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.
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!
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.
Oprah’s newest selection for her Book Club 2.0 is Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Kidd, who’s The Secret Life of Bees remains a perennial book club favorite, is “thrilled and honored that Oprah Winfrey chose my novel as her new book club selection." The title, due out in early January, is sure to be a favorite among book clubs with Oprah calling it “layered and gripping.”
Inspired by the life of early 19th century abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimk, Kidd writes in her author’s note that her aim was to write “a thickly imagined story inspired by her life.” The result is this beautifully written novel with the dual portrait of two women bound by the horrors of slavery as its centerpiece. Sarah, the daughter of a wealthy Charleston plantation owner is desperate to break free from the confines of her time. She is denied the opportunity to pursue her passion of a legal career and struggles to find outlets for her creativity, intelligence and convictions. Hetty, nicknamed “Handful,” a slave in the household, is also keenly intelligent, brave and brandish a strong rebellious streak. Told in first person, the chapters alternate between these women’s perspectives as the reader follows them and their unique relationship from childhood through middle age.
Kidd will not disappoint her legions of fans with this masterly told story of fascinating women striving for liberation and empowerment during a devastating historical time. Check out Oprah’s announcement here to find out more about this exciting literary pick.
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!
If you wait all year for the Lifetime, ABC Family and Hallmark Channel’s Christmas movie lineups, these three new romances will be the perfect way to relax and unwind from the holiday hustle and bustle. Sherryl Woods brings readers back to Chesapeake Shores, Maryland in A Seaside Christmas. Songwriter Jenny Collins grew up as the only child of a single mother. Her world was shaken when her mother married into the big, close-knit O’Brien family, and Jenny suddenly had a new baby brother. After a very public breakup with country music bad boy Caleb Green, Jenny decides to leave Nashville and go home for the holidays to regroup and find her place in her new family. She is shocked when Caleb follows her home to win her back. Is Caleb there for her or because he knows that her song can help him break through as a solo artist?
In Sleigh Belles, Beth Albright continues her Sassy Belles series, which she describes as Steel Magnolias meets Sex and the City. Local news reporter Dallas Dubois has a chronic case of trying to get over Cal Hollingsworth, an affliction that she has suffered from since her high school crush on him. When the director of the local children’s Christmas play can’t continue, Dallas’s station manager demands that she take charge, but what does she know about working with kids? Directing the play puts Dallas in regular contact with Cal who soon begins to see the real woman behind the mean-girl reputation. Albright’s hilarious one-liners and abundant southern charm make this story a winner.
In Sarah Morgan’s Sleigh Bells in the Snow, Jackson O’Neil left his successful business to go home and save Snow Crystal Resort and Spa, his family’s business. Kayla Green wants to escape everything related to Christmas and the bad memories that the holidays bring up for her. She is coerced into spending a week at Snow Crystal to win Jackson’s business for her PR firm. Once she’s in Vermont, Kayla is completely out of her element and finds that saving Snow Crystal won’t be as easy as she thought. Her attraction to Jackson is undeniable, but she doesn’t think she can ever risk her heart again. Like Kayla, readers will be enchanted by the O’Neil family and Snow Crystal.
Adriana Trigiani completes her Valentine trilogy with her new novel The Supreme Macaroni Company. Valentine Roncalli, who took the reins of her family’s business, the Angelini Shoe Company, in the previous novels, now comes into her own. The novel picks up right where the previous one ended. Valentine is newly engaged to Gianluca Vechiarelli, an Italian tanner and son of her beloved grandmother’s new husband. They announce their engagement to the Roncalli family during the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, and the two of them embark on their lives together. The story pulls readers into the world of Valentine’s boisterous Italian-American family as she and Gianluca plan their wedding, and we see the challenges that Valentine faces growing the family business and learning to balance work and family. Throughout the course of the novel, it is clear that happily ever after isn’t always easy. In this novel, Trigiani does what she does best. She tells a story about family. Filled with warmth, humor, joy and sorrow, The Supreme Macaroni Company is all of the things that readers have grown to love about Trigiani’s novels.
In addition to writing this novel, Trigiani has been working on another exciting project—a film adaptation of her debut novel Big Stone Gap. Written and directed by Trigiani herself, the film stars Ashley Judd, Jenna Elfman, Patrick Wilson and Whoopi Goldberg. Filming is now complete, and Trigiani says that the movie should be released in about a year.
New York Times bestselling author Richard Kadrey delights adults and teens alike with Dead Set. After the unexpected death of her father, Zoe and her mother must move to the Tenderloin area of San Francisco while they wait for dividends from her father’s life insurance policy. To deal with her troubles in the real world, Zoe escapes into her dreams where she finds comfort and friendship from her dream brother, Valentine. A mysterious something — or someone — has also joined them in her dream world.
Back in the real world, Zoe happens upon a dark and dingy old record store. Most people walk right past the back room with the beaded curtain, but Zoe is curious and goes inside. There she discovers a collection of albums that contain something other than music. The grooves on these records contain lives — souls of people who have passed on but lingered in this world. Emmett, the proprietor of the record store, promises to help Zoe reconnect with her father. All it would cost her is a piece of herself. It starts with a lock of her hair. The next time, the price is a tooth. How much would you pay to spend another moment with someone you loved and lost? And at what point does the price become too much?
Kadrey is best known for his Sandman Slim series. This dark, twisted, stand-alone fantasy novel will appeal to those already familiar with his work as well as those who enjoy a quiet horror story with a strong, albeit sometimes lost, female character.
On a peaceful summer evening in the town of West Table, Missouri, the quiet of the night was shattered by a thunderous explosion. In 1929, the Arbor Dance Hall blew apart with a force that flattened the two story buildings adjacent to it, with a blast that was felt in the next town some 20 miles away. Forty-two people lost their lives and countless others suffered terrible injuries from either the fire or having been blown from the building. The devastation wrought by the dance hall explosion had an impact on every resident of the town. Daniel Woodrell’s new novel The Maid’s Version recounts many of their stories.
The mystery of what caused the explosion and who was responsible was never discovered. Could it have been mob related? Was it the evil deed of a band of Gypsies? Was it just a tragic accident or possibly something more ominous the town leaders wanted covered up? This literary novel is comprised of numerous small chapters, frequently describing the circumstances of individuals who ended up at the dance that fateful Saturday night. Interspersed throughout the minor character vignettes is the story of Alma DeGeer Dunahew, a woman who believes she knows the truth.
This remarkable tale is a fictionalized account of an event that occurred on April 13, 1928 in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri. Woodrell believably captures the historical and cultural characteristics of the inhabitants of the Ozarks. It is the author’s skillful narration that will mesmerize the reader and bind them to this powerful yet tragic tale.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones is older in Mad about the Boy, but in many ways, she’s still the same old Bridget. Bridget Jones: Mad about the Boy, returns to Fielding’s beloved heroine, Bridget. Readers haven’t seen her since The Edge of Reason, which was published in 1999. Fielding revealed before the novel’s release that Mark Darcy, Bridget’s long-time love, had died five years before the new book begins. Now, in her fifties, Bridget is balancing children, social media and a new much younger boyfriend.
Longtime Bridget Jones fans will enjoy seeing their favorite characters pop up again in the latest novel. Bridget’s friends Tom and Jude make reappearances, and along with new friend Talitha, they help Bridget recover from the loss of Mark and look for love again. Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s former boss and one-time love interest, returns as an emergency babysitter for Bridget, and while slightly more mature, seems to have changed very little since the earlier books. Bridget’s children, Billy and Mabel, bring a different sort of humor to the series, as do the parents and teachers at their school.
Bridget’s initial flirtations with 29-year-old Roxster via Twitter will remind readers of her days as a thirty-something looking for love in London. Now her romantic mishaps come in a new form as technology has changed, but Bridget still brings her unique brand of awkward to the situation. Told in Bridget’s diary format with the new addition of tweets and emails, readers will enjoy seeing her all grown up and dealing with new challenges, like motherhood, writing a screenplay and getting a second chance at love.