Last year was an incredibly good year for fantasy novels, especially debut authors. Django Wexler’s first book, The Thousand Names, was one of the best of the year. Like Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan, this is another “flintlock fantasy,” a subgenre where the historical context is much later than the typical Medieval/Renaissance setting, with muskets and artillery replacing swords and bows. The Thousand Names is set in a world much like Victorian Britain and, in this first in a series, the location is an analogue for Egypt under British colonial rule. Just as the Mahdi’s Revolt and religious reawakening threatened British rule in Egypt, the Redeemer Rebellion in Khandar has pushed the Vordanai Colonial Regiment to the sea. The Old Colonials hang on to a miserable spit of land awaiting evacuation, instead they get reinforcement in the form of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, a character equal parts Field Marshall Wellington, General “Chinese” Gordon and Yoda. Vhalnich hasn’t come to organize a retreat, nor is his primary objective the re-conquest of Khandar, but something else entirely.
This incredibly well written military fantasy/adventure novel, full of deadly deserts and marauding horseman, harkens back to books like Beau Geste by Percival Wren and The Four Feathers by A. E. W. Mason and movies like Khartoum. It also breaks new ground in powerful female protagonists in gender-defying roles and romances. There are no damsels in distress here, as they are too busy putting cold steel to their enemies. Wexler has created a world that he can expand to a global setting or narrow to focus on court intrigue, as his next book seems to do. More importantly, the court intrigue and the excellently detailed battles never take primacy over character development. Waxler has given us a band of brothers — and sisters — that have depth and motivation, and are compelling to read about. The magic use in the book builds slowly and organically until the climatic end, which is a scene fit for the big screen. The Thousand Names delivers on all its promise and shows how a good fantasy novel can shake up old tropes and borrow and improve on tropes from other types of literature. It will leave you wondering why the second book isn’t already in your hands.
The son of two famous stage magicians, Max Flash is himself a great escape artist, contortionist and illusionist. These very qualities prompt his parents’ true employer, the Department for Extraordinary Activity (DFEA) to recruit him for a special assignment. In Game On, Max’s first mission is to close the portal between the video game world (Virtuals’ world) and the real world (Gamers’ world) before the Virtuals take over. With the use of a special USB gadget, Max is thrust into the Virtual world via a computer hard drive. His task is to locate the escaped Virtual, Deezil, and close the portal between the two worlds. As he travels from game to game looking for the portal and the evil Deezil, Max must avoid race cars, battle centurions and flee farmers in his quest to save the Gamer world. Relying only on his own cunning and special skills (and some nifty gadgets from the DFEA), Max defies death and suppresses the Virtual uprising before returning home.
The first in the Max Flash series by Jonny Zucker, Game On is a fast paced adventure and the start of a fabulous series for young readers. Max’s further missions will have him battling aliens in space, robots in a parallel universe, an Egyptian curse, and mysterious beings in the Antarctic. With original stories, a likable hero and short, action-filled chapters, Max Flash is an all-around great read. Fans of the television series Phineas and Ferb will enjoy this series for its quirky storylines and action-packed heroic adventures.
P. G. Wodehouse is well-known for his dry wit and ability to make readers laugh out loud. His Jeeves and Wooster series has spawned plays, movies and, most notably, a TV series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Fortunately, the series also inspired Sebastian Faulks to pen Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, based on the adventures of the hapless Bertram Wooster and his ‘gentlemen’s personal gentleman’ Jeeves.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Faulks gives enough detail in his story to get a good sense of backstory for Bertie and Jeeves. Wooster as the narrator is, well, perhaps not the most intellectually astute person, but one with a definite charm and sweetness that helps to soften the insipidity of the situations into which he often blunders. In the very stratified British class system, Bertie is a public- school-educated, old-money-type, with plenty of titled gentry amongst his relations and friends. Jeeves is ostensibly a servant, but he is much more than that to Bertie – and to everyone else he encounters. Head and shoulders above those he serves, Jeeves is the one who Bertie and most of his circle turn to when faced with crises of any kind.
The best thing about this new installment is that Faulks has emulated the characters so well that even a true admirer of Wodehouse will be impressed with the attention to detail here. The plot consists of Jeeves through a typically ‘Woosterian’ series of mistakes being forced to impersonate Lord Etringham in order to keep the peace among the aristocracy and to assist Bertie from accidentally becoming entangled with yet another well-heeled-yet-horrid debutante. As always, Bertie’s efforts to assist Jeeves in his orderly plans cause further complications, but the reader knows that Jeeves will set everything right in the end.
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a sheer delight for those who have mourned the lack of Wodehouse- level writing since his death in 1975. There is no indication whether Faulks intends to continue writing further adventures with Jeeves and Wooster, but we can all hope that he does.
Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando is a new teen novel set during the summer between high school and college. Elizabeth and Lauren live on opposite ends of the country, so when they’re paired as roommates for their first year of college at the University of California at Berkeley, they begin emailing to get to know one another and make plans for the fall.
Roomies begins in June, as Elizabeth sends her first email to Lauren immediately after receiving her housing information from Berkeley. Her enthusiasm surprises Lauren, who, after sharing a room at home with multiple younger siblings for most of her life, had been hoping for a single room. The girls continue to email throughout the summer, making plans and sharing personal details. At the same time, Elizabeth feels herself becoming disinterested with her friends at home and caught up in a new relationship with a seemingly perfect yet complicated guy. Meanwhile, Lauren is dealing with the idea of leaving her family behind as she heads off to college, as well as her feelings for her coworker, Keyon. As Elizabeth and Lauren help each other work through their respective problems, the two end up in a fight that puts their relationship as future roommates in jeopardy.
Roomies is a fun, realistic story that deals with many of the issues that arise for teens during the summer between high school and college. The mix of emails and prose makes for an interesting story that teens are sure to enjoy.
A recent book to hit our children’s nonfiction shelves features an arresting cover image: a familiar red octagonal stop sign shape with the unexpected imperative “Go.” This also happens to be the title of renowned book cover designer Chip Kidd’s volume for the younger set, Go: A Kidd’s Guide to Graphic Design. The text for this highly creative book begins right on the inside cover, grabbing readers and plunging them headfirst into the influence of graphic design.
Go teaches as much by example as it does by narrative. Kidd takes the reader on a vibrant, visual field trip through the real world, where we make choices based on the design choices of others. A soda can label, baseball, remote control and a hand-lettered chalkboard are examples of everyday items that are influenced (and influencing) by design. A timeline takes us carefully through high points in the history of graphic design, with pithy comments relating to the accompanying illustrations. Did you know that the familiar smiling logo for the children’s toy Colorforms is an example of the simplicity of Bauhaus?
Never preachy, never boring, Kidd is the best art teacher you’ve never had. He takes on subjects like scale, focus, image quality, color theory and positive and negative space, bringing them to life in a memorable way. A fascinating chapter on typography, including a history of 30 different fonts, is set in the fonts themselves. Content gets its due (“form follows function”), as does concept (“your idea of what to do”). A final section is devoted to design projects, inviting readers to put what they’ve learned to use. Kidd encourages readers to share their creations online.
Go is one of five nominees for The YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction, to be awarded by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, at the end of January 2014. This book is highly recommended for not only older children but also for teens and adults as well.
Baltimore author Rafael Alvarez discusses his new book, Tales from the Holy Land, on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Branch. The former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for The Wire recently answered questions for Between the Covers about his latest collection of short stories on the magic of old Baltimore.
Q. Your new collection of short stories, Tales from the Holy Land, comes out this month. If you had to choose one story that epitomizes the gritty resolve of your hometown, what would it be?
A. "Junie Bug," in which a man spends his life digging in Leakin Park for the body of his father; and "The Sacred Heart of Ruthie," in which an orphan raised by the Oblate Sisters of Providence grows up to be a heart surgeon.
Q. This is your third collection of short fiction. What makes you favor short stories as your literary medium? How did this latest book come about?
A. I write fiction every day – about a half hour to an hour a day – in between the journalism and screenwriting I have to do to make a living. When I have enough for a new book I string them together and because I always use the same cast of "Holy Land" characters – Basilio, Grandpop, Nieves, Orlo and Leini, Miss Bonnie – it reads more like a novelized "mural" than stand alone short stories. [As a] side note, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, works exclusively in the short story genre.
Q. As a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and former writer for the HBO cop drama, The Wire, you have witnessed a lot of Baltimore's heartbreak. How do you keep cynicism from overtaking your writing?
A. There are two, maybe three Baltimores within the city. I have lived in Baltimore for all of my 55 years – was educated here, raised my children here – and have never been the victim of a crime. I am thankful for that, but I'm not ignorant of how fortunate I am to have been born into the 1960s middle-class and not the entrenched underclass. I keep cynicism away from my art and my soul by means of hope, which I incorporate into both, by believing that the more you give away the more hopeful you become.
Q. Talk a little bit about your family background and its influence on your fiction writing.
A. The best answer to this question is found in the story The Fountain of Highlandtown, which won the 1994 Baltimore City Artscape fiction award and is included in Tales from the Holy Land. The story was my first real success in the world of fiction and, in many ways, is the provenance for all of the stories to come.
Check out Old Mikamba Had a Farm by Rachel Isadora, a fresh rendition of the classic nursery song set in majestic Africa. The illustrations radiate in vibrant collages through the use of pencil shading, newspaper clippings, textile designs and watercolor. With all new animal sounds, you can find out along with your child what noises warthogs, springboks and dassies make. Perfect for preschool through second grade, this bright picture book’s melody and theme are familiar enough to have children singing along while introducing lesser known animals to help broaden both their vocabulary and global cultural awareness. The glossary of animals in the back is a fun and informative feature, too.
Off to Market, written by Elizabeth Dale and illustrated by Erika Pal, tells the story of a drive to market on Joe’s bus. While driving through a Ugandan town, Joe picks up a variety of community members such as women with baskets of fruit, a woman with two goats and an elderly nun. However, trouble begins when Joe’s generosity causes him to overload the bus with passengers. It’s up to the little boy Keb to save the day with heart, smarts and kindness.
In The Race for the Chinese Zodiac, Gabrielle Wang introduces the 12 animals who raced across a river in order to have a year named for them by the Jade Emperor. From the courageous tiger to the wise snake, each animal is exquisitely illustrated by Sally Rippin, who used Chinese painting techniques. This fanciful retelling shows the character traits each beast embodies as they brave the waters to claim a cherished spot. The descriptions of each zodiac animal, their years and their attributes make this an easy yet delightful way to introduce children to the Chinese zodiac.
If losing weight and getting in shape top your New Year’s resolutions, three new books will help you maximize success. One celebrity chef and two fitness superstars offer diverse plans which all share the foundations of healthy eating and exercise and promise an end result of melting pounds away.
Super Shred: The Big Results Diet by Dr. Ian Smith is a more concentrated program utilizing the principles and building blocks behind Smith’s previous bestseller, Shred. Diet confusion, meal replacement, frequent meals and snacks throughout the day will keep metabolism stoked and reduce hunger pangs. This is the program for those looking to get lean fast or those who have had past success on other programs and need a quick refresher. Smith, a co-host of The Doctors, and medical contributor to the Rachael Ray Show, has a strong social media presence and stays connected with his Shredder Nation via Facebook and Twitter.
Celebrity New York chef Rocco DeSpirito offers a lifestyle plan for dieters to lose up to five pounds every five days in The Pound a Day Diet. This Mediterranean style program allows enjoyment of favorite foods while still losing weight. DeSpirito provides alternatives for weekday and weekend dining with healthy recipes for 28 days. He also shares alternatives for those with no time or inclination to cook. The menus are complemented by his 13-week exercise program which outlines calories lost during various exercises.
One of The Biggest Loser’s trainers, Dolvett Quince, reveals his method of losing pounds fast without feeling deprived in The 3-1-2-1 Diet: Eat and Cheat Your Way to Weight Loss. Quince focuses on mental fitness so the physical transformation can follow. His clean eating plan must be adhered to for three days, but then it’s cheat day! Pizza, ice cream or a glass of wine are all permissible indulgences and these cheat days help satisfy physical and psychological cravings while upping metabolism. Quince’s detailed workout regime is all part of his straightforward plan which takes dieters from inception through maintenance.
In September of 1944, in the final year of World War II, a B-24 bomber piloted by Jack Arnett and carrying 10 servicemen plummeted into the western Pacific Ocean near the Micronesian islands of Palau. The wreckage of the plane disappeared, and the men were presumed dead though no bodies were found. Baltimore author Wil S. Hylton examines the quest of the man who worked to unravel the mystery of crash and the fate of the men on board in Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II.
In 1993, middle-aged medical researcher Pat Scannon was a novice scuba diver, so when an invitation came to search for the underwater ruins of a sunken Japanese hospital ship supposedly laden with gold stolen during WWII, he was hesitant to accept. While diving on the trip, Scannon saw a wing of a different submerged American plane and became determined to answer the question of what happened to Arnett’s aircraft and crew. He assumed that, due to the massive size of a B-24 bomber, he’d locate the crash site fairly quickly; instead, his detective work spanned more than 10 years.
Hylton documents the details of Scannon’s research utilizing books, government documents, archival material and networking with veterans and military contacts. Yet, Vanished is far more than a paper trail. Particularly compelling are the parallel stories of Scannon, the crew members and their families who had been waiting for nearly 60 years for information about the fate of their loved ones. Vanished is a moving account of one man’s determination to lay to rest with honor a forgotten crew of our country’s airmen.
Dukes frequently appear as heroes in historical romances. These two new novels share that common plot element, but with their strong writing and fresh stories, they are far from clichéd. In Victoria Morgan’s The Heart of a Duke, Lady Julia Chandler decides to take matters in her own hands to bring her long-time fiancé, the Duke of Bedford, to the altar. She is tired of being a laughingstock, so she finds him and kisses him, ready to push for a wedding and soon. There’s just one problem: she mistakenly kisses his twin brother Daniel, who has just returned from 10 years in America. Daniel came home to find out who set the fire that nearly killed him after receiving a mysterious note from his late father’s solicitor that read, “It is time. Come home and claim your destiny.” Daniel doesn’t want Julia to marry his brother, but his attention may put her in his enemy’s crosshairs. Morgan is a talented new voice in historical romance.
No Good Duke Goes Unpunished, the third novel in RITA-winner Sarah MacLean’s Rules of Scoundrels quartet, brings us the story of Temple, a duke marked by scandal. He’s known as the Killer Duke because 12 years ago, he woke up covered in blood in the bed of his father’s beautiful, young fiancée. Everyone presumed that he murdered her, though her body was never found. Now, a notorious fighter and co-owner of the infamous Fallen Angel gaming hell, Temple is stunned when Miss Mara Lowe, the woman he is believed to have murdered, shows up on his doorstep ready to bargain with him. If he forgives her brother’s gambling debts, she will show herself in society, proving that he isn’t a murderer. MacLean writes sexy historical romance with wit, warmth and a modern sensibility. The book ends with the revelation of a shocking secret about the identity of Chase, the fourth partner in the Fallen Angel. That secret will leave readers desperate to read the final novel in the series!