Sunday, July 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, July 2007

"Young at Heart" is a special theme for me, as I've devoted the last several years of my life to the study of children's literature. This issue comes at a particularly opportune time as I've recently wrapped up my Master's thesis defense, and I have the opportunity to reflect on the last few years and my experiences with what I had in mind when we conceived the "young at heart issue." You see, Heather and I both love children's and adolescent literature. There's something magical about its potential ability to transform us into our 8-year-old selves, perched in a quiet corner or a sunny bench, completely lost in words and a new and exciting world. For us, and many others (Melissa!) the love of children's books never wore off. I think we all still hover on that sunny bench lost in a child's world more often than the average reader, and we're happy to do so.

As usual, the writers here at Estella's Revenge have done a beautiful job translating the theme in various ways, and for that I give a rousing round of applause.

I hope you enjoy our wealth of author interviews, reviews and all-around goodies this month. And a special extra-huge thank you to Heather for holding down the fort this month. It's been one of the messier months behind the scenes here at Estella's Revenge in recent memory, and it's entirely unfair and silly that I'm writing this "Letter from the Editor" when Heather has done all the work.

Hip hip hooooray!!!

Best wishes,


July "Door Prize" Book Giveaway
Author Interviews




Snazzy Stuffs

July Specials - Coming Soon and Featured Books

July "Door Prize" Book Giveaway!

In honor of our devoted Estella's Revenge readers, we will be giving away a book each month. And all you have to do to win one of our "door prizes" is show up and send an e-mail!

If you would like to win July's door prize, a brand new hardback copy of InterWorld, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reeves, please send an e-mail with your name and address to estellabooks (at) gmail (dot) com! We will announce the winner by e-mail and here at Estella's Revenge on August 1st!

*Estella's Revenge writers and editors are not eligible for this drawing.

Author Interview: Keith Donohue

Interviewed by Heather F.

Keith Donohue is the author of the wonderful book, The Stolen Child, a wonderful fairy tale for adults. I know from personal experience; it is a great book. I'll let him tell you more about it.

HF: For those poor unfortunate souls who may not have heard of it, could you briefly describe The Stolen Child?

KD: The Stolen Child is about the nexus between memory and identity. The novel begins with the abduction of Henry Day, a seven-year-old boy, in 1949 from the woods near his home in Western Pennsylvania. He is stolen by the fairy changelings, who replace him with one of their own, an exact replica who takes over his life. The new Henry insinuates himself into the Day family, grows up, marries, and fathers a child – whom he also fears may be stolen away. The original Henry is renamed Aniday by the changelings, and he is stuck at age 7 for the next 30 years, desperate to remember who he once was and how he can escape into the human world again.

HF: How much of The Stolen Child has a basis in the changeling myth and how much was created by you?

KD: Sarah Hrdy’s book Mother Nature has a short section on the socio-cultural anthropological roots of the changeling legend which—along with a kind of street knowledge of the folklore—formed the basis for my use of the legend. The rest is complete invention on my part, including importing the story to the 20th century United States. I was primarily interested in the changeling folklore as a way of structuring The Stolen Child with two narrators sharing the same name, one who steals the life intended for the other, and one who stays 7 years old throughout. The device allowed me to explore the question of the confrontation between the adult self with the child. What would you say if you met your 7 year old self?

HF: Have you always been interested in myths and legends?

KD: From the beginning we’re raised on fairy tales and folklore and myth—ways of explaining the world or keeping a sense of enchantment in our lives. I had a fairly conventional interest in myths and legends until I read Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds which subverts the whole of Irish folklore for the purposes of both comedy and the novel. I’m much more interested in subversion of the old stories as a way of reintroducing their magic into the modern world.

HF: I was intrigued by the parallel between the disappearance of the woodlands and the disappearance of myth in The Stolen Child. Was that planned, or something born out of the creative process?

KD: All part of the grand scheme going into the book. I set it in the latter half of the 20th century to talk, in part, about the connection between the disappearance of the natural world and myth, for they are inextricably linked. As we encroach upon nature to put up housing developments, we strip away some of its power. Together with the fact that parents are more fearful in allowing their children out alone to explore the woods independently, we have lost a degree of spiritual connection with the woodlands. Once upon a time, you could wander and discover your own Walden Pond, and in so doing, you were free to imagine the forces behind the trees and birds and so on. You could see the hand of God or Mother Nature or whomever in the forest, but as we lose the wilderness, we bankrupt that aspect of our imaginations.

HF: I saw something on the internet about the possibility of a movie? Is this true and how soon will we be able to see Henry Day’s story on the big screen?

KD: 20th Century Fox owns the film option and, as I understand it, a screenplay has been drafted, but beyond that, I know very little about the next steps in the process. It is in development, I guess you’d say, and they may be looking for a director and actors, but I’m not sure how soon it might be till Henry Day appears on the big screen. I hope it all works out and would be very interested in how they adapt the book into a film.

HF: Who, or what, inspires you? Do you have a muse?

KD: Other artists who take risks and chances to make something new.

HF: Do you read a lot? Do you read mostly contemporary books, classics, or a mix?

KD: If you want to write, you better read first, and I try to read a little something new every day. A mix of the classics and contemporary works, but all new to me, although occasionally I’ll re-read a favorite like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita. I just re-read all of Flann O’Brien in order to write an introduction for the Everyman’s edition of his novels which is coming out this fall in Britain and next year in the USA.

HF: What are some of your favorite recent reads?

KD: Lloyd Jones’s Mister Pip which will be out in July. Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is particularly devastating. Murakami’s new book. Colum McCann’s Zoli. I’ve also been dipping into Fantagraphic’s reprint of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat Sunday comic. Stunning and brilliant story about a cat, a mouse, and a brick. The art is surreal and charming and the language (langwidge) pure joy.

HF: Tell us about your writing habits.

KD: I write on the subway, in airports, at lunch – any place where I can cobble together a decent stretch of time. Usually in long-hand at first, and then the translation into type becomes a second draft. Structural revisions I can obsess over almost anywhere, and I take a printout with me everywhere I go and peck away at the sentences. With a full-time job, it is catch as catch can.

HF: Could you tell us about your path to publication? Was it an easy process for you or did you experience a few stumbles along the way?

KD: In 1981, I finished my first novel, sent it to an agent, and he sent back a nice long letter telling me no, but to send him my next book. It only took another 20 years to drum up the courage to try again. (Well, to be serious, I tried my hand at short stories and wrote quite a bit as a speechwriter for about 14 years, still…)

The Stolen Child went through a cycle of rejection with agents – about 10 read and turned down all or part of the manuscript – and I was fortunate to finally have my agent discover the book on the slush pile and see its potential. But that took about two years from the time I finished the book until finding an agent. A pretty hard stumble.

HF: What do you do when you're not writing?

KD: My children fill my days and evenings, and my job the other 40 hours. A night of poker once in awhile. Reading. The reality is that even though the actual writing takes up a small portion of time, I’m thinking about the story – or at least open to it – much of the waking hours and it will infect dreams as well.

HF: What can your fans look forward to next?

KD: I’ve finished a draft of a novel that I’m calling “Angels of Destruction” which is about a mother whose daughter has been missing for 10 years. It is inspired, in part, by Emily Dickinson’s line: “Hope is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul.” So, it is about hope and faith in things unseen. The whole question of why we believe in what we cannot empirically prove is rich fodder for any number of novels. There are also a number of characters in it who say they are angels.

Many thanks to Keith Donohue. You can visit his website here.

Author Interview: Christopher Grey

Interviewed by Melissa

First-time author Christopher Grey has been around the block a few times. He has worked (according to his author bio) as a waiter, a hotel manager, a hospital porter, a jeans salesman, a rock musician and a tour operator, among other things. This piqued my curiosity: how does a person who has lots of life experience but no background in writing write such as engrossing a first novel as Leonardo's Shadow?

MF: Your author bio listed a lot of jobs that you've had over the years. Which one did you enjoy most? Least?

CG: I left school at seventeen. I had nobody to give me guidance and no idea what to do. But I didn't want to go to university, I wanted to live. So I drifted from job to job, if you can call that living. Early on I enjoyed being a hospital porter. My father had died not long before and I found it strangely comforting to be among the sick and dying. And nurses are wonderful people. My least favorite job was selling advertising over the phone; if there is one kind of work that will destroy any creative impulse in a young person, it is cold-calling. Don't do it, ever, if you want to become an artist. It set me back years. My soul was crushed to a fine powder.

MF: How did you decide to become a writer? Is it something you've "always" wanted to do?

CG: I don't think you ever actually decide to be a writer. The desire is either inside you or it isn't. I was writing in my teens but gave it up through lack of encouragement from school and family. I have never been very self-confident about my abilities. For many years after I failed to see the signs telling me to write, write, write. One day I had this irresistible urge to go back to school and re-educate myself. It was while I was at The New School in New York that I began to realize that I could write. That was a wonderful feeling. My only regret is that I wasted many years not doing it, because writing, like all worthwhile pursuits, takes a long, long time to become adept at.

MF: There's a very interesting story about how you came to write this book. Would you mind telling it?

CG: With pleasure. Some years ago I visited Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper at the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan; this was before the recent restoration, and you could only see half the wall, but nonetheless it had a profound effect on me. I went away thinking and hoping that I could write something about it and Leonardo. But I couldn't get started. Well, that’s not true: actually I started hundreds of times. And stopped the same amount. The whole subject just seemed too big for me to grasp. Then a friend gave me an old copy of Leonardo’s Notebooks; inside were fragments of the great man’s thoughts, hopes, and fears. Suddenly he seemed human­; a real human being who was not so different from the rest of us, except that he was a genius. Somehow I found the courage to turn this monumental personality into a character in my book. It took a lot of heavy lifting.

MF: How much research did you have to do into Leonardo da Vinci's life? Milan in the 15th Century?

CG: The Notebooks gave me most of my information about Leonardo­I didn't read any biographies because I wanted him to belong to me, not to another writer. I did read parts of other books about Milan (actually, there’s very little out there), and I studied contemporary maps and drawings, as well as looking at lots of Renaissance art, which is always a pleasure, even if you are meant to be working.

MF: What is it about this period of history that intrigues you?

CG: The artistry, the style, the politics, the personalities ­but all eras have those interesting qualities to a greater or lesser extent. More than all that, the Renaissance is the crossroads between the classical and the modern: the time when men and women start to take the future into their own hands instead of leaving it up to God. It is, in effect, the dawning of the individual as a force in society. And you could say that in our time we have arrived at the late afternoon.

MF: Have you visited Italy much (I haven't, but always wanted to...)?

CG: I've been a few times, but you can never visit Italy enough. (Please go. ­Don’t delay any longer! You must! This year, if you can!) I also lived in Bologna for six months; a pretty wonderful time in a wonderful, pretty city. Italy is a country that somehow works almost perfectly, but don't ask me why. Of course it has the beauty of the countryside, the astonishing artistic legacy, the weather, the food ­but above all the people seem to be happy naturally, intrinsically, without the need for outside assistance. I have no idea how to bottle that, but the rest of the western world needs a dose.

MF: What's your favorite place(s)? What is it about Italy that intrigues you?

CG: Climbing the stairs and standing on the roof of Milan Cathedral among the hundreds of marble spires is an experience that is simply out of or­ perhaps beyond­ this world; on a sunny day you can see the mountains in the distance, snow-covered, majestic. It is truly awe-inspiring. (With all those spires, how could it not be?) There are so many wonderful sights in Italy, large and small ­bridges, churches, streets, houses, roofs, and doorways. History speaks from every stone. Even the shadows have character.

What makes Italy so special is that neither war, nor politics, nor technology, nor society’s woes will ever change her beauty and bounty. She is eternal.

MF: Is young adult fiction something you set out to write, or was it something you just fell into?

CG: I wanted to write plays. I tried to get into a famous New York drama school, and they turned me down. I was so desperate to get into a writing program­ and being British I needed a visa to stay in the USA and time was running out­. I applied to a creative writing program at The New School. The only place they had left was in children’s writing. I took it. The story of Leonardo painting the Last Supper, which I had originally intended to be a play, became a Young Adult novel about his servant. Serendipity, I guess. Because I know that if I had persisted in writing a play it would never have been produced. Or even finished, probably.

MF: Have you considered writing for the adult market, or do you plan to keep writing for young adults?

CG: My next book will be for adults. But I hope it will appeal to all ages. Then I want to go back to a story for young adults. I am not very keen on labels­. The marketing people dream them up. Books are for reading. I love children’s books (if they are well written), and I think children will read books for adults providing the writing is accessible and the theme of interest to them. But we live­ sadly, when it comes to creative work ­in an age of “niche marketing.”

MF: What writers have influenced you the most?

CG: William Shakespeare: for his genius with words. Saul Bellow: for his exuberance. Vladimir Nabokov: for his complexity of thought. Anton Chekhov: for his understanding of people and his lightness of touch. And about a million others: ­poets, playwrights, screenwriters, comic book writers, sitcom writers, greeting card writers. There’s something to learn from every artist who does the job with love and respect for the craft.

MF: Which is more difficult, writing or re-writing? How much re-writing do you do?

CG: Well, there are different difficulties at every stage of the writing process, all of them devilishly hard, I think. At the beginning you have a great idea but worry about how far it will take you; half way through you are delighted that the story has come so far, but now you worry about having the energy and ideas to finish it; and towards the end you are so tired that you want to finish it as quickly as possible (big mistake).

And then, when you are congratulating yourself on having finished your book, you start the real work: editing. And that can take as long as the writing (for an inexperienced author, anyway; there are many mistakes to learn from and pitfalls to overcome). I read somewhere that the difference between a successful writer and the other sort is knowing when to ditch a bad idea. I agree with that. If you follow the wrong path in your story you can end up in a very dark, very overgrown wood, from which there is no escape. That happens to so many inexperienced writers, and they get lost and stop. Which is a great shame, but you have to find your own way, unfortunately; no one can do it for you.

For Leonardo’s Shadow I wrote three drafts before the book was accepted for publication; and then another four drafts for my editor (a brilliant, wonderful editor, who would not take second best). A lot of work, any way you cut it.

MF: Does anyone else read your drafts before your editor/publisher?

CG: I caution against giving out work to family and friends (who, in trying to be helpful, often cause more problems) and writing peers (whose opinion is not always honest, for various reasons). But there is always someone you love whose opinion counts, and it is that person who gets to see the unfinished work. For better or worse.

MF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Any writing "rituals"?

CG: All I need is a small desk in a quiet corner. But I need access to it at the same time every day, if possible. I am like a small steam train in an obscure part of the countryside: happy to go on puffing my way round the track, and always in danger of being made obsolete by more advanced models.

MF: What advice would you give an aspiring author?

CG: As someone who has wasted so much time not writing because of pride, fear, envy, self-loathing, melancholy, sloth, impatience, and vanity, I would say just this: put aside all your reasons for not writing and just write. A chapter, a verse, a paragraph, a line. Even a word. Every day, day in and day out. Write. Write. WRITE. Never give up. One day it will call come together.

MF: Do you read a lot? What's your favorite book or author?

CG: I try to read as much as I can. Every writer must. You could almost say that the best writers are the ones who read the most. Reading is oxygen to the writer; without it you will simply starve. I have many favorite books, but one that affects me very deeply each time I read it is Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day.

MF: What are you currently reading?

CG: Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. You've probably never heard of him. He just happens to be one of the biggest-selling authors in the world, but he’s not a celebrity in the USA. I'm reading him because this is an adventure book, and I want to study his techniques. Then I am reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and after that Primo Levi’s If This is a Man.

MF: Who, or what, inspires you?

CG: Everyone from my mother (for her courage) to SpongeBob SquarePants (for his ironic humor). And anyone who finds what he was meant to do in life ­and then does it. Also the snail, for successfully crossing a garden path against all the odds.

MF: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

CG: When I have no money (like now) I watch endless DVDs, and go for coffee on Portobello Road to look at the locals. If I have money (two years ago), I travel; my last trip was to China and Japan, and it was marvelous.

MF: Any plans for other books?

CG: My next book will be set in the Renaissance again, but will have an adult hero. A gravedigger. I want to make it thrilling, amazing, hilarious, fascinating, and unique. I even have hopes it might be quite good.

You can find more out about Christopher at his website.

Author Interview: Karen Abbott

Interviewed by Heather F.

A chance mention of her friend Karen Abbott on Joshilyn Jackson's blog led me to seek her, and her new book, out. Much to my delight, she readily agreed to be interviewed! She is just as fascinating as her book. She is the delightful author of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, due out July 10th. I'll let her tell you all about it.

HF: Please tell us a little bit about what your book, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, is about?

KA: Sin in the Second City is about two cunning sisters, Minna and Ada Everleigh, who ran the world’s most famous brothel at the turn of the last century. The Everleighs were ingenious businesswomen and fantastic liars, which of course aren’t mutually exclusive, and attracted the elites of the world to their opulent double mansion in Chicago’s Near South Side. Everleigh “butterflies” named Brick Top, Doll, and Suzy Poon Tang devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. While lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac. But the sisters’ success also brought them considerable trouble. Rival madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the sisters—including attempts to frame them for murder—and reformers used the Everleigh Club to launch a national culture war. Ministers and politicians whipped the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”—the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. It was a furor that shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, even leading to the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The battle against the Everleighs wasn’t only about sex, but also about urbanization, immigration, religious fundamentalism, and the changing roles of women. Before my editor came up with Sin in the Second City, I was calling the book “Whores at War,” which is actually pretty fitting.

HF: Some of the most fascinating nonfiction reads, in my opinion, are about the people you never learn about in regular history books. How did you find out about the Everleigh sisters and their story and what led you to want to research and write about it?

KA: It’s actually a very personal story. My great-grandmother and her sister immigrated to the United States from Slovenia in 1905. One weekend, the sister took a trip to Chicago and was never heard from again. I was always intrigued and haunted by this bit of family lore, and when I began researching Chicago, and learned all about the “disappearing girls” around the turn of the century, those tales really captured my imagination. Chicago was a fascinating city at the time but also very dangerous. There were entire guidebooks that warned visitors about which streets and establishments to avoid. They had these vivid, melodramatic titles: “Chicago and Its Cesspools of Infamy,” “The White Slave Hell: With Christ at Midnight in the Slums of Chicago,” etc. It was easy, especially during my research trips to the city, to imagine my relative falling victim to some nefarious force. Of course I also imagine that she might have become a “sporting girl,” so to speak. And I would hope that she was Everleigh Club material!

HF: How long did it take you to research your book? Where did you have to go and who did you talk to? I imagine the Everleigh sister's many name changes and the fact that they moved around a lot made it hard to track them. Did you hit any roadblocks and if so, how did you get around them?

KA: I worked on Sin for three years, writing and researching included. My background is in journalism so I’m used to talking to live people, listening to them, figuring out what they’re saying in their silences. This was an entirely different kind of research to me; it was like learning a foreign language. But I really loved digging through the musty old archives in Chicago’s libraries. Dead people don’t always say what you want them to, but if you learn how to read what’s there—and read into what’s not—you can really bring them back to life, or at least try to. It’s part of what I love about nonfiction, about piecing together a million little facts to create a larger truth, and hopefully an entertaining story. If I had written a novel and included a character like Vic Shaw, my editor would have rightfully told me to tone her down or cut some of her antics. I mean, I could not have made her up. Same thing with Everleigh Club clients like the Gold Coin Kid—who knew people were so kinky back then?

I did get to talk to a few people who had a direct connection to the sisters, including their great niece. It took months and months of sending out letters to addresses and having many of them returned. But finally, her son called me, and said a relative had forwarded my letter. The Everleighs’ great niece was 80 years old when I spoke with her, and still feisty. It was 10 in the morning, and she was eating caviar—she made a point of mentioning that to me, which I thought was very Everleigh-like. She also was very adamant about calling the sisters “ladies”—she was proud of them, and proud to be related to them.

HF: Many would feel that the fact that they ran a brothel to be immoral and sordid in the extreme, but they took such good care of their girls; feeding them gourmet food, dressing them in couture gowns, providing them with the best medical care, to name a few of the things they did for their girls. How did you come to feel about the Everleighs? Did you find your feelings got in the way of the story? Was it hard to balance that out?

KA: In a way, theirs is a classic story of the American dream. They had a very difficult past but were determined to be successful, and they were incredibly inventive in their approach. They rewrote their own histories and presented themselves as these two aristocratic debutantes, women of social standing and grace. These personas were just as vital to their business as their décor and the beauty of their girls. And their unique bond was one of my favorite things about the sisters. I don’t think they could have become who they became if it weren’t for each other. These are two women who never lived apart from each other, who watched several family members die, who vowed to die for each other. They shared both their painful truths and their pretty lies. And I think it was their pasts that made them so protective of their girls, which I really admired. They helped these girls when everyone else was merely paying lip service to the idea. So I came to not only admire the sisters, but to love them. I’m not a very sentimental person—I don’t really cry at movies or books or at Major Life Events—but when I typed the last sentence of my book I bawled like a baby. I felt like I was living with the sisters every day for a very long time, learning everything about them there is to know, and now I miss them horribly. I hope that my affection for them is apparent in the story—I want the reader to love them as much as I do. That said, I didn’t want to dismiss the reformers; I wanted to present their ideas and actions in a way that shows just how threatening they were to the sisters’ livelihood. I wanted that tension and conflict to be evident throughout.

HF: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

KA: I think Pete Dexter is one of the most brilliant writers alive today. I am such a rabid Dexter fan I named one of my parrots after him, sad to say… His sentences are so powerful without being gratuitously show-offy. His dialogue and sense of place are flawless: who else could get South Georgia and South Philly equally right? He’s dark and violent but also very funny (often in the very same sentence). He understands that humor is a natural byproduct of human conflict. Paris Trout is one of my favorite books, though I have to say I like his journalism more than his novels. He wrote a piece about LeeRoy Yarbrough, a famous but troubled 1960s NASCAR driver, that haunted me for weeks. I also love Gary Smith, Susan Orlean, Erik Larson, Tad Friend. They’re superb journalists but also really talented stylists.

HF: Do you read a lot? Do you read most contemporary books, classics, or a mix?

KA: I read for pleasure as often as I can. When I’m researching, I have to focus on books germane to my subject matter. For Sin in the Second City, I read dozens of books about the Progressive Era and Chicago and the “moral panic” over white slavery, some of them fairly dry and academic. But if my eyes glazed over I could also reach for Upstairs at the Everleigh Club and learn some more about Suzy Poon Tang. Never a dull moment with Suzy Poon Tang!

HF: Do you ever re-read your favorite books? If so, which have you re-read most often? Why does that work appeal to you so much?

KA: I do re-read. In high school the emphasis seemed to be on memorizing and regurgitating facts rather than critical reading and thinking, so lately I’ve been on a classics kick, re-reading all the books that got short shrift back then. As for more recent books, one of my favorites to re-read is Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy. It’s stunning on so many levels, and even surpasses the movie, which I thought was stellar. Also Don DeLillo’s Libra, James Dickey’s Deliverance, Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. I think it’s his best—definitely better than The Road.

HF: Which writers writing today do you think will endure?

KA: Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Russell Shorto, George Saunders. I think Alice McDermott’s prose is relentlessly gorgeous. I know nothing about writing short stories but I love Matthew Klam’s work. And Sara Gruen and Joshilyn Jackson are favorites, and not just because they’re friends. Both of them are very smart storytellers—there are layers and nuances woven throughout fast-paced plots. It’s not an easy thing to pull off, and they both do it consistently and very well. I’m lucky to have them as readers. They told me when I was committing “information dumps” while drafting Sin, and I went back and interspersed what I needed to say in a way that didn’t interrupt the flow of the narrative. Every narrative nonfiction writer can learn from novelists.

HF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Do you have any writing rituals?

KA: My townhouse is pretty tiny—I don’t have an office so much as an alcove adjacent to my bedroom. It’s about the size of a decent walk-in closet. I have at least a half-dozen file boxes piled around me, holding all of my research, organized as best as a scattered right-brainer can manage. I am an incurable slob, so I really have to stay on top of that. When I was working on Sin, I listened to ragtime every morning just to get me in the mood, but when I actually sit down to try to fill the screen, I need perfect quiet. I live in the city, so it can get loud, and then I stuff in the earplugs. I also have to unplug my Internet connection or I’ll procrastinate and surf The Superficial. My parrots have these spiral perches that suspend from the ceiling, so they’re usually with me. Once in a while, when I’m leaning over to read something, Dexter will stretch down and peck my head just so I remember he’s there. They’re pretty smart; they know they go back in their cages if they don’t stay quiet while I’m drafting.

HF: Aside from writing, what are your favorite pastimes?

KA: I love antique furniture. There’s a place up the street from me called Paris on Ponce, and they have fabulous, gaudy, outrageous stuff. It’s like strolling through the Folies Bergére. I can’t afford most of it, but it’s fun to look. I’m also a complete jock. If I hadn’t busted up my knee years go I’m sure I’d be playing in some neighborhood softball league. My husband appreciates the fact that I watch football on Sundays in the fall (go Eagles!) I can still rollerblade about 50 miles a week—something about it helps me think through problems in my work, frees my mind to consider different approaches. And I’m lucky I don’t live up the street from a casino. My husband and I have developed a tag-team strategy for blackjack; we just got back from New Orleans and did pretty well. I think it’s in my blood—my parents and my 88-year-old grandmother hit Atlantic City at least twice a month. Plus the people watching is sublime. Where else can you see an octogenarian in a wheelchair, dragging his oxygen tank behind him, while chain-smoking menthols?

HF: What can we expect to see next from you? Are there any new books in the pipeline?

KA: I recently signed on to do a second book for Random House, which I’m just thrilled about. It’s about Gypsy Rose Lee and the Depression-era New York that made her a legend, with a cast of characters that includes H.L. Mencken, Condé Nast, Lucky Luciano, Abbott and Costello, Fanny Brice, and Fiorello La Guardia. It was a really dynamic time in New York’s history. Tammany Hall was about to fall, F.D.R. was jockeying to run for president, prohibition was in full-force, the literary scene was flourishing. I’m really fascinated by how cities are shaped, and I hope I can make New York as much a character in this book as Chicago is in Sin. I’m also drawn to women who make their own lives, who aren’t privileged enough to have their lives handed to them. In that respect, Gypsy Rose Lee is very much like the Everleigh sisters. I can’t wait to get to know her.

Many, many thanks to Karen Abbott for taking the time to answer my questions so throughly. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. And don't forgot to go snap up a copy of Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul, a fascinating, engaging read in the style of Erik Larson. You can visit her website here.

July Specials! Half Moon Investigations

Half Moon Investigations
by Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl series
Published by Puffin Books in paperback 5th July priced £5.99.

To celebrate the launch of Half Moon Investigations in paperback, Puffin Books has created a web comic of Eoin Colfer’s best-selling crime adventure, bringing to life an extract of the plot line and characters featured in the book. There are clues throughout the comic strip to help readers solve the crime which hero Fletcher Moon is determined to get to the bottom of. John Royle, one of the Spiderman comic book illustrators, is responsible for the brilliant artwork. The comic strip can be viewed at the official site here: along with various partnered kids, books and entertainment sites.

The book can be purchased from the Puffin website:,,9780141382708,00.html

Author Interview: Scotty Roberts

Interviewed by Andi

A little about Scotty Roberts' debut novel, The Rollicking Adventures of Tam O'Hare:

Tam O'Hare, Irish Lord and swashbuckling adventurer, along with his young squire, Horatio MacNutt, set out to find a young girl who's been stolen by the faeries - the "Good People" of Irish and Scottish lore. The young girl is the granddaughter of Tam's Great Uncle, Argyll Whitebeard, cheiftain of the clan MacDervish in the highlands of Scotland. Through the course of their quest, Tam and Horatio encounter several figures from history - mostly due to Tam's reputation as an aristocratic adventurer - Mary Queen of Scots and her husband James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell; Queen Elizabeth, John Knox and several minor characters.
AM: You’ve detailed it nicely on your MySpace page, but could you briefly explain the process you’ve gone through in creating The Rollicking Adventures of Tam O’Hare for the Estella’s Revenge readers? I know it has been a lengthy labor of love.

SR: It has indeed. The book really started as a series of bedtime stories I told my little twin girls at bedtime. They were seven-years-old at the time - they are now 15. Tam O'Hare was originally William, a very Scottish mouse. Eventually, my daughters wanted to see what William looked like, and as we sat on the floor, drawing pictures with markers, William morphed into a rabbit, and we named him "Tam O'Hare." The very first illustration I did was the one that now adorns the cover of the book. I started writing the story after that.

I secured a literary agent - Sam Flieshman of Literary Artists Representatives in NYC - and he made some initial presentations to some major publishers. The reaction was very good, but I was told that the story was "too long for a children's picture book, too short for a chapter book," and to "realize it one way or another." This was slightly discouraging, as it required me to totally restructure the story, and I set the project aside for nearly a year. My agent reminded me that there are thousands of artists out there who's work will never see publication because they will not alter their creative work. Sam also impressed on me the notion that making a book "saleable," was as important as making it artistic: "Your book can be wonderfully creative, but if it is not marketable and saleable, it will never see the light of day from a bookstore shelf." So I took several months, slowly rewriting the book, shelving it several times.

Family crisis, finances, work, and a whole host of other obstacles seemed to orchestrate themselves in preventing me from finishing Tam O'Hare. Eventually, my agreement with my agent expired and we both moved on to other things. I toyed with the book and illustrations for the following years, always telling everyone how desirous I was to see the book finally published. Sam Flieshman and I reignited efforts on the book about two years ago, and got some very promising rejections from major publishers. The discouragement set in again, and I set the whole project aside for another year-and-a-half. Then in March of this year, a good friend of mine in book publishing, Bill James, contacted me about Tam O'Hare, and in two short months, we were published through his small imprint of Morgan-James (an imprint of Ingram Publishing), my New York Publisher. I hated the name of his publishing house, because it sounded so miniscule, but he got the job done. As Bill says, my foot is now in the door.

The soft cover version is available now through Tam O'Hare's MySpace site, and the reaction has been so good, Morgan-James has ramped up the publication to a hard cover release for this October, with distribution by Ingram.

It's been a long road, with my book taking a back seat to, seemingly, everything else in my life. But it the thrill of opening that first box of books, and holding that first book in my hands, is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. Seeing your creation in print, was by far - for me - the next best thing to holding my babies for the very first time.

There is, I believe, a marked distinction between "bragging" and "sharing." As artists, how many of us create our workds of art for the purpose of hiding them in the attic or the closet of our spare bedrooms? None of us. We create for the purpose of sharing what we have created. It's almost as if we step into the sunlight that shines outside our studio doors, and yell at the top of our lungs, "Hey! Come and see this thing I created! I hope you get as much joy out of it as I had creating it!"

AM: What moved you to write in the children's genre?

SR: My children, without a question. After that, it is my love of history and wanting to find ways to express and teach ideals and principles without being boring or preachy. I also wanted a vehicle to house a series of illustrations.

AM: Many of the Estella’s Revenge readers are adults who happen to love children’s literature. Are you one of those adults? What are some of your favorite children’s or young adult works?

SR: Oh yes, I am most definitely one of those adults. I love children's literature. However, being an illustrator, I was originally drawn to the children's genre because of the pictures. Walking through the bookstore, I have always been inextricably drawn to the illustrations and rich colors of the children's/young readers section, and I always said, "I'd like to do a book like that someday."

AM: What advice would you give to a budding author? What are the biggest challenges in the business of publishing?

SR: As cliché as it may sound, my advice would be to "stay with it, and don't let the roadblocks get you down." I faced inumerable obstacles along the way, but remained persistent and focused. It took time, but it is finally here. Never stop the creative process.

AM: When you were writing the book did you avoid reading other books in the same genre for fear the tone or voice of other works would seep into your own?

SR: Absolutely yes. I avoided any and all books within my genre. I feared having them taint my originality. My ideas were my very own, and I did not want there to even be the perception that my work was derived from another author's work - which has still happened, anyway, with comparisons being made to other much more established authors. I am very glad - especially at this point - that I did not allow those other works to have any influence on the creation of my own.

AM: Which books or authors have served as your biggest influences? How about artists?

SR: My earliest influences were Mercer Mayer's East of the Sun, West of the Moon and Everyone Knows What A Dragon Looks Like. Mayer's pen and ink and water colour illustrations told the stories nearly all by themselves. Chris Van Alsburg's lush pencil illustrations locked my attention for hours at a time.

AM: Your artwork is undoubtedly spectacular. Are you formally trained? How long might it take to create just one of your stunning illustrations?

SR: Thank you for that. I have no formal training in the arts, as I was once a theological scholar, bound for ministry. My college majors and seminary Masters studies were focused on theology, biblical studies and textual criticism, and history.

I have always drawn and painted, as far back as I can remember. I gleaned a lot of influence from comic books when I was a kid in the sixties and seventies, but really had a desire to go beyond the simple hard line ink illustration of that genre. Despite taking a couple of art courses in college, I, honestly, trained myself, practicing with pencil and watercolor all the time. I dabbled in oils now and again, but was easily frustrated by the amount of time it took to complete anything of significance.

AM: Do you have a chance to read for pleasure often? What are some of your favorite books of all time?

SR: I don't get the chance to read as often as I used to, and that really bothers me. I love to read, and instilled the love of reading in my children when they were very young (they are voracious readers today). It sometimes seems that the busy-ness of life gets in the way of good reading time. However, when I DO get the chance now-a-days, I read a lot of history and biography. I recently finished Richard Zach's, The Pirate Hunter, a biography of Captain William Kidd. I also really, really enjoyed Gregory McGuire's, Wicked, the story of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I loved the Oz he created, putting meat on the bones of the old Baum stories. It is political allegory as much as it is an essay on the true nature of Evil. I took the time to read it very slowly, a chapter or two at a sitting, with my children - who also enjoyed it very much. Being the Aurthurian buff that I am, another all-time favorite of mine is the late Marian Zimmer-Bradley's, The Mists of Avalon, a spiritually engrossing book for me, dripping in researched history.

I have to include here some of my earlier favoritees and influences: I devoured all of Robert Ludlum's novels, as well as the complete works of Leon Uris, both of whom were great influences on my writing style - Ludlum for his intense, screenplay-like scenarios, and Uris for his pathos and history. I also loved Mary Stewarts Aurthurian classics, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, and The Wicked Day.

AM: Do you have any writing routines? Unbreakable habits?

SR: Hmmmm... yes. I smoke too much while I write, and I don't make many notes. Heh. A bad habit to my writing is that I simply sit down and start typing, letting things pour out as they come to me, allowing the narrative to, sort of, "build itself" as it were. The only *real* notes I take are generally not related to the story line, but, rather, the research. For Tam O'Hare, I studied and researched the historical figures I included in the book, as well as ships, swords, castles and clothing of the day for both text and illustrations.

As far as unbreakable habits...? I am reminded of one time where I wrote the entire opening paragraphs of the first chapter of the book, "Anticipation," on the back of a church bulletin while sitting through the pastor's sermon on a Sunday morning. The paragraphs appear unchanged in the book.

AM: Do you have any other literary projects on the horizon?

SR: I am deep into the writing of Tam O'Hare and the Banshee of Ballyglenmorrow, book Two in The Rollicking Adventures of Tam O'Hare series-to-be. It is going to be a much longer story, and - having reflected on Tam O'Hare for a few years - much darker in tone. Still good for younger readers, but definitely more geared to the slightly older reader. When I say "darker," I mean a little heavier in tone, more involved, delving deeper into Tam's character. Sure, he's just a rabbit, but at the core, he is a rabbit with a human heart. I will give you some more detail on this as soon as I feel there are viewable portions.

Thanks so much to Scotty Roberts for his insight into the world of children's publishing and illustration. Make sure to get your hands on a copy of The Rollicking Adventure of Tam O'Hare HERE.

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July Specials! The Black Swan

Bestselling author Nassim Taleb continues his exploration of randomness in his fascinating new book, The Black Swan, in which he examines the influence of highly improbable and unpredictable events that have massive impact.

To read a PDF excerpt from the new book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Taleb, click HERE.

Children's Lit Scholars: More Than a Myth

By Andi

When I tell people that I am a scholar in the area of Children's Literature, they usually don't skip a beat.

"Oh, how great! Teachers are wonderful. They made such a difference to me when I was a child. I think it's great that you spend time teaching children about books."

The whole time I respectfully nod and smile wondering to myself if now is the time to point out that I detest teaching young children...I just like pilfering their books. For it is a long-misunderstood fact of academic life that Children's Literature scholars don't actually have any contact with children in the realm of their day jobs (unless they have some stashed away at home). In fact, I know a great many Children's Literature professors and scholars who don't have children at all--and they don't really want any to boot!

You see, a Children's Literature scholar generally reads children's and adolescent books and then writes about them for an academic--very adult--audience. Yep, I've ruminated on the diagetic levels of narration in The Catch in the Rye, the ironic ideology at work in The Giving Tree and The Giver's extreme likeness to Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon philosophy born of the 1700s.

I teach adults. Well, as adult as a 19-year-old undergraduate can be. We read children's books and adolescent literature, picture books and fairy tales, and we analyze them, just the way you might've analyzed The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick in one of your literature seminars. To most people's (my students, at least) surprise, there is just as much to analysis to be done on Rainbow Fish as The Human Stain.

Our culture produces Children's Literature in staggering amounts for a few purposes:

  • To entertain

  • To teach

  • To train

That's right, while entertainment is high on the list, Children's Literature is just as much, if not more, about passing along our cultural ideologies as it is about bedtime. Why else would religious fundamentalists burn Harry Potter in effigy? Because it doesn't teach the right ideology for that particular group. Just as Rainbow Fish doesn't teach an ideology I'm particularly keen on. Self-mutilation for the pacification of jealous little twits? No thanks.

I've been extremely privileged over the last two-and-a-half years to take some fantastic courses on Children's Literature and help teach some Children's Literature courses myself. There is nothing more pleasurable than exploring the irony and ideological muddying of messages in Children's books. Quite simply, we adults can see children's books very differently. Some students shout the evils of "reading too much in" to a child's story, but at the end of the day, the child's story was penned by an adult, and adult readers shouldn't be expected to glean the same things from a text as a five-year-old.

But back to this scholar business. After I've raped and pillaged a children's text, I write about it at length...a term paper, a conference paper, a thesis. I go to conferences where I read my academic work to an audience of (hopefully) interested peers who similarly ravage children's books for their academic goods and share their findings in similar ways. At the end of the day, I publish what I've found (or I will someday) in academic journals devoted to the study of Children's Literature. There's even an association! An association of intellectual nuts like me.

What good is there in all this? How is it practical?

I used to think there was little of the practical in academia, and I was happy with that conclusion. I still believe that there is little practicality in the life of a Children's Lit scholar, but that which is practical is very powerful. I teach adults to read children's books with new eyes. I teach adults not shy away from the potential incongruity of the message the book is supposed to send to children and the message the adult actually gets. I teach adults that it's fine and dandy to perceive Children's Literature on multiple levels, and I teach them to talk about it and write about it. And, I hope that by seeing Children's Literature analytically, they can read a book with their child and open up a discussion. A discussion of multiple points of view, multiple perceptions, and, with any luck, a bit more sensitivity.

Ridiculously, wonderfully warped and controversial children's and adolescent novels worth reading (listed beginning with picture books and going up to adolescent novels):

  • Anything by the Brothers Grimm

  • The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein

  • Arlene Sardine, by Chris Raschka

  • Otto's Trunk, by Sandy Turner

  • The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, by Jon Scieszka

  • The Watertower, by Gary Crew

  • Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

  • The Giver, by Lois Lowry

  • Parvana's Journey, by Deborah Ellis

  • Mary Called Magdalene, by Donna Jo Napoli

  • American Born Chinese, by Jean Yang

  • Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

  • Push, by Sapphire

Fantasy, Horror, and Aging

by Stuart Sharp

There are genres of writing that clearly favour older heroes. The detective novel, for example, is usually more fun with someone nearing retirement, and preferably almost completely washed up, than with a shiny new character just starting their career. From Poirot to Morse, Holmes to Miss Marple, few of the great detectives and private detectives of fiction have been exactly teenagers.

Fantasy and Horror novels are a different matter entirely. Whether we’re talking about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Fritz Leiber’s books featuring Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Conan or the Harry Potter series, heroes in these genres have tended to be young. When they’re not, it’s often either for comic effect, as with Terry Pratchett’s character Cohen the barbarian, or as a way of exploring the attempts of that hero to live up to their reputation in the face of declining physical powers. Druss, from David Gemmell’s novel Legend, is a classic example of the latter.
Very often, when older characters show up in fantasy and horror writing, it is as secondary characters. They are the wise mentors, the helpers, and quite often the villains. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine many of these characters any other way. The likes of Dumbledore and Gandalf, for example, probably wouldn’t work anywhere near as well if they were both in their twenties. They need to be older to serve as founts of wisdom and advice, not to mention to have chance to grow the beards long enough.

On the other hand, it’s probably that same sense of experience and competence that prevents them from being anything other than supporting characters. Fantasy usually requires a sense of wonder and curiosity in order to explore whatever world the writer has created. Horror usually needs a sense of innocence and hope to increase the terror when circumstances become more frightening. All these things are more readily available in a younger character than an older one. Besides, running around forbidden temples killing things sounds very much like a job where aching joints, family responsibilities, and a tendency to forget where you left things aren’t going to be an advantage.

Of course, in the realms of fantasy, horror, and whichever of the million and one sub-genres is in vogue this week, there is always another possibility. You can have characters with minds hundreds of years old and bodies that don’t even look thirty. You can make them immortal, or undead.

I’m not talking about the shambling corpses that sometimes show up in horror fiction, of course. Those are monsters, baddies for our intrepid heroes to kill/be eaten by/run away from, depending on the mood of the author. Even in Dracula, the vampires are just there as a threat to scare and kill the main characters.

Instead, I’m thinking of those times when the immortal, nearly immortal, or un-dead characters get to be full characters rather than just being defined by what they are. They have lives and personalities of their own. Or un-lives and personalities of their own, at least. This is quite common at those points where horror shades into something else, but it also shows up in more mainstream horror writing, and in fantasy.

Anne Rice is probably one of the best known for this sort of thing, using an assortment of vampires and other supernatural beasties in the first person point of view for most of her novels. Laurell K. Hamilton, Kelly Armstrong, Kim Harrison and Jim Butcher have populated their supernatural thrillers with an assortment of long lived and immortal characters, while the likes of Sherrilyn Kenyon and Maryjanice Davidson have even pushed immortal and undead characters into areas that fuse with romance novels and chick-lit.

It’s an approach that raises some strange issues. Firstly, what explanation do you offer for the character’s status? They end up being as varied as the authors involved, ranging from a simple explanation based around a vampiric "virus" to the transformation of vengeful souls by a Greek goddess. Obviously, given the genre, the explanation doesn’t have to make any kind of "real world" sense, but it’s nice, and occasionally slightly worrying, to know that these things have been thought through.

The other main issue with immortal and semi-immortal characters is their past. This usually ends up as something of a balancing act. On the one hand, if these characters are supposed to be hundreds of years old they should probably give a sense of that. If they’re completely identical to every other character, then there isn’t really much point, so the writer needs to put in enough historical research and references to make us believe the character has been there. On the other hand, it has to be difficult to avoid the temptation to have them show up, Forrest Gump-like, at every famous historical event since their creation.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure how well immortal characters work as the central character of a novel. They have most of the same difficulties as older characters generally, such as a tendency to seem jaded by the world around them, without the compensations of a new set of issues to explore. They are, effectively, young characters that have been young for a very long time. At worst, there is a risk of having a character so divorced from real human experience that the reader can’t feel any sympathy for them.

Interesting, a lot of the authors I’ve mentioned seem to agree. Kelly Armstrong, Jim Butcher, Kim Harrison and Laurell K. Hamilton all have vampires and other immortal characters in their novels, but they are rarely the main protagonist. They are lovers, friends, and enemies of the main character, but that character is invariably mortal, if not necessarily any more normal. Essentially, they seem to have recognised the importance of a fairly normal character in drawing the reader into more fantastic worlds.

Of course, having said that, the success of Anne Rice tends to disprove my point. One of the most famous long lived characters of all also threatens to derail things, because Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, is probably as well known as any character if we take a fairly broad definition of what constitutes fantasy writing. The answer to this is that, by not just "not growing old," but also not growing up, Peter Pan remains a young sort of character mentally as well as physically.

This fits in with the conclusion that the vast majority of main characters in fantasy and horror writing remain fairly young, characters just starting out in a career of killing strange beasts (or running away from them). Surely there has to be a place for more variety than that, though, because the glut of fairly young characters is getting a bit predictable. I’m not suggesting that fantasy and horror literature should suddenly be overrun by octogenarians, but is it really too much to ask for a hero who can go out, save the world and stay up past Harry Potter’s bed time?

Kid Stuff: Classic YA Reads

By April D. Boland

The apostle Paul once wrote somewhere in the Bible, "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." He recognized that there comes a time when all of us put away the Barbie dolls and G.I. Joes and relegate our beloved childhood pastimes to a cardboard box in our parents' basement. This is a rite of passage, albeit a sorrowful one, as we gallop headlong towards our future as straight-laced, boring adults.

But doesn't anyone else get tempted, every once in a while, to crack open that box again?

I know I do. I'm not talking about my old Barbies, though; I'm talking about my old books. I have nothing but fond memories about the books I used to read and sometimes I get "cravings" for them like any other book. Here is a list of "YA" or "Young Adult" reads that are worth a read for adults as well:

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I first encountered this masterpiece through the Cartoon Network, which aired the 1970 movie version starring Butch Patrick (more commonly known to the free world as Eddie Munster). I was around ten or eleven and I sat glued to that thing and fell in love. Being bookish, I immediately bought the book and began reading it at lunchtime in the cafeteria at school. When my sixth grade social studies teacher taught us about coats of arms in medieval times, I excitedly showed her the cover after class, which contains a drawing of one on one of its pages. She squinted at me in her usual mean way and asked, "Aren't you a little old to be reading this? Is this for your level?" According to, which unfortunately was not around at the time, it was exactly right for my age, but as I said, she was mean.

Anyway, this book is allegory mixed with myth mixed with symbolism and metaphor, and it is totally fun. Milo, the protagonist, winds up in this magical world where you've got to use letters and numbers and all types of knowledge to survive. I could pick that book up today, at 23 years old, and still love it.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Perhaps of interest mainly to women, this is still a book worth noting. This was the coming-of-age tale that all mothers bought for their daughters, mine included. It's the story of a girl praying for her period, and what life was like for her in the seventh grade. Poignant, beautiful and real, we cheer Margaret along in teenage life.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

In fact, anything by Roald Dahl is wonderful, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of those incredible classics that really remains with you. If you enjoyed the movie (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory ... the Gene Wilder version!) then you will really enjoy the book, which fleshes out the story more, as is often the case with books versus movies.
There you have it. There are many, many more titles that could be added to this list, but were not for the sake of brevity. Why not start your own? Summertime, when we are relaxing and taking it easy, can be the perfect time to reread some of your favorite books from childhood. It's also interesting to see how your perceptions have changed since the last time you read these books, all those years ago.

Estella's Revenge also recommends:

  • Matilda, by Roald Dahl

  • The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

  • The Giver, by Lois Lowry

  • The Arabel and Mortimer series, by Joan Aiken

Comic Cents

By Chris Buchner

If you’re new to collecting, there’s a great and inexpensive way to get a sampling of some classic comics or to build your collection really fast. I'm talking about the bargain bin. Yes, a true friend to any collector, the bargain bin can be found in many comic shops and at any comic convention in the country. You can find books anywhere from a dollar to ten cents! Now, I should warn you; if you’re a “serious” collector who only wants mint books, this isn’t the place for you. Granted, the books aren’t always in the greatest of conditions, but for the price you’re paying for them they’re more than worth it for the reading you’ll get to enjoy. And if you’re interested in comics purely as an investment, check out Comic Books: The Four Colored History over in the March issue of Estella's Revenge to find out why that’s not such a good idea.

I went to the Big Apple Comicon in New York City’s Penn Plaza Pavilion on the weekend of June 23rd and 24th and spent a few hours digging through the various bargain bins there. I wanted to see what little treasures I could find not only to eliminate the money burning a hole in my pocket and build up my collection some, but to highlight just what could possibly be there waiting for you.


The summer’s biggest star (no, not Johnny Depp!) spins his way out of the 50 cent bin in the classic Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #169, in which J. Jonah Jameson almost discovers Peter Parker’s secret identity! If only he knew he’d only have to wait another 2 decades to have that information handed to him… Anyway, I stumbled across several copies of this book in the bins, each one with varying degrees of probably water damage that made them all wrinkled. However, that was their only flaw and they were still great reading copies. Considering the current popularity of Spidey from the movies, as well as his general popularity, a retailer could have carte blanche to ask you any price for this book in any condition. Of course, there was plenty of other Spidey goodness to go around with various issues of Spectacular Spider-Man.

After the death of Superman, four other Supermen stepped in to fill his shoes until his inevitable return. They were the cloned Superboy, a half-robot fraud known as the Cyborg, an alien machine known as The Eradicator, and a man inspired by Superman, John Henry Irons, in his custom made suit of armor as Steel. Each one briefly took over the various Superman books, and their first issues featured a regular cover and a die-cut cover (meaning made of a firmer material with a portion cut out to show part of a picture on the first page). Although not incredibly valuable or expensive in online stores, if you were ever curious enough to want to see what the deal was, you could’ve easily picked up all four of the die-cut editions in near-perfect condition for $2. As an added bonus, there were even several parts to the “Reign of the Supermen!” story in the bins as well.

There was even a nice smattering of first issues to choose from. Ghost Rider fan? Then check out Spirits of Vengeance #1, still sealed in it’s poly bag with free poster (okay, I lied…there WERE things for the “serious” collectors). There were even two issues of X-Factor and X-Force respectively that were part of the much heralded “X-Cutioner’s Song” storyline, still in their original bags with their bonus trading cards. Clive Barker fan? Did you know at one point he had a series of comics put out through Marvel? Well, you could easily snatch up the first issue to many of his series, including the foil-stamped embossed first issue of Hokum & Hex. Or maybe you fancy a spot of tea with some of the British imports that used to come out. You know, books like Death’s Head II, Gene Dogs, Cyberspace 3000 and more.

Now, single issues are all well and good, but the real thrill of the bins is when you find complete runs of a book. Maybe not every issue in a given series, but a good, continuous run of issues within it. Take for example Batman’s young ward, Robin, who has had his own series for the last 14 years. You could find numbers 80 through 110 easily in the bargain bin. Before Dan Slott tried his hand at it in 2005, the Thing had his own series that spun off from both the Fantastic Four and Secret War for 36 issues in the 1980s. If you want numbers 4 to 27, they’re yours. Howabout Gen 13? Gail Simone is writing the latest incarnation of that franchise, but if anyone interested in reading some of the older versions could easily pick themselves up most of the 60s, 70s and 80s numbered issues. Plus, with Indiana Jones 4 going into production, it’s nice to nab up the entire adaptation to Raiders of the Lost Arc.

I had a personal victory emerge from my foray into the bins. Some years ago, I spied a comic on a rack in the time before I had the money to dedicate to the hobby on a regular basis. So, it had come and gone but the image on the cover had always stayed with me as some others have over the years. So, of course, you can imagine my excitement when I pulled it right out of the bin! That’s right, Guardians of the Galaxy #39 with the foil-stamped embossed cover of Dr. Doom in Wolverine’s mechanized skeleton attacking his ancestor in the 31st Century setting is now mine! Is it a crucial issue? Nope. Is it the greatest issue ever written? Nope. Is it a comic that’s been on my mind for years? Yep.

New comics, old comics. Popular characters, unpopular ones. Characters that never quite made it but still have a strong fan base. Key issues. Pointless issues. Issues so nonsensical you wonder why they were even created. Marvel, DC, Image, etc. Whatever it is you’re looking for, chances are the bargain bins will have some semblance of it. It’s a great place to find and try books you may have been considering for less than you would pay otherwise. It’s also a great place to plug up any of the holes in your collection. Head on down to your local comic shop and see if they have any bargain bins and see what kind of treasures you can find. If you’re lucky, you may run across some merchants who will give you an ADDITIONAL discount on top of the savings you’re already amassing. But, be warned! Once you get started finding books you want or need, it’s very hard to stop. Getting books for practically nothing can be addicting and you can end up walking away with over 500 comics at one time.

Yes, I speak from experience. Happy hunting!

Snazzy Stuffs

How can you call yourself a Nancy Drew fan, if you don't own this purse? Forget going to see the movie, snap this up, along with a couple of novels and have a great time!

Judging a Book?, July 2007

By Fence

Cover design for a work of fiction must involve some sort of interpretation, don’t you think? The designer should know what the book is about and maybe even have read it. They should be aware of certain key aspects, like the physical features of any characters they might be portraying. Or at least you’d hope that the design might pay some sort of attention to the work between the covers. I know, sometimes it seems as though the cover has nothing at all to do with the book. But that is fiction, what about non-fiction books? In many cases the title will let the browser know what subject the book covers, does this mean that the design is then simply to attract attention?

In the case of Tim Pat Coogan’s The I.R.A. this seems to be the case. The design is simplistic. The author, the title and a shamrock, all on a white background. But this is slightly deceptive. Anyone who has an interest in Irish history will be aware of the name of Tim Pat Coogan. He has written many well received books on Irish history. So it stands to reason that using a large font for the author name serves a purpose. But the title is larger, and darker, The IRA, all in capitals, taking up almost half the cover. That is a lot of space for six letters. A design intended to alert the potential reader to the subject, no ambiguity at all there, but it also dominates the cover the way the actual organisation has dominated Irish history. I’d like to think that that is a deliberate effect.

And of course there is the shamrock. The emblem of Ireland, just in case you were wondering, and complete with a gun sight. A not very subtle hint at the violent history of the organisation. All in all, a simple yet effective design.

Another effective design is that of Letters from a Lost Generation edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge. This is another non-fiction work and as the title says, it is a collection of letters. The writers are Vera Brittain and four of her friends; Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, and Geoffrey Thurlow. All four of those men lost their lives in the Great War; they are the lost generation of the title.

This cover uses an iconic image, the soldiers in silhouette, going over the trenches. There can be very little doubt as to what the subject matter of this book is. This, together with the book details are overlaid across some handwriting. The letters from a lost generation which I thought a nice touch. And then there is the recommendation from the Mail on Sunday "touching, angry, bewildered ... demands to be read". Okay, so maybe that is a little over the top, but given the subject matter, not a lot. And given the fact that all four of the soldiers who wrote the letters died, perhaps more accurate than hyperbole.

The third, and final, cover is different from the first two. The image doesn’t really tell you anything about the subject matter. Instead it is a detail from a work of art, a cartoon from 1797. Then again, it would probably be quite hard to come up with a work of art that gets across the subject matter of The Stories of English by David Crystal, as it is all about the English language, the different versions that evolved, and its history. So instead we get a colourful cartoon to attract our attention. And I suppose you could argue that the fact that the individuals in the cartoon are having a discussion means that it has slightly more relevance to the book than some others. Both the title and the author’s name are in a font that evokes a slightly old fashioned way of writing. And the quote from Philip Pullman reveals exactly what the book is about, the English language, and of course promotes the book as a "marvellous" one.

The primary purpose of most book covers must be to attract attention, and then to hopefully get the browsing individual to buy the book. Whether that actually happens depends on a lot more than the design, but I think that these three designs, in very different ways, do attract attention. And in a positive way. What about you? What is your favourite cover design?

Sure, I Know the Queen, July 2007

By Jodie

People might say that the English produce great children’s books because they are big kids who never quite grow up, especially the men. England has certainly created a large amount of books for children, with Enid Blyton being perhaps the most prolific writer for younger readers ever. But why is the literature so enduring? What continually draws new fans among children and adults to English children’s books in particular?

Part of the answer is that beneath the child-friendly devices of animal characters and magical creatures English children’s fiction contains subtle meanings and challenging ideas. The stories are adventurous enough to hold children’s attention and the suggestion of something more beneath the surface engages their intelligence. When an adult reads their child's books the same key aspects, although differently proportioned, are what they find interesting.

In a large amount of English children’s books these two aspects are provided by the use of the "questing" plot structure. The books follow a pattern where an event happens that forces the main characters to undertake a quest, journey or search for the good of all concerned. The aim of these journeys can range from missions of small, personal importance, such as Lassie’s struggle to return to her family in Yorkshire in Eric Knight’s Lassie Come Home to larger quests to save the world from evil. In Lassie Come Home the excitement comes from the epic journey to be faced and this is one of the main components of a quest based novel.

There is often also a more introspective search for personal development in narratives of individual importance, which adds depth to the story. These often focus on ideas of belonging or feeling different, that children can easily relate to. In Dick King Smith’s Dogfoot, a young pig is born with feet that seem strange to the other pigs. This strangeness leads him to an ambition to learn to swim and he is later called on to use his talents to save his family. This gives the book a personal quest, where the hero must become happy with himself and a more traditional quest in the journey to save his family.

Quests for individual satisfaction can often contain the intricate ideas that bring adults to children’s books. In The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, Arriety is different from other borrowers; she loves to write and has aspirations beyond her female role, as depicted by her mother Homily. Her personal quest for growth shows the reader that Norton’s tiny people represent more than an explanation for why things go missing. Borrowers are Norton’s vehicles for examining the relationship between classes, an important issue of her time. Arriety’s immediate family portray the differences in class with her father Pod as lower class, Homily as the aspirant who will always put her aitches in the wrong place and Arriety as the product of education in a working class family.

The Borrowers have their own class system, Homily’s relations live on the mantelpiece, but are ultimately an underclass to humans. In Arriety’s curiosity about humans and her interaction with "the boy" as she strives to secretly grow outside of traditional expectation she shows the troubled relationship between the emerging "educated class" and the gentry. After they form a friendship the boy harms Arriety and is then surprised and shocked that she has felt the hurt. She is angry and points out that of course borrowers feel pain. This exchange portrays the idea that the upper classes had long considered anyone lower than them a slightly different species. There are many documented occurrences of gentlemen denying that the poor needed entertainment or care for sick children because it was believed that they did not feel as the upper class did. Arriety’s anger comes from the fact that although a human has appeared friendly to her he has not really understood her at all. While class equality grew, genuine relationships between the classes were hard to create. The consequences of their friendship are disastrous for the whole tribe of borrowers. However it does lead Arriety and her family to their epic adventurous journey as they try to find somewhere to live and belong.

The most analysed example of the quest narrative in English children’s fiction is the Christian quest, as portrayed in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This model is perfect for children’s literature, as it is almost a return to the Arthurian tales about knights, always popular with kids. Children’s books that follow the Christian quest model can be quite muscular, including large scale battles, heroism and the best action parts from the Bible. It expands on the small scale quest, appearing to give it more significance due to the consequences for the world if the quest should fail.

It might seem that the Christian quest is an antiquated form found only in the classics and replaced by the magical quest. However this form of plot was and is still used by later English authors. In Colin Dann’s Farthing Wood series, the journey to the park is a search for an ideal place that may not exist and the Great White Stag takes on the same just god role as Aslan in Narnia. The same feeling of a search for an unattainable Eden is present in The Song of Pentecost, by W.J. Corbett. In the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, an obvious Christian quest narrative is displayed in most of the books. Martin is the ultimate Christian warrior and on his death becomes a legendary and inspirational figure, spurring on more Christian warrior displays. Jacques's books are full of battles to entertain but also contain messages about the different aspects of Christianity.

The magical quest features much of the same material as the Christian version, with battles between good and evil. The magical narrative simply has different heroes, villains and symbolism. It is almost a form of revisionist fiction. In the magical quest narrative the shifting, disturbing element of darkness that is present in much English children’s fiction, such as the books of Roald Dahl, is brought to the forefront. This dark aspect comes from the intense mixture of superstition, folklore and myth that forms the basis of British story telling origins.

This element works well in children’s fiction as it allows for the possibility of a particularly gruesome death for the villains. It also makes the conclusion of a story uncertain. Like adults, children don’t always want to open a book knowing it will end happily. As children grow into young adults earlier and earlier, they discard books that talk down to them or try to convince them of what their age group should like. A complex bit of tragedy or satisfying literary violence demonstrates than an author has acknowledged their need for respect.

Anyone who thinks the dark side of British children’s fiction is epitomised in the later Harry Potter books is quite definitely wrong. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is eerie but ultimately too metaphysical to explain terror to its readers. In the Deptford Mice trilogy and the Tales from the Wyrd Museum, Robin Jarvis creates deeply disturbing magical missions for his characters. His combination of depraved evil forces, dark situations and an absolute disregard for the well being of his main characters make him the master of dark, magical children’s literature. Adventure is too tame a word for the substance of his plots and there is plenty for adults in his books, even before they start on the symbolism.

English children’s fiction continues to grow, and there are many categories that I don’t have space to mention here. With so much variety exhibited in the use of one plot structure and so many excellent authors available, it’s no wonder that English children’s authors continue to gain legions of devoted fans from all age groups.