“Echantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2008)

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Sir Salman Rushdie, best known for The Satanic Verses which earned him multiple death threats forcing him to leave his native land and live in Britain, returns with what he calls his “most researched book” which took “years and years of reading,” in The Enchantress of Florence.  A remarkable novel told in a way that mixes story with history and fable, making it seem like an enchanting tale á la Thousand and One Nights that leaves one wondering which parts of it are true and which are from the imaginative mind of Rushdie.  An enigmatic character from distant Florence pays a visit to the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great.  Through Rushdie’s eyes we see two very difference worlds: the high renaissance of Italy juxtaposed with that of India.  The magic in this story is indirect and subtle, lending it a romantic and fantastic air that simply adds to the setting and plot.  It is Salman Rushdie at his best, telling wonderful, moving, magical stories within stories.

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Originally written on January 18th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

“The Terror” by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company, 2007)

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In a historical epic that rivals Simmons’s science fiction epic Hyperion, The Terror is the incredible fictional story of the journey made by Captain Sir John Franklin and his expedition to discover the northwest passage, which departed from England in 1845.  Written mainly from the viewpoint of Captain Francis Crozier, who runs the crew on the ship HMS Terror (Franklin is in charge of HMS Erebus), The Terror will take readers to the very limits of their imaginations, tactile abilities, and hopes and dreams; leaving them exhausted but very satisfied by the end.

The story begins with both ships trapped in the ice.  Simmons overloads with description of this frozen wasteland which is an everyday struggle, as the crews fight to keep warm, fed, and the boilers in the ships running, otherwise they’ll all freeze to death very quickly.  The men try to make the most of it, even having a masked ball on the ice in mimicry of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.”  Then there is the decreasing citrus stock, with the full realization that cases of scurvy will begin very soon.  But everything is still frozen, even though it is summer and there seems little hope left for them.  Crozier seems to know this, taking heavily to what alcohol there is on Terror and keeping it for himself, as his grasp on reality lessens a little each day.

Then there is the monster.  A terrifying beast that has been taking and killing men, leaving nothing but bloody smears on the white ice.  The beast matches descriptions of a giant bear, an abominable snowman, and possibly a nightmare from an Inuit folk tale.  But little can be done as the men continue to disappear one by one.  Franklin eventually abandons the Erebus which has stopped working, while some of its crew have turned violent and insane.  But they cannot all stay on Terror, and the decision is eventually made to venture into the icy waste in a presumed direction to an Inuit habitation.  Whether they will make it through or all die of exposure is a reality that will be faced each day they travel further across the ice.

Simmons takes on a classic legend that has few facts and turns it into an incredible story of adventure, survival, and testing the very limits of humanity.  He has outdone himself with his complex, complete characters, interesting plot developments and subplots, and skillfully balancing the fantastic fiction with the true story, giving possible answers to one of the greatest mysteries in history.  The Terror is a book not for the faint of heart, but for those who seek to know what it is that keeps the human spirit going when all hope is lost; this is the book for you.  Especially if you have a thing for cannibalism.

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Originally written on January 10th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Dan Simmons check out BookBanter Episode 4.

“Just After Sunse” by Stephen King (Scribner, 2008)

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Stephen King’s latest short story collection, Just After Sunset, is a case of hit and miss, with a little something for everyone.  In his introduction to Constant Reader, King talks about his editing the Best American Short Stories collection for 2007 and how he rediscovered his love for writing short stories, learning and educating himself in reading the many short stories for the collection.  Featuring less stories than his usual collections, Just After Sunset features some of King’s best short stories he’s ever written, as well as a blend of action-packed, artistic, and outright disturbing stories in the classic, morbid King style.

Just After Sunset begins with the best of the collection, “Willa,” an unusual tale about a group of people at a train station.  David has found that his wife to be, Willa, has left the station and gone into town.  He must bring her back before the train arrives.  He finds her at a bar where there is music, drinking and merriment.  And it is here he discovers a realization that changes the very world around him.

In “The Gingerbread Girl,” Emily Owensby has had enough of her life and runs away to her father’s vacation house in the Florida Keys.  It is here that she must find out what she wants to do with her life, but as she pays a visit to a neighbor, she finds herself thrown into a situation that threatens her very life.

“Mute” is a story about an acquaintance between a supposed deaf-mute person and Monette and what happens when he reveals his true feelings.  “N.” is the dark tale about a man’s destroyed psyche as he supposedly fights to maintain the fabric of reality and prevent the monsters on the other side from breaking through.  In the final story, “A Very Tight Place,” King explores the idea of what would happen if one were in a Port-A-Potty that got tipped over on the door side, trapping the person within.

Just After Sunset is not one of Stephen King’s best short story collections, for some of the stories just try to hard, or aren’t that good, and yet there are some, like “Willa,” “N.,” and “Mute,” that fire the imagination and leave the reader wanting more.

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

Originally written on December 19th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The 7th Victim” by Alan Jacobson (Vanguard Press, 2008)

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In Alan Jacobson’s third novel, The 7th Victim, he presents a well-defined and fascinating new character in Karen Vail, one of the very few female FBI profilers.  As a member of the Behavioral Analysis Unit, joining with a crack team of experienced detectives, it’s up to her to create the solid profile that will lead them to the identity and location of the Dead Eyes killer.  The murders are garish and gruesome, as Vail investigates the crime scene of each victim, until an important person of stature is horrifically murdered, changing the whole profile of the killer, but also presenting some terrifying links to Vail herself.

Jacobson has spent seven years researching The 7th Victim, working with the FBI’s renowned profiling unit, as well as one of the few female FBI profilers.  Karen Vail is a well rounded character who has plenty of personal issues going on in her life with an abusive soon to be ex-husband and a young child who she cares for more than anything in the world.  She also teaches future FBI agents, and fights to maintain her profile as a high-ranking and well respected profiler.

The 7th Victim is an entertaining, fast-paced read in the style of Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, but adding a further grittiness and realism with the killings and the harsh everyday fights Vail must go through as an FBI profiler and mother.  It is hopefully the first of more to come in the world of Karen Vail.

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

Originally written on December 19th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Alan Jacobson check out BookBanter Episode 19.

“Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse” Edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books, 2008)


In this riveting collection edited by John Joseph Adams, it is everything post-apocalyptic. We know one day the world is going to kick it, and here’s what some writers think might happen.  Wastelands runs the gamut from a rapture story; to how we might survive in a dead world (even if we’re disfigured mutants); to stories that may not be about the end of the world, but at times certainly seem like it.  Featuring a wide variety of renowned authors like Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, George R. R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, Jonathan Lethem, and Octavia E. Butler; it is a sobering collection that delves into humanity as a species, as it fights for survival.

In the opening story from Stephen King, “The End of the Whole Mess,” when the whole world is going to hell in a hand basket fast, a unique spring is discovered in Texas which somehow makes people nicer and less violent towards each other.  Concentrating and harnessing this water, it is emptied as rain around the world, and for a little while there is world peace.  Then the cases begin and a terrifying realization is made about this water that was supposed to save humanity and has instead damned it.

In George R. R. Martin’s “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels,” some of our distant race return to Earth to see if there’s anyone still around and are shocked to discover a devolved, primitive form of humanity living beneath the ground like animals.  What they don’t know is that these people possess special abilities never before seen.  Jonathan Lethem reveals a world of virtual reality and shows its advantages and disadvantages.  Tobias Buckwell, in “Waiting for the Zephyr,” reveals a reformed world of simple ways and wind power and the hope of one girl to travel across the planet on the great Zephyr.  “Artie’s Angles” by Catherine Wells examines the circumstances if space travelers returned to Earth to discover the Rapture had happened and they were the only ones left behind.

In the best story of the collection, “When Sysadmins Ruled the World” from Cory Doctorow, it is a world much like ours that on this doomed day suffers a terrible sickness unleashed by terrorists around the world and there are not many left.  But the Sysadmins, secured safely in their airtight computer buildings, struggle to keep the Internet alive and communicate with each other through Newsgroups, and elect their own form of government via the web.

Like The Living Dead, Wastelands is another fascinating collection revealing the variety of imagination and writing skill that many of our greatest authors possess today, as well as delving into the dark recesses of humanity and uncovering some horrifying truths.  Whatever you’re looking for in a story about the end of the world and if we make it through, you will find something you like in this collection.

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Originally written on December 4th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.