Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Letter from the Editor, April 2008

Growth is perhaps one of our most multi-faceted themes to date. Personally, this theme calls to mind the best and worst of what it means to edit an e-zine. When I started this project several years ago it was a very different undertaking than it is now. As a broad-based humanities publication we struggled to keep the momentum going as we were covering so many different topics, I was a crazy woman and the writers burned out.

Now that we focus exclusively on our collective first love, things are smoother. It's easier to get material, easier to come up with themes, easier in every way, really.

That's not to say that we don't hit bumps every now and then. I'm sure I can speak for myself along with the majority of the writers in saying, projects like this are a labor of love. As with any labor of love, life often gets in the way. Personally, I teach college writing courses at two schools (one full-time, one part-time), I squeeze in writing for pay, I attempt to maintain a family and social life, and I think about this 'zine every step of the way.

It's tough to keep going sometimes, and that's especially true as Spring has sprung, the school year is winding down, there's a garden to tend, plants to grow, students to conference with, meals to cook, a house to clean, a puppy pulling at my pant leg, and creativity to nurture. It makes me tired just thinking about it.

However, along with all the busy schedules and headaches, I feel a growing and renewed fervor for what Heather and the writers and I do here at Estella's Revenge. As we grow in our reading and writing, so do the challenges before us, the changes that need to be made, and the responsibility to keep this publication alive and flourishing.

With growth in mind, keep an eye out in coming months for some changes here at Estella's Revenge. You can expect some differences in the look of the place, some additions to our sidebar, and maybe even some Estella's Revenge merchandise. It would be great to continue growing, gain additional credibility in the book blogging world, and even maybe pay our writers a little something for all the hard work they do. It's with your continued support that we can mold Estella's Revenge into a continually legitimate and informative e-zine.

I have to admit, I was a little concerned when we began gathering pieces for this month's issue as the submissions seemed at an all time low...a trickle at best. However, with one e-mail asking for material and a lot of creativity on the writers' part, I actually think this might be the very best issue we've ever turned out.

Thanks to you readers and all the writers for everything. You make my days brighter.


Table of Contents

Author Interview: A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically

Feature Articles:

Book Reviews:

Door Prize Book Giveaway, April 2008

Welcome back to another round of the Estella's Revenge "Door Prize" Book Giveaway! The winner of the March book, a signed copy of Cathleen Schines, The New Yorkers, goes to Julie from Booking Mama! Congratulations!

This month's door prize, in celebration of our new Powell's Partner move, is a $15.00 Powell's Books Gift Card! To enter, just e-mail us at estellabooks (at) gmail (dot) com with your name and address.

Interview: A.J. Jacobs

Interviewed by Lisa Guidarini of Bluestalking Reader

In the beginning was the encyclopedia. Yea, verily. I looketh upon it with mine own eyes. And I saw that it was good. There was evening and morning whilst I readeth it. Then again, there's evening and morning pretty much every day (unless you live really, really far north). But I digresseth.

A score of months later (give or take, who can count), came the Bible. It was fruitful. It multiplied. It cracketh me up. It restoreth my sense of humor. I laugheth, as it led me to the path of righteousness. Or not.

Yea, verily, I did then contact A.J., and he doth reply. I asketh, and he answereth. And here it is, now, for thine own eyes. Enjoyeth.

BSR: It's a little trite to ask you where on earth you come up with your book ideas, but where on earth do you come up with your book ideas? What inspires (or possesses) you to embark on these incredibly ambitious projects?

AJJ: Well, I love the idea of quests. But I'm not much of an outdoor person, so I don't see myself climbing K2 or doing the Iditarod race. So my quests tend to be intellectual or spiritual. Things I can do without getting frostbite. I also like taking things to the extreme. So I figure, if I'm interested in religion, why not go all the way - live the entire Bible - and see what works? And I love first-person writing. I love to read it and I love to write it. If it's done well, it can be like you're right there with the author on the journey.

BSR: Out of all the trials and tribulations from your biblical year, what was the toughest thing you endured? And, by the way, did you get to keep the slave?

AJJ: I'd say there were two parts that were the toughest. There was the attempt to avoid the little sins we all commit every day - the lying, the coveting, the gossiping. I live in New York and work for the media. So that was pretty much 75 percent of my day. The second tough part was trying to obey laws that will get you into a little trouble if you follow them in 21st century America. Like stoning adulterers. Or owning a slave. (For slavery, the closest thing I could find was a summer intern. He was great. But he had to go back to college.

BSR: With three little ones at home and what I presume is a full-time writing job, how do you find time to write your books, much less do the extensive research?

AJJ: I am having a tough time.

My sons haven't embraced the distinction between work hours and play hours. Right now, I'm working about 16 hours a day, and getting about two hours of actual work done, because my kids come into my office every three minutes to have an important discussion about bananas or Dora the Explorer. So I don't think I've mastered the balance yet.

My only trick is that I try not to waste a single second. I don't let my mind wander too often. If I'm going around the corner to get a bunch of grapes (as I had to do today), I try to have something specific to think about while I'm walking. A little project. Like, what headline an article should have. Or a list of people I'd like to profile for Esquire.

BSR: Have you ever given thought to writing fiction, or actually, have you ever written fiction?

AJJ: I've dabbled a couple of times. But I just don't think I'm built for it. Even in my reading choices I tend toward nonfiction. When I was young, I remember reading Tom Wolfe talking about how nonfiction - when it's written in a vibrant way - is more compelling than fiction. So that really influenced me. Then he decides to write nothing but fiction. So I don't know where that leaves me.

BSR: What are you reading lately? Anything you'd recommend?

AJJ: I wish my friends would stop writing good books. I keep feeling compelled to read them. My friend Jennifer Traig wrote a book about hypochondria called Well Enough Alone, which will be out later this year. Also, though he's not a friend, I'm in the middle of Alan Weisman's The World Without Us. I loved the description of Manhattan before people came in, plowed the hills down, and put up a Duane Read drugstore on every block.

BSR: What on earth (or heaven) is next for you after a year spent following the Bible?

AJJ: Well, my wife says I owe her after all I put her through with the encyclopedia and Bible projects. She's pressuring me to to The Year of Giving My Wife Foot Massages. But I'm not sure how mass the appeal would be. But I do want to do one more of the immersion projects.

BSR: Finally, for someone whose writing ambition is to follow the same sort of path you have, what advice would you give?

AJJ: I'm worried my advice will be stuff they've heard before. I don't have any huge original secrets like "use more umlauts." To me, the most important thing, I think, is just to generate ideas nonstop. Be an idea machine. Because rarely - especially when you're starting out - will someone assign you a book or a freelance article. You have to pitch relentlessly. And second, over-report. Especially if you're describing a scene. Write down every detail, even the ones that seem trivial - the sound of American Gladiators playing in the background, for instance. You never know what you'll end up using .

Blesseth thee, A.J. Jacobs. I hath enjoyed this very much. Verily, verily much, I say unto thee.

P.S.: This before/after will never stop crackething (?) me up.

Going Green? Anyone? Yes!

We see it on the news. We read about it on the Internet. It is a hot topic with this year’s presidential candidates, all the news shows, on various blogs, with our families, and even our friends. It affects the stock market, the cars we drive now, and the ones we will drive in the future. It is everywhere!

So just what does “Going Green” mean, exactly?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines environmentalism as:

1. Advocacy for or work toward protecting the natural environment from destruction or pollution.
2. The theory that environment rather than heredity is the primary influence on intellectual growth and cultural development.

There are so many ways companies are “going green,” or at least talking about it, but what are the purveyors of our beloved books doing to help? A lot, actually;

1. *Amazon recently released the Kindle. For $400 you have access to over 100,000 books, newspapers, magazines, and even blogs – all easily downloaded in minutes. It holds over 200 titles. You can send emails and save pictures. Even the bill is wireless. No paper involved whatsoever. That is pretty hard to beat. I just hope you are ready to wait; due to consumer demand, the Kindle is temporarily out of stock.

2. Random House, popular publisher of such titles as Atonement by Ian McEwan, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, has promised what they call “the most substantial environmental initiative in the company’s history.” They promise that by 2010 to be using at least thirty percent (30%) more of the uncoated paper it uses to print the greater part of its U.S. titles will come from recycled fibers. They currently use around three percent (3%).

3. Lastly, Scholastic Books. Wow. Now they are really doing something! Scholastic’s "Act Green" program gets teachers, kids and their parents involved in the movement.

Scholastic has printed the mega-best-seller Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on paper that contained a minimum of thirty percent (30%) post-consumer waste fiber. 65% of the paper used will be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. This was “the largest purchase of FSC-certified paper to be used in a single book. The decision followed lobbying by the Rainforest Alliance. Canadian and European publishers have printed the last several Harry Potter books using forest-friendly paper, in accordance with author J.K. Rowling's wishes. It is great news that the U.S. publisher is following suit.”

4. Bookmooch is a great option for recycling books. It’s a community for trading books. It’s simple; every time you give someone a book, you get a point, unless they are in a different country. Then you get 3 points. List 10 books, you get a point. With these points, you can “mooch” a book from someone else. A book from your country costs 1 point, from another country, it costs 2. The only cost to you is the cost of mailing the book out, which, if you use media mail is negligible. It’s a great way to spread around the books you love and find new ones to enjoy.

So go out, support all these efforts, and go a little green yourself!

*Despite the fact that we're no longer Amazon Associates, we still dig the Kindle for its friendliness to the environment. We can't deny it.

Growing Pains

"Print On Demand" or "pod" is a well known term among publishing folk and describes the process by which many independent publishers do their business. Quite simply, when someone orders a book, a pod company like Amazon's BookSurge subsidiary, whip up a copy. For small presses and independent publishers this pod process is a lifesaver, as it saves the companies from having to take costly chances on big print runs of books that may never sell like the "biggies" that get scads of media attention.

I first learned of the pod process when two of my good friends and graduate school comrades started Black Bird Press. Like many other newbies to the independent and small press world, I immediately associated print on demand with vanity presses and all manner of self-publishing. Maybe I'm a snob, but while I love a good independently published book, I often shy away from books printed by their authors. I believe in editors and peer review. So kill me.

However, I was largely wrong in my assumptions, and I quickly came to realize how important pod is to small presses, new presses, indies--all those unsung champions of new, fresh, edgy, important literature the likes of which large houses often ignore.

It's recently come to light that Amazon.com, one of the biggest of the big online books-and-such retailers will now require that sellers of pod material use BookSurge if they want to sell their books on Amazon.

For a concise summary of Amazon's demand, consult Jim Milliot's piece in Publisher's Weekly.

While it might sound like a nebulous problem with little to no impact on the everyday reader, we at Estella's Revenge think it's a very big deal--an unfair demand on indies and small presses to bend to the corporate right of way. As a result, we will no longer route our readers to Amazon's pages to purchase the books mentioned between our virtual covers. We've long been an Amazon Associate, which means that when you click on one of our links you will be taken to an Amazon page for the book you're interested in. If you then continue to browse and buy the original book or another on your travels through our portal, we would receive a percentage of the purchase price to fund the ongoing efforts of Estella's Revenge.

After a little investigation, we've decided that instead of being an Amazon Associate, Estella's Revenge will be known from here on out as a Powell's Partner. If you're not already familiar with Powell's Books, it began as an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon in 1971. From that first shop, Powell's grew to a chain of six independent bookstores and became a powerful online presence in 1994. For a complete history, click HERE.

In the spirit of supporting independent bookstores and small presses everywhere, we feel that the move to a Powell's Partner reflects many of the goals and concerns of those who take part in making Estella's Revenge a reputable e-zine and one dedicated to all facets of the reading world...not just powerful corporate booksellers and dominant publishing houses.

While we've never tried to cram our monetary livelihood down our readers' throats, we feel that making this information known in a straightforward fashion can help raise awareness of corporate book selling practices and readers can make an informed decision about where they want to buy and who they support.

Personal Growth: Tackling the Self-Help Universe

By Lisa Guidarini

Whatever the immediate cause, over the past few years I’ve been what you may call a nutbag about issues involving personal growth, branching out, and trying new things. That’s weird for me because I’ve never been like that before. And when I say never, I mean NEVER. I’ve always been a little scared, a little hesitant, and a lot reserved. The definition of the word “homebody” had a picture of me next to it, which was kind of embarrassing since they used my DMV photo.

Part of this new exploration came as a result of having suffered losses and another part from world-weariness, but the biggest part came from the joy that is long term depression. What started to help me turn all that around was a little thing I’ll call “chemical courage,” or “better living through chemistry,” when I finally sought the aid of anti-depressants to help me get back to the “me” lurking in the depths somewhere. I knew she was in there. When it was quiet I could hear her scratching around, shredding papers for her nest. Plus, at night she kept escaping and eating all my cookies.

Getting professional help for my depression issues allowed me to think clearly for the first time in, well, forever. And that gave me a little inkling as to what I might have been missing all my life. The takeaway lesson was “Life’s short; you better do more shit.” I finally began to realize I’d better get my ass in gear. I knew I’d probably have tomorrow, since I was feeling okay and all, but I also knew you can’t count on next week because that doesn’t even exist yet, save in the extended forecast. And we all know how unreliable the extended forecast is. Don’t get me started.

Over the past few months my yearning for self-improvement and personal growth morphed into an insatiable need for reading self help books. Why’s that? Well, it’s all tied up with the other life stuff, but basically I had some issues to work through before I could really tackle that living issue full-force. Issues are the baggage we all carry around on our backs. For me, I anthropomorphize that concept into a monkey that’s always clinging to my back. Sometimes he’s hanging from my neck, occasionally he grabs me around the waist, but he’s always there, sister. He’s always hanging around, kind of like that obnoxious co-worker who just never seems to get the hint.

A big part of my new plan for growth included really digging into my ideas on spirituality, digging out the part of me that’s jaded and getting down to what I truly can believe in, because that’s taken a real knocking, too. I wasn’t sure I could believe in anything that wasn’t concrete anymore. All my belief in a “beyond,” or a meaning to any of this life stuff, had all but evaporated. At the same time, I regularly do a lot of thinking about the Universe, how huge it is, how volatile, and how mysterious. If you think about that long enough it can make your brain explode, especially if you get on the track of “but what MADE the stuff that formed into the Universe in the first place?” I feel my head starting to throb already. I don’t know about you.

Unlike a lot of people, I’m comfortable with knowing I don’t know everything. I’m fine with unanswerable questions, and the whole Universe thing is definitely a big, unanswered question. But what I’m a lot more anxious to know is how to make the most of myself, how to tap the resource that is my mind and wring a lot more creativity out of it. The self help books help me with that. Some of them, I’ll admit, are cheesy and Dr. Phil-y, but there’s also a lot of wisdom to be found there, too. I highlight what I think I can actually use and chuck the rest of it aside.

At the same time I’m reading the books I’m also doing a lot of writing in my journal. I find that a necessary outlet for both my creativity and my sanity. It also helps me remember the key points in my reading, those sentences I highlighted when they struck me as useful. And I’ve already referred back to the writing I did when I started the whole project, wondering that I’m the same person who started out sounding so, well, messed up. It’s good to see there’s been progress. That’s an encouraging sign.

Personal growth is an ongoing issue. If you ever find yourself thinking you’re done with it, that you’ve reached your limit, that’s a good sign you need to get your butt out of the house and do something. Because without continued growth there really is no life. That’s what life is by definition.

The trick is to keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re on the track you want to be on, and that you realize though it’ll never be perfect you can guide it how you’d like it to go. Just remember to take care of yourself during the process, nurture your soul or your higher self or whatever you choose to call it. Because this is the only you you’re ever going to have, and probably the only life. So it may as well be the very best you can make it. If it means getting help then get help. Life is all too short, and so very precious. Find the you in you, and get out there and live it.

Voice of Dissent: The Book Thief

By Melissa

I have a lousy track record with the sort of fiction books that get buzz. (Blogging has changed the buzz business, of course, but there are still some big, reliable sources: The New York Times Book Review, Oprah, the morning news shows, NPR, etc.) I feel like I should be reading them; the implied message is that these are the sort of books that every intelligent person should be reading. I'm intelligent, or at least I want to be, and so I respond to the buzz. But the problem is I invariably end up disliking the book. And so I have become cynical, cringing at the hype surrounding these books: nothing, I think, can be that good.

But there is one thing these books have all had in common: they are all written for an adult audience. So, when I finally picked up The Book Thief -- two years after the publication date, one year after it won a Printz Honor Award -- I was hopeful that I would like it, even with the hype surrounding it, precisely because it was not an adult fiction book.

It's because I'm one of those people, one who reads YA fiction for fun. (And not just YA fiction, middle grade fiction, too. Sometimes even picture books.) I have no job excuse: I'm not a children's librarian or a children's writer. I don't even have any aspirations to become either a writer or a librarian. I could claim that I'm pre-reading for my children, but I don't because it's not true. I read YA fiction because I love it.

I'm sure I could come up with a long list of reasons why I like YA better than adult fiction -- things like the writing is tighter, better edited, and usually more direct -- but I think the real reason is that I like the stories. I’ve found that what makes or breaks a book for me is an well-told story with sympathetic, engaging characters, stories with a strong beginning and a fitting end. I think it’s because my life is mostly chaos, and I have very little control, ultimately, over what my husband and children do in the course of a day. Life is open-ended, challenging, confusing and -- as my mother would often say -- most of all, it's daily. Whereas, for me, a book should be something predictable: having a beginning, middle and end, with a plot line that comes to a satisfying resolution. There is something comfortable in predictability, and YA fiction delivers that predictability more often than buzz-worthy adult fiction.

Back to The Book Thief, though. I was actually surprised I didn't like it. I'd heard nothing but good about it from people I respect and admire, and I was fully expecting to add my voice to the throng of praises. And under my criteria, I should have liked it. It's YA (or at least it has been categorized as one; my library shelves it in the adult section however). It's cleverly written; I thought having Death be the narrator was an innovative way to look at the horrors of Nazi Germany. (I could quibble a bit about whether it was "tight"... I have to admit that I skimmed sections of the book because the narration went on and on and on.) All together it's got an interesting, emotionally charged story that's well-told.

Yet... at first I was flummoxed: why wasn't I totally loving it? I kept reading, hoping that something would click, that the genre, or my blogging friends, wouldn't let me down. Eventually though, I had to come to terms with it: I just didn't like the book. I have come to realize my dislike boils down to three things: I couldn't connect with the characters, the narrator was getting in the way of the story, and the overall theme was overly despairing for my taste.

First, the characters. In order for me to truly enjoy a story, I need to be able to connect with the characters on some level; if I don't, then the (predictable, comfortable) ending that the story should come to won't do anything for me. And that means I need to be able to find something elemental in them that I can recognize, respect or admire. As I was reading, I appreciated that Zuzak was writing about everyday Germans, rather than Jews in concentration camps or Nazis or soldiers. I found it interesting to see the war from the point of view of someone who is just trying to survive. But there weren't any characters that I could truly connect to. That's not to say there weren't any -- the father, Hans, comes to mind as I'm writing this -- but I often felt that the despair of the situation, the closed-off nature of the characters themselves, and the distracting cleverness of the narrator, worked against my connection with the characters themselves. I often felt like an outsider looking in, like someone who's clinically analyzing the experiences of others, which makes it difficult to achieve the connection I'm looking for when I read.

Then there was Death. I liked Death, initially, laughing where I was supposed to laugh, and eventually even crying where I was supposed to cry. But I disliked the foreshadowing. Death says that he's not into the buildup and mystery of a normal story, but I am. I wanted to have a relationship with these characters, but on some level refused to do so because I knew that they would eventually die. I find endings where there are deaths to be more powerful if I'm not reminded throughout the book that these people would die, if it comes as a surprise (or if not a surprise, then at least with some buildup). But Death didn't provide any buildup -- on the contrary, his narration constantly defused any buildup, annoying me in the process, because his voice was robbing the story of a satisfying conclusion.

Then there's the overriding theme, which I felt something along the lines of: words can do good as well as harm, some people are good even in a bad situation, and some people survive. That's life. It doesn't inspire me, or even entertain me. (Yes, really, that's all I want out of my books: to learn, to be inspired, or to be entertained.)

In the end, I came to the conclusion that this book is like "The Pianist" or Elie Wiesel's Night: it's an interesting story, possibly an important one, but it's not one I want to cuddle up with, to read and reread, because there's no relationship, no closure, no ending or entertainment or inspiration to be found there. In a sense, it's an English class book: one to be respected and studied and analyzed and possibly imitated, for its language or its cleverness or its perspective. Just not really liked, at least by me. I'm okay with that. After all, the buzz-makers loved it.

Booklover...Will Travel

By S.A. Harris

As an aspiring writer and avid bookworm, I depend upon the emotional inundation that springs from the four-letter word… book. It isn’t unusual for hopefuls to line up in sequence, a garland amongst snaking bookstore sidewalks, in anticipation of purchasing newly released tomes from their favorite authors. “Whatever it takes!” are the fluid words encamping dedication amid writers and readers alike.

Recently, having journeyed a notional superhighway of wireless connections, I had the pleasure of corresponding with The Secret Lives of People in Love author, Simon Van Booy. His acclaimed short story collection presented quite the impossible conquest, to which I lacked any amount of actual preparedness. Often curious, an about-face cartwheeled numerous inadvertent measures of having first seen his paperback prose—to wishing I’d purchased it—and infinite web surfing that serendipitously connected me to an award-winning writer with a keen sense of humor. Seemingly, a harmonic disarray of geographical persuasion, I muddled through an illusion of chaos as one such hopeful.

In the chill of early February, a monochrome skyline released a layer of snowfall that danced as if powdered sugar through a hopeful breeze… blanketing my bucolic hometown in a whimsy of white. Never a hindrance to the wiles of feminine philosophy, I ardently prepared for the day’s bargain adventures that commenced the bustle of Brentwood Boulevard. In a remote corner of Borders Bookstore, a friend stumbled upon a paperback of muted tones that nestled a nearby shelf of possible interests… she handed it to me saying, “Look, it’s autographed.” Thumbing the pages, we skimmed one after the other until contractual obligations and our disheveled shopping bags lent reminder to the rest of the afternoon’s binge activity. Alone with thought, I absorbed prevailing curiosity, and marveled at this writer’s collection of poetic themes… languishing details that hadn’t secured its bookshelf placement among the others in my library.

Two weeks later, as chance would have it, my fingers provoked the realms of MySpace, and I discovered an official page, which is not only maintained by the author, but also by someone called Tim, who loves Batman. After deciphering a personal blog entry posted in October 2007, with a deadline long since expired, I communicated with Mr. Van Booy regarding his imminent Writing Workshop… a picturesque escape through the Redwood Forest of Soquel, California, held in May 2008 at the Land of Medicine Buddha. A precarious inquiry tested the destiny of my aspiring vocation, but I leapt unreservedly at opportunity and with serious avidity to learn. Soon an onslaught of research was underway and after several e-mail inquiries concerning the retreats ‘facilitative guest amenities’, my girlish blow-drying requirements were obviously exposed. Though, Simon Van Booy assures a valid realization, “There is electricity; I’ll even bring a blow dryer if you want…”

Suddenly, a compelling need to read his collection flooded as I hoisted the anchor of expectancy… completely innocent of the challenge ahead. Somersaulting beyond credence, from Borders Bookstore to Barnes & Noble and back again, I attempted a return venture to the original bookshelf where I had last seen the illusive, waiting copies of The Secret Lives of People in Love. After this moronic escapade, I was affronted by a window display verifying an obvious Blue Period in the world of book findings, as a daring glare of flagrant, crimson letters quantified my contempt…Temporarily Closed Due To Water Main Break. (To this day, the aforementioned remains a depressing carcass of orphaned literature.) My mind marveled a series of Machiavellian tactics before frantically dialing another prominent bookstore.

“I’m looking for…,” I said evenly, having collected myself during the twenty-second stride of Murphy’s Law to the warmth of my car.

“Great, we have books!” And I wanted to exile the anonymous salesperson.

Briefly I explained, confiscating submerged particulars, and she responded empathetically, “Borders has it, but it’s probably floating in water by now.”

“Yes... thank you, I’m in the parking lot.” I offered gently, before strangling my cell phone and ineffectual city navigator.

The literary conversion of crisis and circumstance shed an air of Hitchcock to the universal declaration of booklovers… though when I shared this turnabout during the untailored flow of conversation, the Secret Lives author responded wittily to the tale of idiosyncratic pangs of calamity and fate, “That’s funny… I wonder if they were inside in rubber shoes with wrenches…”
Outwardly, I discern this technology driven amusement as it seeps from the realms of a luminous computer screen, bludgeoning me with cybershopping awareness, I wish I’d thought of first.

Yes, Mr. Van Booy… I’m convinced they were.

Growing Up in the Secret Garden

By April D. Boland

In discussing growth, I would be remiss in not discussing my recent reading of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The novel, which I was reading for the first time, was all about growth: flowers and blossoms coming to life symbolized the coming to life of various central characters. Growth was the result of springtime, of nature, and of a willingness to change, to learn and to love.

I suppose I am a sucker for the sentimental as this novel won my heart. I loved the idea of growth, not simply as measured by how many inches you gain each year, as when we were children, but in how many spiritual, emotional and intellectual "inches" you add onto yourself each year. Growth encapsulates so much: new ways we learn to treat and appreciate others, new ways we look at the world, new forms of art and knowledge that we expose ourselves to. As people who love literature, this should all sound vaguely familiar. Books full of meaning and promise are tools that can lead us to some of the best growth of our lives.

There are many reading challenges out there, but I think that this spring, it would be a good idea to personally challenge oneself to read books which will help you to grow. These don't have to be self-help books, although they can be. You can read books by philosophers and poets you have never read before. You can try picking up a nonfiction book by an author who holds an opposing viewpoint to your own. You can read a novel about a subject you know nothing about, a place you've never been. Some books resonate with each of us more than others, but you will seldom regret reading one that makes you grow.

Growth of a Fanboy

By Chris Buchner

I guess you could say my first love is comics. At over 16 years, it’s definitely my longest relationship. Then again, at almost 14,000 issues in my collection including trade paperbacks, I’m sure some would call it a mildly unhealthy obsession rather than a hobby at this point. So how does one grow to become the kind of fan who constantly buys the comics they need and eventually end up working in the field?

Well, we all read comics of some kind in some form. For many, it’s in the newspapers that print one to two pages of strips, or the Sunday paper that does a whole pull-out section. Then there are magazines which do strips, especially the ones geared towards kids. I had both of these growing up, with the addition of the Archie Comics family of digests I’d read sporadically and the exposure to superheroes through my Saturday Morning Cartoons (you know, before they became crap). And of course, I would draw what would literally be one-panel comics using my favorite characters at the time like most kids do.

The real foray to comics came in 1991, when I was away for the summer with relatives in Poughkeepsie, me and my cousins were taken to an arcade where I saw the X-Men arcade game by Konami. I remember just becoming enamored with the characters; Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Dazzler, Storm, the Brotherhood of Mutants, and especially Wolverine. Don’t know what it was about the olCanuckle-head, but something about him especially got me. Maybe it was because of the time, with how they did his special attack graphic-wise in the game, I thought he had cool claws that shot electricity. I’d come to learn later that energy burst represented a berserker barrage attack with the claws. Ah, well.

That Christmas I got my first bundle of comics as a gift, the top two I remember being Silver Surfer vol. 3 #55 and Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1 #356. Think deep down my parents regretted doing that with how that evolved. The following year I also started collecting the cards based on the comics, even though I had the Spider-Man card from the 1991 Marvel Universe series since that summer (was given to me in summer camp by someone).

For most of my comic-reading career, I was what you could call a “Marvel Zombie.” This was a term that was coined to describe a reader who would only read titles that Marvel put out. Yeah, that was me. I read any Marvel book I could get my hands on, and started learning exclusively about the Marvel characters. At the time, for me, DC’s characters were too lame (except Batman, the movies and subsequent cartoon made him stand out for me) and Image was too dark for my tastes. I didn’t even KNOW there were other companies out there except for NOW, but that was only because I was also a Ghostbusters fan and my parents had gotten me Real Ghostbusters vol. 2 #1, 2 and 4. I also didn’t know I had come into comics in a time when legitimate readers were disgusted by the content and speculators were about to put a huge dent in the industry (known as the comic boom and bust, talked about in my first Estella article COMIC BOOKS: THE FOUR COLORED HISTORY).

My parents fueled this growing addiction by giving me a $30 comic budget every month. I would head to the comic shop, Comic World, and get all the issues I could for that much, aided by the random discount the owner would give me. Soon, it became $30 a week of my own money and my main shop became the one I predominantly bought cards from, Mutant Mania (my other shop closed). I began to look forward to Wednesdays, or new comic day. That was the best day of the week for me. At this point, I had mostly been reading X-Men or Spider-Man titles, but I slowly began to expand into the rest of the Marvel line (as well as gradually increasing my budget per week). Every now and then, a non-Marvel comic would find its way into my possession. I’d read them, then disregard them and treat them like crap when compared to my other books. I will admit the very first non-Marvel I actually bought on purpose was the Death of Superman trade, since I disliked the character so much and didn’t know at the time he’d actually be back (see COMIC BOOK DEATH ).

All this time, I had been working on my writing and artwork. My original goal was to become an artist for Marvel, so I drew their characters all the time and I was doing what most call “fan fiction” (a term I really hate for some reason, sounds so degrading and insulting to the talented people who want to work with their favorite characters but have no means to do it legitimately). The way I would work was I would draw my comics first and then word them as I go. As I read more and more comics, I learned not only more about the characters I was working with, but little things like story structure, pacing, dramatic effect, spelling (without Dark Phoenix, I’d never know how to spell phoenix). I also learned things about the world, then-current events, science. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t identify the elements of grammar worth a crap, but I knew my way around a sentence.

With school and work to contend with, time for drawing began to get tight so my writing began to dominate. Eventually, I came to realize that my writing was evolving far better and faster than my artwork was (that, and several rejections from Marvel as an artist helped) and decided to switch gears. Art became a “when I was able to” type thing and my writing took center stage, as well as the position I wanted in the world of comics. I was not a comic artist, I was a comic writer.

To stay current with trends and characters in the hopes I would someday be a professional, I jacked up my budget to the $70 it is now and bought every single Marvel I could every week. If that wasn’t enough, I had discovered the joys of shopping on the Internet (where discount comics are to be found), eBay, and the .25-.50 cent bins (see COMIC CENTS). In time, my collection began to outgrow the three rather large plastic tubs I had originally stored them in, having to upgrade to cardboard filing cabinet-type boxes, and within the last few years the long boxes made for comics. I still use the tubs around my house for different functions now, and I have to laugh when I see marked on their covers that I used to be able to fit A-X in just three of them.

As the 21st century continued to trudge on, I had begun exploring outside of Marvel. Books were starting to catch my interest, and Marvel was beginning to do some things that made my unwavering loyalty, well, waver, so I figured what the hell. Stan Lee wrote a Superman special comic, so I picked that up. 88MPH put out new Ghostbusters comics, so I picked them up. I’m an Evil Dead Trilogy fan, so of course I had to get the Army of Darkness comic by first Devil’s Due and then Dynamite Entertainment. The real change in my reading came when I heard about DC’s “One Year Later.” I was gradually expanding outwards, even though I left DC relatively untouched.

My main problem with reading DC was this; my only exposure to the characters was through the cartoons by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm (affectionately referred to now as the Dini-verse), and of course the various ones that popped up in the 70s and 80s like Superfriends. Since the TV versions of the characters differed slightly from the comic versions, I only really knew the basics. DC is not new-reader friendly at all. They will throw you head first into continuity, spin you around until you feel sick, then start it all over again. If something or someone wasn’t in the cartoons, and that’s all you knew, you would be thoroughly lost. DC was once again trying to fix continuity problems and reinvigorate their characters with another Crisis like they did with 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths with the aptly named Infinite Crisis. Following this, each comic would jump one-year ahead in continuity with basically fresh starts, the year-long mini-series 52 being used as the official bridge to fill that time gap. I thought this would be my chance.

Now, my weekly haul still includes mostly Marvel, but I get a healthy dose of DC and a few independent publishers’ comics in the mix. Since joining the Comicbook Artists Guild in 2006, I’ve been exposed to a lot of small-press books I otherwise wouldn’t have been, which has me checking those out when I can as well since it seems the little guys get what the fans want these days more than the big guys. When I had a stint as a reviewer for 215ink, I was given the chance to preview comics for free so I could do preliminary reviews, and that got me into Devil’s Due’s G.I. Joe series which I never even considered checking out.

Since collecting my first comic, I think I have grown considerably as both a fan and a writer. I’m more in tune with the industry as a whole than I was when I was younger. I’ve allowed my tastes to expand beyond one company and one particular genre in order to sample everything and maybe discover something I never knew I liked. The lesson here folks is its okay to stray outside your literary comfort zones. It’s okay to prefer one company over another or one genre over another, but that doesn’t mean you need to be exclusive to them. A friend in high school tried to tell me that once, just took me a while to learn it.

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea
Written by Valerie Zenatti
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by Melissa

It's September 9, 2003, ten years exactly from the date when Yassir Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Bill Clinton shook hands and promised peace to the Israeli and Palestinian people. A bomb goes off in a cafe in Tal's neighborhood, shaking not only the buildings, but Tal's hope and peace of mind. So, she decides -- mostly on a whim, but also from some inner need -- to write a letter to the "other" side. She imagines it would be a girl, and she (somewhat naively and romantically) decides to put it in an old champagne bottle, and give it to her brother (who's serving in Gaza) to throw in the Gaza Sea.

It doesn't turn out the way she expects: the person who writes back via email (to an address that Tal had included in the bottle letter) uses the handle "Gazaman", and isn't exactly polite or interested in her idea. But Tal persists, and he is drawn to her and to the idea, and a friendship of sorts evolves between the two of them.

There really isn't much plot beyond that, but this book isn't a plot-driven one. Switching between e-mails from Gazaman and Tal and individual narration, it's more of an exploration of life in Israel versus life in the Gaza Strip. It's a book of understanding and misunderstanding, of hope and despair, of making the best of what one has, while also trying to rise above it. I felt like it was full of stereotypes, especially at first: Gazaman is the tough, insensitive Arab who hates everyone; Tal the liberal, sympathetic Jew who just wants everyone to get along. But, as the book progressed, their understanding matured and the book became more believable, less stereotypical.

This book worked so well because the writing is simple and powerful. It was written because the author, who is Israeli, wanted to believe in some kind of peace, to have some kind of hope for her region. This comes through very eloquently in her writing, especially in her view that perhaps the only way peace will come is if ordinary people reach out to each other and try to understand the lives they are leading. My only real complaint is in the marketing: the cover makes one think that it's a love story, and it's not. It's more simple than that: it's a story of two people trying to make a connection in or to make sense of and in spite of the horrors of war.

It's this connection between Tal and Gazaman that drives the book, that makes it into what it is: a beautiful, sad, moving story, and one that's both important and compelling to read.

Life Class

Life Class
Written by Pat Barker
Reviewed by Nancy L. Horner

Life Class is a tale of art, romance, and survival during a time of war. As an introduction to Barker's writing, Life Class is probably not stellar. Barker is known for her Regeneration Trilogy, also set during WWI. The Ghost Road, the third in the trilogy, garnered her a Booker Prize and I've personally read enough about the trilogy that Regeneration is sitting on a shelf, waiting to be read. I was well aware that I was opening a book by an author with skill. The stinging question for any reader or writer following up a work considered "a masterwork . . . complex and ambitious," must always be: "Can it be duplicated? Will the master retain his or her glory?"

Because I haven't read Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy (or, for that matter, any of her other work), Life Class had to stand as an individual work by an author whose previous work was only known to me peripherally, without basis for comparison apart from what I've read about the author and her writing.

As Life Class opens, the story revolves around a community of artists, a model in "life class" (painting or sketching with the use of a live, nude model), and a teacher by the name of Tonks. According to the author's acknowledgments, Tonks actually existed. A stern instructor and perfectionist in the art of form, the former surgeon had the capacity to make or break an artist under his tutelage.

And, thus begins the story of Paul Tarrant. Paul experiences a scathing criticism from Tonks, which causes him to reconsider his decision to spend his grandmother's money on an education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Meanwhile, Paul admires fellow student Elinor from a distance, but Elinor appears disinterested in Paul apart from friendship and is, from all accounts, deeply involved with Kit Neville. Kit, a former Slade student who has prospered in the art world in spite of being kicked out of the Slade, is confident in a way Paul wishes to be.

Elinor introduces Paul to Teresa, a life class model who is married but separated from her abusive husband. Paul and Teresa launch into a careless affair and at this point -- close to the beginning -- the story begins to sag. Thinking her dramatic, Paul doesn't take Teresa's warnings about her dangerous husband Jack's threats and his proximity seriously until he has a shocking encounter with Jack. The fallout, however, is minimal.

And, here I must make a departure. There were several occasions during Paul and Teresa's torrid affair that I found jarring by comparison with otherwise engaging writing. It was not, however, the language of their first graphic sexual encounter (which, quite frankly, I would describe as pornographic) but the fact that the course language was ill-suited to the beauty of the author's prose at other times that I found startling. In fact, the aim of the novel appears to be, at least in part, to contrast the beautiful and the base, the violent and the peaceful. If so, the author definitely did a fine job illuminating such contrasts.

Regardless of the intent of specific language, the shallowness of the characters unnerved me. Paul was flat, lifeless and emotionally absent, whereas Teresa appeared to be little more than a directionless escapist who moved seamlessly from one male encounter to another.

Elinor's role eventually grew and as her true character was exposed, she proved to be equally shallow. Kit was the only particularly likeable, enthusiastic character, but his appearances dwindled and he was never portrayed with any depth.

WWI, Barker's area of expertise, actually doesn't become a major part of Life Class until roughly halfway into the novel, when Paul and the other young male characters express their intent to enlist and thus become players in the unavoidable conflict. When both Paul and Kit are shipped off to Belgium, the novel begins to change tone, shifting from letters between Paul and Elinor to narrative in alternating chapters. The story improves, at this point, as Barker shows off her knowledge of WWI -- often by way of vivid, even gruesome, detail contrasted with the tranquility sought by Elinor as she immerses herself in painting (her "work") and attempts to shut herself away from the truth of unfolding war so completely that she appears cold and heartless.

Barker's writing is peppered with flashes of brilliance, but the characters in Life Class were disappointing. As I read, I often stopped to reread a beautifully crafted sentence slowly and then read it again. And, yet, the characters were so unlikeable that I set the book down with a hollow feeling. Besides the contrasts, Barker's story attempted to show that love and art can and should continue despite unfolding tragedy. However, the theme would perhaps have been better served via a set of characters who could see beyond their own obsessions.

Although I found the book disappointing, Pat Barker impressed me with her style enough that I will give her a second chance, next time by dipping into the first of her Regeneration series.

An excerpt of Life Class can be found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19255881


Written by Owen Sheers
Nan A. Talese Books
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

There are occasions in the opera house or concert hall when a performance, for no reason whatsoever, suddenly takes wing and what would normally be a good evening turns into an exceptional one. This happened to me several times in my theatre attending life and are evenings to remember which stay in the memory. The same happens with reading. Most of the time you will read a selection of books that appeal and which you will enjoy and then, out of the blue, along will come a story that grabs you hard and won't let you go until the final page is read and the book shut up.

Over the Easter weekend I had promised myself four days of rest and idleness, with the exception of reading of course, and after hearing good things about Resistance had this to hand for my holiday treat. As soon as I started it, I put it down, which sounds totally contradictory, but I just knew that if I did not, the rest of the day would go to pot and as I had certain things to do, put away temptation.

So the next day, which was clear, I sat down and was up late at night finishing this simply stunning book. Imagine the D-Day landings had failed, the Germans had invaded England and were in occupation. Imagine a small Welsh valley, remote and desolate and cut off from the outside world. Imagine one morning waking up and finding your husband has vanished, the indent of his body is still in the bed, but his work boots have gone, his coat and no sign of him anywhere. Imagine finding that all the men in this valley have also gone and left their women behind to manage without them. They have all been recruited prior to the invasion to join the local resistance where there are no rewards and death is certain.

Imagine after finding you are all alone, a German patrol arrives, a small, especially selected band of men, no more than five in number who have been sent to the valley for a special reason (which I will not give away) and you have to learn to live with their presence.

Heading up the patrol is Albrecht, he and his men are weary and battle hardened and, as the winter closes in and the valley is cut off by heavy snow, he decides that they will remain there, not disobeying orders for none have been received, but not making any effort to make contact either. As the weeks pass by they slowly regain normalcy, a respite from the horrors they have seen and begin to help the women on their farms. Gradually a wary truce and, even friendship, emerges as both the invader and invaded realise they can help each other. They begin to imagine what life would be like when the war is over, Albrecht begins to think they can stay in the valley, be happy. As the reader is privy to Albrecht's thoughts we warm to him and begin to feel empathy with his sadness and fragile optimism, but we know, deep down that he is living in a fool's paradise and that sooner or later he will have to face reality with the coming of the spring and the thaw.

We are also privy to the thoughts of the women who have been left to cope on their own with their anger and frustration as well as their fear that they will never see their husbands again. Both sides of the story are there for us to see and understand and it makes for compelling reading and totally captured my attention.

By the time I reached the last few chapters of Resistance I so wanted a happy ending and all to be well, but I knew that it was never going to happen. However, I was not prepared for the denouement and the sadness of the last few pages and I ended up with a lump in my throat and a feeling of sorrow that I had come to the end of this wonderful story.

I gather that Owen Sheers is a poet and this is his first work of fiction. Seamless writing, flows beautifully, easy to read and with great depth and understanding, I simply loved this book. I cannot wait for his next.

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma
Written by Diana Birchall
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma arrived courtesy of FedEx, on my desk at work a week or so ago and was a sore distraction as I kept taking a peek at the pages before resolutely shutting up the book to await the time for leisure enough to read it.

I have read sequels to Pride & Prejudice before and they varied wildly from boring to one which was positively soft porn and which I binned, but this book by Diana Birchall certainly does not fall into either of these categories and is excellent. She catches the ironic tone and rhythm of Jane Austen's language beautifully, no gilding the lily or overdoing it and I found myself totally absorbed within five minutes of opening up this delightfully produced book.

"Mr Darcy was, at fifty, very much as might have been expected from a knowledge of him at eight and twenty; a noble man indeed...magisterial bearing and dignified manner were more impressive than ever... yet his lips would relax in an indulgent smile that was good to see, his eyes would gleam with enjoyment and his face would look really handsome still, when he looked upon his wife...." who was " between forty and fifty years old and still a handsome woman known for her with and good humour....she was as much as ever the delight of Mr Darcy's mind and the beloved of his heart...."

The Darcys have three children, Fitzwilliam, Hugh and Jane. Fitzwilliam is rather a dull uninteresting heir to Pemberley and the quick wit and charm seem to have passed him by with both younger children having these attributes in abundance. His parents worry about him and how he will manage Pemberley in the future. Jane Bennett and Mr Bingley also have problems with their only child Jeremy, who is weak and lacks character.

Bettina and Chloe, two of Lydia's numerous children, are invited to Pemberley for a visit. Bettina is bold and strong willed and resembles her mother greatly, Chloe is reticent and more ladylike with a quiet grace. (It is difficult not to see a parallel here with the character of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park who, whether we love her or not, had strong principles and was essentially a good person, and the contrast to her two cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram).

Fitzwilliam forms a passion for Bettina and history repeats itself as they run off to live together in London. Bettina soon abandons him and we learn that she has even tried to add Jeremy Bingley to the list of her lovers, but though she ends up on the stage and is obviously destined to be a woman of notoriety, there is no sense of shame or embarrassment about her situation. Bettina is not going to share the fate of Maria Bertram, living in isolation for the rest of her life trying to expiate her 'sin'. Not she.

"...was it wrong to be a man's mistress? It was only nature and what was nature, made by God, could not be indecent....the mere fact of being married by a preacher cannot determine if one is a virtuous innocent woman...committing fornication does not make you bad, and chastity does not make you good"

After that little speech, I will admit I began to harbour a sneaking admiration for Bettina. After a rotten upbringing and nothing much to look forward to she has decided to go for it. Good for her.

A chastened Fitzwilliam returns home, is involved in a riding accident and during his slow recovery has time to ponder on his previous attitude towards Pemberley and his life in general. (Shades of Mansfield Park once more with the acquiring of maturity by Tom Bertram after his serious illness).

As well as satisfying ourselves to the continuing happiness of Elizabeth and Darcy and finding out how their lives progressed, we also have the bonus of meeting once again the ghastly gorgon, Lady Catherine de Burgh who now lives alone following the death of her daughter. No softness or mellowing for this lady, she is just as haughty, proud and unpleasant as she has always been. We also meet the ubiquitous Mr Collins who is as humble and obsequious as ever, though Lady Catherine has tired of his worn out courtesies. Mrs Bennett is no longer with us but we have a brief scene with Mr Bennett before he dies, where his wit is still very much in evidence. "I am glad you are here my Lizzy. I confess I have been in terror of joining your mother and hence I have kept off the eventuality as far as was possible". We reacquaint ourselves with Mr Bingley's sister and Kitty and Mary Bennett and was delighted to see that they still remain as unpleasant or as silly as they have always been.

Anybody who loves Jane Austen and who is eager to find out what happened "after the day on which Mrs Bennett got rid of her two most deserving daughters" will greet this book with eagerness and joy. I loved it.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
Written by Gregory Maguire
Reviewed by April D. Boland

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is unlike any other novel I have ever read. Yes, I have read retellings before, but this one was so unique that, while others have faded from memory, this one will surely remain for some time.

Wicked is, as most of you already know, based on the story depicted in the Wizard of Oz, yet told from the Witch's point of view. In reality, it encompasses much more than that, with the arrival of Dorothy playing a pivotal yet subdued role. The encounter between Dorothy and the Witch, as described by author Gregory Maguire, is more about the Witch and less about Dorothy.

The Wicked Witch's actual name is Elphaba, and we learn a lot about her family and her childhood before anything else. Her green skin makes her the object of ostracism, fear and loathing, even among her own family. When she comes of age, she attends a prestigious college where she rooms with Galinda, soon to be known as Glinda. It is here that Elphaba learns her destiny - to be an animal rights activist and anarchist. (I kid you not.) These qualities, however, make Elphaba even more endearing and relevant to a modern audience.

Maguire's Oz turns L. Frank Baum's on its head while still respecting the creativity of its development. The Wizard, for example, is an awful tyrant, while Elphaba and her sister Nessarose, the Wicked Witch of the East, are only dubbed witches because of their supernatural powers, their other-ness, and their revolutionary rebellions against the Wizard. Politics, philosophy, fate and a bit of magic motivate Elphaba and direct her path in life. By the end, readers may find that perhaps the witch is not wicked, only misunderstood.

Ten Cents a Dance

Ten Cents a Dance
Written by Christine Fletcher
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by Melissa

In 1940s Chicago, a fatherless 15-year-old girl whose mother has severe arthritis and can't work anymore has pretty much one option for earning money: working in a dead-end job in one of the meat packinghouses. Which is exactly where Ruby Jacinski finds herself. Until one night, at a local dance hall, she meets Paulie Suelze. He tells her that she can earn three times as much money as a "dance instructor." Desperate to get out, and longing to dance, Ruby takes Paulie's advice, and checks the dance hall out. It's not quite what she thought it would be, and as she soon finds out, neither is anything in her life.

There was much to love about this book. Inspired by her great-aunt's experiences with taxi dancing -- women who were paid to dance with men -- and affair with a prominent gangster, Fletcher writes with evocative language, both about Ruby, the poor districts of Chicago, and about jazz and dancing. There were moments when I wished that the book had a soundtrack, just so the vivid descriptions of the music and dancing would come to life. It's an exciting musical era -- the early 1940s -- and Fletcher does it justice. But beyond the captivating music and dancing (oh, how I could see that -- it reminded me a lot of Swing Kids), I loved Ruby as a character. Naive but determined, she jumps into the world of taxi dancing head first, and comes up swinging. She is such a feisty character, that you just want her to win, to succeed, to get out, to enjoy life, to be happy. There's depth in this book, Fletcher touches on race and class, on the struggles and desires of poor people (of all ethnicities) to get out and move up, and how difficult it is. Fletcher also touches on relationships -- how a girl's longing for acceptance can get twisted and used by the lonely men around her -- and on the nature of secrets.

On top of all the depth and description and writing, Fletcher manages to turn out a winner of a plot. It's full of suspense and intrigue, backstabbing and unexpected heroics. Ruby shines all the way through; she's a scrapper, a fighter and you know she'll make it somehow. There are some great seedy characters who Ruby unfortunately becomes involved with. Sure, it's melodramatic at moments, but it kept me captivated the entire time I was reading. A real winner of a novel.

You can find out more about Christine Fletcher and her books here.

The Secret Between Us

The Secret Between Us
by Barbara Delinsky
Doubleday Publishers
Reviewed by Melissa

There are good books that are decent discussion books. Then there are those books that are simply made for discussion, that beg to be discussed, that need some sort of processing to get through. And then there are books, like this one, that are somewhere in the middle (and even come with the reading group questions). They are not exactly a book that begs to be discussed about, but one that would make for some more-than-decent discussion.

Deborah Monroe has it all together. Mostly. She's a respected doctor in practice with her father in her home town. She has two beautiful children. The only real sore spot is that her perfect marriage to the perfect man failed a couple years back. So, when she and her 16-year-old daughter hit a man with their car driving home at night during a rainstorm, things get complicated. Deborah makes one of those instant "mom" decisions, sending Grace home and taking the blame. It's a deception (it didn't start as an outright lie) that begins to gnaw at Grace and Deborah and everything that they thought their life was.

It's a fairly compelling story; it's not deep, exactly, but you can understand the decision making and can see how and why it's tearing their lives apart. There are layers of secrets in the book, festering, and like a wound, it's only through some major surgery that everything finally begins to make more sense. I appreciated the characters -- both Deborah and Grace -- and thought Delinsky deftly juggled between an adult and a teenage perspective on both the accident and the events resulting from the accident. It's not easy reading a book that flits between main characters, but I felt like I connected with both Deborah and Grace, like they were both fully fleshed out, and neither one was slighted.

The male characters were mostly on the sidelines in this book -- it was really heavy on the female empowerment -- there was Dylan, the 10-year-old son/brother, Greg the ex-husband, Michael the dad and Tom the brother of the accident victim. They weren't exactly sympathetic, but Delinsky managed to make them challenging without making them hostile to women. The relationships they had with the women in the book were all about expectations and lack of understanding. It was nice to see that there was growth, and eventual resolution.

Perhaps that's the one thing that bothered me about the story: it was too pat. Deborah and Grace had a crisis, they confronted it/them, and everything resolved for a nice happily ever after. It just didn't quite sit right. Happily ever afters are for fantasy books, and while I think Delinsky left some ends loose for a reason, I don't know if it was messy enough to be believable. It was, however, a decent exploration on the nature of secrets and of decision making.

Which makes for a pretty good book group discussion.

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts
Written by Richard Peck
Dial Books
Reviewed by Carl V.

This month's issue of Estella's Revenge is about growth and what better time to review one of prolific young adult author Richard Peck's outstanding books. I don't know about you, but it appears to me that there are three stages to one's relationship with children's literature. As a child you can open these books and experience worlds of wonder that stay with you throughout your adult life. Later on you may hit an adolescent period of reading in which books shelved in the YA section of the bookstore have little or no appeal. But as you grow and mature and the demands of every day life weigh heavily upon you, it seems that many an adult reader returns to the YA bookshelf only to discover that there is a new sort of magic present in these books. A magic that comes from a foundation of knowledge gleaned from living life. If you are one of those folks, a grown up who enjoys reading books for 'kids', then Richard Peck is the author for you.

If you are unaware of who Richard Peck is, you are not alone. Despite the fact that this Newbery Award winning author has written over 30 stories in the past 3 decades, I had never heard of him before I stumbled across a few of his books this past Christmas while shopping for my wife. Amazon.com describes Richard Peck as a 'master of middle-grade historical fiction' and based upon my recent experience with his work I concur.

On a trip up north this past weekend I had the pleasure of listening to an unabridged audio presentation of Richard Peck's novel, The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts. To say that this novel is delightful, whimsical, nostalgic, funny, heart-warming and satisfying would be to short-change the experience of this book. The list of adjectives would need to extend well beyond these choice few.

The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts
tells the story of 15 year old Russell Culver and the adventures he experiences in the countryside of Indiana in 1904: the year his teacher dies and school is no more. Or so Russell hopes. Those schoolboy dreams are soon dashed when his high school age sister accepts the job and turns Russell's home and school life into one long lesson. Peck introduces a cast of characters who are uproariously funny and all-too-human. His writing has a witty conversational style that makes you feel as if you are sitting on an old front porch somewhere, glass of lemonade in hand, listening to your granddad or your favorite uncle telling tales about how things used to be. Adding an immense deal of pleasure to this experience is the phenomenal, Emmy-nominated performance of Dylan Baker. Baker reads with the sort of ease one stereotypically associates with an old-timey tale and yet does so with such life that you smile and laugh and get choked up along with these characters as if they were people you had known your whole life. For most of the reading I sported a grin from ear to ear. The Teacher's Funeral is a laugh-out-loud funny story wrapped around a touching tale of family love and the power of community. The message is not heavy handed, but when it gets to you it warms the heart.

Based on this first experience I myself am ready to crown Richard Peck a Master. There is not a wasted word or wasted moment in this book. At 4.5 hours for the audio, 224 pages for the book, Peck creates a tight narrative with a pacing that keeps you interested from start to finish. The Teacher's Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts is the kind of story that can be shared with the whole family. If you cannot get a copy of the audio version (we found ours at the local library) then I recommend this one as a read aloud family event. If, like me, you are a kid at heart you will no doubt find some deeper humor seen through the eyes of one who has grown up.

Growth is important. To stagnate or to travel backwards is never a good thing. But to revisit youth, through our memories or through the rewarding act of experiencing quality young adult fiction, is an action that I believe propels us forward despite how contrary that may sound. To be able to share that growing experience with your entire family cultivates the kind of connection that will last a lifetime. Go and experience Richard Peck. You'll be glad that you did.

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
Written by Jim Fergus
St. Martin's
Reviewed by Jodie

Jim Fergus's ‘One Thousand White Women’ is not the book I hoped it would be. Focusing on the fictional life of May Dodd, a nineteenth century American woman who takes part in a secret government program in order to escape her unjust incarceration in a lunatic asylum. Locked away by her family for having an affair with a lower class man and subjected to sexual abuse May will take any chance and so join roughly forty other women sent to join the (fictional) Indian Bride scheme. The program is an attempt by Ulysses Grant to placate the native chiefs with a limited sacrifice of the women deemed undesirable by society. The Indians hope to achieve integration as well as an understanding of white culture through the children of these unions, thinking this will enable their own culture to survive. Of course this kind of intermingling appears abhorrent to the nineteenth century male mind.

The subject matter seems perfect for an in-depth exploration of both the fears of occidentalist white men and the gender prejudices thrown up by the experiment. As the book contains scenes of rape and the abuse of female sexuality I thought the women’s minds would be examined thoroughly. This does not happen and instead these incidents were quickly consigned to the past by Fergus’s female characters. Perhaps this is supposed to show the practicality and staunchness required of women living such physical lives but to me it seemed that Fergus was merely promoting the most recent type of female mythology, that of the stoic woman who does not complain no matter what situation she finds herself in. Despite the difference in time period May’s character resembles the default surface personality type of British working women, as portrayed in dramitisations about WWII. The plucky, practical Wren who owes much but not all of her characterisation to the ‘whore with a heart’ stereotype is ever present in May’s tendency to avoid writing deeply about her sexual mistreatment in the asylum. Fergus may have felt that this is how his heroine would deal with the horror of these experiences but surely the point of May’s narrative being presented in letters and journals she never expected her family to see is to make the reader familiar with her and to present a more intimate picture of the character than the face she might show to her own world?

If you can get past these issues then there is an enjoyable narrative to be found. Fergus’s research has helped him to create a detailed mixture of domestic and historical fiction. The daily life of May’s new tribe is chronicled accurately and her ‘civilised’ reaction to the differences between her new society and that of her past explain what led white people to object to the natives. The book is also a credible romantic narrative with both Mays affair with Captain Bourke and her affection for Little Wolf, her Indian husband seeming realistic. Surely it would be hard for a woman who enjoys writing and literature to love a man with whom she cannot communicate.

However, for me the character of May Dodd is not sufficiently developed to sustain a first-person narrative. She never integrates with the natives, continually viewing their arguments and society through the filter of her past life. She learns nothing beyond practicalities from her new life and after two years still believes that the best way for her tribe to live is in the settlement plan advised by the government. She maintains this believe even though her husband clearly outlines why this plan is to the disadvantage of the tribe, showing that she still feel the best way to live is the way that creates benefits for the white world. This unwillingness to seriously consider new ideas is surprising as is her unquestioning acceptance of the wisdom of the authorities. A woman shut away for transgressing societies rules and abused by the authorities responsible for her care ought to show more resistance to established society.

‘One Thousand White Women’ is a disappointing realisation of an interesting historical revision; a great idea badly realised.