Sunday, February 1, 2009

Letter From the Editor - February 2009

The candy is on the shelves, the card companies are dancing over their marketing reports, and people are ready to celebrate love. There was no better choice of theme than "desire" this time around.

Whether you suffer from a wicked case of book lust, are looking for a new literary couple through which to live vicariously, or you need new books to add to your stacks, you can find it all in this issue.

Table of Contents

Door Prize Book Giveaway





February 2009 Door Prize Book Giveaway

The winners of five copies of This One is Mine, by Maria Semple from January's Door Prize contest:

Melanie Holles
Stephanie Harrison
Chelsea Brown
Sheri @ A Novel Menagerie
Iliana from Bookgirl's Nightstand

Congratulations, ladies!

Our February Door Prize is a hardcover copy of The Edge of Reason: A Novel of The War Between Science and Superstition, by Melinda Snodgrass.

Enter to win by sending your name, address and a blog address (optional) to the editors at estellabooks (at) gmail (dot) com.

We don't share your information, we just give away free books.

Author Interview: John Shors

Interviewed by Melissa

Avid traveler, former journalist, and author of a bestselling book based in India, author John Shors' newest novel is Beside a Burning Sea, the tale of a Japanese soldier and several Americans who are stranded on an island in the Pacific during World War II. He was more than gracious to be interviewed via email for ER while on vacation recently. You can find more about Shors and his books at his website, and read a review of the book here.

MF: I'm not aware of many World War II books that are set in the Pacific front (that may just be me; there is probably a lot out there!). Why did you decide to set your book in that time and place?

JS: For the very reason that you mentioned--there just aren't many contemporary novels about World War Two that are set in the South Pacific. Everything seems to always center on Europe. After spending three years in Japan, I was intrigued with why Japan went to war with the U.S. The thought of having both Americans and Japanese stranded on an island and being forced to rely on each other to survive was really appealing to me as a writer. I should also say that Beside a Burning Sea isn't just a war story. It's a novel about relationships.

MF: Why did you decide to make haikus such an integral part of the story? Tell us a bit about writing them, if you can.

JS: My Japanese character, Akira, is poet, and as his relationship with Annie, an American nurse, evolves, he begins to teach her about his love of poetry. Specifically, his love of haikus. I start out each chapter in Beside a Burning Sea with a haiku written from Akira's perspective--on what he is musing over at a particular moment. I did this for several reasons. One, to provide a change of pace to the reader. Two, to provide greater insight into Akira's character. Readers seem to enjoy these poems, and I've had many people send me emails with haikus that they've written. I've enjoyed reading these creations.

MF: Which character in the book do you relate to the most?

JS: I probably connect with Akira the strongest. I'm really happy with how he turned out. I also enjoyed creating the relationship between Jake (the ship's engineer) and Ratu (a young stowaway). The process of creating this sort of father-son relationship was really rewarding for me, as I think that these characters' voices are unique and strong.

MF: Is there anything you hope readers will get out of your book?

JS: I don't consider Beside a Burning Sea to be an anti-war novel, but it certainly does contain a few messages that I think are important to remember. War is often depicted in a glamorous manner, and I've long had a problem with that. There was nothing glamorous about World War Two. The conflict between my characters and the conflict that surrounds them reflects my thinking.

MF: One of the unique things about you -- and your books -- is your willingness to connect with readers through bookgroups and email exchanges. Tell us a bit about why you decided to reach out to readers this way. Has this affected the way you look at your books or your writing process?

JS: I wanted to give something back to the readers who support me, and created a book-club program, through which I call into book clubs (via speakerphone). To date, I've spoken with about 1,300 book clubs. I've enjoyed these experiences quite a bit, as I think have readers. Anyone interested in my program can simply email me at to set up a call. Through my program, I've learned how important books are to readers. I've been asked thousands of very insightful questions.

MF: You've been a journalist and worked in public relations; how does writing novels compare to those writing-based professions? Better, worse, easier, harder?

JS: Being a novelist is harder in some ways, because you're doing almost all of it on your own. You don't have a team. You have a project, and the success or failure of that project squarely sits on your shoulders. That can be quite stressful, especially as deadlines approach.

MF: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

JS: All of my novels are set overseas. Beneath a Marble Sky tells the story of the Taj Mahal. Beside a Burning Sea is set in the South Pacific. My third novel, Dragon House, will come out in September of 2009 and is set in modern-day Saigon. I love to travel and my travels inspire my writing.

MF: Do you have a special time or place to write? Any writing rituals?

JS: I wish I had giant chunks of time in which to write, but as the father of a pair of toddlers, my day has constant interruptions. Of course, this has great upside as well. I don't haven't any writing rituals, other than sometimes I prefer to write longhand.

MF: What writers have influenced you the most?

JS: Novelists who have tackled multi-layered works set abroad. James Clavell would be a good example.

MF: So, if you don't mind telling us, what can we look for from you next?

JS: Well, I'm working on the back cover for my upcoming novel, Dragon House. Here's what I have so far:

Set in modern-day Vietnam, Dragon House tells the tale of Iris and Noah—two Americans who, as a way of healing their own painful pasts, open a center to house and educate Vietnamese street children.

Iris and Noah find themselves reborn in an exotic land filled with corruption and chaos, sacrifice and beauty. Inspired by the street children she meets, Iris walks in the footsteps of her father, a man whom Vietnam both shattered and saved. Meanwhile, Noah slowly rediscovers himself through the eyes of an unexpected companion.

Resounding with powerful themes of suffering, sacrifice, friendship, and love, Dragon House brings together East and West, war and peace; and celebrates the resilience of the human spirit.

MF: Thanks for your time, John.

JS: Thanks!!!!

Author/Illustrator Interview: Lane Smith

Interviewed by Heather F.

HF: Congratulations on your new (and timely!) children’s book, Madam President! Can you tell us a little of what it is about?

LS: Thanks. It’s about a girl who imagines she’s president of the United States. A few books back I did a “presidential” book for the boys: John, Paul, George & Ben, so in the democratic tradition of Equal Time I made one for the girls.

HF: I just have to say, once upon a time, that I was Katy. I might even still be one. She is such a fantastic character; do you know some Katy’s? Is she based on anyone you know?

LS: Probably there’s a bit of myself in there. And there’s a neighbor girl down the road named Katie who influenced my Katy as well.

HF: I just love your gorgeous illustrations. Is there any one medium you prefer to work in or do you dabble in a little bit of everything?

LS: I like a little bit of everything. Mixed media is the best description. Sometimes I paint in oils and I collage bits of paper into the work. Sometimes I do charcoal or pencil drawings. In the case of Madam President I drew the pictures in pen and ink and painted them digitally in Photoshop. Some of the textures were created with oil paints and scanned in later.

HF: You collaborate with a lot of authors; Jon Scieszka, Bob Shea, Eve Merriman and many others. Do you find it easier to work with other authors or to write and illustrate your own material? Is your process different?

LS: I like both. I love to conceive an idea then write and illustrate it myself but I also love interpreting the work of others. My biggest compliment is when an author says, “When I wrote this I never imagined you’d illustrate it this way.” (At least I think that’s a compliment!)

HF: Just what is your process anyway? Once you conceive an idea, how do you go about creating a book?

LS: Lots of sketches. Lots of rewrites.

HF: Which part do you find more difficult? The writing or the illustrating? Do they both come naturally to you?

LS: Definitely the writing. I’m a visual person so I’m always thinking in terms of mood, color, shadow and shapes. When I write I tend to overwrite so I rely on friends and editors to cut my stuff down.

HF: What is your work space like?

LS: I work in an old turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse.

HF: What are your influences? Any particular books? Illustrators? Authors?

LS: It’s a mix of high brow and low brow influences: Edward hopper, Charles Schulz, Alexander Calder, Edward Gorey, Buster Keaton, Tex Avery, Jean Dubuffet, Alice and Martin Provensen, Paul Klee, Munro Leaf…. I don’t know where to stop.

HF: What do you think of graphic novels? Is it something you have ever considered trying?

LS: I love graphic novels. I was a huge comic book collector in junior high and high school. I used to go to the San Diego Comic Con in the 1970s before it became the behemoth that it is today. But I have to admit, I’m not great at sequential panel art. I’ve tried it, Flying Jake, Baloney (Henry P.), but with limited success.

HF: What are your favorite books for children?

LS: Many favorite books:

The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss & Crockett Johnson
The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone & Michael Smollin
The Treehorn Trilogy by Florence Parry Heide & Edward Gorey
Robert Francis Weatherbee by Munro Leaf
The “…Can Be Fun” series by Munro Leaf
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman
Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss
The “This is…” series by M. Sasek
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? By Dr. Seuss
McElligot’s Pool by Dr. Seuss
Happy Birthday to You! By Dr. Seuss
Tales for the Perfect Child by Florence Parry Heide & Victoria Chess
Fables You Shouldn’t Pay Any Attention To by Florence Parry Heide, Sylvia Worth Van Clief & Victoria Chess
Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein
The Happy Day by Ruth Krauss & Marc Simont
Wizard of Oz by Baum
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Arm in Arm by Remy Charlip
How Little Lori Visited Times Square by Vogel and Sendak
Thirteen by Remy Charlip & Jerry Joyner
Donald and the… by Peter Neumeyer & Edward Gorey
Donald Has a Difficulty by Peter Neumeyer & Edward Gorey

I’m know I’m leaving out William Steig and Barbara Cooney and Dahl and Raymond Briggs and the Provensens, Kipling, Lewis Carroll, Eleanor Cameron and so many greats not to mention all my contemporary peers but I could be typing all day.

HF: Do you have any favorite books for adults?

LS: Again, many:

Marcovaldo and The Baron in the Trees by Calvino
To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee
Anything by Flannery O’Connor
Anything by Poe
Most of Capote
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders
David Sedaris…
I read a lot of biographies and nonfiction as well.

HF: What is up next on your horizon?

LS: The Big Elephant in the Room (spring ’09) is about a misunderstanding between friends.

Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated) is about a princess with a curious affliction – unless she is weighted down by a heavy crown and heavy stones and weights, she floats up into the sky. It was written by Florence Parry Heide who you may guess from my above ‘list of Favorite Books’ is one of my heroes. (Fall ’09.)

Thanks so much to Lane Smith! Visit his website here.

Literary Lovers

By April D. Boland

Who says you have to read Harlequin novels to get a dose of romance? Steamy relationships and affairs can be found throughout literature if you know where to look. Here are a few of the most memorable pairs:

Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester in Jane Eyre

She's fiesty and pious, he's mysterious and often rude - sounds like a dream couple to me. While the novel Jane Eyre is about Jane's life in general, her whirlwind romance with Rochester steals the show. I was surprised to find myself both repelled and attracted by him. Highlight: A real obstacle to be overcome

Mark Antony and Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra

Romeo and Juliet might seem the obvious Shakespeare character choices, but I decided to go with Antony and Cleopatra for a few reasons. First, they were real lovers in history, not fictitious characters. Second, their story is as over-the-top dramatic as the Montague-Capulet romance, only Cleopatra's behavior and mannerisms are wildly amusing. Highlight: A serious drama queen
Aragorn and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

He's mortal, she's elf-kind. They are separated by a world of differences and the whole mortality issue, yet their bond is so strong that it survives the near end of the world. Highlight: Interracial relationship issues

Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley in The Harry Potter Series

At first, he found her youthful crush on him annoying. Yet as the years go by - and she cleverly begins to date other boys - Harry falls hard for the youngest Weasley sibling. Highlight: The childhood sweetheart saga

Which literary couple is your favorite? From this list or otherwise?

I Have to Have That Book!

By Stuart Sharp

I’m sure you’ve run into these six words at some point. I know I have. In my head at least, they make themselves heard on at least a semi-regular basis. They are, as I’m sure you know, about the surest sign there is of a case of book lust.

But what exactly is this book lust stuff? What is it that takes perfectly normal people who might otherwise be going out for walks, or talking to loved ones, or playing golf, and makes them first slaver over cheap paperbacks, and then spend their time indoors devouring them. Is it really doing us any good?

On the face of it, book lust makes no sense. The idea of forming such a sudden and instant attachment to bundle of paper and words just doesn’t seem, well… normal. Of course, that’s not something limited to just books. People lust after all sorts of strange objects, from expensive cars, to pairs of shoes. Usually though, those are what marketing people would think of as “aspirational purchases”, not a few quid’s worth of paperback.

In the same vein, a number of sports people of my acquaintance have formed almost worrying attachments to particular pieces of equipment. Several of the fencers I know, for example, have given their swords names, covering everything from “Brian” through to “Ticklestick”. Cricketers I know spend hours lovingly sanding and taping bats, or fiddling with the arrangement of studs in their boots. But this doesn’t help either. Again, sporting equipment is usually quite expensive, and anyway, this sort of relationship with sporting kit only builds up over time.

With me and books, and I suspect with a lot of other people too, it’s different. There is no build up period. It’s simply a case of knowing that you’re going to read a particular book, because the thought of leaving it on the shelf, not knowing how it ends, is like an itch at the back of the mind. It’s not there to irrational levels, you can ignore it, but really, why would you want to?

The books that spark this feeling will vary between readers, obviously. Just because I absolutely have to read Kim Harrison’s Where Demons Dare means nothing for whether you will like it (though you will, I’m sure). Equally, so will the ways in which these books catch our eye. Sometimes, just occasionally, it’s enough to see a really great cover on the shelf, maybe coupled with a great title. Maybe you’ll flick through a little, or maybe it will be the back cover blurb that catches you. For me, that’s rare. The last book that became an absolute must buy like that for me was probably fantasy epic Kushiel’s Dart, by Jaqueline Carey.

More commonly, a relationship with a book will start on the basis of some prior knowledge. Maybe a friend will recommend something. That is, when you think about it, a little like a blind date, except that you don’t have to worry if you’ve got spinach in your teeth while you’re reading. Closer to something like speed dating is the good old “grab a bunch of books from the library at random” approach. You end up reading a lot of unreadable books that way, of course, but there are usually enough real gems in the mix to make it worthwhile. Without this, I would probably never have read any of Tom Holt’s work. I certainly wouldn’t have been drawn in by the cover art.

From the first unexpectedly good library book, of course, it’s invariably a quest to read everything in the series, or by the same author, or by the author’s best friend Pete. There’s something remarkably voracious about the way the average reader will hoover up every word written by an author the moment one book has given them the bug. In the case of someone like Jim Butcher, this might take some time.

It also suggests that, when it comes to book lust, what we’re lusting after is not the book itself. Obsessing over the other works of a particular author demonstrates that neatly. It’s not the author that we’re obsessing over either, except in a tangential way. Despite the insistence of assorted publishers that they’re selling the author more than the words, it’s the story that we fall a little in love with.

This, of course, is my way of saying that book lust is perfectly acceptable. Lusting after books as physical things is probably a little odd, forming an excessively strong attachment to favourite authors is the sort of thing that the humble restraining order was invented for, but lusting after a well told story? From where I’m standing, that seems like part of what makes us readers in the first place.

We’ve all felt what they can do when they’re well told, making us feel everything from joy to terror, delight to outright disgust. The best can help us see the world in entirely new ways over the course of an afternoon, or force us to question everything we formerly thought. Badly told, of course, they mostly generate annoyance. That is probably why we’re so quick to latch onto those stories that look like they might work, and then onto the series, the author’s other works, their friend…

As that might suggest, there’s still the question of whether all this is really a good thing to consider. Ultimately, I suspect that’s a question of degree, and point of view. I’m sure that the family members who barely see you for a couple of days when the next in your favourite series comes out might occasionally prefer it if you lusted after something else. Them, perhaps. If they happen to be non-readers, they might even suggest alternative hobbies, or possibly some sort of twelve-step program. Anything that gets back some of the shelf space they’ve lost over the years.

But then, compared to so many other things, books aren’t that bad. Books are about the only addictive substance that won’t destroy your brain or body (well, except for eyestrain). They aren’t going to destroy your marriage, assuming you occasionally give in on the shelf space stuff, and they might actually expand your social life if you join a reading group. If we’re going to obsess about something, it might as well be something that’s cheap, that’s probably good for us, and that is never going to do worse than cause us to discuss the Lord of the Rings trilogy in public.

On the whole, it could be a lot worse. It could be golf, for a start.

Does Whatever an Obama Can

by Chris Buchner

On January 20th, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Besides being the first black President in history, he also made headlines in the comic industry by stating he was a fan. That was all the motivation needed to take who many are treating like a real-life superhero and stick him where he belongs: in comics.

Savage Dragon #137 was released by Image Comics in August of 2008. By Erik Larsen, Dylan McCrae and Tom Orzechowski, this issue was designed to answer the question if Savage Dragon would once again run for President. During the 2004 campaign, he was a reluctant candidate until he learned his running mate was secretly a super villain bent on world domination. As Obama closely represents Dragon’s ideals, creator Erik Larsen had his character fully endorse Obama, especially on a special limited variant cover which was reused as the cover for the two additional printings.

Presidential Material: Barack Obama was released by IDW Publishing in October, 2008 by Jeff Mariotte, Tom Morgan, Len O’Grady and Robbie Robbins with a cover by J. Scott Campbell. Simultaneously released with a John McCain version, the comic is a biographical account of Obama’s life from childhood through the history campaign. The book sold well enough to merit additional printings, and was also collected into a flipbook with the McCain edition. Antarctic Press also released their own black and white biography comic called simply Obama: The Comic Book by Chris Allen and Doug Dlin.

Obama’s favorite character is Spider-Man. So, it’s only natural for Marvel to bring the two together. Editor Stephen Wacker authorized the historic team-up just a week before Amazing Spider-Man #583 went to press for its January release. Done by Zeb Wells, Todd Nauck, Frank G. D’Armata and Jared K. Fletcher, the five-page story is a tongue-in-cheek comedic epic involving one of Spidey’s rogues interrupting the inauguration process. And, of course, ol’ Web-Head is on hand to save the day. The issue received tremendous hype in the media, and flew out of stores, particularly the variant Obama cover, in a fashion reminiscent of The Death of Superman event with lines leading out the doors of comic shops. A second printing hit the shelves the following week.

Obama’s final comic appearance to date came in Thunderbolts #128, also in January from Marvel. After the events of Secret Invasion, the world police-force S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Hazard Intervention, Espionage Logistics Directorate) was dismantled and reassembled as H.A.M.M.E.R. and a new team of Avengers, both under the control of Norman Osborn, the former Green Goblin. With Osborn’s checkered past, naturally the new President would like to look into the man and the operations now protecting American soil. By Andy Diggle, Roberto De La Torre, Frank Martin, Jr., and Comicraft & Albert W. Deschense.

For the Love of Picture Books

Written by Andi

Picture books are one of life's great pleasures. As a child I remember my grandmother reading a picture book or two for me every day when I stretched out for a nap. In those days I wanted her to read books about She-Ra or the Thundercats or whatever superhero or heroine was hot at the time. It's funny that I read better quality picture books now, as an adult, than I did when I was little! Of course, it wasn't for lack of trying. I entertained myself in front of Reading Rainbow on the local PBS station each day and enjoyed those very quality picture books a great deal. Sadly, my library never seemed to have them in stock.

As an adult, when I found myself studying children's and adolescent literature in my Masters program, I was immediately drawn to picture books for the joy they brought back from my childhood and the complexity I began to recognize. Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree, Marcus Pfister's Rainbow Fish, and David Wiesner's Tuesday quickly caught my attention as a scholar and a lover of beautiful images for their creativity and dueling ideologies. While I spent my days picking them apart and writing scholarly essays over them, I never lost the feeling of wonder in losing myself in the pages of a stunningly crafted picture book. Now, whenever a picture book arrives in my mailbox or I hear about one from a trusted blogger friend, it floats straight to the top of my stacks.

Here are some of the picture books I've read lately, and fittingly for February, they all hinge on love and desire.

The House in the Night, by Susan Marie Swanson
Illustrated by Beth Krommes
Houghton Mifflin
May 2008

Congratulations to Beth Krommes! The House in the Night was awarded the Caldecott Medal on January 26, 2009. I ran out and grabbed it just as soon as I heard, and I was truly charmed by this simple little book. The illustrations--gorgeous black, white, and gold woodcarvings--are the centerpiece of the book, and they compliment the text perfectly. Like traditional poems and nursery rhymes "This is the House That Jack Built" or "Hush, Little Baby," the poem accumulates over the course of the book. The story is like a guided tour into a house at night and the love and family that live therein.

How to Talk to Girls, by Alec Greven
Illustrated by Kei Acedera
December 2008

How to Talk to Girls is one of the funniest picture books I've read a in a long time. Alec Greven is a precocious 9 year old from Castle Rock, Colorado, and he just happens to be a published author. In this hilarious and heartwarming picture book, Greven leads his reader through various steps in the process of talking to and winning over one's girl of choice. The introduction says:

Are you shy? Do you have a crush on a girl?
Is the girl you like just too pretty for your eyes?
Do you know what to say to a girl to make her like you?

What are you waiting for?
If you are a boy who needs help getting girls,
this book has all the answers!

By the way, all statistics in this book are based on
my observations at Soaring Hawk Elementary School.
They aren't worldwide.
I would have to do a lot more research for that.

At least he's honest! Broken into short chapters on "The Facts of Life," "Crushes," "Compliments, Flowers, and Other Things," among others, this book is just too cute and kept me laughing out loud and reading passages to anyone who would stop long enough to listen. If your child is just discovering the opposite sex, your significant other needs a little basic coaching in the dating game, or you just want a laugh, How to Talk to Girls is a winner. See the video interview with Greven below.

Do You Love Me?, by Joost Elffers and Curious Pictures
The Bowen Press
December 2008

Do You Love Me? is a picture book for the youngest of readers. Each page is a simple phrase, only a few words long, engulfed in an ocean of color. The curious little bubble creatures that grace the pages look like bath toys or squeeze toys, and while they're simple and largely unremarkable, they make sense for this brief little book. Do You Love Me? is a worthwhile purchase for your just-ready-t0-sit-and-listen crowd, but they will quickly grow out of it.

Queen of Hearts, written and illustrated by Mary Engelbreit
December 2008

Another addition to Mary Engelbreit's Ann Estelle series, Queen of Hearts could be my favorite. In this lovely little book Ann Estelle is inspired to decorate the best Valentine box in her class. It just so happens she forgets to make the Valentines. Illustrated in Engelbreit's traditional style, the pages overflow with drawings of hearts, cupcakes, ribbons, feathers and every other wonderful Valentine thing you might imagine. The colors are vibrant, the story is charming, and it's a sweet holiday treat for any child. If you can wrangle your boys long enough, they might even like it!

Families in Fiction, February 2009

By Stacey Nerdin

Many recent events inspired the creation of this month’s column. The celebration of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, marked with a nationwide commitment to serve in our communities, seemed more significant than many years in recent memory. And just one day later, the historic Inauguration of our 44th President - and the first African American ever sworn into the office - brought more than one million people to the nation’s capital, as well as countless others watching via television. And now it is February, celebrated as Black History Month since 1976 (with roots going back to the 1920’s and Black History Week). It feels as if a conversation commonly peppered with uncertainty or fear of misunderstanding is now being had on the national – if not world – stage: the nature, history, and future of race relations in America.

Caught up in the tide of this conversation, I decided for February to research the portrayal of African American families in fiction. Though my intentions were honest, it quickly became clear that my expectations were naïve. What I discovered – and am embarrassed that I hadn’t guessed – is that the field of African American literature is broad and vast, and professors teach 10-week courses on just the very theme I was aiming to briefly introduce here. So where I would have liked to present a gallery of portraits of African American families in fiction, I have chosen – for the sake of space (and clarity) - to examine just one snapshot, though a powerful snapshot it is.

It is referenced in numerous critical histories on African American literature as a significant and honest examination of the African American experience. One critic wrote that it “typifies American society in a way that reflects more accurately the real lives of the black U.S. majority than any work that ever received commercial exposure before it, and few if any since” (Baraka 9). Built around a black family living in a Southside Chicago ghetto, the work we’ll look at this month is Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun.

A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 to immediate commercial and critical praise. The first play by an African American woman ever to be produced on Broadway, it went on to win the Best Play of the Year award from the New York Drama Critics. Though playwright Hansberry was somewhat surprised by the play’s success, she was sure of its significance. "’The intimacy of knowledge which the Negro may culturally have of white Americans,’ she once said, ‘does not exist in the reverse’” (NPR).

The intimate story Hansberry tells is of the Younger family – matriarch Lena, her son Walter and his wife Ruth and son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha. They live all together in a cramped, bug-infested tenement building in Chicago’s Southside. They have only one grimy window for natural light, and must share a hall bathroom with another family in their building. With the noisy bark of the alarm clock that begins the first scene, Hansberry communicates to us that this is a family in discord.

Indeed, it takes only moments for Walter and Ruth to begin arguing. After exchanging some short words with one another, Walter confronts Ruth: “You tired, ain’t you? Tired of everything. Me, the boy, the way we live – this beat-up hole – everything. Ain’t you?” (Hansberry 32). And she is. But then so is Walter. “This morning, I was lookin’ in the mirror and thinking about it…I’m thirty-five years old; I been married eleven years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room – and all I got to give him is stories about how rich white people live...” (Hansberry 34).

Where Ruth is tired, Walter is energized – energized by a complicated plan to put himself on par with the successful white man he drives for as a chauffeur. Walter’s scheme depends on the investment of his father’s $10,000 life insurance check, a check just made out and mailed to his mother, Lena. Walter pleads with his mother for the money: “Sometimes it’s like I see the future stretched out in front of me – just plain as day. The future, Mama. Hanging over there at the edge of my days. Just waiting for me – a big, looming blank space – full of nothing. Just waiting for me. But it don’t have to be” (Hansberry 73-74).

Walter is not the only one with big dreams; his sister Beneatha attends school in hopes of becoming a doctor. She differs from Walter in her social aspirations, however, because it is not her goal to become as successful as whites, but to become successful as an African American. Throughout the play she grows in her enthusiasm for her African roots, declaring to her family and middle-class African American friend: “I hate assimilationist Negroes!” (Hansberry 81). She defines this for Ruth: “It means someone who is willing to give up his own culture and submerge himself completely in the dominant, and in the case oppressive culture!” (Hansberry 81).

Walter’s and Beneatha’s dreams are complicated by their place in society as marginalized members of the black race. Critic Jordan Y. Miller wrote, “Lorraine Hansberry has presented one of the most volatile of our society’s problems, telling it precisely ‘like it is’ … The play is a problem play, and the problem is blackness in a white society” (Miller 167-168). In terms of examining the theme of dreams in A Raisin in the Sun, it is important to understand the title of the play, which comes from Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Deferred. A portion of the poem’s text reads, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun … Or does it explode?” Critic Anne Cheney wrote, “This epithet suggests the tensions and frustrations of the black man's, as well as the black woman's, existence. The central images of Hughes's poem--raisins, sores, rotten meat, crusted sugar--are images of inevitable decay if dreams are deferred” (Cheney). If given the choice between drying up or exploding from the deferment of dreams, it would seem at several points of A Raisin in the Sun that the Younger family is about to explode.

Confused by her children’s pronounced anxiety and restlessness, and what she believes is the rapid disintegration of her family, Lena Younger decides to use her husband’s life insurance money to purchase a new home for all of them – someplace they can have room, and light, and a small garden. “It’s just a plain little old house – but it’s made good and solid – and it will be ours. Walter Lee – it makes a difference in a man when he can walk on floors that belong to him…” (Hansberry 92). To her family’s surprise, however, Lena reveals that the home is located in an all-white subdivision of the city. This, coupled with a tragic turn of events with Walter and his poor investments, leads to the climax of the story, where the Youngers must gather their collective strength to face an uncertain future.

Dr. Judylyn Ryan, an Associate Professor of English specializing in African American literature at Ohio Wesleyan University, pointed to this familial unity as the most representative characteristic of the African American family in A Raisin in the Sun. She wrote to me via email recently: “I would agree that [Hanberry’s play] is one of the best literary representations of the African American family, not because it provides a prototypical exploration of the conflicts and challenges confronting the family but because of its focus on the extended family relationships and intergenerational transfers of psychological and ethical resources that enable the family to survive” (Ryan). The “intergenerational transfers of psychological and ethical resources” Ryan mentions refer to the character of Mama Lena.

When daughter Beneatha angrily reveals, “God is just one idea I don’t accept … There simply is no blasted God – there is only man and it is he who makes miracles!” (Hansberry 51), Mama Lena is quick to establish a standard of reverence in her home. After slapping Beneatha for her blasphemy, Mama tells her, “Now – you say after me, in my mother’s house there is still God” (Hansberry 51). Mama finds herself setting Walter straight, too, though on matters more temporal than spiritual. In response to his pleading with her for his father’s life insurance money, she tells him, “In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity, too … You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done” (Hansberry 74).

Following this line of intergenerational relationships in African American literature, Dr. Ryan referenced an article by Toni Morrison entitled “City Limits, Village Values.” Dr. Ryan explained that in the article, “Morrison defines the ancestor as a ‘timeless’ sort of figure whose relationship to other (younger) characters is ‘wise, benevolent, counseling.’ In essence, Morrison’s discussion of the role of the ancestor offers another framework for assessing literary representations of the Black family” (Ryan). And this is certainly true in assessing the portrait of Mama Lena’s character and her family in A Raisin in the Sun.

2009 marks 50 years since the first production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Though decades have passed, it remains a truly relevant commentary on social conditions and the cultural strength of African American families, both in 1959 and today. It also remains relevant for the message available to all audiences. With her play, Hansberry achieved the great feat of being able to focus specifically on the African American experience, while allowing audiences of all races to see the underlying humanity of the play’s themes. “A Raisin in the Sun is a quiet celebration of the black family…the survival of the individual, and the nature of man's dreams. … the simple eloquence of the characters elevates the play into a universal representation of all people's hopes, fears, and dreams” (Cheney).


Baraka, Amiri, 'A Raisin in the Sun's' Enduring Passion, in 'A Raisin in the Sun'; and The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, by Lorraine Hansberry, edited by Robert Nemiroff, New American Library, 1987, pp. 9-20.

Cheney, Anne, "Lorraine Hansberry", In Twayne's United States Authors Series Online New York: G. K. Hall & Co., 1999. Previously published in print in 1984 by Twayne Publishers.

Hansberry, Lorraine, A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.

Miller, Jordan, Lorraine Hansberry, in The Black American Writer: Poetry and Drama, Vol. II, edited by C.W.E. Bigsby, Everett/ Edwards, Inc., 1969, pp. 157 70.

NPR: A Raisin in the Sun, Present at the Creation.

Ryan, Dr. Judylyn, Associate Professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, personal email to Stacey Nerdin in response to request for expert opinion.

Sure, I Know the Queen, February 2009

By Jodie

The British have been in some scrapes throughout history. Like the smallest guy in a bar our tiny island loves to pick a fight with countries that are bigger than it. We’ve held smack downs with every country bigger than Jersey: America, China, Spain, the list really stretches on. We’ve even managed to fight amongst ourselves with individual countries bitch slapping each other and infighting among countrymen. Big battles involving Britain have always captured the imagination of authors, but recently fiction writers seem to be especially interested in the grudge that just won’t die. Over the next two columns I’ll be looking at two recent books that indicate the resurgence of interest in Britain’s long term battle with France.

British forces have fought the French repeatedly, mostly I suspect, because they could. France was close, making it one of the most convenient countries to fight with. Their close proximity meant that they kept doing things to annoy the British, like the Battle of Hastings. Clearly that was uncalled for.

In the thirteenth century Henry V of England decided that the French had committed the ultimate annoyance by ‘stealing’ the French crown, which was of course rightfully his. Henry embarked on a military campaign, considering himself fully entitled to rule France, although generations of kings had previously waived their right to the crown in return for compensation. It was undermanned and plagued by disease, it should have failed miserably. The fact that Henry finally beat the French into submission despite having wildly inadequate numbers of men is often trumpeted as an example of Henry’s shining leadership. In his newest book ‘Azincourt’ Bernard Cornwell focuses more on the men, specifically the archers who made up Henry’s army, portraying the victory as a result of solid training and a spirited will to survive.

The main character, Nick Hook needs to get out of England fast. He’s just hit a priest, which will get you hanged in Henry’s religious reign, even if the priest is a mad, rapist like Father Martin. Nick joins up with a group of archers hired to work in the town of Soissons in Burgundy and is in the town when treachery occurs. A bloody massacre of English archers is carried out by the French. Nick is the only English archer to return alive from Soissons and finds himself enrolled in Henry’s archers under the training of the formidable John Cornewaille. This sets Nick on the road to the epic battles of Harfleur and Agincourt.

Although the book was always going to be focused on the battles, what with the final conflict being in the title, I felt that sometimes the book was too focused on the specifics of weaponry. Long descriptions of different kinds of arrows and the process of making them often dominated the pages between the battles. While Cornwall has obviously researched his subject thoroughly and feels passionately about all aspects of military history, sometimes he lets his own enthusiasms break through in a way which makes the book drag. However this detailed look at thirteenth century weapons will probably be a bonus for those interested in military history.

When battle commences Cornwall creates a strong sense of the horrors that would have occurred but also leads the reader through the action at a pace, encouraging them on as the soldiers would have been propelled forward by the ranks behind. It is possible to be easily swept up in the tide of men fording their way on through the enemy’s ranks, so the reader can get close to the genuine atmosphere of the battles. Yet Cornwall is also always sharply focused, directing the reader to the details he feels they should not miss along the way. This mixture of instinctive empathy and removed observation gives the reader a multi layered experience of the battle scenes, enhancing the experience of reading this novel.

The book concentrates firmly on the ordinary soldier and those who physically trained them, almost ignoring the king. Although Henry appears at several points many of his appearances are concealed as Hook does not immediately recognise him or Henry believes himself disguised. His impact on the troops is minimized, although many familiar scenes appear such as the St Crispin’s Day speech. This removal of the royal commander is a fascinating new way of portraying the French campaign. It reflects the importance of the recent reassessment by social historians who have moved away from focusing on kings and aristocratic heroes to look at the contribution of the masses. Cornwall portrays a victory at Agincourt that comes because of the British archers need to kill to survive not because of superior military planning. At some point their determination to die taking French soldiers with them overwhelms the other side and they begin to win, almost without realizing it. Survival is won by the bloody work of ordinary soldiers in Cornwall’s world not gifted by the magical influence of charmed kings.

Dooley Takes the Fall

by Norah McClintock
Red Deer Press
Reviewed by Jodie

"A boy maybe twelve years old, on a bike, stopped next to Dooley, looked at the kid sprawled on the pavement and said, Is he dead?

Yeah, I think so, Dooley said. In fact, he was sure of it because there was no air going into or coming out of the lungs of the kid on the pavement. Also, the kid's open eyes were staring at nothing, and his head was twisted, as if he had turned to look at something just before he made contact with the hard surface of the path."

The opening sentence of ‘Dooley Takes the Fall’ is special. It aims to grab the reader's attention with the image of finding a dead body, but softens the impact of the event with the casual curiosity of the boy on the bike and the matter of fact tone of Dooley, the main character. The author, Norah McClintock, introduces readers to the darker side of young adult fiction, without letting shock tactics and graphic descriptions dominate other aspects of the book, like characterization. She creates a crime novel full of action and momentum to keep readers excited, but avoids a pushy pace that obscures the importance of her character’s feelings. Readers will enjoy the main characters, as much as trying to work out the solution to the crime.

Dooley is a teenager recently out of juvenile detention. He exists under the weight of a state of permanent penance, as he lives with his uncle who is an ex-cop. Dooley goes to school, works a small town job in a video store and knows to jump whenever his uncle pages him. While taking an unsanctioned detour on his way home from a shift, Dooley becomes the only witness to what at first looks like a suicide jump. Only soon the cops and the dead boy’s sister are thinking it wasn’t suicide. Hey doesn’t Dooley have a criminal record and wasn’t he seen fighting with the deceased recently? Suddenly Dooley needs to find out who really killed the guy before the police convince themselves that he did.

Dooley is a fantastic character. He approaches situations with a calm, thoughtful approach as he tries to work through life after detention in his own way. While an ex-con may seem a hard character for many readers to relate to his need to keep his head down and stay out of trouble will resonate with many ordinary people. Of course he sometimes gives into temptation, as he struggles to carve an identity without rage or addiction but these flaws again make him a realistic character readers will identify with. He’s smart, with well thought out opinions and a genuine voice. The down to earth tone of his thoughts keeps the narrative grounded and provides a methodical line for readers to follow to help them solve the crime.

There are a few rough spots in the book. The explanation of how all the plot elements came together to cause murder was a little confusing. Some of the long term secondary characters were background shadows, or had little character development, something which the author may intend to remedy in the second book of the trilogy. The author definitely needs to cut back on the references to Dooley’s love interest’s ‘coffee coloured eyes’ if she’s still around in the next book. But with a plot full of red herrings and drama, as well as such a strong main character Norah McClintock has created an entertaining novel that will keep readers turning the page for ‘just one more chapter’ long into the night.

Daylight Runner

by Oisin Mcgann
Reviewed by Nancy Horner

Daylight Runner (originally published as Small-Minded Giants) tells the story of Solomon Wheat. Sol and his father live in a huge, domed city called Ash Harbor, a haven built into the crater of a volcano when Earth was plunged into an Ice Age toward the end of the 21st Century. Over 100 years have passed since Ash Harbor was established, and things aren't running as smoothly as they used to.

When teenage Sol's father disappears after being accused of murder and two strangers attack the teen in his apartment, Sol goes in search of his father. But, asking too many questions in Ash Harbor is dangerous. The entire city is powered by the Machine and there is talk that the Machine is protected by dangerous people known as the Clockworkers. With all of its residents dependent upon the Machine, those who control Ash Harbor's energy possess enormous power.

Suspicious accidents and disappearances along with posts about impending doom placed on the web by a small band of rebels stir up discontent among citizens. But, are the rumors enough to promote change? As Sol searches for the truth about his father, with the help of a frightening ally who claims to be a friend of Sol's father, Gregor Wheat, Sol and his friend Cleo discover that not only their lives are in danger, but the entire city may be on the verge of disaster. Forced to run for their lives, Sol and Cleo decide the only way out is to come up with a plan. But, the Clockworkers are ever-present and time is running out.

Wow. Daylight Runner is one heck of a ride. Once Sol realizes his father is missing -- accused of a murder Sol is sure he would not have committed -- and Sol is swept up in the deadly game of unraveling the mystery of his father's disappearance, there is almost no time to breathe. Sol ends up with a truly scary, possibly psychopathic man named Maslow helping him navigate the underground and rooftops of the city. Eventually, Cleo is swept into the life-threatening intrigue when she tries to help Sol dig for answers.

What I loved about the book is that it was packed with action and I liked the characters. It was easy to root for them. There are a few characters, including Maslow, who fit into a gray area. You never know whether they're truly good or bad guys until the end. The Machine is a rather complex thing and it took me a while to grasp the idea of a world in which trams are carried by cranes. Somehow that didn't seem very futuristic to me. But, eventually, the author explains how the movement of people, trams, and automobiles is all a part of the working of the Machine that keeps them alive. Everything is perfectly balanced. The world of Ash Harbor is really an amazing, fascinating creation.

On the other hand, I didn't love that Daylight Runner is loaded with violence and Cleo is a drug user. Sol has no choice but to kill in self-defense, Cleo is willing to take risks to get her hands on some "stem" to smoke . . . it's horrifying, at times, although I think every little bit of what happens feeds so well into the plot that it's hard to criticize. There were times I wished something good would happen so that as a reader I could have a bit of a breather from the intensity level, but as I closed the book it just seemed to me that the storyline worked brilliantly and any soft moments thrown into the mix might have actually ruined the ominous atmosphere.

In general, Daylight Runner is such a breathtaking thrill ride that I highly recommend it. But, do be aware of the violence and intensity level if you're considering acquiring this book for a youngster. I'd say high school age is about the minimum (my opinion only). Adults who like sci-fi, fantasy, futuristic and dystopian novels will probably also enjoy it. The world of Ash Harbor is a dark and terrifying place and things keep growing worse until the end -- an ending which I personally found extraordinarily satisfying. Some might think it's wrapped up a little too neatly, but not this reader.

Everything Beautiful

by Simmone Howell
Bloomsbury Publishing
292 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

The story feels familiar. Proud Fat Girl, who is also a Bad Girl with a Heart of Gold and a Dead Mom, is exiled to Wacky Christian Camp because she's more than her father can handle. She goes, determined to hate it. Kids at the camp are that weird brand of stereotypical religious: Close Minded and Hypocritical (though some are Broad Minded and Willing to Party). She falls in with the misfits -- a pair of siblings that never quite fit in and a former Hot Guy but is now Scarred for Life because of a Dumb Drinking Accident. Through them she begins to find Herself, as well as Real Love and a Place.

Enough with the clichés, already.

Surprisingly though, clichés aside, the book worked quite well, within its own limits. Riley -- self-proclaimed bad girl with an attitude, and weight, problem -- was quite abrasive at first; still smarting two years after her mother's untimely death, and struggling with weight and insecurity, she hides behind her attitude. It's a tough thing to deal with at first, but as the book progresses, Riley becomes less cartoonish and more three-dimensional, as well as likeable. The dopey-happy Christian-based holiday camp, Spirit Ranch, is the perfect foil for all of Riley's badness: how is she, an overweight, smoking, atheist going to even manage being in the same space as all those virginal, super-religious kids? At first, it's all she can do to make it to Wednesday, the day her friend Chloe is going to spring her from hell. She hates her roommates and is disgusted (and embarrassed) by the advances of the resident cad. But, as the week goes on, she manages to get beyond the stereotypes, and connects with several campers, most notably Dylan, who is back at camp after an accident left him in a wheelchair the year before. It's through making friends that Riley begins to find peace; realizing that maybe there's more to life than drinking and screwing and partying. In the end, she doesn't find religion -- which would have been unbelievable for the character-- but she does begin to find some sort of peace from all the anger she'd been carrying around.

In the end, though, it was the setting -- Australia -- that carried the book. Between the description of the deserts to the Australianisms to the attidude, it oozed Australia. Which made a possibly overly clichéd book that much more readable. And that's a Good Thing.

Paper Towns

by John Green
Dutton Books
305 pages
Reviewed by Heather F.

What do you when the most amazing girl in your whole school, in your whole world, suddenly pops up at your window and dares you to go out on a night of fun, revenge, breaking and entering… all in all, a life-altering night on the town? Why, you GO of course. That’s just what Quentin Jacobsen does when the incomparable Margo Roth Speigelman, childhood best friend and perpetual crush, comes to his window late one night and takes him out on the town. When the morning comes, Quentin believes he may just have a chance…only to find Margo has skipped town and no one knows where she’s gone. What follows is a life-altering search for Margo that takes Quentin and his friends Ben, and Radar on a quest for the truth about Margo Roth Spiegelman.

I found John Green’s writing to be fresh and original. His prose definitely reminded me of several teenagers I know and doesn’t feel dated. Quentin and his buddies Ben and Radar are hilarious, witty and felt very true-to-life. Genuine interactions, complex characters, and funny dialogue made this a great way to start my reading year.

The ending didn’t quite go the way this romantic-at-heart reader may have liked, but the English major inside my head appreciated the deviation from the norm. The ending was unexpected; perfect to my mind.

In general, this book comes highly recommended for the story, the remarkable characters and the fantastic writing skill executed here.

John Green has various haunts, all of which are fantastic:

His blog

Princess of the Midnight Ball

by Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury Publishing
288 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

The inherent challenge in writing a fairy tale is coming up with something unique, an unusual or unexpected way of telling it. Many authors approach that problem by using the fairy tale as a loose framework, an idea upon which to craft their story. Jessica Day George, however, approaches the fairy tale novelization from a different angle: how can she, as an author, work within the bounds set by the original telling and create a captivating story?

The story in this case is The Twelve Dancing Princesses, as told by the Brothers Grimm. In George's telling, Galen is a soldier coming home from a 12-year-long war with a neighboring country. He is given a job as an under-gardener in the king's palace of his home country, Westfalin -- a country roughly patterend after Germany, with German food, customs and words scattered throughout the novel -- and there encounters the king's twelve beautiful daughters. The daughters are cursed -- due to some desperate, albeit bad, bargaining on the part of their mother -- to dance every night in the underworld for the King Under Stone.

Up to this point, the book is genuinely interesting: the princesses are unable to talk about their curse, so the king -- as well as the kingdom -- are left in the dark about where they are going at night and why. The narrative, by default, deals with the consequences of the princesses' actions; countries are abandoning their alliance with Westfalin, suitors come and are mystified and subsequently killed (by convenient, and natural, accidents), the Archbishop accuses the princesses of witchcraft, and the city -- and presumably the country -- is in a state of unrest. It's quite fascinating seeing the fairy tale from the outside, as it were.

However, Galen -- our stalwart and noble hero -- has fallen in love with Rose, the oldest princess, and decides to try his hand at discovering where the princesses are going. Through the help of the archetypal wise people -- one a stranger, the other a fellow gardener -- he is able to thwart the magic of the underworld and follow the princesses there, and the book follows the time-tested fairy tale plotline until the inevitable end. The one truly unique element, something that's common in George's books, is the use of a homespun craft, in this case knitting. It's our hero who knits; Galen picked it up as a soldier, and uses it to relax and meditate; something to keep his hands busy while he rests. George uses the act of knitting in many ways: to express charity and later love, and in the end as a means to thwart evil. She even goes as far as to include patterns at the end of the book, something which will probably excite all her fans who also happen to knit (or will be excited about learning).

In the end, though, fascinating and respectable as it is, George's approach to fairy tale telling leaves something to be desired. Because she follows so closely the strictures of the original tale, the book often feels trite and full of the usual tropes: the hero is helped because he is kind. He falls in love with the princess, and because of his love, bravery and wit, he is able to overcome all evil, thereby winning him the princess in the end. It's almost as if the book is a broader sketch of the original tale; there's more detail than the Grimms had, but not as much as there could be if George would have colored outside the lines. However, there is a challenge in inventing a world that fits the fairy tale, that feels so much like it could have been something that has been handed down through this ages. And George succeeds at that, at least, most admirably.

Madam President

by Lane Smith
40 pages
Reviewed by Heather F.

When I saw that Lane Smith had a new picture book all about a precocious little girl who imagines what her day would be like if she was the President of the United States of America, I just new I had to get it for my own precocious and imaginative little girl. Lane Smith is the illustrator of such wonderful children’s books as James and the Giant Peach, The Stinky Cheese Man, The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, Cowboy & Octopus and author of The Big Pets, Pinocchio the Boy, and The Happy Hocky Family. With such classics under his sleeve, I just knew Madam President was sure to please.

And please it did. Katy, or Madam President, imagines a day where there are executive orders to pass, a few babies to kiss, yucky tuna salad to VETO!, treaties to negotiate, and choosing that all important cabinet. Plus, there is all that security on hand to keep a careful eye on her very important person. Smith’s dry wit and gorgeous and comical illustrations make this timely book positively a joy to read and a great way to begin teaching kids who the President is and his (or her) responsibilities.

You can find more about Lane at his website.

Beside a Burning Sea

by John Shors
New American Library
424 pages
Review by Melissa

As everyone knows, war books, especially those about World War II, abound. WWII provides the curious with a veritable minefield of stories: Holocaust victims, invaders, survivors, brutality. Yet, in all the stories, it is the rare book (at least among English-speakers) that takes a look at the Pacific front, exploring the war from the perspective of the Japanese-American conflict. Perhaps that's because the conflict there doesn't seem to give rise to stories nearly as dramatic or horrific as those which emerged from the European theater. Or perhaps it's because there haven't been enough authors capable of or willing to tell the stories of the war in the Pacific.

John Shors takes on that side of the war in his recent novel, Beside a Burning Sea. It's 1942, and the crew and staff of the American hospital ship Benevolence is going about doing their duty: rescuing and saving the lives of soldiers, whether American or Japanese. Until their ship is bombed and sunk. Out of the 155 people on board, only 9 survive (one of which is a Japanese soldier), and set up camp on a nearby island. While they bide their time on the island, waiting either for Japanese ships to invade, or American ships to rescue them, relationships develop, are explored, people are lost and found and rescued (metaphorically as well as literally).

The plot itself is quite slight: people are on the island waiting to be found, and to add some semblance of conflict, there's a traitor among them. But, the book is less about the war and conflict and more more about the deeper connections one makes, whether to his or her god, things or other people. The Benevolence's captain Joshua's marriage to Isabelle, a nurse on board, has been suffering because of the weight of their duties. On the island, however, they discover not only the roots of their love, but something they can build upon. Annie, another nurse on board and Isabelle's sister, is weighed down by fear and responsibility, and she discovers her first real love with Akira, the Japanese soldier who rescued her and her sister from the sinking ship. Akira is probably the most interesting character in the novel: a teacher and poet before he was a soldier, he is dealing with the atrocities the Japanese committed in China and Korea, as well as a personal betrayal. His relationship with Annie is the most extensively explored in the novel, and there is a lot to address there; not only are they dealing with prejudices of race and wartime, but their own individual haunted pasts. I did enjoy the use of poetry -- in this instance, haiku -- to bring the two characters together. Then there's Jake, an engine man, and Ratu, a Fijian stowaway, who develop a close friendship with Jake as he longs for a father figure to replace the one that has left his life to help the Americans fight the war.

The rest of the book falls by the wayside in comparison to Annie and Akira; there's hope and strength in Joshua and Isabelle's relationship, but it's just not as compelling. And while I enjoyed Jake and Ratu's banter, and slowly developing mutual affection, I was left unmoved in the end by the crisis. As for the rest of the characters, a couple are just there, as placeholders; Shors doesn't use them much to further the plot, and so while he gives them elaborate back stories, as a reader they are immaterial. The traitor, though, is also an interesting character; Shors is willing to delve into the back story to give the readers an interesting set of motivations. And while the person is known early on to the reader, it is not to the characters, which adds some tension to the story.

That's not what drew me to the book, however. It's a beautiful love story, first and foremost, and one to be savored and enjoyed.