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.

Who Watches the Watchmen?

By Chris Buchner

Alan Moore is no stranger to Hollywood, despite his personal distance from it. From Hell (2001), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and V for Vendetta (2006) were the adaptations of his works in comics of the same name. The latest is Watchmen, based off Moore’s 1986-87 DC Comics miniseries with artist Dave Gibbons.

Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 where America is on the verge of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Superheroes have become unpopular among the public and a 1977 legislature was passed to outlaw them. All but sanctioned heroes The Comedian and Dr. Manhattan retired, with a third, Rorschach, operating outside the law. The story begins with the murder of The Comedian, and Rorschach investigating as the NYPD have failed to turn up any leads. Rorschach believes his death was part of a conspiracy to wipe out all costumed adventurers and warns his former comrades, leading each one to don their costumes again to save New York City.

Moore wanted to write a story featuring an unused line of superheroes that he could revamp as he had done with the 1954-63 British character Miracleman (also known as Marvelman in the UK). He wanted to examine what superheroes would be like in the real world. Originally looking towards Archie Comics’ Mighty Crusaders, Moore eventually wrote his pitch using the characters DC acquired from the defunct Charlton Comics in 1985. Moore’s belief was that as long as readers recognized the characters and got the shock and surprise value when you saw their reality it didn’t matter which set he used. The pitch was submitted to DC managing editor Dick Giordano. While Giordano loved the concept, he urged the writer to create an original cast as the story would have rendered most of the Charlton characters useless for future DC projects.

Gibbons, an artist who had worked with Moore before, heard about the treatment and asked to be involved. Giordano assigned colorist John Higgins because he liked his unusual style and lived close enough to Gibbons to allow human contact during the creation. Len Wein joined on as editor while Giordano stayed on to oversee, although both had a hands-off approach to the project allowing the creative talent to do what they needed to undaunted.

Moore and Gibbons designed the book to showcase the unique abilities of the comic medium and its strengths. As the story progressed, they realized the plot itself became irrelevant compared to how the story was told. They created their characters with inspiration from many sources, in particular by a Mad Magazine parody of Superman called Superduperman, although taken in the complete opposite direction for their purposes. While Moore came up with the characters’ defining characteristics, Gibbons was allowed creative freedom with his designs trying to make them as simplistic and easy to draw as possible, resulting in the characters:

Doctor Manhattan, aka Dr. Jonathan Osterman, is a government-sanctioned hero and works for the US Government. He gained superpowers when caught in an Intrinsic Field Subtractor in 1959. Moore, basing him on Charlton’s Captain Atom, wanted to give him a unique perspective on human affairs as he gradually grew from his own humanity, while Gibbons designed the character as being nude and trying to tastefully present that, reusing the skin motif from the character Rogue Trooper.

Rorschach, aka Walter Kovacs, is a vigilante who wears a mask with constantly shifting ink blots. He sees the world in black and white, and thus free to leave his own mark on a morally blank world. Moore used Steve Ditko as an inspiration, combining elements from his Mr. A and The Question characters.

Nite-Owl, aka Dan Dreiberg, is a retired hero who uses owl-themed gadgetry similar to Batman. Taking a cue from DC’s Blue Beetle, Moore incorporated a predecessor for the character in Hollis Mason, who used the same name. Gibbons used a design for Mason he created when he was twelve as the basis for Nite-Owl’s overall look.

The Comedian, aka Edward Blake, is the other government-sanctioned hero and the catalyst for the story when he’s murdered. He’s a ruthless, cynical and nihilistic character with deep insights into being a hero. He attempted to rape the original Silk Spectre in the 1940s and would later father her daughter. He was based on Charlton’s Peacemaker with elements of Marvel’s Nick Fury thrown in.

Ozymandias, aka Adrian Veidt, retired to run his own enterprise. He’s one of the smartest men on the planet, which leads him to look down on humanity with scorn that makes him the villain of the series. Moore was inspired by Alexander the Great and Charlton’s Thunderbolt, whom Moore admired for using his full brain capacity with full control over his mind and body.

Silk Spectre, aka Laurie Juspeczyk, is the daughter of the original and works for the government because of her relationship with Dr. Manhattan. Unlike the other characters based off the Charlton line, Moore felt he needed a female character in the group and took inspiration from DC’s Black Canary and Phantom Lady.

Moore began writing the series early on to try and avoid any delays suffered by other series at the time, but despite their best efforts the book did fall a couple of months behind schedule. Moore realized that his original plot only left them with six issues of story while they were contracted for 12. It was decided to break up the plot by alternating those issues with origin issues for the characters. Gibbons took pains to ensure the pages couldn’t be confused for any other comic, drawing in a particular weight of line and using a nine-panel grid for each page due to its “authority.” The cover to each issue served as the first panel to the story, and Gibbons often experimented with layout of the issue contents, such as issue 5’s symmetrical pages to go along with the story’s title “Fearful Symmetry.” Moore would also use the pages DC was unable to sell for ad space to do supplemental prose pieces, including fictional book chapters, reports and articles by the characters.

Tales of the Black Freighter was conceived by Moore as a comic that a kid in the comic would read throughout the series. Gibbons suggested a pirate theme and Moore went with it, figuring since the citizens of their fictional world had superheroes they wouldn’t be interested in superhero comics; instead allowing horror, science fiction, piracy and other genres to dominate the books. Moore was also a Berthold Brecht fan, and the Black Freighter was derived from Brecht and Kurt Weill’s song “Seer√§uberjenny” (“Pirate Jenny”) from their Threepenny Opera. This story ends up, according to Moore, describing the story of Adrian Veidt.

Watchmen was a commercial and critical success, and helped DC surpass rival Marvel in the sales charts. Along with Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns miniseries, Watchmen was collected and marketed as a graphic novel, a term that allows a publisher to associate comic stories with novels and disassociate them from comics. The success of these graphic novels inspired bookstores and public libraries to give shelf space to them, which in turn led to new comic series to be commissioned on the basis of reprinting them in the collections for those new markets; a practice which continues today. The book has since been reprinted and re-released multiple times, including as a motion comic with voice acting on iTunes in 2008.

Moore had stated that if the series was well-received, he and Gibbons would most likely do a 12-issue prequel series focusing on the 1940s superhero group in the story, the Minutemen. However, Moore and DC had a falling out over ownership of this and other properties he had produced for them, as well as how his imprint America’s Best Comics, part of Wildstorm, was treated after DC bought Wildstorm in 1998. If DC should ever not use his creations for a year, the rights revert back to him and their respective artists. But, with several printings of the trade paperback collection as well as the reprint of the first issue released for the film at the book’s original $1.50 price tag, it doesn’t seem likely DC will let the rights lapse anytime soon.

The Watchmen movie had been in development as far back as 1986. Several directors and writers had been attached at its various stages, including David Hayter, Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Greengrass and Sam Hamm. Problems arose such as inadequate budget, creative differences and a conflicting desire to keep the script as true to the source as possible, and the project kept moving from one studio to another. Finally, in 2005, the project returned to Warner Bros. for the second time with producer Lawrence Gordon and Lloyd Levin. Thanks to his work on 300, director Zack Snyder was approached to direct the film with Alex Tse writing.

As with 300, Snyder used the comic as a storyboard, but extended the fight scenes and added a subplot about energy resource to make the film topical. He also had Night Owl and Ozymandias’ looks designed to make Owl scarier and Ozymandias’ armor a parody of the rubber suits from the movie Batman & Robin. Series artist Dave Gibbons became an advisor for the film, but Moore has stated no interest in seeing the film, despite saying David Hayter’s screenplay was as close as it could get. Moore’s main reasoning is Watchmen was designed to only work in comics and not any other media; a challenge Snyder and company will try to overcome.

Watchmen comes to theaters March 6th, 2009. The Tales of the Black Freighter will be adapted into a direct-to-video animated feature released on March 11th. Series editor Len Wein has written the game Watchmen: the End is Nigh, available for download on March 4th. Watchmen collections are out now and available at your local comic shop and most book retailers.

The Evolution of the Classic

By Jodie

The fascinating and frustrating thing about classics is that they almost never stay static. Other writers pick them up and mess about with them in ways that infuriate, or enliven readers.

As we discuss the good old classic here at Estella's Revenge I thought it might be fun to look at the how one of the world’s favourite classics has been altered, extended and recast. Welcome to Meryton 2.0, full of all the usual Bennety goodness, but with plenty of surprises more shocking than Kitty’s shotgun wedding.

It may not be universally acknowledged that a classic written by Austen must be in want of a sequel but you’d never realise that if you search Amazon for novels related to Pride and Prejudice. There are a huge amount of sequels and re-imaginings based on Pride and Prejudice, all listed at the online book giant Amazon. One sequel, ‘Mrs Darcy’s Dilemma’, has previously been rated by a reviewer at Estella's Revenge.

Every Austen fan on the web seems to be alarmed about the news that a supernatural version of Pride and Prejudice is set to be released. 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' turns the Bennet sisters into head kicking zombie killers in skirts and petticoats. Personally I think it sounds just a bit awesome. There’s already been discussion about a possible movie, although the book won’t be released until April. This is one costume drama the boys will beg to see.

And it’s not just zombies dropping in on the Bennets without introductions. Rocket Pictures has decided to revamp their Predator franchise by placing their hideous monster into the Regency period. Will Clark, the film’s director said ‘Pride and Predator’ felt like ‘a fresh and funny way to blow apart the done-to-death Jane Austen genre’. Purists, prepare to shudder.

One author has decided to continue the supernatural twisting by tinkering with Austen herself. Michael Thomas Ford has signed a deal for a series of three novels about Austen rising as one of the undead . Vampiric Jane is upset about all the money other people are making from her novels and starts biting back in revenge.

British TV series ‘Lost in Austen’ features some pretty extreme plot changes, which I found much harder to swallow than a hoard of zombies rampaging through Longbourn. As much as I loved the heroine, played by Jemima Rooper, the idea that Elizabeth might not be the perfect partner for Darcy slightly appalled me. Sam Mendes plans to make this into a film, which seems a little pointless. Expect it to make lots of money for the corporate types.

My favourite alternate version of Pride and Prejudice has to be the fun, Facebook page set up recently See what the main characters would have been said and done if they’d had access to social media . Elizabeth gets on much better with Facebook than she does with text culture as this comic strip shows.

If you love the trend of classics reinvented as comics then search out the Marvel edition of Pride and Prejudice. Then, if you still haven’t had enough why not see the musical based on the book? There are no zombies, the plot ends happily ever after and there’s a whole song based on that famous first line. It might be just the tonic you need after your boyfriend brings home ‘Pride and Predator’ on dvd.

Who Reads Classic Novels?

By Stuart Sharp

This article goes out with thanks to five members of the University of Hull fencing club, who agreed to assist me with a quick survey the other night. Or at least, they didn’t run away quite fast enough. Being reasonably used to me doing odd things, they were even quite helpful. The question was a simple one: “What was the last classic novel you read?”

At least, I thought it was simple at the time. After all, I wasn’t asking them for the classic novel they’d read ten books ago, or for a complete list of all the major characters in alphabetical order. Closer examination, however, revealed that it wasn’t that straightforward at all.

What constitutes a classic novel, for a start? One friend asked if the works of Arthur Conan-Doyle would count as classics, while another (probably not entirely seriously) mentioned Stephen King. Between us, we said no to the latter, largely on the grounds of age. We also said no to my other friend’s choice, on the basis that he was thinking of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, and I’d asked about novels. Personally, I might have allowed them, but I seem to have been outvoted. Given that it was my question, I’m still wondering how that happened.

We had two criteria then, for a classic novel. It had to be “old”, however you’re inclined to define that, and it had to be a novel. Thus armed with a vague definition, I expected a torrent of answers. Or possibly a dribble. There were only five of them, after all.

Apparently though, I still needed to make an important distinction. Did I mean the last classic novel that they had read some of, or the last classic novel that they had finished? I meant the last one that they’d finished, as it happened, and frankly I was starting to wish that I hadn’t asked, but they had raised a good point. If you ask anyone for the last novel they started but couldn’t finish, there’s a pretty good chance it will be a classic one. I’d actually go further, and lay decent odds that it’s going to be Moby Dick, Ulysses, or the Farie Queen. It so often seems to be. Usually, the reasons given are that the classic novel in question was boring, odd, or completely lacking in any intelligible plot.

In my case, I will occasionally add “it was due back to the library” and “I do have to do some work occasionally, you know” to that collection, but the basic list is the same. It has accounted for me having to break of part way through Beau Geste and The Catcher in the Rye so far this year, and looks set to put of my re-read of Paradise Lost on hold for a while yet.

To return to my random questioning of my friends, we did eventually get past all the ones we haven’t finished to return to the original question. The answers included Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Lord of the Rings, a collection of short stories (apparently the rule about novels only applied to some of us), Robinson Crusoe and “I don’t know then… none?”

The answers were about what I expected, and tell us a couple of things about both classic literature and the people inclined to read it. The one woman in the group went for what we might be incredibly snobbish about for a moment and refer to as “proper” classic literature. It was literary by design, and hasn’t just acquired the tag with age. She was also the one member of the group who didn’t have to wrack their brains to think of something. It appears, once again, that women generally read more than men, and are inclined to read a more “literary” type of book more often.

That the others went for what we could term “classic fantasy” and “classic adventure” is also fairly predictable. Just as with the novels published today, there are deep genre and style divisions among older works. In much the same way that it is fairly obvious that a bunch of 19-21 year old male students is more likely to be interested in thrillers than in chick-lit, romance or family drama, so too they are more interested in Middle Earth than in, for example, the complete works of Jane Austen.

The two who couldn’t think of anything are perhaps more intriguing. I say two, because the one who went for the short stories did so having been unable to think of anything else. They are both intelligent people. One of them is an astrophysicist, and really quite clever indeed. I also happen to know that they are readers. The extended discussion on minor details of Terry Pratchett’s works that preceded my questioning was a clue.

So this isn’t just the occasional, and more usually male, antipathy to books in general. One of the two owns most of Bernard Cornwell’s works, so it isn’t even an aversion to longish books set hundreds of years ago. Instead, I can only assume that there is something about the very idea of classic literature that puts them off.

Perhaps it is because some pieces of classic literature are quite boring, strange, convoluted, and inclined to use the sort of devices that no modern author would be able to get away with. Perhaps, though I hope not, it is some odd belief in the idea of progress; that the books of today must somehow automatically be superior to those of the past.

More probably, it has something to do with the way such literature is often taught in schools. My own aversion to classic literature lasted several years into university, simply because I saw it as something very dry that you picked apart for meaning and discussion points rather than simply enjoying it.

The point, I suspect, is that classic novels, like any novels, are there to be enjoyed. They aren’t there so you can boast about which ones you’ve finished, or a chore that you have to perform if you wish to be taken seriously as a reader. Like any writing, there will be examples you like and examples that you just can’t get along with. It’s really only when we recognise this, and when we start to go along with our sense of what we really want to read, that the world of classic literature starts to open up a little.

That enjoyment factor is, incidentally, why I won’t be making huge efforts to correct this odd imbalance among my friends. Attempting to push volumes of the classics on them simply wouldn’t work, because again, it would be linking classic novels to the idea of being something you “have” to read. Until someone makes the connection between some classic literature and truly enjoyable reading, there is little chance that attempts to get them to read it will work.

Besides, it’s never struck me as particularly sensible to start pestering people who have ready access to swords.

All in the Family

By Chris Buchner

I get a lot of comics each week, and with prices being what they are I get very hesitant to try out a lot of books that are priced over $3. Unfortunately, most independents end up in that range, but sometimes all it takes is a preview of what there is to get you to ignore that tag for a good story. That was the case for me with Dynamo 5. I had heard good things about the series, but the $3.50 per issue price for a property I wasn’t familiar with seemed like a lot to go on with faith alone. If it wasn’t for a colleague of mine brining a couple issues to our meetings, I would’ve ended up missing out on a great series.

Dynamo 5 is a superhero book created by Jay Faerber and Mahmud A. Asrar released through Image Comics. The book was spun off from Faerber’s other series Noble Causes, but is more action-driven than soap operatic and can be read without any prior knowledge of the other series. Spawning from a conversation Faerber had with editor Andy Helfer about how the Teen Titans were unique in that they were like a family, Faerber decided to run with that and create a team that was literally a family.

Captain Dynamo was the beloved protector of Tower City for 40 years after being exposed to an unidentified form of radiation that gave him his powers. However, Dynamo was far from being a Superman as he had a tendency to cheat on his wife, Maddie Warner, a former agent of the superhuman monitoring organization known as F.L.A.G. who posed as an award-winning investigative journalist. Dynamo was found naked and killed by poison in a hotel by a villain named Widowmaker. It was after his death Maddie learned about his infidelities, but there was the more pressing concern of who would protect Tower City.

Going through the information she found, Maddie was able to track down 5 of his possible illegitimate children. Bringing them together, she exposed them all to the same radiation that gave Dynamo his powers, giving them each one of his five powers, turning them into Dynamo 5:

Hector Chang, aka Visionary, is an intellectually curious 15-year-old geek from Canada who lives with his mother. He gains Dyanmo’s vision powers, which include lasers, x-ray and telescopic.

Spencer Bridges, aka Myriad, is half-human and half-alien, conceived when Dynamo visited an alien woman’s planet. He was brought to Earth for Dynamo to raise, but was left in custody of F.L.A.G. until he was smuggled out by a woman named Bridges and spent the rest of his childhood in a series of foster homes. He grew into an opportunistic womanizer, who only joined the team because Maddie paid him. He has the ability to shapeshift.

Bridget Flynn, aka Scrap, is a NYU Film School graduate whose Hollywood aspirations hit a dead end, leaving her selling tickets at a movie theater in LA where Maddie found her. She gain’s Dynamo’s super strength.

Gage Reinhart, aka Scatterbrain, is an Eastbridge, Texas high school football star and is the typical popular, arrogant jock. He gained Dynamo’s power of telepathy.

Olivia Lewis, aka Slingshot, is the daughter of a high-priced Washington, DC lawyer who attends Georgetown University where she volunteers for half a dozen different organizations. She gains Dynamo’s power of flight.

Together, they protect Tower City from their undersea base, the Aquarium, while still trying to maintain some semblance of their normal lives in their home towns.

The series has that old-school flair of long-running subplots, but each issue is divided into a singular adventure with one or two exceptions. Faerber makes each story as character-driven as it is defined by action, presenting that perfect blend that makes you care about the characters. Asrar is also a capable artist, his work looking fantastic on the book and a lot of the character designs inspired. It’s not easy to create a new superhero, let alone a team, in a market full of them that are worth a look, but if you like old-school superheroics but not all the dialogue they were crammed with, this is definitely a book you should check out.

The first 20 issues and an annual have already been released, as well as a $.99 cent 12-page #0 issue in February, a good jumping on point for new readers. Two trade paperback collections have also been released, Post-Nuclear Family and Moments of Truth.

Sure I Know the Queen

By Jodie

Three centuries after Henry V’s campaigns the English and the French still can’t seem to put their neighbourly disputes behind them. Someone always seems to be playing loud music at night, or refusing to trim a hedge that blocks next door’s sunlight. Little seems to have changed as Captain William Laurence and his crew board a French ship in the early pages of Naomi Novik’s ‘Temeraire’, which is set during the Napoleonic conflicts. Yet Novik has created an exceptionally inventive novel of alternate history that revitalises the genre of war stories, set during Napoleon’s advance on Britain. By taking the most entertaining elements of the great naval stories and fantasy novels, then mixing in components from stories of bomber crews she pushes all three genres in new directions, and enables readers to delve deeply into the psychology of her characters.

Captain William Laurence is making a name for himself as a naval man, until he captures a French prize containing extraordinary cargo. On board the frigate is a box containing a dragon’s egg, almost ready to hatch, and Laurence must find one of his crew to imprint the dragon on birth so that it can be used in the service of the British Air Corps. The crew draw straws reluctantly; though the Air Corps may be respected for their bravery naval officers do not envy their way of life. A young crew member is chosen, but when the dragon hatches it is Laurence who instinctively imprints him, naming him Temeraire. By attaching himself to the young dragon Laurence cuts himself off from society, because of general snobbery about dragon riders, and must end his engagement. However he embarks on the most significant relationship of his life, with his dragon.

Novick writes physical, fast battle scenes, which are essential in any novel about the fighting forces. The reader’s attention is grabbed by the fierce descriptions of the sheer power of dragons fighting, but the author also pays great attention to the passionate activities of the human crew. She creates the close, intensity of the traditionally described naval battle with the added emotions of fighting to save a living ‘ship’. The reader is presented with two battles at the same time, as the human crew try to save their dragon and destroy another, while the dragons defend their crew and fight for their human’s cause. The descriptions of battles are powerful and frenzied, despite the crew’s control:

“ ‘ Get a bomb up here,’ Laurence snapped to Granby; they would have to try and hurl one into the Chevlier’s belly rigging, despite the danger of missing and striking Temeraire or Lily. Temeraire kept slashing away in a blind passion, his sides belling out for breath; he roared so tremendously that his body vibrated with the force and Laurence’s ear ached with the force of it. The Chevalier shuddered with pain; somewhere on his other side, Maximus also roared, blocked from Laurence’s sight by the French dragon’s bulk.”

Novick is also a skilled world builder. She has adapted history to include dragons, that feel like a natural addition to the world. She has also invented a strong bond between the main characters which never feels forced, or like blind adoration. Laurence has his regrets about abandoning his old life, and Temeraire sometimes feels unhappy about the pain he may cause Laurence, but they work hard at their friendship so that this, and the natural bond they feel overcomes these problems. One of the most enjoyable parts of this book is seeing the level of closeness between the dragons and their riders, especially when reading about the everyday adventures that cement Laurence and Temeraire’s friendship, like reading and swimming.

Novick obviously plans to explore issues about the ethics of war, especially the use of the concepts of loyalty and duty to keep troops fighting, throughout this series. This will be another welcome, modern addition to the story of the fight against the French. The British resistance is back in fine form, but with dragons involved patriotism may not be as simple as it once appeared.


By Dan Simmons
Little, Brown
784 pages
Reviewed by Heather F.

From the moment I heard about Drood, I knew I had to read it. I love Charles Dickens well enough, but I adore Wilkie Collins. To have both of them, fictionalized in all their glory… well it was a no-brainer. I knew I had to read it. So thank you Miriam at Little, Brown, for sending it to me!

From the very beginning, Simmons immerses the reader in 19th Century England. It’s all very English, very Victorian, and you just know you are in for a finely crafted tale. Simmons knows exactly what he’s doing too, as he sets the stage for the mystery and suspense that builds, and builds, and builds over the many pages to the ending. Dark and stormy nights; opium dens complete with Chinese kings; dodgy (and gigantic) detectives; the fine ‘art’ of mesmerism; all and more are intricately woven into this tale of two men; once friends, collaborators, good-natured competitors and now bitter rivals.

As the tale progresses, the reader is introduced to a new, dark, dangerous London, complete with nameless Wild Boys, retched sewers, dark Cathedrals, graveyards, and the menacing, mysterious Drood. The novel is very Dickensian, with many cliffhangers and foreshadowing of the doom to come. It takes a little getting used to, but once you do, the rest of this gigantic novel moves by quickly as you are caught up by the gripping and enthralling tale. Simmons has clearly done his research. I almost felt as if I were reading Collins’s (the narrator) own journal as he divulged the deepest, darkest secrets of his soul. Simmons does not always paint a flattering portrait of Collins or Dickens. Collins comes out as a drug-addicted madman who sees ghosts and his doppelganger on a regular basis. Dickens is a spoiled, self-righteous brat who discards his wife (and mother of his nine children) to have an affair with a woman many, many years his junior. However, it all merely adds up to make these two men’s lives all the more fascinating and their rivalry stuff of legend.

By the end, I hated to see it all come to a close. Despite their flaws, I had a new appreciation for Dickens (who has never been a particular favorite of mine) and I had forgiven Simmons for creating in Collins such an outrageous and ridiculous fanatic. The ending, while not what I was expecting (especially with a particularly good fake-out), was compelling and delightful and dead entertaining.

Dan Simmons is the award-winning author of several novels, including the New York Times bestsellers Olympos and The Terror. He lives in Colorado.

Some fun goodies:

The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich

The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
Historical Middle Grade Fiction (ages 8-12)
208 pages
Reviewed by Nancy Horner

There was no thinking. All went dark. They were rushing through the night on water they couldn’t navigate, past invisible rocks, between black shores. All they could do was swallow their screams and paddle for their lives. Paddle with a wild strength they never knew they had between them. Omakayas felt the cold breath of the rocks as their canoe swept inches from a jagged edge, a monstrous jutting lip, a pointing finger of rough stone. As she paddled she cried out for the rocks, the asiniig, to guide them. Asked them in her mind and then called out again. They seemed to hear her. Even in the dark, she could see the rocks suddenly, areas of greater density and weight. Now she flew past them with a flick of her paddle.
The Porcupine Year is the third in a series of books about Omakayas, a young Ojibwe girl whose family has been exiled from Madeline Island, their home in Minnesota. I haven’t read the first two books in the series, although I definitely will. In this installment, the family continues its search for a new home. Omakayas is 14 and on the verge of womanhood but still a child in many ways. The book begins with Omakayas and her brother Pinch hunting deer from their canoe. Darkness has fallen and they’re a little too far from camp but both are determined to do their part for the family. As they attempt to navigate the river after accidentally frightening away the deer, they’re unexpectedly caught in a current, pulled into rapids and forced to fight for their lives. What an exciting scene and a great way to begin a book.

The Porcupine Year is compelling, touching, heartbreaking and beautiful. As Erdrich weaves the tale of time spent wandering toward another island where Omakayas’ family hopes to find relatives, Erdrich deftly blends action with quiet everyday life, happiness and laughter with horror and betrayal, death with young life. Omakayas is sometimes heroic and occasionally foolish. Eventually, Omakayas begins to fall in love and the reader understands that Omakayas’ childhood is truly over.

I was particularly amazed at the descriptions of agonizing hunger and weakness when the family was hunkered down for winter, short on food and supplies after losing a brief battle with an unexpected enemy. I felt deeply for the characters and found their tale of survival and their daily challenges imbued with truth and meaning. Her brother’s pet porcupine adds a touch of humor and a bit of dilemma but the main thrust of the story is the sense of everyone doing their part under horrible circumstances in order to survive and reach their destination, a tight and loving little family.

My only difficulty with this book was the quantity of native terms and occasional confusion over the characters. I flipped to the back of the book early on, hoping to find a glossary, and was unable to locate one. As it turned out, there was a glossary and pronunciation guide, but I flipped too close to the end papers, saw the “book notes” and made an irrational assumption that a glossary was absent. Even though most of the native terms seemed to make sense in context, I was never 100% sure I was guessing their meanings, so if you read this series be sure to hunt down that glossary and mark the page, before you get going on the reading.

I loved reading this book and getting to know Omakayas. But, wow, do I wish I’d found that glossary. I had a terrible time trying to figure out the characters and eventually just decided to make some assumptions. With the right amount of information at your fingertips, the book stands beautifully on its own and makes complete sense. The series is probably best read in order, however, because Omakayas is a continuing character and the books are chronological.

Highly recommended for those who love historical fiction, tales of Native Americans, folklore, or beautiful storytelling in general.

The Madonna of the Almonds

By Marina Fiorato
Beautiful Books
352 pages
Release date: May 2009
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

Last summer I had a beach holiday in Turkey and went armed with many books as I intended to spend the entire week lolling by the pool and reading. And I did. And this was one of the books I took with me and with which I spent a happy pool side couple of hours:

The Glassblower of Murano-This story told with one of my favourite devices, flipping backwards and forwards in time from the Venice of Vivaldi up to the present day. Corrado Manin is a glass master on Murano island who, unknown to the Ten who rule Venice, has a secret daughter in the Ospidale founded by Vivaldi. In order to protect her he sells his methods and his soul to the Sun King, Louis XIV of France who wants his expertise in the building of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. This is a betrayal which will ultimately lead to his death in the dark alleyways of Venice. Centuries later his descendant, Nora Manin, fleeing from an unhappy marriage comes to the city to become an apprentice on Murano and learn the art of glass blowing. This book is such a good read, once started I was absorbed. Any book set in Venice will appeal to me and this was no exception. Death, betrayal, love, passion all set in my most favourite city in the world. Great stuff. Loved it.

I was delighted, therefore, to receive an email from Beautiful Books asking if I would like to read Marina Fiorato's next book The Madonna of the Almonds. Well, yes I would please, and it duly arrived and last weekend sat down and totally lost myself in the magic of Italy once more. I do love Italy and all things Italian, food, wine, history, music and am a total sucker for historical novels set against this background.

The book is set in 16th century Tuscany and Simonetta has been widowed as her dashing and much loved husband Lorenzo, has been slain in one of the feudal wars between the Italian states. Her grief is exacerbated by the discovery that there is no money left, Lorenzo has spent it all on luxuries and kitting himself and his knights to fight gloriously. Both young and not looking ahead but just enjoying their love and life, it is now up to Simonetta to find a way to make money. She has an orchard of almond trees, owned purely because they happened to be there, and never used in any way except to eat the almonds as they fell from the branches. These turn out to be the source of future income but she does not realise this until she is helped and befriended by Manodorata, a dangerous friend to have as he is a Jew, expelled from Spain and despised and feared by the town. Simonetta needs to find some ready money in order to start a business venture and agrees to sit for a painting of the Madonna by an artist Bernadino who has been engaged to paint murals in the church, Bernardino is a dashing, handsome womaniser and a non-believer, experienced and cynical he is astonished to find that he is gradually falling in love with Simonetta as they get to know each other through the close intimacy of the sittings. When they eventually kiss and give way to their love, they are seen by Lorenzo's squire who, devoted to his dead master, denounces them in church in front of a visiting cardinal and Bernardino has to flee for his life. Simonetta retires to seclusion in her house.

It is during this period of misery and loneliness that Simonetta creates the almond based liqueur that is to restore her fortune:
[O]nly now did she add a handful of almonds, peeled to the white quick, as luminous and firm as bone. As the steam rose and settled into diamond drips she tasted the water clear juices that fell ...she ground the almonds down and added virgin oil until the paste was thick and after the boiling there was a taste of almonds...
The resulting liqueur was named Amaretto.

Meanwhile Bernardino had taken refuge in a closed order of nuns in Milan where he has been commissioned to paint their church. It was dangerous for him to venture out in case he was arrested and so he spent his time inside the walls of the convent, oddly content with his quiet life. Here he meets the Abbess and he, in his turn, forms a friendship that will change his life. The Abbess sits and watches with him as he paints and tells him the stories of the saints he is depicting and time passes:
Bernardino became used to the rhythms of the Canonical hours, Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline. They sounded like footsteps...breaking into a trot at the close of the holy day. And yet there was never any rushing here, no hurrying, no urgency.
Gradually he finds his faith returning and with this, comes peace. After two years apart from Simonetta he decides, after encouragement from the Abbess, to return to Tuscany and make her his wife. She has now been a widow for three years and there is no harm, no scandal attached to their love any more. So Bernardino makes his way back to Saronna and finds his love in the almond groves "Simonetta took him in her arms laughing and crying" . O how lovely I thought, a happy ending. But but but, there is a second strand to this story, the story of a peasant girl and her meeting with a soldier home from the war, badly wounded and lost, which runs parallel to that of Simonetta and Bernardino and which posts a real threat to their happiness........
I enjoyed the Glassblowers of Murano very much but I liked this one even more. What I love about historical novels is that they are vibrant with colour. Clothes are rich, velvets and lace in glorious shades, all is luxury "their walls were covered in rich tapestries, they patronised the finest arts and musicians, their board groaned with the finest meats and pastries, and their handsome forms were clothed in costly furs and velvets. Simonetta's yards of copper curls were bound up with ropes of pearls and the finest coifs of jewels and silver thread". And then the place names "....years of struggle between state and state, Guelfs and Ghibbellines, Milan, Venice, Genoa, the papal land, all became pieces in the game of bones between powers...".

Do they have a happy ending? Well, you will have to read this simply gorgeous book to find out. I have a bottle of Amaretto in my cupboard and after I had finished reading the Madonna of the Almonds, I had a small glass. Delicious.

Looking forward to the next one. Book, that is, from this delightful author. Not the Amaretto.....

The Parliament of Blood

by Justin Richards
Bloomsbury Publishing
358 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

Take The Mummy (for the raising of powerful Egyptian mummies), Raiders of the Lost Ark (museums, adventure, and ancient artifacts), and Dracula (vampires and atmosphere), throw in a dash of political intrigue, set it in Victorian London, and voila: you have The Parliament of Blood, a vampire adventure novel that's an absolute romp to read.

The book starts with a bang -- the murder of a photographer on the streets of London, followed by the raising of an Egyptian mummy (he actually gets up and walks out of the room, into a mysterious, waiting carriage marked with an ankh) -- and doesn't let up. Our three main characters -- dashing, engineering-minded George Archer; beautiful, aspiring actress Liz Oldfield; and the plucky (yes, he really is plucky) former pickpocket Eddie Hopkins -- are faced with all kinds of adventures and close calls in dark alleyways, graveyards, ballrooms, as well as the House of Lords, as they try to stop an exclusive gentleman's club, nicknamed The Damnation Club, from taking over the world.

It's often over the top, but like the aforementioned movies, that's precisely what makes it a lot of fun. Perhaps Richards meant us to take it seriously, cashing in on the hip vampire trends of the past few years, but it's much, much better if, as a reader, you sit back and just enjoy the ride. It's one of those books that reads almost like a movie; certain scenes were written in such a way that you could just picture Brendan Frasier or Harrison Ford (who are both too old for the roles) or Shia LeBouf (who's closer in age) with their trusty sidekicks muscling their way through. In some books it can be distracting, but in this one it just adds to the adventure.

In addition, Palmer seem to be channeling the spirit of Stoker: there are a couple of clever asides about the author himself, and Palmer takes his vampire lore (with a couple of clever twists) directly from Stoker's classic itself. In addition, there's an overhanging tension, the uncertainty that at any moment something dark will jump out of the corner and get you. Palmer has a way with atmosphere -- including making excellent use of the famous London fog -- that can completely take the reader in.

Which is exactly where you want to be when reading this one: excited, scared, thrilled, and amused. Fabulous.

Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before

by David Yoo
Hyperion Books
374 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

Albert Kim is a social outcast. He became one on purpose after The Broom Incident his freshman year, soon after he moved to Bern, Massachusetts. He doesn't talk to anyone, he doesn't make eye contact; he essentially floats through the halls of high school, unseen, unnoticed. He likes it this way.

Then, the summer before his junior year, his parents -- over-achieving Asian immigrants that they are -- insist that he not spend the summer lazing about and get a job. He gets one at a local slummy inn, and he meets Mia. She is everything Albert is not: beautiful, popular, assured... and for some reason -- perhaps propelled by the fact that Mia had just broken up with her all-star boyfriend of three years -- they click. They click in a major way, and by the end of the summer are, in Mia's words, "something".
However, that something has to face two things: high school hierarchy, and (even more imposing), Mia's ex-boyfriend, Ryan "The House" Stackhouse, who is diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the school year. Suddenly, at the very birth of Albert and Mia's relationship, she's dashing off to be Ryan's strength, solace, and help. Albert isn't allowed to be upset -- Mia needs time and space, and Ryan's the town's poster boy-- even though saying he's resentful is the world's biggest understatement. He has a growing suspicion that Ryan's acting needy precisely to steal Mia away from him, except proving that Ryan's scamming everyone is like trying to eat Jell-O with a fork.

It's always refreshing to read a first love story from the male point of view, and this book is no exception. It's simultaneously poignant and hilarious, and Albert as a main character carries the novel squarely on his hunched shoulders. As a reader, you can't help but falling a little in love with him yourself. Yoo takes Albert to a new level of Asian nerdy -- yes, he's smart and driven to do well in school, but mostly he's an outcast that hangs around with the 11-year-olds in his neighborhood. Mia changes some of that; Albert's first day back at school is markedly different from his previous two years: making eye contact, actually speaking during school. He's socially inept (his jokes are hilarious in their non-hilarity), but, because of his relationship with Mia, he's discovered that he wants to snap out of his self-induced coma.

And the results are worth reading about.

A Lovely Little War

Life in a Japanese prison camp through the eyes of a child
by Angus Lorenzen
History Publishing Company
231 pages, incl. index
Reviewed by Nancy Horner

What led you to pick up this book? WWII is the one war that fascinates me above all others and I particularly love reading memoirs from that time period. This book was also intended to count as my first read for the War Through the Generations challenge.

Describe the book without giving anything away. Angus Lorenzen was born in China and knew it as his home. He and his family lived in a large, comfortable house with servants in Japanese-occupied China (his father had numerous connections in high places, both diplomatic and in business) and didn't even consider leaving the country until danger was imminent. By then, it was too late. Angus, his mother and his sister Lucy made it as far as the Philippines while his father and half brother remained in China.

They arrived in Manila as the Philippine Islands were being occupied by the Japanese and ended up interned in Santo Tomas prison camp, housed on a former college campus that grew more crowded, dangerous, and short of food as time went on. For nearly 4 years, the author's family members remained in the prison camp until they were liberated by American soldiers. This memoir tells the story of their imprisonment as experienced by the author, who arrived at the camp when he was a mere 6 years old.

Describe a favorite scene. The entire book was utterly gripping. I can't say there was a single scene that stands out, merely because the entire tale was so absorbing that I had trouble putting the book down, although the descriptions of how the camp was bombed after they were "liberated" were incredibly vivid. I could practically hear the explosions and the rattle of gunfire. The Japanese had not yet been conquered in Manila when soldiers arrived and there's even a photo that shows the author running into the building where his family was housed as the campus was bombed.

How did you feel about the real-life characters involved in this author's tale? Because the book is told from the author's viewpoint as a 6-9-year-old child, you see everything from his perspective as a youngster. He didn't fully understand the depths of depravity and the horrors of war. Mostly what you get out of it was that he became hungrier and hungrier as the years went by and their rations shrank.

I was really impressed by his mother's ingenuity. She had lived with servants for years, but she figured out somehow that cold cream was edible and used it to fry tinned meat and and [another ingredient I can't remember] into hard tack with their meager Red Cross rations. This and the rest of the rations she doled out carefully -- probably keeping them alive. His brother's story is an incredible tale of escape from occupied China that is so amazing that I think it's worth the price of the book. And the author, although traumatized by his experiences, has dry sense of humor that I found charming. I became quite fond of the author and his family.

What did you like most about the book? I loved the way the author incorporated historical facts into the text without diluting the telling of his story from a child's viewpoint. Really, I loved everything about this book. The story doesn't halt when the camp was liberated. Instead, the author tells how the family was reunited and where they went after the war, then he wraps it up with the tale of his journey back to the campus, 50 years later.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book? There's nothing I disliked about the book, although there was a point at which I realized that because the author was a child and he told his story as he remembered it, I didn't get a true feeling as to just how horrifying the experience was for the adults. But. Big but. There's a photo of prisoners after the liberation and they look just like victims of a Nazi concentration camp, all skin and bones.

With a few photos and some comments about other people in the camp, the slightly skewed perspective of his childish viewpoint is clarified. Lorenzen took care to explain that he didn't experience the horror in the way adults did because he didn't know better. He found ways to entertain himself, made friends, collected shells and shrapnel when the encampment was in the line of fire. He knew the guards had murdered people and were not to be approached, he was uncomfortable from the crowding and ached from hunger all the time, but he still was a kid who managed to find ways to play. It's such a unique viewpoint and story from all of the other WWII books that I've read that I know this book will stick with me for a long, long time.

Anything else worth mentioning? This is off-the-wall, I guess, but as I was closing in on the part where the Americans arrived to liberate the camp and the author repeatedly mentioned the beri-beri from which the prisoners suffered (due to malnutrition), I came to a startling realization. My father may have been nearby.

I know my dad was stationed in Manila during the closing months of WWII, as a navy corpsman on a hospital ship. Although I don't know the exact dates and I think the liberation had probably occurred months before he arrived, I recall him talking about beri-beri. What about beri-beri? I don't know. Did he hear stories about the malnourished prisoners or did he treat some of them? I wish I could ask him. I've seen slides of the hospital ship and of fighting near Manila. My father was a prolific amateur photographer and as children we regularly requested a repeat of my father's wartime slide show . . . which, by the way, is how my parents met. My mother went up to speak to my father after he did a slide show of his war photographs at church. Point being , it really stunned me when I realized to that this author's story and my father's may have intersected at some point.

Recommended? Enthusiastically, yes. Read this book if you like reading memoirs, enjoy reading about WWII or can come up with any other excuse (let's face it; we're really good at coming up with excuses to seek out a new book).

Cover thoughts: I love the cover. The Japanese rising sun is bright and eye-catching, barbed wire symbolizes imprisonment and the child's hand makes it clear that the book is about a child's experience. It's really quite perfect, in my opinion.

The Book of Unholy Mischief

by Elle Newmark
Copyright 2008
Atria Books
367 pages
Reviewed by Nancy Horner

Before I review this book, I must mention that the author's website is fabulous. And, if that isn't enough to convince you to visit . . . there's a Dark Chocolate Mousse recipe. Wait! Read the book review before you go off to read recipes, though. I'm not trying to get rid of you.

Now, look at that cover. Doesn't it take your breath away? Even if you're not interested in the story, please walk into a bookstore and take a gander at the whole tamale. The cover of The Book of Unholy Mischief is even more beautiful than you might imagine, with that lovely design extending all the way across the slip cover and gorgeous end papers illustrated with painted mounds of beautiful food inside the hard binding. Actually, I think it would be really hilarious if several hundred people went into bookstores across the country to feel up this book and then told their book dealers, "It's all Bookfool's fault." I'm just thinking with my fingertips.

The Book of Unholy Mischief tells the story of Luciano, an orphaned boy living in the streets of Venice during the Middle Ages. Whilst eating a stolen pomegranate, Luciano is pulled aside by a chef by the name of Ferrero, who takes him off the street, cleans him up and puts him to work in the palace kitchen. As Luciano is swept into the workings of the aromatic kitchen, an intrigue is brewing. Rumors about an ancient book hidden in Venice are growing wilder and life is becoming more dangerous. What is in this mysterious book that people are willing to kill to obtain? And, why was Luciano chosen to work in the kitchen, rather than some other street urchin? What will become of Luciano's starving friends?

The Book of Unholy Mischief is partly a mystery about the missing book, but more than anything it's Luciano's story. It's written in reflection, as he remembers the madness of his time in the doge's kitchen, his love for a young nun named Francesca, his struggles to unravel the mystery on his own while taking care to surreptitiously spirit away scraps of food for his friends. The most outstanding feature of the book is that it's loaded with the senses. Chef Ferrero's cooking is described in steamy detail; you can almost smell and taste his creations.

At the beginning of the story, I actually felt a little burdened by that same depth of detail. I wanted to know about the mystery and sometimes thought, "Just get on with it!" But, there was never a point at which I felt like not sticking it out and the further I got into the story, the more the descriptions (particularly those of the cooking process) intrigued and delighted me. Luciano and Chef Ferrero are wonderful characters. I cared about them and wanted to know what was going to happen. The ending is pretty much spelled out about two-thirds of the way through and what the author revealed wasn't a problem for this reader. I liked the fact that Newmark forewarned readers of what was to come and I found the closing pages of the book immensely satisfying.

Also . . . this is strange . . . Newmark's food descriptions are so tempting and she made cooking sound like such a joy that reading The Book of Unholy Mischief made me want to become a chef. That's particularly odd because if you've read my blog much you'll know that I'm a survivalist cook. If I have to feed myself and my son, I whip something up and get the heck out of the kitchen as quickly as possible. This book reminded me that before I ended up in my current home, I really did enjoy cooking at times. My distaste for our poky little windowless kitchen has led to some serious avoidance, but after reading The Book of Unholy Mischief I was ready to hop a plane to Italy to take one of those 4-day cooking courses. Weird, but a nice off-shoot of the reading.

The mystery in this book is mild, but the assault on the senses is so marvelous that I'd recommend reading it for the experience alone. Since it takes place in the 1498, everything is graphic. When Luciano's stomach is aching with emptiness, you feel his pain. There are violent moments and plenty of horrors in addition to the tempting food scenes. I have a distaste for violence but I never felt totally overwhelmed, although there are some scenes that made me cringe.

It's been nearly a week since I closed the book and it's still sticking with me. I can easily place myself back in the doge's kitchen, in a dark and damp alley or behind a door, watching the wealthy eat and drink their fabulous meals. The more I think about it, the stronger the thought that I want to put that lovely book on my shelf and reread it, even though my initial sense was, "I liked it but I didn't love it." If I were to have rated the book as I closed it, I probably would have given it an "above average" rating of 3.5/5. Now, having reflected a little, I'd give it a 4/5, simply because I liked that unusual stirring of desire to cook and would like to revisit the feeling. Also, I really liked Luciano. He's a great character. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Elle Newmark comes up with, next.

Have you read a novel or cookbook that compelled you to create in the kitchen? If so, please share the title and author's name with me. I'd like to read more books like The Book of Unholy Mischief.

You can find more about Elle Newmark at her website.

The Outlander

By Gil Adamson
Ecco books
389 pages
Reviewed by Elaine Simpson-Long

If I start this review by saying that when I was reading this book I thought of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I'm not being flippant or trying to say that this is a fun buddy book, but those of you who remember this film will recall that the two heroes are being tracked and chased by a band of men who are following their trail with an expert scout. Butch and Sundance have been fairly dismissive and casual about it all and have no worries about their ability to fool them and to get away. Then there comes a moment when a trick to lose them fails and they turn to each other "Hey, who are those guys?" From this moment on the tone of the film changes as they realise that their pursuers are not going to give up, they will never be free of them. And then the film continues until the meet their inevitable fate, one of the great all time movie endings as far as I am concerned.

So, what is the connection?

Mary Boulton is a widow she is nineteen years old and has shot her husband. She runs alone through the Canadian wilderness, fleeing from her two brothers in law who are tracking her down to avenge their dead brother, John.

It was night and dogs came through the trees unleashed and howling. They burst from the cover of the woods and their shadows swam across a moonlight filed......the men appeared. They were wordless, exhausted from running with the dogs, huffling in the dark....the girls scrambled through ditch water and bulrushes, desperate to erase her the moonlight her beautiful face was as hollow as a mask...

She runs to keep ahead of them in the snow and the icy cold and as she struggles alone she is forced to dig deep within herself to survive. Nothing in her upbringing or her sheltered existence has given her the strength of will or purpose to enable her to deal with the tragic and awful situation in which she finds herself, but somehow as the days and weeks pass, Mary finds something buried deep down in her character that enables her to carry on each dreadful suffering day. She meets a recluse living alone in the mountains, The Ridgerunner, who has turned his back on society and exists in his own quiet world. Like her, he is solitary and damaged. They meet, and form a short sharp sexual relationship but he cannot cope with another person and he abandons her. Mary continues on, through immense hardship and suffering and finally finds herself living in a mining town in the wilderness, where she becomes the housekeeper of the Reverend Bonnycastle, another person hiding from himself and his demons.

Mary faces up to her own insecurities and lack of self belief and gradually begins to form a meaningful life for herself when tragedy strikes and the inevitable happens - the two brothers finally track her down. By this time I was quite breathless with wanting to know what was going to happen, how would it end, really I knew deep down that we could not have a standard happy ever after finish, and I found the way the story came to a close, totally satisfactory. Strange, as it is slightly ambiguous and we are left uncertain. I felt a certain sympathy for the relentless pursuit by the brothers and their grief and desire for vengeance but at the same time I wanted Mary to have her chance of a life. So, will she? and will the brothers finally realise that their quest is eating them up and decide to abandon it? We don't know, we can only surmise.
The scenes unfold: the bleak white cold wilderness, the rough and ready squalor and dirt of the mining camp, the scene rolling in your mind's eye as the brothers and the tracker hunt their way through the backwoods and the rivers - it is all quite beautiful and incredibly filmic. This book just cries out to be filmed and I found myself visualizing the settings and the shots as I read, I also did my usual trick which can on occasions really annoy me as it distracts, of casting the parts and one name and face came into my mind for the role of Mary from page one and could not be shifted. I am not going to mention who it is, as I do not want this image to possibly intrude into another mind's eye and spoil The Outlander for anybody else.

It was the endless dogged pursuit of Mary and the awful feeling of panic at the knowledge that this pursuit was never going to end that made me think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This feeling, that they could never get away, that they would never spend a day without looking over their shoulder to see if their pursuers were there, which made this film into something more than it appeared on the surface, gave a feeling of permanent dread, that no matter how long you might spend being happy, you know it will never last and then..........

Uncomfortable pricking between the shoulders.

I know very little of the author, Gil Adamson, but I gather she has written poetry and short stories. This is her first novel and I most sincerely hope it will not be her last. I was totally taken by this wonderful book and just sat entranced and read it straight through, neglecting all sorts of chores and tasks I had to do, in order to finish as I could not tear myself away.

Originally published in Canada by Anansi Press which looks a pretty interesting publishing house. It is available in the UK from Bloomsbury.

This is a stunning book. Loved it.

Somewhere in Heaven

The Remarable Love Story of Dana and Christopher Reeve
by Christopher Anderson
238 pages
Reviewed by Melissa

We all know the story: Christopher Reeve, the actor forever tied with the role of Superman, broke his neck in a freak horseriding accident in 1995, and was paralyzed from the neck down. It was a tragedy: someone who had been associated with activity and strength for his whole life suddenly consigned to sitting in a wheelchair for the rest of it. He made the best of his life after the accident, urging for research and raising money for the American Paralysis Assocation, with help from his wife and the love of his life, Dana.

It's supposed to be a soaring story, one full of emotion and heartbreak, of tragedy and triumph. But all I felt was an annoyance. I felt like before the accident, all Reeve really had to recommend himself was that he wasn't a jerk. I'm sure he felt great love for his eventual wife (they lived together for years because Reeve had a fear of commitment), but their courtship came off as cloying. And not to dis the dead guy, but I came away with the impression that, while a determined individual, he was also somewhat shallow and selfish. However, I blame the author, not Reeve himself. Anderson was exceptionally maudlin in his portrayal of the Reeves (I now know more about their sex life -- both before and after the accident -- than I ever wanted to know), and made a point of name-dropping whenever he could. I'm glad that Reeve was best friends with all these famous people, but I'm not sure how important it was to know who he knew. (With the exception of Robin Williams; I guess he and Christopher were best buds, and that Williams was a big part of Reeve's determination to make the best of it after the accident.)

In addition, the whole book was a good lesson in showing versus telling. Anderson kept telling me that Christopher and Dana were wonderful together, that they had an abiding love, and I just never felt it. I was told of the sacrifice, of the hours spent trying to make Reeve's life livable, but because of the little asides throughout the book (from the several houses and custom yacht to the cost of the machines Reeve used after the accident), all I could feel was that it was really lucky Reeve was relatively well off. If he'd been an average Joe, he probably would have died. Except there was no feeling of pure luck, of chance, in the book. The author presented his lifestyle almost as an entitlement (he makes it seem an accomplishment and burden that Reeve kept working to avoid bankruptcy; it's a good thing he got $100,000 per speech). The message seemed to be that while Reeve may have made some bad decisions as an actor, he was still good looking, and still talented, and (most of all) he had Love, so he deserved to spend millions of dollars making a go of it.

Then there was the long-suffering, angelic (though she insisted that she wasn't) Dana, who stood by her man, who sacrificed her career for his (and their) children, who died of lung cancer about a year after Reeve succumbed to an infection. She was beautiful, talented, amazing, wonderful... and completely unsympathetic because she was too perfect.

I sound more callous than I should; I'm treating the book more like a novel. These were real people, and I'm sure they had a real love and a real desire and it was a real tragedy that really changed their lives. Perhaps someone can write a book that can really capture that, because this one just didn't.