Time, not money, the obstacle to book sales

Skater-in-a-Strange-Land-800 Cover reveal and PromotionalI used to marvel at a certain fact about the book publishing business: people are more willing to risk three dollars on a cup of coffee than they are on a full-length novel.

Why would someone be willing to pay money for a drink that takes fifteen minutes to consume, for a temporary effect, but not for a piece of art that gives hours of entertainment and has the potential to change one’s life?

Image: Skater in a Strange Land has a new e-edition!

Then I realized something. Something extremely obvious to lots of people, probably, but not to me.

I realized that the temporary effect and disposability of coffee was the whole point.

Coffee gives the drinker a guaranteed result AND doesn’t take a long time to consume.

You don’t have to think about it, either.

And a book?

A book takes a lot longer to deal with than a cup of coffee and there is no guaranteed payoff.

With a book you’re not just spending money, you’re spending time as well.

And time is in notoriously short supply nowadays.

Not only that, time to read a book—that is, unbroken time when you can concentrate on something other than work or family—is even rarer.

So an author does something potentially very demanding of readers when a book is published. “Read this book” does not just mean spend a certain amount of money. It also means invest a certain number of hours, a certain amount of energy, and depending on the book, a potentially large amount of emotion and brainpower.

Back in the day when paper books were the only option and a traditionally published hardcover book cost $19.95, there was a strong sense of the import of the buying decision. The book was substantial and so was the price. You knew what you were getting into. You had better read that book to justify the investment.

Nowadays, an e-book that costs $2.99 is like a roll of the dice. Why isn’t it more expensive? Is it just a bad book that the author is trying to palm off on unsuspecting consumers, like old fish that’s been painted with bleach?

But $2.99 is the same price as a cup of coffee, the reader says to herself. If the book’s bad, I haven’t lost anything.

Yes, she has. She's lost time.

“There’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back” goes the old saying.

How many Amazon reviews basically just say “Waste of time” or “Don’t waste your time”?

Which is why, as authors, it behooves us to write books that are as “worthwhile” ( = worth the time) as possible.

But how does a reader know a book is going to be worthwhile?

  • It has a good blurb. Writers I know hate to write blurbs, but a good one can encourage the sale of a book like nothing else. Good blurbs say, “You will be using your time wisely if you buy this book.”

  • It is written to a specific genre and audience. A cup of coffee is what it is. It delivers a guaranteed effect. So, theoretically, do romance novels, cozy mystery novels, spy thrillers, and all those other familiar categories that comfort readers. If you want a cup of coffee and you get a cup of chai, you’re never going back to that same café again. Same deal with authors. Deliver in your genre and people will return.

  • The audience knows the author. The author has built up a trust and rapport with readers on social media. They like her personally, so they will be more likely to like her book. (This can go the other way for personal friends. They don’t want to have to tell you they didn’t like your book, so they might be reluctant to read it.)

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too inexpensive. This is a tricky one, because a lot of authors have offered their books for free in order to get an audience acquainted with their writing, and it’s been an effective strategy. But in general, a book that’s $2.99 or less as a regular price automatically triggers in the consumer a question: why is it so cheap? The suspicion that a low price point is an indicator of low quality is real. That's when things like a good blurb, active social media, and genre familiarity come into play.

  • The book is at the proper price point--not too expensive. This one is tough too, but for me personally once an e-book is priced at over $4.99, I want to hold it in my hands. I will pay $16.99 for a paperback that I know is going to entertain me, and up to $30 for a hardcover. E-books? There's an obstacle there. My two cents.

Add in your own criteria to supplement these. When you know it’s time that’s the big investment for readers, not just money, it doesn’t change that you’re trying to write a good book.

But it might change your perspective on the whole thing—and give our readers a bit more benefit of the doubt if they choose to buy a cup of coffee rather than our $2.99 novels.

What is teampunk?

The-Last-Phase-Shift_800 Cover Reveal and PromoHere at Breakfast with Pandora Books, we like to think we stand for creativity and originality.

So herewith let us inaugurate a new literary genre into the world of fiction: teampunk.

Teampunk is an amalgam of two genres: the sports novel (the "team" part) and steampunk.

Image: Book 3 of the Borschland Hockey Chronicles is available for pre-order.

Some of our readers will be familiar with steampunk, which is the umbrella term for stories set in a fantasy world that resembles the United Kingdom (or some other country) in Victorian or Edwardian times, but with the enhancement of strange, steam-powered, gear-working technology.

Steampunk types like to dress up in corsets and top hats and wear goggles. They write stories about airships (dirigibles, aerostats, blimps) with steam-powered engines. They let their imaginations go wild based on what could happen if history went down another path than the one that leads to the modern world.

Steampunk types are also fascinated with the formal cultural milieu of the Victorian age and with the melodramatic, romantic, and gothic nature of the tales told at that time.

At first glance, steampunk and sports do not appear to be a natural match. There might be an airship race in a steampunk book, but team sports are as non-technological an activity you can find.

And we'd wager that those readers interested in steampunk may not be interested in sports, and vice versa. Steampunk is an ultra-nerd interest. Sports are for, well, jocks.

But the nineteenth century saw the dawn of modern team sports (baseball in the US and soccer in the UK have teams whose pedigrees go back to the 1800's), and sports were extremely important in those days. Who's to say that gears and soccer balls don't go together?

Enter the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, the first known series of books with the Teampunk label.

In Borschland, the inhabitants have deliberately banned the use of petroleum in favor of their native natural resource, superpeat, which, when heated in a furnace, creates a robust amount of energy that can power steam engines. 

Borschland uses airships, steam locomotives, and steam heat. They use steam-powered escalators to go up from and down to their steam-powered subways.

And most importantly, they use steam engines to power the cooling machines that create ice rinks.

Ice hockey is the be-all and end-all of Borschland, and ice hockey gives the structure to the tales told about Sherm Reinhardt, the first North American to play in the fabled Borschland Hockey League.

As might be expected, Sherm gets into a lot more than the penalty box. In Skater in a Strange Land, he has to deal with an intriguing and attractive poetess, as well as the rumor that his success on the rink is being engineered for nefarious reasons by higher ups, while in the sequel, The Skater and the Saint, the hockey plot (women's hockey, too) is melded with the disappearance of the Flowering Branch, Borschland's sacred national symbol. In the last book of the trilogy, The Last Phase Shift, Borschland goes off to its first international hockey tournament in an alternate universe, with Sherm's children Conraad, Lily, and Wils as main characters.

We can only hope that there will be much more teampunk in the literary future. We will do our best at Breakfast with Pandora Books to make that happen. 


A revealing review of "Zeus Is My Type!"

Breakfast with Pandora Books felt a small earthquake in the book sales realm this week and found that someone had recently bought “Zeus is My Type!” , D.W. Frauenfelder's book on Myers-Briggs and Greek divinities.

On a whim we googled the title to see if the buyer had had a reaction, and lo and behold, she had.

Sam over at Spines in a Line, a book blog, gave ZIMT four stars and a number of flattering compliments.

But we were particularly gratified by her use of the book to consider her own type and personality.

A personality test is okay for figuring out generally who you are.

But comparing yourself with characters from a brilliant set of long-lived stories might make it easier to illuminate your personality from a different angle, and in a deeper way.

Sam’s review captured this process wonderfully.

According to the review, she has always typed out as an ISFJ or an ISTJ. But the description of those types in ZIMT left her cold.

That makes perfect sense. A book lover with a penchant for introspection probably isn’t purely an ISFJ (Hestia) or ISTJ (Hera). The strong ISFJ is about quiet, compassionate service to others; the classic ISTJ is similar, but with an organizational streak and a spiky edge to her personal interactions.

Hestia wouldn’t have a book blog. She did not call attention to herself or her opinions. As the mistress of the hearth, she was anonymously providing for others.

Hera, similarly, wouldn’t have time for anything as frivolous as book reviews. She was too busy managing the heavenly household.

So where should Sam land?

She gravitated to the chapter on the INFJ, especially the narrative about Penelope. Now Penelope, in the Odyssey, is about loyal service, and in a way is quite ISFJ. But she also has a more introspective and clever side, which is more Intuitive than Sensing.

The section on Hades, and more specifically the part about the play Antigone (Sam’s favorite) also was a highlight for her of the book.

That doesn’t surprise me either. Antigone herself is an ENFJ, and Hades is married to Persephone, another INFJ.

So, because of all that triangulation, it makes perfect sense to me at least that Sam is more INFJ than ISFJ.

(And, of course, maybe it’s most accurate to say that Sam is IXFJ. The “X” reflects that we complex human beings are not restricted to 16 personality types).

Sam came upon ZIMT as a happy coincidence ("a really random selection"). We probably need to make it more available if we want more readers to benefit as she has.

But for now, this was a great treat.

Thanks, Sam.

Half Sick of Shadows (spoilerish)

HalfsickofshadowsIt is really impossible to say anything about Half Sick of Shadows, Richard Abbott’s newest and most creative book, without giving the whole thing away.

So instead of reading this review first, go out and buy the book and read it— I promise, it’s very inexpensive— and then come back and read this.

If you have already read the book and want to know what someone else thinks about it, go ahead and keep scrolling.

Otherwise, I’ll see you in… however long it takes for you to read and come back.

In fact, if you read the book and hate it, I will treat you to another book of the same or lesser value as an apology for making you read Half Sick of Shadows.

Now that we have established I am biased towards this book, and now that everyone is gone except those who have read the book already, the way is clear to say a few spoilerish things. Spoilerish because I know there are a few lingering readers who haven’t gone away and gotten the book, and believe me, you will be disappointed.

(Shoo! Shoo!)


First, you don’t need to know that Half Sick of Shadows is taken loosely from the British legend of the Lady of Shalott best known to poetry readers in its version by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It’s a fun curiosity to map Half Sick of Shadows on to the legend-- especially the weaving and mirror parts-- but the story stands on its own.

You also don’t need to know what genre the book is in order to enjoy it. The author says it is Historical Fantasy. I would say it’s Speculative Science Fiction. But it really is its own thing.

Now, for the spoilerish stuff: lately there was a flurry of activity on the internet about alien intelligences and whether we would want them to contact us when it is somewhat more or less likely (how does one decide these things?) that they would be hostile to us.

Stephen Hawking has famously said for years, for example, that if intelligent life outside our solar system tries to contact us, we should act as if we’re not there.

"Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn’t turn out so well,” he is recently quoted as saying.

Also, there's a new short film by a director I admire, Neil Blomkamp from South Africa, about a yuckfest alien invasion that is our worst nightmare. (I loved the film and I don't like yuckfests, by the way.)

But with all due respect to Stephen Hawking and rousing good stories, I think the proposition absurd that aliens advanced enough to travel through space for light years are as callous, cruel, and greedy as Christopher Columbus and the Europeans who followed him.

I find it much more likely that truly advanced aliens would have no need of exploiting worlds they found, but in fact would be more benevolent than we are, having come to the conclusion that survival depends on creating abundance rather than hoarding scarcity. 

So far in history, all human cultures that pile up resources at others’ expense have fallen hard after no more than a thousand or so years (the Byzantines did a great job for a long time, but that made the Turks really, really jealous).

But to live through the long haul— long enough to develop viable light-year space flight technology— I think you’d need to find a way to make resources abundant enough that people don’t need to fight over them and kill each other off. 

And thus, aliens traveling to earth would know to leave well enough alone.

Unless, of course, they found a way to hang around us without destroying us.

And this is a roundabout way of saying that I think Richard Abbot has that question of alien intelligence absolutely spot on. Half Sick of Shadows is an intricate, delicate story about a Lady who grows through time into something new, both physically and mentally, and how interaction with those she encounters affects that process. But it’s also a wonderfully imaginative take on how we might be-- or have been-- in touch with others outside our ken.

Now is Half Sick of Shadows as fun as Neil Blomkamp's yuckfest with the Texas flag whipping from armored trucks and people exploding and lizard men and squirty goo and methane manufacturing towers?

Yes. Make a movie of it now.

Well, maybe not.

But so few books have that quality of an engaging story that also makes you think. Half Sick of Shadows is one of those few, and it deserves widespread attention.

Upright Bears stand tall

AnthropomorphicbearsThe Borschland Hockey Chronicles concentrates on one thing: chronicles about ice hockey in Borschland.

But there have always been bears as well.

Upright Bears, to be exact. 

In Skater in a Strange Land, the first book of the series, our hero Sherm Reinhardt enters the hidden continent where Borschland is located through a phenomenon called Bear Air, an airplane service from a secluded airstrip in the Maldives Islands to Bearland itself.

Or, to hear Sherm describe it:

At the airstrip there were twenty palm trees, a shack, and an old 727 parked out back with a logo that said Bear Air and a bear head with wings coming off of it. The driver left me off with my gear and the first person that greeted me in that shack was a bear.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Reinhardt," he said to me. "The plane is right on time."

I'll never forget that. It was in an accent that sounded English and maybe Jamaican and something else I couldn't place.

That is the moment in the Borschland Hockey Chronicles where some readers step off the suspension of disbelief train. One reviewer, for example, thought that Sherm should've reacted more dramatically to the weirdness of having a bear talk to him. But by that time he (Sherm, not the reviewer) had been flying for 20 hours and in that state you don't react dramatically to anything.

Yes, talking bears. Kind of strange.

But I think most people can get past the talking bears. After all, most of us have had talking bears in our lives at one point or another. Anyone who's had a teddy bear, for example, and has not heard that bear talk is in a very small minority.

My childhood was filled with talking bears. One of my fondest memories involves the Paddington series of books by Michael Bond. Those were the most comforting things you could read, because they always began with the sentient bear Paddington from "Darkest Peru" creating a vortex of chaos and his ultra-calm, ultra-mature English family doing what was necessary to get him out of it.

As a child with quite the usual amount of chaos in my life-- there were four boys in the family-- that was attractive to me.*

I also had two younger brothers who got connected with a whole community of talking bears and spent most of their waking hours before a certain age going on adventures with them.

Even then I was creating worlds and making maps, so it was just a matter of time before I collaborated with my brothers on a homeland for their bears, which they sensibly named Bearland.

As I got older and the universe that included Borschland incorporated Bearland and a number of other lands (including Zimroth, about which you can read in another of Sherm Reinhardt's adventures), Bearish characters began popping up in my stories. The Borschland Hockey Chronicles wouldn't be what they are without them.

Up to now, all of these bears have been supporting characters. Now, for the first time, I'm publishing a short story where a bear takes center stage. I expect, if all goes well, that this will lead to more and longer bear-dominated sagas.

Josiah U. Bear, the main character, probably owes his origin to my interest in the Tintin series of books, though there is also more than a hint of James Bond as well. Unlike the hockey stories that take place in Borschland in the present day, Josiah's tale is set in Edwardian times (1912 to be exact), when Great Britain has colonized Bearland and many complications have arisen therefrom.

Tintin's adventures have always appealed to me as rollicking tales that are told with resorting to the language and explicit situations that characterize much of popular storytelling today.**

That's why I'm publishing this story in a fantasy anthology with a group of authors who tell tales by choice with at most a PG-13 rating. That group is sponsoring a launch party and giveaway on July 1 and I hope you'll attend-- though unfortunately I cannot be there.

I hope you seek out and enjoy this story. The book is out on June 27 and I would love to hear your reactions at the Facebook party. I'll be sure to read all of the comments and get back to you if you have comments or questions.

--D.W. Frauenfelder


*If you are a Paddington fan, you might just catch a reference to that series in my short story.

**Captain Haddock's colorful but inoffensive cursing, a great source of humor, is a nod to the tendency of authors to be enamored of what is sometimes called "adult" language.






How Borschland got its name

BorschlandmapcoloredHow do authors name things?

J.R.R. Tolkien created an entire mythos as a companion to his renowned Middle Earth series of novels. The names Legolas, Boromir, and Frodo all had linguistic reasons for being what they were, since Tolkien was himself a professional linguist.

Conversely, Christopher Paolini, the bestselling author of the "Eragon" fantasy series, spent much less sweat and ingenuity thinking about the names in his book.

"Eragon," Paolini once admitted, is simply "Dragon" with an "E" instead of a "D."

And what about Borschland, the setting for a story about an ordinary American ice hockey player who becomes, against all odds, a national sensation in his adopted home?

As the progenitor of that name, I guess I'm more in Paolini's corner than Tolkien's, though the story is a bit more involved than the swap of an E for a D.

I was something like twelve or thirteen when Borschland was born. In those days I was prone to create three worlds in a single afternoon. Most of my creations came in the form of maps, and stayed that way. I was a forgetful god, and the inhabitants of those forgotten places would have justly railed at me for not taking care of what I had started.

Borschland was different. It also started out as a map-- the medium of which was markers on butcher paper-- but it soon took on a life of its own.

Borschland's inspiration was the last name of a friend of mine whose father was the dean of an Episcopal seminary in my hometown. My friend lived with his father, mother, and twin younger brothers in an impossible wonder of a house, an on-campus stone-and-brick edifice with soaring ceilings, endless bedrooms, enormous kitchen, and backyard basketball court. It had apparently once been a dormitory.

It was the perfect place for all manner of early adolescent diversion. We played every sport known to man either there or in the quad of the seminary across the street. To play baseball, we used a yellow plastic ball my friend dubbed a "grapefruit." I once whacked that sphere on a rising arc across the quad, smashing a window in the building that acted as the right-field fence.

We also started our own soccer team, and when we could not find a coach willing to train us, my friend's father, the seminary dean, consented to shepherd us until he found a willing divinity student.

That student was the first man I ever knew besides a pirate who sported a gold earring. He was a prince among men to put up with my fourteen year-old diva self.

My friend's mother, the Platonic ideal of mothers, presided over the kitchen, doling out bowls of yogurt and cottage cheese for afternoon snacks, and ferrying us around in the family's white station wagon. Later in life, I had a nightmare that involved being pursued by Satan in a desert wasteland. Presently my friend's mom appeared in the station wagon to rescue me, as ever an angel of mercy.

Since my friend had spent time in Chicago, he had the equipment for street hockey-- goals, sticks, rubber balls used for pucks-- and we played glorious games in the backyard basketball court.

My friend also had a table-top hockey game which I borrowed and played on my own, keeping careful statistics of all goals, assists, and penalties.

With such enrapturing memories stoking the fires of my nostalgia, it was in a way a foregone conclusion that Borschland, which is truly what my friend's idyllic household could be called, would take on a life of its own.

In college I maintained a Borschland Hockey League with teams from all the cities I had created on the map.

Like Tolkien, I became interested in language, and modified the city names to have more uniformity and logic. Borschland's language became an odd combination of Dutch, German, and French, with certain native elements of a land I had named after our seventh-grade science teacher.

Borschland also became the location for a bad short story I wrote about a young man whose mysterious landlady had the odd last name of "Enoon" (hint:  enoon is "no one" spelled backwards), and whose climax took place at an ice hockey game.

Thus, fiction entered into Borschland.

Much later in life, I introduced the fantasy ice hockey league to my son, who created a blog around it, and I contributed posts in the voice of a Borschic ice hockey journalist named Kadmus Greningen.

A story thread grew up around the blog posts involving an American ice hockey player named Sherm Reinhardt. You can still read those original posts today.

Eventually, the Borschland Hockey Chronicles, two novels and an anthology of short stories (plus another novel in progress), were born.

Now I have learned of the passing of my friend's father. The generous, genial man who was our interim soccer coach went on to be a revered bishop in the Episcopal Church.

In his obituary, I learned he wrote twenty books, among them two novels.

Much of what survives from an author's imagination seems to be random. Why Borschland? Why ice hockey? What necessitated the birth of that particular story?

But, as the Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon has written, as Christians we must take what seems to be random and act as if it is, instead, full of intended grace.

Which is why I will always be grateful to the Borsch family for their hospitality, generosity, and for the greatest gift of all: the name of an imaginary world.

Throughtalking books

Bookbeer7Have you ever heard the term “throughtalking”?

I hadn’t, till the other day.

In fact, Google doesn’t seem to know the term.

But I do:

Screen Shot 2016-12-30 at 10.58.29 AM

This insight, which I love, is spliced out of a post by a Facebook friend. I tend not to have to deal with this phenomenon socially, because I don’t go to high-gloss parties where the movers and shakers move and shake, but I recognize it from my days at professional conferences.

There’s nothing more disheartening than watching the eyes of the person you’re talking to scanning the crowd for someone other than you. 

You may be good, but there’s always someone out there who’s better.

My Facebook friend thinks there may be a “throughtalking” trend for beer that’s manifesting itself in online reviews. No matter how high the quality of one craft brew, somehow there must be a better one out there. So proper attention is given to nothing. 

I think we can apply this same trend to books, but bear with me for a little on this. 

If “throughtalking” beer is a thing, I think it has to do with the sheer number of beers now available. Time was, there were about seventeen brands of beer, and if there was something new, you had plenty of time to taste it and figure out whether you liked it.  

I remember in the previous century sitting down in a restaurant near Cincinnati and asking the waitress whether they had any local beers on tap. She looked at me as if I were from Mars.  

I wasn’t talking about brewpub stuff. Back in the old days, there were some regional brands. if you were in New Orleans, you drank Dixie. Texas, Lone Star. Oregon, Henry Weinhard’s. Upstate New York, Genesee. Baltimore, Natty Bo. That’s what I was asking for. Even Bud is supposed to taste good if you order it in St. Louis.

But Cincinnati, apparently, had its Waterloo (or Beer-loo) during Prohibition, and never recovered.

Today things are different. I can get thirty kinds of beer brewed onsite in just one establishment. 

How am I going to keep up with that? 

Maybe, by “throughtalking” beers until I get to the “ultimate.” 

Except that there isn’t an ultimate. 

Now for the books part.

Independent (small-press and self-) publishing, like craft breweries, has exponentially increased the number of books available, especially novels. 

Now, instead of there being a thousand “literary” or “high quality” novels per year, of which ten to twenty were played up by publishing houses and the media, there are tens of thousands that may be good or not. But because there are so many, it’s impossible for anyone to curate them the way we used to when traditional publishing had a chokehold on supply. 

For me personally, I seldom buy books anymore. I “try” a lot of them. I will go to the Amazon page and dip into the book, effectively taking a sip. Some of them are just bad or don’t interest me, so I move on.

Others look like they might be good, but I’m not looking for “might be.”

I want that one that knocks my socks off.

So I end up not buying anything at all. 

I am guilty of “throughtalking” books. 

The last book I bought was The Bookminder by M.K. Wiseman. It’s a historical fantasy about a teenage would-be wizard set in what appears to be medieval Serbia. I was attracted by the setting and similarity to my own The Mirror and the Mage, and the sample shows that the author has respectable writing chops.

I hope to “drink it down” and give a review soon. 

So what’s the upshot of this? Am I advocating, like some, that we should turn off the taps on the book supply?

Should us authors all voluntarily stick to one book per year, to let breathless readers catch up?

Maybe we’d get less “throughtalking.” 

No. Not at all.

I’m still in the more-is-better camp. I think especially of those dedicated book devourers who have benefited the most from the independent revolution. True book lovers always want more.

And I say, give it to them.

Online book curation methods are still pretty crude, but I think they'll improve.

And we “throughtalkers” will always be around, and maybe we’ll leave snarky reviews about the few books we actually bought.

But that shouldn’t spoil the party.

So write on, authors. Your readers await.

Image taken from here.

Why I will never worry about what I write, ever again


Sometimes when I am in the valley of the shadow of self-doubt about my writing, I think, "I write ridiculous things in my novels. Who would ever believe them?"

One book has talking bears and a parallel universe, another a kind of Pez dispenser that does magic if you know Latin grammar. In my latest book, the hero defends a mystical goal against a hockey-puck-spitting pelican.

Weird, right?

But I'm here to declare that I will fear no idea that comes from my muse, ever again. That is because I have just re-read Stuart Little by E.B. White, and I'm going to tell you, he has us all beat.

E.B. White is probably more famous for Charlotte's Web, which has a talking spider and talking pig, but that type of weirdness is nothing compared to that of Stuart Little.

I don't remember reading Stuart Little all the way through as a child, though I'm pretty sure I was impressed by his toy sports car. I just went along with everyone who thought the book was adorable.

Adorable it may be, but it's just straight-up bonkers, too.

Now let me be clear that I'm not dissing the classic status that Stuart has achieved. There's a lot of whimsical fun in the book. It's charming and witty. There is much food for thought and respect and love for those who are different.

I'm just saying what happens in the book strains the boundaries of credulity in a thousand ways, small and large.

First of all, and this has been noticed before, the book claims that Stuart came to the Little family naturally:

When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son arrived, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse. The truth of the matter was, the baby looked very much like a mouse in every way.

I usually read books before bed, when I'm already sleepy. But this shook me wide awake. I was sure that Stuart had been adopted and was all ready for that fact to be announced in Chapter One.

But no.

So Stuart is genetically a Little, but in substance a mouse. Right there, any New York editor would stop reading and have his or her assistant prepare a rejection notice. But E.B. White wasn't a peon from Peoria. He was in the inner circle of the New York literary world, a respected writer for the New Yorker magazine.

So he got a pass.

Now Stuart gets into a number of scrapes and has a number of charming adventures, but it is natural that a mouse have a love interest, and that love interest is a bird.

Stay with me, here.

The bird's name is Margalo, and she is one of those talking birds you see quite often in Manhattan. Margalo is responsible for a number of charming acts, including saving Stuart's life, but she flies the coop (the Littles' Manhattan apartment) when a pigeon writes her a note warning her that a cat is plotting to eat her.

This motivates the action of the book, which is Stuart's quest for Margalo. He obtains his transportation from his friend Dr. Carey, a dentist, who claims that Stuart will be less noticeable as an anthropomorphic animal driving a toy sports car when he activates the car's invisibility function.

Yes, indeed.

When Stuart tests out that function, hilarity ensues, but the author never explains whether Stuart himself will be invisible when he drives the car, or whether he will seem to others to be sitting in thin air being self-propelled, which would definitely be noticeable.

It's actually more astonishing that anyone in this book would think that anything strange would, in Stuart's words, "attract too much attention".

Are you getting the message, here?

I'm going to pass over the charming scene where Stuart takes over a one-room schoolhouse for a day, although I find it highly unusual any school district would allow such an unqualified substitute to teach children.

Then again, maybe that's not so far-fetched.

But I do have to mention the two-inch tall Harriet Ames, a tiny human equally as tiny as Stuart. How does a local storekeeper explain her presence in the world?

"...All of her clothes are specially tailored for her... Yes, Harriet's quite a girl. Her people, the Ameses, are rather prominent in this town."

Harriet almost but not quite makes Stuart forget about Margalo. Clearly, she is a more suitable partner for a mouse than a bird, but their love isn't to be, mainly because Stuart can't get over the fact that his miniature canoe, in which he was going to take Harriet for a ride, has been smashed, presumably by malicious boys, though this is never confirmed.


Finally, and most incredibly for the story, Stuart Little peters out at page 131 in my edition with this sentence:

But the sky was bright, and he somehow felt he was headed in the right direction.

In other words, Stuart never finds Margalo. Not even close. He just drives off into the sunset with the quest still unfinished.

I kept stupidly looking for more pages, as if I'd find another chapter in a hidden trap door of my paperback.


Again, I'd be the first to say, "Whatever! This is a children's book, and in children's books, anything goes. As long as the spirit of the writing is true, children (and adults) will love it."

And so that must be the case with Stuart Little, though I'm going to tell you it creeped me out when I read it this time.

But all of this has taught me a valuable lesson: if E.B. White can write from his imagination and succeed, then by golly, I'm going to write from mine. No more self-censorship, no more self-suspicion. My cup of weirdness runneth over. And I will dwell in the house of--

You get the idea.

Now go out there and write some puck-spitting pelicans into your book.

Image: my selfie with Stuart.

Collateral Damage by Bob Mustin: intimacy amidst loss

Collateral-Damage-NEW-Cover-copy-2Bob Mustin was last seen in near-future Appalachia, musing on an America gone wrong. That was 2015's We Are Strong, But We Are Fragile.

Mustin is now ranging over new territory. Collateral Damage and Stories, his just-published fiction collection, showcases the author's considerable talent-- for observation, for a well-turned phrase, for sensing the significance of a moment. But it's hardly a solemn affair. There's weirdness, myth, the supernatural, baseball, over-the-top stuff, keenly felt yet wry at the same time.

My favorite story was "Object of Affection," an elegy for Carlos, a star baseball player who has succumbed to Lou Gehrig's disease. It's a simple idea, the memorial for a hero taken before his time, but the means by which it is delivered is anything but. The narrator performs a subtle alchemy throughout, taking the spoken memories of the star's mother and reporting them, through the ether, to the absent Carlos:

The Game. She tells me that by six you were on the diamond, slapping the ball with authority, bouncing it from the child's tee through a maze of soprano crow calls along the red dust infield and onto the grass beyond.

The result is a kind of intimacy amidst loss that is wickedly difficult for any narrative to attain, and a great pleasure to read.

The title novella is tough to get through-- not because it isn't written well, but because it is. The narrator is John, a schizophrenic freelance political journalist. Mustin takes the reader fully into John's skewed perspective and his multiple "figments," characters that pop from nowhere in a jangly soap opera gone wrong. The story, which seems to take place during the first invasion of Iraq in 1991, reads like a "No Exit" type of stage play, with John's house as the set, and with his wife, Janet, his mother, and his teenaged son, Ted, as the characters trapped in hell. "Collateral Damage" refers to that regrettable phrase conjured by the American military during the war, referring to unavoidable civilian casualties. It's an apt metaphor for the havoc wreaked by John's illness as the family battles over the possession, not of land, but of Ted.

If there is a theme to this collection, I would say it is elegy-- all of the stories except for "Collateral Damage" itself have a voice-over quality to them, with a let-me-tell-you-how-it-was storyteller anchoring the narrative. It's a look back over many years, wistful, grief-tinged, but not nostalgic. There is a sense in these stories that you shouldn't ever want to go back to the past, or have things be the way they were. Life was what it was, had its joys and sorrows, and the impulse to tell the story comes not from longing for the lost moment but from the compulsion to declare, "This was significant. It mattered. It bears remembering."

The collection ends with "The Phantom," an homage to a magic baseball that follows its possessor's life, the narrator, and almost but not quite rubs off its magic on him. Could the baseball be a metaphor for writing talent, that phantom that follows us all our lives and changes them depending on the way it bounces here or there?

Well, all I can say is, keep swinging, Bob Mustin. You hit a home run with this effort. Time to get back to the plate.

...and Breakfast with Pandora Books giveth away...

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Nyssa Glass and the House of Mirrors

by H. L. Burke
When reformed cat burglar Nyssa Glass is framed for murder, her only hope is to commit one last heist to prove her innocence. However, breaking into the "abandoned" house of an eccentric professor may very well be the last thing she ever does. 

The Mirror and the Mage

by D. W. Frauenfelder
Fourteen-year old Lucius Junius Brutus yearns to join the Roman army, but Lucius' father directs him to guard the dusty, grammarly scrolls of Numa Pompilius. Lucius thinks he is in for the most boring job in the world-- until he discovers the scrolls' true purpose...

Finding Prince Charming


by Jessica Elliott

Allegra is shocked to discover that rather than wait in a tower for her Prince Charming, she must embark on a quest to rescue him. She must face untold dangers and overcome her greatest fears. Her enchanted prince, Adrian, deals with match-making frogs, a flirtatious mermaid and an unknown enemy who will stop at nothing to prevent their happily ever after.

Called Warrior

by E. J. McCay
Preacher's Kid MacKenzie Bryan is called by God to be a warrior. Now she has to battle a church elder at the helm of a sex-trafficking ring.

The Firethorn Crown

by Lea Doue
Princess Lily, the eldest of twelve sisters and heir to a mighty kingdom, desperately seeks a break from her mother's matchmaking. Fleeing an overzealous suitor, Lily stumbles into a secret underground kingdom where she and her sisters encounter a mysterious sorcerer-prince and become entangled in a curse that threatens the safety of her family and her people.

The Collar and the Cavvarach  

by Annie Douglass Lima
Bensin, a teenage slave and martial artist, is desperate to see his little sister freed. But only victory in the Krillonian Empire's most prestigious tournament will allow him to secretly arrange for Ellie's escape. As danger closes in, can Bensin save Ellie from a life of slavery and abuse?