Saturday, September 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, September 2007


When I thought of the "confessions" theme for this month, it was hot on the heels of a friend's thesis defense in which he talked about confession in the works of Philip Roth. While I find confession within literature interesting, for certain, I--as a bibliophile--have a number of personal confessions to make.

  • -I have more books than I will probably ever read.

-I am something of an elitist at times, even though I try to shirk off my judgements of books by their covers.

-I guiltily peek at people's book covers on park benches, on planes, in restaurants, and anywhere else I might find them.

-I have crushes on literary characters.

In short, I've done just about everything that the Estella's Revenge writers have confessed to this month. I hope you have just as much fun reading our literary confessions as we had writing them.

I'd also like to send out good wishes to Estella's Revenge co-editor and bibliophile extraordinaire, Heather F. She's preparing for the arrival of her second baby bibliophile.

Andi

September Door Prize Book Giveaway!

First, the winner of our August door prize, a copy of William Martin's The Lost Constitution, is Cory Williams of Hattiesburg, Mississippi! Congratulations, Cory!



The Door Prize for September is a brand-spankin-new copy of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin! Be sure to read Heather's interview with Ms. Zevin in this month's issue!


To enter, please e-mail your name and address to us at estellabooks (at) gmail (dot) com by the first of October.


About Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac:


If Naomi had picked tails, she would have won the coin toss. She wouldn’t have had to go back for the yearbook camera, and she wouldn’t have hit her head on the steps. She wouldn’t have woken up in an ambulance with amnesia. She certainly would have remembered her boyfriend, Ace. She might even have remembered why she fell in love with him in the first place. She would understand why her best friend, Will, keeps calling her “Chief.” She’d know about her mom’s new family. She’d know about her dad’s fiancĂ©e. She never would have met James, the boy with the questionable past and the even fuzzier future, who tells her he once wanted to kiss her. She wouldn’t have wanted to kiss him back. But Naomi picked heads.


After her remarkable debut, Gabrielle Zevin has crafted an imaginative second novel all about love and second chances.

Interview: Markus Zusak

Interviewed by Heather F.


Australian author Markus Zusak grew up hearing stories about Nazi Germany, about the bombing of Munich and about Jews being marched through his mother’s small, German town. He always knew it was a story he wanted to tell.


At the age of 30, Zusak has already asserted himself as one of today’s most innovative and poetic novelists. With the publication of The Book Thief, he is now being dubbed a ‘literary phenomenon’ by Australian and U.S. critics. Zusak is the award-winning author of four previous books for young adults: The Underdog, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Getting the Girl, and I Am the Messenger, recipient of a 2006 Printz Honor for excellence in young adult literature. He lives in Sydney.



HF: For those poor, unfortunate people who may not have heard of it, could you briefly describe The Book Thief?

MZ: I always feel sorry for people when they tell me they tried to get their friends to read it...I picture them being asked, 'What's the book about?' and they have to say, 'Well, it's set in Nazi Germany, it's narrated by Death, nearly everyone dies...oh, and it's 500 pages long - you'll love it.' That being said, it's really about a German girl who steals books and reads them with the young Jewish man hiding in her basement.


HF: Death is such an unusual narrator. How did he come to be the narrator of The Book Thief and how do you think his presence affected the novel? How did his character come to have the voice that he did?

MZ: The breakthrough came when I asked, 'What if Death was afraid of humans?' That was the right voice. It was unexpected but it also made perfect sense to me. Our personification of Death should be afraid, because he sees all the destruction humans create. It made sense to have Death tell this story as way of proving to himself that humans can actually be beautiful and selfless.

HF: How much of yourself do you put into your characters? What characteristics do Liesel, Max and Death share with you?

MZ: I guess there's a part of yourself in anything you write, but in this case, I removed myself more than for any other book. It's probably because I did a lot of research for this book, and a lot of the characters came out of that.


HF: Tell me about Max's book, "The Standover Man." What did you hope to convey with Max painting over Hitler's Mein Kampf to write Liesel a story?

MZ: With Mein Kampf bleeding through, I wanted it to be a story of friendship that was
smothering the story of hatred. It was like Liesel and Max were writing their own story of friendship through the ugly world that surrounded them.


HF: I read that The Book Thief was optioned for a movie. When will we get to see Liesel's story on the big screen?


MZ: I'm not too sure yet. Nothing has really progressed so far so I'm still in the position of saying, 'If it happens, great. if not, no worries.'

HF: In both The Book Thief and I Am The Messenger I thought I felt an undercurrent of…spirituality? Do you consider yourself to be religious? What impact does that have on your writing?


MZ: I'm not really spiritual - I think it somehow comes out when I start writing. you can plan your work to the minute details, but you still can't control every word or even some of the feeling that comes out once you get going. Maybe it's hiding in there somewhere and only comes out when I write.

HF: To quote you from another interview *"…I have hundreds of books on my shelf. There are many categories, plus one. At the top of that shelf, are my favourite books – the books that I've loved, and that's the type of book I'm trying to write when I sit down and work."* What books are on that top shelf?

MZ: Some of my favourites are, in no particular order:
- What's Eating Gilbert Grape (Peter Hedges)
- The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
- My Brother Jack (George Johnston)
- The Half Brother (Lars Saabye Chrstensen)
- Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut)

HF: Where do you get your inspiration for your stories? Is storytelling a natural thing for you or is it something you have to work at?

MZ: Nothing comes naturally to me...I have to work and rework and that's where
the ideas come from - from sixteen years of working on it and thinking about it.

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

MZ: I guess if editing doesn't hurt, you're probably not doing it properly. I find it all quite difficult. The hardest part is believing that it's actually working and getting rid of the doubt that always creeps in.

HF: Who is your favorite writer that most people probably haven't heard of?

MZ: George Johnston. My Brother Jack is an Australian classic and it's one of the most honest books I've ever read.

HF: So far I have read two of your books; The Book Thief and I Am The Messenger and in both I was amazed by your gift with words. You can turn a pretty phrase! Do you think creative writing is something that can be taught or is it something you are born with?

MZ: I certainly wasn't born with it. Maybe there's a certain amount of learning and then it's up to the person. I think in the end it's your favourite books that are the best teachers. That's the way I've learned the most, by far.


HF: What can your fans look forward to next?

MZ: It's funny to see the word 'fans'. I'd still never look at myself as having fans...My next book is about a bridge builder and that's about as much as I can say at the moment. I'm still in the starting phase and we'll see where it goes from there.


Visit Markus Zusak's website here: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/markuszusak/

Heather wishes to thank Mr. Zusak for taking the time to answer questions for Estella's Revenge.

Interview: Gabrielle Zevin

Interviewed by Heather F.

Gabrielle Zevin was born in New York in 1977. She is an only child which is good practice for writing - both require an aptitude for being alone. Since graduating from Harvard University in 2000, she has worked as a screenwriter. Several of her screenplays have been optioned and one, Conversations with Other Women, was recently produced. For her work on the film, Gabrielle was nominated for a 2007 Independent Spirit Award. She has written three novels: Margarettown, Elsewhere, and Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, which will be published later this year.

HF: Congratulations on your newest book, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac! Please tell us about it.

GZ: Thanks so much. Conveniently enough, the premise is in the title: a sixteen year old girl falls down a flight of stairs and loses four years of memories. Thematically, MEMOIRS OF A TEENAGE AMNESIAC is about how a person in the process of defining herself would define herself in the absence of memory, and it’s about what the people we choose to love reveal about ourselves, and finally, it’s about which parts of a person are truly, truly constant. As a writer, the challenge for me was telling a story with a narrator who was never completely sure of the story she was telling.

HF: You have such a unique view of things. In Margarettown, a woman has, quite literally, multiple personas. Elsewhere features a 15-year-old girl who dies, goes to "Heaven," ages backwards, and is then reborn. And in your new book, your main character falls and bumps her head and forgets the last 4 years of her life, although no one can figure out why. How do you get such imaginative ideas?

GZ: I think my books tend to come from a question I’m asking myself at the time. When I was writing ELSEWHERE, I was living in NYC, September 11th had happened, and my dog got Cancer. The question I was asking was, how do you embrace life when it is filled with so much loss? With MARGARETTOWN, my best friend was getting married and I had just crossed ten years with the man in my life, so the question on my mind was: what does it take to really and truly love another person over many years? More than anything, MEMOIRS probably came from my grandmother having Alzheimer’s disease, and the question I found myself asking was: is a person more than just his/her memories and experiences? Writing books is a sort of cheap therapy for me.

HF: All your books have such interesting messages. Do you always try to send a message with your work or are you really just trying to tell a story?

GZ: On the one hand, I think there is very little point to writing novels if there is no message. On the other, I’m suspicious of authors who talk too much about message because I really believe that novels ought to be entertaining, shocking and old-fashioned as that may seem. The other problem with worrying too much over message is that the message the reader receives can be completely different from the one the author intends. A syndicated review of MARGARETTOWN which ran in one-hundred or so newspapers in the UK said something like “Gabrielle Zevin thinks that all women are crazy people who will ultimately be abandoned.” And, well, no, I don’t think that at all. As a writer, I try to serve the characters first – I think if I’m doing that well, the message and the story will take care of themselves.

HF: All your female protagonists, the various Margarets, Liz, and Naomi, have such unique and truthful voices. Do you find it easy to write with the voice of a teenager and make it so honest?

GZ: Thank you. I wouldn’t say I find it difficult now, but when I was younger, I found it very difficult to be honest with myself. It wasn’t until I was able to start seeing myself in a real way that I was able to start writing people that were at all real or for that matter, at all interesting.

HF: Which character, from all your books, are you the most like and how?

GZ: I don’t really find myself to be like any of them particularly, though there are bits of me in all of them. In MARGARETTOWN, Jane’s college years were largely based on my own – the sleeping in, the failed literary efforts, all of it. Lucy the pug from ELSEWHERE is most like me in terms of my views on the afterlife -- she’s a skeptic and doesn’t care if there’s a heaven or a hell so long as it has naps and food and the people she loves. In my most recent book, I am probably most like Graham the writer – I, too, have been known to stay up all night watching bad TV when I’m meant to be writing.

HF: What are a few of the challenges in starting a novel? What is your writing process like? Do you start with an outline or do you just start typing and see where it leads you?

GZ: The biggest challenge for me is committing to an idea. I have a million ideas and frankly, I’m a huge idea slut – by which I mean, as soon as I’ve begun developing one idea, the next one starts looking awfully sexy to me. Another challenge is clearing my head of all the crap – the endless speculation of what everyone (my agents, my editor, the marketing department, reviewers, random people on the internet) will say.

My writing process is very slow at the beginning and then increasingly speedy, thank God. I probably write as much in the last week of writing a book as I’ve written in the first two months.
On occasion, I have been known to start typing… but I always ultimately end up outlining. And frankly, very little of my pre-outline typing ends up in the books. That initial typing, if there is any, is more about unfocused experimentation: developing the characters, the setting, what the style of the prose will be like, etc. But back to outlines – mine are incredibly detailed and have bits of prose in them and doodles and are usually much more ambitious than the book that results.

HF: You started out as a screenwriter. How difficult was it to make that transition between such different forms of writing? Does the writing come easy for you? Does it flow smoothly or do you struggle with it?

GZ: Not as difficult as you might think. As a writer, I’m interested in experimenting with forms. Some things are screenplays and other things are books, and they usually reveal which they’re going to be quite early on. I like writing screenplays because they are so formally defined – 90-110 pages, three acts, lots of external action. I like writing books because you have the opportunity to delve into the inner life of a character in a way that you can’t when you’re writing a screenplay. I actually welcome working in different mediums because that can be a way of opening myself up creatively.

HF: Since you have also written screenplays, what are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?


GZ: The list is always changing. This summer alone I saw three films which really moved me: ONCE, WAITRESS, and LA VIE EN ROSE. I’m also obsessed with the TV show FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS right now.

I love all sorts of movies, but I suppose the ones I love the best have an element of quirky romance to them: TRULY MADLY DEEPLY, TRUST, HAROLD AND MAUDE, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, SECRETARY, GROUNDHOG DAY, THE JERK, WALKING AND TALKING, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE GOOD GIRL, BEING THERE, RUSHMORE, etc. I was just re-watching Mike Nichols’ HEARTBURN on DVD, and I found it to be really beautiful and true. When I was a kid, boy did I love ICE CASTLES. The one with the blind figure skater? Sigh…

And, of course, I must mention the film my partner directed entitled CONVERSATIONS WITH OTHER WOMEN with Helena Bonham Carter and Aaron Eckhart. I wrote it, but the thing I love most in it has nothing to do with my writing – it has the most romantic and sweet sex scene you’ll ever see.

Actually, I probably watch more documentaries than anything else. I like seeing peoples’ “real” lives. In terms of my writing, watching documentaries is a way to remind myself just how complex and strange and wonderful people truly are. And they introduce me to people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. With that in mind, my favorite doc is probably Ross McElwee’s SHERMAN’S MARCH or maybe, GREY GARDENS. I recently liked WHO THE F*CK IS JACKSON POLLOCK?

HF: Growing up, were you encouraged to read, write and express yourself creatively? Who were the major influences in your childhood? What did you read as a child?

GZ: Yes, I was very much encouraged to be creative though I don’t necessarily think my parents would have minded if I’d announced my intention to be, say, a doctor, and a writer on the side. This notwithstanding, both my parents were very creative – they were always painting and reading and crafting, and our house was really just filled with books and music. We went to the library religiously. And we saw pretty much every foreign film that came to town. So, I’m sure all this influenced me. Other influences? The fact that I am an only child – you get very creative when you only have yourself as playmate. And the fact that I am of an ethnically mixed background. I was the only 1/2 Asian, 1/2 Russian Jew in Boca Raton, FL (and in Chappaqua, NY and in Cambridge, MA) – like many writers, I became familiar early on with that outsider perspective.

As a child, I read everything – no distinction was made between “children’s” and “adult” OR “classic” and “commercial” OR “literary” and “genre”. I think one of the best things my parents ever did for me was not censoring anything. I read HOLLYWOOD WIVES one week; MY ANTONIA, the next. As a girl, my favorite book was probably ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. And, as a teen, I loved INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison. I think loving a book has a lot to do with the moment of exposure. If I had read either at a slightly different time, my experience of them might have been very different. And it says something about the power of books that my background is not in the least like Anne Shirley’s or the narrator’s (from INVISIBLE MAN)… but I felt like both authors were speaking directly to me.

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

GZ: I don’t know about influenced, but the books I go back to most often are probably LOLITA, THE GREAT GATSBY, and THE CATCHER IN THE RYE. Pedestrian choices, I suspect, but I learn something every time I read them. And in fact, the reason I go back to them is to learn something. I also tend to gravitate toward certain books when I’m working. For example, when I was writing MARGARETTOWN, I was sort of obsessed with LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING. With ELSEWHERE, I was drawn to CHARLOTTE’S WEB. With my new book, I went through a mad YA (Young Adult) and memoir reading streak.

A writer I admire who has fallen out of fashion a bit is Booth Tarkington – ALICE ADAMS is one of the most feminist books I’ve ever read, and I love THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, too. What I admire about any writer is an inimitable voice, wit, and the ability to manage plot in a way that is both surprising and inevitable. The older I get, the more I value humor, too.

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

GZ: I do read a lot, but not as much as I’d like to actually. When I’m working, I tend to only want to read what I’ve read before. Of books I’ve read recently, I was completely blown away by THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris. I was equally blown away by TRISTAM SHANDY and amazed that I could have gone so long without reading it. Oh, and I also just read a thoroughly adorable book about drama camp called DRAMARAMA by E. Lockhart.

HF: What are you working on now? Do you have plans for another novel, or screenplay, or something entirely different?

GZ: I’m finishing another novel. It’s about a twenty-four year old female soldier, and it’s an entirely new direction for me.

You can view Gabrielle's website here: http://memoirsofa.com

Heather wishes to thank Gabrielle Zevin for her time and thoughtful answers.

Book Tour: Salt Lake City

By Melissa

When one thinks of Salt Lake City, two things usually come to mind: skiing and Mormons. But while Salt Lake City can boast of world-class ski resorts (the 2002 Winter Olympics were there after all; a fact that they are still proud of), and while it is the headquarters of the Mormon Church, Salt Lake City is also more than that. It is home to a world-class arts scene -- including ballet, symphony, museums, and the Sundance Film Festival, the Utah Jazz (if you're into basketball), beautiful canyons for hiking and camping, and a plethora of fine dining experiences. So it's not surprising that in Salt Lake City I found two of the best independent bookstores that I've ever been in.

I first came across Sam Weller's Zion Bookstore (informally known just as "Sam Weller's") during college. If you were a serious bibliophile in Utah, then you had to know of Sam Weller's; it was the best place to get books. Since I was 45 minutes (by car) away in Provo, though, I didn't get to the store much, but I did longingly wander through the stacks on the rare occasions I was up in Salt Lake. Conveniently located on Main Street in downtown Salt Lake, it looks relatively unimposing upon first glance (in fact, my husband drove right by it a couple of times before we found, completely by chance, the alleyway that leads to the back entrance). Another busy urban store, perhaps, nothing special. But walk inside, and you are confronted with towers of books. Sam Weller's not only carries recent releases, but specializes in used and rare books, particularly Mormon and Utah history books. Still, Sam Weller's--a family-owned business since 1925--prides itself in being able to find just about anything for just about anyone. (For a more extended, and quite fascinating, store history, see here.) I dropped in for a look on a Friday afternoon while on vacation recently. I couldn't stay long -- sleeping kids in the car -- but I did stay long enough to wish that I had more time. I was greeted by a friendly staff member (which is saying a lot, since I came in the back door), and I spent the precious minutes I had looking through the stacks. I didn't get through a hundredth of it, and if I had the time, I could have spent all afternoon there.

The only downside of Sam Weller's, in my opinion, is that there wasn't enough comfy places to sit and browse. It seemed like a place where you'd go, get what you need, and leave. It wasn't quite inviting enough for me. Still, it's a staple in downtown Salt Lake, and worth the visit.

While The King's English, the other independent bookstore in the Salt Lake City area, isn't located downtown, it's well worth the drive. Located in the Sugarhouse area (a neighborhood on the hills of eastern Salt Lake) since 1977, it's a bit off the beaten path for the average tourist. Situated in a lovely little strip-mall -ish area, for lack of a better word (it looked like a bit of bohemia in an older suburb, surrounded by coffee shops and art stores), and in an old house rather than a box store, it oozes charm. My girls were thrilled when we drove up ("We get to go inside, Mom?!"), and made a beeline to the fabulous children's section. I didn't see them again until we were dragging them out so we could make it to our next event on time. Which was fine, since I was lost in the seemingly endless (well, eight) rooms stacked with books. I liked how they organized the books: there was a mystery room, a nature/history room, a fiction room, a Western author's room... it made browsing more interesting. And there were many inviting comfy chairs (children-sized ones in the children's room), for sitting and reading. The staff were extraordinarily nice people, more than happy to help us find what we need as well as gift wrap our purchases. My only regrets were that I hadn't discovered it before this visit, and that I was only visiting and wasn't able to be a frequent customer there.

The other thing that impressed me while in Salt Lake was the local first movement. Everywhere I looked, especially wandering through downtown, there were "Buy Local First Utah" stickers, encouraging consumers to buy the local product and to patronize the local store first. I think that's a terrific idea, and well worth imitating in other areas.

Snazzy Stuff: Ex Libris Anonymous





Check out journals made from vintage books and any other type you can imagine at http://www.bookjournals.com/


The Seven Deadly Reading Sins

By Stuart Sharp


So many confessions, so little time. Let’s face it; most of us, once we start on the confession theme, will have a hard time stopping. To prevent this, or at least to organise things a little, I’ve arranged my own confessions around the seven deadly sins, which seem to show up in reading as much as anywhere. Feel free to see how many of them you can check off for your own reading habits, and try not to worry if it’s all of them, because I suspect a lot of other people will be in the same boat.

Sloth

When it comes to laziness, I don’t have to look any further than my choice of reading material for this confession. The truth is that I would much rather read genre fiction, particularly fantasy and horror, than 'proper' literature. I’ve tried, really tried, to read the greats, to get through those important works of literature that are supposed to be good for you. But a lot of the time things follow a familiar pattern. I’ll start the book, reading a few pages here, a few pages there. Then, somewhere towards the middle, I’ll start reading some cheap horror novel and forget about it completely. I had a quick look round when I started writing this one, and realised that I’ve got bookmarks sticking out of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Spencer’s Faery Queen and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte de Arthur, only one of which I can remember starting. I tell myself there are good reasons for this; that after spending my days working through medieval texts the last thing I want to do is read anything serious, but even so, I know the truth. I just can’t be bothered to finish them.

Pride

I’m a book snob. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the confession under sloth. What is a feeling of guilt at not reading enough ‘proper’ literature except snobbishness? There’s clearly some tiny part of my brain that thinks I shouldn’t be reading any book that hasn’t come out as a Penguin classic and been dissected by a dozen academics. And that part of my brain is wrong. Reading, after all, is mostly about enjoyment. Feeling faintly guilty because I’ve just done the literary equivalent of turning down cordon bleu cooking in favour of fast food misses that point entirely. If you think this is silly, and that you’ve never suffered from this kind of snobbishness, ask yourself this; when you were reading the last Harry Potter, did you think of it as a guilty pleasure because it was supposed to be a kid’s book? If you didn’t read it, was that because it was ‘just for children’? If either answer is yes, then you’re probably a book snob too. Welcome to the club.

Gluttony

If I told you that I’d eaten a particularly large trifle all by myself in one sitting, you’d probably think that I was A: a glutton, and B: quite odd for mentioning it in a 'zine devoted to books. On the other hand, if I mention that I read the 607 pages of the last Harry Potter in just over a day, I’m pretty sure quite a lot of you will understand. There are, as far as I can tell, essentially two types of reader. There are those who linger on each page, as though trying to wring every last drop of enjoyment from the words, and there are those like me, who devour books quickly, finish them and immediately start looking for something else to read. There’s nothing particularly wrong with either approach, but there are a couple of signs to watch out for if you want to avoid slipping over into gluttony. Firstly, if you’ve just engaged on a marathon reading session, finished the book you’re enjoying, and then can’t remember any of it, that’s probably a bad sign. Secondly, if you’re appetite for reading means that every available surface in your house is overflowing with paperbacks, you need to cut back. Or get a library card.

Avarice

Not greed for wealth in this context, of course, but for books instead. Why read one at a time when you can read six? This is a particular reading ‘sin’ that I tend to fall into almost by accident. In order to be able to find whatever book I’m reading when I come back to it, I tend to put it down in one of a few regular places. Not bookcases, obviously, because that would be far too organised. Unfortunately, the end result is that I sometimes end up with a partially read book per place, which works out at three or four books. Or I’ll start reading something and then suddenly come across something I’ve wanted to read for ages. Much as with Sloth, above, I then tend to forget about the original. If that happens a few times in a row, I end up with a backlog of half read books, which I then read all at once. I’m waiting for the day when my memory starts pushing the books together, so that I start remembering plots that are half Jane Austen, half Trudi Canavan.

Lust

One of the minor quirks of genre fiction is that it tends to result in some long, long series. These days, in fantasy writing, a simple trilogy isn’t enough. If you’ve got the characters and the setting, why not stay with it for ten books, or twenty. Including the ones aimed at younger readers, Terry Pratchett has managed, by my count, 35 novels set in and around Discworld to date. The difficulty with series like this is that you, or at least I, end up reading through the series, then waiting patiently for the next one. At least, I wait patiently for the next instalment for about a month after I’ve finished the last one. Then I wait slightly more impatiently, even though I know it takes much longer to write and publish a book. After a while, I start looking out for clues that a new book is imminent. I might end up wandering round the author’s website, or go down to my local bookshop to see if it’s shown up yet. Invariably it hasn’t, which makes me wonder whether I should pre-order the thing online. I don’t though, partly because I prefer buying my books from real people, and partly because I know that this anticipation is part of the enjoyment when the next book finally is published.

Anger

A fairly short list of some literary things that make me, if not angry, then at least annoyed:

Ghostwritten autobiographies, wilfully strange short stories that made sense when I started reading but not towards the end, clumsy attempts to write dialogue in accents the author clearly hasn’t heard enough of, ‘surprise’ endings that you guessed half way through, works of history or literature from a library where someone has underlined about half of it in ink to show the ‘important’ bits, celebrities publishing the sort of novels that most people would get laughed at for submitting…

And breathe.

As you can probably see, I’m quite easily annoyed where books are concerned, but then, I suspect quite a lot of people are. It’s a rare reader who hasn’t found at least one author whose work they absolutely despise. The trick is never to mention it, because you can bet almost anything that the spouse/sibling/complete stranger you do tell will be their biggest fan.

Envy

Let’s leave aside the obvious temptation to envy the success of major authors for a moment. After all, they probably deserve it. Except for whichever one you decided to dislike under Anger, obviously. Instead, I’d like to confess to a smaller type of envy; the envy that comes when someone you live with has a book you want to read. Only you can’t, because they’re still reading it. Assuming they’re happy to share books with you, you can’t even go out and buy your own copy, because there’s no point in having two identical copies on the communal bookshelf. And it’s inevitable that this is the point at which they reveal themselves not only as someone who savours every page for hours, but also as someone who laughs at all the funny parts and tells you that you’ve got to read that bit, because it’s hilarious. There are two solutions to this. The one that doesn’t involve murder is to make very sure that you buy the book before they do. Failing that, you’ll just have to sit there and fume, or invest in different coloured bookmarks, one or the other.

Confessional Literature

By Jodie


Warning: Contains spoilers for Ian McEwan's Atonement.

The theme of this months issue could not have been better timed. The adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement is about to be released so people are bound to be reading or re-reading a major piece of modern confessional literature. Atonement is a stunning novel, permeated by a misunderstanding that causes a betrayal the more knowledgeable reader is compelled to watch. The youngest member of the Tallis family, Briony the girl responsible for betraying her sister and imprisoning her young lover, tells the story as a form of confession. In using this literary device Atonement joins the genre of confessional fiction, where a first person narrator reveals a revelation, which is usually at odds with the way the reader has been encouraged to think of that character. Confessional fiction is a close, personal style of writing and sometimes this is because it has autobiographical links with the author. However in many cases, such as Atonement, the narrator and story are not comparable to the author or their life, although they may be based on other real people, as is much of fiction.

Confessional fiction stems from autobiography but relates a much more specific account of a person's life, making the event that the narrator is confessing to central by concentrating only on that period. If the whole of the characters life was narrated in detail rather than this single time the reader might feel that the event had less significance in the development of that life. Similarly if confessional fiction concentrated only on the feelings of the narrator, as an autobiography might do, rather than placing emphasis on the consequences of those around them the reader might again feel that the incident was not so important. So confessional fiction utilises the devices of the factual autobiography by having a first person narrator explaining events but it also develops this form to make the account more emotive.

I feel that confessional fiction also owes its generation to the genre of books based on ‘false documents’. These are novels such as Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Dracula, which are written as if they are a true documentation of factual occurrences. Like confessional fiction they are usually written in the first person. While they do not usually build to the same sort of shocking disclosure that is present in confessional literature they do ‘confess’ strange events that others may find hard to believe but which they present as the truth. They try to explain that the world is other than what the public believes it to be. This is also what results from the more straightforward confession in the modern literature, where the differences between reality and the view the author and narrator have constructed are exposed.

So why do authors risk readers hating the main characters they have spent so much effort creating? What is the point of encouraging people to get involved with them only to jeopardise good feeling toward the novel by revealing that the main character has tricked them? Well, quite simply, while on the surface sharing the secret of betrayal with the readers may seem a daring gamble authors who write confessional fiction rarely risk anything. The genre has several well developed strategies to ensure that readers do not turn against the main character completely, thereby becoming disgusted with both novel and author. How well these strategies work define how accomplished an author is. Atonement for example has Briony commit her betrayal in her youngest years, out of childish spite and misunderstanding, then when she relates it to the reader her narrative voice comes from a sick, old woman. Both of the times when the reader is lengthily involved with Briony she is at an especially vulnerable stage of life and so it is hard to entirely condemn her, particularly if the reader considers that she has intentionally portrayed her younger self as ‘a shrill obnoxious character…as an act of atonement ’. This is unusual for this type of literature, although in keeping with the fictional purpose of the novel, as confessional authors often work hard at making the reader sympathetic to their character before having them divulge their secret. Due to this orchestrated dislike Briony often comes away worse with readers than many other characters confessing to a terrible act but it is perhaps this failed secondary attempt to make amends that makes Atonement more complex and therefore more successful.

So what shocking secrets are there to discover? What terrifying revelations are in store? What should you read first? Don’t fret at Estella’s Revenge we never tire of making books lists for every occasion.

Modern Confessionals

Atonement – Ian McEwan : Booker short-listed tale of sexual confusion and accusations in the heat of summer.

As Meat Loves Salt – Maria McCann: A sexual confession set during the English Civil War. Lush language and full of taboos.

Fear – Jeff Abbott: ‘I didn’t mean to kill my best friend, but I did.’ Explosive thriller, which can be read quickly.

Gould’s Book of Fish – Richard Flanagan: Set in a penal colony on Van Diemen’s island this book is a multi-layered confession and observation.

Star of the Sea – Joseph O’Connor: A ship board mystery which conceals an unexpected secret.
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco: Mainly a mystery and literary experimentation this book contains a good old style confession from the narrator, who is a novice monk. Also doubles as a false document.

The God of Animals – Aryn Kyle: Stunning literary first work where a girls whole life builds to one disastrous moment.

False Documents

Dracula – Bram Stoker: Written as entries from a collective of journals from Jonathan Harker, his wife and their friends.

The Historian – Elizabeth Kostova: A faithful recreation of the style used in ‘Dracula’.

House of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski: Confusing, exciting, revolutionary use of the false document.

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe: While I can’t recommend this as a novel for pleasure it is interesting to study alongside Foe by J.M. Coetzee.

Frankenstein – Mary Shelley: Made more horrific by the fact that the letters took so long to travel that the story was over by the time anyone in the novel would read them.

And Because Sometimes Confessions Need Revisions

Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys: Explains the limits of literary confessions.

Foe – J.M. Coetzee: Again I don’t personally recommend it for pleasure but interesting concepts even if you do end up wanting to shout at the author.

Let's Do the Time Warp!

By Chris Buchner


With the slew of trade paperbacks being released reprinting books as far back as the Golden Age, one might notice that those early stories are clearly dated in their references and appearances. Yet, if you pick up a current issue of one of those particular characters, you’ll find that things look remarkably…modern. And yet the characters, they remain unchanged. This is because of a nifty little editorial trick to keep characters around forever known as the floating timeline.

The floating timeline is a type of retcon, or retroactive continuity. It’s a method by which time moves normally for characters, but the events and scenery follow us, the reader, through the natural course of time without any effect on the stories or characters, or even acknowledged within the context of the stories. Writers, as progressive and futuristic as they try to be, are slaves to their own times. They only know what goes on in their world, and that’s what they write about. The floating timeline allows these characters to maintain their age while continuing to exist in the present.

There are many ways to make use of the floating timeline within the context of the stories. For instance, say you have an ordinary character created in the 1960s whose bio includes serving during WWII. 40 years later, this character has barely aged which makes that fact impossible. So, the war will be vaguely referenced to allow the reader to fill in their own blank on what war it could have been, or the war will be updated by the writer to the next one up, say the Gulf War, each time it’s mentioned as years go by. Things like contemporary references to pop culture or politics, or ways of speaking, are subtly updated with the times, or updated and changed when classic scenes are revisited in future installments, like a flashback, or given modern retellings. For instance, when 88MPH Studios re-launched the Ghostbusters franchise, they set the events of the comic 6 months after the first movie. While the movie was set clearly in the 1980s, they chose to bring the movie’s date up to late 2003, having the events of the story in early 2004.

Whenever a headstone is shown on panel, for the most part, only the names and inscriptions are clearly visible. The dates are either obscured by some object or only vaguely drawn in to where it looks like a date, yet it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s just plain left off entirely. Sometimes, though, one of the dates is shown and there are the rare cases when both are clearly present, but either never referenced specifically or seen again and rather spoken vaguely in terms of time that has passed within the comic.

DC has taken a more creative route. While the comics still use a floating timeline, the stuff out of the Golden Age was acknowledged as having happened AS IS, but was said to have been not the main DC Universe but an alternate reality with alternate versions of the heroes, the Golden Age versions. Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman all fought in World War II and so forth, and as a result all appearances by these classic heroes in modern DC books depict them as being appropriately aged.

A floating timeline is a way to keep characters eternally young so publishers can do infinite amounts of stories with them. While not exclusive to comics (James Bond, anyone?), it is used the most there as backgrounds and references are constantly shifting to remain contemporary while the characters remain the same. Although characters do eventually age, the slow rate at which they do means that our favorite characters will be around well into our twilight years and beyond, continuing to exist in a world that could possibly be ours.

Confessions of a Closet Reader

By April D. Boland


What are you embarrassed to be caught reading?

Come on, you know exactly what I'm talking about. All of us readers have at least one writer/book series/genre that we don't want to read in public because of what others will think. Why else would they have invented book covers?

For some, it's Harlequin romances. For others, it's Harry Potter. Personally? I tend to get red in the face when people watch me reading fat acceptance books like The Fat Girl's Guide to Life (which is fabulous, by the way). I also try to hide when I read religious books like the writings of Anne Lamott, Donald Miller and C.S. Lewis. It's not trendy to read Christian apologists, you know.

I will admit that when money was tight, I took to editing erotic fiction to make a little extra cash, and let me tell you, I would not have wanted to be caught out in public with one of those steamy covers in a million years.

But why should I be ashamed? you ask. No one else is looking at my book.


Like hell they aren't.


If you're a reader, you know you have caught yourself snooping at another reader's cover, even though you don't know the person. See someone on the train or in a coffee shop at the next table with a book, and for some reason, we're dying to know what it is. Bookish people are funny that way. We're incredibly nosy.

I have a friend who was reading The Red Tent on the subway and was approached by a woman asking her where she was up to, and telling her that she would absolutely love it. Apparently this is commonplace among readers, though it hasn't happened to me. Literature gives us the kind of boldness to reach out and touch someone that AT&T couldn't even deliver.

Is it possible that intellectual curiosity in one of its most common forms - namely, literary nosiness - can bring people together?

Take that trashy novel out into the street today and find out.

Confessions of a Hopeless Book Addict (Photo Essay)

By Nancy L. Horner

I’m not really a big spender - my cars are all budget variety and my house isn’t super-sized. Designer name tags don’t appeal to me. But, I do have a vice, a horrible addiction, an obsession, a weakness . . . perhaps even a compulsion: books. I am hopelessly addicted to acquiring books. I love the feel, the look, and the smell of books. It warms my heart to be surrounded by them. Shelves of books make my heart go pitty-pat, stacks of them make me feel at home. There is nothing that makes a home look warmer and friendlier inside, in fact, than shelves or piles of books, in my humble opinion. Boy, is it warm in this house.

I confess. I am a bookaholic.

Here’s the real problem. I can confess till the cows come home, but ask me if I want to be reformed. Well? Do I? Uh, no, I’m fine with it. I’m fine with the haphazard piles of books on the floor, the crammed (sometimes double-layered) shelves that line almost every wall, the lack of floor space - okay, I’d like more floor space, but not if it means parting with the books I haven’t read (or the ones I’m certain I’ll reread). I’m even willing to live with the sore toes caused by the occasional book avalanche.

Yes, it’s true. We have book avalanches in this house. Admittedly, I’m a klutz. I often have a sore toe because - get this - I have an old college toe injury that sometimes acts up. But, half the problem with my frequent toe pain is book stubbings. Ouch. Books have sharp corners and they’re heavy when they fall. If you’re totally obsessed with books, to the point that they’re piled willy-nilly in every room . . . let’s face it; you’re going to have a few run-ins, if your balance isn’t remarkably fine-tuned.

Just this once, I’m going to provide photographic evidence of my addiction. If you’re related to me, kindly avert your eyes and remember that I have managed to rear two very well-read boys without either of them having any serious book accidents.

An unexpected (and insistent) visitor amongst the stacks.

A "clear" view of the books in the office floor.



The back of the futon . . . just in case I ever get locked out of every other room in the house. It wouldn't do not to have some reading material handy.

This is so scary.



My closet shelf - books and a yoga mat guarded by burglars. Yeesh.



I even hide my books. Note that there are two copies of The Queen's Fool (I'm pretty sure I meant to send one to my mother . . . oops) and a very ironic title - No More Clutter. Oh, so that's how you de-clutter. Hide some of the books within a cabinet or two.

This is so embarrassing . . . I've even "borrowed" some of the shelf space in my son's room.

Confessing the Literary Crush

By Andi

Avid readers know that the literary crush is a widely known and experienced phenomenon. The literary crush in itself is an interesting--and non-readers might say pathetic--occurrence. However, for me, it's been a lifelong and repeating pattern. For most of the bookish women I know, the most prevalent crush is on Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice fame. For there's something so perfectly, distractingly, fascinatingly wonderful about Mr. Darcy that the bookworm girls of the world have a hard time leaving him to his respective pages. For he is a man so wonderfully written that he jumps right off the page and into our collective hearts and panties. He's suave, he's smart, he's just a bit of a jackass, and he loves Lizzie. Awww. It makes us swoon. Swoon I tell you.

My history of literary crushes began in my pre-teen years when I happened upon L.J. Smith's paranormal romance series, The Vampire Diaries. At the center of this delectable love triangle was a girl named Elena. When she begins her senior year of high school she notices a handsome, dangerous stranger in the midst of her orderly world. His name was Stefan, he was Italian, and he drove a fast car. But, as all good love stories progress, something had to go awry. Damon, Stefan's equally dark and brooding brother set his sights on Elena, and thus the turmoil began. Two hot vampires, one hot girl and a whole heap of trouble.

I suppose Stefan Salvatore appealed to my prepubescent heart for his self-loathing ways. He denies himself the pleasures of his vampire nature and as a result fed only on animals, that is, until Elena gave him a taste of what she had to offer. But that's another post entirely.

Stefan was dark and sexy and cursed. He was loving and protective and conscious of Elena's every need. And I suppose it didn't hurt that I had a particularly tight-bodied celebrity in mind every time I imagined him. Either way, Stefan holds a special place in my heart since he was the first written character with whom I became obsessed.

My new literary crush brings me almost full-circle to my adolescence. For it was in reading Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series that those hormonal reading days came screaming back to me. He's played the biggest role thus far in Eclipse. His name, Jacob Black, his ancestry, werewolf.

As he's described in the book, Jacob is a member of the Quileute tribe--6'7" tall with russett skin and shaggy black hair. That's one tall drink of water, kids. And beyond the yummy physical description, we get the angst. As a Quileute and a werewolf, he's forever the mortal enemy of any vampire, even the (relatively) innocent Cullen family. Which means he's the sworn enemy of Edward Cullen, Bella Swann's, our protagonist's, true love. And did I mention that Jacob is Bella's best friend? Yep, that, too.

Twisted? Oh yes. High school? Yep.

Does it matter? Hell no!

There's something so wonderfully tragic and sweet about Jacob that I just can't help but want to manhandle hug him. He's the best underdog (pardon the pun) that I've read in a very long time, and I can't help but wish he'd jump off the page and play space heater for me on a cold cold night.

Did I just type that out loud?

Anyway, if you've had any inclination to read Meyer's Twilight series, get your butt off the couch and run down to the nearest bookstore (or Wal-Mart) to pick it up. While Meyer's writing leaves a little something to be desired at times (some overused expressions, a boatload of teen angst, etc.) it doesn't matter. The story is involving and wonderful and if you're a hopeless romantic like myself, you will totally dig it. You'll be giggling like a 16-year-old girl before it's all said and done.


While there have been other literary crushes (I mentioned Mr. Darcy earlier and Mr. Knightly ranks high on the list), these two exotic, paranormal, mythological creatures stand out, heads and paws, above the rest. I suppose maybe it's the escapist nature of the reading, or perhaps my nostalgia for my younger days that provides such satisfaction in reading about the adolescent longings of love. And, as an adult, the shaky ground on which we build relationships and our lives in general, seems a little bit more stable when I'm engulfed in the tragedies, longings and failings of my most beloved fictional characters.

Sure, I Know the Queen, September 2007

By Jodie

I am in terrible trouble. My days are filled with power ballads, sugar soaked teen movies and DVD collections of series that actively encourage self pity. Yes, another liaison has ended in wine and regretful melodrama, as prescribed by the bulk of American series ended with a musical montage of misery. I can now ‘relate’ to everything. I have not yet physically said that particularly disgusting phrase I see my situation in every neurotic small screen heroine. The other day I was able to empathise with four of the cast from Grey’s Anatomy in one episode and they are some competitive whiners. All around me people soliloquise about how people with love in their lives are better off or how someone’s baby has broken their heart. The deceitfulness, the blue depths and the blissful oblivion of love are chronicled in minute detail until I feel like asking the musicians if they’d prefer me to hang myself or slit my wrists.

If ever someone needed some sensible counsel it’s a woman who’s been tricked into romantic emotion. Some practical steps on how to regain your previously respectable, stable status are so much more useful than all the wallowing melodies and frowning actors, purporting to be as mired as you. Where else would you expect to find such reasoned advice but in a book, more specifically one of the great works of English literature, Jane Eyre. Jane is the woman I attempt to model my life on. That doesn’t always go well but I remind myself that Jane had to struggle in order to grow into the remarkable woman who pronounces the proto-feminist statement of choice, ‘Reader, I married him.’.

This is an extraordinary phrase in itself and Jane has much more to say about independence and respect. She advises women that they ‘…must advertise’ or actively help their lives to change; a financial reliance on the one you love makes you unequal ‘…the more he bought me, the more my cheek burned with a sense of annoyance and degradation’; my personal favourite, a mantra all women should abide by ‘Be too self-respecting to lavish the love of a whole heart, soul and strength where such a gift would be despised.’. Films and television want you to believe that an attitude like this shows fear of rejection or willing defeat but books like ‘Jane Eyre’ remind singletons that when someone’s ‘just not that into you’ you have a choice to walk away with your dignity.

Jane Eyre is a novel primarily about the development of character. The change from a feisty young girl who bites to a woman who calmly hides her feelings for her employer strokes some readers as pious and cold. However to make such negative judgements is to ignore the main focus of the novel which is the growth of Jane as a person. By the end of the novel she is not the same frustrated girl she was at the beginning. She is a strong woman who has made her own way by mastering her destructive side, becoming employed and later by happily coming into unexpected wealth. To will her back to the physical rebelliousness that, while making her a charming character, undid her when she was young is to wish her into an impotent, powerless state. Jane must gain the humility necessary to bear being a governess, a position of extremely low status, so that she can earn her own money and independence. What gives her character its core strength is the knowledge she retains from her early years of the difference between right and wrong. Although she becomes less demonstrative when dealing with wrongs as she matures Jane carries this strength within throughout her life, reminding herself not to compromise over what is right for her.

Some readers also feel that by the end of the novel Jane has become a woman subjugated by a love that makes no sense due to Mr. Rochester’s blindness, ruined state and the cold fact that he locked his first wife in his attic. This argument misses a key point of the novel, Jane’s search for freedom from dependence and so from the influence of others on her life. Dependants like Jane could not just take the advantages and ignore their benefactors advice. They were expected to be beholden to them in every aspect of their life and to show nothing but gratitude for this shackling. This fact is represented by the behaviour of Mrs. Reed and her children whenever Jane questions their horrible treatment of her; they are shocked and say she is wicked even when John Reed strikes her.

It can also be seen to a lesser extent in the behaviour of Mr. Rochester and Jane after she accepts the first marriage proposal. She is not sure about marrying him, especially so fast as she shows in numerous ways, most poignantly by saying ‘There was no putting off the day…’; that is her wedding day. However she loves Rochester and she feels grateful for all he has done so she allows herself to be cajoled down the aisle for fear of seeming ungrateful or loveless. He appears to feel that buying her things is the answer to any doubts she has- thereby consolidating his position as benefactor and apparently absolving himself of the responsibility to explain Thornfields night time terrors to his fiancĂ©.

The decision Jane takes at the end of the novel, as shown by the affirmative ‘Reader, I married him.’, is her individual choice influenced by no one. It is certainly not dependent on whether the reader approves, although perhaps people would have disapproved of Rochester’s behaviour less at the time of publication than they do now. She has no reason to feel grateful to Rochester as he has lied to her and had planned to commit bigamy. She will never be financially dependent on anyone again. She will not be swayed by others opinions as she is ‘…independent as well as rich.’ She doesn’t ‘…care about being married…’ so is not persuaded into marriage by matters of taste or religious sensibility. She does not marry quickly or rashly for love but has thought out her feelings on love during the unpleasant time spent resisting the will of her cousin, St John Rivers. Jane makes her choice based on the rational knowledge that she loves Rochester. She is able to overcome, rather than overlook, more practical considerations such as the burnt Thornfield Hall and Rochester’s ruined physique because she is a capable, independent woman with five thousand pounds. This combination of character traits and practicalities allows her to deal with anything as her ‘…own mistress.’.

Jane is a fine role model for modern women. When so many are persuaded into marriage because of money, public opinion or just because that’s where a long term relationship must be heading to avoid pointlessness Jane Eyre demonstrates that love and marriage should be a choice rather than a convenience or default position. Her lessons of avoiding financial reliance are an antidote to WAG culture. Jane’s character growth shows the possibilities for a woman who depends on herself first and the importance self-reliance in developing a well-rounded character. When all women have to trust in is themselves it’s important that they are made up of everything they might need.

Bookgasm: The Confessional Poets Edition

By Amanda Addison

The Dream Songs by John Berryman: Although Berryman was a confessional poet -- a major subject of The Dream Songs is the suicide of Berryman’s father when the poet was 12-years-old -- he leaned towards writing obscure and intensely lyrical poetry (think Pound’s Cantos for example). Berryman also stuck to formalism in poetry at a time when free forms where taking the poetry world by force. If you enjoy Berryman, check out Nick Flynn, a poet often referred to as “post-confessional.”

Life Studies by Robert Lowell: Winner of the 1960 National Book Award for poetry, Life Studies is considered one of the most important volumes of confessional work. Divided into four sections, Life Studies combines poetry, prose poetry, and autobiography. A snapshot of Lowell the man, Lowell the poet, and the American culture this poetry masterpiece is not to be missed.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath: Anyone who talks to me for more than a minute knows that I have a serious literary hard-on for Plath’s confessional masterpiece, Ariel. Forget all you heard about this being the product of a broken heart and madness – Ariel is the penultimate example of literary brilliance. A meticulous writer and rewriter, Plath has been credited with writing these poems in quick succession. However she left copious drafts to testify to the fact that she worked her ass off on these poems. Shun the vintage Ariel that Ted Hughes produced – he reordered her poetry giving a much more suicidal slant. Ariel: The Restored Edition is out in paperback and contains Plath’s original ordering plus a facsimile of the manuscript.

The Awful Rowing Towards God by Anne Sexton: A friend and colleague of Plath, Sexton began writing poetry at the urging of a therapist and never looked back. Her poetry is confessional in that she wrote of personal experiences with candor. However, her poetry also reaches a universal feeling in the way she communicates on issues pertinent to women such as menstruation, abortion, sex, and motherhood. Her final collection, The Awful Rowing Towards God was published after Sexton’s death by suicide in 1974.

Heart’s Needle by William DeWitt Snodgrass: A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Snodgrass is still publishing poetry to this day (hooray – a confessional poet who didn’t suicide!). Although he does not consider himself to be a confessional poet per se, Snodgrass’s 1959 poetry collection Heart’s Needle inspired many confessional poets, especially Anne Sexton, by the intensely personal subject of the collection. Snodgrass wrote Heart’s Needle after losing his 3-year-old daughter in a divorce. The collection went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1960.

The After Death Room

The After-Death Room: Journey Into Spiritual Activism
Written by Michael McColly
Soft Skull Press
Reviewed by April D. Boland

In Michael McColly's work The After Death Room: Journey into Spiritual Activism, the reader travels alongside the author through parts of his own life in America and abroad, in Senegal, as a member of the Peace Corps. We also follow him into the heart of eastern countries like India, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam, and then into American cities Indianapolis and Chicago, as he encounters yoga gurus, male sex workers, AIDS activists, religious clerics and more. While the AIDS epidemic has already been examined in many ways - economically, socially, politically - McColly's aim is to look at it from a spiritual perspective. We are plunged into not only the darkest realities of the widespread HIV virus - although they are certainly present, and are deeply felt by the reader - but into the strength and endurance that is necessary to survive in such times and circumstances.

It can be said that the human spirit is the main character in this work; we encounter it time and again as the author allows the reader to get to know both himself and others. Because the After Death Room is a piece of travel writing, the only constant character is McColly himself. While everyone else comes and goes, adding themselves to the mix before they disappear, they all share something significant. Each shows us a different aspect of this human spirit that connects all of us, be it resilience, hope, fear, sorrow, or love.

The After Death Room digs deep in order to deal with a number of issues: sexuality, the AIDS epidemic, international cultures, yoga, and the physical and spiritual elements of the individual. McColly manages to bring all of these themes together by inserting himself into the cultures, asking questions about AIDS, and learning what he can. He does each theme justice through his honesty and willingness to examine what we sometimes fear to see. This may be due, in part, to the fact that Michael McColly is HIV positive. He is not an outsider looking in; conversely, he is an insider looking out around him to see what is going on in this global community and to report back to the rest of us.

The reader is able to learn from each visceral experience because McColly's writing style is so real. He sees beyond the surface of people and situations in a way that few people can. It is inspiring but unsettling, which is an important element of the nonfiction genre. A good work of nonfiction should make the reader see the world differently, and McColly certainly accomplishes this goal. He makes us think and re-think the tough issues because they affect us all, whether we realize it or not.

The Needle in the Blood

The Needle in the Blood
Written by Sarah Bower
Snowbooks
Reviewed by Jodie



Historical fiction seems to be the genre that embraces frank exploration of sexuality and relationships most successfully. Do writers feel liberated by the time that has passed? Does diving under the bed sheets of a stricter time give them the thrill of disobeying dead authority? Do lush historical settings conjure thoughts of detailed intercourse whereas a bench at Brighton calls for quicker narrative thrusts? Whatever the reason historical novels are providing valuable examinations of the sensual, as well as the relationships and consequences that these feelings result in.

Sarah Bower’s The Needle in the Blood is a subtle investigation into what might have been classed as forbidden sexuality in eleventh century Britain, relationships that would have been officially condemned if still slyly permitted in some cases. Set after the battle of 1066, when William the Conqueror took control of Britain, its main subject is the relationship between William’s brother, Bishop Odo and Gytha, an attendant to Edith, the mistress of the late Harold Godwinson. Gytha initially swears to kill Odo because he embodies all she hates about the French and she is given her chance when she is recruited to work on Odo’s legacy, the Bayeux tapestry, by his sister Agatha. After her violent attempt on his life fails something is released Gytha, but also in Odo, allowing love and friendship to grow between them. This relationship, which crosses nationalities and classes is publicly permitted because Odo is the kings brother but this unorthodox affair is the ideal way for his rivals to curb his power.

Other types of prohibited sexuality such as lesbianism, incest and abortion are touched on and are integral to the development of the characters as their understanding is enlarged by each incident. The novel is filled with detail relating the human body, descriptions of everyday tasks such as dressing alongside depictions of sex and the reader grows closer to the characters through the author’s preoccupation with such physical descriptions. It may seem vaguely unnecessary for one of the embroiders to lose a hand but it enables the reader to make a stronger connection with a background character who will have little involvement with the central action. Bowers caring attention gives each person life and enables them to each contribute to the reader’s enjoyment. This book is one of the most intriguing historical novels of the year, detailed like embroidery of the Bayeux tapestry and presenting almost every characters voice, creating a multi-layered narrative like the story it depicts.

Adept

Adept
Written by Robert Finn
Snowbooks
Reviewed by Richard Marmo

When it comes to British writers and novels, I tend to avoid them. For whatever reason, they just don’t light my fire. For example, there are a huge number of Agatha Christie fans out there. I’m not one of them. On the other hand, I’ll read (and have read) just about everything that comes from the pen of Arthur C. Clarke. And there are others as well. In case you’re wondering, I’m not a anglophobe. Couldn’t be since my ancestry has English, Irish and Scot blood mixed in.

Now that I have you wondering where the heck I’m going, let me say that Robert Finn –who I have never heard of - has joined the ranks of British authors who I enjoy reading. If I was to summarize his latest book, Adept, into three words, it would be “I love it!”

If I had to categorize it from an American point of view, I would probably describe it as an action adventure novel with a dose of the occult thrown in. The publisher calls it a crime/mystery novel. While it is that, it’s also a lot more. As a matter of fact, one of the cover blurbs attributed to Andrew Taylor calls it “A British variant on The DaVinci Code and The Rule of Four.” In some respects that’s very likely an accurate description, but I’d suggest that the novel stands quite well on it’s own.

As for format, the book is a softcover (or paperback, if you prefer), utilizes a 5” x 7 ½” page size and runs to 446 pages of relatively small print and carries a U.S. price of $14.95. David Braun and Susan Milton are the two primary characters, but the book is populated with a substantial supporting cast to keep those two in trouble up to their necks. There’s plenty of danger, mystery and hints of what they’re actually chasing to keep you turning page after page. I couldn’t put it down.

From time to time, the British terminology that Finn uses (And why not? It’s as natural to him as Texas slang is to me) will have you taking a few seconds to figure out what it means in the context of the sentence. There is also next to no profanity, though you will find the "F" word a couple of times. But those are some of the things (among many others) that makes this book so appealing.

I’m not going to tell you everything about this book. That’d spoil the fun for you. After all, this is a novel and you need to enjoy the journey of discovery. What I will tell you is that David and Susan are involved in searching for an artifact (called a Marker) that has the ability to extend life expectancy. Presumably, under the correct circumstances, immortality, though that aspect is never specifically mentioned. Along the way, you have secret societies, a budding romance that both parties try to deny, danger, kidnapping, a climatic swordfight inside a church (that's what I said, even though the novel is set in present day London) and an enigmatic closing line in a letter from one of the supporting characters that suggests an even greater mystery and possibly a sequel to this novel. Dare we look forward to Adept 2? I hope so.

Oops! I just looked down at the very bottom of the back cover for what I thought was the price. In extremely small print is a line that says “Coming soon: Ex Machina, the stunning sequel to Adept.” Yippee!! I can’t wait to review that one!

If Robert Finn can maintain the tone established in Adept, keeping his characters fresh and the adventures interesting, regardless of what danger they’re placed in, Adept and the coming sequel could well be only the first two installments of an open-ended series.

Do you like mysteries, lost knowledge of the ancients, adventure, danger and romance, all served up with a dash of Indiana Jones? Then go get yourself a copy of Adept. You’ll love it.

Old Friends and New Fancies AND Letters from Pemberly

Old Friends and New Fancies, by Sybil G. Brinton
Letters from Pemberley the First Year, by Jane Dawkins
Sourcebooks
Reviewed by Melissa

Fan fiction has probably been around as long as books have, and while it doesn't garner the respect that some think it should, that has never stopped fans from writing sequels and situations involving their favorite characters. No author is immune to this, least of all, the founding mother of chick-lit, Jane Austen. The only difference is that Jane Austen fan fiction is more likely to be published (Austen's work being in the public domain and all).

Old Friends and New Fancies, by Sybil G. Brinton, is the premier Jane Austen fan fiction. Published in 1913, the cover touts it as the "first Jane Austen sequel ever created". And Brinton spares no punches. The book contains a plethora of characters from every single book Austen wrote. Which is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it's fun in a "what-are-they-doing-now" way; on the other hand, it's an awful lot of characters, most of them minor, to keep track of. There isn't much of a plot: various characters from Pride and Prejudice meet other characters from the other books and fall in love. Interestingly, no one falls in love with a character from their own book. Colonel Fitzwilliam falls in love with Mary Crawford (Mansfield Park); Georgiana Darcy falls in love with William Price (Mansfield Park); Kitty Bennett falls in love with James Morland (Northanger Abbey). Other characters from all the books pop in and out to create conflict and interest, which created a problem in itself. Austen's books are full of enough characters to keep straight; put them all together in one place, and it becomes nearly impossible. More times than I can count, I flipped to the chart in the front of the book, wondering which book that particular character was from. And I'm fairly versed in Austen's novels. Think how it would be for someone who wasn't.

My main complaint with this book, though, is the challenge fan fiction authors have: embodying someone else's characters is extremely difficult, and while the end result may be similar to the original character, it can't be the same. I felt it keenly in this book; I never could get past the difference in characters between this book and the originals to enjoy the story. I felt like Emma Knightly became a twit, which bothered me immensely. Anne Wentworth wasn't quite the Anne I remember from Persuasion; she was nice enough, but had no depth. Robert and Lucy Ferrars were not only obvious social climbers, but outright mean and despicable. Elinor Ferrars was a shadow of herself. In some ways, it's wiser to stick with the minor characters and flesh them out, because readers don't have the same attachment to them. Hence, I found both Georgiana and Mary Crawford to be more sympathetic and interesting and bothered me less than some of the other characters.

The other problem was that while Brinton had Austen romance down to a formulaic science, she completely missed out on the wit. Everyone was so darn earnest. Elizabeth was always being too nice, even when Lady Catherine was her normal snobbish self. Emma was more about being a busybody rather than trying to help other people. Anne was cloying and often hiding behind her husband. And even Mrs. Jennings (Sense and Sensibility) was more irritating than humorous. Austen had a gift, there, and obviously it's not easily imitated--at least not by someone writing in the early 20th century.

Unlike Brinton, Jane Dawkins, in Letters from Pemberly, captured the feel of Austen much better. This slim novel is a series of letters from Elizabeth to Jane during their first year of marriage. Again, there is very little plot, but I felt in this circumstance, it worked much better. The letters express Elizabeth's concern with the task of becoming mistress of Pemberly, with how the neighbors and Mr. Darcy's friends will react to her and her station in life, and her separation from Jane. The affection Elizabeth has for Jane comes through well in the letters, as does Elizabeth's character.

I think it helped, too, that while Dawkins included characters from other books, she chose to change their names, which allowed me, at least, to accept them better. The Daleys, for example, are none other than Emma (who is much less irritating in this book, I might add) and Mr. Knightly. There were other characters that I could place, or almost place -- Sir Walter Elliot made his appearance, as did the Dashwood sisters. I also could tell that Dawkins did her research; rather than just parroting scenes and phrases from the Austen books (a common problem in Brinton's novel; in fact a whole scene was lifted from Emma, practically intact), she embodied the spirit of the books by really knowing the early 1800s. She did research into novels, poems, landscaping practices, and other seemingly trivial elements that gave the book a more authentic feel.

Dawson does touch on the romantic Austen, but she also manages to include some wit, with choice nods to the original book. In one instance, Elizabeth recounts this scene, at a ball given at Pemberly:

Mr. Darcy and I danced four dances together and amused ourselves recollecting the first time we had danced together at Netherfield. He wished to know was I still at work on a character sketch of him, would he be obliged to make conversation, or was he to be permitted to enjoy the dance in complete silence? I took delight in telling him that while my sketch of his character is not quite complete, it is far enough advanced that I would gladly spare him punishment of conversation while dancing. Besides, since I had the rest of our lives to complete it, there was no immediate urgency to the matter.

Not Austen, but amusing, nonetheless. Which, I suppose is the best that can be said for Letters from Pemberly: it isn't Austen, but it's a decent take on the books.

If you would rather read the original works by Jane Austen, a schedule for spreading them out over the course of a year, posted by Cheryl Klien, can be found here.

The Garden of Eve

The Garden of Eve
Written by K.L. Going
Harcourt
Reviewed by The Discriminating Fangirl

Evie’s beloved, imaginative mother has recently died of cancer, and her father decides to move from their home and family in Michigan to an abandoned apple farm in New York. The locals whisper that the orchard is cursed; the trees are blighted and nothing grows in the town of Beaumont, not the crops nor the economy.

An old woman from town befriends the broken family and tells them her history in their decrepit old house. It was her family home, and her older sister disappeared decades earlier, around the same time the apple trees began to die. Adding to the mystery, the old woman gives Evie a very strange gift: a seed said to have been found in the Garden of Eden.

Evie and her only friend in Beaumont, the ghost of a boy who recently died of cancer, plant the seed deep in the dead orchard and discover exactly why nothing will grow in the town. The magic tree takes them to a parallel world, a lush, gardened mirror of their own.

This book is seriously bleak. Evie isolates herself from her father, and often wishes that she could have died with her mother, a thought that is somewhat startling in a ten year old character. Her father’s own emotional remoteness pushes Evie even farther away from her familiar, comfortable world, and it’s as if the little girl never had a chance to truly grieve her mother.

Despite this, I never really began to empathize with Evie, or really any of the characters, in this book. Evie’s father seems selfish in his internal mourning, and the supporting characters feel more like they exist solely to forward Evie’s development instead of existing as characters in their own right.

In fact, I’m having a difficult time writing this review. I didn’t particularly dislike this book, but it also didn’t make an impact on me. The book has plenty of potential; the descriptions of the flourishing parallel town are beautiful, and the characters feel like they have a lot of potential to be fleshed out. But they never quite make it past existing to tell the story, and unfortunately, the story suffers because of this.

For me, the point of this story was hope in the face of grief. Evie learns that she shouldn’t wish for death just to be with her mother; she has more life ahead of her, and her mother would never have wanted her beautiful, imaginative little girl to lose hope. This is a great message for anyone who has lost a loved one, but unfortunately, the story doesn’t feel fleshed out enough to carry the weight of the message.

Maybe in after another draft or two, this book could have delivered its message in the framework of a much stronger story. As it stands, the book delivers its message, but not in a way that’s as memorable or as heartbreaking as it should be.

Voyage

Voyage
Written by Adele Geras
Harcourt, Inc.
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner

Rachel couldn't sleep. The throbbing of the engines just below them, the creaking of old wood as the ship rolled over the water, snores, muffled tears and sniffs, crying children--they stopped her from sleeping. Some people slept: Mina, with her long, red hair hanging over the edge of the bunk; that nice, gentle Mr. Kaminsky, who, it was whispered, had survived the terrible pogrom in Kishinev, and who was setting out for America with a sack full of books and very little else; even Golda. And more surprisingly, Golda's baby. Rachel stared at the boards of the bunk above her. She couldn't see if her father was asleep. Did he dream dreams? I am frightened of my dreams, Rachel thought. I don't want to sleep because I am frightened of what I might see.

The year is 1904 and people are traveling to the United States in droves. Voyage tells the story of one group of Eastern European immigrants traveling across the Atlantic in steerage, willing to face miserable conditions in a dirty, overcrowded compartment for the chance to begin a new life. Each of the passengers in Voyage has his or her own reasons for emigrating: a family travels to join a father who has already moved to America and found a job; an elderly man who has survived the traumatic loss of his family goes to join his nephew; a young woman and her baby will be reunited with husband and father; a teenager whose parents have died escapes an arranged marriage. There’s a large cast of characters with a variety of reasons for moving to the U.S.

Throughout the journey, the passengers face hunger and thirst, calm and storms, illness and danger while dealing with the personalities and the growing stench of their fellow travelers. Their individual stories are told by way of thoughts and dialogue. As the journey progresses, the characters’ histories and plans slowly unfold, friendships develop, tempers flare and romance blossoms.

Voyage is a young adult novel, originally published in Great Britain in 1983. At a mere 145 pages, it’s surprising that the author managed to successfully reveal the histories of such a substantial number of characters. So many young women are introduced in the first few pages, in fact, that I felt compelled to write a list of characters to help differentiate between them. But, the further I read, the more distinctive the cast became. It grew more and more difficult to put the book down as I was swept into their lives.


Probably the biggest disappointment about the book is that Voyage only tells about the journey across the ocean. The reader is introduced to the passengers at the beginning of their passage on the fictional SS Danzig and it ends as they approach the United States with the Statue of Liberty in view. I would have much preferred a longer book that described their arrival and experiences as they met up with friends and loved ones or set out on their own to forge their new lives, rather than having to close the book and part with the characters before they reached shore. Voyage is, however, an excellent glimpse into an important part of American history that is often described merely in passing and gives the reader a feel for what this type of journey must have been like. Author Adele Geras nicely evokes all the senses; even the cover of the book helps set the scene. Voyage would make a particularly good addition to a history unit, but stands well on its own as an enjoyable work of fiction.

Author’s Website: http://www.adelegeras.com/