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.
Superheroes in general are reaching new heights of popularity and, with an unbroken string of cinematic hits, that is especially true of the heroes of the Marvel Universe. Matt Fraction is one of the hottest comic book writers in the industry today, known for his cool, hip and edgy take on characters like the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Fist, Thor and Iron Man. It is his work on another Avengers team member that is creating the buzz now. In Hawkeye Vol 2: Little Hits, Fraction and artist David Aja prove the quirky, wild fun they began in Hawkeye Vol 1: My Life as a Weapon was no fluke.
Hawkeye, or “hawkguy” as many of his neighbors insist on calling him, is a mere mortal on a team of gods, geniuses and super-soldiers. He has been a thief, a carney, a hero, and in the cinematic version, a highly trained government agent and assassin. Fraction clearly aims to tie all these threads together, or as he states in the first issue of the series, “…this is what he does when he is not being an Avenger…” Fraction’s Hawkeye lives in an apartment in Brooklyn, where most of his neighbors seem to know who he is and what he does for a living. When his neighbors face eviction at the hands of a local slum lord backed by an Eastern European mob, Hawkeye comes to the rescue in a way that is both hilarious and has long-term — and ever increasing — repercussions.
You almost never see Hawkeye in costume in this series and, while he crosses paths with villains, it tends to be inadvertent. The art and color scheme of these two books tie them together and give an overall “Mod,” almost 1960s feel, while still being completely modern. This series, while reflecting the cinematic Hawkeye more, are definitely written with adults in mind. This is a series for mature readers, as many of the situations and dialogue are not child-friendly. Fraction enjoys dropping the reader — and his hero — into the middle of action at the start of each issue, with Hawkeye uttering the phrase “Okay, this looks bad.” The worse things look for Hawkeye the more fun it is for the reader as Fraction takes us on a wild ride.
Hawkeye: Little Hits is just as strong as the first volume and continues the theme that you can be a hero and still be a train wreck at the same time. Fraction’s Hawkeye seems to embody the Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye from the Saturday Night Live sketch, spoofing the climactic battle from The Avengers movie when Renner turns to Captain America and says “I’m all out of arrows, I don’t have any more…so, uh, I guess I’m done, right? All right, I’ll be in the car. Stay safe!”