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It Was Fresh When I Started: The Sell-By Date on Inspiration

Many years ago, while driving down Charles Street, in Boston, I had what I call a “speculative vision.” It had rained during the night, and the morning sun glaring off the puddles was casting weak, golden halos around everything. Two men in long woolen coats suddenly passed in front of me, and in the strange morning light, they looked like hunched, wingless birds. That’s when the vision struck: Beacon Hill transformed into a ghetto of crumbled buildings and flooded streets, miles of barbed wire holding in a population of cold, dying bird-people.

Who were these people? How could Beacon Hill become a ghetto? Who would be on the inside and who would be on the outside? Why? These were the questions I had to answer, and since I was writing not long after the Reagan era (yes, I’m that old), the story I created—“Mercy Street”—reflected many of the issues of the time: AIDS, gay rights, religious extremism, conservative activism.

Almost as soon as I finished the story, the ground started to shift under my feet. The Boston Garden, a crumpled heap in my dystopian vision, got turned into the sparkly Fleet Center (now TD Banknorth Garden—yuck). The 93 overpass, meant to sag into the water, got cut up and trucked away during the Big Dig. And the Charles Street Jail, a granite hulk in my story, is now the luxurious Liberty Hotel. The only detail that has stayed faithful to my vision is the flooding of Storrow Drive. But it’s not nearly as often or as deep as I’d like.

The thematic aspects of my story suffered, too. Federal funding for HIV research, better treatment and higher survival rates all made my vision of the future seem more paranoid than speculative. And the shift in the national dialogue on gay and lesbian rights, inching away from “Who cares about a disease that kills gays?” to “Should we allow same sex couples to marry?” has had the same effect on my story as leaving the cap off a bottle of seltzer. Flat. Flavorless. Dead.

Which brings me to my question: What do you do with a story that’s past its expiration date? Can you change the details and recycle the main ingredients? Can you substitute fresh problems for old ones without turning the whole thing into an indigestible mess?

Conventional wisdom says true art is timeless, and I guess that’s mostly true. The Iliad and The Odyssey haven’t lost much of their appeal, despite the fact that no one (except maybe Rick Riordan) has sacrificed anything to a Greek god in over a thousand years. And Jane Austen doesn’t seem to be losing fans, despite the disappearance of nearly all Victorian sense and sensibility.

But what about during the writing process itself? If the shadows of totalitarianism had begun to fade before George Orwell finished 1984, would he have kept going? If the civil rights successes of the 50’s and 60’s had taken place in the 30’s instead, would Richard Wright have kept working on Native Son? Would he have believed Bigger Thomas’s fate was as inevitable as ever? Or would he have begun to doubt the mechanistic vision of racism, poverty, and injustice that drives the novel?

Okay, it’s pretty hard to second-guess the literary greats. And since they are literary greats, we know their ideas passed the “sniff test” right up to the moment of publication, and beyond. But you and I, racing to preserve what we know in a world where everything sprouts and dies faster than the vine over Jonah’s head—we’ve got our work cut out for us.

So it’s worth repeating the question: What do you do with an idea that’s gone past its expiration date? Do you toss it aside and start something new, the way you’d pour old milk down the drain and open a new carton? Or do you do what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years—open that story up now and then, see if there’s a way to turn vinegar back to wine?

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Book Review: Oliver’s Surprise

To cynical adult readers, it might seem like every bump on the head in a middle grade or young adult novel results in time travel and world-leaping. Yet anyone who truly understands the genre can tell you this is as valid a literary device as sniffing madeleines in a Parisian cafe. (And certainly more believable than faxing oneself back in time!)

Carol Cronin’s YA novel, Oliver’s Surprise, begins with the traditional bump on the noggin. And yes, Oliver gets whirled back in time—in this case to the Great Hurricane of 1938.  But Oliver’s Surprise is anything but a typical time-travel story.

For one thing, Oliver doesn’t run into a lot of historical figures. He runs into his own grandparents.  He even ends up being a guest in their house, and though they don’t have any idea who he is, he quickly figures out who they are.  This makes life a little tricky for him.

Also, unlike many time-travel novels, Oliver doesn’t end up in the right place at the right time. He’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. A horrible hurricane is coming, and not only is it going to devastate the little Rhode Island town of Dutch Harbor, it’s going to kill a lot of people: the men he’s working with at the docks; maybe even Finn, the boy who’s befriended him. Should he tell them? Would they believe him if he did?

Last but not least, the main character in most time-travel stories ends up “saving” history in some way: teaching King Arthur, inspiring Shakespeare, making sure the hero’s parents meet and get married. But Oliver’s Surprise is more about the past coming alive, how death and loss experienced in the moment are so much more acute than what the history books describe. Yes, Oliver does end up having an effect on history, but it’s a lot subtler and more personal than what readers are used to.

The writing in Oliver’s Surprise is tight and evocative, and Carol Cronin—former member of the U.S. Sailing Team and winner of two races at the Athens Olympics—is able to completely immerse us in the world of skiffs, schooners, goosenecks and derricks. And Laurie Cronin’s beautiful illustrations give the book a warm, nostalgic feel.

My only complaint about Oliver’s Surprise? It felt much too short. I wanted more of Oliver, more of his world, more about the hurricane. But since Ms. Cronin has already written a sequel, I guess I won’t have to wait very long.

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Leviathan


Leviathan
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
Steampunk! Steampunk! Steampunk! The word’s all over the blogs and book sites, all over Twitter. I’m even thinking of naming my next dog “Steampunk.” And yet, there’s nothing new about the genre. If you count Jules Verne, this stuff’s been around for at least 150 years.

What is new is steampunk’s growing popularity in the young adult market. D.M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo, Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn series, Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines—the list of imaginative, engaging titles for YA readers keeps growing. And though no steampunk novel has yet reached the heights of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, it’s probably only a matter of time.

So, enter Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, the newest addition to the steampunk catalog. Westerfeld (author of the terrific Uglies series) doesn’t do anything very different from his predecessors. He’s got the historical period (World War I, in this case) to monkey around with. He’s got the elaborate, steam-driven machines and disgusting bio-mechanico hybrids. He’s even got a war between the two technological societies. But the one thing he does that most steampunk novels fail to do is tell a story even a 10-year old can understand.

The story starts with Prince Aleksandar, 15-year old son of Archduke Ferdinand, getting whisked away on the night his father and mother are assassinated. He and his guardians escape in a “walker,” a tank that moves on mechanical legs instead of treads, and they are chased by even bigger walkers and other monstrous mechanical devices. The goal?  Get Alex to a safe place and wait out the war.

Enter our second character: 15-year old Deryn, a Scottish girl who’s disguised herself as a boy to join the British Air Service. Where the Germans and Austrians do everything with steel and steam, the Brits build everything from genetically engineered animals. So Deryn’s ship is a giant whale with a host of symbiotic creatures living inside its gut. The creatures expel hydrogen, filling the whale, and what should be a gentle ocean-bound giant becomes a high-flying military airship.

As you might expect, Alex and Deryn eventually cross paths. The collision between their different technologies, cultures, politics and personalities not only provides great tension and pathos, but also sends them careening toward the very center of the Great War.

Leviathan is a fun read, and Westerfeld tells it well.  But what really makes Leviathan stand out is its accessibility.  Most steampunk novels sag a little (or a lot) under the weight of their historical and technological details.  In the worst cases, it’s enough to make your eyes roll back in your head.  But Westerfeld has struck a balance, creating a world rich enough to fascinate, but simple enough that even the youngest YA reader can understand what’s going on.  That’s no small feat in this genre.

Finally, I have to mention one non-literary reason to rush out and buy Leviathan: the beautiful artwork. From the stunning cover and end-papers to Keith Thompson’s captivating black-and-white drawings, the pages of Leviathan are as much fun to look at as they are to read. And that’s saying a lot.

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Series: The New Dirty Word in Publishing?

NerdTearingHairAnyone who read Scott Westerberg’s latest book, Leviathan, or James Dashner’s The Maze Runner may have noticed a curious omission in both books.  Look at the front covers, the back covers, scan the flap copy, the title page—you won’t find any hint anywhere that these books are the first in their series.  And yet, when you get to the last sentence, guess what?  The story ain’t over.

Did the publishers forget to put the words “Book 1” on the covers?  Did Westerberg or Dashner neglect to mention there will be other volumes coming?  Not likely.  But then, with so many wildly successful series on the market (Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Twilight, A Series of Unfortunate Events), why would anyone want to hide the fact that a book is part of a new series?

Hm—maybe because the word “series” has become a sales killer?

Sure—we can all name multi-volume sagas that have raked in the bucks.  That’s why there are so many out there.  But waiting a year, two years, even three for the next installment has gone from being an occasional annoyance to a constant state of hair-tearing frustration—like being stuck in the doctor’s waiting room forever.  So when readers pick up a new book and find the words “Book 1” or “Volume 1” or “The New Arthurio-Pelerandian-GnomeFighters Cycle” on the cover, they don’t think, “Oh good—something new to read!”  They think, “Oh crap—another eight year commitment.”

Maybe publishers have noticed this.  Maybe it even makes sense for them to be a little cagey about their new series, get the reader hooked first.  Right?

Wrong.  I loved both Leviathan and The Maze Runner.  But when I finished them and realized I’d been duped into reading two new series, I threw the books across the room and swore never to buy anything in those series again.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I won’t read the next installments.  The books are great—exciting, entertaining, wildly inventive—and I fully intend to find out what happens next.  I just don’t intend to spend money on them.  And since there are over a dozen libraries in my area, it shouldn’t be too hard to keep that promise.

But this makes me worry about Simon & Schuster and Delacorte and anyone else playing the new “hide the series” game.  Yes, we’re all suffering from series burn-out, and it may be hard to sell us anything new.  But if you piss us off on Book 1, who’s going to buy Book 2?  And if no one buys Book 2, how are you going to publish Book 3, 4, 5, etc.?

Plus, you may not have noticed, but there are these cute little devices out now called Kindles and Nooks and Sony eReaders.  They’re very hot items for Christmas this year.  So before you stumble too far down the “What they don’t know will at least get them hooked” road, you might want to think about how many buyers you can afford to piss off.  Because those eBook readers?  They’re really easy to pass around.  Wicked easy.

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Book Review: The Dust of 100 Dogs


The Dust of 100 Dogs
The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King
Don’t be fooled by the over-the-top, romantic pirate death scene at the beginning of A.S. King’s wonderful The Dust of 100 Dogs: this is not your grandfather’s pirate story. The basic premise is that 17th century female pirate Emer gets cursed just as she’s dying, and she is condemned to be reincarnated one hundred times as a dog before she can be human again.

No, the book does not go through all one hundred dog lives.  After the initial curse, we fast-forward to Emer’s first human reincarnation in three hundred years. She is Saffron Adams now, a 20th century teen who is the genius child and grand hope of her manipulative alcoholic mother and mentally unbalanced father.

What makes Saffron a genius—and makes the novel so intriguing—is that she not only remembers everything from her past life as a pirate, she also remembers her one-hundred dog lives. That gives her a 300-year head start on most kids her age, and some very useful canine common sense.  It also offers her a chance at lifelong wealth and independence, if she can only find the treasure she buried just before she died.

The chapters about 20th century Saffron’s sufferings (it’s not easy to quell your inner pirate) are layered with chapters about 17th century Emer’s path. Here and there, we also get sprinklings of rules that Emer compiled during her centuries as one kind of dog after another, and these provide some interesting counterpoint to her human interactions.

The book’s development feels a little uneven, at times, and certain aspects (including the dog rules) are never integrated as fully as a reader might like. Also, the violence of 17th century Emer’s life may be too much for a Young Adult audience.

For an adult audience, however, The Dust of 100 Dogs has enough history, humor, tragedy and insight to satisfy all but the most picayune readers.  And how often do you find historical massacres, star-crossed lovers, embroidery, swashbuckling, sea battles, treasure, reincarnation, proms, and pirate sex all in the same book?

Okay, so there are no vampires. But you can’t have everything.

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At Last: A 12-Step Program for Book Addicts!

<b>Book addiction is epidemic - and we couldn't be happier!</b>From the Unrepentant Book Addicts Anonymous (UBAA) manual:
(with apologies to AA members everywhere)

Step 1: Admit that other people may have a problem with your lust for books, but they should just get over it.
Step 2: Accept that no Power in the Universe is great enough to keep you from buying more books.
Step 3: Make a conscious decision to turn all your money over to nice indy bookstores with great selection, even when Amazon is cheaper.
Step 4: Make daily inventories of your bookshelves and keep track of who borrowed what. Then go after them.
Step 5: Admit that you don’t know the exact amount you’ve spent on books lately, but who cares? They’re books, for Pete’s sake–not crystal meth.
Step 6: Recognize that God is the Prime Author, and all books belong to God. Therefore, when you reduce your consumption, you reduce God’s royalties–which is an unforgivable Sin.
Step 7: Remember that God has made book-buying a mitzvah, which means your place in Heaven’s Library is assured.
Step 8: You have tried to make a list of all the people you’ve harmed by buying books, but guess what? There just aren’t any.
Step 9: For those who think they’ve been harmed by your addiction, make amends by giving them great book recommendations.
Step 10: Continue to take inventory and admit when you find one or two books that may not be worth keeping, like Where’s Waldo for Dummies.
Step 11: Improve your conscious contact with literature’s Highest Powers (Stephen King, George Eliot, Barbara Kingsolver, whoever) by buying everything they write.
Step 12: Remember that the great awakening is coming! Ask not what owning so many books will do for you. Ask what all those Kindles will do for other people–when the power goes out.

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Bin Laden to Syracuse: I Will Store Books!

Osama bin Laden’s secret mountain hideaway is in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth: Tora Bora. So when Syracuse University announced it wanted to store all of its books in a remote location, Mr. bin Laden saw his opportunity.

“There is no place more remote than this,” Mr. bin Laden claims.  “Syracuse will be able to put as much distance between itself and its books as it wants, and I will have–how do you say?–more ambiance.  Because you know, you can only hang so many rugs on the walls, and all of our ‘Death to the Great Satan!’ posters are riddled with bullet holes. So it will be nice to have the books.”

It is not clear yet whether Syracuse University will accept Mr. bin Laden’s offer. However, one highly placed source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was very tempting:

“Miles and miles of clean, dry, premium storage space for next to nothing.  How can you beat that? Also, he’s willing to digitize the entire catalog and put it on-line, provided we don’t sell the rights to Google.”

Mr. bin Laden is not even asking for money.  What he wants instead is two Blu-Ray DVD players, five bags of popcorn, and twelve pints of Hagen Daas ice cream for every 500 books stored.  Plus a lifetime Tivo subscription.

“Of course I could charge much more,” Mr. bin Laden said. “But I need the books. The winters here are long, and you can only read Bomb Making for Dummies and The Anarchist’s Cookbook so many times.  Also, for eight years, I have been tearing my beard out waiting to find out what happens in Harry Potter, and #1 Lady’s Detective Club, and Uglies.  And Abdullah, my twentieth cousin thricely removed, tells me there is a new masterpiece that reflects all of current American thought.  I believe it is called Twilight. This I cannot wait to study.”

While Syracuse considers Mr. bin Laden’s offer, the State Department is trying to decide whether it should let the deal go through or not.

“On the one hand,” says Secretary Clinton, “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.  On the other hand, dropping books instead of bombs from our unmanned drones could solve a lot of strategic and diplomatic issues.  And it’s cheaper.  So we’re studying the offer carefully.”

Meanwhile, Mr. bin Laden has already begun turning his mountain lair into a library.  Every day a team of dedicated jihadist carpenters lays a thousand feet of brand new cinderblock shelves along the walls. And Mr. bin Laden himself has begun installing the coffee shop and Wi-Fi.  Soon, Tora Bora may be to Syracuse scholars what the library at Alexandria was to many ancient scholars–a nice place to find some books, if you can get there.

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Book Review: City of Thieves

City of ThievesA young Jewish boy in St. Petersburg in WWII is caught looting a knife off of a dead German soldier. Instead of having him shot, the local NKVD chief pairs him up with a captured Red Army deserter and sends them off on a special mission: to find a dozen eggs for his daughter’s wedding cake.

Apart from first-hand historical accounts, you won’t find a better depiction of the horrors and deprivations the Russians suffered during the terrible Siege of Leningrad. But CITY OF THIEVES is, first and foremost, a coming of age story–one that happens to be set in Russia during their worst days of WWII.

Lev–young, naive, timid, and a virgin in every sense of the word–is completely unequipped to fight Germans, find black market eggs, or approach a woman. His traveling companion, Kolya, claims knowledge in all those things and seems very confident they will not only find the eggs, but also get Lev a girl before their mission is done. After only a few hours, however, Lev begins to think Kolya may be more likely to get him killed.

A funny, sad, horrifying, compassionate and ultimately hopeful story about how even in the worst of human circumstances, friends and lovers will find each other.

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