Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American, a well-known and respected journalist who is critical of the Iranian government as well as the son of a high-ranking diplomat for the Shah. All of these factors would be good reason for Majd to limit his time in Iran. Majd has travelled in and out of Iran for years, often escorting U.S. journalists. He has published two previous books on the country, which were critical of the Iranian government. Majd grew up in the U.S. and Britain, but like many political refugees, he has always felt the pull of his home country. In his book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd recounts the nearly year-long stay in Tehran that he and his family embark upon.
This journey begins when his family moves there during a tumultuous time in Iran – on the cusp of the Arab Spring and the failure of the Green Movement reforms. Majd talks about the big issues while also discussing the minutiae of an American family trying to live in a country devoid of Starbucks and organic food stores. His narrative is often humorous, and it is at its best when discussing the average Iranian people, who have an incredibly self-deprecating view, a voracious love of politics and an admiration for American ideals.
Majd looks at Iranian cultural features like “sulking” and exaggeration and shows them in everyday life as well as how they play out in the domestic and international political arenas. What emerges is a portrait of a modern capitalist country that, while still repressive, has a very healthy political dialogue, including reporting on every juicy bit of gossip about leaders like they were the Kardashians. The people desire to stay Islamic but also to become more open and liberal. Majd sees the U.S./Iranian relationship as a version of a Persian “Big Sulk,” with an Iranian government ready to resume ties with the U.S., but only after the U.S. makes a demonstration of apology for past wrongs and expresses a desire for such a relationship. It’s an intriguing possibility, but one that the U.S. would be politically unable to explore. Ultimately, Majd is on a journey to discover the Persian identity, both his own and his homeland’s.
The science fiction genre has been on the decline for quite some time, but with the rise of innovative, mind-bending authors like Ann Leckie that might be about to change. Leckie has set imaginations afire, garnered a constellation of outstanding reviews and received a recent nomination for a 2013 Nebula Award for her debut novel, Ancillary Justice.
Ancillary Justice is set in a far future in an interplanetary empire known as the Radch. The Radchii utilize humans, massive ships and space stations connected by a vast network of artificial intelligence and the Ancillaries. Ancillaries are formerly living humans that have been transformed into part of the collective mind of their ships or stations. No longer human but also not fully machine, they are the Borg with more humanity and better fashion sense. Breq, the book’s protagonist, used to be an Ancillary of the starship Justice of Toren. Something happened to the ship, and she is the last surviving piece with all of the ship’s memories and no individual identity of her own. Breq is on a quest for vengeance for the death of her favorite human officer. The story is told in both Breq’s present and flashbacks that tell of the events leading up to the loss of the Justice of Toren. These flashbacks allow the brilliance of the work to shine through.
With a narrator that is a ship consisting of hundreds of parts, you often seem to get point of views from dozens of perspectives, but they are all from the same character. It is no accident that the Radchii have no sense of gender. Throughout the book, Breq refers to everyone as "she," and it is only through the conversations of others that we get any sense of gender identity. As Breq’s story unfolds and you see a multifaceted Artificial Intelligence developing a split personality and hiding secrets from itself, you develop a true appreciation for what Leckie has accomplished.
A world on the verge of unimagined changes in identity, technology and biological change, Ancillary Justice delivers a window into our future and how the definition of being human might be more malleable than we think.
After France’s stunning defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and its near defeat in WWI, no event garnered more attention or more divided the nation than the Dreyfus Affair. Robert Harris’s new book, An Officer and a Spy, is an incredibly compelling fictional account of the long-simmering scandal, especially the rabid paranoia and anti-Semitism that fueled it.
Harris, as seen in previous works like Fatherland and Pompeii, is a master of historical fiction. In An Officer and a Spy, Harris presents us with a cast of actual historical figures in an account that reads like a spy novel. Georges Picquart is a French Army officer who is convinced of the alleged treason of Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer accused of selling secrets to the hated Germans. As an award for his service in the Dreyfus Affair, Picquart is given command of the intelligence section responsible for catching spies in France. Although clearly anti-Semitic himself, Picquart slowly realizes two things: Dreyfus was not guilty, and the real spy is still on the loose. Picquart petitions his superior officers to reopen the Dreyfus case and give him leave to continue the investigation. The French High Command, unwilling to admit its own mistakes and face the political consequences, decides instead to exile Picquart to Tunisia. What follows is a smear campaign and eventually Picquart is defending himself against charges of treason. Meanwhile, over the decade that this story plays out, a solitary figure – Alfred Dreyfus – is kept prisoner on the remote Devil’s Island.
This 100-year-old scandal fits in perfectly with our modern era’s headlines of domestic spying, rendition and puppet trials. It is a novel that is unafraid of showing its hero, George Picquart, as a flawed human being. With its espionage and dramatic courtroom scenes, this novel will have you yelling “J’accuse!” at the power-mongers who would convict innocent men in order to advance their own ambitions.
In The Martian by Andy Weir, the action is cranked all the way up to 11, which is an impressive feat for a story that unfolds over the course of a year and a half. Set in the not-too-distant future, this is the story of NASA’s third mission to Mars. A type of routine has set in with these missions to the Red Planet until a freak sandstorm causes NASA to abort the mission and evacuate the planet. As the astronauts prepare to leave the surface, one is struck and thought to be dead, so he is left behind by his crewmates. Knocked unconscious, Mark Watley awakes to find himself in a damaged spacesuit, alone, with no communications and no way to get off the planet. Smart, sarcastic, hard-working, imaginative and more than a little nerdy, Watley is the perfect hero. Left alone with limited supplies, Watley has to find a way to survive and meet his basic needs. Just as he starts to accomplish this, NASA realizes their mistake. As the world turns its attention to the drama unfolding across a sea of stars, Watley is forced to parry every challenge thrown at him by a harsh, unforgiving environment.
The Martian, with its roots in current space history, it is more a work of science “fact-ion” than science fiction. This debut novel by a promising new voice is a celebration of the esprit de corps and professionalism of NASA, as well as a celebration of the human spirit. Weir speaks to the basic human need to risk any danger, no matter the cost, to save another human in distress. The Martian will leave you breathless on its way to a fist-pumping-in-the-air conclusion, perfect for anyone who loved Apollo 13 or Gravity as well as readers of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.
Tales from the Holy Land, the new collection of short stories from Baltimore’s own Rafael Alvarez, former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and writer for Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire, is equal parts time machine and atlas. The stories are set in Baltimore, but a Baltimore that both no longer exists, yet still lingers on in memories. As Alvarez’s characters make their way through the world, we get an intimate view of the landmarks, both physical and cultural, that made up Old Baltimore and haunt the new Baltimore like a legacy forgotten by a city unsure if it's on the rise or in the final stages of its demise.
The characters in this collection will be familiar to fans of Alvarez’s earlier works, and they are as welcome as old friends. Much like the physical landmarks that are so often prominent, these characters are highly representative of the many cultural backgrounds that made up Old Baltimore. Tales from the Holy Land is, in that way, like an atlas, denoting the patchwork of tribes — Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Germans, African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Spaniards, Greeks and all the rest — that made up the city, lived side by side and worked hard every day of their lives. Alvarez has written a paean to these people, to their cultures, their beliefs and to the incredible food that they brought with them and readily shared with their neighbors. Food is a common theme in these tales, and the sweet aromas of the dishes waft off the pages.
Alvarez’s stories are often bittersweet and dark, raw and gritty. They marvel at the monsters — crime, poverty and prejudice — which so quickly overtook a great American metropolis and sent waves of people streaming out to the suburbs. This is clearly a very personal book, intended for a mature audience. If you have wandered the bones of this city and wondered what lies beneath, then the place to start your excavation is Tales from the Holy Land.
The North Point Branch of BCPL is pleased to host Rafael Alvarez as he begins his tour for Tales from the Holy Land. Join us for an author talk and book signing on Thursday, January 16 at 7:00 p.m.
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.
There is a new subgenre of epic fantasy that seems to be growing called flintlock fantasy. Traditional epic fantasy has a Medieval or Renaissance type setting; technology is limited, and religion and magic dominate. Not so in one of the best new contenders in this subgenre, Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan. Promise of Blood is the first book in the new Powder Mage Trilogy. McClellan’s world is poised on the brink of modernity, with steam power, labor unions and massed armies using cannons and muskets. Much as the modern era was kicked off with the violence of the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon, Promise of Blood begins with a popular military commander ousting the corrupt hapless king and his unfeeling nobility. Soon the cobblestones of “Election Square” — voting being carried out by guillotine — runs red with blood as Royalists seek safety from the revolution behind barricades.
Into what otherwise sounds like a retelling of Les Misérables, McClellan adds magic, lots of varied magic. The King is supported by his Royal Cabal of Privileged, which are like the traditional wizards of epic fantasy novels. The revolution is led by the Powder Mages, less powerful than the Privileged. They gain their power from ingesting gunpowder and bullets. The Powder Mages are a reflection of the new modern era about to be born. Other groups integral to the story are Knacked, those who only possess one single ability, and the Predeii, sorcerers older and more powerful than the Privileged. Lastly, there are the old gods, who are not pleased with the Revolution, and they are not forgiving.
Promise of Blood is full of battles, magic and mundane. It is rife with court intrigue and the maneuverings of a land in revolution. It features a cross section of characters from different cultural strata. It works on every level. The only good thing about reaching the end of the book is the knowledge that book two in the series comes out in February!
By 1942, the United States government had fully committed to the idea of building an atomic bomb. The scope of that project would dwarf any other single undertaking in human history in cost and material. The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan details the experiences of 16 women who find themselves wrapped up in the secrecy and inadvertent social engineering of the Manhattan Project.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee was the first of the three biggest Manhattan project facilities and did not exist until the Department of Defense built it. For years, it didn’t even appear on any maps. The town started small, but as the project ramped up there was an increased need for housing, stores, sundries and recreational outlets. By the end of World War II, 75,000 lived in and around Oak Ridge. With so many able-bodied men in the military, women formed a vital backbone to the efforts at Oak Ridge. Some were transported in from the coasts without knowledge of their final destination. Others were from the surrounding area, lured in by the promise of well-paying, if secretive, government work. There were also the women scientists involved in the research, although they were often deprived of the accolades. Many of these women had never been away from home; many had never earned their own salary before. They found themselves someplace where the security and secrecy was oppressive. Some were even recruited to spy on their fellow workers.
Kiernan lets the women tell their own stories, and if many of them are similar, the cross-section is still broad. Especially interesting is the vast difference in experiences based on race, the United States still viciously segregated at the time. It’s also interesting to see how this group of clever young people made a dry county one of the best areas for the production and smuggling of moonshine in the U.S. Many of the women Kiernan interviewed were shocked at the war’s end to realize what exactly they had been working on. Most of them, though, remained in Oak Ridge - at least the town if not the facility.
Few writers can jump from one form of media to another and still produce award-winning work, but with his 2013 Hugo Award winning series Saga, Brian K. Vaughan has proven he is one of those rare writing talents. Vaughan is no stranger to accolades; his previous comic book series, Y: the Last Man and Ex Machina, not only won awards but were both optioned for films. His heart-wrenching graphic novel, Pride of Baghdad, looks at the non-human consequences of war.
Vaughan, who has been writing for TV shows like Lost and Under the Dome, and artist Fiona Staples have created a family drama that is half Romeo and Juliet and half Firefly. Saga, Vol. 1 is the tale of two worlds and two species at war. In the midst of the conflict, a man and a woman from opposing sides meet and fall -- slowly and painfully -- in love. They escape their families and their worlds and have a child together. That’s when things get interesting for them. Neither side in the conflict likes what their love and their child represent and make the elimination of the trio a priority.
Saga, Vol. 1 is full of interesting worlds and species, like a slew of bounty hunters out for blood and cash. If the story sounds vaguely familiar, it is given fresh life by Vaughan’s writing and Staples’ art. Vaughan is known for his snappy and often funny dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joss Whedon film. A great deal of the charm of the series is the characters and their interactions, which always come off fresh and, well, human. The first volume follows the initial pursuit and escape.
Vaughan has again found a way to take an unusual concept and tell an incredible story.
Saga is for mature audiences only, due to violence, language and adult situations.