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The Strange Tale of the Fighting Model T Fords

The Strange Tale of the Fighting Model T Fords

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While writing my next novel in the Western Desert of Egypt (something I’ve discussed in several previous posts), I came across an interesting local landmark. Behind my campsite in Bahariya Oasis stands a grim heap of black volcanic stone called “English Mountain”. When I asked around about this unusual name, the local Bedouin told me that it was once home to an English soldier who kept watch for attacking tribes back in the days when Egypt was still a colony. I was told the ruins of his house could still be seen.

So of course I went up to see them!

But not before taking Ahmed Fakhry’s excellent book Bahariya and Farafra out of my backpack to see what he had to say about this. Yes, I travel through the Sahara with a bag full of books.

Written in 1974 but mostly based on expeditions the archaeologist took in the 1930s, Fakhry’s book is full of useful information and folklore. In it he says that English Mountain is actually named after a New Zealander named Claud Williams, who commanded No. 5 Light Car Patrol during World War One. Williams, Fakhry says, kept a lonely vigil atop that mountain for hostile Senussi tribesmen.

And therein lies a tale.

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Egyptian Dystopian Fiction: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

Egyptian Dystopian Fiction: The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz

the_queue_basma_abdel_aziz-smallSince the Arab Spring, there has been an upsurge in dystopian fiction coming out of the Middle East. The dashed hopes of that widespread popular uprising have found their expression in pessimistic novels such as Otared, (reviewed in an earlier post) and several other notable works of fiction.

One of the most lauded in the West is The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz, an Egyptian writer and social activist.

In The Queue, we are transported to a strange near future where the civilian government has been taken over by a faceless entity called the Gate. The Gate issues a series of edicts that become ever more baffling and hard to obey. Companies are forced to changed what they produce, individuals need to get signed forms for even the most mundane matters, and little by little the Gate forces its way into every aspect of the city’s life.

The people rebel, in what the Gate refers to as the Disgraceful Events, which are suppressed with predictable police brutality. One of the casualties is a young man named Yehya, who is shot by a police officer. Yehya needs a form signed in order to have the bullet removed, but the Gate closes right after the Disgraceful Events.

As Yehya languishes, the Gate issues a continuous torrent of edicts, prompting more and more citizens to line up in front of the Gate hoping to get their forms filled out. The line soon stretches for miles, developing its own economy and culture. Street preachers rail against the citizens for their lack of faith in the Gate, shopkeepers try to make a living selling tea and snacks to the other people in line, and salesmen give away free mobile phones that are bugged.

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Beau Geste: Myth vs. Reality

Beau Geste: Myth vs. Reality

Beau_Geste_novelOn my last trip to Tangier I purchased a 1925 edition of Beau Geste, one of those classic novels that I’ve always intended on reading but never had. It’s a swashbuckling tale of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion a few years before the start of the First World War.

The novel opens with a mystery. Mild spoilers follow. A French officer in the Legion leads his troops to an isolated fort, responding to a call for help. Once there, he finds all the legionnaires dead inside, apparently shot by the warlike Tuareg. The commanding officer, however, has a French bayonet sticking out of his chest and the private beside him, although shot, has been carefully laid out with his hands across his chest. The private’s hat rests nearby, torn open. In the hands of the dead officer is a mysterious letter in English that contains a confession. . .

From that tantalizing beginning we cut to England, where three rich brothers have to flee home and end up in the French Foreign Legion. Add a cruel officer, hordes of Tuaregs, and some boon companions and you have the recipe for adventure. Author P.C. Wren writes in a breezy, wry style halfway between pulp pulse pounders and more highbrow literature. The style never feels dated although Wren’s worldview certainly does. There’s a definite hierarchy in this book, with the aristocratic Englishmen firmly at the top, the various Europeans and Americans they meet ranged further down depending on their social class, and the Arabs and Tuaregs right at the bottom. Women hardly figure in this book at all which, considering how agonizingly maudlin the one love scene comes off, is probably for the best.

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Feeding the Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

Feeding the Hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia

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Yours truly feeding a hyena while Yusuf looks on

The first thing you learn if you spend any amount of time living in Harar is that it is not a human town. It is a human town during the day and a human and hyena town at night.

This medieval walled city in eastern Ethiopia has been a center of trade for centuries. Situated in a temperate climate between the central Ethiopian highlands and the Somali desert, it spent much of its history as an independent city-state. The Hararis have a distinct culture and language confined almost exclusively to the town within the walls. The surrounding countryside is dominated by the Oromo, who have their own language and culture.

The Harari and Oromo share space with another language and culture, that of the hyenas. Not seen much by day, they come out at night to scavenge food and wander the labyrinth of alleys that make up Jugol, the old city. Humans and hyenas have become accustomed to one another and have developed a unique and close relationship.

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When Morocco Really Was Adventurous: Reading Lords of the Atlas

When Morocco Really Was Adventurous: Reading Lords of the Atlas

9780330024365-uk-300For people who have never been there, Morocco conjures up images of decadent ports, imposing casbahs, mysterious medinas, and mountains filled with bandits. It’s a mystique the tour companies like to perpetuate for this modern and rapidly changing country.

I feel like a bit of a cheat tagging my series of Morocco posts as “adventure travel,” but I’m a blogger and that tag brings in the hits. While Morocco is safe and easy to travel in, it wasn’t so long ago that the mystique was the reality. A classic study of this freebooting era is Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas.

Researched in the 1950s, it looks at the twilight era of the old Morocco. The book opens with a slave unlocking the gate to an aging, all-but-abandoned Casbah in the remote Atlas Mountains. This man was one of the last retainers of the Glaoui family, which for two generations grew an empire in Morocco’s rugged mountains, became pashas of important cities, and even played kingmaker.

Maxwell has an eye for lurid detail, especially beheadings. You can feel the writer’s enthusiasm when he speaks of how, just a little over a century ago, the city gates of Morocco would be festooned with the heads of criminals and traitors. The heads had been preserved in salt, a job reserved for the Jews. The Jewish quarter even earned the name mellah, Arabic for “salt.” Even well salted, the heads would eventually rot and fall down into the crowd below, once almost hitting a delegation from England.

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Where Truemen Struggle to Preserve Genetic Purity: The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

Where Truemen Struggle to Preserve Genetic Purity: The Iron Dream by Norman Spinrad

The Iron Dream-smallEvery now and then, fandom needs to take a good, hard look at itself. Considering the recent Hugo kerfuffle, I thought it a fine time to read Norman Spinrad’s famous skewering of fan culture, The Iron Dream.

First published in 1972, this is a masterpiece of metafiction. It is a book within a book, containing the 1955 Hugo Award winner Lord of the Swastika, written by none other than that famous science fiction writer, Adolph Hitler. We are informed that after dabbling in radical politics in Germany, Hitler moved to New York in 1919. In the 1930s he became a sought-after illustrator for pulp magazines and started writing fiction. He was popular in fannish circles for his fanzine work and for his witty banter at conventions.

His best-known work is Lord of the Swastika, a post-apocalyptic tale where the world has been ravaged by nuclear war and most people have become foul mutants. Luckily there is one nation, Heldon, where the Truemen struggle to preserve humanity’s genetic purity.

Enter Feric Jaggar, a Trueman whose family was exiled due to political machinations and forced to live among the mongrel horde. Lord of the Swastika is the tale of Jagger’s triumphant return to Heldon, where he unmasks a plot by the mutants to take over the country and sully the genetic purity of the last real humans. Jagger’s political star rises, the masses rallying around him as he first faces off against a corrupt government, then unites the nation around him in order to start a massive war to wipe the Earth clean of genetic inferiors once and for all.

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When Big Game Hunting was Glamorous: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

When Big Game Hunting was Glamorous: The Man-Eaters of Tsavo

1592281877The recent scandal over the killing of Cecil the Lion has once again brought big game hunting into the spotlight, with various websites outing rich hunters who go to Africa to blow away lions, giraffes, and other animals.

Here in Spain, we had an even bigger scandal back in 2012 when, at the height of this country’s financial crisis, King Juan Carlos went to Botswana and killed an elephant. He later apologized but this, plus rumors of extramarital affairs and numerous incidents of being apparently drunk in public, forced him to abdicate two years later.

There was a time when scandals like this would have never happened, when kings and commoners could empty their guns into beautiful animals free from the fear of criticism. Many wrote memoirs of going on safari, creating a genre that has all but died out today.

One of the classics of the genre is The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, by Lt. Col. J.H. Patterson and originally published in 1907. Patterson worked as the chief engineer building the Mombasa to Uganda railway in 1898. Managing a huge crew of Africans, Pathans, and Sikhs in adverse conditions to build a railroad through poorly mapped territory would have been hard enough, but soon lions started coming into the workmen’s camp at night and carrying off his workers.

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Books for Writers: A Guide to Improvised Weaponry

Books for Writers: A Guide to Improvised Weaponry

A Guide to Improvised Weaponry-smallThere are a lot of how-to manuals for writers out there–books about world building, books about grammar, books about finding markets, books about almost every aspect of the writing life. Sadly, there’s no book telling writers how to defend themselves if an axe murderer invades their home office.

Until now.

A Guide to Improvised Weaponry is the perfect self-defense manual for any writer. It tells you just how to defend yourself when ISIS terrorists decided your work in progress makes you a candidate for their next YouTube video. It’s written by Terry Schappert, a Green Beret and Master sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces. This guy knows how to kill you with a pencil. It’s co-written by Adam Slutsky, a professional writer who probably had to explain to Terry that a disappointing advance, low royalties, and non-compete clauses are not valid reasons for killing an acquisitions editor with a pencil.

Each chapter focuses on a common object that you probably have in your home. I was especially interested in objects that are in my home office, ready to be picked up the moment one of my many anonymous online haters kicks in my door.

First, my coffee cup, strategically located to the left of my computer, ready to protect me and mine. Schappert makes the obvious suggestions, like flinging my hot Ethiopian brew into my attacker’s face or using it as a knuckle duster, with the caveat that there’s a good chance of hurting your hand with that second method. He also explains how you can use it to catch the tip of your attacker’s knife and deflect the blow.

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Station Eleven = The Stand + The Road – (Supernatural Occurrences + Cannibalism)

Station Eleven = The Stand + The Road – (Supernatural Occurrences + Cannibalism)

Station Eleven-smallIt’s great when a book can be summed up by an equation as well as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

Like King’s The Stand, the world is wiped out by a flu virus that kills ninety-nine percent of the population; like McCarthy’s The Road, survivors travel by horse or foot and encounter grim realities of a decimated world. What St. John Mandel brings to the table, however, is an unusual structure and omniscient POV that shouldn’t work but somehow does.

Arthur Leander is a famous actor that dies in Toronto during a performance of King Lear. All of the characters the reader follows are in some way related to Arthur. Miranda, his first wife; Elizabeth and Tyler, his second wife and son; Kirsten, a young girl and King Lear actress; Jeevan, a former paparazzo-turned-EMT; and Clark, Arthur’s best friend. Even Station Eleven — the graphic novel that Miranda creates — becomes a character of sorts. On the night Arthur dies, an extremely infectious and thorough strain of the swine flu — called the Georgia Flu since it originated in the country of Georgia — descends on Toronto. This flu has a short incubation period (four to five hours) and quick course from onset of illness to death (less than two days). It turns out that Arthur is the lucky one, because most of the world’s population is dead inside a month.

The novel jumps between all these characters but spends the majority of its time on Kirsten, the child actor who joins a Traveling Symphony. The Symphony is a theater troupe and orchestra that travels from town to town to perform Shakespeare plays and classical music concerts. The tagline for the Symphony is “because survival is insufficient,” which they borrowed from an episode of Star Trek.

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Writing Book Reviews — How and Why

Writing Book Reviews — How and Why

pile-of-books3I’ve been in reviewer overload lately, reading, taking notes, and penning reviews for the next issue of Black Gate. But, more than that, I’ve also been coordinating our crop of reviewers this time out, and thinking in terms of what exactly it is that ought to be in the review section of the magazine, not just in the reviews I put up on my own website. Having done over 50 reviews in the last year and a half or so, I think I’ve learned a few things, and I’d like to share my thoughts on what a good review should consist of. And at the end of this essay I’ll also offer some practical advice to anyone that wants to become a web reviewer themselves and share the reasons behind just why someone would want to take the time to review a book in the first place.

The first distinction we need to make is between a book review and a book report. Reviews are critiques that take a lot of factors into consideration and demand a certain level of knowledge and discernment from the reviewer. Book reports are those bland plot summaries you used to have to write in school to prove to the teacher you actually did your assigned reading. I’ve seen so-called reviewers whose work falls squarely into the later category but, aside from generating web content for google, such work holds little real value.

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