Monday, October 1, 2007

Letter from the Editor, October 2007

October is the favorite month of many a devoted reader for the frighteningly wonderful book choices it offers. Whether you're celebrating the coming of Halloween or the stirrings of autumn, October is a perfect time to snuggle down with a book and lose yourself.

This month's "unknown" theme afforded the Estella's Revenge writers a wide array of topics from which to choose, and they certainly delivered in a big way.

Enjoy your journey with us into the unknown.
*The beautiful poppet image above is copyright to the artist Lisa Snellings-Clark. Visit her website and view her gallery HERE.

The Door Prize Book Giveaway, October 2007

Congratulations to Stephanie from Peoria, Illinois for winning our September book, a copy of Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, by Gabrielle Zevin!!

October's giveaway (winner to be announced November 1st), is a copy of Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning,
The Road.
Enter to win the October "Door Prize" by e-mailing the Estella's Revenge editors at estellabooks (at) gmail (dot) com by October 31st.

Interview: Colette Gale

Interviewed by Andi

Colette Gale is an erotica novelist busy turning the classics on their heads. I reviewed her novel Unmasqued, here at Estella's Revenge recently, so I couldn't turn down the opportunity to review her for this month's issue. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.

AM: What led you to reinvent and eroticize one of your favorite classics, The Phantom of the Opera in your erotic novel, Unmasqued?

CG: I fell in love with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of Phantom when I first saw it 18 years ago. The music, the atmosphere, the lyrics, the set, the costumes...everything was so lush and sensual...and to me, its overt eroticism begged to be revealed in more detail. But I wanted it to end differently!

Webber takes credit for romanticizing and subtly eroticizing the story by bringing his version to the stage (and film), but Gaston Leroux was the original creator of the work, of course. Even in his version, the sense of the untold, the unspoken, is there. The obssessive phantom who brings the beautiful young girl to his've got to wonder exactly what happened down there, ya know?

So after watching the Webber version on both stage and screen enough times that I wanted to know more--about what happened in the Phantom's lair when Christine was down there for a week, and why she left the Phantom to go with Raoul--I decided to write my version of what happened, in all of the erotic details that were, of necessity, not part of the story.

Plus, I wanted a different ending! Webber had made me believe Christine belonged with Erik, the Phantom...and so I wanted to write it that way.

AM: Your next book is an erotic novel based on The Count of Monte Cristo, which begs the question, what about the classics lends to good material for erotic writing?

CG: I really loved The Count of Monte Cristo, and when I wrote this erotic version, I stayed much truer to the original story than I did with the Phantom. I just gave it a happier ending (at least, happier to me).

I think what makes the classics--certain classics, mind you; there are others I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole--good material for "seduction" is that many of those stories were written with a lot unsaid; perhaps even unconceived (though I doubt it).

In other words, the medium of the novel, at the time, didn't allow for explicitness in sexuality--at least, in popularly published works; there were plenty of erotic and pornographic books and pictures, of course. Certain classics have an underlying sexual feel to them, and some people enjoy imagining what exactly might have been going on behind closed doors, or inside minds, during those stories. Phantom is one, The Count of Monte Cristo is another, and there are more.

AM: What other classics would you like to put your erotic pen to?

CG: I have a whole list! I'm just kidding....there are a few that I think would lend themselves well to having the doors opened, and different scenes and endings imagined--but there are a whole list of ones I wouldn't touch even at gunpoint. Jane Austen is one, Louisa May Alcott, Dickens, and others.

What I'd really like to do is an erotic version of Tarzan or Zorro, but the names are under copyright, so I don't think that's going to happen, much to my dismay.

I'm currently discussing with my publisher exactly what the best choice is for my next book--but we haven't decided on the "perfect" one. Do you and your readers have any suggestions?

AM: Colette Gale is a pen name, so do you mind sharing with our readers why you chose to use a pen name? How closely to you guard your true identity?

CG: I use a pen name for two reasons: first, because I write historical urban fantasy under another name, and it's to keep the two different genres separate. The people who read my Gale books may not like my other stories, and vice versa--and that keeps them from buying a book and getting something they didn't expect.

I also chose to write under a pen name for both of my identities for privacy's sake, and because my real name is hard to spell. :-) I'm not terribly tight about guarding the connection between these two names, but I don't go around advertising it. The Gale books are extremely explicit, and there are people who read my other books who would probably be shocked to find out that I write hardcore erotica.

AM: You've created a memorable cast of characters in Unmasqued . Which characters are your favorite?

I love Erik. He's sexy and brilliant and tortured and really good in bed. :-)

I also really love Madame Giry. She was a hoot to write--probably the most fun of all the characters. I just let loose with her, and let her be as wanton as she wanted. She got to do all the things my heroine couldn't do.

Christine wasn't one of my favorite characters, believe it or not, because she is so different from the kind of female character I'm used to writing. Because of how Leroux created her, I had to keep her fairly submissive (in more ways than one) and weaker than the kind of woman I like to write. She shows strength, but she's manipulated and managed more than I would prefer.

Mercedes Herrera, the heroine in MASTER: An Erotic Novel of the Count of Monte Cristo, on the other hand, is quite the match for Edmond Dantes. She's much stronger and sure of herself, and I had a great time writing her.

AM: Amazon reviews are always an interesting place to look at people's reactions to books, and it seems Unmasqued's erotic bent has upset some readers for various reasons. I'm of the belief that a little controversy is never a bad thing, which leads me to two questions:

· First, what advice would you give to readers new to the erotica genre?
· Second, what is your response to people who get their panties in a twist over your version of the Phantom story?

CG: Ahhh...Amazon. Yes, the reviews are pretty much split: either one star or five stars. People either loved it or hated the book. Let me take your second question first: what's my response to people who get their panties in a twist (love that image) over my book?

First, I want to politely say: did you read the title? It says "An Erotic novel of The Phantom of the Opera." Erotic usually means lots of sex. Hardcore sex. Inventive, explicit sex. The title is a clear warning: that's why we did it that way.

Then I want to add, to the Phantom purists, "I have certain classics favorites that I would hate to see manipulated--so I would choose not to read them if I didn't like the storyline. I can understand you feeling that way about Leroux's book, and if you feel that way, you probably don't want to read it." It's as simple as that.

I knew the book wasn't going to be for everyone. Anytime you write explicit sex you run that risk, and when you mix it in with a well-known story line, you're going to get angry reactions. I expected it, and I don't mind it at all.

The things that I do mind, though, are people who skip/skim the sex scenes, and then criticize the story for not having plot or character development when it's there. It's there, but it's in the sex scenes--that's what an erotic novel is. The sex scenes show the plot and character development. If you skim them or skip them, you're going to miss it!

As far as your first part to the question: what advice would I give to those new to the genre? I'd say, write the book as if everyone you know is dead--ie, don't hold back on your writing because you're afraid of people you know reading it. And I'd also say, be prepared for controversy. It's going to be there. Be prepared, and accept it, and you'll be fine.

AM: Do you have any unbreakable writing habits or rules that you follow?

CG: Not really, except that I don't plot out my books very thoroughly before I write them. I only have a vague idea of what is going to happen when I'm writing, and sometimes I just let things flow the way they want to. That makes it more entertaining for me--I'm just along for the ride sometimes.

AM: What advice would you give to a writer who wishes to step outside his or her regular genre?

CG: Just try it. Just sit down and write.

When I stepped out of the kinds of books I'd been writing (and unsuccessfully trying to get published), I just started writing something new and different. I didn't read much in the new genres I was moving into, which, for me, gave me the ability to write something fresh--because I wasn't coming to the table with expectations for the book.

For example, I read only a few classic erotic novels before I started my own. I hadn't read any contemporary or modern (meaning published within the last ten years or so)--except for one--erotic novels when I began to write UNMASQUED. So there was no influence on me as far as trends, tactics, etc. I just wrote what I wanted to read.

AM: What is your favorite genre for pleasure reading and what are you reading now?

CG: I read a lot of mystery and suspense. I also read historical fiction and historical romance, along with romantic suspense. Right now I'm rereading the Barbara Michaels contemporary gothic romances that I read twenty (gulp!) years ago, and am loving them.

I also recently have read THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, HIGH NOON by Nora Roberts, BENEATH A MARBLE SKY by John Shors, and am always a book or two behind in the JD Robb IN DEATH series (because I have to hoard them). I recently enjoyed RULES OF GENTILITY by my friend Janet Mullany, and VIRGIN RIVER by Robyn Carr.

AM: Who are some of the erotica writers you admire and how has their work affected your own?

CG: I haven't read a lot of erotica, as I mentioned earlier, but some of the authors who I have read and enjoyed are Pauline Reage (The Story of O), Anne Rice (Sleeping Beauty and Exit to Eden) and Bertrice Small (the Skye O'Malley books). Jane Lockwood, another new erotic novelist, is also fabulous, as well as Pam Rosenthal, who writes rich, lush historical erotica.

Thank you so much for having me here on Estella's Revenge!

I'd like to invite your readers who are in the NYC area to attend the In The Flesh Erotic Reading series this month. On October 18th, I, along with several other erotic writers, will read aloud from our works at the Happy Endings Lounge (how appropriately named!) in the city. My publisher is providing free copies of UNMASQUED for up to fifty attendees, so if there are Estella's Revenge readers in NYC, I hope they'll come (har!) out and join us!

For more info, go here.

Interview: Jan Shapin

Interviewed by Melissa

A playwright and screenwriter for more than 20 years, Jan Shapin has recently added first-time author to that list with A Snug Life Somewhere, a work of historical fiction set in the 1910s and 1920s. She has two grown children and lives in Newport, RI with her husband, a photographer.

MF: How did you decide to become a writer? Is it something you've "always" wanted to do?

JS: I began writing plays in my mid-thirties. I had another career and family (neither of which I was in a position to give up) but I had a growing sense there was a huge hole in my life that I had to fill. In retrospect, I can see that as a child I was very active in writing plays and performing them and the performing part, at least, carried over into adolescence. Then I stopped after college when real life took over. So it was a way to reclaim the creative part of my nature.

MF: How much research did you have to do for this book?

JS: Not too much. I had written another book (not yet published) that I did lots of research for and this book drew from historical bits and pieces that were left on the cutting room floor.

MF: The story takes place around the time of World War I. What is it about this time period, or about unions and their stories that intrigues you?

JS: I studied American economic history in college, so I know a lot about that period. And my father was active in the labor movement when I was growing up, so I know a lot about that. I am interested in the left-of-center political continuum as it has played out over the last hundred years. At the time of Snug Life, radical politics and union politics were intertwined but I’m not much interested in unions of today. My plays about recent events focus on urban conflicts. I like the rough and tumble of local politics.

MF: Your author bio says that you've written plays and screenplays before this novel was published. What are the differences between the genres? Do you find one comes more easily to you?

JS: Plays are like writing sonnets. Very elegant and spare with a lot of rules. I found writing screenplays something like writing an opera or a musical. The non-textual demands of those media are so pronounced that you have to have a very firm grip on the story before you start. I find that screenplays are easier to adapt than to write from scratch. You can see at the beginning what to cut and what to emphasize. The real advantage (and disadvantage) of novels is that you don’t get to collaborate to produce the final, magical (or horrible) result. You must create the whole thing yourself. And then the reader reads it without you around to hear the clapping or lack thereof.

As for which one is easier for me, I used to find plays the natural medium. Now, after being conditioned to the flexibility of fiction, I wonder how easy it would be for me to go back. The last play I wrote (after writing fiction for a few years) has a narrator, which is really a fictional device.

MF: Do you see any part of yourself in your characters?

JS: This gets back to my playwriting training. In a play you write as if you are all the characters because some actor has to play each and every part. So you put yourself into all of the characters because you have to. But even then, there was always one character who has my eyes—who sees the action and the other characters more or less from my perspective. In “A Snug Life Somewhere” Penny Joe sees life pretty much as I do. So, of course, my friends hear me in the narrator’s voice and think it is autobiographical, which it is not.

MF: What writers have influenced you the most?

JS: Alice Munroe. I study her to understand how she gets the effects she does. The way her stories intertwine and how she places information and introduces what seem to be digressions that turn out not to be. John Casey, who wrote the wonderful novel Spartina, led a seminar I attended at Sewanee Writers’ Conference years ago and he taught me the importance of writing like the glass in a window—getting the author out of the prose so the reader can immerse himself in the story on the other side. Also how important it is to fuse different threads into a solid knot at the end.

MF: Where do you find inspiration for your stories?

JS: My first play (which never got to a second draft) was about the city council in Hoboken, NJ, where I was doing some work at the time. My second play was a reworking of my senior thesis. That wasn’t a complete success either although I later reworked it into a good screenplay. All of my four novels (three are still in process) come from the same historical source—the lives and preoccupations of a cluster of left-wing Americans journalists in the first half of the 20th century. After I get done with those rewrites I’ve got to find a new theme.

MF: Which is more difficult writing or re-writing? How much rewriting do you do?
JS: Thinking about the stories is the most fun. Next comes the first draft. The rewriting is excruciating. Particularly the second draft, where it all falls apart. John Casey told me I need to rewrite until every word, every phrase is perfect. That’s at least seven or eight drafts.

MF: Does anyone else read your drafts before your editor/publisher?

JS: I belong to a writers’ group and read whatever I’m working on chapter-by-chapter over a year or so. Then, when I have an almost final draft (many months or years later), I show it to a couple of people whose reading tastes I respect for a reaction to the whole thing.

MF: Do you have a favorite place to write? Any writing "rituals"?

JS: I used to go away to writers’ colonies to get complete isolation for the first draft. Now with my kids gone I write at home. Also, with three novels in the works, I am doing mostly rewriting these days.

MF: Do you work in longhand first, or do you do everything on the computer? Do you tend to complete drafts ahead of time, or work right up until the last minute?
What's your favorite part of the writing process? What's the most stressful?

JS: I work at the computer. I don’t like pressure so I tend not to get involved in deadlines. But I do insist I finish projects. First drafts and finished products are the most satisfying. Rewriting is deadly.

MF: Do you read a lot? What's your favorite book or author? What are you currently reading?

JS: Quite a bit. Less fiction when I am writing fiction. I guess I have to keep the stories from bleeding through into my imagination. Right now I am reading Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. I just finished Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett and loved that.

MF: Who, or what, inspires you?

JS: To write? Different people at different times have functioned as a muse for a particular work. I had a professor at Catholic University, Joseph Lewis, who really taught me how to write plays. I worked very hard to be worthy of his praise. The fiction I’ve written, more recently, has been driven by a need to reach some inner clarity on the matter of political radicalism.

MF: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

JS: I like to hike. I am chairman of the board of my city’s public housing authority. And I am involved with a charter school. I like to listen to music and have my husband stroke my feet.

MF: Any plans for other books?

JS: I have another one that should be ready for market in the spring.

MF: What advice would you give an aspiring author?

JS: Enjoy the work. That is the only part of the process you can control.

MF: If you don't mind telling us, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?

JS: My next novel (no title yet) is set in the 1930s and 40s and has two stories: the main plot about a love affair between a married woman and a union organizer and the subplot about a journalist who is trying to decide whether to join the Communist Party. Two stories of conflicted loyalties.

MF: How can readers get a hold of you if they want to know more?

JS: Check my website, where you can read the first chapter. There’s also a link where you can e-mail me.

Interview: Sleuth of Baker Street

Interviewed by Heather T. of The Library Ladder

Twenty-five years ago J.D. Singh and Marian Masters saw an ad in a Canadian national newspaper called the Globe & Mail that said ‘bookstore for sale’ and in Marian’s words, “that was basically it.” I’m sure we’ve all had a moment like this – falling in love with an inanimate object or the idea of that object, usually book-related. That bookstore became a large, cozy and very specialized bookstore called Sleuth of Baker Street stuffed to the rafters with mysteries of all sorts.

I’ve had the pleasure of asking Marian a few brief questions via email.

Library Ladder: Twenty-five years ago you purchased Sleuth of Baker Street; why? What first drew you to Sleuth?

MM: Twenty-five years ago we saw an ad in the Globe & Mail that said ‘bookstore for sale’ and that was basically it. It was a small store, 500 square feet compared to today at 1700 square feet, but it seemed to have so much charm and potential that we took a chance and here we are today!

LL: Do you have an all time favourite mystery author? If so, who?

MM: I do not have one favourite mystery writer. I’ve always read everything that Michael Connelly writes as well as Lee Child, Stuart Pawson, Robert Crais, James Twining, martin O’Brien and Janet Evanovich. I read and enjoy the more ‘lighter’ style of mysteries written by Victoria Laurie, Joanne Fluke and Jerrilyn Farmer. I also love spy novels written by Henry Porter and Stella Rimmington. And that’s just a few.

LL: Do you have a favourite Canadian mystery author/s?

MM: It would be tough to pick a favourite Canadian mystery writer as well, although at the moment it would have to be Louise Penny. I also love reading Susanna Kearsley and Lyn Hamilton but there are some other great ones as well.

LL: Name three authors you would recommend to someone new to the genre.

MM: Picking three authors to recommend would be hard because I would want to know what type of story someone would want to read. British setting, Canadian or US? Female sleuth or policeman? I suppose I would pick Louise Penny, Michael Connelly and Stuart Pawson. That would cover all three countries For private eye I would pick Sue Grafton and Robert Crais.

LL: Is there a particular sleuth you wish you could sit down and have a conversation with or play ‘Watson’ to?

MM: Sorry, I have no desire or talent to be a ‘Watson’. (Ditto Marian, ditto!)

LL: Do you have a favourite quote that sums up your philosophy of life or the world of bookselling?

MM: ‘My philosophy’, I don’t have one. I just wish we could all spend more time reading!

Thank you so much Marian!! To celebrate their twenty-five years as owners of Sleuth, J.D. and Marian are hosting mystery writer, Louise Penny who will launch her Inspector Gamache novel, The Cruellest Month on Saturday, October 20th at 7pm. If you are in the Toronto area, please join them!

Dusting the Cobwebs: Characters Escape Limbo

By Chris Buchner

For all the things Marvel has been doing lately, whether you love them or hate them, you’d be hard pressed to deny one thing: there’s a massive revolution in resurrected characters going on. Marvel has boasted a stable consisting of well over 4,000 original characters created and published over the years. However, some tend to fail where others succeed, and become relegated to what’s known as “comic limbo,” meaning they’re rarely seen from or heard of again. IF at all. These are what are known as C or D-list characters, when compared to the well-known A-list ones like Wolverine or the popular but not as known B-list ones like Ghost Rider.

It all began subtly a few years ago when Marvel resurrected their Official Handbooks of the Marvel Universe, which were comic-sized guides on their characters and universe. Hot on the heels of the success of their Marvel Encyclopedias, Marvel decided to bring back the series as a supplement to those books with a price tag that would be of greater appeal to the average comic fan. Unlike the original Handbooks that ran from A-Z for multiple issues, they chose to release them as one-shots (single standalone issues) with a tighter focus on a particular family of characters. One book would be entirely dedicated to Spider-Man characters, another to Avengers characters, one for the Hulk and X-Men and so on.

Other themes soon emerged for the Handbooks, having them tie in specifically to a particular event (e.g. Civil War Files) or feature characters only from a particular decade (e.g. Marvel Legacy 1960s-1990s). With renewed interest in these forgotten characters, Marvel has also been integrating them back into the new comics coming out today, either as part of an established series, within their own series or in a limited series. To further welcome them back into the spotlight, Marvel started releasing trade paperbacks collecting adventures centered around a particular character before they return in all-new stories. For example, Omega the Unknown, a character from the 70s whose series only lasted 10 issues but gained a huge cult following, has a new mini due to begin the first week of October. The original 10 issues was collected into a trade paperback just the week prior. Also, their Essential Marvel collections, books that collect a 20+ issue chunk of a particular run of a title, have begun to expand from the A-list standards into the smaller titles like Luke Cage. At least one event, “Annihilation” and its sequel, was charged with the task of reviving interest in Marvel’s long-stagnant space character library. Of course, this isn’t just limited to superheroes; it extends as far back as Marvel’s horror history from the 1950s as various monsters and supernatural-themed characters were given their time to shine in a series of one-shots and mini-events.

What does this mean? That Marvel is actually giving some of their characters a new chance to thrive. As discussed in a previous article, even the most corny, ridiculous, flop of a character has fans, and those fans finally get a chance to have their characters back in their four-colored glory. There have even been instances where supremely outdated and stupid aspects of a particular character have been updated to appeal to the new generation of readers as well as give some integrity to the character for possible staying power. There are many great characters out there that debuted at the wrong time, were marketed poorly or were unable to find their audience and thus faded into the abyss only to emerge for the occasional guest-starring role…if that. Now, with the marketing machine firmly behind these characters and some slight makeovers and updates, there’s a better chance that someone out there who will take notice.

Some of the characters who have made or are beginning to make their return to the pages:

Sleepwalker was an alien from the Mindscape that accidentally came to inhabit the mind of Rick Sherridan and can emerge into our world whenever Rick falls asleep. Created by Bob Budiansky in the 70s, the character was shelved until DC’s Sandman inspired him to try the character out. Sleepwalker’s series lasted longer than most (33 issues plus a special, compared to the typical 12 or 24) but was unable to find or hold a sufficient audience to save it from cancellation. Some speculate that it was Marvel marketing’s claim that it was “Sandman done right” that left fans with a bitter taste in their mouth, given the appeal of Sandman. The character would virtually disappear until a proposed series by Robert Kirkman was pitched in 2004 with a NEW Sleepwalker; however, that character debuted in the only issue of Epic Anthology, part of Marvel’s failed attempt to revive their Epic imprint. New respect was given for the character in an arc entitled “League of Losers” in the last volume of Marvel Team-Up that paired him with several other B and C-list characters to save the world. In 2007, Sleepwalker made another prominent guest-starring role in recent issues of the new Ms. Marvel series (Ms. Marvel being another B-lister given a new chance at life and so far being a success).

The Excelsiors are a group of former heroes who have formed a self-help group to get them off the capes and costumes for good. In their numbers are the heroic Green Goblin (Phil Urich) who has not been seen outside of appearances in Spider-Girl comics, Darkhawk (Chris Powell) who was last seen in the alternate universe series U.S. War Machine, Turbo (Mickey Musashi) formerly of the original New Warriors, Lightspeed (Julie Power) formerly of Power Pack and Ricochet (Johnny Gallo) one of the four alternate identities Spider-Man temporarily adopted that were bestowed to members of the team known as Slingers who was last seen in Wolverine’s “Enemy of the State” arc. Originally appearing in the pages of Runaways, the Excelsiors have upgraded to their own mini-series called the Loners due to popularity with an option for an on-going if the sales merit it. Added to their line-up in the mini are the fourth Spider-Woman (Mattie Franklin) who was last seen in the pages of Alias as a drug addict, and Hollow (formerly Penance) formerly of Generation X who hasn’t been seen since the title’s cancellation.

Heroes for Hire is a title ripe with under-used characters. Originally featuring Power Man (Luke Cage, who has had a renaissance of sorts in the pages of New Avengers) and Iron Fist (Danny Rand, currently enjoying new success in his own series The Immortal Iron Fist), the series ran for 125 issues. A second volume launched in the 90s with the addition of rotating characters like She-Hulk (Jen Walters, who had 2 series of her own, and is currently on her second volume of her most recent series), Black Knight (Dane Whitman, a former Avenger who plays some kind of role in the upcoming “Mystic Arcana” event), Hercules of the Avengers (who had a mini-series in 2005), Ant-Man (Scott Lang, a former Avenger that was killed in the “Avengers Disassembled” event, prompting his daughter Cassie to eventually join the short-lived Young Avengers), and a new White Tiger (a legacy character, the concept previously discussed in Estella).

The latest incarnation of the book now features former police woman with a bionic arm Misty Knight (who was a supporting character in various series up to the 90s until giving new life in the Daughters of the Dragon mini-series), Colleen Wing (Misty’s detective partner who has also been a supporting character in various series), Shang-Chi (martial arts master created during the Kung-Fu explosion in the 70s who tapered off into guest-appearances until receiving a mini-series several years ago and an Ultimate Marvel counterpart), Humbug (Buck Mitty, a former super-villain that was a laughable character, but recently received an upgrade during the World War Hulk tie-in issues), Black Cat (Felicia Hardy, who has been a frequent guest-star lately in Spider-Man titles), and a new Tarantula (Maria Vasquez, another legacy character).

Now, if you’ve been scratching your head and wondering just who some, or ALL, of these characters are, then congratulations…you’ve got the point. You don’t know about these characters because they haven’t achieved the success nor been given the backing of characters like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Captain America and others. Granted, many characters may not deserve to see the light of day again, but a company can’t rely on a limited stable forever. Fresh stories exist out there, and there are plenty of characters to fill a needed void. There’s a revolution afoot in comics, and readers are being given more options gradually for their reading pleasure. If you haven’t found anything appealing about current characters, maybe these new old ones would be the ticket for you. Give them a shot; see for yourself if there was a character for you out there you missed out on the first time around.

The Unknown

By Lisa G.

Turning 40 isn’t as big a deal as people say it is. Turning 30 scared me a hell of a lot more. The week of my 30th birthday I was recovering from gall bladder surgery. So naturally my husband decided that’d be a great time to throw me a surprise birthday party. Only, it wasn’t a surprise. Because he was aware I’d thoroughly hate the concept, especially post-surgery, he made sure to tell me about it. He told me when it was pretty much too late to cancel, without extreme embarrassment, when I couldn’t really back out without looking like a huge jerk. So hey, guess what? I went. But I was not a happy camper.

30 just plain depressed me. I can’t even put my finger on exactly why, unless it was the fact the next big milestone was 40, and in this culture that means “over the hill” references. Because by 40 you know, you’re halfway done, buddy. If you haven’t done what you want by now, you sure as hell better start making plans PRONTO, because if you don’t?

Best not think about that. You just better get plannin’.

So when I hit 40 I did go through a bit of a crisis, but, surprisingly, I didn’t throw a hissy fit on nearly the scale of when I hit 30. I think that decade just left me numb to caring about the numbers anymore. For the first time, it became easy to forget exactly how old I was. Thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three… Does it really matter? But 40. That’s a speed bump. You notice 40, but for whatever reason, I didn’t care. Or, I should say, I didn’t get depressed. There’s a difference. I cared, but in an “okay, the first half was really rough, but now it’s time to get on with things” way. I knew this was a fairly big deal, but I was more prepared for it somehow. I’d gotten the hissy fit out of my system, and even though my age was at least starting to show, in small ways, that was okay. The grey hairs I can cover. The wrinkles? Well, I’ve shunned sun from birth, so relatively speaking I’m doing okay in that way, too. I can now sit back and look smugly at all the other 40-something women who didn’t spend a lifetime looking pasty as the underside of a fish. Sure, you looked hot with your savage tans, but now look at you. Total prune city!

That feels good.

At 41 I made a turning point kind of decision, the kind that changes your life by way of your career. Though I love writing, and I’ll always work on pursuing publication, I realized I needed a fallback, something to pay for all the cool journals and pens I’m so fond of. The ones I buy by the boatload from Borders, not to mention the lattes. God, I love the lattes.

Since I’d been working in a library for a couple of years, I knew this was as close to a perfect fit as any other job I could have. The rat race publishing world’s exciting, that’s true. But in the library I can have relative job security in a much less hectic, and frankly unstable, environment. I can work with books, something you may or may not I kind of like, and it’s a job that’s also really helpful to people. It’s not exactly at the top end of the pay scale, but you know? Some things matter more than a big, fat salary. I’ll get enough in the library. Nothing extravagant, but enough. Having worked in so many crappy, awful jobs, I felt keenly the importance of knowing this was a job I could go to willingly every day. I still remember that dread feeling of having to commute over an hour to a job you hate. That’s just plain painful.

So, I made the decision to make myself more marketable in the field by going back to school for my MLIS. It wasn’t the easiest decision I’ve ever made. When I was an undergrad I didn’t have a family, or a steady job. I didn’t have a household that needed to be maintained. I had the luxury of being a full-time student. This time around I have all of those things, plus this time it’s on my own dime. My parents put me through school the first time. No such luck the second. But the payoff will be a profession. Not just a job, but a real, live profession. I had to ask myself all the questions about affording it, how I’d find the time to study, all those inconvenient things you have to think about when you have kids. But I also knew this was just something I had to do for myself, so when the day comes the kids are out of the house I’ll have a career I enjoy. One I don’t think about with utter dread.

When I was in my 20s I always thought 40 was such a big, scary number. I never thought beyond 25, then when I hit that, never beyond 30. Those bigger numbers were just far enough away I could comfortably forget them, put them out of my mind. All the vast future that was “out there” was the great unknown. I just didn’t want to think about it, because thinking about it meant acknowledging it, and that meant admitting one day I wouldn’t be as young as I was then.

The great unknown is here, and the transition to get here wasn’t as tough as the scratching and clawing I had to do to get from 1 – 20. It wasn’t as tough this time. Not by half. At 41 I’m way more sure of myself than I was at 21, and I know myself a whole lot better. That’s not to say I don’t have any indecision. I’ll always have that. I’ll also never have perky boobs again, at least not without a miracle-working bra.

There’s just a certain content that comes with age, a realization you worried way too long about things that were so insignificant, and now you don’t have to do that. Now you know what’s important, and what you can safely blow off. There’s a perspective you hit, in the middle of your life, and it doesn’t make everything clear but it makes a whole lot of it a lot easier to understand. Maybe it’s a Zen thing, a letting go of what’s come before, with a sigh of regret, but the knowledge you’ve also grown through all the suffering and trials.

Whatever’s out there, from here on out, I’m as ready for it as I’ll ever be. Bring on the great unknown. I think I can handle whatever it has to dish out.

Things We Know

By Stuart Sharp

A lot of us, when we read, like to stick to what we know. I certainly do. Like most people, I have favourite authors whose work I’ll buy simply because it’s them doing the writing. If it weren’t for my cunning book filing system of ‘shove everything wherever it will fit’ you’d see long lines of novels by Neil Gaiman, Jim Butcher, and a dozen others, most of which I bought without even thinking about whether this one of their books was as good as the others.

It helps that, as a regular reader of fantasy and horror novels, that habit is catered to by authors who believe in long series of books. There’s no need to take a risk on the writing of someone new if you still haven’t read all of the thirty or so novels Terry Pratchett has produced. Failing that, there’s Robert Jordan’s more or less endless Wheel of Time series. A couple of cricketing friends of mine once began a race of sorts through that series, and I still don’t know who won, because the five and a half months of the cricket season passed before they got round to finishing.

Recommendations are another way of sticking to the known. Close friends, not to mention strangers on most forms of public transport, are only too happy to tell you about the book they’ve been reading. Bookshops and libraries do it all the time too, putting up ‘if you like that, you’ll love this’ suggestions. The question here is one of trust. It’s easy to find yourself staring at these strangers, searching for some clue as to whether they share the same taste in books or not. Is that a novel you’ve read sticking out of their bag? It’s a surprisingly good way of clearing space on a train.

Reviewers are one set of strangers whose reading preferences are fairly easy to find out. If you liked the last book a reviewer commented favourably upon, there’s a good chance you share enough in common with them to enjoy this book too. Agreeing on books you hate doesn’t seem to be as good an indicator, though. Maybe good writing is a matter of personal taste, while rubbish is more universal. Who knows? Either way, it’s just another means of trying to stick to known quantities.

The extreme version of this urge involves re-reading books until you know every twist and turn by heart. It’s the impulse that had people re-reading the entire Harry Potter series every time a new one came out. You could just jump into the new book, but the excuse for another re-read is too good to ignore. With other books, the more highbrow the better, you can claim to be scouring them for new nuances, but the effect is the same. Eventually, I suppose you reach a saturation point of sorts, where even the best loved book won’t take another re-read, but we all know how many times you can go through a book you know before you get to that point. I have to admit it takes me a while to get to this point, because my memory lets me conveniently forget most of a book within a week or two of reading it. It has its advantages. In theory, given half a dozen books, I could just go round and round.

But there comes a point when even I find that the known becomes just a little too familiar. It’s the point where you can pick out a Kathy Reichs’ villain within a couple of chapters, and explain most of the science. It’s the point where every time you pick up a new book, you feel like you’ve read it before, solely because you’ve read a dozen books just like it.

That seems like a good point to step off into the unknown. To grab a book you’ve never heard of and break things up a bit. It should be easy… right?

This is where things get a little difficult. I could just go to the nearest bookshop and buy something at random, but there’s always a tight fisted part of me that doesn’t want to fork out for something that might not even be to my taste. Besides, I might go there with the intention of buying something completely different from what I normally read, but you can bet that my feet will have other ideas. I’ll be walking over to the most familiar sections of the place before I’ve even realised it. Once I’m there, it’s inevitable that a favourite author will have a new book out, so I’ll get distracted in my search for something new.

Libraries probably represent a better option, if only because of the lack of cost involved. There’s still a problem with going back to familiar sections, of course, but even this is slightly less of an issue if your local library is anything like mine. There’s no danger of getting sucked into an author’s whole series of books, because they’ll only have the first volume. Or, more probably, the third.

The only problem remaining is that you’ll still find yourself drawn to familiar styles of cover. Often that’s beneficial, after all, I’d never have read any of Robert Asprin’s books if I hadn’t seen one out of the corner of my eye and mistaken it for a Terry Pratchett novel I hadn’t read. For the sake of stepping into the unknown though, it’s a bit of a problem. One for which I have a simple solution. Shut your eyes. I’m serious. The next time you’re in a library, shut your eyes, reach out, and at least consider reading whatever book your hand finds. Probably best to do this when no one’s watching though. For some reason, they seem to think it’s odd.

Probably the best all round solution though, and certainly my favourite, is the second hand bookshop. They have the advantage of cheapness, and the not inconsiderable advantage that most of them have a book filing system that mirrors my own. If you’re looking for something specific, that might be a problem, but if you’re after something new, it’s perfect. These days, you’re probably not going to find a valuable first edition for a pittance, because funnily enough the owners tend to know a thing or two about books, but you might find something you haven’t read before. I only started reading Tami Hoag’s novels for this reason, finding one tucked for no apparent reason under a stack of old cricket books. Of course, I then went on to work my way systematically through her other books, because some habits die hard, but that’s not the point.

So why not do it? Yes, I know you’ve almost certainly got long lists of books you’re intending to read. Yes, there’s always a risk that the book you choose will turn out to be awful. I think though, that it’s worth it. Take a step into the unknown.

RIP, Robert Jordan

By Fence

I've always read fantasy novels. Or had fantasy stories read to me; should I mention here that I count children's fairy tales as fantasy? I don't remember the first time I read JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings but I do know that I loved it. I read it numerous times. Of course I found other fantasy authors as well. Eddings wrote generic epic fantasy that was very easy to read. And there were the Narnia books when I was younger. But only with The Eye of the World did I stumble across a fantasy world that I could love as much Tolkien's Middle Earth.

That was many many years ago. I was in 2nd year, or maybe 3rd. If my maths are right, 15 years ago, a long time to be reading the same series of books.

The Eye of the World is the first book in a series written by Robert Jordan called The Wheel of Time. It told that usual fantasy tale of a young man who discovers that he may be more important than a simple farmer. That his birth may have been long awaited and prophesied. And so he leaves the safety of home to travel and find out exactly who he is, and what his role in the world may be. And there are a fair few clichés and stereotypes throughout the novel. Throughout the series in fact. The series as a whole does go on for too long. At the moment there are 11 books in the series, with a final one due some time in the future. And there are a few books that I read and couldn't help but feel annoyance and anger at how pointless they all were. Chapter after chapter filled with nothing.

But as a whole The Wheel of Time is still a great read. I know I’ll be more than happy to reread those books. I love the world that Robert Jordan created. I love his characters. Well, not the evil ones, those I hate, and some of the “good guys” annoy me.
The story isn’t finished yet. The last book has still to be written, but, knowing he was dying Robert Jordan was dedicated enough to continue to work on the book. He told friends and family the details of what is yet to happen. He was determined that fans of his Wheel Of Time series would be able to find out what happens to their favourite characters.

I’m sure there are plenty of other articles praising Jordan out there in www-land. This is by no means a comprehensive tribute of Jordan, or of how much I enjoyed his books over the years, it is simply a brief acknowledgement of him and his work.

RIP Robert Jordan.

Judging a Book, October 2007

By Fence

The cover of a book has always been important. Why else would we be warned to "never judge a book by its cover" if that was not the case? We are warned so that we don't go along with those first impressions but instead dig a little deeper and wait until we have read the book before we judge it. Today it is so easy to buy books online. There are more titles to choose from, books are often cheaper, and we can instantly find what we are looking for. But at the same time it means that don't get to pick up a book. We don't get to flick through it and read a random sentence. We don't get the feel of the book when we are browsing online. Sure, many online sellers offer customer reviews, or let us read the first page, but it isn't the same. And I think that often we let ourselves be persuaded by the cover art that we see. Those little thumbnail pictures that grab our attention as we scan through pages and pages of titles.

We do use the cover art to make a decision. And why shouldn't we?

And when there are different versions of the same book available, well, then the cover becomes even more important.

It is a superficial way of making a judgement call, and really, the cover design of a book tells us very little about the words inside. A book with a stunning cover may end up being the most disappointing read. And of course the opposite is just as likely. A boring cover may conceal a wonderful read.

But that doesn't really matter to me. I don't judge a book by its cover; I judge its cover by its cover. A great cover might pique my interest in a particular book, but it isn't the be all and end all of why I read or don't read a book. That is down to the words inside. Of course I do love a well designed cover. Whether it is simplistic and plain or ornate and filled with details doesn't really matter once it works as a whole. Of course what works for me might not work for you. That's the beauty of personal taste. What I love you may hate. What I hate, you may love. And no one can tell you that you are wrong, or I am right. Both of us are, and neither of us are.

Sure, I Know the Queen, October 2007

By Jodie

What is it that encourages readers to enter the unknown world of a new novel? They look at the front cover, read the blurb, as well as the reviews, before comparing these illuminating snippets with the price. The reputation of the author and the hype surrounding the book both play a part, positively or negatively, as does the title. Any of these added extras may persuade a reader that a book will be a portable pleasure island or that they will end up befuddled in an unsettling foreign land. These are external features, the physical and reported packaging of a book; a novel still exists if these colourful suggestions are removed but without them what can readers use to help them decide which unfamiliar territory to explore?

The first line of a book is the most important for attracting the readers attention. Most flip to the front of a book to see if the first paragraph interests them when investigating new material. It is not surprising that the first sentence is now partially used as a marketing tool in modern fiction when there is such an over abundance of new books. Competition is tough. These firework first lines can capture the imagination but reading too many novels that feature this effect can be wearing as authors try to out do each other. New techniques may replace this one as it becomes too common for readers to find its variations intriguing but the opening paragraph will always remain essential in captivating the reader.

The impact of first lines would have more influence on book browsers if all the external clues were removed. No shiny cover designs, blurbed summaries or author names to guide the purse hand. Without these signals to categorise books (pink for chick-lit, black for horror) readers might be inclined to explore more, picking books they would never normally touch because of an attractive first sentence. Don’t worry I’m not suggesting that we storm every publisher’s marketing department and bring it to its knees. I enjoy the look of books that are as colourful outside as they are inside. However it is sometimes refreshing to strip books down to black marks on white pages and really focus on the quality of the writing.

The rest of this column is filled with first lines or openings written by British authors, posted without titles, cover designs or the names of their creators. Hopefully you’ll find some that you’d like to pursue, that distract you from your tasks until you eventually have your own copy to admire. To discover where each excerpt comes watch this space for a link on October 5th. Until then, it's your best guess! I hope you enjoy your explorations.

“ ‘ Bin Laden? A fucking charlatan.’
‘Be serious for a moment,’ Williams told him.”

“ If there is one thing you could say for my father, he never beat his wife.”

“ Everyone knows about Boadicea.”

“ She was sure here suspenders were showing.”

“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden there came through the door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink flowering thorn.”

“ In 1704, the presumed heir to the Austen family fortune, John Austen, lay dying of consumption at the age of thirty-four.”

“I am making this staement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

“According to my mother the first person I ever properly smiled at after I was born was not her but her closest friend at the time, Claire Tinker.”

“Far out in the charted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

“The primroses were over.”

From the Bookshop, October 2007

By Quillhill

An element of the unknown is one of the key pleasures of the used bookshop. There are treasures to be discovered in almost every shop, and stories abound of intrepid book-hunters who have found a rare volume at the bottom of a dollar bin, or a lost manuscript bound in with something as common as a Book of Hours.

One might think there is nothing unknown to the owner of a particular bookshop. That is not always the case. Many shop keepers have specialties, and one who is knowledgeable about the value of religious texts may not have a clue as to what a first edition of Thomas Pynchon is worth. Such bargains always await the book-hunter. There is also an infinite variety of ephemera to be found inside books, stuck there by former owners as place markers or for safe keeping. Just last week as we were systematically researching our political sciences collection, we came across a Sheridan Square Press hardcover edition of Profits of War, by Ari Ben-Menashe that looked normal for the first twenty-four pages, but the remainder of the text block had been cut to fit two velvet-lined compartments in which said profits of war could be hidden for easy smuggling or forgetting. What we discovered inside we will allow one to imagine, for the possibilities are endless, and the unknown is sweeter than the known.

The Haunted Bookshop, by Christopher Morley, is, if not the most famous, surely the most pleasurable experience of the unknown in bookstore lore. This tale is a sequel to Parnassus on Wheels, following Roger Mifflin as the owner of a bricks and mortar store. One of the many placards hung in the shop reads:

THIS SHOP IS HAUNTED by the ghosts
Of all great literature, in hosts;
And as the bookflap says:They are the great spirits of the literary past and their part in the story is too much fun to spoil by any foremention. Open the covers of The Haunted Bookshop and simply read the first three paragraphs and one will find oneself drawn inside by the lure of the unknown (as well as the quality of writing).

For those uninterested in the Romantic (that insatiable yearning for the unattainable with a capital R, not the heaving breasts of lust with a minuscule r), any Barnes and Noble will tell you with certainty whether or not they possess a particular book, where exactly that book can be found, or how to go about acquiring the book elsewhere. For those steeped in the Romantic, the uncatalogued collection of a used bookshop offers all the pleasures of the unknown. We once heard of a bookshop whose owner would reply to any query about a specific book by saying, "I'm sure I have it, I'm just not sure where." And if one wanted that specific book, off one went to hunt for it. The shop was literally overflowing with books, so the owner probably didn't know where to find anything. But what he did know was that even if a book-lover couldn't find the specific book she was looking for, more often than not she could find several that she didn't know she was looking for. It is that surprise and delight that keeps us in the hunt. A bookshop is truly a repository of unknown treasures and delights.

The Journal of Dora Damage

The Journal of Dora Damage
By Belinda Starling
Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by Andi

London in the 1860s is a dangerous, scandalous place to exist, especially if you're Dora Damage, the matriarch of the ailing Damage Bookbinders. When her husband, Peter, begins to fall into rheumatic disability, Dora surpasses her station as a submissive wife and mother and takes over the family business.

Dora shows an exceptional talent for binding books, from her creative embroidery and color choices, to her quick mind and willingness to work her hands to cracked, aching stubs. However, no matter how hard she tries in the beginning, the money just doesn't come. Finally, based on her covert work, she lands a job binding ladies' journals and other miscellaneous books. This first innocent employment leads to greater, more dangerous things--namely the task of binding pornography for a treacherous group of London's powerful and ruthless upper crust.

Despite my initial attraction to this book based solely on the fact that it appealed to my bibliophile nature, it had much more to offer than I anticipated. Starling's writing flows seamlessly, a clever mix of English slang and contemporary English. One quickly gets the feeling of being smack dab in the middle of Dora's life, facing down a traditional, sick and slightly mad husband, not to mention the benefactors that could potentially ruin her life. Dora's relationships with her employees and her daughter, Lucinda, are expertly fleshed and achingly believable, making Dora all the more sympathetic and intriguing.

Dora's journey is not only economic, but certainly personal and emotional. Hers is the story of a budding intellectual curiosity, as she reads almost every book to come through the bindery, and eventually her sexuality begins to blossom as well. But nothing comes easily or without a price. And I won't say more for fear of ruining the book for you, dear reader.

Sadly, Belinda Starling passed away in August of 2006 after complications following surgery. She was 34 years old, and The Journal of Dora Damage was her first novel. It is tragic, for Starling was a talented writer with many stories to give. However, those of us daring enough to enter Dora Damage's world are lucky to have such a striking book to hold onto and enjoy.


Written by Patricia Wood
G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner

The man chews his cigar, looks at his watch, squeezes his fender, and talks to Gary, all at the same time. “I need to get to the San Juans . . . Friday Harbor . . . Three weeks vacation . . . Can we speed this up?” he asks. “I need to get going.” He looks at his watch, again.

Vacations are when you stop being in a hurry to go to work and start being in a hurry to go someplace else.

Lottery is the story of Perry L. Crandall, a caring and sensitive man with an IQ of 76. The L in his name, his Gram tells him, stands for “Lucky”. When Perry proves his luck by winning the Washington State Lottery, suddenly his life changes dramatically. People who were unwilling to look at him in the eye now boldly ask him for money, the family members who ignored him suddenly become concerned about his well-being and clerks treat him with obsequiousness during shopping trips. But, will Perry be able to handle his windfall or is the fact that he’s slower than average likely to become his undoing?

Because Lottery is written from Perry’s point of view, there’s a simplicity and power to the story. The reader knows how Perry thinks and what’s important to him, feels the pain of condescension and insult, becomes angry at the way people speak within his hearing, assuming that he’s unable to translate their plots to take advantage of him. There’s an immediacy to the story, a feeling that one must keep rapidly turning the pages because Perry is such a delightful character that the reader absolutely must know what’s going to occur.

In fact, Perry has difficulty remembering and understanding certain concepts, but throughout the reading of Lottery the reader gains an understanding of how meaningless intelligence quotient really is. Perry has his own brand of wisdom and is intelligent in many ways. His translations of the implication within spoken words reflects an ability to observe and reason. Because he reads from a dictionary and takes notes, each day, Perry has developed a deeper comprehension of words and their varying definitions than most of the people around him.

When the story opens, Perry has been working at Holsted’s Marine Supply in Everett, Washington for many years. His late grandfather taught him to sail and Perry knows boats and their requirements better than the other employees and often even his boss; his Gram spouts bits of wisdom and bolsters his self-confidence. When she thinks he’s out of line, she says, “Don’t be smart.” Friends Keith and Gary -- Perry’s fellow employee and employer -- along with his Gram, treat him with the respect that nobody else offers him.

By the time Perry wins the lottery, the reader is intimately acquainted with Perry, enough to know which of his acquaintances are true friends and who will steal from him if given the chance. What the reader doesn’t know is how Perry will handle the threats and opportunities around him.

Even while I was madly turning pages as I read this novel -- a book that I could barely stand to put down the night I began reading and snatched up the moment I had time to read, the next day -- I feared that the predictable course would unfold. Perry is a warm, generous and kind-hearted character that you can’t help but root for and fall in love with. It’s only natural to want the best to happen and to fear the fate that seems inevitable when his family swoops in and attempts to fleece him.

To avoid spoiling the novel, I can only say that the entire book was full of pleasant surprises, cringe-inducing moments, smiles and tears. Lottery is an involving book -- emotional on many levels. I laughed, I cried, I loved Lottery. Since I closed the book, nearly two weeks ago, I’ve observed that I often hear Perry’s voice when I see something awe-inspiring and remember his oft-repeated words, “That is so cool!”

In the author’s introductory note, she describes the background of Lottery and her “need to write a compelling story that people will listen to, remember, and learn from.” Did she succeed? Absolutely. Perry L. Crandall is a character I plan to revisit, both for his and his Gram’s unique brand of wisdom. Is the novel compelling? Definitely. Did I learn from the story? No doubt about it. Author Patricia Wood succeeded on all levels and I hope that she’ll publish a second novel very soon.

Half Moon Investigations

Half-Moon Investigations
By Eoin Colfer
Miramax Books
Reviewed by Fence

Colfer is probably best known for his Artemis Fowl series, but in this book he moves away from the fantasy genre and into the detective one, but that doesn't mean that this book is a total departure. I would guess that any fans of the Fowl books would enjoy this one. I haven't read them all, but I've taken a look at a few and have been entertained by them all. I probably actually enjoyed this one more.

The hero of Half Moon Investigations is Fletcher Moon, a 12 year old detective, make that a short 12 year old detective. So short in fact that his unwanted nickname is Half Moon. But that doesn't stop Fletcher; all he has ever wanted is to be a detective. He has his badge, all the way from America, and so what if he had to use his father's birth certificate. He has his informants. He even has his contact in the local police. He knows all the rules of successful detecting. And yet that doesn't stop him from becoming entangled in a case he should have stayed far away from.

If you are a fan of the detective genre you should recognize plenty of references, albeit filtered through a slightly younger than normal point of view. Just read the opening lines:

My name is Moon. Fletcher Moon. And I'm a private detective. In my twelve years on this spinning ball we call Earth, I've seen a lot of things normal people never see. I've seen lunch boxes stripped of everything except fruit. I've seen counterfeit homework networks that operated in five counties, and I've seen truckloads of candy taken from babies. I thought I'd seen it all. I had paid so many visits to the gutter looking for lost valentines, that I thought nothing could shock me. After all, when you've come face-to-face with the dark side of the school yard, life doesn't hold many surprises.

How about that for a nod in the direction of the genre clichés.

And if you are a fan of the Artemis Fowl books you'll love the style in which Half Moon Investigations is written. Fletcher is an engaging character, there is plenty of humour, not to mention twists to keep the reader entertained. There is also a bit of a lesson to be learned, but don't worry, this isn't a preachy YA book, instead it is more about looking beyond the obvious and detecting what might be underneath. Like any good kid's book, this makes for an entertaining read, no matter the reader's age.

Notes from Nethers

Notes from Nethers: Growing Up In A Sixties Commune
by Sandra Lee Eugster
Academy Chicago Publishers
Reviewed by Jessie

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of communes and attempts at creating utopian societies. The idea of dropping out of mainstream society, living deliberately with like-minded people, and living off the land is so appealing when I find myself sitting in rush-hour traffic for hours, or realizing that I spend most of my time doing what is required or asked of me by others. But I’m not brave enough to make such a radical change in my life, so I rely on accounts of others who are.

Sandra Lee Eugster’s account of her childhood living on a commune, Nethers, of her mother’s creation is a fascinating commentary on the desire for radical social change and the counterculture of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but also on the effect of a parent’s choice to live outside the mainstream on her children.

Eugster’s mother, Carla, separated from her husband and moved with her three children (Eugster was nine years old) from Baltimore to rural Virginia, intent on making her dream of an intentional society come true. She believed that people should be free to do whatever kind of work they loved without concern for income. Her society would guarantee each member income, so that they could do whatever kind of work they loved.

From the sex ed classes where a Nethers member used a candle to demonstrate how to pleasure a man, to a sweat lodge ritual, to the eventual breakup of Nethers, the memoir features an interesting cast of characters and experiences. People came and went as they pleased, sometimes staying for months, or only a few days.

The children of Nethers were not formally educated, but took part in the experimental educational system of the commune, the “free” school. The adults believed that if children were allowed to follow their own interests, they would arrive at the desire to study and learn on their own.

But life at Nethers was far from ideal, and Eugster struggled with her desire to be a “normal” child or teenager, and the kind of life that was encouraged at Nethers. There were times when she wanted her mother to discipline her, or to eat forbidden candy and processed foods.

Eugster entered the commune experience a cheerful, talkative, curious girl. By the end, when she was seventeen, she was sullen and quiet, feeling abandoned. She writes of her life at Nethers:

“Captive to visionaries, I was in a constant made scramble to get with the dream. And it was something of a moving target, because I wasn’t the dreamer. Nearly all those at Nethers had chosen to be there for idealistic reasons, and they promulgated an ethos of love and tolerance that I took literally and very seriously. I didn’t know that they hadn’t themselves necessarily arrived at their espoused states of grace, I just knew that I fell short. Because I occasionally felt judgmental, jealous, or distrustful, I was often resentful and aggrieved, and sometimes I even lied.”

Most of the accounts of communes I’ve read were by those who lived through the experience as adults, so to read an account of someone who experienced it as a child was fascinating. As she points out in the above passage, she was not there as a “dreamer.” She was there because it was her mother’s dream, and as a minor, she had to go where her mother’s dream led her.

I’d highly recommend Notes from Nethers to anyone who is interested in an account of a counterculture commune, or a story of how a child is affected by their parent’s vision of a radical ideal lifestyle.

The Killer Book of True Crime

The Killer Book of True Crime: Incredible Stories, Facts and Trivia from the World of Murder and Mayhem
by Tom Philbin and Michael Philbin
Reviewed by Richard Marmo

Are you a devoted follower of CSI, the Law And Order franchise, NCSI, Without A Trace, Numbers and numerous other crime shows on TV? Then The Killer Book Of True Crime is right down your gurney...or alley, as the authors say.

If the various twists and turns of sick minds created for television dramas aren’t enough to sate your appetite for murder and mayhem, the Philbins give you another 344 pages of similar fare in a 6” x 9” paperback format with a very interesting difference. They’re all true.

Just the table of contents is enough to draw you into the book. Everything from the common (or not so common) robberies and murders to child killers, women killers, arson, death row, auto theft and out and out gore.

Along the way, you’ll find all kinds of esoteric but interesting...even fascinating...information. There’s humor, prison slang, statistics and complete autopsy reports. Letters written by serial killers provide an insight to some of the sickest criminal minds.

To do this book justice (sorry about that), would take more space than is available here. But let’s see if I can hit enough high points that you will want to add it to your bookshelf.

In the organized crime section, we learn what the Mafia’s weapon of choice is...and why. To entertain you, there’s a match game where you can try to match each deceased Mafioso with the way he died. Prefer to match each Mafioso with their nickname? That’s in there too.

The section dealing with prostitution crimes offers some rather surprising ways to kill, at least one of which is more than a little difficult to imagine. And no, I’m not going to describe it here. It’s enough to tell you that a certain part of a man’s body...which you would never think of in this context...was the murder weapon. Incidentally, prostitution has it’s own unique slang. If nothing else, you’ll definitely expand your vocabulary!

The serial killer and mass murder sections combined take up a full 90 pages and form the largest section of the book. And for good reason. On one hand they’re a fascinating window into some very twisted minds. At the same time, you wind up looking over your shoulder to make sure no one’s coming up behind you. In these two sections you’ll find the Boston Strangler, the Son of Sam, Charles Whitman, Robert Hansen, John Wayne Gacy and the two losers, Perry Smith and Dick Hickok, who slaughtered the Clutter family and wound up as the subjects of Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood. Then there was Albert Fish. If you have anything approaching a weak stomach, avoid this story. Albert Fish not only murdered a nine year old girl, he dismembered her, cooked her and ate her over a period of nine days. A very graphic letter that he later sent to her parents describing every grisly detail is reproduced in this section.

Would you like to know the last words, both serious and humorous, of condemned prisoners just before their execution? That’s in here. So are slang terms for both the electric chair and lethal injection. Also the most commonly requested last meals.

Stalkers, celebrities and crime, even kid killers. No, I’m not talking about criminals who kill kids. That’s a different category. What I’m referring to here are kids who commit murder.

Some crime stories or information don’t fit anywhere, which is why that catch-all phrase ‘miscellaneous’ was created. Such things as other types of crime jargon, kidnappings that are almost unbelievable, assassinations that almost succeeded, ancient poisons, humor, what the deadliest month is and on and on.

Finally, for those of you who love CSI to the point that you’ve thought about taking a college course in forensic pathology or even becoming a medical examiner, you won’t want to miss the "Mostly Gore (Not Al)" chapter. This one is comprised of the actual autopsy reports in excruciating detail for a number of very well known personalities. The role call is: Nicole Brown Simpson, Marilyn Monroe and George Reeves. All of these are very detailed and of considerable interest (?). But the piece de resistance is a 14 page autopsy report on JonBenet Ramsey.

The book ends with a 16 page index that will enable you to find any information you might be looking for in very short order.

If your interest lies in true crime and in depth detail of those same crimes, and don’t object to the stories being leavened with sprinklings of humor, this is definitely the book for you. Considering what you get for the price, $14.95 is more than reasonable. Just be sure to keep your door locked while you’re reading.

The Island

By Victoria Hislop
Reviewed by April D. Boland

The Island is a novel about family, adversity and facing one's past. It is set briefly in England, where Alexis, the daughter of a Greek immigrant, struggles to learn about herself despite her mother's obstinate silence, and mainly on Plaka, a Greek town that Alexis' mother Sophie came from. When Alexis decides to visit Plaka and meet one of her mother's oldest friends, Fortini, she learns much more than she ever could have dreamed of. Not all of it is pleasant - yes, like everyone else's, this family has a few skeletons in the closet. There are some painful moments and the reader may become frustrated, not with the story but with the cruelties of life, which are all too real. But there are also beautiful portraits and happy times, and the novel has enough of both to sustain hope.

An important motif in this novel is that of the past, or one's own personal history. It is practically a ringing endorsement of genealogy research, and an effective one, because by the end of it I was ready to run out and look up everything about my own family. Alexis learns so much about the precedents that women had set before she was even born, the choices they'd made, the consequences.

The Island is a fairly quick read because it captivates you, and you will want to know what happens next, again and again. Highly recommended to people who like happy endings but do not expect a sugar-coated road there.

Book of a Thousand Days

Book of a Thousand Days
By Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury USA
Reviewed by Melissa

Several years ago, I remember hearing an NPR piece by Nancy Pearl, librarian extraordinaire, in which she spotlighted books with the best first lines. Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale wasn't on that list -- after all, it hadn't been published yet -- but it should be.

It's one of those lines that draws a reader in, compels them to find out more. And Hale gives us a story full of intrigue, suspense, adventure, romance and friendship that more than does justice to the first line.

Dashti is a mucker, a commoner who knows the songs that fix the everyday aches and pains, and resident of Titor's Garden of the Eight Realms. She falls upon hard times when her mother dies, and heads to the main city to find work. Once there, she is taught to read and write, and is given to Lady Saren -- a third daughter of a ruling lord whose only purpose in life is to get married -- as a maid. Unfortunately for Dashti, this happens just as Saren defies her father by refusing to marry the man of his choice, claiming love for another man. He has Saren, and Dashti (for a lady's maid is sworn to follow her lady), locked up in a tower for seven years. Dashti chronicles the days in the tower, writing and illustrating her journal: the loneliness, her struggle to understand Saren, the challenge of survival, the visits of Saren's two suitors: Kahn Tegus (her choice) and Lord Khasar (father's choice).

This book is remarkable for many reasons, but chiefly because it doesn't read like your typical fantasy book. Or even like Hale's other books. One reviewer commented that even though it was fantasy, it read more like historical fiction. I agree. Under Hale's more than capable hands, the story of Dashti, Saren and their time in the tower and afterward take on a life beyond the fantasy genre. It's set in a "make believe" realm, but it's not too hard to believe that the landscape and the atmosphere are the central Asian steppes. Magic is present, but in a form so natural and organic, it isn't hard to believe it originated from thousands of years of worship and sacrifice to the Eight Ancestors.

Another difference is Hale's choice of heroine. It would have been easy for her to choose to write this story from Saren's point of view, or with an omniscient narrator. But, because Dashti is a servant, the story takes on a completely different, and perhaps more believable, perspective and tone. I found it fascinating to see such a harsh and rule-oriented place from the point of view of someone most affected by the harshness of the landscape and the strictness of the society. In addition, Dashti is a simple, yet eloquent narrator. She's observant, funny, lyrical and honest. I hung on her every word.

This was from Day 11:

But some nights, when I tossed on my mattress, awake and staring at nothing, the sorrow would strike me. Quiet there in Qadan's dark house, my heartache felt like a river, and I was sinking into it, carried away fast in its coldness. That's the best way I can explain it, and what I mean by it is, I missed my mama.
Or from Day 160:

"Can you tell me, what does the sky look like today?"

"Sky? It looks like a sky."

"Is it blue?"

The guard snorted. "It's always blue."

But he's wrong. Though we call it the Eternal Blue Sky, I know that sometimes it's black, sometimes white, sometimes yellow, pink, purple, gray, black, peach, gold, orange, a dozen different shades of blue, with a hundred different kinds of clouds in thousands of shapes. That's what makes it so wondrous. If the guard couldn't see that, I wouldn't bother to explain.
Dashti was the brightest star in the book, but I felt that the other characters held their own. Saren was understandably sullen and frightened for most of the book, and at times I was irritated with her. But because Dashti was so loyal to her, I felt she must have had some worth. Lord Khasar was terrifying as the father-picked suitor. Leering, dominant and terrible: everything a good "bad guy" should be. And Khan Tegus... let's just say that the romance was exactly what a romance should be. Even if I did figure the ending out (but only in a general way).

Based on a little-known Grimm fairy tale, "Maid Maleen," Book of a Thousand Days is a remarkable story. Perhaps not one that makes you jump up and shout, but rather one that sticks with you, willing itself to be mulled over. Which makes the book an incredible read.

A Snug Life Somewhere

A Snug Life Somewhere
By Jan Shapin
Reviewed by Melissa

On November 5, 1916, members of the Seattle chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World headed north by boat to Everett, Washington to attend a rally. When they got there, they were met by a group of local authorities, who informed them that they would not be able to land. Tensions escalated, a shot was fired, and in the resulting chaos, at least five members of the IWW were killed, as well as some of the citizen deputies of Everett. It is with this event, and the subsequent labor conflicts in the Pacific Northwest, that Jan Shapin shapes her debut novel, A Snug Life Somewhere.

Penny Joe Copper is your average, run-of-the mill working girl. She comes from a union family in Everett, and has spent the first 24 years of her life pretty much just cleaning up after her not-so-great father. When her father ends up in jail in Spokane (convicted of murder for the death of a nightwatchman) and her younger brother heads to Seattle to go to college, Penny figured it was time to leave, too. She headed for Seattle, intending to follow her brother to college and begin a new life for herself. However, because of the Everett Massacre, her life ends up taking a different path.

This novel is not what I expected. I think, from the synopsis on the back, I expected some sort of light romantic-historical-adventure-fiction story. What I got was a sweeping picture of a woman's life, one that is at times heartbreaking and funny, ordinary and amazing. It's an all-inclusive story, one that reads like a personal memoir, which is both this book's strength and weakness.

It's a strength, because it allows the reader to see little-remembered events in the mid- to late-1910s intimately. How many of us know even the first thing about early 20th-century labor unions and the rise of Communism? How many have heard of the Everett Massacre or the Seattle General Strike? Through this book we see them both, with Penny as our eyewitness. She is a rabble-rouser; on the contrary, she's an observer, just like us, an interloper on history. Events happen to her and around her; she is the cause of very little -- at least for the first half of the book. When her brother is killed in the Everett Massacre, she falls in with Gabe, one of the ringleaders of the local labor movement. She says she doesn't really like Gabe, doesn't want to be a part of his circus -- playing the role of Grief in his rallies -- yet she lacks the fortitude to do anything about it. So, as things do to passive people, one thing follows another, and she ends up in Mexico with Gabe.

I am leaving a little bit out. She does actively pursue, though that sounds more predatory than it is, a 17-year-old violinist, Marcel. She even goes as far as to forge his birth certificate and attempt to kidnap him to Portland to marry him. It didn't sit right with me, though. It felt desperate -- though maybe it was supposed to feel that way -- and out of character for Penny. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and expected that Gabe and Marcel's mother show up to take Marcel back to Seattle.

I have to confess, though, that I didn't like Penny for much of the book; I found her weak and uninteresting. It seemed that the historical events overwhelmed her, overwhelmed her narrative. And considering the book is written entirely in Penny's words, and is all about Penny's life, that is a major weakness in the story, at least for me. Of course, weak characters in fiction can also be compelling characters, but this case Shapin didn't quite pull that off. It wasn't until she left Gabe in Chicago, stealing a Faberge egg (which had been brought to Mexico by a Russian spy and that Gabe failed to deliver to the specified Russian contact in Chicago), that I finally began to like her. It was then that she finally grew up, accepted responsibility for her own life, and took action.

With murmurs from the audience, a dozen little girls, skinny and tall, short and plump, decked out in lavender tutus, rose to pass around baskets of sweets, and I thought how, when I was that age, I would have liked a dress like that, to be among the sugar plum fairies, passing out sweets. But I took hold of myself, told myself such daydreams were not productive, that I was twenty-six, no longer a child, as close to an orphan as a person could be with a mother still alive, and I'd better get to wishing for things that were possible. I promised myself I'd someday visit a palace, but gave up on the notion of a lavender ballet dress.

Unfortunately, her character's development came almost too late in the book for me. I did feel that the change was organic; I could sense Penny's maturing throughout her time in Mexico. Without that, Penny's sudden gumption when she does face Gabe again, and when she moves on for the rest of her life, would have seemed false. But, there was too little of the story left for me to entirely enjoy this new Penny.

While I was often frustrated with Penny, Shapin did a fine job with the often difficult trick of mixing historical figures with the fictional ones. The historical characters were little enough known (Mikhail Borodin was one that I did recognize as historical, aside from a brief appearance of J. Edgar Hoover) that she was able to allow them to have a personality of their own, apart from what history has said about them. However, after a while I got the sense that Shapin was almost more interested in the historical events than she was in her characters (though, admittedly, that may have been a function of the Penny's basic weaknesses). Many pages were spent explaining the politics, the history, the feeling of the time period. I suppose it was necessary, since these are little-known events, but I eventually became somewhat bored with it, wanting more story and less setting.

However, aside from the historical lectures, the prose was often delightful to read. Shapin has a way of making the most mundane efforts seem interesting, and the most banal events come to life:

I watched the wrinkled linens, still smelling from naphtha, disappear into the long padded arm, each sheet in its turn pulled deep into the maw. I thought about the word mangle, how such a term came to be used for a machine whose job it was to crush wet linens into freshly ironed sheets. A harsh restoration no doubt, to emerge newly bathed only to be steamed and flattened inside an unrelenting machine. Not something to be welcomed, but considered necessary by us humans, to restore sheets to useful life. A merciful God could have provided a more bucolic transformation, I thought, performed by Swiss maidens, using flat irons on a mountainside balcony. But this wasn't Switzerland, and I wasn't a Swiss maiden. I was in the basement of the biology building, next to the heating plant, and my sheets were getting ironed according to the laws of the world they were consigned to.
And that is the best thing about this book. It doesn't take place in some historically grand event or time. It's about working people making their way through life, looking for peace and something better. And this one woman's story, whatever its weaknesses, is a fine enough way to experience that.