“World War Z” by Max Brooks (Crown, 2006)

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I’ve read two books about zombies this year: one I found fascinating, incredibly interesting, and decreed it the best book of the year!; the other was formulaic, predictable, kind of failed in its goal, and ended terrible – one of them was written by Stephen King, can you guess which one?  Being an avid King reader (yes, I’ve read them all!), you would expect the King zombie book to be the former, but alas.  Cell was not good; World War Z is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

The key to World War Z is in its execution not as a horror book – even though it’s about humanity’s struggling war against zombies, and even though it’s most likely categorized as horror in every bookstore – but as a piece of thrilling and thought-provoking and contemplative fiction.  Brooks’ greatness with this book is in using a quasi-journalistic format where the narrator is traveling around the world interviewing a variety of different people from different backgrounds and cultures on how they managed to survive the war with the zombies.  The book is set about a decade after World War Z, giving the reader the reassurance that we survived, and this book is about how.

Brooks’ first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, gave step by step preparedness for what to do when confronted by one or a host of zombies: it’s a humor book meant to make you laugh and snicker at this outlandish situation.  World War Z is not a funny book, but a deadly serious one.  It’s quite shocking to contemplate the extensive research Brooks must have done to find out crucial details not just about the thirty different countries the narrator visits, but to also find out specific slang and expressions to that country and culture, and to know how a member of the military would act as opposed to a ordinary person, or another specifically skilled member of society in that particular country.  He must have gained a wealth of knowledge about the different societies of the world in general.

Brooks then takes it one step further in coming out with different operations and game plans for the different countries: what the government did, what the military did, and what its citizens did, all pertaining to the current regime of the time.  The book is set no more than twenty years from the present time, so we are all familiar with the regimes and different governments of this world: from Bush’s conservative, military heavy America; to a clandestine and mysterious North Korea; to a potent and still racist South Africa.

World War Z is a book about zombies that changes the way you think about the world and its people.  It makes you think about how we’re all in this together, we’re all the same – regardless of the world-threatening devastation, be it zombies, terrorism, or a pandemic virus.  World War Z serves as a guide book to humanity, so that when the “big thing” – whatever it is – happens, we’ll be a little more caring of other people around the world, regardless of what god they believe in, or the color of their skin.

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

Originally written on October 29th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Ladies of Grace Adieu” by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, 2006)

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While Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is not required reading for this short story collection, it provides a fuller and more complete background to the stories you are reading, nevertheless, one can certainly enjoy them and understand what’s going on without having read the aforementioned 600+ page book.

Clarke spent a decade writing Jonathan Strange, so it is not surprising that in her spare time she wrote some stories set in this magnificent world, which while not directly involved in the actions and events of her opus, do play by its rules and restrictions.  Some of the stories may even have been cut from the massive manuscript that was Jonathan Strange and now find themselves in this collection, finally in print.

These eight stories run the gamut of what Clarke might want to tell about her world, from what a couple of ladies with magical abilities must do (from the title story); to a tale of Mary, Queen of Scots; to a story involving the same Jonathan Strange of her book.  What links all these stories together is the reality of magic, whether the characters in the stories choose to accept its existence or not.  The result is a delightful, seemingly romantic, and entertaining change to the glut of fantasy filling the book world these days.  Magic in Clarke’s world cannot be done by everyone; it is subtle, exhausting, and hard to do.  Like the Bartimaeus Trilogy, Clarke’s magical world presents something new and therefore captivating in its own way.

While my complaint of Clarke is that she can often be long winded and due for some heavy editing – both in this collection and in her weighty novel – in the end one is left with the wonderful feeling that one has just read something special and will delight in reading it again some day.  Not to mention Ladies of Grace Adieu also features mesmerizing black and white illustrations by Charles Vess (who illustrated Neil Gaiman’s Stardust), the book is a worthy addition to anyone’s library.  The question remains now: how long will it be before Clarke publishes another collection or novel?  Does she have a box full of cut stories and material from Jonathan Strange waiting to be viewed by a reader’s eyes?  Only time will reveal this truth.

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

Originally written on October 12th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books, 1999)

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This collection of nine short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.  The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is of Indian descent, born in London and currently lives in New York, so each story is a look into a different part of Indian culture or into Indian people and their way of life.  The first three stories were great and the title story was my favorite.  The man literally is an interpreter of maladies, who works at a hospital translating patients’ symptoms to the doctor and in this it is revealed he has a lot of power and obligation in telling the doctor exactly what the patient is suffering from so the correct diagnosis can be given.  After this story, I found the rest of book slow, kind of boring, and the stories just weren’t as engaging.

What started to annoy me as a I progressed through the book was that here you have a no doubt rich and well educated Indian woman who went to very good schools, lived in a good home in England, went to a good writing school for her MFA – probably in New York – and proceeded to publish her work in prestigious magazines like the New Yorker, and yet she is writing about Indian life and how hard it is for most people, especially those not as well off, and it just really got to me that she had succeeded in this way writing about a way of life she’d never experienced.

Now, having finished the book, my thoughts towards Lahiri have changed a little.  For with her upbringing she was never able to experience Indian culture as an Indian living in India.  This was no doubt a big deal to her, and is to Indian culture.  A friend at work, who is of Indian decent, but born here, told me the other day that Indians don’t consider him Indian because he was born here.  I realize now that this was probably the very thing that changed my mind about this book.  It helped me realize that in writing these stories, Lahiri is living the lives of these people, getting the experiences that she was never able to, and in doing so is helping her to define her Indian heritage better.

The result is a collection of interesting and unique stories – perhaps not quite deserving of the Pulitzer — about Indian people trying to live ordinary Indian lives.

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

Originally written on September 16th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2005)

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I’ve been working on a novel for the last four years or so that’s been going pretty slowly. I’ve been doing it in chunks, mainly because it’s historical fiction and involves a lot of research and I’ve essentially been getting stuck at some point and needing to research more before I can get started writing again.  Now I’m at a point where I need to read a few books to complete the current research.  The book was called The Ruin, though I recently changed the title to Wyrd, which is Anglo-Saxon for destiny.  While the book is set in the fifth century in England and has characters that may turn out to be Arthurian (I’m not sure yet), the intention of the novel is to encompass the feel and texture of the Early Middle Ages, at a time when society was essentially beginning anew for this forgotten island.

When I started reading The Last Kingdom by one of my favorite authors I got the chilling feeling that Cornwell had done what I was trying to do with my book.  And after finishing it, there’s a lot in it that I can see coming out in my novel, and yet Wyrd will go in different directions and achieve different goals.  Nevertheless, The Last Kingdom was a great book for anyone wanting to get a feel of the ninth century and what it was like for the Anglo-Saxons living there and having to deal with the invading Vikings who were trying to settle and do essentially what the Anglo-Saxons had done a couple of centuries before to the Britons.  While the main character, Uhtred, is but a boy at the beginning and the narrator, our hero is Alfred the Great (the only British king ever to be called “the Great”) and while I’m not sure how long the series is going to be, the reader will see Alfred grow up and become the great king that earned him the title.  I’m quite familiar with Alfred’s history and life and how he emulated Charlemagne in a lot of ways, and it’s really enjoyable to see this fictionalized account from a great author, which has been well researched, and to see these historical characteristics in the fictionalized characters.

I will freely admit that Bernard Cornwell isn’t exactly the most in depth and complex of historical fiction writers, and his characters aren’t always the fully developed real people they should be, but he still does the job well and gets his point across in giving the reader a look into this life, just as he did with his Grail series set in the Later Middle Ages, and his Arthurian series.  It’s also the kind of book that anyone can pick up and get fully sucked into without getting confused or lost along the way with heavy history and jargon.  Cornwell is also sure to point out as much of the native languages as he can, with plenty of translations, to clarify it all.

Next I have The Pale Horseman to read in the series, with Lords of the North to come in January.

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

Originally written on September 15th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury, 2004)

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This was my second attempt at reading this book. I’d tried when it first came out, with the heavy intimidating hardback (though sometimes a giant hardback that I can’t hold in one hand is the best thing ever!). Since it was a fantasy novel with magic and wizards and set within a historical period, I was expecting something fast paced and somewhat action packed. So when I got 200+ pages in and had yet to have a scene where something physically happened involving some sort of action, I gave up.

When the paperback came out I was unable to stop myself from purchasing it. This is a thing that’s developed in me over the years spent in the book business. When I see a book that I think should be good and has a really great cover (since I have seen many bad covers, such as all the Robert Jordan books), I need to own it. I’d told myself that I’d give this book another try at a later date and so before I left Copperfield’s I bought it.

About a month ago I started listening to it on audiobook, got about fifteen minutes into it, and while the voices were very good and English, I could tell from the well developed language of the book that it would be better and deserved to be read in the paper form. I sloughed through it this time, finally rewarded with a few actions scenes, and some very interesting plot. I still felt it went on a little too long and there could’ve been an entire book of the same size with all the stuff that didn’t get revealed in the book. When you create a unique world, I like to know how it came to be and a lot of the details of why it is this way, and there wasn’t as much of that in Jonathan Strange. It centered more around two kind of lame magicians, one of which is an old annoying selfish fart, and an ego-maniacal fairy who wants to control the real world as well as that of Faerie. Near the end some of the characters did some weird things as well that I thought were unwarranted and kind of came out of nowhere, which really bugs me with long books that have the room and the time to set this up.

Nevertheless, I’m definitely glad I worked through it and read the whole thing and that I own it and maybe, in five or ten years, I’ll give it a reread and see it in a totally different way.

I’ve discovered in my reading that it really depends on my current mood and state of what I can get from a book. I can be impatient and want something to grab me right away, which is why I didn’t like the book at first, but when I tried again in a calmer state, I was able to enjoy it. It’s all very weird and probably a little OCD in some way, but over the many many years of reading and the many many books read, I’ve become picky in what I read and what I want to read and how I want to read it.

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

Originally written on April 26th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Wheel of Time” Series by Robert Jordan (Tor, 1990)

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I tried. I gave it over two years of my life and I still couldn’t keep going till the end. Of course, the real end will probably be book fifteen or twenty or, heaven forbid, twenty-five and up. I’m talking about Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Currently there are eleven books in the series, the latest, Knife of Dreams, came out last October. The first book, Eye of the World, started out really well and I felt like I’d discovered a great new epic fantasy series similar to that of Lord of the Rings. The first book proved this and I thought it was great; I was also very excited at the notion of there being so many books in the series, with the story still incomplete. The second book, The Great Hunt, while not as mind-mashingly great as the first book, was still a great read, as was the third, The Dragon Reborn, where we find out that the main character is the guy prophesied to save the world, essentially. Eight books from there and the big showdown still hasn’t come, while Jordan has continued to drag out into the hundreds and thousands of pages scenes, descriptions, and characters bickering at each other about the same thing while repetitively employing their annoying habits, to the point where I feel like I’m reading a children’s nursery rhyme.

Then there’s the whole deal with the main character, Rand, having his undeniable love for three of the women characters, which he is okay with, and which they are okay with, apparently, and are quite willing to share him amongst themselves. I may have kept sloughing through the series better if there’d been a lot less purple prose and books four to ten had been condensed into say books four to six, which would’ve made more sense and made the stories move along better. Around book five I began spotting the routine the books go through: a few hundred pages of sitting around talking, explaining and regurgitating what’s happened in the past books, bitching at each other; then about four hundred pages of people painstakingly crawling from a starting point to a destination (and bear in mind that these people can “travel” through vortexes real fast), and then the last hundred pages is a big action scene. At book seven, Crown of Thorns, halfway through, I decided I’d wasted enough time on Mr. Jordan and his wordiness, so I employed a slow speed-reading method which got me through them a lot faster. In about three days I reached the end of book nine and decided I’d had it and it just wasn’t worth any more of my time. At this point I’d been able to summarize each book into three or four sentences, and I’d decided that if I can do that, maybe it’s just not worth it and I should put my reading time to something more important that I’d enjoy reading more.

So here I am Mr. Jordan, signing off on your series that held so much promise and crashed and burned like a planet falling into a dead star. Oh, and you know what, I’m not the only one who thinks this way. There are other people I know who’ve given up earlier than me, and others who’ve not even bothered to start because they know it’s going to end bad.

On the plus side, I get to sell all my Robert Jordan books and make money off him!


Originally written on February 27th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Cell” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2006)


Cell is Stephen King’s first horror novel since he completed his epic Dark Tower series. In the middle of writing the last two books in the series he was asked what he’d be writing about next and his response had been something to the effect of: “I’m never writing another book again!” That’s what happens when you ask a guy about writing when he’s drowning in thousands of pages and hundreds of thousands of words. But now some years and much needed rest and recovery later, Cell takes technology and cell phones to a whole new level: zombies!

With the opening line, “The event that came to be known as The Pulse began at 3:03 p.m., eastern standard time, on the afternoon of October 1,” the reader is immediately dragged into the thrall of the book, which is unusual since King usually takes up to fifty pages to get started with his books. “The Pulse” is an electromagnetic signal sent through cell phones, so anyone using their phone at that point is immediately affected, the result being their mind is completely wiped. What’s left? Our primitive, primordial thoughts and reactions, which are little to none; the result: zombies!

Clayton Riddell has just landed his first huge lucrative comic book deal and is ready to return home to Kent Pond in Maine to his wife — who is drifting away from him — and his son to tell them everything is going to be okay, but then the pulse hits and pandemonium erupts: zombies!

Clay has only one goal in mind: to get to his wife, and more importantly his son and make sure he’s alive and well. He consoles himself with the terror of knowing his son has a shiny red cellphone, though the last time Clay saw it, it was under his son’s bed, forgotten; then again with everything that’s happened, his son might have chosen to keep his cell phone handy. With the help of a middle-aged man and a fifteen year old girl, they make their slow journey north through New Hampshire and on to Maine. Somehow the reader is supposed to just take it for granted that the other two have little interest in going anywhere else except to see Clay’s wife and son. They soon discover that the zombies are very human in one way: they sleep at night and for some reason like easy listening music while they are in this “resting state,” which involves packing together like sardines in a big arena or gym and just lying there, eyes open, doing nothing. Strange zombies!

As the novel progresses, through a process of elimination, it is discovered that the zombies are telepathic, working on a “hive mind” system, and also possess some psychic power that allows the “phonies” to talk through “normies” using their mouths. It is also revealed that there is a protected reserve in Maine called Kashwak where there is no cellphone reception (KASHWAK=NO-FO), and therefore a place of refuge for the normies. It is there the group is headed (other members are added), destroying “flocks” of phonies along the way, and are in fact pulled there with the psychic power of the phonies, who’s spokesperson is a zombie they call the Raggedy Man. As Clay discovers that his wife and son are already near Kashwak, they all head there, knowing that the reserve will be the final showdown between the normies and the phonies. The question is whether humanity will triumph, or whether homo sapiens sapiens will be reduced to zombies!

As Cell gets into full swing, I was hoping for something a little more epic, though I kind of figured this wouldn’t happen since the book was only 350 pages, I knew it couldn’t get too “big.” Nevertheless, I would have liked a little more depth to it. My biggest complaint with cataclysm stories is that they tend to focus on such a small scale. I know opening this up nationally or internationally would make the book three times the size, but I at least want to get an inkling of whether this is just happening in New England or whether the entire world has been affected. My other complaint, which is a common one with some of King’s books, is I like explanations for how and why things happen. It is hinted that The Pulse might be a form of attack by terrorists, but that’s as far as King goes to explaining why all this is happening. But this is a King novel and I certainly enjoyed it for his first big post-Dark Tower endeavor, and we mustn’t forget, following in the vein of George Romero, this is ultimately a book about zombies!

P.S. Favorite dead body description of the book: “He looked at a headless woman, a legless man, at something so torn open it had become a flesh canoe filled with blood.” All I can say is: zombies!

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

Originally written on January 29th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.