiritual or metaphysical content even though the novel’s premise sets up that expectation. The epilogue, which purports to show how Maya assimilates the lessons, is very disappointing. A quick re-hash of the complex interactions among the various characters over time simply isn’t enough to carry the reincarnation theme successfully forward. Even though the tables for tracking the characters across lifetimes is helpful, it is difficult to trace what the lessons are and how Maya evolves spiritually.

My take:  When I view the novel as loosely connected stories set in ancient Egypt, Sparta, the Viking invasions of Ireland, and England wracked by the Black Death, I enjoy the story and characters immensely–especially the vignette set in Sparta. Waters’ exploration of Sparta’s cultural norms, particularly for women, is fascinating and insightful, and Waters finds unique tidbits in every time period that engage the reader. Waters is an excellent researcher and writer with a knack for vivid detail and a fine grasp of storytelling.

However, Maya’s story, which frames the vignettes and provides context for the reincarnation theme, feels wispy and insubstantial. The storyline hints at great intrigue and drama in upcoming books, but there’s not enough realistic detail and emotional engagement in Maya’s personal story to make me want to read the next book in the series.

Infinite Sacrifice, by L. E. Waters
Rock Castle Publishing, 2011
Paperback, 282 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: The Spirit Sherpa

Flawed and floundering, but also insightful and moving

Spirit Sherpa by Marc Littman metaphysical fiction spiritual novel reincarnation karmaRating: 3 out of 5 stars

“The Spirit Sherpa,” a spiritual novel by Marc Littman, feels like simultaneously watching  “Beetlejuice” and “Schindler’s List.” Chapters alternate between bizarre between-life scenes, and heart-tugging depictions of the hero’s  many lives (including several concurrent ones). Although flawed, the novel offers enough insight to keep the reader engaged.

Story:  A self-absorbed bigoted man killed in a road rage accident must learn the essence of spirituality and universal love through a revolving door of adventurous lives that play out in the past, present and future along with respites in-between on the other side of the veil in The Spirit Sherpa. Historical vignettes, action, mystery and humor are blended in this intriguing story that bends time. The celestial traveler is escorted on his journey by a mysterious spirit sherpa who holds the key to helping him dump the emotional baggage and fear he has been burdened with through time. (From

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Littman offers a one-paragraph description of how his hero dies and then dumps Manus into a high-octane version of purgatory. There Manus must internalize life lessons before he can pass to the Other Side (presumably Heaven) for a little “R & R, if you please, with some reflection and re-education blended in.” He meets his spirit sherpa, his great-grandmother Oma. She guides him through a life review and discussions with family members, and they meet his own personal wise men: Elvis, Wilt Chamberlain, and Einstein, who explains that time is not linear and that Manus is living (and reviewing) many parallel lives, some in the future and some in which he’s still alive as a different person. Littman uses Einstein to articulate his views on metaphysics and quantum mechanics, which works quite nicely as a way to add color and interest to challenging scientific detail.

Many of the chapters are vignettes from past, present, and even future lives that have the feel of a YouTube video in their honesty and veracity. I was intrigued by Littman’s premise that multiple lives play out simultaneously; several of the most interesting vignettes describe overlapping lifetimes from the 20th century.

Littman offers many observations about what awaits on the Other Side: Angels traveling to other planets and dimensions. Master spirits sowing inspiration for scientific breakthroughs or perhaps a new melody in our subconscious minds. How the dead use visions and dreams to comfort family and help them move on. How a spirit experiences multiple concurrent lives. Most important is Manus’ exploration of the many facets of love; he must learn that love survives life, and that it’s the only thing that truly matters. When Manus finally recognizes his soul mate, he is able to let go and move beyond the prejudices that so confound his most recent incarnation.

My take:  Did I enjoy this book, or was it an awkward read? Both, in frustrating and baffling turns. Littman alternates between graceless chapters set in purgatory and slice-of-life vignettes that can be profoundly moving. First, the good, which sometimes verges on very good.

For the most part, the life stories are compelling: Unexpected generosity in a cattle car headed to Auschwitz. A hard-won ghetto park in honor of the hero’s fallen son. A lovely tale of star-crossed soul mates–a Muslim boy and Yazidi girl–that ends in death and rebirth.

In addition, Littman delivers a range of religious perspectives, from the Yiddish Oma to a relatively obscure religious sect in Iran. He incorporates a Sikh as a major character. He presents Jerusalem through the eyes of a Muslim. His emphasis on religious diversity is very refreshing compared to many novels, even those within the spiritual genre.

Littman has done his homework; he judiciously adds telling historical details that imbue his characters  with credibility and vitality. By focusing more on Manus’ concurrent modern lives, the novel feels more relevant, relatable, and culturally eclectic than many reincarnation novels. The vignette chapters feel honest to the reader–unlike the roller coaster of heaven/hell/purgatory that Manus and Oma traverse. Even Littman’s back-to-the-future moments work reasonably well.

Then there’s the not-so-good. In the purgatory chapters, Littman’s writing style and choices leave the reader feeling whip-sawed and on the verge of vertigo, such as using multiple points of view and adding anachronisms that  jar the mind’s eye. Purgatory is a jumble of clashing sounds and images that is hard for the reader to follow.

The plot unravels Manus’ karmic relationships over millenia and the family influences turn him into a jerk of the highest order. However, some threads fray, several are never tied off, and it’s difficult to keep track of the many characters.   Major characterizations are equally uneven–some seem finely etched in ink, others scribbled in crayon.

While many of the incarnation chapters are truly moving, the between-life interludes seem not only divorced from reality but also from coherence.  In the end, the novel is deeply flawed but offersed enough insight to keep me turning the pages.

The Spirit Sherpa, by Marc Littman
CreateSpace, 2012
Paperback, 172pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Yü: A Ross Lamos Mystery

Literary reincarnation novel a must-read for Buddhist mystery fans

Yu Ross Lamos Mystery spiritual fiction metaphysical novel reincarnation karmaRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Read “Yü” to explore how passion and murder can transcend centuries as Ross Lamos uses his powerful Touch to unfurl the stories of the prince, the emperor, and the concubine bound within three jade objects. Read “Yü” for the haiku-like perfection of the jade stories themselves. Read “Yü” for the vibrant historical details, the taut mystery, the secret romance. But if you’re a fan of spiritual fiction, read it you must. Joy Shane Laughter (rhymes with “daughter”) has penned one of the smartest, most engaging literary mysteries I’ve read in a long time.

Story:  Forbidden love, the Imperial Court of the Han Dynasty, jades worth millions on the black market … Ross Lamos, 21st-Century Karmic Detective, knows that somehow, the history of the three jades is his as well. Yü, the Stone of Heaven, jade art born from the genius of ancient China. Lamos has built his career dealing Asian art and antiquities by hiding his very useful psychic Touch. When he holds the jades, the yü will reveal an extraordinary history. Lamos will risk everything to protect the jades, and finally remember his role in a love story that changed the course of a Dynasty … the love between an extraordinary Concubine and a Prince, the son of her Emperor, and the Poet caught between them all … a story hidden for two thousand years in three pieces of yü. is the award-winning first novel by Joy Shayne Laughter and begins the Ross Lamos mystery series.  (From

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Ross possesses psychometry–the ability to sense information about an object and the people associated with it. When he touches the jade pieces, he falls headlong into visions from the Imperial Palace of the Han Dynasty. The breathtaking jade stories build upon spiritual principles from that time, primarily Taoist writings by Chuang Tzu. One of the most moving sections vividly describes an exercise that people assume enhances combat skills. “What a misunderstanding,” says the concubine who practices the art. “The exercise is an increase in lightness and joy . . . you expand your welcome and embrace all of life . . . It is teasing play, where two minds learn to meet, speak together in silence, and then have a witty debate in movement.” It is through this meditative practice that the concubine first engages with the prince as he secretly watches her practice. Laughter does a splendid job of demonstrating how past traumas set the stage for our current lives, and she employs the Buddhist Middle Way to help her characters understand and work through their present karma.

My take:  This multi-dimensional literary mystery brilliantly interweaves reincarnation stories into a contemporary mystery. By writing the stories in first person,  ancient events seem immediate and compelling, almost more so than the present-day mystery that Ross unravels. The story culminates with a cunning identity twist that is totally unexpected, and totally satisfying.

The historical details from the Han Dynasty are not decorative fabric draped about the story, as is the case in many reincarnation novels, but essential to the action. For instance, the concubine communicates with her lover across an imperial court rife with spies, secret alliances, and conspiracies using a secret language of fans. But nothing stays secret for long within the claustrophobic walls of the Imperial Palace.

Laughter’s jade stories burst at the seams with elegant, concise, and yet restrained prose that pierces the true nature of each character. She evokes sympathy for a villain with a single, well-crafted line: “He carries so many more secrets than I. We both need so much comfort. ” Spare and beautiful, each word of the many jade stories performs double and even triple duty–prose haiku. Even the act of eating in public becomes an intimate, sensual act filled with tension and danger, more highly charged–and more thrilling to the reader–than the most explicit passages of a romance novel.

The simplicity of the jade stories resonates in bold contrast to her full-bodied descriptions of our contemporary world, details that pull you into a deeper understanding of what it is like to experience the Touch. The jade stories quilt together layers of tension, culminating in a crescendo that, unfortunately, the real-time story can’t quite match. The jade stories so overpower the actual mystery that one is left wanting more than the climax can deliver.

Cheers  to Joy Shane Laughter for this haunting, beautifully researched Buddhist detective novel.  I cannot wait to read the next book in the Ross Lamos series.

Yü: A Ross Lamos Mystery, by Joy Shayne Laughter
Open Book Press, 2010
Paperback, 226 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Threads–The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn

Richly textured spiritual novel explores karmic balance, stays true to history

Threads: Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn spiritual novel metaphysical fiction new ageRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Why did King Henry VIII nearly destroy England and create a new religion in order to marry Anne Boleyn, only to have her executed three years later? Nell Gavin’s fascinating, well-written  spiritual novel makes the compelling case that his nearly incomprehensible behavior is explained by the karma created throughout their many lifetimes together.

Story: In 1536, Henry and Anne are at the mercy of influences outside their control, explosively incompatible, and caught in a marriage that ends in betrayal so shocking that Anne requires lifetimes to recover. Henry, seemingly in defense of Anne (but more likely acting out of “stubborn perverseness,” she observes), terrorizes England and decrees widespread political murder in order to protect her. Ultimately, to Anne’s horror, this once passionate husband turns on her and has her executed as well. Threads, a reincarnation fantasy, opens with Anne’s execution. Her fury at her husband s betrayal has enough momentum to survive centuries, but in Threads she learns that she has been assigned a hard task: she must review their history together through a number of past lives, and find it within herself to forgive him. This may prove difficult and take some time. The husband in question is Henry Tudor, the notorious Henry VIII. The narrator is the stubborn, volatile Anne Boleyn, who is not at all inclined to forgive. (From

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. In the opening chapters, Anne finds herself in a “place of peace” after her execution. There she reviews her life with Henry VIII in England, as well as a dozen other lifetimes that she and Henry, along with other family and friends, share in various combinations. Gavin suggests that the crux of Anne and Henry’s tumultuous relationship partly results from Anne’s abandonment of her child (Henry) in a previous life. Henry  pursues her and obsesses over her beyond all reason, she says, “as only a lost child could or would.”

Gavin carefully constructs the “place between lives,” where words are physical beings with vibrant form, color, and substance. With the help of the Voice, Anne begins to understand the complex interactions within this group of souls, which choose to incarnate together across three millenia.  She focuses on the emotional relationships within the group, what lessons they need to learn, and what contributes to or hinders their growth. Toward the end, she feels herself “grow small with understanding” as she glimpses the true nature of reincarnation.

Gavin offers an interesting approach to understanding karma: Success earns us karmic cash,  while failure forces us to borrow. We “pay for what we take and are paid for what we give” across lifetimes. If a person successfully completes their assigned job, says Gavin, that success can be used “like currency toward the next existence on earth. The tally determines destiny, good or bad, upon one’s return” to the place between lives.

My take: This elegant literary novel, rife with imagery and insight, focuses on the emotional and spiritual relationship between Anne and Henry, emphasizing psychology over history. I was grateful that I had read several of Philippa Gregory’s excellent novels about the English Reformation, which helped me follow Gavin’s minimalist portrayal of  events and time lines. The historical details are painstakingly researched, and Gavin offers fascinating psychological insight into how karma and reincarnation nicely account for the almost inconceivable manner in which Henry VIII pursued and then discarded Anne.

Gavin is a skilled and powerful author, and Threads is an elegant tapestry of Henry and Anne’s many lives together. Gavin develops her characters more fully than most books can, not only exploring the physical and psychological dynamics of their relationship, but also projecting those dynamics across 3,000 years of shared history. This adds a rich spiritual dimension to her characters that is not possible in many novels. I highly recommend this historical novel to readers interested in learning how reincarnation may influence their own relationships.

Threads: The Reincarnation of Anne Boleyn, by Nell Gavin
Book and Quill Press, 2011
Kindle, 6500 (approx. 300 pages)
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Until the Next Time

Riveting suspense drives masterful Irish reincarnation novel

Until the Next Time Kevin Fox spiritual fiction metaphysical novel reincarnation

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Kevin Fox’s reincarnation novel explores political strife, religious intolerance, and enduring love that spans centuries, played out against the lush backdrop of Northern Ireland. He doles out hints and teasers so skillfully that the story rushes forward at breakneck speed as you chase down clues until the entire puzzle falls into place–revealing a satisfying portrait of romance, spirituality, and history that transports you to an Ireland you may not have known existed.

Story: For Sean Corrigan the past is simply what happened yesterday, until his twenty-first birthday, when he is given a journal left him by his father’s brother Michael—a man he had not known existed. The journal, kept after his uncle fled from New York City to Ireland to escape prosecution for a murder he did not commit, draws Sean into a hunt for the truth about Michael’s fate.

Sean too leaves New York for Ireland, where he is caught up in the lives of people who not only know all about Michael Corrigan but have a score to settle. As his connection to his uncle grows stronger, he realizes that within the tattered journal he carries lies the story of his own life—his past as well as his future—and the key to finding the one woman he is fated to love forever.  (From

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Using the framework of The Troubles in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, Fox illustrates that, on both an individual and societal level,  belief in reincarnation can provide a “different  set of moral guideposts” than enables people to seek justice instead of retribution, and eventually move on to “a more aware and enlightened way of  living.”

An intriguing mixture of ancient rites, Buddhist principles, and “enlightened” Catholicism drive the story at a relentless pace. Reincarnation and Catholicism? It’s a more natural fit than you might suspect. A recent article in the Catholic Herald states that 29.9% of self-described Irish Catholics believe in reincarnation. Fox presents a persuasive case, pointing out that reincarnation has been a feature of nearly every world religion except Christianity, and that Jesus’ actual words support reincarnation even though later Bible authors have reinterpreted their meaning.

This spiritual novel suggests that some people can remember their past lives more easily; that knowledge is passed down through families and within clusters of those who remember. Using an ancient Druid rite of passage, they awaken others because, when individuals view their actions through the broader lens of reincarnation, penance and forgiveness can occur mindfully in one or two lifetimes instead of playing itself out over many generations.

My take: The power of Until the Next Time  springs from Fox’s  remarkable ability to thread extensive historical and philosophical detail into crisp dialog and a clever plot that drives every character’s decisions. Similarly themed spiritual fiction sometimes adds a layer of pedantic preaching atop the plot, but Fox handles exposition so smoothly, it rarely disturbs the reader’s immersion within the story.

Understanding reincarnation is both the heart of the novel’s conflict and the key to resolving it. Fox uses the sprawling canvas of Northern Ireland and England spanning millenia to demonstrate how the typically abstract theory of reincarnation has shaped the Corrigan family’s history in very concrete ways. The characters’ choices determine their karma/fate/destiny; negative choices require penance and forgiveness, often through multiple lifetimes, until they absorb a particular lesson. This is not a philosophical notion for the Corrigans but a pattern of brutal action and reaction that drives war and aggression across centuries, culminating in Ireland’s Bloody Sunday and the brutal crackdown that followed.

Fox is a remarkable writer; he employs dialect so skillfully that I could hear an Irish lilt echoing in my head as I read. The novel’s structure is complex–three parallel stories spanning multiple generations, told through two points of view. Figuring out who is narrating the story is tricky at first, but the reader catches on fairly quickly. Beautifully written and paced, the novel’s spiritual and historical reach took my breath away. I immediately searched Amazon for more novels by Kevin Fox; regretfully, they do not exist yet. Until the Next Time is a wonderful example of how, as Fox explains, “Fiction is the lie that illuminates a greater truth.”

Until the Next Time, by Kevin Fox
Algonquin Books, 2012
Paperback, 400 pages
Buy at Amazon