“The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 1996)

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Originally published as Northern Lights in 1995, this is the story of a young girl who doesn’t know what to do or what is going to happen with her life, but soon discovers that she is on a specific course, a destiny that she is unable to avoid.  While The Golden Compass is considered a children’s book, like the Harry Potter series, it is written with an adult voice in an adult language, with adult themes.  It seems that British authors give their young readers a lot more credit that American authors.  The result is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy that is by no means “just a kid’s book.”

Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who spends her days roaming the many hallways and rooms of Jordan College, Oxford, where she makes friends with everyone regardless of class or status.  She’s just looking to have a good time and loves taking risks, whether it be climbing the roof of the college, or chasing and attacking the gyptians who show up every once in a while on the river.  This is a different world to ours, where everyday electricity doesn’t exist.  This is a world of zeppelins, steam and air powered machinery, gyroscopes and wheels and cogs, essentially a steampunk world.  Also in this world every person has what is known as a dæmon, essentially the embodiment of a person’s soul in the form of an animal.  When young, children’s dæmons can change form, but when they reach puberty the dæmon settles on a single form for the rest of their lives, giving one an insight into the person’s nature.

But Lyra’s world changes when first she saves her grandfather, Lord Asriel, from being poisoned, and then learns of his work in the distant icy north where work is being done with something called Dust, the northern lights, and something about another world in the sky.  Lyra then meets Mrs. Coulter, who she immediately takes a liking to for she is so strong and impressive and knowledgeable, that is until Lyra discovers that she is the one who has been kidnapping children and taking them to the north for experimentation.  Managing to escape, Lyra joins with the gyptians who head north to find out what is going on with all this business about kidnapped children and Dust.  The rumors are terrible.  It is said that experiments are being done separating children from their dæmons which, considering it is taboo for a person to even touch another’s dæmon, does not bode well for Lyra and the gyptians.

It is in the north that Lyra finally discovers everything that is going and more importantly, why it is happening, as well as a giant armored warrior polar bear, Iorek Byrnison, known as panserbjørne; and a Texan balloon-fighting man called Lee Scoresby.

His Dark Materials, in my opinion, is even better than the Harry Potter series for the subject matter is far more complex with truths that relate to every reader.  And with a move adaptation of The Golden Compass set for release on December 7th, now is the perfect time to read this magical series for the first time, or simply to reread it again.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Interworld” by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves (Harpercollins, 2007)

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Most people are familiar with Neil Gaiman, who has written such great novels as Neverwhere, American Gods, and Coraline for younger readers, but not so many know Michael Reaves.  Reaves has written for Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Twilight Zone, and Batman: The Animated Series, as well as the New York Times bestseller Star Wars: Darth Maul – Shadow Hunter.  Gaiman and Reaves began working on the idea for Interworld in 1995 wishing to make it a television adventure, but the idea was not received well, so they decided to write it down in novel form but it was still never picked up.  Recently, it was re-presented and has been picked up with a 2010 release, and the book finally published.  It is the perfect young adult science-fiction adventure story to fill the vacuum left with the completion of the Harry Potter series.

Joey Harker is an ordinary boy with nothing special going for him.  He’s stuck in high school with few friends and a girl who doesn’t even know he exists.  While on a routine school field trip, Joey suddenly “Walks” into a parallel world, just like the one he is from but with subtle differences.  He Walks through a couple more worlds and soon finds people on his tail.  He runs and an ally joins him, covered in this strange silvery suit, and looking uncannily like him.  Joey eventually discovers that there are thousands and thousands of alternate realities which he is able to Walk through and get to.  He discovers that there are two forces vying for control of all the worlds: the HEX, who are based in science and technology, and the Binary who believe in sorcery and magic.  Finally there is the Interworld, where a seemingly endless number of Joey Harkers from different worlds, with different but similar names, all looking very different, of various ages, are working together to stop the HEX and the Binary.

Written in an incredibly descriptive and flamboyant style, with a pastiche of imagery – with the clear intention of transposing Interworld to the big screen – Interworld is a unique novel for all ages, taking you on a journey unlike any other where it requires you to stay on your “mental toes” to keep everything straight and make sure you know what’s going on in this strange universe.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“M is for Magic” by Neil Gaiman (Harpercollins, 2007)

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While it was only a year ago that Neil Gaiman released his last short story collection, Fragile Things, his latest collection, M is For Magic, is specifically a short story collection aimed at younger readers, especially those who enjoyed Coraline a great deal.  While this collection features stories already published in Fragile Things, as well as new stories, and a single poem; it is a perfect collection for anyone, of any age, discovering Neil Gaiman for the first time.

M is For Magic begins with a classic mystery tale involving characters from the nursery rhymes of our past, with the natural victim being Humpty Dumpty. It is the perfect introduction to the mind of Neil Gaiman where you never know what you’re going to get, all you know is that it’s going to be magical and amazing.  The highpoint of the collection, making M is For Magic the perfect gift for fall or Christmas, is “October in the Chair” as the months of the year recount some incredible stories they’ve experienced.  Included is also “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” which won the 2007 Locus Award for Best Short Story.  It ends with the wonderful poem “Instructions,” as one is led on a step-by-step quest through a fairytale and what are the directions, and what it takes to survive.

Whether you’ve read these stories before in other books, or wish to try something new and different, M is For Magic has something for everyone.  And the beauty of the short story collection is you can just pick it up and read a single story, or sit down and read the whole book over and over.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 13th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, 2007)

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Who will die?  What will happen to Hogwarts?  Is Snape good or bad?  Will Voldemort finally die?  And is it possible Harry might die?  Many people around the world have been waiting two years for the final installment of the Harry Potter series.  As I write this, people of all ages are furiously reading; many have already finished.  This is it folks, the last one, with no more planned; and the results are in: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, weighing in at 759 pages, concludes the series in spectacular, jaw-dropping, and awe-inspiring fashion, solidly placing the fantasy series up there with Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Stephen King’s The Dark Tower; possibly as one of the best fantasy series of all time.  This seven-book series, which will be published as a complete set on September 18 in a beautifully designed trunk-like box with handles and your very own lock, will be one for the ages, to be read by children for many generations to come.

The Death Eaters are slowly but surely taking over, as we’ve always known they eventually would, increasing their numbers and employing the army of Dementors, under the control and guidance of Lord Voldemort.  Rowling puts her three main characters – Harry, Hermione, and Ron – to the ultimate test here.  In the last six books Harry has gotten by with help from friends and teachers, always seemingly getting that necessary and crucial help at the last second; but now the trio are seventeen, no longer considered underage, and able to perform magic wherever and however they so please.  Rowling doesn’t hold back, leaving them to fend for themselves, solve their own problems, and get out of each and every situation on their own.  Deathly Hallows is nonstop action, one scene of fighting and almost death leading onto the next, as the three seek out the Horcruxes.  Going on the vague and barely informative words of wisdom from the late Albus Dumbledore, they piece it together, using their magical and educational knowledge – not just Hermione’s! – with the goal of finally defeating Voldemort once and for all.  And while Harry has expressed in the past that it’s up to him, he’s the Chosen One, and needs to go it alone, he isn’t given the opportunity here.

People are dying, mainly Muggles, but also Mudbloods, and any whose bloodline is tainted with that of the non-magical, leading to a growing world that hearkens back to the time of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, as well as echoing the doom and hopelessness of 1984.  With Voldemort’s rule seemingly solid and complete, Harry gets help he doesn’t want from the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army, leading up to a great final battle where the castle known as Hogwarts lives up to its name as a defensible fortress.

This is the last book folks: who will live and who will die, who will triumph and who will fall is at the mercy of the turning of the page and the next sentence.  But with the size of this book, you can be sure you’ll be on the ride of your life from the first page until the last.  And you will feel a sadness and longing at the realization that the long journey in the life of Harry Potter is finally over.  Yet Rowling has done such an incredible job with Deathly Hallows, weaving in details and points from all previous six books, that you are left with a strong sense of nostalgia.  And what’s the only cure for this feeling?  Why to begin the books all over again with the first when Harry Potter first looked upon Number Four, Privet Drive.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 22nd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick (Scholastic, 2007)

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Brian Selznick, who previously has done a mixture of writing and illustration, brings us his greatest creation to date: The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  The main character, Hugo, is a young orphan who used to live with his uncle behind the scenes of a Paris train station.  Then his uncle died, and Hugo now spends his time, in the late 1930s, winding up and oiling, fixing and maintaining the many clocks and devices around the train station, all alone.  He is rarely seen and actually lives behind the walls, while thousands of people, day to day, travel to make their trains, or disembark for other destinations.

It is on one day that he gets to know the man who owns the newsagents in the train station, after befriending his daughter.  The story slowly unfolds that the man is actually George Méliès, one of the most important people in the early days of film, his most famous piece being about four men who traveled to the moon known as A Trip to The Moon, with the memorable image of the dough-like moon with a face grimacing as the bullet-like ship is shot into its eye.  Méliès died in 1938, but it is in this story that he lives on, working in obscurity at the newsagents.  The story unravels further to reveal an inextricable link between Méliès and Hugo.

While this would be an enjoyable story in its own right, Selznick has created a new medium using not just words, or pictures, or illustrations, but incorporating all three into a chronological miasma.  The book begins like a movie, with fifty pages of gray illustration as we zoom in on the train station, into the clock and Hugo Cabret.  Then there is the start of the story in word form, but instantly switching to illustration again, and then cutting to photographs where necessary.  The difference here is that the illustrations are not revealing the written word, but continuing the story of the word.  You cannot skip one or you miss the story.  The Invention of Hugo Cabret uses all these forms to make this not just a book, but a collection of illustrations, and a type of movie or flicker-book that are all interwoven to tell the story of Hugo Cabret and his relationship with George Méliès, one of the original geniuses in the early days of film.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on April 28th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Eldest” by Christopher Paolini (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2005)

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I read Eragon last fall and while it was a decent fantasy novel (the first part of a trilogy), which Paolini had first written and self published when he was fifteen, I was ultimately disappointed with is lack of originality and obvious “borrowing” from Lord of the Rings, the Wheel of Time series, and no doubt other fantasy epics. I am pleased to say, having read an advanced reader’s copy of Eldest that I’m now looking forward to the conclusion of the series. Paolini has grown up in many ways and this book is a lot more developed in both character and plot, plus he’s developing his own ideas and making his own choices instead of using other works. He does make some references, as it is impossible to write fantasy and not do this, one being Beowulf, but it is more of an homage or a tipping of the cap to this or that work. Also he’ll be coming to a high school in Santa Rosa on September 16th, basically due to my idea for a competition that readers can enter, and the prize is four of them will get to read their idea of what they would do and where they would live in Alagaesia. So I’m looking forward to meeting with him and discussing his influences and ideas, as they are quite similar to mine. We both seem to search for origins of peoples and civilizations, whether they are historical or invented; pretty interesting stuff.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on July 8th, 2005 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Amulet of Samarkand” & “Golem’s Eye” by Jonathan Stroud (Disney, 2003 & 2004)

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So I met Jonathan Stroud last Friday, author of the Bartimaeus triology, of which the first two are out: “The Amulet of Samarkand” and “The Golem’s Eye.” He came to the bookstore I work at in Petaluma, Copperfield’s, and was pretty entertaining. He was the classic English guy writing about a doomed England of magic and magicians and the regular people known as “commoners”: average English accent from near London area with some clipped Cockney when speaking, but when reading clear, upper class southern England accent; a very ordinary looking guy in a t-shirt and slacks, totally unassuming and seemingly unaware that he’s a big famous author who’s growing and growing in notoriety.
I was talking to him about how I really liked that in his fantasy books involving magicians being separate and higher in social stature than ordinary people like you and me, Stroud pays more attention to what is happening socially with the paradigm, than just telling a story about a hot-shot wizard doing great things. And he seemed happy to know that I had spotted this in his books. That they took a different direction to most of the kids fantasy books out today involving the Harry Potter character, which has now practically become an archetype.

In the world of the Bartimaeus trilogy, magicians don’t actually have that much power. They have all their control and magic from summoning djinn from another world and using them to do magical things, and all the summoning of imps, djinn, and higher level afrits is done through reading incantations from books. So in this world, the magicians really don’t have that much power. Yet the magicians control the entire government from Parliament to the prime minister.

And then you have the ordinary people, the “commoners” who are a subjugated people who work in factories and any and all jobs that involve labor. And are meek and always do as they are told, and it comes off as an almost Orwellian dystopia. Except there are a few that somehow possess some ability to take attacks from magicians and djinn and not be killed by them and that they are able to see on multiple planes. There are seven planes, humans can only see on the first, and magicians with the aid of lenses can see the first three, while the djinn and afrits are on all seven planes. And this group is known as the “Resistance,” as they try to overthrow the magicians and take back control of the country.

And then there’s the nebulous rest of Europe in which you have the east consisting mainly of the Czechs who are warring against the English and have been for a long time, but are now at truce.

So it’s a very interesting world with lots going on instead of just some tough wizard kid fighting a bad guy. I recommend it to all who want to read a different kind of fantasy.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 28th, 2004 ©Alex C. Telander.

BookBanter Episode 27 with Seth Grahame-Smith

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This episode features my interview with Seth Grahame-Smith, who is the author of the original mash-novel that swept the world by storm, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is now being turned into a movie, as well as a graphic novel, and there’s even a prequel coming out soon. But most of our interview — after some initial discussion about Seth’s thoughts on zombies — was spent talking about his new book coming out March 2nd, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In the interview, you learn where he came up with the idea for the book (which predates Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), how he went about writing the book with all the research. Seth also does a lot of TV work, which he talks about, as well as other projects he’s currently working on. There was a bit of an issue with the recording and sound quality, but the interview is clear enough and pretty interesting.

This episode features my reviews Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and the new book, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter :

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

This episode of BookBanter is brought to you by East Bay and Footlocker, leading world suppliers of athletic footwear, apparel and sports equipment, featuring top athletic brands such as Adidas, Reebok, Converse, and Nike.  Go to East Bay.com and use the code AFBOOK15 to receive 15% off your order, or the code AFBOOK20 to receive 20% off your order of $75 or more.  Or go to Footlocker.com and use the code AFBOOKFL to receive 15% off your order.

For more updates and news, as wells as thoughts and comments about books and writing, be sure to check out the BookBanter Blog.

Be sure to join me on the next episode of BookBanter, coming March 15th, where I’ll be talking with bestselling author Kim Stanley Robinson, and we’ll be talking all about his latest book, Galileo’s Dream.

Until next time,

Alex C. Telander.

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