“Ahab’s Wife, or the Star-Gazer” by Sena Jeter Naslund (William Morrow, 1999)

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Ahab’s Wife serves admirably as a companion book to Melville’s Moby-Dick and having read both, I think I can safely say that if Herman Melville were to read Ahab’s Wife, he would be more than happy with the duty and accuracy Naslund devotes to the period, the prose, and its homage to Melville’s opus.

This is the life story of Una, the wife of Ahab – the peg-legged determined-bordering-on-insane captain of the Pequod in search of his white whale.  The cover of the book depicts a Puritan-clothed  woman on a harsh beach looking out into a rough sea, while further down the beach lies the broken hulk of an old ship.  It creates images and ideas of a worrying woman left at home for years at a time to tend to house and children, while her husband is out braving the sea, fighting giants monsters in his man’s world.  One would think this a book about her everyday actions, her chores, her repetitive characteristics, and while this is part of the book, there is so much more going on in Una’s life with her triumphs and tribulations, her loves and deaths, her dangerous adventures, and her happy times at home.  This is what makes Ahab’s Wife a welcome companion to Moby-Dick, for while Ahab’s is a story of adventure and danger, Una’s is just as much so.

The book begins, as all life stories should, with a birth, only Una’s mother is all alone in a cabin and naturally it is a birth that almost kills her.  Una’s life is a harsh one in Kentucky and before she is ten, her mother sends her away to her aunt’s.  Una’s father is a devout Christian, while Una is an atheist from a young age, choosing not to blindly believe in what her father tells her to believe.  Her mother fearing for her life, sends her to the distant coast of New England to live with her aunt and uncle in a lighthouse.  And so begins the next chapter in her life, with a different family, in a different place.  With the arrival of two men who come to upgrade the lighthouse, she falls in love with both of them – even though she is still young – knowing that one will be her husband one day.  At the age of eighteen, she leaves the island and the lighthouse for the mainland of Boston and then Nantucket getting by on simple work until she finds the same two men whom she loves on a whaling ship.  Disguising herself as a young boy she joins the crew and experiences the whaling life of her future husband.  It is here that she first sees The Pequod and meets Ahab, who by then is an old man but still respectable and honorable.  Ahab is the one to marry Una to Kit when her existence on the ship, love for that man, and her femininity are all revealed.

A whale stoves in the ship and Una spends many days on a small boat with the remaining crew reduced to cannibalism – harking to the story of Moby-Dick as well as the story of the whale ship Essex, which was the impetus for Melville’s work.  It is on the return journey to Nantucket that the other love of her life dies tragically and her husband Kit essentially goes insane.  Upon returning to land and leaving her husband due to his condition, Una’s life slows down and her relationship with Ahab begins until their marriage and happiness together.  It is here that the story of Moby-Dick truly begins and the reader gets to meet the familiar characters of the classic book.  But while Ahab spends years away from home, Una’s life goes on with the birth of a child and the struggles of her life.  It is upon the return and meeting of Ishmael that Una learns of the doomed story of Ahab, his white whale, and his death.

The book could be considered technically over at this point, but this is the story of Una, who is still very much alive.  The rest of her life is spent interacting with Ishmael and even meeting and interacting with the slave who fought for his freedom, Frederick Douglass.  And while she never forgets her life with Ahab, she eventually finds another husband and in the waning years of her life is happy once more.

What makes Ahab’s Wife a truly impressive book is not just its intended mimicry of Moby-Dick with the crossing over of characters, similar layout of the book with many chapters and illustrations, and actual scenes involving the same locations in both books such as the church with the pulpit carved to imitate the bow of a ship which the same preacher from Moby-Dick climbs the ladder to the top of, screaming of hellfire and damnation; it is the prose and how Naslund writes that truly emulates the style of Melville, making this a truly important work of literature deserving a place in the shelves with Melville, James and Hawthorne.

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

Originally written on February 17th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Great and Secret Show” by Clive Barker (Harpercollins, 1990)

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In The Great and Secret Show, one of the great storytellers brings us the first volume of the Art Trilogy, taking readers to a place they’ve never been before.  This book is not a fantasy book, not a horror novel, or a science fiction story; and at the same time it’s all these and much more.  Barker takes you to a new plane of existence in The Great and Secret Show where you’ll laugh and cry, smile and scream; where unimaginable horrors and triumphs await!

Randolphe Jaffe is a loser who’s going nowhere fast, that is until he gets a job for the post office working in the dead letter room in Omaha, Nebraska – the nexus of the country where all lost and undeliverable mail ends up.  Going through thousands of pieces of undelivered mail per day – money and everything of value is surrendered to his boss – he begins finding clues of an undiscovered power in existence beneath the realm of society.  It takes time, but he puts the pieces together until he has a good idea of this power known as the Art, where he then receives a medallion, the very symbol of the Art.  While it means little to him at first, he knows it is an important piece of the puzzle.  Naturally, his boss wants the item and it is then that Jaffe takes the first step down his new path and kills the man in cold blood.

Collecting the important evidence together, with the medallion, he travels across America, living on the whim of the Art, letting it guide him where it will.  Innocent bystanders are used by him, sensing the power of the Art and agreeing to whatever Jaffe tells them.  It is in an alcohol- and drug-infused stupor that Jaffe conducts his pilgrimage into the desert and finds the Loop: a place out of time, and meets Kissoon, the last member of the Shoal.  The Shoal was the group appointed to protect the Art.  For the world is part of the Cosm, and beyond this is the Metacosm where the sea of Quiddity lies – a place visited by all when they are born, the night with their first love, and when they die – and within Quiddity lies the island of Ephemeris, the dream land.  More importantly at the far edge of the Metacosm lie the Iad Uroborus, a great evil that is always looking to consume the Cosm.  The Art is a way of getting to Quiddity.  Kissoon tells Jaffe that he must occupy his body so he can leave the Loop and defend the Cosm.  Jaffe suspects otherwise and flees, embarking on his own mission of discovery with Richard Wesley Fletcher as they research the Art in its entirety.  Fletcher soon discovers a liquid form of the Art known as nuncio, testing it first on a chimpanzee who becomes a human with the ability of speech and thought, known as Raul.  The nuncio will force the being to the next evolutionary step, but Richard also knows if Jaffe were to use it, it would focus on his urges of murder and revenge, making him into a serial killer.  But it is too late, for Jaffe discovers the existence of the nuncio and in a fight both are infected by it and become higher beings – The Jaff and Fletcher.

And then a great war is fought in the skies of America between these two gods of power until they are spent and plunge into a lake in Palomo Grove, California.  There they both rest until four unsuspecting girls go swimming and are inseminated by The Jaff and Fletcher to create subjects to regain their power.  And so the town is irrevocably changed forever as the four girls are all changed, becoming pregnant, giving birth to the offspring of these deities.  Only three survive: a son of Fletcher and twins of The Jaff, and it is when, years later, that Fletcher’s son and The Jaff’s daughter meet and fall in love at first sight that the gods are awakened and the town takes a turn for the worst.  Using the life-force of a recent victim, The Jaff is able to regain his power and begins collecting minions that he calls terrata from the people of Palomo Grove, sucking out their souls and using their rage, evil and anger to fuel his creatures.  Fletcher is left with the dregs and is barely able to leave the crevasse where the lake used to be and find out what has happened to his son; then in a heroic effort, he gives up his life, spreading his power through the minds of the people of the town, who then have their dreams of meeting celebrities come true.  These are the allies who must battle against the terrata in the mansion on the hill.

With help from a pulp reporter, Grillo, and his friend, Tesla, Fletcher’s son Howard with The Jaff’s daughter – who despises her creator – confront The Jaff and his son in the big showdown.  Only the evil god takes it all to a whole new level when he rips a hole in the fabric of reality with the power of the Art, opening a widening doorway to Quiddity.  Soon everything in the room is being sucked into this other realm, with only The Jaff, Grillo and Tesla making it out of the room alive.  As the rest of the world comes to comprehend the catastrophic events taking place in Palomo Grove and take notice, a decision must now be made with how to solve this whole horrible mess, as the Iad Uroborus are on their way at high speed to pass through this rip and take over the world.

Time is of the essence, and Tesla – who has visited Kissoon herself – puts it all together and manages to move this trans-dimensional hole to the land of the Loop where time is stuck.  Realizing that Kissoon chose Trinity, New Mexico – the location of the first detonation of the atomic bomb, where no one would think to check – she must kill Kissoon, who has already broken free due to his taking over of Raul’s (yes the evolved monkey) body, and with Kissoon gone, all that remains in the Loop is Raul’s body.  The only solution, which Tesla goes forward with, is for Raul to occupy her body: two spirits, two consciences in one body, but it works.  The Loop collapses, time starts moving again and just as the Iad Uroborus begin spilling into this world, there is the bright light and giant mushroom cloud, and the world is saved this time, but the power of the Art is not over.  The adventures of Grillo, Tesla and this crazy wacky and incredible world Barker has created continue on in the Second Book of the Art, Everville.

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

Originally written on February 13th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“A Wizard of Earthsea” by Ursula K. LeGuin (Parnassus Press, 1968)

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If you call this a work of classic fantasy, meaning it’s like every other fantasy series with its magic and wizards and made-up worlds, you would be wrong.  If you call this a work of classic fantasy, meaning it’s a great piece of work that set the foundation – like Lord of the Rings­ – for a lot of other series, you would be right.

A Wizard of Earthsea is the first book in the Earthsea series and as all fantasy series should, it begins with a young wizard, Ged, who knows nothing of magic and the ways of being a wizard, other than his innate ability promising him a career as a great wizard.  First he lives with a wise mage, and learns much about the simple things in life and magic and that everything has a cost.  He soon discovers this when he performs a dark spell from a book he shouldn’t have touched.  A deadly shadow is summoned and then banished by his teacher, but Ged knows he will be facing it again.

Ged then travels to the isle of Roke where he spends years becoming a master wizard.  Upon his graduation, he faces the dark shadow once more but is unable to hold against it and flees in terror.  As a renowned wizard now, he travels around the islands, helping those less fortunate, battling dragons and other monsters.  Then once again he faces the shadow and barely survives, fleeing once more.  He returns to his old master, unsure what to do.  The wizened wizard tells him he must face the shadow and in turn face his greatest fear.  And so Ged heads out into the deep sea where none have gone before and there faces the shadow and wages a great battle, finally defeating him.  The book ends with Ged returning to land with his friend, now a true and accomplished wizard with the thousands of islands of Earthsea before him.

What makes LeGuin’s fantasy series more meaningful than most is that all the magic performed here comes at a cost, which the main character has to deal with throughout the book.  It requires time and energy, afterwards one is tired; to create illusions is much easier than to actually change or create matter.  Unlike the world of Harry Potter, here there are rules; not everyone can be a wizard.  Along with this is the magical world of Earthsea with the many islands of different peoples, many of which know little of each other.  And for a wizard to travel from one island to another is a great adventure.  The next book in the series is The Tombs of Atuan.

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

Originally written on January 21st, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

02/10 On the Bookshelf . . .

Feed

Was delighted today to discover an advanced reader copy of Feed by Mira Grant in my mailbox.  Feed isn’t due out until April 27th, and seems to be a great first book in a trilogy about zombies.  What’s not to like?  And some of you may also recognize the little symbol on the cover as being that of an RSS Feed, which just makes it all the more interesting, in my opinion.

And for those of you who don’t know, Mira Grant is a pseudonym for Seanan McGuire, who is the author of the October Daye series.  McGuire felt the need to use a pseudonym for the Newsflesh Trilogy because it is so different from her voice and writing style with October Daye.  And for more info, be sure to check the fun interview I had with Seanan.

“The Historian” by Elizabeth Kostova (Little, Brown and Company, 2005)

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Welcome to a retelling of Dracula for the twenty-first century, only think much better and more interesting; less of the weak and pitiful women and demanding men; more history and research.  Elizabeth Kostova, while no doubt being a very well off person who went to the best schools for writing, has nevertheless spent a long time researching and writing The Historian with the resulting book being little about vampires and undead and more about books and history and researching and following the trail; it’s an academic adventure novel.

Our narrator is a young girl in her teens traveling through Europe, following the letters of her father from his travels in the 1950s, who was following the letters of his mentor from his travels in the 1930s.  While most of the book is in letter form – with speech quotes framing just about every sentence – Kostova forgoes the accuracy of the letter form and, like Bram Stoker in Dracula, makes the letters part of the novel with action, emotion, and character reaction – attributes that would not usually be in a letter, but for the sake of this book, need to be.

The premise is that Dracula, or Drakulya, better known as Vlad the Impaler, who was killed in battle in the fifteenth century is still alive and well in the twentieth century.  The three story lines of the narrator, her father, and his professor all have an event in common: they each received a copy of an ancient book with an elaborate woodcut of a dragon, the symbol and emblem of Drakulya.  Each of them travel throughout the many cities of Europe tracking Dracula and tracking each other through their letters; clearly Kostova herself traveled to each of this cities, for the book is partially a travel log of Europe, written in exquisite detail.

At the end of the book, when each person finally confronts Dracula in their time, it is revealed that Dracula himself is a lover of history and books and has been building up his library for hundreds of years with the hope of having every old book and important piece of writing in history at his finger tips, all he needs is a librarian to maintain it, of course they need to be turned undead so that their duties as librarian will last as long as Dracula is alive.  The professor is turned and when this is discovered, is staked, while the narrator’s father leaves due to the loss of his wife – the narrator’s mother – thinking her dead.  It is at the very end when the narrator finds Dracula, she also finds her father on the trail, and then her mother who all play a part in killing Dracula once and for all; the family united at last.

While this review may make The Historian seem trivial and “tied in a big red bow,” the author clearly worked very hard and long in her research of books and places; the result is a lengthy tome that takes you on a long journey through a well-described Europe, through old documents and journals, to an adversary we have read and written about for hundreds of years.

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

Originally written on January 21st, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Forty Signs of Rain” by Kim Stanley Robinson (Spectra, 2004)

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This is a series about global warming and what it might do to our planet, except it isn’t set in the distant future, like The Day After Tomorrow; this series is set a decade in the future at the most.  While no date is given, the world is much like ours with its citizens enjoying the frivolities of life, the administration cares nothing about the planet, the Arctic is breaking up and melting while pieces of Antarctica are falling off into the ocean.  Our main characters are Charlie Quibler, a Senate environmental staffer, and his wife Anna who works for the National Science Foundation.

Four fifths of the book are spent with the characters and their ordinary lives with their children.  Charlie is a stay at home dad, working with a phone and an Internet connection, looking after young Joe who needs constant supervision, while Anna works hard every day in her office.  As the book progresses the reader learns of our current reality: melting of the ice caps, rising sea levels, and increase in weather activity.  In the last part of the book, the storms come to Washington DC with severe rainfall, there is flooding, the Potomac overflowing and soon the streets become flooded rivers and boats become the only form of transportation.  The book ends with Charlie traveling home by boat with a great finishing line: “Are you going to do something about global warming now?” he says to his Senator.

What makes Forty Signs of Rain, especially for a science fiction novel, more enjoyable and realistic than most books I’ve read is the author makes his characters constantly doing ordinary things like meeting new people, interacting with them, cleaning the house, shopping, the father looking after the children.  The details of ordinary life that you and I go through every day are in this book and presumably the others in the series; it makes it very human.  Robinson was mostly setting the stage in the book, making it seem much like ordinary life, and then with the onslaught of global warming, things are kicked into high gear and I can’t help but think when this big change or catastrophe is going to happen to us.  With the Fall of constant hurricanes hitting the southeastern United States most notable with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and with the severely cold winter we’ve had here in California, as well as record breaking warm temperatures on the east coast for this time of year, I can’t help but wonder if we are not already in high gear.  Perhaps these books will serve as a guide for when things really start to go bad with global warming.  Next in the series if Fifty Degrees Below.

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

Originally written on January 21st, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

Kim Stanley Robinson will be interviewed in episode 28 of Bookbanter available March 15.  Check out the Bookbanter website for more information.

“The Eagle: The Concluding Volume of the Camulod Chronicles” by Jack Whyte (Forge, 2006)

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Jack Whyte has come a very long way from the crumbling empire of Rome many generations ago to the man known as Riothamus – Arthur.  In this ninth concluding book in the series, we finally get the full story of Arthur’s life, and what makes this series interesting is that while our hero is obvious, in the context of the series, he is but one of the many players on the stage of early medieval Britain.  This is what Whyte is saying with this series: that it’s not about specific individuals, but – as is the case with all history – it is a series of events over hundreds of years that lead to the establishment of Britain as a country, putting itself back together as a sovereign nation after its abandonment by Rome.

Continuing on from the Lance Thrower, our narrator is Clothar, known as “Lance” by his friends because of his skilled ability to throw lances with precision at the enemy – a feat no other man, not even Arthur, can master.  In the first part of the book, Arthur forms his knights – a term taken from the Roman élite, all with their own specifically designed swords in the form of Excalibur.  The knights are addressed by the term “seur” from a Frankish term meaning one of noble or high stature.  Whyte is impressive in his interweaving of parts of the Arthurian legend and fitting them in a realistic setting in fifth century Britain.  In the second part of The Eagle, it is learned that the girl who Arthur considered his soul mate in the Lance Thrower was in fact his sister and that an act of naïve incest was committed.  At the same time, Clothar has his own personal problems to deal with in falling in love with a woman who is to be married.  After a long night of sharing their love, they must accept their fate and go their separate ways.  In the final part of the book, Clothar must go with Arthur’s élite cavalry to Gaul where he will train thousands more men both to establish the authority of Arthur and his cavalry, as well as to prepare for any invading forces.  Word has begun to spread of these invading peoples from the distant east known as Huns, led by a man known as Attila.

While the fate of Gaul with the invading Huns is never fully revealed, the book ends, naturally, with Arthur’s death from a wound in battle, while his son Mordred is next in line to rule.  The book ends without any great summation of the mighty ruler known as Arthur who united Britain and made it a nation to be reckoned with, but tapering out like a long burning candle.  Whyte’s point here is that the saga of Camulod is over, its characters now all dead, but they have done much to change Britain from the abandoned land after the fall of Rome.  Their part is complete, and it will be up to other people, other kings, and other rulers to continue making Britain into a great nation.

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

Originally written on January 5th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.