“Thames: The Biography” by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese, 2008)

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British author Peter Ackroyd—of London: the Biography, Shakespeare: the Biography, and numerous other works—presents the most comprehensive biography ever written on the most renowned river of all time. After reading this book, it can be said that you will know all there is to know about the river Thames. Beginning with its geology and topography, Ackroyd takes you on a full tour from wellspring to its draining into the English channel, filling your head with facts and details you’d never really thought about.  Then he begins a brief foray into references made about the Thames throughout history and literature.  This sets the stage for a great journey, which Ackroyd starts right at the beginning with the origin of its name in various languages and how it has changed over time.

With plenty of maps and pictures, along with a lengthy bibliography and index, the reader will feel confident enough to give a two-hour lecture to friends and family on the Thames, after reading this book, as well as answering any questions.  Thames: the Biography will have you planning a trip to the most famous river in history in no time!

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Originally published in the Sacramento Book Review.

Originally published on December 17 2008.

“New York” by Edward Rutherfurd (Doubleday, 2009)

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From the author that brought you the great, sweeping, historical fiction epics of London, Russka, and Princes of Ireland comes his next magnificent tome, New York.  While Rutherfurd’s works are fiction per se, he employs so much research and detail that at the end the readers feels as if he or she has taken a course in the history of this particular location.  Charting a chronological timeline from the very beginning of this civilization to its present day, using families and telling stories through their eyes, passing from one generation to the next, as the great events are experienced through them; Rutherfurd has truly created his own sub-genre of writing within the world of fiction.

In New York he does all this and more, beginning with the small Dutch Settlement where there was little industry other than trading with pelts and other items with the Native American tribes, the French to the north, while the British build their forces with hungry eyes on the small settlements of what would one day become the eastern coastline of the United States.  Rutherfurd then travels forward in time with important events like the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the grandiose times of the Gilded Age, the World Wars, on through the seventies to the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center; all seen and experienced through the eyes and bodies of New Yorkers of all types, ages, and cultures.  At the end, New York doesn’t only serve as a comprehensive history on this unique and possibly most famous city in the world, but also as an article of work on humanity and how it has changed over the centuries, and how we as human beings have changed and adapted to new ways, cultures, technologies and events over time.  New York is unlike most cities in the United States, but at the same time it is a symbol of this nation, whether it be with the Indian tribes and Dutch settlement of Manhattan, the influx of cultures and peoples with Ellis Island, or its uniting of a nation on 9/11.

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Originally written on September 16 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Ark” by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2010)

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After the interesting Flood comes the gripping sequel from Stephen Baxter, Ark. The world is mostly underwater, with a small number of areas left afloat.  There is the Himalayan region, as Russia, Asia and India fight for a dwindling piece of land; a small portion of the Alps is all that remains of Europe; and there is a portion of the Rockies in Colorado.  The Ark ship is starting to age rapidly, as the world fights for a very limited number of resources, as the years go by.  Through a terrorist attack, the ship is blown to pieces and from then on the characters from Flood must create their own ships of refuge and leftover, floating pieces, with little hope of change or improvement in store for them.  Holle Groundwater, daughter of one of the hostages in Flood, is left in Colorado and becomes part of a very select and élite team for another Ark project – a spaceship to travel to the stars and find Earth II.

The first part of the book is spent covering this team’s training, development and education from children to skilled personnel, as Baxter jumps from character to character around the world, revealing the true state of things.  The rest of the book is spent covering this Ark’s trip to the distant planet far away, which takes decades to reach.  Along the way the population goes through ups and downs, as they are put through the stresses of living and existing in this confined environment.  Ark becomes more of a commentary on where humanity could be headed under certain conditions, as we are brought down to our “base instincts” at certain points.  The result is a compelling novel of science fiction that will have the reader questioning many things about humanity, along with a multitude of “What ifs?”

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Originally published on the Sacramento Book Review.

Originally written on July 24 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

09/28 On the Bookshelf . . . “Rot & Ruin” & “Dreadnought

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I know, I know: it’s another zombie novel, but this one is a young adult one from bestselling author Jonathan Maberry, of Patient Zero fame, so I’m looking forward to it.  Plus, how could you say no to that cover.  Also got Cherie Priest’s latest in the Clockwork Century series after the bestselling Boneshaker, Dreadnought, which Priest talks quite a bit about in this interview.

“Flood” by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2009)

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It is the year 2016 and four hostages are finally released after years of captivity to a changing world.  The ocean levels are rising, and while some of it can be attributed to global warming, the increase is defying all estimates, indicating there must be some other reason.  Each of the hostages possesses important abilities that will have a bearing on the fate of the world.  Thandie Jones, an oceanographer, spends years researching, trying to understand why the levels keep rising progressively each year.  She presents her theory – that through subduction zones in the Earth’s crust, vast amounts of water have been pushed beneath the top layer of the planet for many hundreds of thousands of years, and is now resurfacing, causing the rise in ocean levels.  According to her calculations, the levels will continue to rise until the highest point – Mount Everest – is swallowed in one giant world-encompassing ocean.  She is practically laughed out of the summit, as the scientists and specialists think little of her predictions.

But there is one man who can also see where everything is going: the billionaire Nathan Lammockson, with the help of one of the former hostages, USAF Captain Lily Brooke, begins forming a long-term plan, bringing in the richest people in the world who are interested in trying to save what parts of humanity they can.  Planning and construction begins on a series of “Ark” projects, each performed in secret, in secret locations unbeknownst to the other projects.  Lammockson has created a giant, sustainable ship in South America, high up in the Andes, knowing the day will come when the ship will put to sea when the waters have reached this level.

While the characters aren’t that deep and complex, and Baxter condenses what might be a series of books into one with over forty years of passing time and events; his descriptions of these changing events are detailed and fascinating, as the world becomes more panicked, and countries and islands begin to disappear, the reader is kept hooked to the end, where Baxter sets up for a sequel in Ark.

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Originally written on September 12 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Pariah” by Bob Fingerman (TOR, 2010)

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We are now slowly passing out of the Age of the Vampire in the world of genre fiction, and are heavily entrenched in the Age of the Zombie, with little end in sight.  Much like the glut of young adult fantasy that exploded after the success of Harry Potter, there is a lot of zombie fiction out there that is barely worth the paper it’s printed on: quick, simple, pointless plots and over the top garish description, with little to add to the world of story or the craft of writing.  Pariah, thankfully, is one of the good ones.

Bob Fingerman is the author of Bottomfeeder and the graphic novels Recess Pieces, Beg the Question and White like She.   In his take on the world of zombies, he employs the stereotypes we’ve all become quite familiar with: a plague has ravaged the world and turned almost everyone into the slow, cumbersome, brain-hungry walking dead; the few that remain must do everything they can to eke out a living and somehow survive.  In Pariah, Fingerman’s canvas is an Upper East Side New York apartment block where the few remaining tenants have barricaded themselves inside.  They ration themselves through their dwindling food supplies, becoming further emaciated; while across the street sits a grocery store; between stands an ocean of zombies hungry for brains.

Fingerman is clearly having fun with his unusual characters: a couple who care little for each other, a younger man who has interests in a female tenant, two men who are “just friends,” a strange old lady who appears and disappears throughout the apartment block like a ghostly apparition, and the strange fellow who makes his home on the roof and spends his days pelting the zombies below with rocks, taking them out slowly, one by one.  Fingerman flitters from one viewpoint to another, as the tenants scrape by, becoming more and more impatient and aggravated with their surroundings and fellow tenants.  Then one day they see a young girl walking through the sea of zombies, alive and well, and being completely ignored by those lusting for cranial matter.  Pariah is a fresh and different zombie novel you just might want to check out.

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Originally written on September 16 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“So Cold the River” by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown, 2010)

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From the author of Envy the Night, comes an original thriller with elements of the fantastic and supernatural set in a small American town where everything is not as it seems.

Eric Shaw is a documentary film maker who was starting to make it big – on set he would have the uncanny ability as director of photography to know what things we really like, as if through fantastic means – and then this determination for accuracy causes him to lose his cool and his growing career is instantaneously ended.  Now he spends his days making short films on people’s lives for funerals, where his strange ability allows him to see what a person was truly like.  He attends the viewings at each of the funerals, and at one is commissioned to create a documentary of her father-in-law, Campbell Bradford, who is 95 and a millionaire.

Shaw starts with an interview with the aging Bradford in the hospital, who seems practically comatose, but once he gets behind the lens he sees a different man, with an evil look and seemingly clear minded, but upon taking his eye of the lens, Bradford is just an unmoving form in the bed.  This is just the first mystery, as Shaw travels to Bradford’s hometown.  Bradford began his career in bottling a particular type of spring water that was purported to possess certain healing properties.  Shaw tried a sip of the hundred-year-old water and promptly threw up; but once he checks into his hotel, he notices the bottle becoming colder and colder, as frost begins to form on the outside.  Suffering a migraine, he tries the drink again, hoping for some healing; this time the water is icy and sweet, his headache going away immediately.  As Shaw investigates the man, he finds a sordid past that the town is doing everything it can to cover up; meanwhile his headaches continue to return and become worse, as he drinks more of the spring water.  He begins to have visions and flashes of past events which all have a bearing on the mystery that Campbell Bradford.  Shaw finds himself needing a way, a resolution, before he loses his mind completely.

Koryta turns a normal seeming town into a place with a sinister past, employing the mystical and fantastic to reveal the unusual story; while So Cold the River takes a while to get going, the story grows and becomes more compelling and complex, with an action-filled conclusion.

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Originally written on September 16 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Warrior of Rome: Part 1, Fire in the East” by Harry Sidebottom (Penguin, 2008)

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Dr. Harry Sidebottom knows what he’s talking about when he writes about ancient Rome: he teaches classical history at the University of Oxford, and is a well-respected scholar on ancient warfare, classical art, and the cultural history of the Roman Empire.  It seems perfectly fitting that he should turns his writing abilities and knowledge to writing historical fiction on the world he is so familiar with.

It is the year AD 255 and the Roman Empire encompasses most of the western world, but it is being stretched thin, with issues occurring on the borders, revealing that this empire is finite.  In the east there is Persia and the massing forces of the Sassanid Empire.  The lone, isolated citadel of Arete is the important stronghold for the Roman Empire.  Ballista is the man chosen to lead the Roman forces; a former barbarian with a Nordic background and beliefs, and has seen what life has to offer.  Now it is up to him to unite the Roman forces and stop one of the greatest threats the Roman Empire has ever seen.

Sidebottom writes with a skill that works to combine details and information on the period without overloading the reader with facts and jargon, and at the same time making the story compelling, interesting and action-packed.  Writers of nonfiction rarely travel into the realm of fiction writing, and the reverse is also true, because it’s hard to do; Sidebottom is one of those special authors with the knowledge and background in the history, as well as the writing ability to carry this out effortlessly.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on September 16 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

09/24 On the Bookshelf . . . “Prism” & “Cold Magic”

Prism Cold Magic

Received a couple of requested reads from Orbit books.  While I have never read Brent Weeks’ Night Angel Trilogy, I’ve always been kind of curious about the books and have had them recommended to me on a number of occasions.  Now it will be interesting to see what Weeks has in store with his new book.

And then there’s Cold Magic from Kate Elliott, who I have also never read, and this is the first in a new series from her which I look forward to reading.

“Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans” by Brian Fagan (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)

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One of the most impressive things about history is that it is never static; you could take one event that is well documented, then come back to it a decade later and find the details and actions and reactions on that event to be totally different.  One area where the knowledge and thoughts and ideas of what the period was like that is constantly changing is prehistory; our ancestors who lived before any real form of the written word was invented, other than cave paintings.  This is approximately 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when the last ice age came to a close, and the melting pot that was ancestral humanity – Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals (and perhaps in the future anthropologists and archaeologists will discover another tangent of hominids) – came to a final decision through the evolutionary step of Homo sapiens sapiens.

Brian Fagan is the professor emeritus in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of The Great Warming, The Little Ice Age, and The Oxford Companion to Archaeology.  In Cro-Magnon, Fagan brings readers up to date with all the latest knowledge and evidence on the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals.  The common perception is that with the end of the ice age, there was the big migration of Cro-Magnons into what would eventually become Europe, as they existed with the Neanderthals, not integrating and living together, but overpowering and superseding them, eventually rendering the Neanderthals extinct.  Fagan explores the history of the Neanderthals, discussing and developing ideas and theories of when they migrated into Europe and spread around and how it was quite possible there was coexistence between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, with exchanges in trade, habits, tool making, and perhaps even histories.  Fagan posits that Neanderthals may not have died out, but become integrated with Cro-Magnons.

Fagan then launches into the main part of the book with the Cro-Magnons, and the general labels that are applied to the different periods and developments of Cro-Magnons: Mousterian, Châtelperronian, Aurignancian, Gravettian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian, exploring each label and what makes it individual.  At the end of the book the reader is left understanding a lot more about our ancestors, and perhaps coming to the realization that the Neanderthals, and certainly the Cro-Magnons were a lot more intelligent, creative and developed than the idea of the fur-covered man with the spear hunting the woolly mammoth, while the fur-covered woman remains in the cave with the children, tending to the fire.  One can’t help but wonder how our knowledge and perceptions of these people may change in ten years time, especially since there is so much more to be learned and discovered; the cave paintings of Grotte de Chauvet, Niaux and Lascaux are merely the tip of the ice berg.

CLICK HERE to purchase your copy from Bookshop Santa Cruz and help support BookBanter.

Originally written on September 16 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

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