“Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare” by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton, 2004)

Will the Worldstarstar

It’s been a while since I finished this book, but my take on it is still the same — mind you I did listen to the audiobook version as opposed to actually reading it. My complaint is that with the title, Will in the World, one would expect the book to be mostly about the great writer’s life from birth to death, as well as covering his works, and while the book does certainly do this, there is a lot more emphasis on his works, with citations in the multitudes; Shakespeare’s life is barely glossed over. A lot of this has to do with the fact that there is little evidence of his life, with most of his works surviving intact. Still, I wanted to know about his life and I didn’t get enough. The image the book paints is a writer who cared little for his family, leaving his wife and child in Stratford-upon-Avon and spending the duration of his life in London ignoring them.

What I did like about the book was the way Greenblatt went through Shakespeare’s life, revealing when certain plays were written and how they tied in with his life at that time, and possibly why he was writing them in the first place. It gave further meaning to the bard’s works. It was also interesting to discover that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, Shakespeare, while renowned as a great playwright, had no competition: Marlowe and the other playwrights had all died, some quite mysteriously.

Overall, the book was lacking in informing the reader of Shakespeare’s life, and in not being very linear in covering his life, one was often left confused as to what point in his life one was at. There were also a couple of times — perhaps this is more the case with the audiobook version — where there was a long citation from one of the plays and I was left wondering why the author had used such a long quote and what the point of it was.

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

Originally written on May 8th 2005 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer (Doubleday, 2003)

Under the Banner of Heavenstarstarstarstarstar

I finished Under the Banner of Heaven two days ago now, and I haven’t written the review yet, waiting to see if anything would change in my mind about Mormons, and so far nothing has. I still think it’s a horribly misogynistic religion that goes even further than all other religions I know to take away all responsibility, independent thought, and individualism, and literally sacrifice oneself to god and whoever is your president and high lord protector (the title isn’t exactly this, but is just as preposterous), whether you be regular Mormon or fundamentalist — of course, he is a man, without a doubt.

The crux of the book is the deaths of Eric and her eight or so year-old daughter at the hands of the Lafferty brothers who still can’t decide who officially slit the girls throats.  While the book managed to enrage me throughout, it did serve to educate and enlighten me on the religion in general, and on the important differences between the fundamentalists and the Latter Day Saints (LDS). The book also presents the history of Mormonism with Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and what led to the creation of the religion, its development through the decades and centuries, with the Mormons being ostracized wherever they went, until they settled in the deserts of Utah and set about completely ignoring the US government and living their lives as they saw fit. The Church of Latter Day Saints continues to do this to some degree today, and the fundamentalists especially, thriving on it.

So let’s clear up the main thing first: polygamy. The Church of Latter Day Saints condones and doesn’t allow polygamy, after changing this steadfast rule from the D&C (Doctrine and Covenants — the rulebook which Mormons go by as put down by Joseph Smith, with additions made by Brigham Young and successive “prophets”) in the nineteenth century when the government essentially pressured them into doing this, since polygamy was (AND STILL IS!) illegal in every state. But in a religion where everyone from the president to the lowly devout woman has the ability to talk with god and receive his instruction; splitting, and the formation of break-off sects and groups is as inevitable as night coming after sunset. And it it’s these break-off groups that form their own churches and communes (Colorado City in Utah is one of these), and they are the fundamentalists groups who believe that the LDS have fallen from the true ruling of god and take it upon themselves to adhere to the D&C as they see fit. The result is a town like Colorado City, in the middle of the desert, isolated, as they like it. There polygamy is a way of life; if you don’t subscribe to this way, you are pressured and then ostracized. It is also in this town where anywhere from thirteen to sixteen year-old girls are ordered, yes, ordered by the president to marry whatever man the president decrees, without any choice in the matter. Ordered to marry that man, live with him, and whose sole duty is to bear as many children as possible, no questions asked . . . or you’re going to hell! This is the truth. This is life in Colorado City. It is also here that instances of rape and pedophilia are becoming common place, as fathers take a liking to their eleven year-old daughters (whether they be biologically or adopted through marriage), rape them, and them force them to marry their fathers.

And it seems pretty pathetic when our president makes it his duty to prevent homosexual marriage from ever being considered, even though homosexuality is a genetic predisposition and is what you simply are, while in Utah there are groups doing what I said above and millions of people worry that it is the homosexuals who risk destroying the sanctity of marriage.  Forget that, is my response.

One part of the book that struck me hard was the Mountain Meadows Massacre which happened in the nineteenth century in Utah. The Mormons had been settled for a while, Brigham Young was running the show, and they were happily going about their polygamous, incestuous, misogynistic, abusive business; then the gold rush happened along with the opening of the west in California. So you had a slew of people heading west. There was one group of 170 or so people with their wagons and thousands of cattle who were traveling through Utah. Mormons had been ordered to never feed or offer shelter to these Gentiles (as anyone who isn’t is Mormon is referred to) and if they did, they would be excommunicated. And it was in the Mountain Meadows valley that the Mormons bribing the aid of the Paiute Indians, surrounded the group and proceed to wipe them out. But the Gentiles were able to hold their own, defending themselves behind the wagons, and this went on for days. So the Mormons finally held up the white flag of surrender, met with the group and said they would let them through Utah, not offering them any aid, but they would pass through Utah alive and unhurt. So the wagon train reformed and the Mormons surrounded them and they started off, then the order was given and the Mormons opened fire and slaughtered every man first, and then set about murdering every woman and child. When they were done they took what they wanted, stripping the bodies and taking the cattle, giving the Paiutes a menial and far less than agreed upon amount of the spoils, and left. The bodies rotted in the sun and the bones dried and whitened for decades, then a group of Gentile explorers came through, saw the graveyard and put up a stone monument of assembled rocks in commemoration. The next Mormons that came by (it may have been Brigham Young, I’m not sure), tore the moment down in delight. The Mormons never took any blame or punishment for this massacre and to this day essentially blame it on the Paiutes.

And then there’s the story of how Joseph Smith made the rule of polygamy, because in the early days of the religion, each Mormon had one wife. But Smith got bored with his aging wife and wanted some younger flesh, and decided that god had told him Mormons were to be polygamous. But when he baited his people with this, they erupted in natural outcry, and so it was not added to the D&C, nevertheless Smith continued secretly to have multiple wives, even though his first wife who’d been with him a long time and supposedly believed in him and his religion the entire time was totally against polygamy and left him. The guy decided he wanted a younger girl and so made polygamy law, and that’s what has led to the fundamentalist polygamous groups today and everything mentioned above.

What was really interesting about the book was seeing the development of a religion from its conception to the fastest growing religion in the world today. Because it began in a time with the printing press, and the popularity and ubiquity of the written word, its growth has been well documented throughout, unlike most other religions that have been around a lot longer. Of course, much like the giant vaults of the Vatican, lots of material on the religion remains secreted in Utah.

I would recommend one read this book because it opens your mind. It’s one of the those books that everyone should read to understand and realize what is going on in this country every day. Also it makes what happened to Elizabeth Smart clear and sadly makes perfect sense, especially since Utah covered it up at the time and little was known about it. Another thing that goes on in Colorado City is whatever the president says goes, without question. He’s said no one is to have television, read anything other than Mormon writings and not to wear red; this is life for these people.

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

Originally written on March 30th 2005 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty” by Caroline Alexander (Viking, 2003)

The Bountystarstarstar

So I finally finished The Bounty which turned out to be a really great book about the mutiny on the Bounty, with the likes of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh. I actually prefer these types of history books that give you so much more information than you could ever expect, like Krakatoa by Simon Winchester. So it wasn’t just a book about the mutiny on the Bounty, but also about the lives of each of the crew, where they were born, where they grew up, and how they came to be on this fated ship. A good portion of the book also went into Bligh’s history and life. Then there was after the mutiny, with Bligh and his few faithful crew surviving (although getting malaria in Batavia and essentially being stricken with it in minor form — sometimes flaring up and putting them within death’s reach — for the rest of their lives) and making it back to England. And what happened to the mutineers and those that eventually got caught and court martialed and what happened with their lives. And then what actually happened to the Bounty post-mutiny, which was what I was really interested in.

Turns out, the ship went back to Tahiti, kidnapped some of the pretty promiscuous women and then sailed for somewhere they wouldn’t be found; because Fletcher Christian had Bligh’s good maps, he settled on Pitcairn Island, which was hard to find and had only been discovered a short while before. They settled there with the women and were only able to survive because the women knew how to live off the island, but it got to the point where they started treating the women as slaves (as well as wives) along with some of the Tahitian men they kidnapped, and in retaliation the Tahitians fought back, supposedly murdering Christian and eventually everyone else except for one English guy, as they continued to eke out their lives on Pitcairn Island, growing in fame and renown as more ships visited and discovered them. There’s even the harrowing tale of one Tahitian woman who fought for her life to return to Tahiti and eventually did.

The last fifty pages or so of the book ends with how the surviving members of the mutiny lived their lives in England, and also Bligh’s life which was continually doomed: on another ship he was involved in a sort of mutiny by the British navy, though what was really more of a strike to get more rights to the sailors, where he was involved in the negotiations from the British navy’s side; and then he took the position of governor of New South Wales whereupon there was an almost immediate coup that had him having to stay on a boat for two years, with the overthrowers eventually getting captured and having another trial in England, and then his wife dying . . . it’s a pretty sad tale. Thought there was one point in Bligh’s life where he was captain of a ship alongside Lord Nelson and was involved in a great victory at the battle of Copenhagen, and for that got to hang out with Nelson for a while.

My complaint with the book, first and foremost, is the “tag line” on the cover of the paperback (not sure if it was on the hardcover): Has history been wrong for 200 years? Mayhap it has, but Caroline Alexander makes no mention of any startling research she’s discovered or something new that the reader doesn’t know, unless she assumes that we all already know everything there is to know about Captain Bligh and the Bounty, and can pick out her additions and discoveries, which is preposterous. Also Alexander tends to shift back and forth a lot and isn’t very linear, starting the book off with the capture of the mutineers and then going on to the beginning of the sailors’ lives and the eventual mutiny, and continuing to go back and forth in time at certain points, depending on which person she is dealing with.

Overall though, it was a really enjoying, engrossing and interesting book that I will probably read again one day in the distant future, unless I should need to look up details earlier (perhaps for a book about what happened to the Bounty after the mutiny — fiction — which I’m kind of thinking about — it depends on how much it wants to be written and how much it stays in my head and bounces around). There is, of course, about a hundred pages of bibliography, references, chapter notes, and an index.

I look forward to whatever Caroline Alexander has next to offer us, though as I check on Ingram, doesn’t look like anything yet.

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

Originally written on March 19th 2005 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Beowulf: A New Verse Translation” by Seamus Heaney (Norton, 2000)


Earlier this year a new version of Beowulf was published, translated by the Irish Nobel Prize Winner (for 1995) Seamus Heaney. Heaney has spent many years trying to get this translation just right, and I believe he hit the nail on the head in this case. This book presents a different insight into reading Beowulf, adopting a more archaic viewpoint in both language and imagery. Heaney does not bother much with fancy words to make the poem seem more fantastic, but sticks to the original terms, translating them as closely as he possibly can. The book is set up so that on the left is the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon or Old English text and on the right is Heaney’s translation.

For this translation, Heaney had to return to his long misused Irish tongue of Gaelic. He had learned the language when he was a boy, but has since spent more time using English. His main source was his grandmother, who is still fluent in the archaic language. In talking to her, he would hear strange words and terms that simply do not exist in modern English. Heaney would then turn to the original text of Beowulf. There he would notice similarities between these strange expressions uttered by his grandmother and the poem. In one case he found an exact match with the word “Þolian” which means to suffer and his grandmother’s expression, “They’ll just have to learn to thole”; here the thorn symbol, Þ, is pronounced with a “th” sound. Heaney considered these unique insights “loopholes” through which he was able to translate this magnificent piece of literature.

It remains unknown as to when Beowulf was written and by whom. Quite likely a monk wrote it, since monks were really the only people of the time who were able to write; also the poem was written by a Christian, since there are numerous points throughout the codex where the “Almighty” and “God” are thanked and respected.

The poem was composed first orally some time during the middle of the seventh century, and then written down in the eleventh century. It is a tale about a great hero of the Geats know as Beowulf, who travels to Denmark, where the king, Hrothgar, is being attacked by a monster in the night known as Grendel. Beowulf fights with the beat and rips off its arm, whereupon the creature flees into the darkness from whence it came. The next night, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son; she takes a life and flees back to her lair beneath the mere (a lake). Beowulf pursues, tracks her down and with a magic sword decapitates her.

After being greatly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf and his army return to their homeland in the south of Sweden. There, after years of attacks by enemies, he inherits the throne and rules for fifty years. In his fiftieth year, a dragon is disturbed from its lair, where it has been guarding a mound of ancient treasure, left by a long-dead warrior. Beowulf confronts the dragon but is gravely injured. Wiglaf, one of his soldiers, comes to his rescue and stabs the dragon in the stomach, killing its ability to make fire. Beowulf draws his dagger and stabs the dragon a lethal blow. But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon’s bite and dies shortly after.

A great funeral pyre is built and set ablaze, while his many followers watch. His cremated remains are added to a special mound that is created on a hilltop overlooking the sea, where any ship passing will see the mound and know that Beowulf lies beneath. Thus, the poem ends with the forever-lasting memory of a great hero.

Heaney’s new twist on this translation of Beowulf is through using the most exact word possible; the result are terms like “ring-hoard,” “lake-birth,” “shield-clash,” and “sky-roamer.” What makes this so magical is how the words fit so well, and flow like the soft voice that once spoke them. These specific terms help to create an image in the reader’s mind of just what the original composer was intending: a story of gallantry, gold, fighting, Christianity, and the triumph of good over evil. As one begins reading, one can not help but get caught up in the thrashing current that pulls you along with the weight of the past, taking you step-by-step along Beowulf’s paths, his victories, and his eventual loss. And at the poem’s climax and conclusion one is left with a deep-set feeling of remorse for this mighty warrior, Beowulf, who most likely never existed, or at least has not lived for over a thousand years.

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

Originally published on November 6 2000 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Jack: Secret Circles” by F. Paul Wilson (Tor Teen, 2009)

Jack: Secret Circlesstarstarstar

In the first of the young adult trilogy, Jack: Secret Histories, Jack and Weezy discovered a very unusual secret pyramid in the Pine Barrens.  And now Repairman Jack is back in Jack: Secret Circles, where another strange structure has been discovered, once again in the Pine Barrens.  But this time they’re not going to tell anyone about it, as Weezy knows the government is behind it all, or at least has something to do with it.  Their friend Eddie thinks it’s more likely the work of the Jersey Devil.  And then Jack’s five-year-old neighbor goes missing, even though Jack told him to go home, and he needs to get him back.  Finally there’s the guy who comes out of the Barrens, supposedly lost for days, on the run from some big and terrifying monster.  F. Paul Wilson continues the trilogy of his popular character, Repairman Jack, as a teenager.  The story is a combination of the Hardy Boys and The X-Files, with an excitement-infused voice that brings out the adventuresome kid in every reader.

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

Originally written on December 11th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Catching Fire” by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2009)

Catching Firestarstarstarstar

We last left Katniss winner of the Hunger Games, and for the first time in history a co-winner with Peeta, but she knows what they did has upset the government and the President, who would love nothing more than to execute them for that they did.  But the couple has become a sensation, worshiped and celebrated across the districts.  Katniss’s actions have even sparked riots and rebellions in the other districts, which she never expected to do.  The government doesn’t hesitate, stopping, destroying and killing those who are to blame, while Katniss wonder’s what her fate might be.

Meanwhile she is also fighting with what her heart’s desire, but is it Peeta or her friend Gale.  Who will she choose?  Then the unbelievable happens, creating a series of events that brings the nightmare back to her and what she thought she was done with, she must now face again, only this time the stakes are raised even further.

Suzanne Collins is a talented writer with a story-telling style that is able to suck in any reader and keep them locked in and hooked to the very last page.  There should be stickers on her books warning that once the reader starts, they won’t be able to stop!  And once fans are done with Catching Fire, they only have to wait until August 24th, 2010, though they may want to check our her earlier series, The Underland Chronicles.

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

Originally written on December 11th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Leviathan” by Scott Westerfeld (Simon Pulse, 2009)


Most people are familiar with the events that sparked the inception of World War I, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo.  Leviathan begins with the assassination, but then goes on its own alternate history tangent where their son, Prince Aleksander, must flee with his loyal servants from those looking to kill him.  And then Westerfeld introduces the Clankers: great mechanical machines – some the size of small buildings – that travel across the European continent battling each other with their mighty guns.  Aleksander is traveling in the Cyklop Stormwalker.

Meanwhile, Westerfeld introduces Deryn Sharp, a teenage girl looking to be an airman in the British Air Service.  That’s right, airman, and she cuts her hair short and keeps herself disguised as a guy and soon joins the crew – through a string of unusual circumstances and adventures – of the great ship Leviathan.  The British are Darwinists, and instead of monstrous machines, they use genetically-engineered amalgamations of animals to create enormous creatures.  The Leviathan is a massive flying whale that houses an entire ecosystem, as well as a full crew within its mighty girth.

After an intense air battle, the Leviathan must flee, its injured body lumbering along, until it crash lands into the Alps, not too far from the Prince, who soon pays the strange creature a visit and our two heroes meet for the first time.  And as the creature heals itself and Deryn and Aleksander get to know each other, the first book comes to a close.  While the alternate, fantastic world setting is somewhat reminiscent of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Leviathan focuses more on setting the stage without dealing any epic punches, which will likely be made in successive books in the series.

Leviathan is a beautifully designed book, and deserves some awards for this, with its wonderfully Steampunk eye-catching cover, the inlay of the Darwinist/Clanker map of Europe, and the beautiful illustrations within the pages.  The story will capture you, the design entrance you, leaving you wanting the next book in the series.

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

Originally written on November 24th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Waking: Dreams of the Dead” by Thomas Randall (Bloomsbury, 2009)

Dreams of the Deadstarstarstarstar

Christopher Golden, author of The Boys Are Back in Town and coauthor of The Map of Moments, takes a journey away from his usual stories of the magical and horrific to tell a story of a different kind of horror and the macabre for a younger audience.  Because of this, Golden is writing under the pseudonym of Thomas Randall, taking us to Japan and its complex culture and ancient supernatural legends.

Kara Foster’s mother was killed in a car crash, leaving her and her father alone.  After years of studying Japanese culture and learning the language, they emigrate to Miyazu City where tall and blond Kara will be starting at a new school where her father teaches English.  She is terrified, wanting to make friends and fit in, but also knowing she is a gaijin or foreigner, and will have to work hard to gain the respect of others.  She eventually befriends the rebellious Sakura and learns of the dark history of Sakura’s sister at Monju-no-Chie school.  On the spit of land known as Ama-no-Hashidate she was murdered by a group of school girls for having the love of a boy she had no intention of returning.  And now those girls are starting to turn up dead, through mysterious circumstances, while they all appear to be having terrible nightmares involving girls without faces and terrifying cats with sharp claws and teeth – Kara included.  Sakura believes it to be the haunting spirit of her sister, exacting revenge, but as Kara discovers, it is something much worse.

Christopher Golden has outdone himself in taking the reader deep into Japanese culture, quick to explain how and why habits and characteristics are different, but at the same time he has a great horror story at the heart of Dreams of the Dead that will keep you riveted to the very end.  And the good news is this is the first of a ongoing series by Thomas Randall and includes the prologue and first chapter to the next book in the series, Spirits of the Noh.

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

Originally written on November 12th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Christopher Golden check out BookBanter Episode 12.

“Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia” by Brandon Sanderson (Scholastic, 2009)

Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystalliastarstarstarstar

In Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians you learned of the truth about our world: that the librarians are evil and have been lying to you your whole life.  In Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones you learned what lengths the libraries will go to to keep the wool pulled over your eyes, as well as how far back through time this goes.  Now Alcatraz is back, through the guise of the bestselling author Brandon Sanderson (the perfect cover), to tell more of his story, and to help you learn the truth about our world.

It’s finally time for Alcatraz to journey to the other world, the one where he is better known.  He travels with Grandpa Smedry to the Free Kingdom city of Crystallia, and after once again being involved in a serious accident that he only just manages to survive, he discovers that he’s a giant celebrity here.  He is the subject of a bestselling adventure series written by a member of the government, and enjoys himself in meeting with people who care little for him, but just wish to be close to him for reasons of fame.  Bastille, who has been stripped of her armor and bodyguard title, is  to be put under a tribunal to decide if her actions were serious enough to prevent her from regaining her title.  At the same time there is a city under siege, and there are some evil librarians in Crystallia acting as liaisons looking to negotiate.

Alcatraz will have to use his unusual but incredibly powerful talent in this different world, under different conditions, ultimately putting him to his greatest test yet.  As always, Alcatraz has endless advice to offer: buy his books, read a lot, and buy his books.  Yes, he can be quite repetitive.

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

Originally written on November 12th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Brandon Sanderson check out BookBanter Episode 2.

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, 2008)

Hunger Gamesstarstarstarstarstar

From the author of the bestselling Underland Chronicles come the first in a brilliant new series that will change how you view your everyday life in more ways than you can count.  Collins has taken a science fiction archetype – a doomed future world where everyone gets by, barely – with a certain cast of characters that sets off the readers emotions to unknown bounds.

North America.  The future.  Now known as Panem, it’s a changed world, the country divided into districts, each district with its own industrial focus – minding, farming, manufacturing.  For the most part, many in the districts struggle to get by, struggle to survive.  Our main character, Katniss Everdeen, is a sixteen-year-old girl who has spent her life helping her family – her mother and younger sister – hunting for food and scraps, fighting to keep them all alive.  She is a teen beyond her years.

The annual event of the Hunger Games arrives: a stark reminder of how worse things could really be if the Capitol didn’t control the districts.  A boy and a girl – between twelve and eighteen – are selected from each district and forced to participate in the Games.  Katniss’s younger sister gets picked, and Katniss does what she’s always done: steps in front, volunteering in her sister’s place, saving her life.  Then she is off to the Hunger Games.

In the style of The Running Man, it is a nationally televised event, akin to the gladiatorial games of Rome, with much pomp and circumstance.  Twenty-four kids find themselves put into the “ring” – an unknown terrain that may or may not be habitable – and with the sound of a gong and the start of the games, they must fight each other to the death until one last child remains standing.  The children find themselves under constant pressure, to survive in the environs, to defend themselves against each other, and if the viewers get bored, creatures may be released to keep them on their toes.

The Hunger Games is one of those books that could be shelved in the young adult section for its use of teen characters, or the science fiction section for its powerful storytelling of a future world with some undeniable and harsh similarities to our own, or the fiction section for is strong characters who deal with very human emotions while fighting each other to survive.  This is strongest in Katniss, who knows how to hunt and fight for herself, but knows little of love and caring for those other than her family, and yet in the Hunger Games sometimes you must make allies to survive, at a cost, for eventually you will have to kill your ally.

The Hunger Games will have you on the edge of your seat, flipping the pages, but also wanting to read slowly and savor the incredible story, and at the end you’ll be somewhat annoyed by the abrupt ending.  Have no fear, the sequel, Catching Fire, will be out September 1st, while Collins continues work on the third book in the series.

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

Originally written on August 28th 2009 ©Alex C. Telander.