Monday, January 7, 2008
Yes, yes, the theme for this month's issue is "possibilities." And what better theme to describe the first month and the first issue of 2008?
If you're anything like me--jaded, cynical, snarky--you might still be enamored with the coming of a new year. For me, the new year is about a number of possibilities. Since I teach college English, I get a new batch of students, and that's always exciting. No matter how long I teach (five years now) or how irked the Fall semester might leave me, I always look forward to a new bunch of students and a new opportunity to do my job a little better.
On the reading front, the new year is an exciting time, too. I enjoy making lists of what I've read throughout the year, tallying up my "Best of" recap to share with my bloggy friends, and starting a new year of reading means the hope of hunting literary gems.
I want to thank you all who are coming back to join Estella's Revenge for the second year. And a big welcome aboard to any new readers out there! Cheers to a year of possibilities!
Ciao for now,
January 2008 Issue
Letter from the Editor
Author Interview: Jennifer Donnelly
Author Interview: Sarah Bower
Author Interview: Susan Vaught
"Door Prize" Book Giveaway - An Infamous Army
"I Was Lost, But Now I'm Found"
"New Things from Old Favourites"
"Wonderful World of What If?"
"Discussable: The Amazon Kindle"
"Embracing the Possibilities"
From the Bookshop, January 2008
Review: Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow
Review: Finn: A Novel
Review: On Borrowed Wings
Review: Big Fat Manifesto
Jennifer Donnelly is the author of The Tea Rose, The Winter Rose, and A Northern Light.
Heather F.: You create such strong female characters; Fiona, Mattie, India. How important to you is it to portray such intelligent and complex women?
Jennifer Donnelly: It's super important to me. Strong women are really the only kind of women I know. I was raised by one and I've had the privilege to be friends with many more. I marvel at them. They're mothers and wives and actors and singers and writers and wall street warriors and athletes. Some have survived wars and abuse and terrible loss. And I think the thing they have in common, the thing that for me defines their strength is not their achievements or their success, but their ability to take knocks and get right back up again. They're smart and brave, and they're stubborn, too -- an underrated quality, in my opinion.
HF: Barbara Taylor Bradford said of India, from The Winter Rose "India Selwyn Jones is a new breed of woman in London in 1900, a doctor practicing in the grim East End, and she captivates from the first page to the last." How much research went into the creation of India?
JD: An absolute ton. I spent a lot of time in archives in London sifting through notebooks and letters and pictures of late 19th and early 20th century women medical students. I also looked at early medical devices, read histories on gynecology and obstetrics, and read accounts of childbirth, labor, and child-rearing given by English working class women of the early 20th century. It was harrowing, and gave me a new appreciation for the advantages we 21st century women have. Research is not work to me. I live for it. I love delving into the past and often feel more comfortable there than I do in the present.
HF: I just have to know, how long does it take you to research the time periods of your books? How long does it take to write one? I imagine the Rose books took an extremely long time to create!
JD: The Tea Rose, my first novel, took me 10 years to research and write -- largely because I was teaching myself how to write a novel while holding down a fulltime job. A Northern Light took about a year and a half. The Winter Rose took three years -- I'd had a baby when I started this book and found writing on no sleep a bit challenging!
HF: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
JD: Yes, I travel for the research. And I usually travel when the books come out. Though I am trying hard to cut down on travel, as it steals a lot of time from writing.
HF: How exciting that "A Northern Light" / "A Gathering Light" has earned you some many awards, included the Carnegie Medal! Mattie is one of my favorite characters from your novels. She is such a lover of language and words. To what extent you identify with Mattie? To what extent do any of your characters reflect your personality?
JD: I identify strongly with Mattie, because she and I share a huge love of books and language, and we also share a love of the North Woods. But she is a far, far better person than I am. I think my main characters reflect a good deal of my personality -- especially India, because she is bossy and difficult!
HF: Where do you get your ideas? Your novels are so complex, were the stories born fully formed in your head or did they grow as you were writing them?
JD: I don't. My ideas get me. I read something, and it takes hold of me and doesn't let go until I resolve all the swirling emotion by writing a story. The stories aren't born fully formed, unfortunately. How I wish they were!!!! Some of the characters are, but not the stories. They are complex and they grow as I'm working on them. They're long and twisty and they take a lot of time and effort and thought to work through. A lot of late nights. Despair. Pacing. Whining. And ripping up of pages.
HF: "The Winter Rose" came out ages ago in England. "The Wild Rose" is scheduled for 2008. Why does it take so much longer for your books to be published in America? Also "A Gathering Light" vs. "A Northern Light".. Why the different titles?
JD: It's a long boring story and basically involves publishing schedules and the best time of year for books to be launched in various markets. Changes were made from the UK to the US edition. There were new rounds of editing. And a time of year was selected that will hopefully be propitious for the book. Fall and Christmas are very hard times to launch books unless you're a total superstar author -- like a JK Rowling or Dan Brown. There are simply too many books competing for too little space in newspapers and magazines. As for A Northern Light -- that's the books US title. It was changed to A Gathering Light in the UK to avoid confusion with Philip Pullman's novel, Northern Lights, which is known as The Golden Compass in the US.
HF: You have written books in so many different genres; children's, young adult, historical fiction.does writing for some many different audiences come easy for you? Is there a genre you feel more comfortable writing in?
JD: It does come easily. At least, I'm not conscious of shifting out of one voice to another as I write. My stories, whether they're in picture book format, or for young adult or adult readers, involve conflict and the need for a character to grow and change, to move forward. It's a process that we all experience, at all stages in our lives. Perhaps the circumstances are different at different ages, but the process of growth -- with its pain and fear and uncertainty, and ultimately -- hopefully -- its triumph, is something human beings of any age understand.
HF: Who or what has influenced your writing?
JD: Everything I've ever read. Mass and class. Bestsellers and classics and everything in between. I'll read anything. A great novel. The back of the Cheerio's box. Cheesy tabloids. The Economist. Anything. Every good writer I read makes me a better writer.
HF: What are some of your favorite books and why?
JD: The Passion by Jeanette Winterson because it is so full and glorious and beautiful. A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford because I've secretly always wanted to be Emma Harte. Emily Dickinson's poetry because she can knock you flat in four lines. A lot of Stephen King because I saw myself and people I knew (the regular Joes, not the vampires and killer
clowns!) in his stories. Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy because he's not afraid to tackle huge themes and tell a rip roaring story at the same time. Wodehouse and David Sedaris because they make me laugh so hard and I love to laugh. To Kill a Mockingbird because it so perfectly conjures childhood, and because I love Jem and Scout and Dill and Atticus and Boo Radley so much.
HF: Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about his or her work?
JD: James Joyce. When I read him, I feel like I actually understand life. Just a little.
HF: What can your fans expect from you next?
JD: I'm currently working hard on a new young adult novel, and I'm feverishly plotting out the storyline of the third Rose book -- The Wild Rose.
Heather wishes to thank Jennifer Donnelly for her time. You can read more about the author and her work at her website.
In November 2007 I visited Aldeburgh, Suffolk on a beautiful sunny winter day and met up with Sarah Bower, author of Needle in the Blood. I love this book so much that it was a real thrill for me to meet the author and I bombarded her with questions and comments and here is the gist of our conversation.
ESL: First of all Sarah, and I am trying very hard not to gush here, I have to say that I simply loved Needle in the Blood, just in case you have not yet realised this...I became totally immersed in this book and was more or less incommunicado for two days while I read it and I wondered what initially gave you the idea of writing about the Bayeaux Tapestry.
SB: I was watching Simon Scharma's History of Britain on the TV and he showed a picture of a part of the Tapestry depicting a woman and child fleeing their burning home and said that this was probably the first record of the effect of war on the civilian population. This started me thinking in new ways about the Bayeaux Tapestry. I was about to begin my MA in creative writing at the time and this gave me the idea for the novel. And that is how it all started.
ESL: How long did it take you to write?
SB: Three years. I then had the job of finding a publisher but nobody was interested despite my agent's efforts. One publishing house told me they thought it was 'pompous'!
ESL: So, how did Snowbooks find you?
SB: Well, I found them. I was Editor of the Historical Review and I had been reviewing a book by one of Snowbook's authors, J D Landis, and I thought I would see if they were interested in Needle. So I sent an email to Emma with the first three chapters attached and within 12 hours she got back to me asking for the rest and within 48 hours she had said yes.
ESL: That must have been exciting...
SB: Oh it was, but of course I had done it by myself and not through my agent which I shouldn't have done but when I told her about it she was wonderful and very pleased for me.
ESL: Now the question that all us bloggers who have loved this book have been dying to ask. Did you have anyone in mind when you created the gorgeous Odo? I know the names of Alan Rickman and Martin Shaw have been bandied about, and then I thought perhaps Ralph Fiennes, but somehow none of them fit.
SB: I suppose I should put you all out of your misery! I adore Alan Rickman as much as anyone, but agree that he is not right for Odo. When I first started out to write about him I really had nobody in mind, but as he took shape, and remember he is a fighting man so he has to be tough and strong, the person who came in mind and who was then Odo for me was Russell Crowe. I think he has just the right combination of sex appeal and the sense he might be just a bit dangerous.
ESL: Oh, yes............
What I also found fascinating about Needle, apart from the main story, were the descriptions of the luxury in which Odo lived, the furs, the silks, the jewellery and the contrast between his life and that of the local peasants.
SB: Yes, of course but this is as much to do with prestige as anything else. The Church and State had to be seen to be powerful and great wealth demonstrated this. The Times recently published a list of the richest Britons of all time and Odo, believe it or not, was sixth on the list! Interestingly, all the top ten were men who had come to England with the Conqueror. Roman Abramoviich was about number 60.
ESL: When I first read Needle in the Blood I was reminded of my teen years when I read Katherine by Anya Seton and fell in love with John of Gaunt as described by the author and, though the story ends happily in that they married late in life, I always felt it had a muted ending with a rather melancholy feel about it. I felt the same at the end of Needle and though it was really the only way the affair between Odo and Gytha could possibly end, I wish in a way it could have been happier.
SB: Well it was always going to end in tears. First of all, Odo's enemies and his brother William would not tolerate Gytha's influence over him and, let's face it, Gytha was difficult to live with. She never did what he wanted and in the end would probably have driven him mad.
ESL: Now, though we all know the Bayeaux Tapestry, it really is an embroidered hanging and not a tapestry at all?
SB: The French word for a wall hanging is 'tapisserie' and so we have tended to call any wall hanging a tapestry, when really tapestry as we know it, is one of those canvassy affairs with needle and wool.
ESL: Can you let me know if Needle is going to be published in the States?
SB: I think it is next May but you had better check with Emma first!
ESL: I did and it is the end of April 2008.
SB: Lovely, thanks for telling me
ESL: When is the next book going to be published and what it is called?
SB: It's due in May 2008 and is called The Book of Love. Its hero is Cesare Borgia who I have always found fascinating
ESL: Bet you read Jean Plaidy when you were in your teens...
SB: Yes I did! And I got the bug then. My heroine is a Spanish Jewess expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the diaspora of 1492, who flees to Italy and becomes entangled in the lives of both Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.
The Borgia family are totally fascinating and not as they are generally portrayed. Lucrezia, for example, was not a poisoner but an educated cultured woman. She married three times, had five children and her last marriage to the Duke of Ferrara lasted seventeen years and he was devastated when she died. If you go to Ferrara and look at statutes and pictures of her there, she is fondly remembered for the sophistication of her court and her gallantry when the city was threatened by a Papal army during the War of the League of Cambrai.
ESL: Unlike the Jean Plaidy books and the Donizetti opera where she was portrayed as nothing but a poisoner...
SB: Exactly, and last year Sarah Bradford wrote a biography of her showing Lucrezia's true character, a wonderful book which I read as part of my research and would strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the facts - as well as my fiction of course!
ESL: Any ideas for a third?
SB: Oh yes, I am thinking of Juana, know as 'the mad' who was the eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella - Catherine of Aragon's sister - and who was married to Philip of Flanders, know as 'the Handsome'.
ESL: Jean Plaidy again...I remember reading her book about the mad Juana.
SB: Not sure that she ever was mad. She was just thought to be so because she was intelligent and knew her own mind and, again, well educated. She had the misfortune to fall in love with her husband and was unhappy as a result.
ESL: Now you teach Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Is this full or part time?
SB: No, it is part time and I also do some private mentoring. I try to keep it this way so that I have plenty of time for my writing. I am very pleased with the response to Needle in the Blood. It is selling well and I am just so delighted that it has been reviewed by so many wonderful bloggers so many thanks to you all.
I had a lovely time in Aldeburgh and deem it a great privilege to meet Sarah after I enjoyed her book so much. I did the 'groupie' bit and whipped out my copy for her to sign, which she duly did, and it is now residing on my shelf once more and though several friends of mine to whom I loan books have asked if they can borrow it, I have said, "No go and buy it." Let's hope they do as they are told.....
Needle in the Blood is published by Snowbooks in the UK.
Susan Vaught's latest book, Big Fat Manifesto, was released on December 26, 2007. You can learn more about Susan and her other books at her website.
Melissa F.: How did you decide to become a writer? Is it something you've "always" wanted to do?
Susan Vaught: I don't know that I consciously decided to become a writer. Writing claimed me. I tried my hand at ballet dancing, painting, and other artistic pursuits, but the two that called me most were music (piano, guitar, singing), and writing. I began compulsively churning out poems when I was very young, and have done so since then. I wrote short stories and novels off and on all through college, always planning to write more seriously, give it a go as a career, "someday." Someday arrived about 7 years ago. I started writing seriously, determined to understand and learn the craft and improve--really move forward. So, yes, it's something I've always wanted to do, and finally structured my life to allow it.
MF: Why did you decide to write Big Fat Manifesto? What audience did you have in mind?
SV: Big Fat Manifesto happened because the main character popped into my head and *would not shut up.* I was writing something else, and her smart mouth commented on every little thing. I finally started writing chapters to make her be quiet five minutes so I could get my other book done. Never really happened--Jamie shutting up, I mean. I had to stop everything, everything in my life, and write that book, just to reclaim my own brain. Audience...teens--any teen who likes humor, action, a little romance, and a real look into the truth of being someone else, of being different from average, and refusing to apologize for it. I think any woman, no matter her age, would enjoy Big Fat Manifesto. Young men have enjoyed it, too, thus far, because it makes them laugh a lot.
MF: How do you think readers will react to your book? What do you want them to/hope they will take away from reading it?
SV: I figure some will be in love, and others will be offended because Jamie, the main character, is FAT, and doesn't want anyone looking away from that fact--or her, because of that fact. I hope readers will be captured, read it in one sitting, and left thinking and debating about points Jamie raised. I hope they'll take away a deeper understanding of living fat in a thin world, of how it feels to be judged in so many ways every day, and how it feels to love and lose--and love again. I also hope teens, many of whom are having or considering having bariatric surgery, will better understand bariatric surgery, and the courage and pain involved in that choice. I hope they realize it's not a quick fix, or an easy fix, but a very difficult and dangerous, though potentially miraculous, choice--and that it won't be just their body that will change.
MF: Do you feel your past struggles with weight effected writing Big Fat Manifesto? Do you see yourself in any of the characters in this book?
SV: Oh, absolutely my struggles had bearing on what I wrote. I have lived Jamie's life for most of mine. I see a little of me in all the characters, and as I noted in my introduction--I wasn't Jamie in high school, but I sure wanted to be. I *dreamed* of having that much courage, that kind of wit. I was more like the softer side of Jamie. The girl who hurt in silence.
MF: How has your work as a neuropsychologist affected your writing, especially this book?
SV: My daily work with teens colors every word I write. I've been listening to teens (and adults, too) talk for many, many years. I've ridden the ebb and flow of trauma with them, heard the problems, and I'm always aware of that, and in awe of them and their strength, when I sit down to create a story.
MF: What writers have influenced you the most?
SV: I'd have to say writers I aspire to be like with respect to the breadth and depth of their work, not to mention the incredible quality. Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, Orson Scott Card, Octavia Butler, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, Anne Rice--that's just a handful. Sylvia Plath, Louisa May
Alcott, Daphne Du Maurier--this list could be endless. One other to include, too, is Corrie Ten Boom. The Hiding Place is a book a reread every few years (one of the few I do). The combination of her raw, natural voice, her storytelling, and the intensity of the truths in that book never really leave me, and set a standard I can only hope to shoot toward. They all do, really.
MF: Where do you find inspiration for your stories?
SV: I find inspiration EVERYWHERE. Random ideas, things I see at work or home, dreams, even typos and sentence fragments that set off a thought. Most recently my editor made a joke that became a proposal that's being taken to acquisitions now--it could come from anywhere.
MF: Which is more difficult writing or re-writing? How much rewriting do you do? Does anyone else read your drafts before your editor/publisher?
SV: Rewriting is definitely the killer. Augh. Hate it! Hate it! Thankfully, I don't have to do much. I've got one piece I'm on a third revision for, but that's rare, or I'd lose my mind. I have a very solid and helpful critique group that provides invaluable challenges as I proceed. If I'm insecure about a piece, my agent will also look at it, which is a blessing.
MF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Any writing "rituals"?
SV: I have a writing cabin I created just for myself--a little oasis of peace that's bright and full of research books. It has a couch and beanbags and a desk and chair, and it's in the middle of our gardens. I love it. If I'm in an odd mood, I might write anywhere on the farm, or upstairs, or in my recliner in the corner in the living room. Ritual-wise, I have taken to doing copyedits at Starbucks. I bribe myself with another delicious coffee drink every 100 pages or so. It
MF: Do you read a lot? What's your favorite book or author? What are you currently reading?
SV: I read a LOT. All the time. Right now my favorites would have to be the Harry Potter Series and Lord of the Rings, and Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books. George R.R. Martin's Fire and Ice series has me deeply obsessed as well. Currently I'm reading Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books, because somehow I missed that series while I was in high school and college.
MF: Who, or what, inspires you?
SV: My family inspires me, and my critique partners. My agent, my editor, my publicist--really, all the folks at Bloomsbury who are so supportive of me. My many pets inspire me. Across my life, I'd have to say the two most inspiring people were my maternal grandmother, whom I lost about 2 years ago (she was 96), and my son JB, who succeeds in life despite many obstacles.
MF: If you don't mind telling us, what can we look forward to from you next?
SV: I have many, many pieces on deck right now! The next few will probably be Oathbreaker, a tense fantasy I'm cowriting with my son JB about a young man forced into training as an assassin, then Exposed, a contemporary piece about a teen's foray into internet relationships and pornography, and Dead Draw, a mystery-suspense piece I'm co-writing with Christine Taylor-Butler, about a group of friends torn apart by a rape accusation.
MF: Thanks so much for your time!!!
SV: You're very welcome!
I have a confession. I horrible, goofy, slap-ya-mama confession.
Despite my two degrees in English, I've always been afraid of the classics. In the past, when I contemplated picking up a book, a classic wouldn't even begin to tapdance through my head. Or, in truth, if it did attempt to dance...to put a toe toward the time step, I would quickly mentally squash the inkling into a sad western canon pancake.
I've always had good memories of classics. Those books that were force-fed to me during my high school and college years. If asked to recall a list of all-time favorites, I would likely include such worthy works as A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, The Professor's House, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Great Gatsby. You see, having been hog-tied and beaten into the submission of reading classics I've always liked them.
One of my biggest fears as I finished up my Master's degree during the summer of 2007 was the "English major curse"--that seemingly inevitable cooling off period that always seems to follow a degree involving literature. To my supreme surprise, I never encountered the slump, and in fact I began reading more voraciously than ever before. And my main course has been classics.
Thanks to a wonderful Yahoo! discussion group, Thematic Classic Challenge, I have finally--after 6 years of intensive literary study--demystified the classics. It's about damn time. You see, the basic premise of the Thematic Classic Challenge is to read one classic per month that adheres to a theme. No real hard and fast deadlines, no pressure to discuss at length, but the opportunity to share and rejoice in the classics is available and tantalizing.
I suppose the difference between then is evident in a number of ways. My aversion to classic literature probably had something to do with a) deadlines b) anal retentive analysis c) my having the attention span of a salmon. With a grand thing called "free time" at my disposal, I'm no longer intimidated by flowery language, esoteric plots, and generally hefty tomes. In fact, I think I've read more classics in the last six months than I read during the entirety of my graduate school career; partially a testament to my degree in Children's Literature and its lack of western canon classics, and partially a testament to my keen ability to skirt around and half-ass my assignments.
I suppose you could say that now that I've finished my degree, my education is finally beginning. I find myself diving into classics with vigor and an insatiable need to figure out how they did that. I'm studying the classics in a way I've never done before--as a writer interested in the process and for the sake of reading in general. No assignments, no deadlines, just a wide-open opportunity to explore, enjoy, and analyze if I want to and what I want to.
It feels good.
I’ve just finished reading some Arthur Conan Doyle. It didn’t feature Sherlock Holmes, still less Dr Watson. It didn’t have dinosaurs or strange expeditions, though it did involve a certain amount of Egyptology. ‘The Ring of Thoth’ is one of the many short stories he wrote, and one that most people don’t get to read, because it’s not in one of Conan Doyle’s most popular works.
As it happens, he wrote a great many things most people won’t know much about. Obviously more ardent fans will know about these works, but for me it was still something of a shock when, in search of his obscure cricketing short story ‘Spedegue’s Dropper’ I ran his name through my university library’s records. It came back with novels I’d never heard of, short story collections such as The Green Flag and Other Stories of War and Sport, a couple of serious works on the Boer war and a volume or two on fairies.
In the end, I ran out of time before I got to the short story I was looking for, but I did learn something. With even a little looking, it’s possible to find all sorts of unexpected things by favourite authors, things that are often every bit as good as their better known work.
Searching for short stories is usually a good place to start. Most authors will have written them at some point, and thanks to the wonders of the net, it’s often easy to find lists of where they can be found. With a relatively popular author, you might not even have to do this, because they are the one group of people who can tell a publisher that they’d like to put together a short story collection and get a positive response.
Given that we’re dealing with favourites, it’s probably no surprise that I’m going to mention a couple of collections by Neil Gaiman at this point, namely Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. Some of the stories deal with characters from his novels, as with the piece featuring Shadow from American Gods, ‘Monarch of the Glen’. Far more, though, take us down paths that don’t show up in his novels in a mixture of strange prose and equally strange poetry.
Not everyone appreciates short stories. I know at least one person who finds this sort of short story collection annoying, on the basis that you get glimpses into fictional worlds without any of the follow through found in a full length novel. Personally, I find these brief glimpses fascinating, but anyone who shares my friend’s opinion isn’t totally stumped. Take Laurell K. Hamilton, for example, another of my favourite authors. While I enjoy her short story collection Strange Candy, those who don’t and still want to find something interesting away from her main series still have options. They could try the novel Death of a Darklord, for example, or they could go for her first novel, Nightseer.
Both of those are still at least vaguely within her normal genre. Other authors though, stray a little further from their roots, because they want to try something new, or because they’re trying to write in a particularly popular area, or just because they’re very easily distracted.
I’m not entirely sure which of these explanations is responsible for Terry Pratchett’s book The Unadulterated Cat, and I’m not sure I want to guess. The idea of one of the world’s most successful fantasy authors sitting down and writing a book about cats jars somehow, but the book works. Presumably that’s because good, funny writing works just as well whether applied to the Discworld or to issues such as exactly how cats always manage to be on the wrong side of a locked door.
More commonly the change is less offbeat. With her novel, Exit Strategy, Kelly Armstrong took a brief break from writing supernatural thrillers to write… a thriller. A very good one, as it happens, and again proof that good writing usually transfers pretty well between genres. The best part about switches like this, it seems, is that they provide a good way of combining that ‘start of a series freshness’ with the knowledge that you’ll enjoy the author’s work. At least, so long as the switch is temporary. I doubt if anyone would appreciate it if their favourite author announced that they were abandoning their normal books permanently.
Occasionally, just occasionally, a favourite author doesn’t have to do any of this to provoke surprise. For those who don’t know his work, Robert Twigger is principally from the ‘do something that’s equal parts stupid and heroic, and then write about it’ school of writing. I’ve included him in this article on surprising favourites because 1) He is one of my favourite authors and 2) The appearance of one of his books on the shelves of my local bookshop always comes as something of a shock.
That’s not so much a comment on anything about the books as it is on the perils of discovering that a lesser-known writer is one of your favourites. With writers like Arthur Conan Doyle, we lose track of their lesser-known works through a combination of time and an over-concentration on their most popular stuff. With popular modern writers, the surprise comes with works for fans, things that don’t get pushed as much as their regular work.
With less popular writers, the surprise is for different reasons. Partly it’s because each book doesn’t have the build up that more popular authors get. Partly, it’s because it doesn’t necessarily hit the shelves of your local bookshop as soon as it comes out, the owner never having heard of them. Occasionally, it’s because it takes them a while between books. In that case, you start to worry that you were the only one buying the books and their publisher has dropped them.
Whatever the reasons, there’s plenty of scope for surprise with a favourite author whether they’re well established or not. Take a moment to think about your own favourite. Are you sure you’ve read everything they’ve written, that there aren’t a couple of odd volumes of poetry lying in some corner of a library? Take the time to check, and you could be pleasantly surprised. As for me, I’ll be off back to my own library, to see if I can’t finally read that short story.
The idea was simple; have Uatu the Watcher, the cosmic being who dwelled on the moon observing and recording history on Earth, host his own series where he could peer into alternate realities. The series was What If…? The main premise of the book was to take a moment in Marvel Comics history and answer what would have happened if the event played out differently than what we had all known to pass.
The series began in 1977, the very first issue dealing with a question stemming from the golden age of Marvel Comics and the very first team-up: what if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four (from Amazing Spider-Man #1). The stories were often told within a single issue focusing on a variety of characters. Because the books had no effect on the other books being published, stories were often allowed to shake up the world of the character, by either killing off an important member of the cast or the character themselves (“What if Wolverine had killed the Hulk?”), or by keeping someone who died alive (“What if Phoenix had not died?”). Abilities (“What if the Fantastic Four had different abilities?”) and roles (“What if Dr. Doom had become a hero?”) were often switched between characters, and origins were tweaked to completely change the path of a character’s life (“What if Dr. Strange had not become master of the mystic arts?”). It also allowed the creators to have some fun within the Marvel Universe they crafted with such tales as “What if the Marvel Bullpen (Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Flo Steinberg and Sol Brodsky) had the powers of the Fantastic Four?”
The first volume ran for 47 issues until 1984 when it was inevitably cancelled. A 1988 follow-up special, “What if Iron Man Had Been a Traitor?”, had opened up the door to an all-new series the following year which lasted 114 issues. While initially following the format of its predecessor, the series soon began to grow into it’s own with the introduction of multi-issue stories (“Timequake” was the unifying story between each What If? scenario from #35-39) and updated retellings of ones featured in the last volume (“What if Captain America were revived today?”). During the Acts of Vengeance multi-title crossover, the cosmic hero Quasar traveled through a few of the worlds presented in both volumes of What If, finally connecting them to the main Marvel Universe in another way other than Uatu.
With the stories beginning to take center stage, and events transpiring within the Fantastic Four issues at that time, a need for a narrator was becoming obsolete and thus Uatu was slowly phased out of the book. Issue #76, “What if Peter Parker Had to Destroy Spider-Man?”, marked his final starring issue of the series. The series began to take more changes as it progressed. No longer were specific divergent points referenced from the original comics. Marvel also started promoting the book as being the “darker side of the Marvel Universe,” as more twisted stories were presented without any indication on what the “what if” actually was (like issue #88, where Spider-Man’s spider bite from Amazing Fantasy #15 turned him into a spider-monster but was simply dubbed by the book “Spider-Man: Arachnomorphosis”).
The most notable issue of volume 2 would be #105, which presented a scenario in which Spider-Man’s baby had lived (or been returned to him, depending on your take of Spider-Man #75 and Amazing Spider-Man #435). She had grown to a teenager with her father’s spider powers, and circumstances led her to becoming the Amazing Spider-Girl. That single issue led to the creation of the MC2 (Marvel Comics 2) imprint where legacy characters roam a Marvel Universe 15 years in the future from the main one, including the Fantastic Five, Avengers Next, J2, the son of Juggernaut, Wild Thing, the daughter of Wolverine, and more. Although, it should be noted that as the main universe progressed, the divergence between it and the MC2-verse became increasingly greater.
The series was again cancelled in 2000 because of plans to launch the all-new Exiles title the following year. Exiles would be about a collection of heroes from alternate universes that were charged with the task of fixing alternate realities before they collapsed and were destroyed, thus saving their own home worlds. Due to their traveling to countless alternate realities with What If…? type environments, it was deemed that having both series would be redundant. This decision was reversed in 2005 when Marvel decided to resurrect the series with a few one-shot issues. Once again, Uatu was back as narrator for a couple of the stories, while the others featured lead-ins by a comic shop worker and a kid surfing the Internet. Like the older comics, these focused around a specific event in a character’s life which changed to go in the other direction. Notably, a few of the ideas were similar to ones done before in concept, but differed in execution.
Following the success of these issues, another two batches were released the following year, the latest of the two focusing around recent events in the comic books like X-Men: Age of Apocalypse, Wolverine: Enemy of the State and Spider-Man: The Other. The 2007 collection also took the same direction, presenting alternate takes on Planet Hulk, Civil War and Annihilation.
With the new issues of What If…?, Marvel has begun releasing the classic issues in trade paperback form. More one-shots are planned on the horizon, and with almost 50 years of history there are many more story possibilities to be told. In the meantime, readers can enjoy alternate versions of their favorite Marvel characters in the pages of New Exiles (coming soon).
WHAT IF? IS AVAILABLE IN:
What If? Classic vol 1-4.
What If?: Why Not?
What If?: Mirror Mirror
What If?: Event Horizon
X-Men: Alterniverse Visions
For a complete listing of all What If? issues and stories, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_What_If_issues
If you're reading this 'zine in the first place, then you are most likely a book-lover. You probably enjoy nothing more than spending hours at a bookstore or library, holding novels and poetry collections in your bare hands, flipping through the pages and inhaling that book smell. I am one of those people as well. I always scoffed at the idea of virtual libraries and digital books.
That is, until my mother gave me an Amazon Kindle for Christmas.
I am not going to sit here and try to plug the Kindle because, honestly, I don't know what other devices are out there and how much better or worse they are. I do, however, think that this might be good fodder for discussion on the future of reading as related to technology.
I took a four hour flight yesterday that was unlike any previous flight I have ever taken because it was the first time I was able to carry 200 books in my purse with me. When I got bored with one title, I simply switched to another. Lightweight, portable, no hassle.
How these electronic reading devices work is quite simple: you hook them up to your computer and download ebooks onto them. When it comes to the Kindle, you can either purchase brand new books from Amazon for about $10 each, or you can just go to free ebook sites and download titles from deceased authors that are available in the public domain. Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll... you can put works from all of these authors and more onto your device absolutely free.
You can also subscribe to newspapers and magazines that will arrive at your device on their own each month.
In other words, readers who are hesitant about embracing the new digital revolution need to realize that what has been made available to us is pretty amazing.
Will I sell all my paperbacks now? Of course not. But traveling in the future will certainly be a lot more pleasant.
Tempting as it is to take this month’s theme and expound on the ubiquitous New Year’s resolution, I’m inclined to avoid going that route. That’s partly because you’ll get more than enough of that everywhere else you look, and also partly because I’ve already written about five columns on that topic already and I’m frankly ready to snatch myself bald when I think about writing about it again. So yeah, enough of that old chestnut. It’s been roasted on the open fire, and good riddance to it.
Instead, I’ll take it in a direction I’ve already gone, but one which I think can’t be written about enough. That is, myself. No, not myself as in “Look at me, world! Aren’t I wonderful!,” but as in this is what I’ve been through, and maybe it’ll help you, too. It’s kind of like an infomercial, but you don’t have to worry about the volume. If it becomes too obnoxious, just look away.
I’m all about helping others in the small ways that I’m able. I’m a compassionate person, politically I’m socially liberal, and as far as heart goes mine has a permanent big WELCOME! mat lying over it. I’m also, in a combination that seems potentially dangerous, unafraid to tell people things about myself, to share experiences, admit failings and basically pour myself out there for public consumption.
But caution! I am not fat free. Be sure to check with your physician before beginning this program. While it is advisable to keep your hands inside during the ride, please also keep in mind I am ticklish.
Standard disclaimers aside, there’s one thing I’d like to recommend to you when it comes to the theme of “possibilities.” Take a hard look at yourself, at your life, and at how happy you are. Whether you’re currently happy with your lot or not, and not to seem too morbid or anything, but remember this: life is finite. It’s also not exactly certain we’ll ever have more than one go around. Some think that’s the case, but frankly I don’t know anyone who’s been there and back again. Definitive evidence is lacking. So to my mind, it’s better to play it safe and just assume this is it.
And if this is it, seriously consider what that means. We’re all hurling around here on this planet together, each going through our own individual one virtual time around. Every single one of us cherishes something. Everyone has a special talent, or a special need that deserves attention. Some are more fortunate than others. A whole lot of us are lucky just to survive from day to day. That may be the most important point of all. Life isn’t necessarily distributed equally. To my way of thinking that means to those whom much is given much should, in turn, be expected. Another way of putting that is use your talents. Do good work. Imagine the world as it would be if we all pooled our collective goodness and threw that out into the world. Imagine who’d be there to catch it, and what it would mean to them.
This isn’t a lecture, and it definitely isn’t a life plan. It’s just one, lone writer reminding you we’ll all be dead soon. Ack, no! That’s not what I meant. I just mean, be mindful. Life is short, it’s inherently immune to either being fair or unfair, and each one of us has this one shot at greatness. And I don’t mean greatness as in becoming a historical figure your grandchildren will study in textbooks, either. Be great where you are. Find your bliss and go with it.
Go forth and realize the possibilities. The world will thank you for it.
*Original photography used with permission by Lisa Guidarini.
I used to read fiction books almost exclusively. The little non-fiction I
did read was mostly related to research for my own novels, and many times
not even the entire book. For whatever reason, non-fiction just didn't
engage me the way fiction did.
My first heavy reading of fiction centered around King Arthur and the Matter
of Britain. The next great focus of my interest was French decadence. Later
I read extensively in magical realism. All along I dipped regularly into
what most of us regard as the classics of literature. In the last year,
through connections such as Estella's Revenge, I have been exposed to and
sampled many different types of fiction that I would not normally have
chosen on my own. And a great deal of my reading time was spent engulfed in
Recently, though, I have stared blankly at the novels on my shelf. I have
begun a few and lost any interest long before the last page. Non-fiction is
what has kept me busy reading, what has primarily engaged me through this
fall and into the winter. I have enjoyed books about Vermeer, the American
Revolution, space, history, politics, early Christianity, and, of course,
books about books. Over the past several years, I have elected to read
non-fiction books more and more often, but this is the first time they have
ever been my preferred reading material.
I cannot explain why I sometimes crave pizza, or chocolate chip cookies.
Usually I satisfy such a craving with the understanding that my body has
communicated an urgent need for some key ingredient in those foods. Neither
can I explain the change in my preferred reading material. Is it a base
dissatisfaction with the quality of modern fiction? Is it a remarkable
improvement in the quality of modern non-fiction? Is it a renewed thirst for
knowledge? Is it a process of aging, an unrecognized shift in outlook toward
life, that what might be has passed, and what is will forever be? My mind, like my body, must know what it needs.
Non-fiction is a record of facts. Writers like Jacques Barzun, John Ferling,
and Peggy Noonan have a talent for turning those facts into stories, of
engaging the reader, of showing us a larger picture and greater meaning.
They allow one to learn the facts almost subconsciously, without having to
study them. Fiction is factual, too--even fantasies about unicorns or
horrors about vampires are constructed on a set of internally consistent
laws. What fiction presents to us that non-fiction cannot is possibilities.
When I write, I use fiction to explore possibilities. What if an act of
treason was actually a tragic misunderstanding? What if a man wanted to live
out loud? What if a woman could transgress the bounds of reality? What if
Jesus fathered a daughter? What if a bookstore was a portal to infinite
possibilities? I read non-fiction to learn about things already known. I
write and read fiction to learn about things yet unknown. For this reason
alone, I will probably always favor fiction.
Non-fiction has likely established itself as something I will continue to
seek out and enjoy. But soon I will read another novel that absolutely
amazes me. My appetite for fiction will be renewed, and so many books that
have been waiting patiently on the shelf will gain my attention. I will
wonder again at what might be.
Pick up a book of fiction today. The possibilities are endless.
Written by Jessica Day George
Release date: January 8
Reviewed by Melissa
We are all familiar with fairy tales, having heard them -- in some form at least -- since we were young. Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, Puss 'n Boots... they are bedtime stories, Disney movies, picture books. But they are also fairly one-dimensional. We know nothing about the characters, the motivations, the history. So fairy tales have some of the best possibilities for creating novels. But, I come to believe that writing a novelization of a fairy tale is a fine art. It needs to have all the elements, or at least all the major elements, of the original tale, and yet have some original spin on it. The characters need to have a back-story and motivations and reasons for the magical events surrounding the tale. And, perhaps most importantly, the characters need to be sympathetic and the events if not plausible, then at least believable.
Novelizing fairy tales has become a trend, at least in middle-grade and young adult fiction, as of late. Ella Enchanted (Gail Carson Levine) and Just Ella (Margaret Peterson Haddix) took on the Cinderella story. Wildwood Dancing (Juliet Marillier) and The Goose Girl (Shannon Hale) drew their stories from lesser-known tales. Donna Jo Napoli has written several novelizations of different fairy tales, including Rapunzel (Zel) and Beauty and the Beast (Beast). As has Robin McKinley. As with all stories, some are better than others.
And then there's the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon.
The story is a simple one: A white bear offers to take a girl -- in this case, nameless pika (or Lass), for her mother was too disappointed in having a fifth girl to name her -- from a poor family to live in his enchanted castle for one year and one day, in exchange for wealth for her family. Living in the castle is fairly uneventful for the girl, except that every night, someone comes to sleep with her in the bed. After a while, she aches to go home, and the white bear relents, with one condition: she must not tell anyone what happens in the castle. She breaks this condition, tells, in George's story, her sister about the stranger in the bed, and her sister gives her a candle. Back at the castle, she lights the candle and sees that it's a man in the bed with her. Unfortunately, with this act, she seals his fate: he's been enchanted by the troll princess and he is taken away to marry her in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon. The girl then sets out to search for the man (whom she realized, too late, was the white bear). She walks for ages, and stopping at the house of three aged monsters (aunties) where she picks up some everyday items -- a jar of apple jam, a spindle, and a comb. Eventually, the north wind agrees takes her to the castle. Once there, she trades the gifts to the troll princess for visits to the prince, and finally succeeds in breaking the troll princess's curse.
It's a story ripe with material to work with. And George does an excellent job with some of it. The world she creates is rich in Norse myth, culture, and language (there's even a glossary). Which adds to the authentic feel the book has: magical -- animals talk, yet only to the lass -- yet it's an organic magic. No fancy spells, no magical props (save for a journal that helps the lass communicate with her family): the magic originates from a deeper source. The lass is a curious character: determined to figure out every last secret in the castle, she persists in asking questions, some of which get others into trouble. Her persistence becomes an asset later, though, and perhaps she redeems herself through this. George also succeeded in making her sympathetic, even though I've found it difficult to be sympathetic to nameless characters in the past. The lass's family was also well done; while I couldn't keep every person straight in my mind, the important ones -- her mother, her brothers Hans Peter and Askeladden, and her sister Tordis -- were quite compelling. Her mother and Askeladden were sufficiently arrogant and disdainful; and Tordis was only concerned for the lass's welfare. I especially liked Hans Peter. Out of all the characters in the book, his was the most interesting; sullen and sad, yet the only one who really showed the lass any affection. His stories from his seafaring time that he tells the lass, his wood carving, and even his parka all play a major role in the lass's adventure.
But George's retelling, while good, lacked the necessary elements needed for it to be great. Because she kept so closely to the original story, I was able to predict pretty much what would happen and when. I didn't feel that there was much of a connection between the bear and the lass; while I could understand her desire to go after him, I didn't feel that their profession of love was at all believable. And in the end, I was left feeling that while there were real possibilities in the book, George didn't fully develop them, or put enough of her own stamp on the original fairy tale. I felt that something essential was missing: I wanted depth and conflict and connection, and I got Norse words and Hans Peter.
But, that's part of the risk of retelling fairy tales. It's an opportunity to tell and retell the same story in a myriad of different ways. Sometimes they work really well; other times not so much. Either way, it's an interesting adventure.
Written by Jon Clinch
Reviewed by Lisa Guidarini
I'll admit it. I've always been pretty much an elitist when it comes to the topic of literature. I was, you see, AN ENGLISH MAJOR. Not exactly a rare breed, but an elite one that's very proud of itself, thanks very much.
I received my B.A. in English literature from a very small, private, liberal arts school in suburban Chicago, and at the time I thought I was clearly answering just about the highest calling a book lover can. What I came to find out later, painfully so, was the rest of the world couldn't really have cared much less about how passionate I was about my area of study. Ultimately, I had a really expensive piece of paper to hang on my wall, and no viable opportunity for employment. But what I did have was my thoroughly snobbish stance on WHAT IS GREAT LITERATURE. On that I was unshakable.
For most of my life I thought it heresy to mess with the greatness that is the western canon. Works like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea were always a huge thorn in my side. They were supremely irritating to me, in that self-righteous way things that are lowly irritate the ENGLISH MAJOR. How dare you mess with Jane Eyre, you upstart! Go write your own stuff, woman! Leave the Brontes alone. If Charlotte had wanted us to know Bertha's story she'd have written it in! Period. Now, leave off.
Blah, blah, blah. I dusted off the frame of my diploma with my tear-stained sleeve, weeping all over again at the injustice of it all.
Then came Michael Cunningham, whose The Hours made a foray into the world of Virginia Woolf that had steam coming out my ears. MY Virginia! I read the book once and thought "yeah, okay, interesting enough but it's a pale shadow." I read it again, and thought, "wow, I think I missed something the first time through, this is really timely and provocative." I read it a third time, and, finally, thought THIS IS BRILLIANT AND A GREAT HOMAGE."
When Random House sent me a copy of Finn to review I was intrigued. I respect Mark Twain's place in the American canon because he's, well, Mark Twain. He's iconic. He was uproariously funny, to put it very mildly, but he was also brilliantly socially aware, something that got him into a lot of hot water during his lifetime and still keeps him on the banned lists today. I knew all about Twain, but Jon Clinch I didn't know. He was new, and untested. This was his FIRST BOOK! He was no Mark Twain. I raised an eyebrow (the left, if you're wondering), skeptically.
Surprisingly, I found the premise of the book grabbed me immediately. The shadowy figure of Huckleberry Finn's father, the floating house, the body.... It had been so long since I'd read the book I'd forgotten all about those details. As lover of darkly written gothic writing, though, that was enough to sway me. I opted to read the book.
By the end of the first chapter I knew it. This was THE REAL THING. This wasn't the pale shadow, this was the strutting, self-assured player. Finn was, simply, a damn fine examination of what lay beneath the cryptic, incomplete portrait of what Mark Twain must have had in mind for Huck's father. This was the whole story, laid out for us, filled in with detail Twain probably didn't have in mind, but fulfilling the spirit of his inspiration. It was, essentially, the sort of dark masterpiece it should have been, to dare take on the task of fleshing out one of Mark Twain's characters.
Finn takes this one tiny sliver of information from Huckleberry Finn and expands it out to a tale about one of the most soulless characters in American literature. It tells the story of a man so without human morality, and so animalistic in nature, it's almost impossible to believe he could be real. Almost. The depth of the depravity in the book is nothing short of startling, but also nothing short of genius. That it's violent, and at times depicts the most vile side of humanity, is true, but it does so in one of the most well-conceived, most tightly-woven books I've read in a long time.
Finn could stand on its own, even if there had never been a Huckleberry Finn. It's that well-written and beautifully executed. But the fact it does base itself on the iconic classic, and does it so well, gives it a new facet altogether. The book should be studied alongside Twain's book in the university classroom. It should be studied in writing classes, as well. This is what we need more of in contemporary American writing. It's a substantial, brilliantly executed book that's both pain and pleasure within the same cover. As difficult to read as it is, due to its often unflinching brutality, its poetic beauty of style and form make it about as compelling as fiction gets.
Finn is one of the best contemporary books I've read in a very long time. It restored a lot of my faith in modern writing at a time when that was flagging. I look forward to what comes from Jon Clinch next. Whatever that is, I have no doubt it will be brilliant.
Written by Chandra Prasad
Reviewed by April D. Boland
I love books about young boys coming of age at preppy schools, like A Separate Peace and The Secret History. So imagine how much more I enjoyed a novel about just this topic, except for the fact that the young boy was a girl in drag.
On Borrowed Wings is the story of Adele, daughter of an Italian immigrant and stone-cutter who dreams of better things than she, as a female, will ever be able to achieve. That is, until an accident at the quarry claims the life of her brother, Charles, who has been accepted to Yale. Adele assumes Charles' identity and takes his place at the university at a time when women were not admitted (1930s). She encounters all of the typical problems that someone undercover must face - fooling her professors and friends, dealing with the locker room and physical examinations, etc. She also deals with some unusual ethical issues, such as when she gets a work-study position for a eugenics professor who hypothesizes about cleaning out the race and not polluting it with immigrants (such as Adele's own family).
The heroine of the novel was fantastically real and her problems were not entirely wrapped up nicely in the end. Sure, there is some suspension of disbelief, but there are also painful truths and losses. Overall, On Borrowed Wings is a highly entertaining yet didactic read.
Written by Susan Vaught
Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Reviewed by Melissa
I was intrigued by the opening paragraph of Susan Vaught's new novel, Big Fat Manifesto. (I have to admit that I was also intrigued by the title.) Here it is:
I am so sick of reading books and articles about fat girls written by skinny women. Or worse yet, skinny guys. Tell me, what in the name of all that's creamy and chocolate do skinny guys know about being a fat girl?
Meet Jamie Caracterra. She's fat. She's also a journalist, a friend, and a senior, and she's trying to win the National Merit Scholarship so that she can afford to go to college, since her parents can't pay for it, and her grades and SAT scores aren't the greatest. In order to put together a portfolio, she begins a weekly column for the school newspaper (of which she is features editor) where she rants about being fat, the stereotypes and challenges facing fat people, and, eventually, her boyfriend's choice to have bariatric surgery. Writing the column becomes an outlet for Jamie to vent about just about everything.
I liked Jamie from the start; I admired her sass and her willingness to challenge stereotypes. I have to admit, though, that I was concerned about her. She was so caught up in being defined as "the fat girl" that I wondered what would happen when something came along to pull that definition out from under her. And that's exactly what happened when Jamie's boyfriend, Burke, decides to have bariatric surgery. At first, Jamie is unbelieving: why would he want to change the definition of himself, to be skinny? Then she is angry: what sort of teenager would succumb to society's definition of "good-looking" and put themselves through a dangerous surgery to achieve that? And then she is sad: she slowly comes to the realization that, after the surgery, she won't have much in common with Burke anymore.
I'm making this book seem more trite than it really is. Susan Vaught did an excellent job -- through Jamie's column -- of raising awareness of weight issues, of making "fat people" real. At one point, Jamie and her two friends, Freddie and NoNo, go into a hip clothing boutique. NoNo, who's a size two, gets fawned over. Freddie, who's not super skinny but not fat, gets treated nicely, if not attentively. Jamie, though, gets laughed at and ignored. The column she wrote after this experience included this a challenge to "normal" people about the way we all define beauty, and the way we all obsess about what size we are.
The thing that impressed me most about Vaught's writing was that it was challenging me while it was making me laugh. She addressed issues of class, weight, self-definition, love... and created an interesting heroine and a good plot along the way. I think the thing that impressed me most was that Jamie actually grew and changed in the face of her conflict. She didn't want to; she wanted to remain the "fat girl," but as her life changed around her, she found ways to change and adapt and grow. It's always admirable when a writer achieves that with a character.
And the ending was very satisfying. It wasn't all neatly wrapped up, things were left open ended. Yet, you couldn't help but feel hopeful for Jamie, and the person she was beginning to become. A good person, a real person, not just some "fat girl".