“This Year’s Class Picture” by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2016)


Bestselling author Dan Simmons was asked to write a zombie story for the zombie anthology Still Dead, Book of the Dead 2 edited by John Skipp and Craig Spector back in the early nineties when the zombie craze was barely an inkling in the reader’s eye. He wondered what he could write about the walking dead that hadn’t been done, then he wrote “This Year’s Class Picture” which went on to win both the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy Award for best short story in 1993.

Ms. Geiss is a fourth-grade teacher who has a very set schedule for every day. She gets ready in the morning then goes to her classroom, where she writes out the daily schedule for the class to see, then she proceeds to go through each class, reading and instructing to the best of her ability. For recess, she sets her class free outside, then brings them all back. For Q&A periods, she rewards her students with treats.

The unique thing about Ms. Geiss’s class is that while it is made up of kids, they also happen to all be zombies. Ms. Geiss keeps them chained to their desks and tries every day to get a reaction out of them; to see if there might be some inkling of humanity left in them. She also makes sure her perimeter is secure. In addition to barbed wire and other obstructions surrounding the school, there’s a moat of gasoline.

This is a story about zombies. It’s also a story about survival. It’s also a story about hope. It is a moving and emotional tale that will bring you to tears in many ways.

Originally written on May 10, 2016 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of This Year’s Class Picture from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

Fifth Heart
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One thing you can never do with Dan Simmons is pigeon hole him under a specific genre. He’s published in most, from epic science fiction to mysteries to horror to thrilling historical fiction. Other than his Blade Runneresque novel Flashback from 2011, his previous four novels have been works of historical fiction; a couple of them have been fantastic, engrossing books — The Terror and Drood — and the other two — Black Hills and The Abominable — were lacking in something. His latest novel, The Fifth Heart, is a return to those earlier, thrilling works as he takes an idea that would hook any literary fan and takes you on one wild ride. The premise is a relatively simple one: what if Sherlock Holmes and Henry James teamed up together to solve a murder?

Sherlock Holmes is in Paris on a foggy night and finds Henry James by the Seine about to commit suicide. Instead, Holmes tells him he will join him on a ship in the morning to cross the Atlantic for James’s native United States to solve a murder that was thought and assumed to be a suicide. Clover Adams was a close friend of Henry James who committed suicide in 1885 under somewhat unusual circumstances. She was a member, along with James, of the Five of Hearts salon. And yet an enigmatic message is sent to the remaining members each year indicating nothing is as simple and clear cut as it seems.

Holmes begins his painstaking investigation, interviewing many and traveling all around Washington DC. James unwittingly becomes his Watson, as he also learns that Holmes is unsure if he is a real person or a fictional character, and that the stories Watson has penned about him with the help of literary agent Arthur Conan Doyle have distorted the facts of his past cases to make them all the more adventurous and grandiose. Holmes takes on many disguises and does what he does best.

Along the way readers will get to meet some fun characters, like Mark Twain and a young Teddy Roosevelt. They will also get to meet some familiar people from Holmes’s world, including Irene Adler and the infamous Professor Moriarty. The mystery will take James and Holmes away from DC to New York and then up to the Chicago to the White City and the World’s Fair where they will attempt to thwart a plot to assassinate the President of the United States.

Simmons clearly had a lot of fun with this novel, throwing as much literary subject matter as history. It is a lengthy novel and he enjoys taking the reader on interesting tangents, which all help to keep the reader enthralled as they have no idea where the story is going to go next. As with The Terror, the language makes it feel like one is reading something penned by Arthur Conan Doyle, with the use of particular language, diction and detail. Simmons fans will not be disappointed, while Holmesian ones will be delighted.

Originally written on August 1st, 2015 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Fifth Heart from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Hyperion  Drood  The Terror

Halloween Recommended Reads

We’re coming up on Halloween once again when everything goes spooky and dark, and we like to get scared by things.. Well, here’s a Halloween story I wrote and a list of recommended reads for kids and adults of books that will really give you some shivers . . .

Click on the image below to read the free Halloween Story

A Halloween Story


And now some recommended Halloween reads to chill your bones and make your blood freeze . . .


Among the Ghosts Coraline The Graveyard Book

Halloween Tree Rot and Ruin


Neverland I am Not a Serial Killer Feed Horns
Death Troopers
The Strain The Terror The Living Dead
Living Dead 2
World War Z Full Dark No Stars Handling the Undead
Illustrated Man Handling the Undead Handling the Undead Handling the Undead

“Phases of Gravity” by Dan Simmons (Subterranean Press, 2012)

Phases of Gravity

The great Subterranean Press continues with its limited edition releases of Dan Simmons’ work, with his early bestseller, Phases of Gravity, originally published in 1989.  In Simmons’ classic style that has gone on to create many a fan and reader, as well as win multiple awards, Phases of Gravity seems to be a simple, straightforward story on the surface, but as the reader plunges deeper into its depths, it becomes something much larger and meaningful.

Phases of Gravity is a change from what fans might be used to with Simmons, as it features little of the horrific or science fictional, but is the story about what a man does when he has achieved the greatest pinnacle; how he lives his now very ordinary-seeming life.  Richard Baedecker has done what very few people on this planet have done: walked upon the surface of the room.  A former astronaut, Baedecker is now traveling around, wondering what to do with his life now that he has done what so few have.  He has a failed marriage and a son that hates him.  The book takes him to an unusual location in Poona, India, where he meets the beautiful and unique Maggie Brown who will help him in his personal quest to find his “places of power,” the locations that have had meaning to him in his past, and make him realize the importance of what he has.

Originally written on January 24, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Phases of Gravity from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Carrion Comfort    Drood    The Terror

“Flashback” by Dan Simmons (Reagan Arthur, 2011)


It seems like the bestselling and award winner author, Dan Simmons, used up a lot of his talent and ability with the truly fantastic The Terror, and almost as good Drood, and in the meantime has been publishing sub-par work that fans and readers of his have come to expect to be otherwise.  Black Hills was an atrocious story that seemed to get lost in itself; while Flashback is a definite improvement on its predecessor, yet it still has a lot to be desired as a science fiction novel, especially when coming from the mind of such a talented author.

In Flashback, the United States is on the brink of collapse, but the citizens of America don’t care because 87% of them are addicted to a drug known as “flashback,” that when taken allows users to travel back into their past and memories and live specific moments over and over in excruciating detail, to the point where it is almost as if the memory were reality.  Nick Bottom used to be a detective, a good one, and then his wife was killed in a car crash, and now he’s been fired and is addicted to flashback like so many others, reliving moments with the love of his life.  But Bottom was a good cop and one rich man knows that, and is employing him one last time to investigate the murder of a top governmental advisor’s son, because Bottom remembers the time of the murder and will need to use flashback to remember some important details to see if he can find out just who this murderer is.

While Flashback seems like a vaguely interesting science fiction premise, and Simmons tries for a quasi-noire story in down and out Nick Bottom, the big problem is that this storyline and construct has been done and overdone in some way or shape or form numerous time in the genre and through various mediums: William Gibson did it with Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson did it with Snow Crash, Phillip K. Dick did it with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made renowned by the movie version, Blade Runner), Richard K. Morgan is another author who uses this construct.  Perhaps this wouldn’t be such a distracting obstruction if Flashback was written by a middling author, or even a new one; but to have it written by a man whom many have come to expect truly great and original and astounding novels from . . . it leaves one feeling disappointed to say the least.  Here’s hoping Simmons novel in 2012, whatever it might be, is a big improvement, or the man may begin dropping fans like a person suffering severe leprosy drops digits and eventual limbs.

Originally written on September 21, 2011 ©Alex C. Telander.

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

“Black Hills” by Dan Simmons (Reagan Arthur, 2010)

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In 2008, at a signing for Dan Simmons’ last incredible tome, Drood – as well as in an interview for BookBanter – the bestselling and award-winning author talked about his next novel in progress: the story about a young Native American boy, Paha Sapa, who is possessed by the spirit and soul of General Custer, who recently expired at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876.  It was a very unique sounding story, which is what Simmons does best, but I was certainly hesitant about the novel it would become, Black Hills.  Sadly after the pinnacle of his writing with The Terror, Black Hills is a mediocre at best novel that Simmons clearly put a lot of work into, but at the end leaves the reader thinking: “Is that it?”

The story begins with 10-year-old Paha Sapa visiting the battle ground of Little Big Horn, after the fighting.  He comes upon a man lying on the ground; as he investigates, a cloud form of the man’s spirit/soul enters his body.  Dan Simmons has done his research on Native American ways and culture, as Paha Sapa prepares himself to become a man.  His name means Black Hills, named for the specific hills of South Dakota.  The story then jumps to 1936 when Paha Sapa is an old man, in his seventies, working on the building and sculpting of Mount Rushmore.  Paha Sapa’s specific job is demolitions, strategically placing the dynamite to blast the rock.  But he considers the building of Rushmore a great insult to his people and his country, and with President Roosevelt scheduled to make a visit in the near future, Paha Sapa has his own celebratory explosion planned.

Black Hills jumps back and forth in time with Paha Sapa’s growth as a boy in becoming a man, and then his slow, meticulous planning of the catastrophic explosion of Rushmore as he continues to work on the historical site.  At the very end of the book, as the reader is left wondering why things happened the way they did, Simmons launches into a lengthy ethereal commentary about protecting and respecting this land and this world, which simply comes out of nowhere.

Simmons does what he does best with Black Hills: some interesting characters, strong description, good writing; but the story and plot are lacking in development, depth and interest that his other novels always possess.  Black Hills is simply not a book for everyone: new readers may enjoy it, some Simmons fans may also, but this reviewer found it to be a weak novel from one of the best writers writing today.

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

Originally written on May 19 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

04/13 On the Bookshelf . . . “Black Hills” & “I am Not a Serial Killer”

Black Hills

After hearing Dan Simmons talk about Black Hills a little in the BookBanter interview, I’m looking forward to seeing just what the book turned out to be.

I am Not a Serial Killer

Brandon Sanderson, as well as many others, have been raving about Dan Well’s debut novel, I am Not a Serial Killer, and I’m looking forward to seeing if it lives up to its hype.

“Carrion Comfort” by Dan Simmons (Dark Harvest Books, 1989)

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One of the greatest violations humans can imagine experiencing is not being able to control themselves.  This is what is at the heart of Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort.  There is a secret society that has this ability: to control others, both mentally and physically, trapping their personality and will, and doing with them as they please.  It is their power, but it is also what sustains them, what keeps them alive and living through the decades: they feed off the power to control and overpower.  It has become a game to them, where each year they compete to see who can control the most.  Only now members of this secret society are being assassinated, while clues are leaking out about its existence.

Dan Simmons does what he does best, creating a compelling epic that defies the imagination and takes readers on a unique journey across time and space and the many places of the planet.  Carrion Comfort is an incredible, in-depth piece of work on freedom and control and what it feels like when these facets of our humanity are taken away.

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

Originally written on March 11th 2010 ©Alex C. Telander.

“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.

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

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

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

“The Living Dead” Edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books, 2008)

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After the success of John Joseph Adams’ last anthology Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, he returns with a new fantastic collection, The Living Dead, with stories from the greatest horror fiction writers in publication: Stephen King, Clive Barker, Laurel K. Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, Dan Simmons, and many others.  It is a fascinating collection for it proves to the reader that no zombie story is the same, and what amazing settings and situations authors can come up that involve zombies.

In the first story, from Dan Simmons, “This Year’s Class Picture,” Ms. Geiss, a former high school teacher, has barricaded herself in her old high school.  A barbed wire fence and wall surround the school, along with a moat filled with gasoline.  Geiss spends her days with her class, a class of zombie children.  After hitting them with a tranquilizer, she chained them to their chairs and each day shows them pictures of humanity, the beauty of the world, and the greatness of the human race, trying to make a connection, trying to get a reaction.  But each day she is greeted by the dead stares in their faces, with their eyes hungry for human flesh.

In Neil Gaiman’s “Bitter Grounds,” the narrator has had enough with his life and just up and leaves one day.  Meeting an anthropology professor presenting a paper on zombies in New Orleans, he steals the man’s identity, and never expecting to go through with it, finds himself in New Orleans being the professor.  At night in the streets of the old city, he meets some people that later he considers may not be human.  He presents the paper as the professor, semi-believing in its intention, especially after his experiences of the night before.

In “The Dead Kid” from Darrell Schweitzer, David is a young boy who wants to hang out with the big kids who are always bullying him; he wants to be like them so they’ll stop bullying him.  So one day they show him “the dead kid”: a very young child that is being kept trapped in a box in a cave in the forest.  It is very pale, twin empty sockets where its eyes should be, and spends its days slowly writhing, trying to get free of its prison.

The Living Dead is a sobering read in that it primarily reveals to the readers the horrors zombies are capable of, but also presents the dark and evil side of humanity and what it is capable of when pitted against these walking corpses.  The idea of the zombie forces one to face the reality of death and how in this way it may be cheated, but when the cost is a term that has become synonymous with something that is dead but alive, incredibly stupid, and hungers for flesh; it makes one yearn all the more for an undisturbed grave.

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

Originally written on October 9th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.