“The Island” by Armin Greder (Allen & Unwin, 2008)

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Originally published in 2002 in German, and winner of multiple German and French book awards, Armin Greder’s The Island is now available in English. While this picture book might be disturbing for the very young, it is an allegory that can be appreciated by all ages (the publisher indicates 8-18). It only takes a few minutes to read, but leaves you contemplating its implications and greater meanings.

This is the story of an island where some big, angry, racist people live simple, everyday lives, loving the routine and normalcy of it. When a strange looking man arrives in a shoddy raft, the natives see that he is different from them and immediately despise him, trapping him in a goat pen, hiding him away and ignoring him, going back to their lives. Then one day he comes to them, asking for food, and they are shocked and horrified. They think about who should take care of him, but no one wants him, thinking that he will destroy whatever he touches. Eventually he is put back on his shoddy raft and sent out to sea. They build a giant wall around the island, protecting them from the outside world and people who aren’t the same, as well as killing any birds that come to the island, so that it will never be discovered by anyone else.

On the surface it is an unusual short story, but it would be little more to an alien who knows nothing of the history of humanity. For all of us who were born on this planet, this story of hate for anyone different is an all too familiar one that has had many horrific chapters in our history. It is also sadly a reality that continues in our world today. With hard, charcoal-colored, sharp-edged images that evoke Edvard Munch’s The Scream as well as the music video to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall,” The Island is a story that will be read and reread, as a commentary on humanity’s failings.

Originally written on April 25th, 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Death and the Devil” by Frank Schatzing [Translated by Mike Mitchell] (William Morrow, 2007)

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With the runaway success of The Swarm originally in Europe and now in the United States, Death and the Devil, Shatzing’s first novel, has been translated and published.  It’s a medieval thriller; a murder mystery set with the back drop of thirteenth century Cologne.  This is a completely different genre and story line for Schatzing after the sci-fi/horror of The Swarm, nevertheless he delivers his unique storytelling style in Death and the Devil.

It is the year 1260, and the crowning achievement of Cologne – the great cathedral reaching to the heavens – is almost complete.  Its architect, Gerhard Morart, is a proud and respected man in the city.  That is until he is pushed from the one of the windows high up in his beloved cathedral.  He plunges to his death, whisper two words in his crushed form, and then dies.  The people of Cologne believe it an accident or suicide, except for one young boy, Jacob the Fox – so called because of his noticeable red hair – who happened to be sitting in a tree stealing apples when Morart fell.  Only Jacob saw Morart high up in the cathedral and he also saw the black shadow behind push the architect out of the window.

Now Jacob is on the run from this shadow that he believes is somehow the devil, chasing him, and will not stop until he is dead.  Jacob must use the city to his advantage, make as many allies as he can, and always keep one step ahead of this chasing shadow, or he will be done for.  The shadow is in fact a cold-hearted killer, a cruel assassin who will not stop killing until all proof of Morart’s murder is erased.

And so the chase continues set in the richly detailed medieval city in the style and texture of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, as well as Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth; Death and the Devil is a story that will both educate and terrorize the reader, for Schatzing has done his research well: the reader will learn of medieval life in a big city, the different classes, the power of the nobles over the poor, the power of the church; at the same time they will be biting their nails in fear and excitement each time Jacob the Fox barely escapes the cruel black nails of the man he believes is the devil.  Death and the Devil is a thriller that will delight any fan of this genre.

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

Originally written on August 17th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Swarm” by Frank Schatzing [Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer] (William Morrow, 2006)

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The Swarm is technically not a new book, but was originally published in 2004 in Germany by Frank Schatzing under the title of Der Schwarm, where it immediately climbed onto the bestseller lists and has stayed there ever since.  In 2006 the book was translated and published in Britain and the United States; a paperback edition was released in May, and in August The Swarm will be released in mass market edition.  In the style of Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy starting with Forty Signs of Rain, and Michael Crichton when he was at his best some books ago, and The Day After Tomorrow; this is an eco-thriller set in today’s world with a story that while fantastical is not completely out of the realm of possibility.  The paperback edition is 900 pages long, but the more you read of it, the more you will want it never to end!

It is the present time, the world is pretty much the same place, George Bush is still in office, but there are some very strange things happening in the oceans of our planet.  Fishing boats have begun disappearing off the coast of South America, no pieces or bodies are ever found.  Just off the coast of Vancouver humpback and orca whales that have been entertaining sights for tourists now choose to attack the boats: the humpbacks break them in two, while the orcas move in for the kill.  In France, fresh lobsters that are being prepared for dinners at famous restaurants burst open and exude a gelatinous substance; soon people begin dying.  Around the world ships of all shapes and sizes mysteriously begin disappearing, as do submarines and other submersibles, never to be heard from again.  Eventually a catastrophic event happens that shocks the world: the methane ice supporting the North European continental shelf collapses causing a Tsunami that drowns the west coast of Europe from Norway to Spain, and floods the east coast of Britain from Scotland to London; many people are dead.

The world is in shock, not sure what is happening or what they are going to do.  A crack team of scientists is convened in Canada at a secret location to come up with a solution to these catastrophes.  They include characters who have already had their lives put at risk: Sigur Johanson, a marine scientist who barely escaped the Tsunami; Karen Weaver, a journalist who specializes in marine stories and was rescued from the Tsunami by Johanson; Leon Anawak, a marine biologist who barely survived the whale attack off Vancouver, as well as many others, involving all agencies of the United States government.  They are working against the clock to find out what is going on and to come up with a way to stop this, whatever this is.  Meanwhile the land invasion has begun, with millions upon millions of crabs storming the beaches of the east coast again carrying this mysterious jelly substance; people begin dying in the thousands as the water supply is contaminated.  New York is doomed, Washington DC is next.

While The Swarm features a sizable cast, as these events take place all over the world, Schatzing keeps everyone clear and identifiable, with the reader is left wondering who’s going to make it and who isn’t.  With a depth of research that I haven’t read since World War Z, the author takes the reader into the minds of many people around the world, seeing through their eyes and their culture, as they try to deal with these terrible events.  It is a time to put differences aside, as everyone must work together to come up with a solution before it is too late.  As far as the translation goes, Sally-Ann Spencer has done an incredible job of making the book run fluidly, to the point where I forget this book was originally written in German.

The Swarm is the perfect summer read to cool you down in the heat, but it also opens your mind to ideas and possibilities you never thought of, and with a movie adaptation due in a year or two, this will be the book you’ll read and not be able to forget.

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

Originally written on July 18th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Ruins” by Scott Smith (Knopf, 2006)

The RuinsStarStar

For this book to be classed a mystery (at least it is at Borders) is a grave injustice to the genre community: The Ruins is outright horror, through and through; I mean it has a blood-sucking vine for crying out loud!

Scott Smith has written a most unusual book with The Ruins, starting off kind of slow with the necessary character set-up, but then suddenly kicks into high gear and goes from scary to crazy to outright impossible yet riveting.  Our cast is a group of five twenty-something characters: two couples who went to college together (including a German and  a Greek) hear about some ruins nearby while they are vacationing in Cancun.  Following the paths, they end up on a plateau and find themselves trapped by a group of armed Mayans at the bottom of the hill who will shoot to kill if they come too close.

The next few days are an experimentation in the devolving of civilized humanity, as they soon find skeletons of past occupants in the area – all mysteriously stripped of any flesh.  As water and food supplies dwindle, they must stick together and ration themselves to ensure survival, all with the hope that their friends back at the hotel will eventually come and find them.  Then they discover that the dense green vine surrounding the camp area is not your usual foliage.  As more is discovered about this plant, the story goes from bizarre to preposterous, as the vine eventually imitates sounds and smells, then their actual voices to pit them against each other.  One by one, the vine gets them and causes a slow but painful death.  Eventually there is one girl remaining who chooses to slash her wrists and die before she can feel the vine taking her.  Three days later the friends arrive and the book ends with them being trapped in exactly the same predicament.

I have mixed feelings about this book, because there were certainly some good parts that had me wanting to keep reading on ahead, but near the end it really became far fetched from the emergency surgery that was performed – leg amputations and slicing open of bodies because of the vine – to the farcical nature of the omniscient vine that was actually speaking German to enrage the German character; though kudos are deserved for a book that dares to kill off all its characters.  Nevertheless, no reason is ever really revealed for why the Mayans are keeping them there.  One character hints that it might be that the vine is some sort of god that the Mayans have “sacrificed to” for hundreds of years, and this whole effort just comes off as racist.

But if it’s a blood and gore horror story you’re looking for that pushes you to your limits and makes you think how far you would go in this situation – even though nothing like this could ever really happen – then The Ruins by Scott Smith is the book for you.  Now I’m just wondering why the slasher movie of this book hasn’t been made yet?

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

Originally written on December 21st, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.