Chris Pavone’s second book The Accident seems like an unlikely mash-up at first blush, but, in fact, it is a perfect blend of two worlds that rarely crossover. One world is the rapidly collapsing world of publishing and the other is the treacherous world of international espionage. The point where they connect is a globe-spanning multimedia empire, Wolf Media, whose founder committed a horrible crime. A memoir has surfaced exposing the founder's many crimes written by an anonymous yet highly accurate source. As the manuscript winds its way through the publishing world, it goes viral in the traditional sense of the word, it spreads unchecked and brings death to everyone who reads it.
Pavone’s sophomore outing works for a number of reasons. You quickly see that the world of espionage and publishing are natural counterpoints. People in those fields work hand-in-hand with the powerful and influential, but they lack the wealth, resources and fame of the same. They are Cinderella at the ball, allowed to see the spectacle, but living lives much separated from it. Secondly, Wolf Media and its real life counterparts have had a huge impact on publishing and wield unprecedented influence on international affairs. Pavone tackles this idea head-on, showing Wolf Media as both the possible savior and destroyer of traditional publishing, while at the same time being manipulated by — and sometimes manipulator of — intelligence agencies.
Pavone, a longtime veteran of the publishing industry, provides keen insight into modern publishing, an industry that seems to be living from one quarterly balance sheet to the next. Just as interesting is his depiction of a post 9/11 U.S. intelligence apparatus that is so focused on one particular region and threat that an off-the-books intelligence operation can operate without oversight and for the benefit of corporate partners.
The Accident is much like the David Mamet film The Spanish Prisoner. Each time you think you know where the story is going, you will be surprised, right up to the final shocking revelations. Pavone has crafted a unique tale of intrigue, espionage and murder in our modern world where spies and secrets are far less the provenance of nations than powerful multinational corporations.
Mimi Pond is an artist and illustrator, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Seventeen and on the animated series, The Simpsons. In her new graphic novel biography, Over Easy, Pond revisits a unique time and place: the late 1970s in Northern California. During this time of transition, the beat and hippie cultures were fighting a rear-guard action to stay culturally relevant; punk was new on the scene and grabbing everyone by the throat, lyrically and sometimes literally; and disco was just starting to die a slow overly choreographed and elaborately coiffed death. Pond abruptly finds herself tossed out of art school in her final year when her financial aid runs dry. Sitting in the Imperial Café, a popular local diner and one of her favorite places to sketch, she takes a chance and asks the diner’s manager and comical free-spirit, Lazlo, for a job. He hands her an application and tells her to only write one thing: the funniest joke she can think of. Pond lands the gig and finds herself in the exalted position of dishwasher. The work is hard, long, and brutal, but it clearly gives Pond the perfect vantage point to observe the hothouse environment of the diner. From the sexual roulette and rabid drug use that seems to be her co-workers' chief occupations to the dreams and ambitions that each holds dear, Pond sees all. Seizing an unexpected opportunity, Pond graduates to waitress and takes the chance to reinvent herself personally, and finally finds acceptance as a member of the diner’s family.
Pond’s illustrations are cool and clear, the slight cartoonish-ness of them playing well against the serious themes. The monochromatic colors speak to the nature of the transitions happening in this period with the promise of color reserved for a world not yet born. The illustrations resemble a series of sketches done mid-shift on the back of napkins and menus, stolen moments of observation while clearing a four top. The unconventional tale moves at a staccato pace like a free-styling beat poet at open mic night. It is a story that stops but doesn’t really end; perhaps a hint of more to come? You will find yourself wondering what will become of this child of hippies on the cusp of the Reagan-era love of materialism and excess. Will she stay true to herself while navigating the changing times? Perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that Pond grace us with further unique volumes of her work and share her incredible talent as a storyteller.
For a Mature Audience due to themes of sex and drug use.
You know who Judy Greer is, even if you don’t know who Judy Greer is. You may know her from her role as Cheryl in Archer, or as Kitty Sanchez in Arrested Development, or as the best friend in movies like 13 Going on 30 and 27 Dresses. You may even know her as the mom from the new “Framily Plan” commercials from Sprint. The point is, with dozens of co-starring roles in TV series and major movies, you know who Judy Greer is, even if you can’t pick her out of a lineup. This famous anonymity suits the actress just fine as she makes clear in her hilarious new biography I Don’t Know What You Know Me From: Confessions of a Co-Star.
Hailing from outside of Detroit, Ms. Greer has the work ethic of a dray horse and the sense of humor bred from the privations of the rust belt and ungodly cold winters. Her childhood, while not a large chunk of her new memoir, provides some of the funniest fodder. Like her fellow Midwesterner from across the lake, Tim Conway, Ms. Greer is more than willing to embarrass herself and expose her own foibles to make us laugh. The end result is a book that is funny and endearing. You are happy for her success and for her excitement at meeting real celebrities. Whether she is discussing spending her summers in the quaint town of Carey, Ohio, or peeing next to her far more famous co-stars, which occupies a chapter of her book, Greer has an enthusiasm for life and a wide-eyed zeal that will leave you smiling as if you were watching a basket full of puppies frolic.
In one of her best quotes, Ms. Greer notes that a family member once told her that “Work begets more work,” and in pursuit of that ideal she has relentlessly pursued roles that weren’t starring roles, but roles that would keep her working. Along the way, several of her characters have become comedy cultural touchstones. If you like Bossypants or Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, you will love I Don’t Know What You Know Me From. While her career so far has been one as a co-star, something she doesn’t mind at all, you finish this book hoping she will get her chance to find that starring role and join the ranks of actresses like Tina Fey, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett.
Often, the second entry in a trilogy — film or book — is the low point. It's the halfway point between the excitement, plot and world-building of the first book and the resolution, justice-meting out, comeuppance-slinging grand finale. That is not the case in The Crimson Campaign, the second book in Brian McClellan’s grand flintlock fantasy series, The Powder Mage.
The action in this sequel starts several months after the end of the first book, Promise of Blood. Tamas, McClellan’s analog for Napoleon, is facing a massive invasion on his country’s southern flank, but he has devised a counterattack that might turn the tide of the war. Tomas’s son, Taniel Two-shot, is just coming out of a coma after shooting the returning god Kresimir through the eye. Adamat, one of the few magical protagonists, is still looking for Lord Vetas, the man who holds Adamat’s wife and son hostage after unsuccessfully blackmailing him.
These three narratives soon explode and set off in separate directions, although with definite consequences for the others. Tamas and part of his army are cut off and presumed dead deep in enemy territory. Without supplies or reinforcements and constantly hounded by enemy forces, they must make a long, difficult march home. Taniel reacts to his father’s apparent death by traveling to the front to stop the enemy invasion and to face a General Staff that has already given up on the war. He will also face an angry, out-of-control god that he failed to kill. At home in the capital, Adamat finds himself outgunned, outmanned and facing powerful forces; meanwhile, he tries to unravel a conspiracy that may leave the capital city defenseless to political intrigue and foreign invasion.
McClellan turns the heat up in this second outing, raising the stakes even higher for the book’s protagonists. He has broadened his world by geographically separating the point of view characters. The pacing is frenetic, and the setting is derivative of the crisis period that faced France post-revolution. Yet, while there are many historic similarities, McClellan has gone in new exciting directions by creating a unique world much like a musician using familiar chords in a different progression. While some plot points are resolved and a tantalizing conclusion is in sight, McClellan has pulled off a bit of magic, making the reader hope the last book of this trilogy won’t be the last we see of this world or his characters.
Bill and Willie Geist have a great deal in common. They are both TV personalities: Bill on CBS News Sunday Morning and Willie on The Today Show. They both have a deep love of sports. They are both raconteurs with a wickedly insightful sense of humor. As a father and son, they have shared, and sometimes not shared, many of life’s milestones, and in Good Talk, Dad we are lucky they have decided to share those milestones with us.
The book is designed to feel like an ongoing conversation between a father and son as well as to serve as an oral history for generations of Geists yet unborn. The extremely well done audiobook is especially a treat as both Bill and Willie do the narration. Each section of the book is divided into a topic like sports, parenting or sex. Each Geist weighs in with his thoughts and their shared experience or recollections on the issue, and they take the opportunity to fill each other in on the parts the other might not have known about. The two points of view are clear and unique. Bill is a Midwestern, who served in Vietnam and spent much of his career in print journalism. Willie grew up in New Jersey and had easy access to New York City; he was accomplished in sports and practically fell into a series of jobs in broadcast journalism. These differences play extremely well off one another like discordant syncopation in a jazz number. The feel is like Bill Bryson meets Sh*t My Dad Says. It is funny, real and heartfelt.
Good Talk, Dad, above all else, feels genuine. In your mind’s eye, you can see these two men who clearly love and respect each other hunched over a computer rapidly emailing each other back and forth. They share laughter and feelings in a way that men in our society are not often comfortable doing in person. The resulting image is of a family where laughter is more common than anger, where people like and support each other, and where they are just plain comfortable around each other. It might just leave you a little bit jealous that you have not experienced life as a Geist.
Raising Steam is the 40th book in Sir Terry Pratchett’s incredibly long-running and hugely popular Discworld series. The Discworld is a disc shaped world being supported on the back of four elephants that are themselves being carried through space on the back of a giant turtle called A’tuin. The series is known for its humor and use of fantasy tropes to skewer the foibles of the modern world.
The Discworld has rapidly progressed from late feudalism to early industrial revolution as the era of railroads suddenly comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Through the lens of the some of our favorite characters, we watch the explosion of new services and new trade suddenly made available via the railroad as well as the great social upheaval it causes amongst races of Ankh-Morpork. There are definite echoes of Britain’s own rapid industrialization in Raising Steam. Also prevalent is the rise of religious fundamentalism and the attempt of fanatics to arrest progress at any cost to themselves and others. If there is slightly less humor and understated satire on this subject, it is understandable, and Pratchett makes up for with an unusual amount of action and fight scenes.
As the series has progressed, we the readers and the denizens of the Disc are feeling as if we are rushing to some final end – a feeling intensified with Sir Terry’s announcement several years ago that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Sir Terry has named his daughter as successor when the time comes that he can no longer write, and with 40 books and more to come set on Great A’tuin, that time may come sooner than many of us would like. One thing is certain: Sir Terry, like his character Lord Vetinari, has been engaged in a “Great Work.” He has taken a series of light-hearted, slapstick, fantasy satires and transformed them into the one of the longest-running series of literature in the English language. These books are fun, spirited and have a deeper meaning that will hit you when you least expect it.
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.