Saturday, December 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, December 2007

Welcome to the final installment of Estella's Revenge of 2007. In the spirit of the holidays and in order to give our writers (and editors) a break, this issue is a brief collection of reviews that our writers found themselves moved to contribute.

As you know, the ER contributors hold down jobs and families and busy reading lives, and as most people do, we find ourselves inundated with responsibility this time of year (I'm drowning in essays to grade as we speak).

I hope you'll join us for a brand new issue on January 1st as we kick off another year of Estella's Revenge and the beginning of the "My Year of Reading Dangerously" challenge.

Thank you, readers, for all you've done for us this year. We're very pleased with the progress this 'zine has made in such a short time, and we wouldn't have the "oomphf" to keep going if it wasn't for you.

And to the Estella's Revenge writers, Heather and I send our very best wishes to you this holiday season. Thanks for your neverending support and fantastic contributions.


November Door Prize Winner!

The winner of the November 2007 "Door Prize"...a copy of Louis Theroux's The Call of the Weird: Travels in American Subcultures is Lesha from! Congratulations!

We'll be back with more "Door Prize" book giveaways in January! Stay tuned!

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
by Gordon Dahlquist
Reviewed by Heather F.

Reading this book - and it is a page-turner - you become immersed, befogged, as if you had been looking at one of the glass books… a rollicking ride, as stupendous as it is stupefying… - The Guardian

Wilkie Collins on acid… - New Statesman

Bodice-ripping… - Elle

Wow! What a rollercoaster of a ride! This one sucked me right in. It was hard to put down. And it moves very fast. This is one of those books that in the very early pages, grabs you by the hair and refuses to let go. By the time you finish the first chapter you are left wondering just what the heck is going on…and it keeps you reading until 3 a.m. just to find out.

I love the comment that it is like Wilkie Collins on acid… because I had the thought while reading it that it reminded me of Wilkie Collins. I did not have the thought that it was like Collins on acid, but the description is pretty accurate. This book is one hell of a wild ride.

There are three main good “guys. ” Miss Temple - our virginal, rejected fiancĂ©e hell-bent on finding out what happened to her fiance. Cardinal Chang - so named for his bright red coat and scarred eyes that slant - looking to avenge the loss of his beloved Angelique. And Doctor Svenson, our good and noble German doctor, determined to recover his lost Prince. Each has convened upon the ominous Harshmort House looking for answers, never knowing that their lives are about to threatened and inexplicably changed forever by the many, many villains there. Favorite one? Contessa di Lacquer-Sforza. Hands down one of the most evil women ever created. Worth the price of the book alone!

Check out the book’s website here. One great, thrilled read. Recommended.

Queen of Camelot

Queen of Camelot
by Nancy McKenzie
Randon House Publishing Group
Reviewied by Heather F.

I have read quite a few books based on the Arthurian legend in my time. It is one of my favorite genres of books. I have read some that were really good and many that were quite bad. Up until a few days ago, my favorite was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. A huge, epic of a book, I first read it when I was around 13 years old. I read it again a few years ago and found it to be even more wonderful that I remembered. For more than 10 years it has remained my favorite of the Arthurian retellings. But I’m afraid it may have been supplanted by someone new.

One day while I was browsing in Barnes & Noble, this novel jumped out at me. I read the back cover. I had never heard of the author, never heard of the book, and actually passed it by. But something about it called me back to it and I decided to get it. I am so glad I did.

One of the problems I find with many, many, many (!) of the books based on the Arthurian legend is the character of Guinevere. She is rarely, and I mean rarely, a sympathetic character. She is typically a very weak character; weak in mind, body and spirit. Most times it seems like all she does is sit in a corner and pine for Lancelot. I actually read one book where she was terrified to be outside castle walls! (Was that Mists?? I can’t remember!) And she always, always gets on my nerves. I cannot think of any other book where she did NOT get on my nerves.

Except this one. This is the most well developed, multi-faceted, portrayal of Guinevere I have ever encountered. She’s no longer just the pagan beauty forced to marry the great Christian King. And, amazingly enough, she doesn’t betray him. Sure, she still loves Lancelot, but she equally (and, imo, perhaps more) loves Arthur as well. She’s strong. She’s intellegent. She has fears, but she remains clear headed in the face of danger. She is an equal to the greatest king who had ever lived. The only typical characteristic she shared with other Guineveres was how all the men fell in love with her. But I could forgive them that because she was such a fantastic character.

King Arthur was also excellently developed. He was the golden King; wise, strong, and brave. He adored Guinevere and Lancelot. My only complaint with him would be that he was perhaps to understanding and lenient when it came to Guinevere and Lancelot’s love. And Lancelot was the same chivalrous and galant knight he’s always been. And of course, handsome. And has definitely never looked like Richard Gere to me!

Many of the other characters were different in interesting ways, especially many of the Knights of the Round Table. There were a few new twists to the story; especially to the end between Arthur and Mordred which I found fascinating and original. A fresh retelling of the legend; I highly recommend this one to anyone equally enamoured with the legend or looking for a good place to start. And I will definitely be looking for more works by Nancy McKenzie.

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things
By John Connolly
Atria Books
Reviewed by Heather F.

Every once in awhile, a book comes along that just takes over. It requires you to do nothing but read it; don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t do anything but read. I love fairy tales. I love fairy tale retellings. And I love books that strive to create new to go with the old fairy tales for readers who love such books. The Book of Lost Things was one of those books for me.

After the death of his beloved mother after a long illness, David seeks solace in the worlds of his books. As WWII descends and his distant father remarries, David crosses over into a vicious world where fairy tales live and breathe. He enters a land of friends and monsters where he begins a quest to find his way home. He is forced to cross this new land of horrors to find the king, whose Book of Lost Things is rumored to be his way home. Along the way he learns bravery, loyalty and honor – things we all need a dose of now and again. Truly, this was delightfully imaginative, original and even a little creepy! A must read at this time of year.

Thirteen Reasons Why

Thirteen Reasons Why
by Jay Asher
Penguin Group
Reviewed by Melissa

The copy that I received began with a letter: "Beware: Jay Asher's writing has the ability to cause hours of time to disappear -- without warning -- into thin air! Do not begin this book if you have someplace to be in the next few hours. You will undoubtedly miss your next appointment, dinner, or important phone call, because Thirteen Reasons Why will draw you in, and it will not let you go." I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical; I know this book has been getting rave reviews, but it's not often that a book draws me in that much. I have to admit, though, that this book did. I couldn't stop reading it, and I couldn't stop thinking about it on the few occasions when I had to put it down. It's an amazing debut book.

Before Hannah Baker committed suicide, she left behind a message for her classmates. She made a series of tapes -- thirteen stories about and for thirteen people -- about the reasons why she decided to take her own life. Clay Jensen was one of those people. When the shoebox full of tapes arrives on his doorstep one day, two weeks after Hannah's death, he has no idea that his life was about to change. One of the amazing things about this book is that the story is both fairly straightforward yet simultaneously incredibly complex. It's a simple tale of a girl detailing the many ways in which she was hurt emotionally and physically by her peers. It's a simple tale of a boy's reaction -- a boy who happened to have a major crush on her -- to those tapes. Yet, in chronicling the "snowball effect" of little things that lead to Hannah's choice to take her life, Asher weaves a beautiful, intricate web of stories. One of the things that hit me most powerfully while reading this book was that nothing we do is without consequences. Someone, somewhere, is going to react to every little thing we do, either for good or bad. And that was the case in Hannah's life. Little things -- things that teens wouldn't think were any real "big deal" -- contributed to other things which lead to other things, eventually ending up in Hannah's death.

The story is told from a dual narrative -- Hannah's through the tapes, and Clay's as he reacts to what he's hearing -- and it works. It works so well that both Hannah and Clay become real people. And I think it was important that this story be told that way. Without Clay's grounding influence on the story, it would be too easy to be dismissive of Hannah. She's too obsessive. She's taking things WAY too literally. You wouldn't be inclined to trust her account of things. Either that, or you would be totally accepting of her as a victim; the book would read as an angry, depressing tragedy, just another suicide story. (If you can ever have "just" another story about suicide.) But having Clay also as a narrator makes the story more real. His reactions to the events Hannah's narrating made those events more believable to me, as a reader. And I felt that he kept the story authentic. Yes, I saw how all the little things snowballed, but I could also see where Hannah went wrong in herself, and how she gave up too soon, as well as where Clay failed her, and where there was no easy solution either way. It's a very talented author that can achieve all that.

I would quote from the book, because Asher's an eloquent writer in capturing the essence of teenagers. But I'll leave it to you to discover it for yourself because I think everyone should experience Hannah's story. Know that it's a very emotional ride, but a very honest one. My heart ached for Hannah, I cried with Clay (his story was the hardest one for me to read). I was angry at some of the other stories, and found myself hoping that none of my daughters ever meets boys like that. I was deeply saddened at Hannah's death, but the end of the book is hopeful. And if everyone reacts to Hannah's story like Clay does, then maybe the world -- or at least high school -- will be a better place.

Lily Dale: Awakening

Lily Dale: Awakening
by Wendy Corsi Straub
Walker Books
Reviewed by Melissa

Calla's perfect life is falling apart. Her boyfriend of two years broke up (by text message) with her in April (for another girl, she just knows it), and now her mother's died in a freak accident. That's bad enough, but her father had signed up to teach during a sabbatical at a university in California, and he wasn't originally planning on Calla and her mother joining him. So, Calla's going to have to go to Lily Dale to live with her grandmother Delia, whom she hasn't seen in 10 years (excepting the funeral of course).

Once in Lily Dale, weird things begin happening to Calla. She sees ghosts. She has nightmares. She smells flowers that aren't there. She hears noises coming from unwound music boxes. Sees the time on an unplugged clock. It doesn't help that Lily Dale is the "World's Largest Center for the Religion of Spiritualism". In other words, a hot-spot to connect with those not of this world. Her grandmother is one of "them": a medium. It takes Calla a while to deal with this information, but with all the things that keep happening to her, she begins wondering if she just might not be one of "them", too.

This book works on many levels: it's a book about loss and grief, but it's also a mystery and a ghost story. I thought Straub did an excellent job writing about Calla's grief over her mother, and being able to find comfort in other teenagers who have also lost their parents. There are a lot of tears in this book. And a lot of comparison to others. But, at the heart of it, I could believe that this is the way that this particular 17-year-old would deal with her mother's grief. But I never felt that the grief got the best of Calla; it never stopped her from being a proactive character.

Straub also packed the book with grumpiness and anger, which also could be tied to Calla's grief. She was angry at her mother for hiding her past, but also anger at the situation. At Lily Dale. Calla's disbelief at the whole psychic profession, treating her grandma's "profession" with skepticism and contempt, and her gradual acceptance of it was a believable process. If those "occurrences" happened to me, I might just believe I was psychic, too.

But, at its heart, this book is a ghost story and a mystery. Who are those ghosts that Calla keeps seeing? Why does the clock read 3:17, every time? What does her mother's past have to do with it all? What about the lake? Straub kept me hanging on the edge of my seat for the last third of the book. My only complaint is that just as Calla is beginning to figure it out, the book ends. Thankfully, there will be a sequel -- Lily Dale: Believing -- published in April, 2008. I, for one, want to know the answers.


by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt Books Young Adult Fantasy
Review by Nancy L. Horner

“I could make my city of free men, but what’s the good of freedom to the ignorant? What’s freedom itself but the power of the mind to learn what it needs and think what it likes? Ah, even if your body’s chained, if you have the thoughts of the philosophers and the words of the poets in your head, you can be free of your chains, and walk among the great!” [p.265]

Gavir and Sallo, brother and sister, were taken from the Marsh Land and made slaves in the house of Arcamand while quite young. Powers begins when Gav is 11 and Sallo 13. Raised in the city of Etra with the children of both the Arcamand house and the other young slaves of Arcamand, they are schooled for specific purposes and lead a comfortable, fairly privileged life for slaves.

Gavir has two special powers: a photographic memory and the ability to see into the future. However, he often confuses real memories with “remembered” visions of the future and Sallo wisely advises him not to tell anyone about this special gift, knowing it will make him even more outcast than he already is, as a slave and scholar.

When tragedy strikes, Gav realizes that he has been raised to trust but can only expect betrayal in slavery and runs away to find his people, his freedom, hopefully the ability to control his special powers. So begins a young adult saga that is often slow but becomes more addictive with each step of the hero’s journey.

Fantasies are not a typical genre read for me, and my reasoning is probably a little strange: an entire set of unusual names tend to annoy me, particularly if they’re long and it’s difficult to figure out how to pronounce them, thus slowing down the reading. That’s irritating to me and detracts from my enjoyment level. I read a pretty wide variety, though, and I’m always willing to try something new. Ursula Le Guin has been on my mental list of authors to someday give a whirl and I will always jump at the chance to review a book written by a known name whose work I haven’t yet read.

Powers was a decent novel to begin with. I had a difficult time getting into this story, at first, because it’s an epic and things happen slowly, although it can be exciting, at times. There is also a large “cast” and when I found a page in which the children were all described briefly within only a few paragraphs, I marked the page for frequent returns. Having a quick reference to the original characters (many more are introduced throughout Gav’s travels) as well as a map upon which to trace the hero’s path --which is included within the opening pages-- was not so much helpful as necessary. Otherwise, I would have been lost. I should add that the names are simple and the pronunciation obvious; there are simply a large number of them.

Once I reached the point that I had a guide to help me with the characters, the reading improved, but Powers is never a quick-paced novel. There are tense moments and danger is often at Gav’s heels. There is also a great deal of detail of everyday life in the unique fantasy world in which Powers is set. Those who are accustomed to fantasy may find that the book is typical; I can’t say, since I’ve read very few. All I can tell you is that I liked Gav and I found his world very believable. During times of tragedy, it was easy to empathize with the hero; to understand his emotions and motivation came naturally. In the emotional build-up, the creativity of a believable world, and comfortable dialogue, the author showed exceptional skill.

Powers is a young adult novel with some very grown-up themes and best suited to older teenager and adults, in my opinion. Beautifully written, slowly but steadily paced and worth the time. I consider it a slightly above-average read only because I personally prefer a story that moves more quickly, but for those who love fantasy, thick books, epics and drama, Powers is excellent.

Dying to Sin

Dying to Sin
By Stephen Booth
Harper Collins
Reviewed by Jodie

A severed hand is found on the site of Pity Wood Farm while the building is being redeveloped. The police arrive in the form of Ben Cooper and Diane Fry, a most stereotypical police partnership. Diane is career conscious, uptight, attuned to the slightest snub and crucially she is from out of town. In contrast Ben is laid back towards his career development, intuitive, friendly and a local boy. I think readers will agree that we may have seen this kind of pairing before.

Perhaps my experience of Stephen Booth’s ‘Dying to Sin’ suffered from a lack of knowledge as I haven’t read the previous seven books in the series it is possible I have missed the character development of his police officers. However I think that individual books should be able to stand alone from a series with minimum inconvenience to the reader. The characters should continue to grow and change throughout a series or else they become static. ‘Dying to Sin’ seems too pleased with the characters already created and so there is little character development.
Booth is at his best when voicing the thoughts of Ben who is a genuinely lovely, warm character, who brings new depth to the classic portrayal of the son of a former policeman. His interaction with his brother allows Booth to include much discussion on the future of farming, which brings a new slant of interest to the local aspects of the story. Ben is also a vehicle for the author’s interest in history and superstition. Importantly while he is addicted to his job he makes many of his break-throughs by talking to people he is interviewing or through chance words spoken by friends. This makes the reader feel more able to empathise with him than with his partner Diane, as he interacts successfully outside of his profession and is connected to the rest of humanity.

Diane’s thinking, outside of the case, is not convincing. Her battle with chocolate is extremely odd and is one example of the artificiality of Booth’s attempt at a female voice. It feels as if Booth wants readers to empathise with her as he includes her struggles with her sister and her feeling of isolation but outside of he role as a female police officer, troubled by the gender issues of the job she is hard to empathise with. Judging by Diane’s personality in ‘Dying to Sin’ it is not surprising that he sister feels they have little connection. She does not seem to have much humanity about her and attempts at revealing a secondary character to the one she displays at work are poorly executed.

Stephen Booth has meticulously researched police procedure, providing useful background understanding for readers. He also includes much information on superstitions, such as what severed hands and heads were thought to be useful for. Unfortunately this information is often inserted in an awkward way because Booth is eager to fully explain these fascinating points. These passages, set apart from the flow of the story can disturb the reader and could have been better integrated. When you start being bothered by small details like this you know a book is not as exciting as the discovery of a severed hand in the first chapter would suggest.

The God of Animals

by Aran Kyle
Macmillan Library Reference
Reviewed by Jodie

'The God of Animals', by Aran Kyle begins with the line:

"Six months before Polly Can drowned in the canal, my sister Nona, ran off and married a cowboy."

If you do not have the same proclivity as me for books involving cowboy romance you might easily believe that this beginning is merely tricksy use of the ‘flash bang’ first sentence. As this type of opening becomes more profuse throughout the book market readers are reluctant to buy books with exciting openings and so miss finding some valuable reading experiences. ‘The God of Animals’ does not rely on one sentence to provide all of its entertainment. The first paragraph is made of sentences that juxtapose a quiet image with a more extraordinary one. This has the result of depicting world while also holding the reader’s attention, for example the sentence:

“My father said there had been a time when he would have been able to stop her and I wasn’t sure if he meant a time in our lives when she would have listened to him, or a time in history when the Desert Valley Sheriff’s Posse would have been allowed to chase after her with torches and drag her back to our house by her yellow hair.”

performs both these tasks admirably.

Alice Winston’s world is bleak. Her father’s ranch is sliding under, making him resentful and misguided. Her mother can not manage the world anymore so she stays upstairs permanently. Her show riding sister, the only hope and comfort has driven off, leaving Alice as the focus of all he father’s dissatisfaction. This kind of existence has made Alice a good liar and at times equally as misguided as he father. However while she fabricates a beautifully unlikely life for the people around her she is not a fantasist. Alice is unable to lie to herself convincingly and so her story is told in a straightforward first person narrative that encompasses the flaws in everyone, including herself. Seeing the minute slights she receives throughout the book, as well as her desperation to please her unbending father balances uneasily with her own mistakes and cruelties to create a vulnerable narrator readers may will find it hard to dislike.

Alice’s story is driven by an extreme energy in keeping with the physical nature of the horse rearing world that she lives in. Yet it is never overtaken by that force or rushed towards the “violent events” hinted at on the book jacket. So many details are carefully placed and integrated as the plot moves along; my favourite is Alice’s father, caring for the “Old Men”, abused horses that he has rebuilt and pastures without profit. Kyle has crafted a mini universe which feels completely isolated from any experiences outside of it, real and untouchable. ‘The God of Animals’ is a reminder that this kind of creation is what readers should expect from every new beginning.