Thursday, April 2, 2009

Letter From the Editor

Taste. We all have different tastes in what we like to read. Some like everything, but most have their favorites be it historical fiction, mystery, non-fiction, comics and more. The one thing we all have in common is a love of words and the new and exciting worlds all books bring to us. This month we invite you to celebrate these tastes with us. See you next month for a little "Culture."

If anyone is interested in contributing to Estella's Revenge, be in a column, feature or book review, let us know by emailing us at estellabooks at gmail dot com. We would love to work with you!


Table of Contents

March Winners of DROOD


I Like...
Assistant Editor's Month


Sure I Know the Queen, March 2009
Families in Fiction


The Darcys and the Bingleys
Pemberly by the Sea
A Perfect Waiter
Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill
The Ever-After Bird
Jane Austen Ruined My Life
The Truth About Forever
Hunger Games
Galway Bay

March Winners for DROOD

The winners for the DROOD giveaway are...

Carl V at Stainless Steel Droppings

Amanda Teague

Kristi at Books and Needlepoint

Christina at Book-a-rama


Congratulations you guys! Those will be coming your way soon! Come back in May for more great giveaways!

I like...

I like...

Well, lots of things, really. I quite like fantasy literature, as the more observant among you may have noticed. I like poetry, I like sports books on that most maddening and obsession inducing of sports, cricket. I’m prone to a bit of comedy, a bit of serious literature, and I’ll even admit to reading the odd romance novel if you catch me in a particularly odd mood.

Before this turns into a singles’ advertisement though (Book lover WLTM same, must love urban fantasy and own complete works of Neil Gaiman), I think perhaps we should pause to consider just how wide those claims I’ve made are. I say that my taste runs to fantasy, poetry, and cricket books among other things, but those are categories so broad you probably wouldn’t attempt to jump over them on a motorbike, let alone read everything in them.

Let’s take the narrowest of those categories as a starting point. Cricket based sporting books run the gamut from ghosted autobiographies to novels and back again, often by way of some truly awful poetry. Just because I like Sir Ian Botham’s comedy novel Deep Cover and quite enjoy Gideon Haigh’s latest collection of essays A Green and Golden Age doesn’t mean that it necessarily follows that I should want to read the ‘autobiographies’ of players who haven’t been around more than a couple of years. Nor does it mean that I want to sift through the majority of poetry on the game, just because I might happen to like some of the work of the late Alan Ross.

As for the other two categories, you might as well say that your taste in music is jazz and rock. In much the same way that those musical genres have branched out into so many categories that practically no one can keep track, let alone claim to like everything in between Dave Brubeck and Alan Holdsworth, so too it has become almost impossible to simply say that your taste runs to either poetry or fantasy. If you claim to love the former, do you mean concrete poetry, free poetry, traditional rhymed verse, epic poetry, haiku, or one of the hundred other strands of it? With the latter, do you mean something traditional and epic like Tolkein, modern and strange like Gaiman, hilarious like Tom Holt’s work or maybe something from that weird borderland between horror, fantasy, teen fiction and romance that calls itself urban fantasy?

Even when you’ve settled on a subcategory, it should be fairly obvious that you won’t necessarily like everything in it. Despite being something of a fan of the comic fantasy oeuvre, I haven’t been able to finish a Robert Rankin book in years. I keep getting them out from the library, thinking that because they fall into the genre I ought to like them, but it never quite works out like that. Perhaps it’s just that there are only so many jokes about sprouts I can take.

It isn’t just that I don’t like surrealist fiction, because that would be falling into the same trap from the other end, declaring with wholehearted enthusiasm (or rather, lack of enthusiasm) a hatred for a particular genre. Possibly the best known example of this is the ‘I don’t like classic literature, it’s boring’ syndrome, which seems to affect a lot of readers at some point but again makes the mistake of lumping the whole category together rather arbitrarily. As it happens, I quite like some surrealist stuff, if Jasper Fforde’s works can be considered that.

Which is, of course, one of the biggest problems here. How exactly do you decide what fits into the categories you’ve decided aren’t to your taste? Where exactly do you draw the line between fantasy and horror, for example, given the amount of crossover between the two? More to the point, how do you decide it without actually having to read the books in question, since doing so would rather defeat the object of declaring your dislike? What ends up happening, as often as not, is a reliance upon that tried but not very true combination for finding out about a book, the cover and the blurb. Go on, admit it, there are books out there that you have taken one look at before thinking ‘No way am I ever going to read that’. I know I have.

To a certain extent, of course, this sort of thing is perfectly normal and even useful. It saves us from reading a great many things that we won’t enjoy while redirecting our attention towards things that we probably will. There are, after all, only so many books that we’re able to read at once, though you wouldn’t always know it from the stacks of partially read things lying around my house.

How many times though have you read something you didn’t particularly like because it looked like the sort of thing that you ought to enjoy? How many times have you put up with a bad book just because it happened to be by a favourite writer, or in a genre you like, or because it had a nice cover? Remembering that it doesn’t work like that can save you from a lot of awful prose.

I’d like to think, however, that there’s something more positive to say than simply ‘even your favourite genre will contain books you won’t like’, so let’s turn that around. Somewhere, probably somewhere on the edges, buried under the books that everybody knows about, your least favourite genre will probably contain something you’ll enjoy.

In fact, now that I think of it, there’s probably a quick challenge in that thought. Think of your least favourite genre. Now, if you feel like it, try finding something in that genre that you can manage to get through with something approaching enjoyment. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is.

Who knows, if I really look hard, I might even find a ghost written autobiography that I don’t feel the urge to throw across the room.

Sure I Know the Queen

By Jodie

When I was at school we were taught that the Victorians were the embodiment of an ideal English spirit. They were stoic, athletic, serious minded and far too busy inventing to be interested in sex. Compared with the dashing cavaliers of the Stuart age and the riotous indulgence of the Tudor period the Victorians sounded like the dullest kind of ancestors. Cajoled into taking a course on Victorian society in university I still couldn’t shake the prejudice I’d formed when I was ten. I skipped lectures and scowled my way through the saccharine parts of ‘Oliver Twist’. However, I’m beginning to think this was the biggest mistake I made at university, at least the biggest mistake I made while sober. Two novels I’ve read recently suggest that modern authors are determined to peel back the layers of stoicism, and undergarments associated with the Victorians to increase popular awareness of the way contemporary historians now view this period.

The blurb for Clare Clark’s ‘The Great Stink’ will lead readers to pick it up expecting a slightly spooky, but familiar feeling story of secrets, lies and detection, set in the sewers of Victorian London. That is not what they will find between the book’s covers. Instead Clark presents her readers with a dark descent into madness, self harm and post traumatic stress. Clark’s hero William May has returned from the vicious battles of the Crimea with serious psychological damage, but is required to hide this to hold on to a job working as an engineer on London’s evolving sewer system. In the absence of understanding or treatment he finds his own way of coping, by hiding in the sewer tunnels and violently self-harming. His fragile mental state begins to fracture, and Victorian society reveals how brutal it can be when a man’s behavior doesn’t fit the mould.

William is an example of how the repression of the Victorian world created the people it despised. We are told William is a happy young man before he goes to war, fond of drawing plants and engaged to a girl he loves. When he returns he strives to recapture the interests of his previous life, as well as his mental stability, but as he is unable to talk about his feelings he is denied the chance to heal. So he becomes the crazed mental patient that everyone from his previous life views with fear and disgust, although their stifling rules of decorum have forced him to this point. Clark has created a new way of approaching the darkness hidden in the impeccable manners of the Victorians, and the crushing pressure exerted on those most in need of support.

The heroine of ‘Dora Damage’ by Belinda Starling breaks every kind of taboo present in Victorian society. She takes over her husband’s bookbinding business when his arthritis cripples him. To make a living she must bind and read material considered very unsuitable for a lady, beginning with medical texts then moving on to erotica and pornography. She takes on a freed slave to help in her workshop and begins a relationship with him. She employs a young, unmarried woman who has a history of trouble with men. She continues to work during her mourning period when her husband dies. All around her other characters are engaging in activities the Victorians would have seen as vices: Dora’s husband is addicted to opium, her apprentice is ‘not interested in having a sweetheart’ and her employers are selling illegal literature.

Starling does not settle for presenting vice that is now a kind of historical curiosity, like several of those above. She has some of her characters break one taboo that will genuinely shock readers, and this transgression adds to the delicious sense of gothic, spine tingling horror that pervades much of the book. Starling takes the most salacious hidden secrets of Victorian times and combines these with villains to really fear.

To my delight the Victorians are being revealed and reinvented in contemporary fiction. I’m glad I had the chance ( to find out how wonderfully wicked they could be.

Assistant Editor's Month

By Chris Buchner

When the cat’s away the mice will play, and that’s true this April at the house of ideas. Marvel is releasing two one-shots called Marvel Assistant-Sized Spectacular. The premise is the Marvel staff is sick of the A-Listers the Marvel editors seem to favor and want their top picks to get some face-time, which brings us some D-list characters that could possibly be Marvel’s next break-out hit.

Twenty five years ago, it was the assistant editor’s who revolted at the House of Ideas for a month in 1984. In one of Marvel Comics’ more unique and creative crossover events, they concocted the premise that their editors had gone to the International Comic Con in San Diego, leaving the assistant editors in charge of all the books for the month of January. The result was many of the books featured bizarre, wacky and twisted stories indicated by the markings found at either end of this article. However, their approach to the concept varied between title and creative crew.

Uncanny X-Men Annual #7, for example, ambushed readers. The book had no markings of any kind to symbolize the event, and it started out like any other X-Men comic, helped by the fact it was written by series scribe Chris Claremont. Even when the Impossible Man, a powerful shape-shifting alien, showed up and stole their home, it was still reading like a typical book. It was only when the X-Men chased him around the world as he stole various items and ended up in the Marvel offices with a more stylized art style that the silliness began to take shape. The capper came when the Assistant Editor, Elliot R. Brown, broke the fourth wall to address the readers about the assistant editor takeover for the month. Featured in cameos were Marvel staff including Larry Hama, Michael Golden, Michael Hobson, Jim Shooter, Virginia Romita, Mark Gruenwald and a special appearance by then-President Ronald Reagan.

Alpha Flight #6 also lulled the reader into thinking it was a regular issue. It avoided all cover brandishing in favor of placing the Assistant Editor warning on the title page inside. It also read like a regular issue until writer/artist/creator John Byrne presented a battle between team member Snowbird and a winter creature named Kolomaq in the midst of a mighty snowstorm. The result was 6-pages of pure white panels with only the dialogue and captions describing the action. But, as not to let the reader feel ripped off for the sake of a joke, a 6-page back-up feature was added depicting the origin of team member Shaman. The Assistant Editor, Linda Grant, also got her licks in by putting a message at the end of the book.

Some books were in the middle of crucial storylines and couldn’t derail for the sake of the event. One such case was Iron Man vol. 1 #178, which fell during the acclaimed “Demon in a Bottle” storyline, during which Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego, had become an alcoholic which in turn led to his downfall in life. But before Denny O’Neil could continue his dark deconstruction of Shell-head, future Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras opened the issue with a tale of a group of kids who faithfully imitated their heroes, the Avengers. Learning the real Iron Man was expelled from the team, the kids expelled their own. He turns to drowning his sorrows in soda pop until their enemy dons his own Iron Man “armor” to ruin their good names, driving the “real” Iron Man back to action. Captain America vol. 1 #289 also featured a backup story by J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck where Cap’s then girlfriend, Bernie Rosenthal, dreamt she was Bernie America and fought against an amalgamation of Cap foes Red Skull and M.O.D.O.K. Both books fell under Assistant Editor Mike Carlin’s jurisdiction.

Then there are those whose very premise indicated the humor within. Take Marvel Team-Up #137, the oddball pairing of Spider-Man’s Aunt May and Franklin Richards, son of Invisible Woman and Mr. Fantastic by Mike Carlin and Greg LaRocque. May is turned into the newest herald of Galactus, the devourer of worlds, to have her help him satiate his great hunger. The result is she and Franklin gets him addicted to Twinkles, a parody of Twinkies. In the end, it turned out to be all a dream; first of Peter Parker, then of editor Danny Fingeroth, then Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter, then Stan Lee, then Galactus, and finally a slue of Marvel readers themselves. And, of course, when David Letterman appears on the cover (or the fact all the Avengers’ heads on the cover are facing away from the reader) could anything but comedy be inside? Writer Roger Stern and penciler Al Milgrom (under the supervision of Assistant Editor Mike Carlin) have The Avengers set to appear on Late Night with David Letterman in Avengers vol. 1 #239, but the villainous Mechano-Marauder decides to make a name for himself by killing them on TV. Thinking he’s winning, Marauder takes some time to have an interview with Letterman, who promptly knocks him out with a giant doorknob, saving the Avengers.

Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #86 gave cartoonist Fred Hembeck the chance to do almost an entire issue of Spidey. In a humorous segment that bordered the serious Spidey tale, artist Al Milgrom wants to confront Editor Fingeroth for rejecting some of his art, but instead finds Assistant Editor Bob Denatale (responsible for the Marvel Team-Up issue as well) in control for the issue. He decides to go a new, unique way by having Hembeck draw the story from Bill Mantlo’s script. That is, until Fingeroth returns and tries to salvage that “blunder” by using Al’s last two pages to end the story. The main story itself, it should be noted, was actually a serious addition into the Spider-mythos continuing with ongoing subplots at the time.

Star Wars, while licensed for publication at Marvel, decided to go with the minimalist approach. The entirety of #79 was a standard issue, but there was a single page gag at the end where the assistant editor, once again Elliot Brown, demonstrates how to build your own Darth Vader costume out of common household items. Creator George Lucas isn’t amused and reprimands him.

The full list of Marvel Mags of Mirth and Mayhem:

Alpha Flight #6
Amazing Spider-Man #248
Avengers #239
Captain America #289
Conan #154
Daredevil #202
Dazzler #30
Defenders #127
Fantastic Four #262
G.I.Joe #19
Incredible Hulk #291
Iron Man #178
Indiana Jones #13
Marvel Tales #159
Marvel Team-Up #137
Micronauts #56
Moon Knight #35
New Mutants #11
Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #86
Power Man and Iron Fist #101
Rom #50
Saga of Crystar #5
Star Wars #79
Thing #7
Thor #339
Uncanny X-Men #177
Uncanny X-Men Annual #7

Families in Fiction

It is estimated that nearly 1 in 5 American families deal with some form of mental illness (NAMI). From depression to schizophrenia to obsessive-compulsive disorder and beyond, these families must forge a difficult path, not only towards treatment and a cure, but through a variety of social stigmas attached to mental illness. Sadly, such social stigmas are most often perpetuated through inaccurate and insensitive portrayals in mass media, including fiction.

In her eye-opening study entitled “Myths of the ‘Crazy’ Client,” marriage and family therapist Karalee L. Bechtol, M.A., LMFT, exposes the fact that even interns and trainees entering the field of therapy are hesitant to treat mentally ill patients. Despite their training and desire to provide care, she discovers that “the views of participants who had never met someone with a mental illness are based on myths that society at large holds to be true and upon the media’s interpretation of the mentally ill” (Bechtol). Bechtol writes, “There is a tendency of mass media to treat mental illness as an object of ridicule, to use psychiatric terminology inaccurately, and to overuse slang and disrespectful terms for mental illness” (Bechtol).

Bechtol uses Otto F. Wahl’s book Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness to support her findings. In Wahl’s book, which won the 1996 Gustavus Myers Award for an Outstanding Book on Human Rights in North America, he asserts that he is “quite certain that public knowledge of mental illness does not come from the professional journals through which mental health professionals share their research and ideas with one another” (Wahl 2). Instead, Bechtol concludes, “It is more likely that the public’s knowledge of mental illnesses comes from sources closer to home, sources to which we all are exposed on a daily basis—namely the mass media, which includes television, movies, newspapers, literature and the internet” (Bechtol, emphasis added).

The National Alliance on Mental Illness - also know as NAMI - has long called for a change to the misrepresentations perpetuated by inaccurate media. “Stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery. It is time to take these barriers down” (NAMI).

When author Julie Schumacher’s own daughter went through the nightmare of depression, the toughest barrier for her to take down was shame. In an interview on Minnesota Public Radio about her 2008 book, Black Box, which tells the story of a family dealing with a teen daughter’s depression, Schumacher said about writing something so close to home, “On the one hand, I wanted to value discretion and to honor my daughter’s privacy. On the other, I wanted to distrust discretion because it’s a close cousin to shame when it comes to mental illness. And I said to myself, and kept thinking, if my child were suffering from cancer, I would say to anyone, ‘Boy she’s having a hard time, she’s got an issue, she’s in the hospital, could you please come?’ and people would come. When you’re talking about hospitalization for mental illness, there’s just a pall of silence. It’s shame” (Schumacher).

Schumacher knew from her own experience that other teens at her daughter’s school might be hesitant to go pick up a pamphlet about depression from the school nurse, but they might be more likely to pick up a novel and relate to accurate depictions of depression in it. Carefully going over the details of the book with her daughter, and ultimately acquiring her permission before publishing it, Schumacher’s hope in writing the book was to use narrative to break social stigmas on depression and give meaning to their family’s experience. She said in a recent interview on the blog Mother Words: Mothers Who Write, “Black Box, because of its subject matter, is different from my other novels. I wrote much of it in a state of despair, feeling bitterly lonely — and the author’s note gave me a chance to say to someone reading the book, “You don’t need to feel this way. You aren’t the only one going through this.” I don’t want to pretend that books can solve serious problems, but I do think that in acknowledging and naming our experiences, they can make us feel less alone” (Mother Word).

Schumacher is doing her part as an author – and as a parent – to undo the stigma created by many years of inaccurate depictions of mental illness in media. And there are ways that each of us, in our own corners of the world, can do the same. For more than 50 years, May has been celebrated as Mental Health Month. This year you can mark the occasion by making yourself more aware of issues surrounding mental illness, and making a commitment to recognize inaccurate depictions in fiction for what they are: totally without merit. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, found at, has a wealth of useful articles on informing yourself, finding support, and taking action. We must understand that stigmas in fiction can only be perpetuated as long as we, as readers, are willing to accept them. If we arm ourselves with education and compassion, we can confront the misrepresentations we find in literature and say, “It just isn’t so.”

Bechtol, MA, LMFT, Karalee L. “Myths of the ‘Crazy’ Client.” PROGRESS: Family Systems Research and Therapy 9 (Summer 2000).

Mother Word: Mothers Who Write. “Black Box and an Interview with Julie Schumacher.” [post published on 23 March 2009]. Available from

National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). About Mental Illness. [cited on March 21, 2009]. Available from
Schumacher, Julie. Interview with Kerri Miller. Midmorning. Minnesota Public Radio. 25 November 2008.

Wahl, PhD, Otto F. Media Madness: Public Images of Mental Illness. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University, 1997.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Darcys and the Bingleys

A Tale of Two Gentlemen's Marriages to Two Most Devoted Sisters
by Marsha Altman
Sourcebooks Landmark
417 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

As I was reading this book, I discovered I was torn between my intellectual, Jane Austen purist side and my emotional, chick-lit loving side. As I discovered I cannot reconcile these two halves of my reading experience, I thought it would be beneficial to transcribe the conversation between the intellectual (IB) and the emtional (EB) sides of my brain.

IB: So, the premise is that Darcy and Elizabeth and Bingley and Jane get married. That's it.
EB: Yep. And they discover the joy of "relations". And they giggle a lot. And basically are wonderful. *swoon.*

IB: There's no other plot?
EB: Well, there's a bit in the second half of the book involving Caroline Bingley and a rogue from Scotland whom she thinks she wants to marry, but she ends up marrying a brilliant London doctor in the end.

IB: That's it?
EB: Pretty much.

IB: So what's the point of the book? Really. It doesn't sound like enough for 413 pages.
EB: Well, there's a lot of time spent on the married couples' sex lives. See, Bingley asks Darcy for sex advice (since Darcy, um, has experience in these matters), and Darcy dashes to London two days before their weddings and finds a copy of the Kama Sutra for Bingley. (He happens to already have a copy stashed away in a secret drawer at Pemberley.) Bingley reads it, and Jane discovers it, and it evetually gets around to Elizabeth, so they're all in the know, which leads to many clever asides and illusions. It's all very fun, but tasteful.

IB: You've got to be kidding me.You know that the Kama Sutra wasn't even translated into English until the 1880s, right? It's wildly historically inaccurate. I won't even get started on the doctor and how his practices were overly progressive for the time.
EB: But this isn't a history book, it's fiction.

IB: True, but it's nice to have good history in historical fiction.
EB: Granted. But it doesn't change the fact that it was fun reading.

IB: Okay. I'll give you that. So, how about the characters? Do they live up to Austen's original?
EB: Well, Altman develops Bingley into a nice character: he's loving, kind and considerate towards his wife, and comes off as an intelligent, if slightly goofy man. Caroline is much nicer in this book than in the original. Jane's still a cipher-- she doesn't do a whole lot besides have babies -- but Lizzy is her loveable, witty self. And, Darcy... well, he comes off his pedestal quite a bit.

IB: What do you mean?
EB: Well... turns out that he tends to get quite drunk, fairly often.

IB: Mr. Darcy as a lush? As someone who gets smashed? Unheard of!
EB: But it makes him more human, more likeable.

IB: He wasn't unlikeable in the original! He was noble, proud, yes, but loveable. Besides the book wasn't really about his love for Lizzy. It was about class and character and pride...
EB: Yeah, but the falling in love is what's fun about the book. We all LOVE reading about how Darcy fell for Lizzy, and this just takes it one step further -- how Darcy pleases and is pleased with (and by) Lizzy. Good stuff.

IB: Yes, but it's not Pride and Prejudice.
EB: True. But that doesn't mean it's not good.

IB: It's just not faithful.
EB: No one will ever duplicate Jane Austen's brilliance, and it never works when authors try. The best adaptations are the ones that take the characters and reimagine them in human ways -- even if that means bending history a bit -- to make them more accessible to modern readers.

IB: But what about ...
EB: I will grant that the book seemed to be going off the A&E movie with Colin Firth more than the book. There's an extended sub-plot with Darcy and his fencing, which wasn't in the original at all, and, really, was only one teeny scene in the movie. But, Altman developed it into something interesting, which helped serve this new Darcy's character.

EB: Oh, shove it. Go read the original, if that's what you want. This one is a fun, light, interesting romp that uses characters from a beloved book. Altman did it well; for the most part, it's engaging, funny, and enjoyable. So, she tweaked history and Austen's characters a bit. There's nothing wrong with that. It's a novel. She's entitled to do what she wants with the characters.

IB: (spluttering)
EB: Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go read Pemberley Shades. I've heard it's good, too.

Pemberley by the Sea

by Abigail Reynolds
426 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

I have to admit that I was intrigued by the title -- specifially the subtitle: "A modern love story, Pride and Prejudice style"-- enough so that I was willing to pick up a copy of the book. A modern retelling of a Jane Austen classic, I thought. That could be interesting.

And, at first, it was. Cassie is a marine biologist in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, working on summer research (it is explained in detail, but isn't quite worth going in to), when her lab assistant, Erin, meets Scott, high-powered biotech businessman. Erin and Scott fall instantly for each other, and suddenly Cassie finds herself being dragged along as a third wheel. Then she meets Scott's famous, reserved, proud friend, Calder Westing, and everything changes. They have nothing in common: he's rich, from a powerful family, and completely "above" her; she's a college professor with a poor, inner-city upbringing, someone who has had to struggle for everything she's gotten.

So far, so good. We have Darcy and Bingley, Lizzy and Jane, in situations similar to what Austen conceived (there's even a dance, where Calder can snub Cassie). Granted, the writing isn't nearly as concise or witty, but that's forgivable. Not everyone was blessed with Jane's genuis.
But, then, it all falls apart. Calder and Cassie have sex in the ocean (in the only truly memorable -- and erotic -- sex scene), and decide that they just can't keep their hands off each other. (They decide this after the fact, which was kind of amusing.) They keep falling into bed together, in spite of their mutal misunderstandings, anxiety, and attempts to control themselves. It all ends at Christmas, when Cassie walks away from Calder forever.

Ah, but there's a twist: Calder Westing is none other than Stephen West: brilliant, insightful, best-selling author. And he writes a book called Pride and Presumption (A modernization within a modernization? Now it's getting absurd.) where he tells his side of their story. Cassie gets a copy of the book (because Calder has applied for a writer-in-residence post at the college she works for) and after reading it, realizes that she woefully misunderstood him. She reaches out to him, and when he comes back into her life, they fall back in bed together. And, at this point, the book is only halfway done.

As the plot and characters unraveled for the rest of the book -- going from one ridiculous situation to another, punctuated by passionate sex between Calder and Cassie -- I realized that this was chick lit sex fantasy masquerading as a modern Jane Austen take, if only to give it a smidgen of legitimacy. However, this was not just no Jane Austen; it was no longer a modern Pride and Prejudice.

I'd like to say at this point that I was too put off to finish it, that I was noble and grown up and had better things to do with my time. But like every bad soap opera episode I was sucked into in college, I found I couldn't tear myself away, and, yes, I wanted to know what happened to Calder and Cassie, and how they got to their happily-ever-after.

And so, I finished it down to it's very last schmaltzy, sex-saturated, overwritten page. I am not proud of myself.

A Perfect Waiter

by Alain Claude Selzer
Bloomsbury Publishing
211 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

This book was sent to me by Bloomsbury. I must say that those doom mongers who said that after the last Harry Potter book Bloomsbury would find it hard to survive, are doing this house a disservice as they seem to have an endless stream of fascinating books published and ready to come in 2009 and this is one of them.

A Perfect Waiter tells the story of Monsieur Erneste. He is the perfect waiter, discreet, efficient, non intrusive and has been a fixture at the Restaurant am Berg for sixteen years. Before that he worked at a grand hotel in Switzerland, just before the outbreak of the Second World War:

His was an unplanned existence. Any plans affecting him were made by others, people who knew their business and to whom he willingly deferred...having always been alone, he was barely conscious of his solitude. At night when he sank wearily into bed he felt safe...he had no reason to wish for a change in his circumstances...he could have gone on living like that for many years more.

And then one day, this ordered life is plunged into turmoil when he is sent down to meet the steamer crossing the lake bringing new staff for the hotel, two laundry maids and a new waiter who he will train. He meets Jakob and immediately falls in love.

Jakob shook Erneste's hand and introduced himself...the handshake seemed to say "Here I am, having come here purely for your sake" and the little world in which Erneste had so blithely installed himself collapsed.

And so a feverish love affair begins in the hot drawn out summer days where the febrile pre-war atmosphere heightens the senses as the cataclysm is awaited. The room Ernest and Jakob share is high under the eaves and is hot and sweltering and this sense of heat and tension adds to the passion they feel for each other. This is a fairly explicit book, but I did not find it offensive in any way and the reader knows that this intensity cannot last and that Erneste is destined for heartbreak. So it happens as one day he returns to the room unexpectedly and finds Jakob with one of the guests, a wealthy writer who has fled Germany because of his anti-Hitler views. When he leaves to go the USA, he takes Jakob with him and Erneste's heart is broken.

Years pass and Erneste's life as the Perfect Waiter continues, alone and solitary, he has managed to conceal his heartbreak and carve out an existence for himself and then one day, out of the blue, comes a letter from Jakob, he is in trouble and is asking for Erneste's help. He is to go and see the writer, Klinger, whose lover he was and who now lives in Switzeralnd and ask him for money, Jakob is desperate.

Erneste is in turmoil as his life is turned upside down and his memories of Jakob and his betrayal are revived but he cannot say not to Jakob and finds his way to Klinger's house. He now lives alone, a widower, his daughter in America and his son dead. He first refuses to help but when Erneste threatens to expose his double life if he does not, the author tells Erneste the story of his love for and his life with, Jakob. The telling of this tale, not only exposes Jakob's true character, but also shows that Erneste was not the only person who was betrayed and ruined by love for this fascinating and flawed man.

Used to gay relationships nowadays, it is easy to forget that being homosexual at the time of the setting of this novel, was regarded as perverse and immoral and one night when Erneste goes what would now be called "cottaging" he is set upon by thugs who despise his kind, and he is beaten badly. He manages to get back to his small apartment, knowing that the police will not be sympathetic to his plight and that he can seek no redress. He curls up and heals himself, like an animal and for the first time in his life, has to take time off work. Though this is a horrible episode it has a rather uplifting moment as he returns to work, scared that he might lose his job and finds an unexpected reception:

He was surprised to find that his reappearance was greeted with pleasure, not only by the manager but also by his fellow waiters, even by the chefs and kitchen hands. Although none of them slapped him on the back, he could tell from their friendly faces that they had missed him a little.

So, not so unloved or unappreciated after all.

When reading this book I thought of Aschenbach in Death in Venice staying in a grand hotel and becoming obsessed with the youth and beauty of Tadzio (who surely knew of this love and encouraged it), of the butler in Remains of the Day, repressed and always the perfect servant, the setting reminded me of Hotel du Lac and the feeling of a world encapsulated for a short period of time in one place which, for the purposes of this novel, is isolated from the happenings in the world.

A review in The Guardian says of this book, "The real perfect waiter of the title is, I suspect, the author himself. Like his hero he is unobtrusive and alarming in equal measure, he does his job not just with great polish, but with real heart".

An elegant, quiet, deeply felt book. Oh dear, how love does make fools of us all.

Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill

by Hugh Walpole
Capuchin Classics
198 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Gosh, what a simply terrific book. Sent to me last month by Capuchin Press and opened it up knowing zilch about the book, story or the author, save that I used to see Hugh Walpole's books on the shelves at a library I used to work in light years ago when the world was young and I wore a mini-skirt. So when this landed on my doorstep I had absolutely no idea what to expect.

I do find books with a school background fascinating. It is similar in many ways to a murder mystery in a country house, a disparate group of people all under one roof, all cooped up together, no escape and this is the case in Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill who are both teachers at a second rate school, Moffats, in Cornwall. The stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere inside the school a total contrast to the wild Cornish coastline representing the clear pure outside air as opposed to the poisonous atmosphere within.

Mr. Perrin is a failure and he knows it. Unmarried, unattractive, pompous and boring, he lives at home with his old mother during the holidays. The rest of the year he is a teacher where his colleagues are equally aware that they are trapped in their posts and will never get away. Bitterness, dislike and irritation abound as the staff, cooped together under the authority of a vicious and bullying headmaster, rub up against each other and small matters assume shattering importance.

Into this school comes Mr. Traill. Freshly graduated from Cambridge, a Blue at football, idealistic and full of enthusiasm. He is keen to make friends and get on with his colleagues but their jealousy of him, his popularity with his pupils, and his youth soon surface and this is exacerbated as far as Perrin is concerned, as Traill soon becomes friendly with Isabel Desart, a friend of one of the teacher's wives. Mr Perrin harbours a secret love for Isabel. It has come to him late in life and is hopeless but he is hopeful that perhaps, just perhaps, she will love him in return and his life will change for the better. With her by his side, he can leave Moffats, he will do great things and so he dreams.

As the weeks of the term wear on the petty jealousies begin to emerge. Mr Broadland, one of the long term teachers has warned Traill of what will happen to him if he stays:

Get out of it think you will escape but already the place has its fingers about you. You will be a different man at the end of the term. You will be allowed no friends here, only enemies. You think the rest of us like you, well for a moment perhaps but only for a moment. Soon something will come...already you dislike Perrin....

Hatred of Traill has overcome Mr. Perrin and one day it all comes to a head when Mr. Traill borrows an umbrella which, unknown to him, belongs to Mr. Perrin. All the venom and dislike comes to the surface and Mr. Perrin, who by now we realise is mentally unstable, attacks Traill and a physical fight ensues. This is the point in the book when you realise that this is not just a story about life in a school, this is getting darker and something pretty horrid is lurking. The staff take sides and outright war breaks out and in the middle of this, Traill announces his engagement to Isabel as she wants to be able to publicly support him.

Mr. Perrin is broken by this news:

[H]e sat with his head in his hands, and the tears trickled through his thin fingers....God took away from you all the things that made life worth living and then punished you because you resented his he was no good, he was done for...he would go to bed, but he wanted Miss Desert! He wanted Miss Desart! Young Traill had done this, he was his enemy... young Traill, he hated him and would do him harm if he could...

Mr. Perrin is aware that there is a second Mr. Perrin inside him, the other person who urges him on to wicked thoughts and plans. He is frightened of him and tries to keep this Jekyll side of himself under control and hidden. He can normally manage to do so, but his mental disintegration is now in full flow and he is helpless to fight off his evil genius.

O God help me... do not let me go back to that state that I have just been in...I do not know what I am doing or thinking, but it is so hard... O God give me my chance. Give me someone to love, I am so terribly alone, do not let me go back into that darkness again...I am so afraid of what I may do.

And suddenly he awoke in the middle of the night and found himself there and it was all very dark. He rose to his feet and was terribly frightened, because there, a grey figure against the fireplace, was the other Mr Perrin and he knew that God had not answered his prayer

This is pretty powerful stuff and I found myself feeling such sympathy for Mr. Perrin in his dreadful state. But the die is now cast and he resolves to kill Mr. Traill.

This is a simply marvellous book and I doubt if I have managed to convey to you just how much I was taken over by it as I sat and read. All the other teachers, their wives, their homes, their habits, are all precisely and beautifully delineated, the enclosed world where small matters assume vast importance, and petty snubs and spite abound, it all draws the reader in and the narrative pace, at first relaxed and taking its time while the scene is set, then picks up as we realise that darkness and hatred are rushing us along to an inevitable showdown. I found the ending both sad and uplifting and closed the book up and sat back and thought, well, wow. Not a very analytical or intellectual summing up but there you go.

The preface in this edition tells us that Walpole was a prolific author and in the remaining 30 years of his life published at least one book a year. He achieved enormous popularity but in the judgment of his biographer Rupert Hart-Davis:

Only once (in The Dark Forest) was he ever again to recapture the fresh, clear cut realism of Mr Perrin' and Walpole himself, looking back on his work in 1936, recorded that of all his books, this was the truest.

So what are you waiting for? Go buy and read and be happy that publishing houses such as Capuchin Press are around to give readers another chance to read this, and other, marvellous books which have languished in obscurity for far too long.

Great stuff.

The Ever-After Bird

by Ann Rinaldi
Harcourt, Inc.
232 pages, incl. bibliography
Review by Nancy Horner
Image courtesy of Harcourt, Inc

Cecelia McGill’s father has told her repeatedly that she has no soul and routinely beat her for the slightest infraction. Cece doesn’t understand why he risks his life helping hide runaway slaves; and, assumes the reason he treats her so badly is because he blames her for her mother’s death in childbirth. But, how can he be so cruel to her when he’s so caring to the slaves he helps?

When CeCe’s father is killed, her uncle Alex, a doctor and ornithologist, becomes her guardian. Uncle Alex is a gentle man who lost his only child and whose wife suffered paralysis in a terrible accident. CeCe finds him likable and kind. But, she’s not so sure she wants to leave her home -- particularly without her dog, cat and horse -- when Alex asks CeCe to accompany him on a journey to the South to hunt for a scarlet ibis to paint. Called “the Ever-After Bird” by slaves who believe they’ll be free forever if they spot the bird, Alex must move from plantation to plantation in his search for the elusive bird.

Alex and CeCe are accompanied by his assistant Earline, a former slave who attends Oberlin College. CeCe must not only learn to treat Earline as a slave owner might but also learn to hold her tongue when she witnesses the mistreatment of black families enslaved on the plantations where she and her uncle are treated as honored guests. Uncle Alex uses his search for the bird as an excuse to quietly give slaves advice on where to go if they run away and surreptitiously hands them money to aid in their escapes.

As CeCe travels around with her uncle and Earline, she sees sights that would make your toes curl, learns a few things about her uncle and Earline that shock her, and slowly gains understanding of why her father and uncle have spent so much time and taken so many risks helping people escape from slavery.

I have mixed feelings about The Ever-After Bird. I think the author did an excellent job of placing the reader within the time period and describing the horrors of slavery. It appears to me that Ann Rinaldi’s research is excellent. Additional author’s notes describe the real-life character upon which Alex is based, which lends some credence to the events that take place. I also think Rinaldi did a terrific job of describing how easy it is for people to mistreat those they love and how far an apology goes toward healing the hurts.

What I didn’t like was the fact that the book was written in a rather flat, simplistic manner. The tone not so bland as to put me to sleep, but it just seemed a bit choppy and I would have liked to see a little more craftsmanship in the wording. The main characters were okay, apart from Earline, who was a bit bizarre, in my opinion. One would expect more maturity out of a woman who had escaped from slavery and knew the ways of the South. Earline is combative, rude and surprisingly dense. It stunned me that she was so obnoxious to CeCe and never seemed to really know her place.

Also, I had to wonder whether or not a 10-year-old is mature enough to read about the kind of violence that occurred in The Ever-After Bird and on Southern plantations. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that I would have likely read the book around that age, had it been available, and would not have been overly offended or upset by the material. So, while I do feel a little iffy about this book and would give it an average rating, overall, I think the book provides a worthwhile peek into history and would recommend it particularly for the glimpse into plantation life.

Jane Austen Ruined My Life

by Beth Pattillo
Guideposts Books
320 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

Emma Grant -- professor, Jane Austen specialist, and hopeless romantic -- has had the foundation of her world completely shattered. She walked in on her husband, Edward, in the act of sleeping with her teaching assistant. And, to top things off, he supported the teaching assistant in a plagerism accusaition against Emma. Because he is an acclaimed Milton specialist, and a powerful professor, she was booted off the university faculty. Divorced and jobless, Emma's grasping at whatever it takes to get her career (at least) going again. When she gets a mysterious letter from a Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrot in England, saying that she has Jane Austen's missing letters -- the ones that scholars all suppose were burned by her sister Cassandra -- Emma finds that she can't resist. She hocks what's left of her possessions and catches a flight to London.

Once in England, Emma discovers that her task won't be as easy as she thought. Mrs. Parrot is part of an elite socity called The Formidables that is charged with the task of keeping Jane's letters secret from the public. The only way Emma is going to be allowed to see the presumed letters is by completing a series of tasks. In addition, she discovers that her old best friend, Adam, whom she hasn't seen in 10 years, has been invited to stay at the same townhouse. In a somewhat predictible turn of events, Adam is always available and willing to help Emma out on her quests, during which she not only discovers more about herself and her perspective on her life (as well as insight into Jane Austen's life and works), but that she's been in love with Adam all along.

It's an interesting little novel, primarily for the creative liberites Pattillo takes with Austen's life. She invents a mysterious love for Austen, someone too poor for her to marry in good conscience, but someone whom she gives her heart to. In the process of figuring this out, Emma is taken on her own journey. What was especially fresh in the midst of all the usual chick-lit tropes, was that, in the end, Emma didn't end up with Adam (or any other man). She left with her integrity intact, and with a new dream, but still single and willing to put her life back together herself.

In the end, the book was fun, but it lacked the elements necessary to truly be a great book. Emma was clueless and annyoing (much like her namesake), and the mystery surrounding Adam and his presence in London got old after about a third of the way through. Even so, the reimagining of history (and Jane's missing letters), was definately worth the time spent reading.

The Truth About Forever

The Truth About Forever
by Sarah Dessen
Puffin books
374 pages
Reviewed by Heather F.

I really needed a break from review books and this one sounded good. I’ve been meaning to try Sarah Dessen’s writing for a long time. Little did I know; this one hit a little close to home.

Macy is like most regular 17-year-olds. She has a boyfriend. She makes good grades. She’s on the student council. She has a summer job. Only difference, she witnessed her father’s death and hasn’t figured out how to mourn. But she’s fine, just fine.

She does what everyone tells her to do so that they will be happy. She takes over her boyfriend’s library job for the summer, while he goes to Brain Camp. She comes home every night and studies for the SATS. She fixes the salad to her mother’s chicken for supper. She covers for her sister when she sneaks out at night. She gives everything she’s got, just to be perfect.

But then she meets the Wish Catering crew, her boyfriend decides he wants a "break" and her life is turned upside down. Suddenly, it’s okay to go to a party of Friday night. It’s okay to see her friends and spend the night. It’s okay to be human. And then Wes, gorgeous, compassionate Wes, teaches her how to mourn.

My mom took off when I was about 3 and my dad died when I was 8. I was raised by my grandparents and I never really learned how to mourn for my dad. Even at 8, I felt I had to be, maybe not perfect, but *fine*. So you can see where this book hit a little close to home.

So, what was so great about this book? All of it! The characters were amazing. I felt a little bereft when I read the last page. They are still in my mind, days later and it’s made it somewhat hard to read another book. Dessen is a great writer who seems more than capable of writing for the Young Adult audience. The dialogue feels natural and honest. The story rings with humor and some of the more lighthearted moments serve as a nice contrast to the darker subjects of death, fear and loss. Macy’s shift from fragile perfection to poignant grief and renewal is nothing short of mastery.

There were a few problems. A few of the characters were barely two dimensional. Monotone Monica has a repertoire of, maybe 5 words. She has like 2 complete sentences throughout the book. Her sister Kristy has a tendancy to wear the loudest, most colorful outfits and their descriptions can get tiresome. And, yes, while everyone isn't perfect, sometimes it felt like Dessen was trying a little too hard to make sure every-single-character had a very pronounced fault.

All in all though, a must read for anyone who appreciates a good story with good, well-written and honest characters. I can’t wait to get my hands on more by this author.

A few favorite quotes:
"There is never a time or place for true love. It happens accidentally, in a heartbeat, in a single flashing, throbbing moment."

"It's all in the view. That's what I mean about forever, too. For any one of us our forever could end in an hour, or a hundred years from now. You never know for sure, so you'd better make every second count."

"It's just that...I just think that some things are meant to be broken. Imperfect. Chaotic. It's the universe's way of providing contrast, you know? There have to be a few holes in the road. It's how life is."

"I knew, in the silence that followed, that anything could happen here. It might be too late: again, I might have missed my chance. But I would at least know I tried, that I took my heart and extended my hand, whatever the outcome.

"Okay," he said. He took a breath. "What would you do, if you could do anything?"

I took a step toward him, closing the space between us. "This," I said. And then I kissed him."

You can find more out about Sarah Dessen at herwebsite or blog.

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press
384 Pages
Reviewed by Heather F.

What made me want to read this book? This book that did NOT sound like my type of book at all? Dystopian fiction is not usually my favorite thing. And I hate reality television. But I saw so many people talking about it; on Twitter, on other blogs, even Stephen King reviewed it in Entertainment Weekly. I just had to know what all the fuss was about. And I'm so glad I gave it a shot.

The main thing this book has going for it are the characters were of the type that you just couldn’t help rooting for. The main character, Katniss, can be a little grating on the nerves, but I still couldn't help caring for her and wanting her to overcome all the odds stacked against her. I love a good underdog! She was tough, tenacious, intelligent, resourceful; everything I look for in a female character, especially in young adult literature. Plus, I felt the author stayed true to her characters, whether it was something I liked or not. (i.e. of the romantic, dramatic, torn between two men sort). The writing was very good, in my opinion. The prose was taunt, quick, finely edited to keep the narrative moving, which with a story like this, felt appropriate. It was a fast read.

I admit, I was particularly worried about violence, since it’s basically a book about children killing each other to survive, but it was not as bad as I thought it would be. I definitely recommend this book. If you like fantasy, dystopian literature, YA literature... you will like this book. Even if you don't, you'll probably like this book! Just like I did!

I really appreciated the author’s vision of what could happen to humanity if certain things were not to change. There is a definite warning note to this story that is one I think we should all take heed of. It seems extreme, but then again... it doesn't.

Galway Bay

by Mary Pat Kelly
Grand Central Publishing
576 pages
Reviewed by Heather F.

My grandmother was among other things a big reader and a history buff. She loved history. She knew all kinds of stuff, random stuff, stuff no one else seemed to know. She collected facts like some collect bottle caps or stamps. She knew her stuff. And she knew where she came from and made sure that I did too.

I am a mutt, like most Americans I expect. Among many, many different ethnicities, I am Irish. My grandmother was a Moore, descended from the O’Mores or O’Mordha. I still have her family crest, framed and hanging on the wall. Best I can tell, the Moores came over well before the potato famine, but the famine did not go ignored by them. Although she was born after the famine, Mama knew all about that as well. And she had a healthy, shall we say, ‘non-appreciation,’ for the English.

So I came to Galway Bay with an excitement to learn more about my history and with the expectation to put a human face on the tragedy I had heard so much about. Mary Pat Kelly delivered that and so much more.

Galway Bay is the fictionalized story of Mary Pat Kelly’s great-great grandparents and their struggle to survive not only the Irish potato famine, but also the move from their beloved Ireland to America. We meet the young Honora Keeley and Michael Kelly by the shores of Galway Bay. It’s love at first sight. They wed and start a family and their farm. They find solace from the troubles of their world in each other, their children, their faith, songs and stories of Ireland. These stories are shared, passed down generation by generation; and remains a theme throughout the book – the passing down of history by the ones who came before. Years of famine and abuse by the English government wear down on the family until; finally, they make the heart wrenching decision to move to America.

I won’t tell you any more. I don’t want to give too much away. But this tale to two sisters, their amazing strength, perseverance and faith is heartwarming, heartbreaking, and inspiring. The author did an amazing job of telling these stories of her ancestors and of Ireland. I highly recommend it. Even if you aren’t Irish, I think you’ll enjoy it.

If' you'd like to read more books that are in this vein, I also highly (HIGHLY) recommend Frank Delaney's Ireland. It is wonderful. He also has books out called Shannon and Tipperary; which I eened to read.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Letter from the Editor - March 2009

Wow. So. Hi there! This is my first "Letter from the Editor." It feels a little bit like I've been given the keys to the castle; so to speak. I can do whatever I want! The power!! Mwahahaha!

Just kidding! And don't worry about our fearless leader Andi. She's swamped with work, so I stepped up to the plate.

I am so excited to bring you the latest edition of Estella's Revenge. This month's theme was "Classics." What is a Classic? According to Wiktionary, a classic is:

Here you will find the musings of our writers about Classics. Who reads them? What are they? What are the becoming? And of course, a few reviews thrown in for good measure. I hope you enjoy this issue of Estella's Revenge and I look forward to "seeing" you again in April!

~ Heather

Table of Contents




February Winner - March giveaway

Our winner of 'The Edge of Reason: A Novel of The War Between Science and Superstition' IS...

Priscilla Walter at

Congratulations Priscilla and we'll be getting that book out to you straight away!

This month's giveaway is for FIVE copies of Dan Simmons latest and classically appropriate; Drood! Send us at email at estellabooks @ gmail . com and good luck!!! USA and Canada only please!

Author Interview - Joshua Henkin

By Melissa

Joshua Henkin spent ten years working on his latest novel, a sweeping portrait of a marriage and the decisions, reactions, problems and happinesses that face every day life. In Henkin's words, the novel is "about what it's like to be in your twenties and thirties--even your forties in some cases--when you're waiting for life to begin and you find to your surprise that it already has begun and that the decisions you make have consequences that you're not even aware of yet." He has spent considerable time and effort reaching out to the blogging and reading communities, not only to promote his book, but to connect with readers. He was more than willing to take the time to answer a few questions.

MF: I liked Julian and Mia's relationship; it felt at times, very ordinary. Why did you choose to explore marriage and commitment as a major theme in Matrimony?

JH: Thanks for these questions, Melissa. I really appreciate them. The “why” questions are always the hardest ones to answer because they assume fiction writers are much smarter than they are. I’m always saying that novelists need to be a little stupid, and if they’re not stupid naturally, then they need to cultivate stupidity. I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve seen a lot of writers who were too smart for their own good and their books ended up suffering. In any case, a novelist doesn’t think in terms of themes. At the very least, I don’t. I’m not saying the themes of marriage and commitment aren’t in Matrimony, but I certainly didn’t think about them as I was writing the book. I think purely in terms of character and narrative, and I let my characters guide me. I happened to write about characters who got married young and then endured a variety of difficulties over the course of the next fifteen years. But I wasn’t thinking about marriage and commitment when I was writing my novel. I was thinking about my characters, doing my best to inhabit them as fully as possible. Whatever themes that emerged came in through the back door.

MF: Interesting. I've never thought of it that way, but it does make sense. I'm sure you get this question a lot, since your main character is a writer, but: is the book in autobiographical in any way?

JH: Matrimony is not autobiographical in any obvious way. The only character based on a real character is the dog, who’s a dead ringer for my wife’s and my dog (except that our dog is a golden retriever and female and Cooper is a Labrador retriever and male). All the other mammals in the book are invented. I didn’t meet my wife in college, her mother didn’t die of breast cancer, she didn’t cheat on me with my best friend (of if she did, she hasn’t told me yet!), and, alas, I’m not nearly as wealthy as Julian is. A lot of people assume that if I’m anyone in the book I must be Julian, since he’s a writer and I’m a writer, he grew up in New York and so did I, and both our names begin with “J.” But if anything, I’m more similar to Mia. Her background is certainly a good deal closer to mine. I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish, and we’re both children of professors.

MF: I read somewhere where it was noted that you shied away from many of the big things in life: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths (Mia's mother's death is mentioned, but not dwelt upon). Is there any particular reason for this?

JH: I’m not sure what you’re referring to—if anything, I’m always telling my students (and myself!) that one should always shoot for high-stakes situations, which is why birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, Bar Mitzvahs, Thanksgiving meals, etc. are among the best occasions for stories. In fact, when I started Matrimony, I thought the whole book was taking place at a college reunion (I was wrong, it turned out). Perhaps what you’re referring to is something I’ve said about how the seemingly mundane moments of life can be the most revealing. The dinner party scene in Ann Arbor, for instance, while not monumental in terms of the plot of Matrimony, is essential in terms of the feel of the book—the way it gives the reader the sense of Julian’s feeling like an outsider, which is central to the book and leads to some of the trouble Julian and Mia experience. As for Mia’s mother’s death, while it’s true that we don’t see the actual funeral, Mia’s mother’s illness and death are dwelt on quite a lot. In fact, to my mind Mia’s mother’s death is the central incident in the novel. It’s what changes everything—what prompts Julian and Mia to get married much early than they would have (and should have). Without Mia’s mother’s death, I’m not sure they would have gotten married at all. It’s the life-changing event for all the major characters.

MF: Yes, that is what I was getting at; the exploration of the mundane. Though I can see what you mean about Mia's mother's death being the central incident of the novel. Which brings me to: which character or situation was hardest to write? Easiest?

JH: They’re all equally hard. Nothing’s easy. My job as a writer is to try to make things seem easy, but that’s one big illusion. Matrimony took me ten years to write and I threw out more than three thousand pages. There wasn’t an easy moment.

MF: That's an interesting fact. As readers we get the impression that everything just dashes off the ends of writer's fingertips.

I'm from the Ann Arbor area, and I have to admit that I was distracted by the presence of the city in the book. (Perhaps that's solely because Ann Arborites are notoriously attached to their town...) Why did you choose to set so much of the book in Ann Arbor?

JH: A fellow an Arborite! Anyone who’s spent time in Zingerman’s Deli is a friend of mine! I probably set a lot of the book in Ann Arbor because I lived there for eight years. I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived. I’m better at imagining people I don’t know than at imagining places I’ve never been to.

MF: I know you're involved in blogging and participating in reading groups. Can you tell us about some of your experiences there? What have you found/learned by interacting with readers in this way?

JH: I could go on for hours. It’s all been incredibly positive and helpful—from guest blogging to talking to book groups to all sorts of other things. I’m now up to 100 book groups, and there’s more to come. It helps sales of the book, certainly, and that’s an important thing, especially in what’s a very difficult publishing climate. But even more important than that, blogs and book groups have allowed me to have contact with so many readers out there, and that’s been extremely valuable.

MF: I'm always curious about the technical aspects of writing. Do you have any writing rituals, like a specific time or place to write?

JH: I try as much as I can to write every day because if you write every day you live with your characters—you think about them even when you’re not writing. If you take a few days off, you have to reintroduce yourself to your characters. I prefer to write in the morning when possible because that way the work’s not hanging over me all day. It’s like going to the gym. If I go early in the day, then I’ve gotten it done, and I don’t spend the rest of the day saying to myself, “I need to go to the gym.” I often write in the Brooklyn Writers Space, which is a quiet space for writers where I’m a member and where I’ve studiously avoided learning the Internet password. But I work at home too sometimes. I think it’s important not to be too wedded to a particular time and place to write. A writer needs to learn how to write under any circumstances, even with your kids sitting on your lap, which is something I’ve gotten adept at doing.

MF: Interesting. What writers have influenced you the most? Why?

JH: It’s hard to know. You hope it’s the writers you like more than the writers you don’t like. I love Fitzgerald, Cheever, and Richard Yates. I’m a big fan of the short stories of Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. A lot of people have compared Matrimony to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I certainly take as a great compliment. Crossing to Safety is a wonderful novel.

MF: I'm always looking for good books for my reading list. What are you currently reading? What five books do you think every person should read?

JH: I recently finished Roxana Robinson’s most recent novel Cost, which I thought was terrific. I’m not very good with top-ten lists or top-five lists. I certainly think Lolita is an amazing novel. So is Revolutionary Road—a great book long before Kate Winslet graced the cover.

MF: I'll have to look those up; thanks! And, if you don't mind telling, what can we expect from you next?

JH: I’m about 200 pages into my new novel, which is already overdue at the publisher. But I’m fairly confident it won’t take ten years (famous last words!). It’s tentatively called The World Without You, and it takes place over a single July 4th weekend. Three adult sisters (mid to late thirties) and their spouses/significant others return with their parents to the family’s country home in the Berkshires, the occasion for which is the fourth anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq. When he died, he left a pregnant wife, who subsequently gave birth to a son, who is now three. The wife has moved out to Berkeley, where she’s a graduate student in anthropology, and she’s fallen in love with and has moved in with another man. She may end up marrying this man, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll likely end up marrying someone else, and that person might adopt the son. The dead brother’s widow comes to the reunion, too, with her son, though without her boyfriend. The three-year-old, then, is the object of narrative struggle. For the grandparents and the aunts, he’s their grandson and nephew, respectively; most important, he’s the embodiment of the dead brother. For his mother, though he’s that too, he’s principally her son and she’s moving on. In a sense, then, the novel is about grief and the ways that in some instances, at least, a spouse gets over the death of a spouse while a parent never gets over the death of a child.

MF: Sounds intriguing. Thanks for your time, Josh!

JH: Thanks for doing the interview. I really enjoyed it!

You can find out more about the author, his involvement in reading groups and his books at his website.