Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones. But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight....

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fiction from Reality or the news that can't be published

Reviewing Joanna Stephen-Ward's Vissi d’arte, Shah Wali Fazli’s The Interpreter, Faith Mortimer’s Assassin’s Village, and MG Villesca’s Getting ME Back.

Reading, we like to believe we’re in something true, that it “rings true.”  When movies were only available at the local theaters, everyone liked to give their opinion. “It was OK, but some of it seemed fake” or “I could see the camera tricks” or “Wow, you should see it.”  The main criteria used to be its reality factor.

Older, I lost my romanticism and preferred more often to read fiction that told me about times or people.  Experiences with slander and assumptions about identity made me sensitive about imagination, when it pretended or indulged in wishful thinking, and when it had insight.  Fiction to my thinking was news that couldn’t be published.  It was the personal news that affected society.  I was never much for reading history or politics.  But I’m fascinated with fictionalized history while it fills in my gaps.

It would be disappointing if Jane Austen hadn’t spent time in Bath.  Or to learn that Margaret Mitchell never really considered divorcing a man like Rhett.

This posting features books admittedly woven from the author’s own life or setting.  But it’s the skill of these authors that brings their unusual experiences to the reader and in story form.


For anyone who has attempted the discipline of the performing arts, Vissi d'arte starts out with the stepping stones.  The characters lead the reader on, Max the banker who has always desired to show off his voice on stage, the young women vying for lead roles, some unsure and one insidious, a director whose favorites wait on his choice, a journalist who uncovers the intrigue behind the curtain, and an opera coach whose past is veiled.

It's entrancing to identify with a student in this Australian opera school. Their language lessons and their acting practice are carefully depicted while the author shows how the intensity of this art and its student circle can develop into destructive passion. The knives in rehearsal, the parts assigned become prelude to a desperate singer's scheme to obtain a lead singer's life. But the most operatic of all pasts is that of the teacher, Harriet Shaw, not known to have sung since she left England.  Vissi d'arte portrays both the discipline and the off-hours release of this demanding lifestyle.

The Interpreter by Shah Wali Fazli

While The Interpreter portrays an insider's panorama of the conflicts in Afghanistan, it is also crafted as a story that tunnels into the vendetta between an Afghanistan man and his Taliban torturer. Yet the book is written with the gray zones that make this conflict one of controversy.

Shabir was learning karate when the Taliban captured him, beat him, and tortured him, sending his family to Russia for refuge. His bravery in joining the American forces as an interpreter leads to compelling scenes of encounter. When he interprets intercepted radio messages, he knows he is a target. Although he eventually vanquishes his tormenter, there is more to this. It reminds me of the end to Doctor Zhivago in that Shabir must leave; he has to be displaced.  This is a moving book, rich in scenes of Afghanistan.

Assassin's Village by Faith Mortimer
This is the kind of mystery I love to read, psychological and delving beneath mere motives to the twisted and eventful pasts of the characters, these involved in a theatre group.  Individual stories are taken up and told to a present where the confrontations inhibit the truth. That's where the character masks take over, one mask meeting another so that the dialogue perplexes.

The history of the British on Cyprus extends this mystery, meting out their relationships with the local Cypriots. All of the characters are fascinating; their habits and quirks in this setting held me rapt. I was reminded of Doris Lessing and Muriel Sparks' stories about ex-patriot British people in Africa.

Assassin's Village begins as mystery about an arrogant and despised man's murder but halfway through, it becomes a tangle of tragedy, mounting until it has revealed the inner grief of the woman most damaged.  Throughout, the scenes and the characters are held in lively balance, keeping tragedy underneath and delighting the reader's senses.

Getting ME Back by MG Villesca
It's not often that a book about teenagers presents cars dragging Main Street and rural parties with such convincing atmosphere. Telling such a story as it happens is not an easy thing. The hurdle that MG Villesca clears is in portraying the flirtation and intense feelings that teenagers really have.
Linda doesn't tell us that she is the kind of girl guys want. She's more concerned with her own conversation when it comes to boys and especially the one she is ecstatic to date. While she tries to maintain a cool head, she juggles her friend relationships with that of her well-off boyfriend. His possessiveness is told with suspense, how it ricochets into her daily life and how his discreet violence affects an entire town.
Besides giving an almost panoramic picture of a Texas town, its car culture beginning at a carwash and Linda's inner struggles, the author has provided a book that will undoubtedly capture YA readers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

"I was born to reject rejection" - a tune Hans Christian Andersen might have liked

I’d hardly begun submitting creative work when I first heard the theme song of Oklahoma Crude, “I Was Born to Reject Rejection.” 
I saw the movie on late-night TV and then on “Film du Jour,” the afternoon films in the Twin Cities.  I can still hum the theme song melody, many years later.  Faye Dunaway was trying to work a laggard oil derrick. The hired man, George C. Scott, helped her grudgingly when Jack Palance, that great villain, threatened to take her property. 

AgentTracker is a site where you can record your rejections and have access to the websites, the statistics, and the feedback of agents and publishers.  If you only want to see positive information, the people who are considering your full manuscripts, you can just filter that.  But those round red faces of rejection.  After awhile, the tomatoes lose their impact.

Buying used books, I keep a mental list of what I want to read.  At the local library sale, one of my scarce finds was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Story of My Life, an 1871 Hurd and Houghton edition, possibly a First American Edition.  Although the book was sturdy, I’m afraid to read old books.  Sometimes they disintegrate in your hands.  When this book sold, I had to have a look before the buyer paid for it.

Then I had to keep reading until the last hour.  Hans Christian Andersen’s life was a fairy tale.  The son of a shoemaker, he described visiting a jail and then an insane asylum as a child.  His grandmother gardened for the asylum, a woman from a well-off family who married a comic actor.  Hans had a thing for puppet theatre and when he began making clothes for his puppets, his mother decided he should become a tailor.  This boy was off to see everything early and somehow he met Prince Christian who later become King Christian the Eighth of Denmark.  Hans wanted an education but Prince Christian assumed he would work in a craft, much to Hans’ disappointment.

He took off for Copenhagen as a teenager and literally knocked on the doors of every famous person in the arts.  He sang until his voice broke and danced until he found a mentor.  Then he wrote a tragedy, only to be told that he should stop writing until he got an education.  Somehow his benefactor obtained funds from royalty for his education. 

After publishing his poetry to acclaim amongst the poet friends he’d collected, he was terribly hurt by the cruel criticism that followed.  Somehow he obtained funds from royalty to travel.  He said no one wrote him, realizing his clownish reputation, and when he returned, he wrote Wonder Stories for children.  The Little Mermaid paved the way.  After that, Hans Christian Anderson continued to consort with royalty and traveled everywhere, meeting the Grimm Brothers, Mendelssohn, Dickens, and of course, Jenny Lind.

This guy never stopped.  I’d thought that writers were chosen.  Hans Christian Andersen was chosen to reject rejection.  Amongst the many insults he garnered was that of the Grimm Brother who had never heard of him.  He was really a whirlwind fairytale, shoemaker to castle.

It just goes to show that things haven’t changed so much.  I’m not so good at knocking on doors and I hardly know how to beg.  So I took the traditional approach in launching my fantasy book, The House in Windward Leaves.   I went to the reviewers and found a few good lists.  After submitting to editors and agents over the years, I found submitting to reviewers a very pleasant project.  It was a risk, asking for reviews from people who read a lot.  But published books are really about readers.  Of all the submissions I’ve ever done, I enjoyed these review submissions the most, however they turned out.  That became a bit of a spiral, finding people who wanted to read my book, and wanting to find more. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Here at Halloween: The House in Windward Leaves

Today's posting is my fantasy book tab.

Although The House in Windward Leaves starts out on Halloween night, it's about identity.  First written as a short story for a Halloween storytelling at The Loft literary center, most of the book takes place on a star where costumes make the kids.

Because children run the star, it’s both commonsense and madcap.  There are more moments of humor than terror, having been inspired by Roald Dahl.  But the horror on Mistral's star is its static state.  What would happen if you were stuck in your costume?

That's a horror adults know.  The House in Windward Leaves is part adventure, part satire.  After all, aren't our fantasy identities a part of us?  And isn't the world we live in a menagerie of fantasies come true?

Before I ever experienced writer's block, I blocked about my Halloween costume. I don’t know why it was so meaningful. My maternal grandfather’s birthday was on October 31.  And one of my first stories was about Halloween – “The Witch Who Stole the Unicef Boxes.” One year, we had a Halloween party in the basement which made me relish them in the years to come.

Our neighborhood group especially liked to visit mystery residents on Halloween.  When I was writing the book in Minneapolis, a house covered with leaves was a block away from where I lived.  It reminded me of a mystery house from childhood. 

Costumes connect in The House in Windward Leaves “if it is possible to blend in with so many freaks.”

Halloween night, the wayward Sadie leads her friends past cardboard cut-outs of the painter Mistral and a lady at the leaf-covered house on Windward Road. A wall mural transports them to a Halloween party on a star where their costumes become real.

As Fortuneteller, Sadie only has to look in her crystal ball to help the others with their transformations. Her friend Candy is the Homecoming Queen and her brother has turned into a zebra. The neighbor boy has become George Washington and his brother is a musician in the star band.

That begins the adventures of Sadie and the enchanted children who make up the bizarre star community. Then Mistral's woman friend finds that her star-of-sapphire necklace is missing. After the gangster Riff Raff is accused, he displays a map and riddles for a treasure hunt. The winner must locate the Tooth Fairy, pass by a weredog, and follow directions to an invisible unicorn to be granted a boon from Enchanter Mistral. But other wishes have to be discovered.

Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords in ebook and paperback. 

 '"The House in Windward Leaves" is a thrilling tale ... highly recommended.' - The Midwest Book Review

"This book is filled with humour and adventures, and children can't help feeling they are there with them..."  - Faith Mortimer, author or Assassin's Village and The Crossing.

"The House in Windward Leaves is a great read for girls with the ability to also capture the interest of boys. The ease in reading is perfect for the struggling young reader ..." - MG Villesca, teacher and author of The Bully in ME.

"The author has created an amazing new world...This was a very exciting and engaging book that I think young readers would love!"  -   Sarah Renee, author of  The Tiger Princess

Enter the Goodreads giveaway for The House in Windward Leaves.  It's open until Nov. 15 for two paperbacks.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Putting on the Irish: Reviewing Gerald Hansen and Gerry McCullough

As Halloween approaches, I’m putting on the Irish.  It’s too long to wait until March.  On this post, I’ll be reviewing Gerald Hansen’s Embarrassment of Riches and Gerry McCullough’s Belfast Girls, both already successful on Amazon.   

In the Midwest when I was growing up, our agricultural region had indeed melted.  People might ask what nationality a name was and friends might disclose their ethnicity. But it was a little like racism today.  People were sensitive about ethnic backgrounds and histories.  Most  people identified with being a 20th century American. Yet if an Irish person was around, there was more openness about ethnicity.  Maybe it was the red hair or the O’ or Mc in front of a name.  It seemed lucky to be Irish .  Or that the Irish had pluck.  In every 10 Americans, one is likely to have Irish heritage.  Irish is the second most prevalent ethnicity in America, German being the most prevalent.

I wanted to say I was Irish too. I was more Welsh since my grandmother was first generation Welsh in America.  My father’s Holmes ancestor came from Coleraine, Ireland to New York in 1765.  That’s straining the Irish blood after so many generations.  My father said that any genealogical records were probably destroyed in the 1920s.  This summer, I found a book for genealogies in that period,  Researching Scots-Irish Ancestors: The Essential Genealogical Guide to Early Modern Ulster, 1600-1800: Ulster 1600-1800 by William J. Roulston.   Yes, there are records, church records and land estate records and Freemason records.  My great-great grandfather was a Freemason so maybe I could check on that if I wanted to know about my Irish heritage.

In college, I  wrote a paper on Juno and the Paycock by Sean O’Casey for my Irish Literature course.  I’ll never forget being introduced to Guinness beer.  My paper was about O’ Casey’s play being a tragi-comedy, a form that was a discussion point then.

Gerald Hansen’s  An Embarrassment of Riches  might be considered realism or a well-portrayed story about an Irish family.  To me, it exemplified that Irish talent for tragi-comedy.   I think Gerald was surprised when he hit the top 10 books for humor on Amazon.   It was certainly that, and more.  My review:

Gerald Hansen has written a whole book. It's not often that a book catches with characters that seem almost novelties at first and with prose that delves into setting and situation.  That he maintains the hilarity while weaving an undercurrent of contemporary temptation and its outcomes, is nothing short of a feat.

The impetuousness of the Flood family surges with the pathos of a raucous younger generation and an older generation's obsessions with gain. Ursula's attempts to revive love from her relatives with her lottery win are orchestrated with their responses:  Siofra's confirmation dress, her brother's street drugs and police informing, Dymphna's schemes for her child to have a Catholic father.  And Ursula's husband Jed.  What has he done with the lottery money?

This is a book you decide to finish early on and, surprisingly, the laughs and the amazement come more frequently in the latter third of it. I found myself waiting for certain members of the Flood family to appear again because, while there's hostility in this, you've come to care about some of them.

Belfast Girls by Gerry McCullough is both heartfelt and ominous.  It’s a winning book for a wide audience of readers, and although the turmoil in it keeps one reading, its ending is realistic and satisfying.  My review:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Creative writing education?

People are wondering why.  Usually they are people who, without writing courses, wrote a book.

In the fall of 1979, I tried a graduate course in library science.  In the fall of 1980, I was in a writing program at the University of Minnesota.  There weren’t many writing programs then and mine was actually an M.A. in English, Emphasis in Writing.  Not necessarily creative writing.  Library science was going to be a field of information technology, not necessarily about books.

Yes there was once education in Minnesota
One day as I wondered if I could really like the computer future of the library, a friend of mine told me about the new writing program.  I thought that fantastic!  I sent a pile of poems and got in, one of 15 students.  In Minnesota, I had resident fees for courses and a fellowship.  I would never have taken out huge loans for creative writing.  I’d always believed writers were chosen.  In grade school, I tried to write a novel about a girl in a flood, inspired by pictures I’d seen of a flood in the region, but I realized how hard the work of a novel was and gave up.  I guess I didn’t believe that writing courses could make a novelist succeed.  

What I wouldn’t have done then was to go for a graduate degree in journalism.  I’d left a newspaper job and was frankly leery about the popularity of journalism and also the sensationalism that was happening because of journalistic competition.  If I had gone to a larger newspaper, my articles would become more compact and features would have been a fight.  At a suburban newspaper, I got to do features and reviews, photo pages, and even a cooking contest.  But I wasn’t making much over minimum wage.  I dreamed of a teaching salary and a three-month summer vacation. 

Thirty years later, when I found internet sites like, I knew I wouldn’t want to pay for a fiction writing course if I was 25.  I didn’t want to say that at the Authonomy forum because I was afraid the sites might consider charging membership fees.

But they advertise workshops that offer the benefit I paid for at the University of Minnesota and at literary organizations, The Loft and the Split Rock Arts program.  My writing instructors were published by major publishing houses; two worked as editors.  Unless a student had some work to present, the courses might only be for observation and discussion.  The first day of an advanced creative writing class, one student simply pulled out a short story from her folders.  I hadn’t brought my recent writing but I saw how she had done the right thing.  The classes were like today’s internet sites, students bringing in written work and obtaining feedback.  That was crucial to me when it came to fiction.  I needed to know how other people responded to my work, whether it was worth pursuing, and which project.

There’s the idea that writing courses are “how-to.”  I never encountered that. 

Literary.  That’s another term that affronts people.  The answer, to me, is again that writers are chosen.  Literary encourages people to write about their own experiences and to develop style.  A person might be a strong stylist and a competent storyteller but if their material doesn’t excite people or obtain a common identification, then they are literary. 

Yet I prefer mysteries, women’s stories, and children’s novels that have literary value.  Great novels have it all:  literary, mystery, thriller, romance, historical.  However a writer starts, as genre, literary, or with a large intent, they’ll do better if they enhance anything that gives a feeling of emptiness.

Creative writing degrees have become like the journalism education of my schooldays.  Hands-on training really did produce great journalism in the U.S.  I notice that in collecting old magazines.  But I remember when a guy with an M.A. in journalism was hired into our newspaper office.  He was less impetuous than the other reporters and at the time, a relief to have at the next desk.

Still, I think the internet programs were what I wanted so far as creative writing was concerned.  They just didn’t exist then.  The only drawback is that you can’t sit in a room with the people who critique or give feedback.  It’s nice to see your readers.  But it’s hard to find knowledgeable readers of your genre or type of writing in any given region.    

The big difference between the classes and the internet seems to be that in classes, students talk to each other while on the internet, writers write to each other. 

Possibly, it’s better to get on Professor Geezer’s Geezermobile if you want to write The Wizard of Oz.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fantasy Reviews: Sarah Renee and Catherine Condie

Fantasy thinking is an art.  It can happen anytime.  I used to fantasize about wonderful things happening, successes and of course romantic outcomes, only to be disappointed.  Last weekend, while enjoying yet another day of a summer so idyllic that it didn’t even include a storm with power outages, I was being attacked by the worst mosquitoes recorded.

I was wearing shorts and waiting for a garage sale to open when I noticed gnat-like insects near my feet.  I’d not needed mosquito repellent all these years in Duluth so I donned my shorts and waited 20 minutes for a book collector’s estate sale to open the next day.  People were talking about the “new crop” mosquitoes.   The surprising high value book I found was a children’s book, Boy of the Pyramids.  A pharaoh’s curse?

In the next 48 hours, my legs were covered with bites that made my legs look like a leper’s.  Mosquito repellent and calamine lotion were all sold out at the drugstore.  My mind raced.  What kind of mosquitoes were these?  What if they carried disease?  The whole world would change if these awful mosquitoes became the assailants of the human race.  Four days later, I began to think the world we know would end with a bite, not a bang.

Fantasy has rules, I read in grad school.  In children’s fantasy, the fantasy world is an author’s creation with rules of its own.  I suppose that’s because children are always entering a new world, one with rules that are strange to them.  My fantasy realm in The House in Windward Leaves centers on children becoming the identity of their Halloween costumes.  When the fantasy realm convinces, a reader wants to explore that new world as I did, reading Sarah Renee and Catherine Condie.

In Sarah Renee’s fantasy The Tiger Princess, the title tells the rules.  Losing her security, the protagonist becomes more tiger than princess.  Princess Sederia belongs to a world where she lives in many ways like a girl though she has paws and the intent curiosity that opens up the secrets of her parents’ death in a fire. At first, she lopes in and out of the palace, giving excuses to her aunt and uncle, the royals now, while she investigates.  It’s as if her tail begins to curl as she slips behind doors to find keys and her mother’s diary.

I relished the Princess Sederia becoming more tigerish as she roams the forest and eventually fights Dastarius, the lion whose counsel has betrayed her. 

This is more than an accomplishment that Sarah Renee has written in her teenage years. She has entertained and created entrancing characters for young readers. Sarah Renee is an author to watch!

This fantasy caught my reader’s eye at with its potters wheel and the physics of time-travel contrasting with the wheelchair that slows down its protagonist.  The wheel became the fantasy rule here, a symbol for the similar plights of children who are separated by more than five decades.

Whirl of the Wheel has a mystical shape, taking its reader in cycles of time-travel that hold together like a vase on a potter's wheel. I was enamored with the characters, Connie's leaving her wheelchair during 1940s air raids and her brother's leaping the gap of decades.  It is cleverly wrought while portraying the displacement of children during World War II.

Catherine Condie's colorful prose almost camouflages the fantasy and the Wendlewitch while drawing the reader into the character challenges. When Malcolm, the son of a developer who is displacing Connie's family, shows up in the time travel, the plot takes an irresistible swing. It's a very satisfying read as the treatment of the characters is rounded, spirited, and retains its mystical quality throughout. The construction feels seamless at times while being hospitable to young readers.

Although The Switch isn’t fantasy, I’ve added my review here because I read it while writing this post.  It’s a fantastic book, not fantasy as I said, but the kind of book that is one person’s fantasy, another’s person’s reality novel.  This brings up the point that fantasy is going on with real life.  A reader would probably assume that Lily, the protagonist in The Switch, may have fantasized about living in France as an exchange student.  But as often happens in real life, whatever she expected or fantasized was entirely different from what happened.  Fantasy about the real world is often interrupted by bothersome facts.  Lily wouldn’t have dreamed that her experience in France would be so frightening.

From the first, The Switch has exciting momentum.  The infrequent switches to the French language are explained well in dialogue while the setting and characters emit the flavor of France.

That's in fast flow because Lily is caught up in a drug bust that involves the brother of her exchange friend.  Lily's tourist camera catches some of the events, and while she suspects the boy's step-father, a policeman. But an ex-policeman is implicated and he follows Lily to the Eiffel Tower after a second confrontation.

Later, Lily's mother says that she thought a policeman's family might be a safe one for her exchange. Though adults in this book calm Lily, her witnessing of the boys' injuries keep this book at breakneck pace.  As Lily grasps each development, the Parisian scenes and her emotions are told in poignant detail.

The Switch is a stunning book. I'd expect that teens would be even more compelled to read it!

Friday, August 19, 2011

I found an early Harry Potter edition and I review Wizards by John Booth

While planning my blog on fantasy with reviews of three Indie authors, I found an early edition of Harry Potter, a mystery edition.  After I tell you about that, this post will review John Booth’s Wizards, a teenage fantasy set in Wales.  In the next post, I’ll be reviewing Catherine Condie’s Whirl of the Wheel, a time-travel, and the 15-year-old Sarah Renee’s The Tiger Princess. 

It was a short but exerting walk up the steep hillside of Duluth to a Saturday morning moving sale.  I usually leave my laptop on in case I have solved another fiction riddle during my early morning quest.   

As I looked over the two rows of books in a garage, I talked to the woman who was moving.  The books weren’t very unusual except that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was slimmer than the usual series volumes.  I learned that the woman’s husband, after avoiding the doctor for some time, had been diagnosed with Huntington’s disease.  They were moving to California, she said.  Her husband had greeted me and I was surprised to learn that he had that disease.  She told me more about it, how he was adopted so the inherited disease was unexpected.  There was a harp case in the garage!  She said it was her husband's sister's and not for sale.  I found a few other books that were alright for stock and went back down the hill, thinking that I could write more.


When I checked my Harry Potter edition at Abebooks, I could only find one other like it.  I
knew the book had cheap binding, all red paper, and without printing numbers, it might be an early edition.  But it didn’t have a price on the dust jacket which meant it was probably a book club edition.  With most books, a book club edition isn’t very valuable. 

But early Harry Potter book club books were starting at about $150.  What was strange was the cheapness of my edition, its having no printing numbers, no series “Year 1” on the spine, no J. K. there either, only Rowling.  I looked at this cheapie, thinking that Scholastic might not have yet realized Harry Potter’s worth at this printing time, 1998.  I was working at a new bookstore that year and never knew of Harry Potter.  It wasn't until after 2000, when I was working with used books and antiques at another store, that I heard of Harry Potter and read it at work.

Of course, there’s a whole slush pile of Harry Potter editions on the internet.  But mine, it seemed, was an early book club edition.  It looked as if it was from before the book club edition that was selling for $150 since that one had printing numbers.

It only goes to show that a Harry Potter book can be thrown into pages and pages of internet listings and be of questionable worth.

That’s where authors start!

When John Booth announced at that he was having a book entitled Wizards published, it wasn’t just me who found that laughable.  Why compare yourself to Harry Potter?  I’d read his gold star book Shaddowdon at Authonomy and I knew John had original and haunting ideas for juvenile reading. 

Wizards is upbeat and yet it expresses well the quandaries of a guy who is testing his own power. In this case, that involves two worlds and two girls. His loyalty to his girlfriend in Wales causes much humor when Esmerelda from another world needs him.

Jake Morrisey is thrown from one dilemma to the next.
  A news photographer captures his secret dragon in a photo; other rare wizards take him into bizarre but illuminating conversations; a vanished girl is last seen with him.

All of these scenarios don't detract from Jake's prevailing issues with his identity and decisions as a guy who has a wage-paying job in the real world and is also a wizard that police use for cases.
  Wizards is a book that gathers reader affection as it unfolds.

The teenage sex in Wizards isn’t the fantasy type.  Most of it is in the normal world and as real as the parents, the police, and the caves in Wales.   
Unlike many fantasies, what happens in Jake's fantasy world has some serious repercussions for Jake in the real world.  Yet that all provides escape for the reader.  Wizards is an entertainment for teens to try.

And it can stand up to Harry Potter because it's for an older age with the humor for that age and a plot so different that I forgot about Harry Potter after a few chapters.

In the next posting, more about fantasy and reviews of Whirl of the Wheel and The Tiger Princess.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Book publication with a publisher!

I was going to write about fantasy and review Indie authors in this and the next post.  But reading an email, I suddenly leapt into a realm I had never known before.  I am to have my first book published by a publisher.  I won the Prize Americana for Fiction which means I’ll have my short story collection, Curiosity Killed the Sphinx and Other Stories, published by Press Americana’s imprint, Hollywood Books International.

This last year, another small press publisher was interested in that collection and mentioned a contract.  But the book was ultimately rejected and the reasons why made me look at the stories again.  I had been involved in writing an adult novel in recent years.  The stories needed work so I put everything down and concentrated on revising them.  Then I sent the collection to the Press Americana contest.  Review Americana published a short story of mine in 2007. 

I’d written children’s novels before short stories.  A few years after I began to write short stories, I sent one to Gordon Lish’s journal in New York.  It was a joke to me, thinking about the thousands of short stories that he probably received.  I was jolted then when he became interested in my story and wanted to see all I had written.  He invited me to his workshop that year.  Since, I much regretted not going to it.  It was a bad year for that and I was a fool.  Opportunities like that don’t happen often and they might not recur. 

I hadn’t succeeded with creative writing at that point.  Gordon’s workshop was in Bloomington, Indiana.  My father lived in Indiana with his third wife who was also his first love.  My father loved the city of Bloomington.  I couldn’t have attended the workshop without him wanting to come there and meet Gordon Lish, the New York editor.  Problem was, my father wasn’t very happy with me pursuing creative writing.  He had his reading stacked near him when he watched TV.  Usually,  the books were on economics.  His basic comment about books was, “There are too many books being published.”

A few years before, he had discouraged me from moving to Boston.  Previously, I had visited friends there and gotten a job interview at Little, Brown and Company.  My father was from old Midwestern people and they just didn't know Boston.  Well, they thought Boston didn't know them so the feeling was mutual.

I didn’t know how I would get to the workshop without him finding out.  And it was a bad year for it.  So I plunged on alone and it took some years before I could put my short stories into my best form.

I wouldn’t in any way blame my father when I know I’m really like the Lion in the Wizard of Oz, lacking courage.  The other girls defied past convention and went with opportunity.  I might have become a performing flute player but I did the same thing.  In high school, I was invited to a barbecue with Jean Pierre Rampal and other flute students of my symphony musician teacher’s.  I vowed that I wouldn’t be such a coward again after I didn’t face a renowned editor. 

I think it’s about being a Midwesterner.  This publication is thrilling to me because of the Press Americana’s mission.  And it’s thrilling because it proves that publishing does work if a person is willing to do the difficult work.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The terrorist in Norway and violence

After almost a week digesting the news about the terrorist shootings in Norway, I found information that gave me some comprehension.  I went to a Norwegian-American college, toured with their concert band in Norway, and am half Norwegian.  I played in a flute choir prior to a dinner that Prince Harald was attending.

At first, the thing that made sense was that Norway doesn’t have a military where men are actively in combat right now.  Though they are an open society, there is a subject that would need to be suppressed or hidden in their culture, I’m sure.  That subject is violence.  I don’t think they have the outlets for the violent that a larger country would have.

I enjoyed reading An Everyday Story, an anthology of Norwegian Women’s Fiction.  It contained one of the most powerful short stories I’ve ever read, “Achtung, Gnadiges Fraulein” by Torborg Nedreaas, about a young woman whose boyfriend reveals the Nazi uniform in his closet.

People like to make jokes about Vikings but Norway has shown how a country can progress and become something else completely. 

The terrorist Breivik had posted his interests and favorites on Facebook but his Facebook page was taken off the internet soon after the shootings.  Some media people saw it before it was removed.  I read a posting on that from an English news source, looking for history about him.  The next day I couldn’t find it, looked and looked, and then found his Facebook lists in a blog entitled "The Born Again Redneck’s Daily."  The Huffington Post and the Christian Post both confirmed some of this but they left out his favorite TV shows, movies, and video games, what the English source had published. 

Though Breivik had an impressive list of books, his taste for viewing was almost completely of American origin.  His favorite TV program was “Dexter”,  a show about a serial killer who killed bad guys and whose father was a policeman.  Others were "True Blood", a vampire series; "Caprica", about robots destroying humans; and "The Shield", about corrupt policemen. 

His tastes in movies were similarly violent:  The Gladiator and 300, a movie with much battle track.  Dogville was about a girl who tried to blend in with small town people but was driven back into the arms of criminals.  Only one of his favorites didn’t seem violent, a science fiction series.

I have never seen any of these and I doubt that many young Norwegians would share his viewing tastes.  I wouldn’t know.

One of my first papers in college was about television violence.  There wasn’t a lot of research then but the increase in child crimes seems to have supported my thesis.

Violence wasn’t bad to me if it was real and well-done.  I didn’t object to “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” which made a sensation in my high school years.  More recently, I’ve loved to watch Hitchcock videos and reruns.  Hitchcock focuses on the victims of crime too and shows how unaware people are of an approaching horror.

In Austin, Minnesota, where I grew up, girls exchanged fears after the movie “Psycho.”  Many men in town, working for the Hormel Company, used knives in their work.  My family had all moved from there when the Hormel strike happened.  But it was what us girls feared.  Among us was an individual who might crack.  In that town of 30,000, one man cracked during the strike, using a knife insanely.  It was a matter of statistics in a town where there used to be a murder about once in 30 years.

In Minneapolis, I lived where the murder rate was worse per capita than New York City, according to a Harvard researcher.  This was the crime wave of the 1980s and early 1990s.  I rarely watched crime shows on TV, not even “Mystery” then.  I could go watch a cocaine bust on a weekend and hear about the nearby burglaries.  In college, I liked Mrs. Dalloway.  Virginia Woolf is a rare author in that she didn’t rely on violence or passionate sex to hold onto her reader.  Those years in Minneapolis, I read most of her novels and some of her diaries.  Ironically, she had bombs dropping around her during two periods of her writing.

I had to wonder about people safe and sound in the suburb eating up violence on TV.

I think the most compelling novel I ever read was Crime and Punishment.   I couldn’t wait to get home from work to read more.  Dostoevsky’s brilliant portrayal of the politically motivated ax murderer, his deteriorating mind as he planned and fled from the murder, almost seemed to be a harbinger of the Russian revolution.

I’ve always wanted to write about violence but I don’t read or view a lot of it except for masterpieces that cover the victims as well as the violence.

Violence is agony.  I feel for a culture that has lost young people to the pitiful psychopath, the horror that can’t be revealed before that person commits his crimes.

As I wrote this at first, my PBS channel went on to a presentation in the arctic.  I was so involved with this, I don’t know where.  But I heard commentary about the many fishermen lost at sea.  Somehow that comforted me. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Back to the ABC's (digital publishing)

The other day, an eBayer offered $2 for a Dick and Jane book.  Ok, it was shabby but it was collectible when I put it on.  The offers for that book have been insultingly low.  Checking at Abebooks, I found that the current prices have lowered for that book (but not that low!).
I didn’t like Dick and Jane either.  The obvious intention to teach words rather than instill a need to read made reading a bore to my classmates.  My primer was Peter Rabbit.  That was because I asked someone in my family, six people beyond my years, to read it until I could follow the words with my finger.  Dick and Jane is probably one of those nostalgic collectibles, valued while its reader generation is alive.

When I think of old primers, The Tiddly Winks Primer my favorite with its art deco illustrations, I have to wonder about the socialization that Dick and Jane taught.  

Sally in a car!

Ours was the television generation.  Dick and Jane had some illustrative charm but the words were … just words.  Kids then watched about four hours of television a day.  Visual cues mattered, how you looked, how your house looked.  Words only figured as conversation.

Jane making dirtied Baby Doll pretty and clean.

Dr. Seuss wasn’t allowed into my grade school library which I protested.  Most children didn’t frequent the public library so their reading was mostly from the school system.  I was book-oriented, made my own library cards, a ribbon bound book of my favorite poetry, and a book of riddles.

My first job out of college was at a publisher’s that specialized in religious socialization.   It was one of the largest in the Midwest and I was to learn how to work with illustration and photos besides the copy editing job.  I remember sitting with galleys that fell to the floor like yarn, cutting them, taping them into a dummy book.  My maternal grandmother worked there.  The co-worker sitting next to me had spent a summer in the religion department at Harper and Row!

To some of us editorial assistants, this was an apprentice job and if we longed for a break, we might find an excuse to talk with one of the jolly typesetters. If my job was tedious, I thought the typesetter was a saint of patience.

Who would have imagined digital publishing in the 1970s? 
I was so proud to have fitted my fantasy, The House in Windward Leaves, into paperback.  Just like old times.  Then I went to Kindle.  Now I was the sainted typesetter and this was complicated!  I got some help from the Kindle forum and Declan Conner’s blog.

Then I went to PubIt, thinking that it would be like Kindle.  Not so!  This time, I used trial and error, probably like hunt and peck typing.  I made up a work file and put samples through first.  My book has a few varieties of formatting, what had already caused headaches at Kindle. 

Then I went to Smashwords.  I could download the Smashwords Style Guide and found that I hadn’t understand some issues about my Word program, especially its paragraph and style settings.  Yes, I had used trial and error, hunt and peck, with my Word software for some years.  It’s an excellent guide because it covers Kindle and ePub and gives a solid idea about formatting for all ebooks.  Look at it first!

Now that I think I’m about done, it seems somewhat comprehensible while the edits can be done more quickly, once you know the code.  It used to take hours, cutting and pasting galleys into dummies, using a ruler to measure space and a right angle ruler to crop photos.

They say that Harry Potter taught children to read.  I think kids wanted to read Harry Potter in the way I wanted to read Peter Rabbit.  The internet, coinciding with Harry Potter, probably gave kids the need to read.  Before that, words outside of school were only needed for reading signs and the newspaper. Reading was associated with school and textbooks.

The new screen had to be read.  Now if a child wants to get somewhere, even with computer games, they need to read the storyline and the techniques for winning.  And the new screen has real experiences in socializing if a child can write.

It’s exciting to think that there will more reading because of a screen with writing instead of one with visual information.  I thought men wouldn’t type.  One year, I saw them in their offices, typing away on their computers.

I have to wonder if Kindle will have vintage books in the future.  They’ll probably be like black and white television or even like silent movies.

Friday, July 15, 2011

To begin

Books are a forest and it’s hard to see the trees, except the tall ones or the old ones.  But when you enter the forest, it’s the new growth that emits the sunlight while the older trees form the shade. 

I’ve loved Mark Twain except for his remark about classics.  “No one’s ever read one.”  He also said something about the horrible sounds cats made.  I wonder if hyperactivity in cats was known about then.  I’ll bet he was around an older, hyperactive cat. 

I’ve been enthralled by classics.  Some of them are like redwood trees and others are gnarled, winding in a language that a person has to get used to.  

At, I put in my profile that I’ve been a browser of the New Arrivals shelf at the library.  That was my first stop and often, I took out a book out from that collection before I entered the forest.  I didn’t read all of Mark Twain’s books until I was in my late twenties and I suppose that’s because his had become classics.

Actually, I read so many classics by the time I went into a graduate program in writing that I had no confidence.  I can remember a despairing week when I wrote down in pen every word of that famous “coffee and oranges” poem by Wallace Stevens.  I’d always felt that writers were somehow chosen.  I was in the program because I wanted credentials to teach.  I’d walked out of a reporting job and though I’d regretted that, I was attempting short stories.  My mother was a music teacher and I craved that summer vacation lifestyle.  I had no desire to live a writer’s lifestyle.  I’d almost gone into music at the performing level but as a flute player, I was terrified of unemployment.

That winter, I went out in below zero weather to visit a used bookstore in south Minneapolis.  No one was in there except the proprietor and myself.  The shelves were very high and the place was dusty, deserted.  I left with a volume of Walt Whitman’s poems, a book I sold a few years ago.  In the meantime, I had written piles of manuscripts that were in dire need of revision.  I’d read through the new poets at the library and had a stack of literary journals.  I’d gone to a number of jobs and finally landed on an occupation that might last until retirement.  The used bookstore I worked in was also an antique store.  Booksellers there were thrilled with Abebooks.  The whole used book business had changed, and before writers went digital, bookstores had their entire stock on the internet.

I don’t know what will happen with used books now that Kindle can sell their contents.  If we thought we were in a forest before at the library or looking at lists of new writers, the internet would seem to have greened the entire world with writers.  And that might preserve the forests of the world.

The used books I acquire often illumine my writing.  Or they shadow it.  Though I don’t believe in all sayings, I believe in two:  “There’s nothing new under the sun”, and “History repeats itself.”  Even though the digital world is new, or is it? if we knew everything, people tend to be like forest growth if we are to go by what’s been written. 

This blog is about recent observations.  While the book world changes, it serves the population like it never has before.  Writers newly published can’t tell what’s going to happen with their books.  They should have an idea of their reader even though that’s a tall demand when the readers are now global.  This last week, I finished publishing my middle grade Halloween fantasy, The House in Windward Leaves.  While I waited on agent decisions about other books, that book was probably another fantasy in hordes.  I loved it and one day, I said, I’m going to publish this myself.  But I had to wonder if other people would like my humor and tastes.

As I learned how to convert to PDF and downloaded my Mobipocket at Kindle, I picked up two books at the rummage sale of a young  artist who rented space downtown.  I read both of them, Nonsense Novels and A Net to Catch the Wind.  Stephen Leacock, the author of Nonsense Novels, wasn't a name I knew.  But I could certainly imagine a Monty Python type film of his hilarious work.  I bought the children’s book A Net to Catch the Wind because of the illustrator Stephen Gammell.  I guess this book is out-of-print but it only goes to show how an enchanting children’s book might be forgotten if books aren’t preserved. 

When I finished my project, though it seemed abhorrent at first, I downloaded Kindle on PC.  Well, it was wonderful, downloading the books of people I knew.   I’ll probably be reviewing new books by Indie authors in this blog.

I said I regretted leaving a suburban newspaper.  I had even declined writing a column, only because I wasn’t 25 and my readers were in suburban families.  When I was in my 40s, I wished I could write that column.  So a blog.