Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Odessa File




I enjoyed Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal so much that I looked forward to reading The ODESSA File. Plus, that was about a reporter hunting down a Nazi, and I’m a World War II buff. How could such a story go wrong?

In six words: the hero and the hit man.

But I’ll start with the good parts. The story begins when Peter Miller, a reporter who writes about pop bands and juicy scandals, discovers that an old Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, committed suicide. One of the things the old man left behind is a detailed diary of his time in the concentration camp Riga, and Miller reads this.

Horrifying though the man’s experiences were—at the hands of the camp commandant, Eduard Roschmann, the Butcher of Riga—they aren’t why Miller decides to hunt down Roschmann. That’s personal, and it’s a great twist. I liked how it leaves Roschmann and his Nazi colleagues confused as to why they’re being tracked down by a young German with a war hero for a father. Mossad agents they’d expect, but not this.

Miller’s investigations draw the attention of Odessa, a secret organization of Nazis which works to get people like Roschmann to safety, and one way they do this is with forged passports. The forger maintains a file of all the people to whom he’s issued fake documents, and this file is his way of making sure Odessa never feels he’s outlived his usefulness. To safeguard him, Odessa sends a hit man to deal with Miller.

But they aren’t the only people who have noticed Miller. Another secret organization—of concentration camp survivors turned Nazi hunters—gets Miller to safety and tells him how to get into Odessa. After an intensive crash course, Miller can pass himself off as an officer who once murdered people in Flossenburg. He goes to one of the higher-ups in the Odessa and asks for help getting a new identity.

So far, so good. The tension is ever-present, the stakes are high, and Forsyth’s research is detailed. Then it all unraveled.

The higher-up sends Miller to stay with another Nazi, Franz Bayer, who’ll arrange for the forger to supply a fake passport. Claiming he had to go on the run for fear of being discovered, Miller has no money other than the handout the Odessa man gives him for the train fare to Bayer’s house. But because Miller doesn’t want to take public transportation, he drives there in his Jaguar.

I repeat : he drives there in his Jaguar. Which the Odessa know all about, because they’ve done their own investigating.

Granted, he doesn’t park it in Bayer’s driveway, but he still gets spotted by Frau Bayer (who doesn’t seem to wonder at this poor broke man driving a Jaguar, but then again, the few women in the story are not characterized by their powers of deduction). The Odessa higher-up immediately alerts the hit man.

Here’s where Miller now gets saved twice by dumb luck (or authorial fiat, since as the hero, he can’t die). The hit man prepares a bomb that he wires under the hood of the Jaguar, and he also waits to sniper-shoot Miller. Instead, he accidentally kills Bayer, and the bomb destroys the Jaguar—when Roschmann’s bodyguard has taken the car and is the only person inside.

At this point, I expected the Odessa people to shoot the hit man before he could bring down their entire organization.

Miller’s aura of immortality preserves him to the end, and the hit man is put out of his misery. I thought wistfully of how competent the Jackal was, and went to re-read that book instead.


Friday, February 27, 2015

Musa Publishing closing


Shortly after Musa Publishing opened its doors in mid-2011, I thought of submitting a manuscript to them.

Normally, that would never have occurred to me. On the Absolute Write forums, I’ve seen dozens of small presses come out with a fanfare and sink into oblivion before a year. I always wait until the press or agent is well established, but with Musa I considered giving it a try.

Musa was created from the remains of Aspen Mountain, another small press. Since the editors and support staff of Aspen Mountain had worked to keep the business going and to treat authors fairly even when the owner of the press couldn’t be relied on, it was likely that they could go even further on their own. They would have learned what not do do by working with Aspen Mountain. Most of all, they had earned the support and trust of authors, many of whom rescued their books from Aspen Mountain to be published by Musa.

That was the first indication of a problem.

At the start of 2012, Celina Summers (former head editor at Aspen Mountain Press, editorial director at Musa) said they had over four hundred books contracted. A few people expressed concerns, because even though many of those books were survivors of Aspen Mountain, meaning they were already edited, they still needed to be marketed.

Still, on the whole Musa appeared to be in good standing. Those of its staff who posted on the Absolute Write forums to discuss the press were always professional, and writers who had signed up were strong supporters. In fact, their enthusiasm was one of the things which made me seriously consider submitting a fantasy novel, so I looked up the guidelines for Musa’s Urania imprint.

The imprints were actually what made me pause. I could never shake the feeling that, when setting up Musa, someone had decided that because there were nine Muses, there could be nine imprints too, publishing everything from horror to literary fiction to erotica to young adult. In fact, in the end there were over a dozen imprints, adding Musa Classics (divided into Gold and Silver), plus an e-magazine called Penumbra.

The sheer number of imprints could be confusing as well, since on Musa’s homepage there was a link to the Eros imprint for Erotic/Erotica Romance but also a separate link for Erotic Romance. “Musa might be the only publisher in existence to have more imprints than editors,” I said to another writer.

A small press is much more likely to succeed by focusing on one or two genres, and establishing itself before making plans for expansion.

So I hesitated, then decided to hold off on sending a manuscript to Musa for a while. If I was wrong, they’d still be around in the future.

By the start of 2013, cracks were starting to appear. A few writers mentioned a high turnover rate for editors at Musa, as well as errors in galleys—which didn’t leave much time for corrections to be made. Later that year, Ann Leckie wrote about a problem with the e-zine Penumbra and, which I found more disturbing, a hostile reaction from Penumbra’s editor to her bringing this up.

This wasn’t the only mention of abusive emails from Musa.

Finally, there were the matter of the sales. When authors started discussing this on Absolute Write, many reported sales figures in the double digits. One reason for this was probably the sheer number of books released by Musa. There wasn’t a chance for the press to market all these adequately, and yet Musa refused to close to submissions, even temporarily. In fact, plans were being made for a further two e-zines, to which some authors were asked to contribute free stories.

By late 2014, authors were requesting their rights back, and it was only a matter of time. Musa Publishing will officially close at the end of this month. To their credit, they’ve been direct with the authors about this and are reverting rights to books.

It’s always a disappointment when a publisher with so much potential is forced to close its doors. Musa started out with the best of intentions, always paid royalties on time and could have gone far—if they hadn’t been trying to go everywhere. It would have taken superhuman effort and operating funds to run all those imprints, market all those books and publish one or more reputable e-zines.

The staff and the authors worked extremely hard, and I hope the future brings them better news. For myself, I was reminded once more how important it is to be cautious in this game, especially once the honeymoon phase of a new press wears off. And to always be aware of warning signs.

Also recommended reading : Musa Publishing : A Case Study.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Celebrating my newest book


Lots of fun stuff to read, plus three giveaways.

13 ways I learned to write about sex, on Shelley Munro's blog. This post was fun to write, because until I started it, I really didn't realize how sheltered I'd been as a teenager.

The Oldest Profession, on Romanceaholic. Why I decided to start the story in a brothel. With a giveaway!

I'm also guest posting on Coffee Time Romance about sex, lies and videotape. Well, not the videotape, because that hasn't been invented yet in my stories, but about deception in romance.

I have an interview and giveaway on The Reading Cafe.

Plus a giveaway on Let Them Read Books.

And finally, a great review of The Highest Tide from Night Owl Reviews!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Highest Tide




Release date for The Highest Tide!

In need of some R&R in a foreign country, Captain Lera Vanze goes to a brothel. But the first man she sees - and mistakes for a prostitute - is a health inspector. Intensely attracted to her, Jason Remerley pretends his way into her arms.

It gets hotter and more complicated from there. An escape from a brothel, sex in a cave, a shark with a bad habit, and one very large wave.

The Highest Tide is "...a sexy adventure tale", according to RT Reviews. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books said:

I enjoyed the romance between Lera and Jason. For two people who met under deceptive terms, they are pretty direct, and I like the fact that Lera is much more of an action person than Jason. I liked it that they worked well together, and that Jason never questions or is threatened by Lera’s fighting or sea-faring abilities. Lera is an incredibly engaging heroine...

Plus, I have a fun interview and giveaway with The Reading Cafe! Find out which are the only letters that haven't been worn off my keyboard, and how a cat once brought me a note.

Read the first chapter of The Highest Tide here, and get the book at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo or Samhain's website. Enjoy!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Ender's Game, the film




When I heard Ender's Game was being made into a film, I was skeptical. The book is very character-driven, with so much happening inside Ender’s head, that I doubted a movie would work. So I waited until I could borrow the DVD from the library.

While the book will always be my favorite science fiction novel, Orson Scott Card went from being a writer whose skill I respected to a paranoid homophobe. But that’s not the reason I felt this movie wasted my time.

Everything that the book did well, the movie fails at. The book isolates Ender; he doesn’t get along with Bean at first, he’s separated from his friend Alai, and he has to defeat Petra’s army. It’s made very clear that as a commander, he cannot be chummy with subordinates. Which is why the scene at the end where he hears them speak to him, and realizes he’s going into battle with them, is so moving.

Here, they’re his pals from the start. The part where a boy sprains an ankle just before battle is so contrived, as is the magical substitution of Petra to fill in the gap in Ender’s circle of friends. Graff would never have done that to either Ender or Salamander Army.

Speaking of Salamander, in the book, Bonzo is a serious threat. In the film, he’s a foot shorter than Ender. What were they thinking? Bonzo is more muscular, but that height difference works against him. It was like watching a terrier confront a Great Dane. And it’s not as though Bonzo is written as a midget in the book. He’s a secondary character who could have been played by someone bigger than Asa Butterfield.

But the film really fell flat in the depiction of the battles. Those are my favorite part of the book. Ender’s Dragon Army starts out with a routine fight, but things quickly escalate from there. At first he has a battle every day. Then Salamander Army is let into the Battle Room before them and there’s nowhere to hide. And so it builds up to the final battle of the exhausted Dragons against two armies, when you know Ender is going to lose—and, as he tells Bean, he can’t afford to lose even a single fight.

The film shows one battle. One.

If time was limited, why not make this two movies? The problem with smooshing all of those battles into one is that there’s no sense of progression and improvement. The book presented clear problems and showed how Ender outthought them. Here, it’s as though Ender makes intuitive leaps of genius in a few days at most.

By having multiple battles, there was also a sense that Ender wasn’t the only brilliant or mature kid in the school: he learned from Carn Carby, he depended on Bean to come up with ideas, and so on. Whereas in the film, there are only two commanders, Ender and Bonzo. Who is not just a midget but easily dealt with—he’s scalded by boiling water which doesn’t seem to bother Ender at all.

Then again, Peter fares just as badly. In the book, it’s clear that although he’s something of a sociopath, he’s also intelligent, ambitious and manipulative. Here, he’s just a homicidal thug. I couldn’t imagine anyone in their right mind even considering him for Battle School. I didn’t expect the Locke/Demosthenes subplot, but why even have him in the movie if all he does is try to kill Ender?

I could go on and on—how ridiculous it is for a hive queen to skulk around ten minutes’ walk from the bunker, how Asa Butterfield is about as expressive as Kristen Stewart—but in the end, the greatest travesty is that the emotional power of the book is nowhere in evidence. I felt nothing while I watched this. I didn’t even want to listen to the director’s commentary, because one look at a sterile, jumpsuited future filled with lasers and explosions was enough for me.

So to summarize, there’s CGI and action sequences where things get blowed up real good, like Michael Bay minus crassness and hot chicks. If you need more, look elsewhere.


Monday, February 9, 2015

My thoughts on genderswapping


On the Absolute Write forums, people have occasionally suggested genderswapping if the story needs more female characters, or if the story needs to be shaken up and viewed in a different way. Though in one particular discussion, people expressed opinions I didn’t agree with.

When a character can work as both a man or women, and be equally compelling either way, that character is probably a damn good character ... a character that happens to be human first, and male/female second.

I can think of any numbers of characters who wouldn’t work if they were completely gender-neutral, and who are still damn good characters. Try making Scarlett O’Hara a sixteen-year-old boy pining for a lady who went off to fight at Gettysburg. Or Tom Robinson a black woman accused of raping a white man.

I don't understand how you can't switch the genders, I really can't. I mean, does the male character constantly check out the females? Are they in the the army or something, are they gruff, do they curse, etc? How wouldn't that work for a woman?

How wouldn’t that work for a woman? I don’t know, I get the impression there weren’t that many women working on Lord Nelson’s flagship or standing guard in a Roman army camp.

It’s not easy to have women playing significant roles under certain circumstances. It can certainly be done, because as Kameron Hurley’s brilliant essay points out, women have fought throughout history. Returning to my original home, there was a corps of female Tamil guerillas in the LTTE.

But some armies were, on the face of it at least, all-male. If some of those soldiers were women in disguise, the story should show how they manage to pass as male during the weeks they spend in, say, the cramped quarters of a German U-boat. Genderswapping after the story is written could involve significant changes to the narrative (readers are likely to expect the character’s secret to be revealed in time, and to have consequences).

Here’s another thing that will only work for women: getting pregnant. Outside of the speculative fiction genres, pregnancy as a plot twist just won’t work for men. I recently submitted a manuscript where, in Victorian England, the antagonist seduced and impregnated the hero’s fiancĂ©e.

Genderswap this. The heroine’s intended was seduced by another woman who now claims to be pregnant. The first question out of the heroine’s mouth will be : how do we even know there is a child, and it’s yours? Plus, there just wasn’t that much of an emphasis on men remaining virgins at that time.

A real or fictional society that has gender differences or bias usually means that the author has taken into account the genders of the characters when writing the story. It’s not as though these were picked by the toss of a coin, such that they can be easily swapped later.

I have a Christmas story coming out from Samhain later this year, where a man living alone opens his door on a freezing night to find a near-naked woman outside. She has an unconvincing story for how she got there, but he lets her stay overnight.

Genderswap this, and a woman who’s living alone will have to let a strange, near-naked man spend the night in her house. I’d be surprised if the possibility of assault didn’t occur to her, putting a damper on the romance.

Makes me wonder if they people who can't gender switch just haven't met enough people or their cultural gender roles are so inundated that they can't separate it from the person.

Or maybe they’re telling a different kind of story from the one you want, which is not in and of itself a bad thing.

Try genderswapping the characters in a Harlequin Presents story and see if Harlequin still wants it. I’ve never read Harlequin Presents, but a lot of readers love the rich sexy alpha males in this imprint’s books.

Ditto for some mainstream romances. I think a romance between a tough, sociopathic female assassin who saves a nervous, clueless, sexually inexperienced man could find a market… but it would be smaller than the number of readers who enjoyed the reverse. I’ll go so far as to say that a mainstream publisher will want the man to be able to hold his own at least sexually, whereas it’s not such a problem if the woman can’t.

This isn’t a matter of the authors not being experienced enough to write differently, or having very traditional gender roles in mind. It’s a matter of them writing to the market, and if that’s what they want to do, it’s their choice. Though it’s great when authors challenge the expectations of that market, as Courtney Milan does in her historicals, but I also think such envelope-pushing has to be done with care. Ditto for genderswapping.

So to summarize…

Genderswapping is like any other tool in an author’s repertoire. No tool works for every situation at every time. There are some stories which will benefit from changing the characters’ genders, and others which won’t, and it’s up to the individual author to know the difference.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Five kinds of atheistic characters I won't read about


1. Atheist is morally bankrupt

Sometimes the authors aren’t even trying to make a sheep-vs-goats statement here. They just think it would be dramatic to write:

“He arrived at the harbor late, but his cargo of uncut heroin and underaged prostitutes was nowhere in sight. Had something happened? Vladimir Khorupt was an atheist, but he found himself praying.”

I’ve never seen it the other way around, though : “Because she was an atheist and didn’t believe in an afterlife, Jacey Summers did her best to help people in this one.” So if the book isn’t intended to make any kind of moral judgment, either play fair or leave off the mentions of religion/lack thereof.

2. Atheist is bitter or miserable

There’s a Graham Masterton book I put down because one of the characters, Dean, is an unpleasant misanthrope described as an atheist. The others call him Mean Dean, just to drive home what a nasty piece of work he is.

IMO, if such a character went down on his knees and embraced Islam this minute, he’d still be as pleasant as fingernails on a chalkboard. Except then he’d also think women should cover up. It has nothing to do with whether or not he’s religious, in other words. Unbelievers can enjoy life too.

3. Atheist became that way after a tragedy

The stereotype of an atheist is someone who believed in God until he lost a loved one. At this point he fell to his knees, screamed “NOOOOO!” at the uncaring sky, and became Darth Vader.

How popular is this stereotype? Well, after my mother died, an (extremely religious) friend of hers called up to ask me to go to church with her. No thank you, I said, because I’m an atheist. Shocked, she told me I shouldn’t allow my mother’s death to harden my heart. That was 2004, and I’d deconverted in 1999.

It was hardly a dramatic event, either, because I just read a lot before it happened. No screaming involved, at the sky or at anything else.

4. Atheist is the subject of a punish-the-protagonist story

I genuinely hate these, and although I might try the occasional inspirational novel, I stay away from any that might have this plot. Unfortunately it can crop up stealthily elsewhere.

In Dean Koontz’s short story “Twilight of the Dawn”, an early hint of the author’s detour into conservative preaching, the main character is so hardcore he tells his son there’s no Santa Claus. For this, he must be made to pay, so both his wife and son die, with the son praying for him until the end. And the main character keeps suffering until he repents of his evil ways and decides there’s a loving God after all.

I might not mind a well-written conversion story where the atheist researches a religion he’s curious about, and we see why this religion works for him and is a rewarding addition to his life. But I’m not interested in conversion-through-misery, which rings about as true as deconversion-through-tragedy.

5. Atheist is superior to everyone else

This is the rarest of the subspecies, but I thought Darwin Minor, the hero of Dan Simmons’ Darwin's Blade, fitted it. As well as having a physics degree and a background as a sniper in Vietnam, he’s a brilliant chess player and an incredibly well-read investigator, so he can outfight, outshoot and outthink anyone. It’s like the Terminator and Sheldon Cooper had a baby together.

I don’t find this kind of character offensive, unless the story turns into a tract, but at the same time I’d much prefer even-handed treatment. In real life, religious beliefs are no guarantee of morality any more than atheism is an sign of genius. If these are used in fiction as shortcuts, there are much better ways to show personality.

And if these are ways readers can predict what will happen to the characters, all I can say is, I’m avoiding those stories.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Something shiny to share!


















These arrived in the mail. Aren't they pretty? Especially with a review quote from Smart Bitches, Trashy Books on the cover.

So I'm giving one away on Goodreads, a paperback copy for a lucky winner in the States or Canada. And there may be enclosed a bookmark made with mine own fair hand as well. Don't wait, click to win!



Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Deepest Ocean by Marian Perera

The Deepest Ocean

by Marian Perera

Giveaway ends February 10, 2015.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter to win

Friday, January 30, 2015

Othello




Othello is a well-made, well-acted and incredibly frustrating film.

I didn’t realize I’d have such a strong reaction to it. I’d read the play, so I knew how the story went, but watching events unfold was much more visceral an experience. And quite frankly, not one I want to repeat.

To start with the good: the acting is great. Lawrence Fishburne has immense presence as Othello, and I like the passion and spirit of Irene Jacob’s Desdemona. Kenneth Branagh stole the show, but then again, that’s what Iago usually does. I especially like the motif of the chess pieces, and how his tipping them into the well foreshadows what happens at the end of the film. Beautiful sets, costumes, music, the works.

No, what made me not want to watch the film again was the story.

It was easy to see the roots of Othello’s jealousy. Set apart by virtue of his race, he holds on to his position among the upper-class Venetians because of his value as a general. But once he goes to Cyprus, the Turkish fleet has already been destroyed. That’s a joyous event, but it also means there’s nothing more for Othello to do there, no way to keep proving his worth. As far as insecurity goes, that’s enough of a breeding ground for Iago.

I kept wondering, though: what does Iago really want? If it’s to be Othello’s lieutenant, Iago gets that after he plies Cassio with drink and instigates a brawl. He could stop there, but instead he goes on to poison Othello’s mind against Desdemona. “I hate the Moor”, he says at one point, but later, he engages in a blood-brother ritual with Othello and tearfully embraces him.

The power of Branagh’s acting is to make these disparate elements seem different facets of the same complex character, rather than inconsistencies. I’m not sure what Iago hoped to end up with eventually—everyone dead except for himself? Maybe. But I didn’t need to know that to be fascinated by his personality, not to mention his ability to keep half a dozen puppets dancing at the same time.

The frustrating part of the film isn’t just to see how Othello swallows everything hook, line and sinker, because a lot of people would succumb to expert manipulation. It’s everything that happens after that. He could question Desdemona openly and try to trust her. Failing that, he could leave her.

Failing even that, he could, if he felt justified in murdering her, do so quickly and painlessly.

Instead he puts her through hell. He insults her, humiliates her, hits her and finally forces her to endure a terrifying ordeal and a long-drawn-out death. It was nothing short of domestic abuse. And no matter how many glycerine tears Othello himself cries in the process, I couldn’t help feeling this wasn’t so much a good, decent man giving in to his fatal flaw as a wolf who was finally getting to take his sheep suit off.

So to sum it up: a very well-done film that, because of the subject matter, I found too depressing to watch again.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

First impressions of heroes


Among the many warnings in How Not to Write a Novel is that the first thing the character does shouldn’t be off-putting (e.g. ogling a stranger, going to the bathroom) unless the author wants that impression of the character to be firmly fixed in the reader’s mind.

That was made clear in a couple of romances I critiqued recently. In one, the hero was at an extremely low ebb at the start—depressed, lonely and drunk. In another, the hero was much younger than the heroine, to the point where I thought he was about ten years old. When he noticed her breasts, it was a massive turn-off.

Romance revolves on the hero. He doesn’t have to be a former SEAL billionaire who now runs a BDSM club when he isn’t racing with his biker buddies. But he does have to be someone readers can find attractive or interesting.

Some of the keepers on my romance shelf have unconventional heroes. A mortician. A near-sociopathic assassin. A man who’s developmentally disabled. But all of them were assertive in their different ways, able to hold their own among their peers. Even if they were younger than the heroine, or less intelligent, they didn’t give me the impression of being weak and powerless.

So what’s to be done, if the story begins with the hero helpless or broken in some way?

Change the start

In one of my keepers, Pamela Morsi’s Wild Oats, the first time Jedwin Sparrow sees Cora Briggs, he’s perhaps fourteen or fifteen, while she’s twenty—not just a mature woman, but a divorcee. He’s intensely aroused both by her reputation (or lack thereof) and her beauty.

But if the story had started with a teenager getting an erection over an older woman, it would have reminded me of Mary Kay Letourneau. I might not have read further.

Instead, though, the story begins ten years later, when he’s an adult and a professional man, making enough money to offer Mrs. Briggs an indecent proposal. Although he’s younger and less experienced than she is, they’re on a much more equal footing from the start, because he knows what he wants and is going after it, rather than being a tongue-tied, sweaty schoolboy. That flashback comes later, once the first impression of him is clearly cemented.

Make it clear he’s more than the sum of his problems

This was an issue in the story where the hero was drunk and depressed at the start. There wasn’t much to his personality other than “sad boozer”.

Whereas there are tons of romances which begin with a hero in jail or in an asylum or chained to an oar as a galley slave (I’m guessing here), and which are great reads because the hero is intriguing. He doesn’t have to be innocent of the crime which landed him in prison, and he can be in Bedlam for what people of that time thought were good reasons (e.g. Summer Devon’s and Bonnie Dee’s The Gentleman's Madness).

But if he’s strong and intelligent, and if he fights back in even a small way, that will be part of the readers’ first impression too. And believe me, a lot of people love a Hurt-Comfort read. They just need to know that your Hurt hero is worth Comforting. :)