Saturday, November 1, 2008

Letter From the Editor - November 2008


With the holidays just around the corner, people tend to spend a little more time counting their blessings. Whether you consider yourself a religious person or not, I think we can all agree that it's positive to sit back and ruminate on the good things in our lives. For most of us, our blessings include books and the time we can afford to devote to reading, so this month's issue is a tasty spread of new books, old books, and lots of good books that you might add to your collection. Enjoy the "blessings" issue.

Table of Contents:

Author Interviews:

Articles:

Columns:

Reviews:

Author Interview: Christine Son

Interviewed by Melissa

Christine Son is a lot of things: a woman, a lawyer, a Korean-American, a person who "loves peach cobbler, silly movies, laughter, stand-up comedians, The Daily Show, Hawaii, Balenciaga handbags, Texas Hold ‘Em, Belvedere vodka, chocolate, Spam (the quasi-food, not the Internet scourge)." And now, she can add writer to that list. Her first novel, Off the Menu, was recently released, and we're pleased that she was able to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about her book, about being a child of immigrants, and about balancing lawyering with writing.

MF: This is your first novel; congrats! Since it's just been released, could you tell our readers a bit about your book?

CS: Off the Menu is about the balance that three, twenty-something year old, successful Asian-American women must strike between who they are (which is the embodiment of everyone's expectations, including their own) and what they want to be (which is different than what anyone would think for them). For example, a character named Whitney is a Harvard grad who is working at a large law firm, but she harbors secret desires to be a folk singer, a path that would floor her parents and, as she believes, her friends. Hercules is an incredibly successful restaurateur, but her relationship with her unassimilated Chinese father threatens her understanding of self. Audrey is adopted by incredibly wealthy parents who think she’s throwing away her life by marrying someone “beneath her.” The story’s also about friendship, because the main characters have been best friends for fifteen years, yet they don't share the most important aspect of themselves for fear of public failure and judgment. In a way, it's my story, as I became a lawyer in part to fulfill what everyone expected of me, my own secret ambitions of writing and my unwillingness to share with anyone what I was doing until the book had sold. Silly, I know. But I think a lot of people have experiences similar to mine.

MF: Lawyer to writer seems like a big career change. Was writing something you always wanted to do, or was this something out of the blue? Have you found it difficult to balance these two parts of your life?

CS: I think I always did want to write, but it seemed like such a luxury of sorts. There was the real world I had to deal with, school loans and family, familial expectations and my own notions of "success." But in the end, I realized that if I was ever going to write, I just had to do it. So I did. I left the law firm and went in-house with a company, which was great in providing a more human work-life balance. When I'm writing, my days are pretty long, and it does feel like I have two full-time jobs, but I love them both. I think that's really the secret to balance--going after those things in life that really matter to you (regardless of what they are) and letting everything else take a back seat.

MF: Do you hope to eventually leave lawyering behind and become a full time writer, or will writing just be something to do in addition to being a lawyer?

CS: People have asked me that a lot, and they always seem a little disappointed when I say that I actually quite like being a lawyer. At least being an in-house lawyer. So long as my relationships at home don't suffer, I'm thrilled to bits to be able to do both. Working gives me a perspective I might not otherwise have. It affords me relationships that I might not be able to dream up. I love my friends at work. And I enjoy the substantive matters of the law. So for now, I'm happy to be able to do both. Of course, when I'm having a wretched day at the office, it is nice to fantasize about leaving to write full time...

MF: How long did the process of writing from conception to finally seeing it in print? How do you feel finally getting your story out there?

CS: Off the Menu went through so many iterations. From first conception to finally seeing it on the shelves--I'd say it took about two and a half years. Publishing is such a hurry-up-and-wait industry. You write, write, write, pray, pray, pray, and then wait, wait, wait. But once a publisher says "yes," it seems like time travels at warp speed. There are tons of revisions, deadlines, editorial guidance. I am so incredibly fortunate to have had such an amazing editor who really molded the story and made it better. Off the Menu's pure fiction, of course, but all fiction is based on something familiar, whether it's a writer's experiences, or her feelings or her fears or whatnot. So, while I'm exhilarated to get my story out there, a part of me feels completely naked and vulnerable. This is my first book, so I don't know if that feeling ever goes away, but I hope that that insecurity doesn't affect the way I write in the future. I've been keeping Salinger's counsel in my mind, which is to say that I'm writing as if no one will read my work. It gives me the confidence and audacity to be honest and naked and vulnerable and all the qualities that make a book authentic.

MF: A lot of people get asked if their first novel is autobiographical. Since your novel about Asian women, I suppose this question is inevitable: did you get your ideas for the novel from your life or people you know?

CS: Of course! Whitney's story isn't exactly like mine. Neither are Hercules's or Audrey's. But I understand where they're coming from, the emotions and feelings they experience. I understand the pressure they put on themselves and the fears they have about disappointing their families or each other or themselves. And a lot of my friends understand the same things, which became a frequent topic of conversation. In fact, those conversations were in large part the impetus of Off the Menu. From a cultural stance, my being Korean (and in Texas, too) does give me another set of lenses with which to view my surroundings, another perspective that dovetails or diverges from those around me. At the same time, the issues in the book (and really, in life in general) are ultimately those that everyone can understand--the balance between the real world and the secret dreams we have, the desire to take care of or please our parents, the friendships that come with both support and increased (at least, perceived) expectation. So, to answer your question in very verbose way, Off the Menu was both a product of my own life and those of my friends, but I also think it's very accessible to everyone.

MF: I think so, too. Which makes me wonder: what do you think was more important in the process of telling this story: being a woman, or being a child of immigrants? Or do you think that they were both equally important?

CS: This is such a great question. The pressure of being a woman and of being a child of immigrants is so similar and so different. They both come with the notion that you have to try harder to succeed. Maybe it's not fair, but I've experienced it enough in the legal industry enough to know that I have to work harder, be better prepared, know my stuff better than the guy next to me if I want to move up. Plus, given that I look like a child, and an Asian one at that, it's even more important that I assert my authority from the outset if I want to be taken seriously. It's a process of perception, of dealing with the world as it sees me, whether shaped by looks or stereotypes or whatnot. Being a child of immigrants, by contrast, is a process of introspection, of dealing with the world as I see it. As I feel it. For sure, there are additional pressures to do right by my parents. What immigrant child hasn't heard her parents say that they moved to this country for her, even if it's not true? What second-generation kid hasn't heard her parents talk about the sacrifices they made to give her a better life? It's another notch on the belt of reasons why so many Asians strive to be doctors or lawyers or engineers, why so many of us feel more bound to traditional professions than to up the risk that we might disappoint our parents. At some point, though, I think we reach a place where we question what the definition of a "better life" really is, if it's the intrinsic joy of a myriad options or financial security. Satisfaction of fulfilled desire or material success. Certainly, this is a tension that children of immigrants share, but it's most definitely not unique to us.

MF: I like that you set the book in Texas; it's not something you expect from a book with Asian main characters. Do you think that there's anything inherent Southern about your book? Or are Asians in Texas somehow separate from your typical "Southern" culture?

CS: I don't know if there's anything inherently Southern about Off the Menu. For sure, there’s a unique flavor in Texas, and to a large extent, I think first-generation Asians are more insular and therefore less assimilative of idiosyncrasies in this state. Because there does tend to be more of a communal attitude (Asians sticking with other Asians), there’s less opportunity to absorb and adopt into one’s life the Texas or Southern culture here. I think second-generation Asians are much more in tune with Texas/Southern culture. I would certainly consider myself to be a Texan. As are the girls in the book.

MF: What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

CS: That it's never too late to reach out for what you want, no matter how small or big it is. It's your life, and you only get one shot. For me, it was so much worse to wonder what could have been with my writing than to have tried and failed miserably. The not-knowing is so much more tortuous and consuming and eventually, I find that it affects every aspect of my life. The book is uplifting, and while it focuses on each girl's conflict of the real world and the dream one, it's also about the friendship they share, the surprising encouragements and support they give each other. Yes, they're competitive and ambitious and aggressive and so on, but they're also each other's most ardent cheerleaders. Which I think is an invaluable comfort.

MF: What are your five favorite books of all time?

CS: So many to choose from! This list might change by the time the interview posts, but for now, I love, love, love: The Life of Pi by Yann Martel; Bel Canto by Ann Patchett; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and About a Boy by Nick Hornby.

MF: If you don't mind, what can we look for from you next?

CS: Well, I'm working on a new novel that focuses on two dysfunctional families who merge through a marriage of convenience. It's a bit of a mess right now, but it's essentially about blending haves and have-nots in an unconventional way. I'll definitely update as the story solidifies, though!

Thanks so much for your time, Christine!

Author Interview: Jennie Shortridge

Interviewed by Andi

Estella's Revenge has the great pleasure of hosting the first stop on Jennie Shortridge's blog tour to promote her latest novel, Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe. She is the author of two other novels, Eating Heaven and Riding with the Queen.


Andi Miller: For the Estella's Revenge readers that might not be familiar with your novel, could you sum it up briefly? It's often more interesting to hear a synopsis from the author herself than the interviewer.


Jennie Shortridge: It's about a woman's journey from "perfect" to better. Mira is a middle-aged, perimenopausal perfectionist whose goal in life has been to live perfectly. When one small piece of that life is toppled, the rest falls around it, and she finds herself in a car headed north from her idyllic Oregon Coast small town and family, dressed only in a thong and bathrobe, and accompanied by a small singing dog named Patsy Cline. Her car breaks down in Seattle, in a funky old neighborhood known to locals as "The Center of the Universe," and this becomes her Oz, where she can discover who she really is and what really matters.

AM: I really enjoyed reading about Mira Serafino's plight in light of her husband's indiscretion. I found it interesting that Mira took off without really knowing the extent to which her husband "slipped" with another woman. Were you ever concerned about keeping Mira believable or staying true to a seemingly "straight laced" character in this regard?


JS: I think that's what novelists worry about constantly, but I also realize that every human is unique. We each receive so many different inputs and experiences and have such varying emotions and reactions, you know? Mira freaked out, completely. Everything she did was against her character, partly because the persona she'd built for herself was a false one. And I think to some women, it doesn't matter if their husbands shared a bed or an intimate conversation--it feels like betrayal.

AM: One of my favorite parts of the book was learning about Mira's work days in the Coffee Shop at the Center of the Universe. All the details about food, coffee, and the preparation involved in a shift were wonderfully mouth watering. Are you a coffee addict yourself and have you had any experience working or lounging in a similar setting?

JS: Oh my God, yes! I live for coffee. I live in Seattle where it's dark all winter long and the only way to wake up is head for the local coffee shop and have a triple tall nonfat latte. I wrote a lot about cooking and food in my second novel, even more so than this one, and it does come from my background cooking in cafes, but also just as a person who loves to cook and to eat.

AM: You said in the Q&A included in the book that you've "never had children, or been a biology teacher, or lived in a small town, or gone through a separation from my husband…" Given the differences between you and Mira, do you have any tricks or advice on how to inhabit a character and begin to flesh them out in writing?

JS: I have an infinite capacity for empathy, too much sometimes. I find writing is a great outlet for that. I've always loved to imagine things, and make up things. I've always written and read about other kinds of people, and I have friends who I've lived vicariously through. When they're going through a break-up, or having trouble with a teenager, I'm a good listening ear and shoulder to cry on. I'm also a superb aunt, so I've hung out a lot with my nieces.

AM: Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe is full of quirky characters. Who was your favorite to write aside from Mira?

JS: I loved writing Thea. And Nonna's letters were fun.

AM: Would you categorize your novel as "women's fiction?" Why or why not? And what might set it apart from other books that deal with similar issues?

JS: Inasmuch as my novels are about women for the most part, and appeal to female readers, yes. Elizabeth Berg said something like "I like women, so I'm happy if they want to call my books women's fiction." I don't really care what they call it, but I'd hate to have my books minimized by being included in a category that precludes other readers. What's funny is that about half of the Amazon reviews for Love and Biology are written by men!

AM: Since you're working on a blog tour, obviously you're receptive to the idea of bloggers dipping into the role of book reviewer. How would you forecast the importance of book bloggers in the publishing industry, and your career specifically, in the future?

JS: I think book bloggers, and customer reviews, are incredibly important to books these days. I think readers trust other readers WAY more than they trust reviewers, just as we trust friends' reviews of movies other those we read in the paper. I welcome it. I love hearing all of the voices out there talking about books!

AM: What type of books do you enjoy reading in your dwindling free time, and could you suggest some of your favorites for our readers?


JS: I enjoy lots of different kinds of books. It's harder to read fiction now that I write it. I'm always in a story, so can't get immersed in another one, or I don't want to. So, when I'm drafting, I'll read nonfiction. Lately I've loved Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Michael Pollan books, and books about teaching writing.

As for fiction, I have managed to consume a few lately, and I've loved The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, The Little Book by Selden Edwards (a new classic, I'm pretty sure), and some old classics that I never got to the first time around.

AM: What advice would you give to new writers trying to break into the publishing industry?

JS: Write. Write something really wonderful that only you can write. Don't think about marketing until you have written it. Then go out and educate yourself about marketing at conferences, through books and organizations, etc. But first, write.

AM: I always have to ask, because it's my very favorite question—do you have any writing "rituals" or practices that you stick to?

JS: I write every weekday morning until I feel finished. And I try to set a timer to get up every 45 minutes so that my back will continue to let me write well into old age.

Thanks so much to Jennie Shortridge for her delightful answers and her captivating novel.


Visit Jennie Shortridge's blog.


Visit TLC Book Tours to visit other stops on Ms. Shortridge's tour.

The Year of Reading

By Jodie

2008 - The Year of Reading

In the UK 2008 has been the official ‘Year of Reading’. It has encouraged people who couldn’t read to go out and learn this important skill and asked parents to pass a love of reading along to their kids. Despite its advanced school system Britain has a serious illiteracy problem. It has attempted to support those who missed out on reading in school back into education

For those of us who were already enthusiastic readers 2008 has just been a normal year. Personally I continued to read vast amounts of books and enjoy reading. Job done the government would probably say, you didn’t fall off the reading wagon in 2008, well done. However I feel that I, an avid reader should have been able to make more of a difference during this year dedicated to my favourite form of entertainment. But as I’m not in education and don’t have kids to read ‘We’re Going on a Bearhunt’ to I struggled to think of a way to help people to read more.

2009 - The Year of Readers

I was always taught that reading is powerful and I’ve experienced it for myself many times. Reading can lift you out of poverty, it can give you open doors that you never knew existed; it has helped me develop my views and my reason over and over again. I wanted to put this massive power that affected me personally to greater use.

The Year of Readers aims to bring people who enjoy books together to have fun bringing literature into the lives of others. From the 1st January 2009 until 31st of December 2009 I will be running an international read-a-thon that will be open to anyone who reads. It doesn’t matter what kind of books you read or how many you read as long as you’ve got your nose in a book in 2009 you can join in.

It’s an easy concept (which is probably why I thought of it). You pick a literary charity that you want to support in 2009. You sign up to be part of The Year of Readers, get people to sponsor you and just start reading whatever you like. Every time you complete a book between 1st January 2009 – 31st December 2009 you will be increasing the funds of your chosen charity and enabling them to pass reading materials along to those who can’t just walk into a Waterstones or teach people who don’t yet know how freeing reading can be.
If you’re going to read next year why not join and help a bookish charity at the same time? Not only will you be harnessing the power of reading for the good of other people but you’ll also pass that power along, giving people around the world the ultimate freedom, to read whatever they want.

Join Now

Journey over to The Year of Readers and sign up via the Mr Linky there. Once you’re signed up leave a comment stating your chosen charity and leaving your e-mail address so you can receive updates and your electronic fundraising pack.

10 Bookish Things to Be Grateful For

By Stuart Sharp

Sometimes, we need to stop for a while, just to appreciate some of the things we have. This is no less true with books than with anything else, so I have, naturally enough, compiled a list. You might have other things that you feel grateful for, but these, I think you’ll agree, are mostly pretty great things too:

1. Libraries
Public libraries, when you think about it, are really quite a wonderful idea. Despite the scary looking people who stand in front of the section you’d really like to browse, despite their refusal to get the one book you want to read, despite even the dreaded librarian’s stare that tells you that if you so much as breathe on the stock, you’re in trouble, the central idea is still absolutely amazing. You want to read something, so you go to a library, and you read it for free. For free! Well unless, like me, you happen to have a terrible memory for return dates.
Just think of all the books you weren’t quite certain of that you still read, because you were able to get them out of your local library. Just think of all the things you’ve learned by spending time there. As the brief history of libraries at http://www.history-magazine.com/libraries.html shows, the idea is thousands of years old, but it’s still every bit as brilliant now as it was then. Those of you who agree should probably make the time to go to http://www.lovelibraries.co.uk/ at some point as well.

2. The E-Book
No, I know it will never fully replace the paperback. I know it will never have that wonderful papery feel, or the smell of a really old book (which reminds me rather a lot of a sock drawer that has been kept perfectly dry for fifty years, though I suspect I might be alone in that thought) or the way you can drop a book and not lose more than your place. Go on though, admit it. You want one. Hundreds of books crammed into a space the size of one ordinary one? Is there anybody reading this whose bookshelves don’t need that sort of solution? And it’s kind to trees, which is nice.

3. The fact that you can read at all.
The nobility of the middle ages probably weren’t quite as much of an illiterate bunch as has occasionally been made out, but most of them weren’t big readers either. And the peasants were far worse off. Throughout history, large portions of the human population have been unable to read or write to any kind of high standard. And it’s still a problem even in so called ‘first world’ societies. According to the UK’s Literacy Trust (http://www.literacytrust.org.uk) 1.1 million of the UK’s adults have almost no literacy skills, while 3.5 million have the skills that the National Curriculum would expect of an 11 year-old. It’s a scary thought.

4. Authors Who Publish Exactly on My Schedule
Of course, being able to read is not the same thing as having something to read, which brings me nicely to my next point. There are some authors who, thanks no doubt to some very persistent bullying on the part of their publishers and agents, produce books exactly when I’m running out of things to read. Kim Harrison, in particular, seems to have timed many of her recent releases to coincide with my running-out-of-books moments. There are some authors who are even more predictable than that. For several years, the question of what to buy my mother for her birthday was solved for me by the fact that Terry Pratchett would invariably have something out two or three weeks before it. That this also allowed me to read it afterwards never entered my head. Honest.

5. Small Bookshops
There are a lot of big bookshops out there. They’ll have uniforms, and centrally determined marketing policies, and usually coffee shops where the overwhelming scent of the stuff is enough to put those of us who don’t drink much coffee off browsing. They aren’t always a bad thing. They usually have a wide range in stock, and decent prices. One of my favourite bookshops is my university’s branch of a major chain. It occurs to me though that the things I like about it most, that the staff know me by sight, that a couple of them know my reading habits, and that they occasionally recommend things I like, are actually things resulting from it being quite a small branch. Small bookshops just feel… more comfortable. Odd, in many cases, but comfortable. Rather like the cardigans many of the owners seem obliged to wear.

6. Paperback Novels
Hardback novels undoubtedly have their uses, but really, when you take away the ones that don’t come under the heading of ‘remarkably durable blunt instrument’, what are you left with? No shelf space and a bad back, probably.
Paperbacks are convenient, they’re light. A lot of the time they can fit in a spare pocket. Admittedly, they’ll disintegrate under a spilled cup of coffee, but I’ve already warned you about that sort of bookshop, haven’t I? More than that, paperbacks are cheap. Look at your bookshelves. Imagine how many fewer books there would be if you only bought hardbacks. Imagine how much lighter your bank balance would be. Now feel grateful that the paperbacks are pressing together in some strange, jumbled arrangement that would do the average dry stone wall proud.

7. Small Press Publishers
Otherwise known as those publishers who put out most of the decent poetry collections. Let’s face it, no one else will. Some of them, like Bloodaxe, have gone from being small to being quite a bit bigger, but they’ll still never compete with the truly large publishing houses. Instead, they, and publishers like them, will simply continue supplying almost every poetry book I own. The big names, in contrast, will probably continue to contribute those annoying ‘the nation’s favourite poems about love/trees/mildly concussed penguins’, none of them containing poems newer than fifty years old. I don’t want to read those collections. Except possibly the one about the penguins, which is, sadly, the one I made up.

8. Authors with imagination
To continue being moderately grumpy for a moment, let us consider some of the things that show up on bookshop shelves. There are the ghosted autobiographies, the reality TV tie ins, the utterly awful books that get their place because someone famous, good looking, or merely possessing embarrassing photographs of the publisher happens to have written them. I could go on, but it would depress us, so I won’t.


Let’s concentrate, instead, on the existence of authors who have made a living being as odd, as different and as wildly imaginative as humanly possible. From the realms of ‘proper’ literature, we have the likes of Murakami describing reality in a way that shouldn’t really make sense, and yet somehow does. For my own favoured genre of fantasy, we have Kelly Link, who not only has the ability to write the strangest short stories you’ve ever read, but who also has the peculiar knack of slotting zombies into parts of stories you never thought they’d fit into. I’m sure we can agree that you can never have too many zombies.

9. Buying books online
Which isn’t to say that your favourite small bookshop will necessarily have the particular slab of (maybe) zombie filled joy that you want to read. They are, after all, small, and don’t always have room for everything you might desire. They could always order it for you, but we all know how long that can take.


But the beautiful thing these days is that thanks to the likes of Powells (and some other online bookshop whose name I can’t quite recall at the moment) it’s possible to simply order books online, at three in the morning should you feel like it. Now, I have to admit to preferring real life bookshops, with assistants who are real (but quite possibly alien) people, but even so, there’s something quite remarkable about the thought that these days I could order Kafka’s complete works without ever bothering to change out of my pyjamas. Slightly worrying, but also quite remarkable. Isn’t the Internet a wonderful thing?

10. Book Blogging and Zines
On the subject of which, our last thing worth really appreciating is… well, us. Zines, bloggers and online communities. Random strangers who make up lists of things to be grateful for about books and then put them on the Internet for you to see. Estella’s Revenge and all the marvellous, marvellous book zines like it. Can’t decide if you’ll like the new book by a favourite author? Dozens of online reviews will help you. Can’t decide what to read next? Start a poll on a blog. Have a sudden urge to read a list of things to be grateful for?

Actually, I think we may have just covered that one.

OP/ED: The Loss Of Spider-Girl

By Chris Buchner

Spider-Girl is a great example of how things should be done.

A year ago for another website, I wrote an article entitled “The Marvel Tapestry,” in which I talked about how no matter the change of the creative team or overall direction of a particular book the comics seemed to flow as one continuous story. Almost like somehow, the writers of the past could see ten, fifteen years into the future and open the doors to subplots that the future writers would pick up and run with. Of course, obviously, it really was just a sign of talented writers who came on board and made sufficient use of what came before in order to craft their own tales.

This insight came from someone who started really reading the books after their having been around for 30 years and literally read them from new to old. Marvel, in the last decade, has taken that ability to build on what came before and completely reversed it with their constant desire to reboot books and characters in order to retool them. Instead of allowing the story to flow and change things through a natural form of progression, they decide to just scrap everything and start over as if nothing came before.

The reasoning behind a move like that is supposedly to allow new readers to jump into books. New readers are apparently intimidated by high issue numbers and years of back story which makes it hard to follow any of the new stories that come out. Of course, companies will cater to the potential new readers to replenish their aging audience. However, a lot of that audience (myself included) started reading in the technical middle of the story and were able to not only follow well enough to enjoy the stories, but also to enjoy them enough to want to go out and get the stuff that came before and that would come after.

Spider-Girl is how it should work. It stemmed from the controversial Clone Saga story in which Peter was temporarily replaced by his clone, Ben Reilly, and the Parkers were expecting their first child, May. Fan backlash caused a quick reversal on Peter’s replacement by having Ben die by the hands of the original Green Goblin, and the company felt a baby would age Peter too much so they had Goblin set up the contingency plan where Mary Jane would be forced into labor and the Parkers told their baby died in birth, but in actuality she was abducted by Goblin’s associates. From then on, the Clone Saga was slowly phased out of the consciousness of the Spidey books. The last traces of this story were when the deranged original clone, Kaine, rescued the baby violently. That new subplot was wiped out entirely when the books were rebooted from #1 in 1999 running from a new “streamlined” origin for Spidey by John Byrne in Spider-Man: Chapter One.

Now you know the back story of that era in the books, but here’s what you needed to read Spider-Girl:

Peter Parker was Spider-Man but retired.
Peter and Mary Jane had a baby that grew up into a young girl that inherited her fahter’s powers.
Green Goblin was Norman Osborn, who had a son who in turn had his grandson, Normie.
Both children decided to continue their family’s legacy.

All that was given to you within the very first issue. You could come into this story without knowing anything else but the basics. All that other detail was gradually filled in over the course of the series to some extent, although it was never really necessary or crucial to the story. For the most part, continuity in this series served as Easter eggs for long-time fans who have been reading Spidey books for a long time. A weighty hindrance it never became.

Let’s look at what else the book had to offer. The whole reason behind the Brand New Day debacle in the main Spider-books was because Spidey’s world had become too streamlined. Most of the supporting cast had been absent from its pages save Aunt May and Mary Jane. And Marvel’s stance on Mary Jane had become that her marriage to Peter was dull and aged the character too much which makes him unrelatable to new readers. Spider-Girl, not only did you have a single webslinger in the books, but fans of Peter and MJ also had the two happily together in supporting roles. May also had a wide array of supporting cast members, including friends in school and allies in costume. And none of these characters remained stagnant. Each one evolved over the course of the series in logical ways, each one got their own chance to shine in May’s world.

The book was also a return to classic storytelling. Each issue featured not only a self-contained main story, but had an ongoing subplot in the background that would build over each successive issue. Despite that, the story was never hard to follow because of Tom DeFalco’s use of captions or character dialogue to fill readers in on what came before, as well as Marvel’s patented first page recap of previous issues. There was no decompression, the stories were light and fun, heroes were actually fighting VILLAINS, and everything was done the way many Spider-Man fans wished it was still being done for some time.

Despite the book having something for everyone, it never became the runaway success it should have been. I often find it funny the books that make it to the top 10, hell the top 50 even, while others fall significantly lower. It’s a shame that this book escaped so many reader’s radar, and that it took the recent changes in the Spidey book to bring over others. Now I know, many of you are saying she had a pretty impressive run considering all the threats of cancellation and compared to the records of all other solo books starring Marvel heroines, but as the stories have not yet run out is that really enough? Is 16 pages quarterly in Amazing Spider-Man Family what May and company have come to deserve?

I encourage everyone to pick up some issues; either in their original form or in any of the inexpensive digests released collecting them and check Mayday out. And if you like it, pass it on to someone else. Good books, good characters, like this deserve to be kept in the spotlight and not relegated to a supporting feature. We also, those of us Spider-fans disillusioned by the new changes in the main title, need another option to get our Spider-fix. And for you female readers out there who feel these books cater too much to the men, this is definitely the book for you to check out.

My thanks to Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz, Pat Oliffe, Sal Buscema and all others involved with the book for giving us over a decade of great tales.

Spider Girl: The End

By Chris Buchner

The little comic that could just ran out of steam.

Former Marvel Editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco had the idea of what it would be like if Spider-Man had a daughter that grew up to be a hero like him. The answer came in the pages of What If…?, Marvel’s look into alternate versions of its universe and characters. 1998’s issue #105 of the second volume brought us the tale of May “Mayday” Parker, aka Spider-Girl.

The premise carried on from the controversial Spider-Man Clone Saga that had just concluded two years prior. During this time, Peter Parker was dealing with an elaborate plot against him set in motion by Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin. Out of that plot came Ben Reilly, Peter’s perfect double who was in self-imposed exile for 5 years before returning to the city and temporarily taking over the webs. Also at this time, Peter and his wife, Mary Jane, were expecting their first child. However, the Marvel brass felt a kid would age Spidey too much, so they had Osborn had plot to force Mary Jane into an early labor, and the child was pronounced dead. In later issues it was hinted that the baby was, in fact, alive and in the possession of the cult of Scriers. Peter’s first, and deformed clone, Kaine rescued a baby-sized item from the Scriers in Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #435 and the plot line was dropped from that point forward.

In the universe presented, the story takes place in the current day, but all the comics that came before took place 15 years or more in the past. Kaine had rescued baby May from the Scriers and returned her to the Parkers, where she grew up and developed spider powers by the time she was 15. At the same time, Normie Osborn, the grandson of Norman, sought to restore the family’s honor by eliminating the Parkers as the latest Green Goblin. May found Ben Reilly’s old spider gear in the attic of her house, donned them, and became Spider-Girl. From that point on, she took up crime fighting at first hindered, and then aided, by her concerned parents who wanted to spare her the spider lifestyle.

Following positive reviews of the issue, Tom DeFalco moved forth on his idea of a possible future universe in order to produce comics that were more accessible to a wider audience and without the hindrance of decades of continuity. The result was the Marvel imprint, MC2, or Marvel Comics 2. The original idea was to present 3 twelve-issue maxi-series, followed by three more the following year (it should be noted Spider-Girl actually received a 13th issue: a reprint of her first appearance under Spider-Girl #0). The first three were A-Next, featuring the next generation of Avengers, J2, the son of Juggernaut who was a hero, and Spider-Girl. Although both A-Next and J2 ended as scheduled, Spider-Girl proved popular enough to carry on.

The next books to come out of the line were Fantastic Five, the continuing adventures of Marvel’s first family, and Wild Thing, the daughter of Wolverine and Elektra. However, due to the collapse of a deal to sell all three books through Target and K-Mart as well as low sales, the other titles were cancelled after only 5 issues. Two mini-series spun out of Spider-Girl starring supporting allies, DarkDdevil and The Buzz, but Spider-Girl was essentially the only MC2 title left in publication.



Since her debut, readers have been treated to old-school storytelling courtesy of DeFalco and artists Ron Frenz and Pat Oliffe, with inks by another Spider-Man legend Sal Buscema. May has gained a massive and strong supporting cast during her run, as well as villains both modeled after ones her father faced and completely new. Much like comics used to be, each issue told a standalone tale, but also included a subplot that would build up along successive issues. This formula has allowed Spider-Girl to become the longest running title starring a female character in Marvel history, reaching 127 issues as of this article. She has also had alternate versions of her appear in comics and novels, her own action figures, and even became an alternate costume in the mutli-platform video game Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.

However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. Despite initial interest, sales steadily dropped and the book was placed on the chopping block for cancellation twice. Because of a very vocal and loyal fan base that the character has amassed, the book was saved through many promotional initiatives by both the fans and DeFalco. The book was reprinted in Marvel’s then-new digest format initiative, earning respectable sales. So much so, that associate editor Nick Lowe announced that the book was safe from cancellation for the first time in November of 2005.

But, cancellation was exactly what came, in a sense. Spider-Girl was officially cancelled with the landmark 100th issue, but Marvel had decided to re-launch the title in the hopes of drawing in a new audience with a brand new #1 issue. The following month, Amazing Spider-Girl began with a new #0 done in the style of Marvel’s recent Saga books, which recapped everything that has happened to that point through prose with sparse images. May was also given a slight makeover, with a few details changed on her costume and her web-shooters made longer and slimmer. Unfortunately, the series continued to perform below Marvel’s satisfaction. On October 11th, 2008, they announced the cancellation of the series with #30, giving her a grand total of 134 issues between two volumes and an annual.



But, Mayday’s adventures may not be over yet. Marvel has claimed a love for the character, and has alluded to her becoming a 16-page back-up feature by DeFalco and company within the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Family, the third volume of the Spider-Man anthology that features original stories from various eras of his career and reprints of classic comics. This decision, though, has raised questions among fans over the fate of DeFalco’s series currently running in the book: Mr. & Mrs. Spider-Man, a prequel to Spider-Girl and MC2 in the days when May was just a toddler.

Spider-Girl had survived cancellation three times thanks to the efforts of fans and her creators, but has she met her final fate? Or will another Save Spider-Girl campaign keep her book going for just a while longer?

Sure, I Know the Queen

By Jodie

At the beginning of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’ the main character makes a wish that ensures his life will follow an evil path. Confronted with a portrait of his beautiful youth he wishes that the painting may age while he remains forever young. It is a thoughtless wish, made with no expectation that it will come true but his wish is granted, by some force and every experience that should age and warp its owner mars the portrait instead. It sounds like a dream situation for Dorian Gray, a young socialite, blooming and admired but all well read people know that a gift of eternal anything is never simple.

Dorian realises that the picture will take on all the sins that would brand his appearance after he ends an affair cruelly. After breaking off an engagement with an unworldly actress he notices that the portrait’s mouth has a new cruel set to it. Upon discovering this he has to make a decision, he can continue to live a life according to his pleasures at the expense of others or he can use the portrait as a spur to be virtuous, knowing that it will become uglier with every crime he commits. At first he plans to follow the later course but when he finds his jilted fiancĂ©e has killed herself he loses his willpower and embarks on a life of hatred and decadence. At intervals throughout his life he tries to become good but always fails.

While the decision to let his portrait bear the marks of his sick soul seems to have little outward effect on Dorian’s life it quietly destroys him and those around him. He is shunned in some society, his friends and lovers mostly meet terrible ends by being associated with him and the twisted portrait sits upstairs in his house filling his mind with paranoia and disgust. Everything in him seems ruined because of the wish he made and the fact that he allows the painting to be a deposit for his sins instead of a visible conscience. But was this decision such a dramatic cataclysm in the young man’s life? Although Dorian is described in glowing prose by the enamoured Basil at the beginning of the book he is hardly an angel made flesh in character. He is cutting about Basil and worships him, painting the cursed portrait and he is weak under the influence of society, especially the devilish Sir Henry. This makes it hard to believe that Dorian would have been able to live a strict, moral life. He is vain and wants to preserve his looks but this alone could not have kept him from vice as it would be inevitable that he age. Perhaps he would not have indulged so excessively but it is likely that he would have found it hard to keep himself from the pleasures he loved.

The writing and publishing of this book also involved some fateful decisions that led to terrible consequences for its author. Oscar Wilde decided to publish the novel, which talks openly about scandalous subjects like ruined women, opium and prostitution and contains extremely broad hints that the main characters may be gay. This novel went on to be material evidence in the trial that set him to prison in 1895 and effectively ended his career and life, as he died three years after being released. He could be seen as an activist, reaching a point in his life where he could no longer hide who he really was or as someone who believed his celebrity would protect him from charges.

After first publishing this novel Wilde came to realise his mistake, perhaps becoming more cautious as he grew older and yet never withdrew the novel from circulation. In 1890 and 1891 Wilde made many changes to the book to tone down and disguise the references to homosexuality but never went quite hid them altogether. Although many minute changes were made to passages in the book to obscure more open references to the intimacy of key male relationships much obvious attraction still remained in the book’s atmosphere. Wilde’s editor also made changes in 1891, which were in some cases much more certain than Wilde’s. His editor changed some passages to make it unquestionable that the mysterious outrages Dorian and his friends commit are against women’s reputations rather than men’s. However he does not change scenes where the romantic feelings of the men are quite obvious, at least to a modern reader. Was this because Wilde and his editor misjudged society, believing they would not spot the allusions or notice the tone of the book or were they trying to get as much subversion in under the radar as possible?

This is a formidable novel with a gothic atmosphere full of an air of seduction and scandal. It is one of the sexiest, sharpest classics I have ever read and looks set to live on my shelves for many years. Decadent, irreverent and dark I am very glad that Oscar Wilde held his nerve and published ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray’.

The Bookshop

by Penelope Fitzgerald
Libri Books
Reviewed by Jodie

Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is a quiet damnation of what society is doing to the spirit of individual enterprise. Florence Green opens a bookshop in an old house that has stood derelict for years and as soon as she does the majority of the residents in Hardborough decide that a bookshop is the last thing they want in their town. Through a series of ridiculous, petty maneuvers they try to undermine and close her bookshop, reflecting the way that society crushes the spirit of independent ventures with unnecessarily tedious interpretations of rules.

The most disturbing thing about the campaign to close the bookshop is that no one involved has a good reason for wishing it closed. There is half-hearted talk of an arts centre that Violet Gamart, town social climber, wants to open in the premises the shop occupies but this feels like a spurious reason as it is constructed in haste at a party. As the operation to keep Florence’s venture from succeeding gathers followers the arts centre becomes the justifying reason that Florence’s opponents cluster around to support the menace and dirty tactics they aim at the bookshop. The drive behind the townspeople’s campaign is to close the bookshop because of small minded dislike not to open an arts centre because it they are passionate about having one.

Fitzgerald fills this book with scenes that could be slap stick, like when Florence and a friend file a horse’s teeth:


Once released, the horse sighed cavernously and stared at them as though utterly disillusioned. From the depths of its noble belly came a brazen note, more like a trumpet than a horn, dying away to a snicker. Clouds of dust rose from its body, as though from a beaten mat.

Instead Fitzgerald invests these events with an elegiac dignity and reserves her touch of stinging comedy for the absurd behaviour of the people who oppose the bookstore. On receiving a letter from her solicitor who is no longer acting in her best interests Florence embarks on a written battle that illustrates the silly, stretched thinking of those she is fighting with.

Fitzgerald invests the small details of every day with monumental importance but keeps them from being forced on the reader’s attention, by using precise, purposeful prose to describe them "quote" . Every sentence in The Bookshop is measured and every word is placed with an exactitude, that creates a practical, knowledgeable tone which skillfully avoids becoming prim. This highly structured writing reflects the personality of the main character who is reserved and traditional but also intelligent and kind.

It seems that Florence’s dream is vitally undermined by the mysterious and subtly threatening Milo North who allows her enemies into her shop and counsels her to sell controversial literature like ‘Lolita’. Mr North is a nebulous creature whose exchanges with Florence always carry a threatening hint. The specifics of his life is unknown and at times he bears a strong resemblance to a supernatural devil or demon. He meddles in things with little apparent motivation, perhaps because he is abstractedly interested in seeing himself do these things, but does not really care what the consequences are. His character is evoked by a series of oblique conversations events, like Florence finding him and his girlfriend Kattie who is weak and has been crying. The reader is always wary of him but while Florence is apprehensive she still allows him to help out in her shop, enabling him to betray her. Mr North’s inclusion, along with the introduction of the "rapper" that haunts Florence’s flat, gives sections of the novel a tone of palpable menace which complements the actions of the townspeople.

While Mr North and the rapper are intimidating they are rather malign forces compared to Mrs Gamart and her supporters. The ghost bangs around the house and Mr North allows surveyors into the shop but the townspeople launch all the destructive actions against Florence from legal action to encouraging a competing chain bookstore to trade in the town. The more supernatural elements of the novel have less effect on the future of Florence’s business than the supposedly less frightening humans. This picture of a small town filled with small minds is a valuable reminder of the possibility of evil that lives in some ordinary people.

Evernight


By Claudia Gray
HarperTeen
Reviewed by Andi

A treat from HarperCollins, Evernight was a huge surprise. When I first heard of the book on various blogs I thought, "Oh, look, more vampire fiction. Helloooo Stephenie Meyer wannabes!" However, I'm woman enough to admit when I'm incredibly wrong. I owe Claudia Gray an apology and I'll even throw in my first born if HarperCollins will send an ARC of the next book in the series, Stargazer.



Before I gush any more, here's a brief synopsis of the plot:

Bianca Olivier is uprooted and plunked down in the middle of an odd boarding school, Evernight, when her parents get jobs teaching there. They feel it is to Bianca's advantage to branch out, meet new people, and generally step outside of herself a bit. However, the students at Evernight are an otherworldly sort of beautiful, stuck up, and more than a little strange. Soon enough, Bianca begins to feel at home as she falls in love with the far more down to earth, but similarly enigmatic, Lucas Ross. Admittedly, this review will be somewhat vague because there's a big twist about 150 pages in. I'm sure if you read other reviews they will certainly give it away, but this twist actually shocked me and left me with my mouth hanging open. Maybe I'm off my game, or maybe I'm just slow, but I really didn't see it coming. What a wild ride!

I realize, readers, you're probably wondering what sets it apart from other vampire fiction--especially the most visible of them all, Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga. I venture to say the writing is much better. I never cringed at the dialogue or the plot. Gray has a gift for using true-to-life teenage lingo in a way that doesn't make the reader overly aware of the fact that an adult is writing the story. I felt that the teens were sincere without annoyance. What an idea! There's also far less angst in this book than much of the other teen fiction on the market. Well, I take that back, there must be hormones and angst in some regard or there would be a striking lack of conflict, but on the whole I felt like these characters possessed a pronounced ability to pick themselves up and just get on with life rather than sitting around whining.

Bianca and Lucas were both very likable and conflicted, and I just fell in love with both of them. You've heard me yammer on endlessly here about my favorite vampire series of all time: The Vampire Diaries, by L.J. Smith, and this series is certainly good enough to take up space on the "keeper" shelf right next to them. In fact, L.J. Smith provided a blurb for the back of the book!

If you're in the mood for original vampire fiction amidst a swirl of knock-offs, this is the right series to try.

Visit Claudia Gray's website.

The Year We Disappeared: A Father-Daughter Memoir

by Cylin and John Busby
Bloomsbury
Reviewed by Melissa

There are books you need to read because you enjoy the story, or because the characters or the writing just pull you in. Then there are the books you need to read because the story's important, because somehow the book makes you look and think about life in a different way. This book was one of those.

That's not to say it was easy to get through. Officer John Busby was heading to work the night of August 31, 1979, when a car pulled up beside his and pumped a round of bullets through the window of his car. That single act changed the rest of his -- and his family's -- life. Cylin was 9 at the time, and this is the story of the year after the shooting, as their family struggled to deal with the surgeries, the insecurities (was the person who shot John out to get the whole family?), the stress, and eventually, the relocation of the family to a more secure hiding spot. It's a dual narrative: part of the story is from John's perspective, part from Cylin's, and it tells an interesting tale of the differing perspectives of and reactions to the single event.

Out of the two narratives, John's was the more difficult to read, primarily because his experience was the more intense. The first few chapters were a detailed account of the shooting, and there were many times when I had to put the book down. I'm not one for medical drama, and this was definitely a medical drama, at least in the beginning. He experienced extreme pain, frustration at not being able to talk (his lower jaw had been blown clean off his face), anger at the police department and at the man who he figured shot him, and feelings of revenge. In addition, through John's narrative, the back story of his dealings with the crime family responsible was told, including the events immediately leading up to the shooting. It's not a pretty story, or a fun one to read. I was often saddened that this could happen, would happen, to someone who is just trying to do his job in the best, most honest way he can.

Cylin's narrative was equally saddening, but for different reasons. Trying to capture what she thought and felt at age nine, Cylin spends much of her narrative being in the dark about the true events of the shooting, and the reasons why everything is happening to her. She loses her friends, mostly because they're afraid (or their parents are) of her now, especially since there is always a detail of police officers following her (and her older brothers) following her around. She can't go play at her friends houses; she doesn't want her friends to play at her house. She's disturbed not only by the physical changes in her father, but also the emotional ones. By the end, when the family is forced (by necessity, mostly) to relocate, she's essentially a prisoner in her own home. One of the saddest passages was the happy afternoon she was permitted to spend at a friend's house: all she wanted was her normal life back.

It's an intense book, one that I wanted to put down because it was so emotionally wracking, but I couldn't because it was gripping. It is also one that made me think about the consequences of our actions, and how they are always more far-reaching than we can ever imagine. And because it's a true story, it's that much more powerful. And worth reading.

Tell the World: Teen Poems from WritersCorp

By the students of WritersCorps
Foreward by Sherman Alexie
HarperTeen
Reviewed by Andi

WritersCorps was founded in 1944 in three urban centers: San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and the Bronx, NY. To date, WritersCorps has worked with over 40,000 at-risk youth to help improve their writing and provide an outlet for creative expression. Tell the World is the second poetry collection published as a result of the WritersCorps efforts. The first is titled, Paint Me Like I Am.

Tell the World is split into thematic sections titled: Tell the World Who We Are, Tell the World Where We're From, Tell the World What We Love, Tell the World What We Think, Tell the World How It Feels, and Tell the World Why We Hope. Each chapter starts with a meaty prompt, and the poems are the result. I especially enjoyed the poems in the "Tell the World Where We're From" section. The prompt read:

Where is your home? Is it the village you come from, or the city streets you walk every day? Is home where you smell your mother's chicken paprikash stewing on the stove, or where you hear your grandfather's laugh? Is home the feel of your favorite blanket, or the sight of your best friend smiling at you? Write a poem filled with the sensations --sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell--that mean home to you.
Students of all ages--from 12 to 19--provided their thoughts and dreams for this book, and the results are amazing. I was especially interested in the range of poems included in this volume. Some are very serious, full of high flown language and obscure images, while others are securely tethered to the everyday, employing slang and a tangible sense of fun. Whether the poems were serious or silly, I found them all equally charming. I'm consistently impressed and surprised by the students in my own classroom--their depth, thoughtful observations, and drive--and the students in Tell the World are no different. Universally, students have much to teach. The students included in Tell the World are diverse, spirited, and fantastic writers.

"Where We Live"
--Liana Castro, 17, Washington, D.C.

where we live there are people with
loose lips that speak black words
found on street corners and gutters
their pale eyes stare directly at the
clasped hands that belong to you and me
the whispering begins before we've gotten
the chance to leave as their words
float before us in our faces causing
our skin to sweat.
let's run away from pairs
of pale eyes that disapprove
the sweet sensation
that flows from your fingertips
to mine, the love that embraces
the faults that we carry.
let's leave behind the heated
words that burn our skin
let's go to where our age is indifferent
to where judgment happens only
in the afterlife

The Affinity Bridge

by George Mann
Snowbooks
Reviewed by Jodie

Anyone who reads Estella’s Revenge regularly will know that several of its contributors are big fans of Snowbooks, an independent publishing company that really is the whole package. Not only are they publishing fabulous fiction authors like Sarah Bower, the current darling of the book blog world, but they also market their books effectively, run a friendly blog and have an eye for what makes magnificent cover art. So, it’s a great pleasure to be reviewing one of their newest publications, The Affinity Bridge by George Mann, a detective story set in an alternative Victorian London.

The cover art of this sci-fi history offering is exquisite. The details like old style fonts, colour schemes and news style announcements bordering the main image of an orange blimp fit well with the period feel of the novel. The design is full of so many elements that readers will want to spend minutes examining the cover before even opening the book. It is the ultimate shiny object for the book-enamoured magpie. The spine, often one of the most neglected areas of book design features the title in pale blue and the author’s name in pale green set on a background the colour of lovingly polished wood. A pocket watch separates the two sets of text, with its minute inner mechanism on display and then the whole background is finished with a gold glitter effect. The design of this small element of the cover shows a dedication to perfection.

The novel inside the covers begins almost like a conventional Victorian detective story, written by a modern author. Sir Maurice Newbury and his new assistant Veronica Hobbes are asked by Newbury’s friend Charles Bainbridge, the Chief of Police to help with an investigation into a series of murders in Whitechapel. However before they can get far with their enquiries they are diverted to the case of an airship crash by orders of the queen, as Newbury is an agent of the Crown. Many readers will feel they comfortable with this type of book and well acquainted with the traditional vernacular of "I bid you well and good night." and "I say!" that runs throughout the dialogue. The pairing of Hobbes and Newbury will also feel familiar. He is incisive and dashing, while she is capable and strong willed and both are filled with good British sense.

However there is soon plenty of genre mixing as Mann integrates sci-fi elements into his novel. There is a werewolf like plague spreading across the poorer sectors of the city, reducing human beings to rotting, animalistic killers. Basic robots are present in the form of "automatons" built to serve the public but for some reason beginning to malfunction. Showing a flair for fun and bravery Mann has even steampunked Queen Victoria herself, making her half queen and half machine. These elements provide much of the action with Newbury battling with plague victims and being savaged by automatons in dramatic, violent fight scenes, quite unlike anything seen in a Sherlock Holmes story. There are also unusually graphic admissions to the weaknesses of the main characters. As used as readers might have become to Holme’s well controlled cocaine habit ‘The Affinity Bridge’ contains a more realistic pictures of the opiate addicted detective sprawling unconscious on his floor after bingeing on laudanum. Scenes like this and Veronica’s visits to her sister in an asylum help the book to transcend categories like "cosy mystery" or "Victorian pastiche".

The Affinity Bridge is an energetic novel, which reinvigorates both the detective and the sci-fi genre. Independent publishers like Snowbooks are to be praised for ensuring that beautiful, well written books are around for readers to adore.

Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

by Xiaolu Guo
Doubleday
Reviewed by Melissa

Fenfang Wang has dreams about being something more. Which is difficult when you're the daughter of a sweet potato farmer in the Chinese country. So, she heads for the big city--Beijing--to make her fortune. What she finds when she gets there, however, is not at all what she expected. After trying to make it with dead-end jobs, she lands a role as an extra in a film, and finds... more dead-end work. She also falls into two relationships with less-than-desirable men (one of them an American PhD student), while trying to figure out her life in Beijing. It's only through the support of her close friend, Huizi, that she realizes her true talent, and her ticket out of the dead-ends.

I'm not quite sure what to say about this book. On the one hand, I found it an interesting portrait of modern China. Most of my exposure to China through literature has been either set in ancient China or during the period of Mao's revolution. Aside from what I read in the papers/Internet, or see on TV, I have no idea what modern China is really like. This book didn't glorify anything; Beijing is like any big city, only amplified: dirty, smelly, greasy (city and people), with a lot of potential and a lot of drag. I felt like I recognized the China that Fenfang was interacting with; it came off as a slightly foreign New York City. In that way, it was accessible, and I could understand the loneliness and desperation that Fenfang sometimes felt.

On the other hand, however, I felt completely alienated from Fenfang and her experience. Even though Beijing is a big city, it's still China. And even though it's modern China, there are still Communist policies (for example, their belief that a young woman living alone must be a prostitute; Fenfang gets arrested at one point for that specific reason) and traditionalist attitudes to get by. I often felt apathetic towards Fenfang and her plight; it bothered me that I couldn't connect to Fenfang while I was reading, but in retrospect, I have to wonder if that isn't what the author intended. And then there's just the language. I felt mired down in the words -- again, I'm not sure if it was intentional on the author's part; this book was originally written and published in Chinese, and only later translated -- like the proverbial squirrel in a wheel: they spun and spun, and I never felt like they were moving the story anywhere. And when it eventually did, in the end, go somewhere, I found myself dissatisfied. The ending made sense, but felt abrupt (then again, much of the book felt abrupt, perhaps by design -- it is called "fragments" after all), and I found myself wanting something more.

The book does have a certain charm to it, and the glimpse into modern Chinese life is fascinating. I think I was just expecting and wanting something different than what I actually got.

The Graveyard Book

by Neil Gaiman
Harper Collins
Reviewed by Heather F.

Nobody Owens, known to his friends as Bod, is a normal boy.

He would be completely normal if he didn't live in a sprawling graveyard, being raised and educated by ghosts, with a solitary guardian who belongs to neither the world of the living nor of the dead.

There are dangers and adventures in the graveyard for a boy-an ancient Indigo Man beneath the hill, a gateway to a desert leading to an abandoned city of ghouls, the strange and terrible menace of the Sleer.

But if Bod leaves the graveyard, then he will come under attack from the man Jack—who has already killed Bod's family. . . .

Beloved master storyteller Neil Gaiman returns with a luminous new novel for the audience that embraced his New York Times bestselling modern classic coraline. Magical, terrifying, and filled with breathtaking adventures, the graveyard book is sure to enthrall readers of all ages.

What a delight this book was. It's weird to say that about a book where the most of the main characters are dead and populate an ancient, practically abandoned, graveyard, but it was. Just so you know, this will definitely be in my top ten this year and I am so glad I went with my instincts and went ahead and bought it!

Frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean again contributes illustrations, which from the very first page lend this tale a shivery, deliciously creepy feel. Are they not gorgeous? The opening illustration, of a bloodthirsty knife, in a bloodthirsty hand, tells you right away you are in for a tremendous story.

Bod, for reasons I will definitely not reveal here, is being hunted. His entire family is being hunted and Bod is the only one to get away. A curious and extremely precocious toddler, Bod escapes to the nearby graveyard as his family is being murdered. As the murderer pursues him, the ghosts of the graveyard come together to protect the boy, with Mr. and Mrs. Owens stepping in to be his parents (at the behest of Bod's recently murdered mother) and Silas, a being neither living or dead, as his guardian. By bequeathing him Freedom of the Graveyard, the protect him from his wouldbe murderer, and give him other unexpected talents.

Bod comes of age inside the graveyard, learning tricks of the trade as it were (basically, how to be a ghost) from his many neighbors and friends. He goes on many adventures, with the living and the dead (and slightly in between). He makes friends. He looses them. He learns poetry. He learns history. He learns about witches. In some ways, this book is rather like a book of short stories, with one story arc that ties them all together. It makes for quick, enjoyable reading.

It makes it hard to put the bloody book down!

It all comes to a head a few years later with a marvelous ending that I dare not spoil here. You will just have to read it.

Bod is an endearing little guy. From diapers, through first loves, first heartbreaks and first haunts, to starting out on his own, you can't help but come to care for this character. He is one of those one-of-a-kind characters, the kind that never really leave you. His story is haunting, it is familiar, it is a must read. For me he takes up a spot with Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Coraline, and other such unforgettable characters.

And now I must read The Jungle Book, which is apparently somewhat of a model for the story. Then I plan on listening to the audio. Can't think of anything better than having Neil Gaiman read this to me.

The Shoe Queen

By Anna Davis
Pocket Books
Reviewed by Jodie


Characters luxuriating in the sin soaked atmosphere of 1920s Paris in the grip of artistic development create a heady mix of chick-lit and historical romance in Anna Davis’ ‘The Shoe Queen’. The usual pattern of a chick-lit plot line is present in much of the book, but it is so well disguised by settings and characters that would never appear in a chick-lit novel about the present day that the book never feels formulaic. Davis seems determined to challenge the usual formula of chick-lit in order to do what is best for her characters and yet still fills her book with the fun and fashion readers enjoy about this genre.

Genevive Shelby King is in love with the bohemian nature of Paris, but is prevented from immersing herself fully in the artistic lifestyle by her husband Robert, who makes it possible for her to live in Paris. She lives vicariously through the affairs of her best friend Lulu, a singer and artists model, and throws herself into being glamorous and a great hostess. She especially loves shoes and has a large collection, which make her feel better about her life. Her meeting with a famous shoe designer disturbs her ordered marriage with the caring, yet disappointing, Robert. Paolo Zachari refuses to make her a pair of his famous, individually handcrafted shoes and throws her world into turmoil.

Genevive is a new kind of chick-lit heroine. Her obsession with shoes is not mere frivolity but represents a deep longing for happiness and a quest for perfection. While readers will love Genevive for her lust for life she is often not a nice heroine, separating her from the bulk of women represented in chick-lit. She marries her husband to escape her family home, although she is never convinced that she loves him, she cheats on him and she keeps herself from real intimacy with him. She also has a shocking secret in her past, which could jeopardise her lifestyle. The nature of her secret is intriguing but it is her discovery of passion and love that make her such an interesting character to follow around the streets of Paris.

Paolo takes the typical dark, brooding and powerful chick-lit hero to a new level. At the beginning of the book, he is rather a dark character who glories in his power over women. There is a disturbing scene in his workshop when he eventually agrees to fit Genevive for a pair of shoes. Later when he presents her with the shoes, he demonstrates his power over her by making her undress and walk for him in his shoes. As the novel progresses the reader is shown his vulnerable side and the limits of his power are exposed. It is interesting to see so much character development of the main male character, when often in chick-lit the main female character is concentrated on. Using a third person narrative allows Davis much more freedom to show the reader what her characters are like than the first person, more familiar narrative that is used in many chick-lit novels.

The novel is full of secrets, sex and scandals that create a noir ambiance that fits with the setting of 1920s Paris. Suicide, critical illnesses and spontaneous artistic outbursts all mingle to create a whirling, dark city full of intrigue and desire. Although the book centres around Genevive it is also confidently independent of her at the same time. Lulu, her best friend, Guy, her first lover and Norman, the poet and editor are not just a pieces of scenery in her story. They are characters who produce scenes of tragedy and passion that are equally as fascinating as the main story of Genevive’s growing love and understanding.

Readers looking for a book full of romance that shrugs off traditional chick-lit constraints on plot and character will find ‘The Shoe Queen’ a magnificently freeing book. Also perfect for people who love shoes.