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.
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.
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.
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!
Soviet Russian cooking may conjure up images of boiled cabbage and overcooked potatoes, but Anya von Bremzen’s fascinating food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing reveals a much more rich and flavorful history as it pertains to Soviet-era dishes. As von Bremzen, a food writer, muses in the prologue: “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” Following this sentiment, von Bremzen travels between past and present as she and her mother cook and recreate both the supreme and humble food concoctions relational to their homeland’s state of being. There’s the pre-Bolshevik Revolution richness where dishes boast complex flavors and labor-intensive preparation, the uniformity of Lenin’s new Soviet model when blandness and simplicity prevailed, the starvation years of the Stalin- and World War II-eras which lay bare the “recipes” created solely for survival, and the “Thaw” of the 1950s and 1960s when food began to reappear but scarcity still ruled. In the book’s final chapter, aptly titled “Putin on the Ritz,” the author sees through a 21st century lens the Moscow life of her childhood in all its small pleasures and shortcomings.
Von Bremzen and her mother Larissa emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, but not before Anya had a chance to experience both the deprivations and the decadence of Soviet food distribution, depending on one’s connections and/or status as nomenklatura (Communist party appointees). Von Bremzen’s writing is at times dense yet always saturated with flavorful layers, much like the kulebiaka, or fish pie, which dominates much of the first chapter with tales of its preparation. At the end are recipes for some of the dishes discussed, one from each decade, so readers can experience firsthand a taste of history. Russophiles and foodies alike shouldn’t miss this hidden gem which shows how a country’s complex history and its food are intricately connected, and as a result become equally important to its cultural identity.
Sadness frequently visited Kamala, but seldom was there time to succumb to its undertow. Like the monsoon that wiped out her Bengali village and claimed her family, Kamala's turbulent life was an unpredictable force leading her to reinvent herself over and over. In Sujata Massey's eloquent new historical novel The Sleeping Dictionary, India's struggles to free itself from British imperial rule coalesce with one woman's efforts to become independent even as racial and class barriers stand in the way.
Kamala was not always her name. As a child she was called Pom, born into the lowest caste in India. After a wave destroys her village, the 10-year-old orphan is rescued, embarking on what seems like a lifetime of difficult transitions. Christened Sarah, she is now content as a servant at an all-girls boarding school, where she has her dear friend, Bidushi, and her love of language and books. When she is accused of a theft she did not commit she flees, only to disembark in the wrong city, where a degrading experience awaits. By the time she arrives in Calcutta in search of a reputable position and new identity, she is hiding many secrets from her employer, a kindly British Indian civil service officer who only knows her as Kamala, well-born and well-read.
Massey, whose father was born in Calcutta, calls upon lovely descriptive language and a strong sense of place to evoke the troubled peasant life and colonial society of the 1930s and 1940s Raj India that is the center of Kamala's bumpy journey. With astute social commentary of women's roles and layers of Indian history, culture and language, she creates an authentic voice in Kamala that is as complex as the identities she has assumed. Betrayal, love, espionage and tragedy all find their way into Massey's story. The former Baltimore Sun reporter, best known for her award-winning Rei Shimura mysteries, has more in store for readers with her new Daughters of Bengal series. Here's looking forward to the next one.
From the start, American audiences fell in love with Downton Abbey. The opening notes of the theme song strike a familiar chord and the characters seem like people who we really know. The popular show’s fourth season premieres in the U.S. on January 5th on PBS. Following the tragic conclusion to season three, fans are curious as to the fates of the show’s beloved characters. Two new books will whet Downtonites’ appetites as they watch the drama unfold.
In Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey, Fiona, the Eighth Countess of Carnarvon shares another chapter in the story of the family that lived in Highclere Castle – the real Downton Abbey. American-born Catherine Wendell married Lord Porchester, known as Porchey, in 1922. Soon, he inherited his father’s title, Highclere Castle and the debt that came with it. The couple was forced to auction family heirlooms to raise the funds to keep the castle in the family. While successful, the couple eventually divorced. Countess Fiona shares their stories complete with enough scandal, intrigue and drama to warrant a BBC production. The book also highlights the interesting role that Highclere Castle played during World War II, at times making the house a character in this family’s story. This is a fascinating look at the period and place that frame the show.
Emma Rowley’s Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey: The Official Backstage Pass to the Set, the Actors and the Drama is a new guide to the show with glossy, never-before-seen photographs. Fans will enjoy photographs of the actors, Highclere Castle, the studio set and the show’s sumptuous costumes. The book also includes interviews with the cast, crew and show’s creative team. Throughout this magnificent companion book, the show’s dedication to historical detail is evident. The cast calls historical advisor Alastair Bruce “The Oracle,” and he takes his job seriously. He meticulously studies the historical detail in every element of a scene, from the props, hair and make-up to the actors’ body language.
Never hesitant to state his strong opinion and create controversy, Morrissey has been a lightning rod since he burst onto the scene as The Smiths’ frontman in the 1980s. Now, with Autobiography, he sets his record straight on the many phases of his life and recording career. Whether or not you find him a hopelessly depressing poseur or are a longtime fan and follower (there really is little middle ground!), this stream-of-consciousness memoir will be of interest to most anyone who listened to the music of the era.
Starting with his Manchester childhood and school days, the singer outlines his life through memories that are by turns gauzy and pointed. He shows a surprisingly tight relationship with his family, and includes the tragic deaths of relatives and friends, many of which have seemingly affected his songwriting and have haunted him to this day. Much of the book, naturally, focuses on the many people who Morrissey feels have wronged him. The much-heralded rift between him and his Smiths writing partner Johnny Marr is fairly minor compared to the vitriol Morrissey retains for Mike Joyce, former Smiths drummer, and the British judge that ruled in Joyce’s favor when it came to recording royalties. The usual suspects such as the English music press, the monarchy, Margaret Thatcher, radio DJs, etc. are also the recipients of his bitterness.
While there are no chapters or other breaks in his memoir, it reads quickly. Regarding his personal life, he doesn’t directly address his ambiguous sexuality, and the encounters he has with various celebrities are more interesting than mere name-dropping. He places a focus on the constant touring and the fans more than on his songwriting and records produced. By turns heartbreaking, intriguing, frustrating and peppered with Morrissey’s well-known wit, there is no doubt that Autobiography is a product solely his own – no ghostwriters here.