Friday, January 29, 2010

The King and Dr. Nick

My mother was a great fan of Elvis Presley, and to this day I can’t hear his name – let alone his music – without remembering her. Her favorite book about him was written by his ex-wife Priscilla. That memoir didn’t really appeal to me, but I recently noticed another one from the point of view of Elvis’s personal doctor and requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of the Book Review Blogger program.

I was interested in learning more about both Elvis’s drug use and physical problems, and The King and Dr. Nick, by George Nichopoulos, certainly delivered. Some of these details can’t be made up. Apparently Elvis once took a week’s worth of medication in one day so that he could get well sooner. He also tried the “sleep diet”, where he was supposed to sleep for some time and wake up later, lighter. Unfortunately he had to take fluids intravenously during this nap, and the fluids were so high in sugar that he ended up gaining a few pounds.

So Dr Nichopoulos had an uphill task that – at first – consisted of damage control after Elvis’s hectic schedule, poor eating habits, fad diets and insomnia had had their way with his health.

I asked [the cooks] to reduce the starches and skillet-fried foods. They just stared back at me as if I were crazy. I got it. Elvis was their boss and they would cook what he told them to cook.

Then there was the drug use. As well as the medication that Dr Nichopoulos prescribed, Elvis received pills from other doctors, from a dentist and from his own sources. There wasn’t a lot of communication among Elvis’s entourage, let alone his doctors, about what he was taking.

After unearthing such a stash during one of Elvis’s hospital stays, Dr Nichopoulous dealt with it by substituting placebos for the actual medication. This strategy had the potential for critical backfire, since if a patient feels that a regular dose (which is actually a placebo) isn’t having an effect, he might try to step it up. Which would be fine if he took two placebos instead, but what if he bought actual pills from a pharmacist and took two of those?

Like others before him, Dr Nichopoulos was also sucked into the Elvis vortex. For all his generosity and kindness, the King demanded a lot of attention from his court, and his doctor had to be available to him on his terms. This meant that Dr Nichopoulos neglected his practice, and his partners ended up working overtime to take care of his other patients.

Elvis compensated with gifts of diamond rings and necklaces. Dr Nichopoulos’s recounting of all this is honest and direct, but his actions at the time weren’t what I’d look for in a health care professional. There are also some discrepancies between the accounts in this book and Priscilla Presley’s claims of Elvis’s use of both medication and recreational drugs in her book Elvis and Me.

Finally, after Elvis’s death, the Medical Board of Examiners took Dr Nichopoulos to task for overprescription of drugs. What killed Elvis Presley hasn't been conclusively proved – it may have been his existing medical problems, which included a family history of heart disease, it may have been the ten to fourteen drugs he was taking at the time, or it may have been a combination of the two. Either way, though, the Medical Board revoked Dr Nichopoulos’s license in 1995.

All along I’ve been looking at this from the point of view of someone studying to work in health care some day. But from another angle, the tragedy of Elvis Presley’s too-short life comes through clearly - especially the details of him struggling to perform several concerts in a week, with his health poised in the balance. Too much fame, too much pressure, too much charisma and control. And chemicals.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Before the Storm cover art

It's here!

Odd though this might sound, my favorite part is the gears at the bottom (behind my name). They're the final, subtle touch that really makes the cover work for me. :) Samhain did an excellent job.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Small imperfections

I’d like to see more small physical imperfections on characters.

Physical deformities are interesting provided they aren’t either 1. birthmarks shaped like crowns/swords/hawks, indicating the character’s noble blood, or 2. “everyone around her says it’s ugly but we know better” features. Something like a skunk-streak in the heroine’s hair, for instance. That kind of thing tends to be coolness hiding behind a fig leaf of supposed imperfection. I’d like to see imperfection that’s treated accordingly.

One of my favorite facial blemishes is the port-wine stain, which is easy to fall back on since it affects a relatively large number of people. That, and it’s not a horribly disfiguring thing like a character missing a nose, so you could still have readers seeing such a character as attractive but not by any means perfect.

I’m kind of biased, though, since I have three small black birthmarks on my nose that, believe it or not, I never noticed until I went back to the Middle East for a holiday. A family member pointed them out and after that I kept seeing them when I looked in a mirror. I think if you connected the dots, you’d get an isoceles triangle.

Birthmarks can be bluish or brown as well, and in a speculative fiction story they could conceivably be any color and could therefore have interesting names. For instance, yellow birthmarks could be called sunspots. There’s also a real-life birthmark called a “stork bite” or “angel’s kiss”. Maybe dark-skinned characters have reverse freckles – a scattering of lighter spots on their skin.

And odd-looking blemishes on the eyelids would be fun to play with. Other characters might not be certain if they’ve actually seen those – not until the blemished character is asleep, anyway.

Baldness or a receding hairline are options, as are crooked teeth. Even a receding chin. Or what about a character having suffered nerve damage to one side of her face? It won’t be too evident until she smiles or laughs; at that point, others notice that only one corner of her mouth turns up.

That was fun to imagine.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Errors in books and manuscripts

I must confess: I’m a perfectionist, and never more so than when it comes to spelling, grammar and punctuation. So such mistakes do stand out to me. Even the errors I don’t notice, in my manuscripts, will be caught by my editor(s).

But what about writers who don’t notice mistakes/typos and who may not have editors? Anyone being printed by a vanity press is unlikely to have an editor – in fact, with many vanity presses, editing costs extra. MS Word’s spellcheck feature isn’t an adequate substitute. And writers who are self-published may have to hire editors, which is an additional cost.

As a result, many self-published or vanity-printed books are released with errors in them. That can be a learning experience for the writer. Or it can be excused away with justifications.

Other books have mistakes too.

My favorite example of this? A vanity-printed writer once expressed concern about the typos and grammatical problems in her book. Another writer (with the same press) told her,

Don't worry about a few insignificant mistakes. I have a copy of the first edition of "Gone With the Wind." It has six mistakes that didn't distract from great writing.

Man. Where to start?

Firstly, a new book by an unknown author can’t be compared to the Great American Novel. Secondly, I’m willing to bet that that writer’s book was considerably shorter. Six mistakes over the course of 1048 pages aren’t as noticeable as, say, six mistakes in 200 pages.

Finally, the one thing I do agree with is that GWTW has great writing. If a writer feels that his or her work is as good, such that it will compensate for errors and typos… well, the royalty statements will tell.

It doesn’t matter to me whether every other book published has mistakes or not – mine are going to be as clean and tidy as possible before they’re released.

The mistakes won’t interfere with the story.

This one’s a bit trickier because I can think of an exception to it.

I read Margaret Weis’s and Don Perrin’s The Doom Brigade and thoroughly enjoyed it. Stories told from the point of view of antagonists who have lost a war (and are now just trying to survive) are inherently interesting. So when I heard there was a sequel - Draconian Measures - I bought it at once, sight unseen.

There were two glaring errors in that book. One is where a gagged character screams for help, and the second is where an Aurak’s wings are described as “trembling in fear”… except the Aurak are the only draconian sub-class which doesn’t have wings. I still finished the book – it wasn’t really memorable, but it was a pleasant read.

On the other hand, those mistakes were jarring. When they turned up, I went over the relevant parts of the story for a second time to see if I’d misread something. So that did distract me from the story a little. I liked the characters very much – and if I like characters, I’ll put up with a lot of problems – but that won’t be the case for all books. Or all potential readers, for that matter.

It also helped that these errors didn’t crop up until at least the halfway point of the book. By then I was more or less settled in, curious to see what would happen to the draconians. If the problems had been evident earlier – and if I had been reading the first few pages in the bookstore to see if the book was worth buying – there might have been a different outcome.

Readers are forgiving.

Some are, some aren’t. And even if readers enjoy the story, excuse the mistakes or believe that if you can’t say something positive, you shouldn’t say anything at all, are unbiased reviewers likely to feel the same way?

Personally, I believe that a writer who doesn’t accept those excuses is more likely to improve than one who does.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Characters of color in speculative fiction

I didn't see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had "violet eyes").

Ooh, poor Daenerys.

I rarely think about the skin color of characters, mostly because I’m usually trying to come up with biological features to differentiate races. Lateral lines, glass instead of eyes, metallic spurs, that kind of thing. I only mention skin color when it serves to distinguish a particular species.

On the other hand, I don’t think I ever went out of my way to make sure any characters were clearly black, or obviously Far Eastern (though that’s partly because I don’t use Earth as a setting). Even in The Mark of Vurth, which is set in an Africa-esque land, I didn’t specify that anyone was black, although I had a blonde minor character.

There are probably several books where characters of color play supporting roles – Nenisi Conor in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines is the wise and beautiful (but non-exclusive) lover of the heroine. But I’m finding it difficult to think of books where the main characters are clearly black, Native American, Asian, Far Eastern, etc. The only ones which came to mind right away are Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed.

An old edition of the book has a beautiful cover painting which shows this. And the heroine of Kara Dalkey’s Goa is Indian.

So here are a couple of questions.

1. Should we make an effort to include characters of color in our work?

Personally, I can’t see myself doing this unless the story called for it. Partly because I believe we all pick what we want to show and promote in our work. Another writer may want to draw attention to the lack of minorities in fantasy and science fiction – and what better way than to write an excellent book where all the characters are people of color?*

But I’d rather portray science and technology in a positive way in my books. Even if I could do both, I know which issue I feel more strongly about, and if I included too many of the causes I support, the books would stop being fantasy stories and start being thinly veiled rhetoric.

It’s also going to be difficult, at best, to write characters of color into historical fantasy. Especially in a setting where such people were just not that common, they’re going to stand out. They’ll be noticed. Even today, there are groups which believe in the superiority of one race over another, so there may be even stronger sentiments in the past.

"Even now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe."
-- Othello

2. Would you like to see more characters of color in speculative fiction?

I must be colorblind, because I usually don’t even notice. Until I read a post which mentioned the lack of Chinese characters in the Chinese/American ‘verse of Firefly, it didn’t occur to me that there was such a deficiency, or that only one member of the cast was black. The show was just so good that I didn’t notice.

Though maybe that’s just me. Even though I’m an Asian who migrated to first the States and then Canada, the issue of skin color has never been an important one for me. My answer would be that I’d just like to see interesting and realistic characters – they can be green-skinned Orion slave girls as long as they have interesting personalities.

What do you think?

*I only realized the significance of this when I read The Tombs of Atuan. Towards the end, Ged tells Tenar that she will be known as the White Lady of Gont, and that’s when it dawned on me why he was specifying the “white” part. Until then, I’d barely registered the characters’ skin color.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Choice

I don’t usually read inspirational fiction, but I was curious about the Amish life and community. So I requested a copy of Suzanne Woods Fisher’s novel The Choice, the story of a young woman’s coming of age in a community that’s very different from the rest of the world – and yet which has to coexist with it.

Carrie Weaver has a simple dream with potentially serious consequences. She wants to marry Solomon Riehl and run away with him as he pursues his dream of becoming a star baseball player, even though this will mean leaving their Amish community behind. Unfortunately – or fortunately, given that she has no experience of the outside world – her father dies. Left responsible for her younger brother, she chooses to take care of him rather than go with Solomon.

She also decides to marry a young man called Daniel, because he’s decent and responsible and she can’t take care of her brother on her own. Daniel understands that she’s not in love with him and gives her time, so their relationship grows steadily warmer.

Meanwhile, Solomon, while enjoying initial success as “The Riehl Deal”, soon discovers that his fame is ephemeral and there’s little else for him in the wide world – except that there may be no place for him in the Amish community either. Especially because Carrie doesn’t want him any longer.

I’m trying not to give away too many spoilers, because this book wasn’t entirely predictable – neither Daniel nor Solomon, for instance, is the hero. That’s someone else entirely. I also won’t go into details of the other deaths or near-death events. Potentially life-threatening medical conditions are that much more serious when there’s a lack of telephones or quick transportation, and there’s an arsonist at work in the community as well.

Still, the author paints a sweet if somewhat Thomas Kinkade-ish painting of what life can be like for the Amish. This book fits the impirational part of the genre: there’s a strong theme of forgiveness, and yet the religious factor was never overwhelming. Carrie’s faith has a quiet dignity which I liked.

There’s some contrast of the empty pizza boxes of the Outside World with the hotcakes-and-apple-butter of the Amish, but it goes the other way as well. Carrie’s sister marries an outsider and is promptly shunned. Her family can’t even say her name from then on. I didn’t buy the development, because the sister was portrayed as devoutly religious, but I did enjoy learning about the Amish customs in this regard.

On the other hand, things are wrapped up in too pretty a parcel at the end. As well as Carrie finally finding happiness with a man she loves, her sister falls in love, Solomon falls in love, and even Carrie’s cruel stepmother seems to have a chaste and low-key romance brewing. The arsonist is non-Amish, vulgar and oversexed, and is defeated handily.

So although this is the first book in the Lancaster County Secrets series, I’m not in a hurry to find the rest. It was a pleasant enough read, just not compelling.

The Choice was sent to me by Graf-Martin Communications and is available now at your favorite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Five more bizarre book titles

The sequel to this post, and although I haven’t yet found anything that reached the heights of Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, Learns to Say "No" to Drugs, there are some... interesting... titles out there…

1. Stones of the Dalai Lama

I’m sure he has a very nice rock collection…

2. Scouts in Bondage

The subtitle is “A Story of Boy Scouts in Strange Adventure”, and this was published in 1935, so I’m sure the author intended it to be wholesome fare for upstanding young lads. Unfortunately, now it just makes people think that that’s why the Scouts learn so much about tying knots.

3. I Don’t Need to Have Children, I Date Them

The book is about using child psychology to deal with men, but the title suggests the author must be Mary Kay Letourneau.

4. Big Dick McCrakin

The first sentence of the book’s description is “Dick is a trucker”. Between the nickname and the profession, I think he’s trying to compensate for something.

5. I Wish My Kids Had Cancer

This one takes the prize for worst subtitle as well – “A Family Surviving the Autism Epidemic”. Because autism is so bad that your kids would be better off with an agonizing and possibly terminal illness instead?

Personally, I wish those children will never be aware of that book’s existence.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Weather in fantasy

Weather is a good way to flesh out fantasy worlds and complicate matters for characters. Here are a few ways to use it…

Weather control through magic

Given how much of the economy depends on the weather, people who can predict (or better yet, control it) have a great deal of power. In the Iliad, Agamemnon even sacrificed his daughter so that his army would have a safe passage home. That’s an interesting twist – you can control the weather, but only by giving up something of great value.

Such global or large-scale control could be too unbalancing, though. What about local or very small-scale control? Considering the average temperature here right now, I wouldn’t mind magic which kept a tiny, 25-degree-Celsius zone around me no matter where I went.

Maybe this could be governed by a small object like a miniature snow globe (or sun globe, depending on what weather is needed).

Negative effects of weather

Bad weather should cause problems for characters – problems ranging from inconvenience (rain results in a cold camp with no fire) to fatality (a blizzard kills most of the reinforcements sent to relieve the heroes) to disaster (an unseasonable ice storm ruins the harvest and means thousands of people will starve over the winter).

And that’s just in the colder areas. If the heroes are traveling through a desert, do they know what to do in a sandstorm? And maybe they’re prepared for desert heat, but are they also ready for desert rain? A group of teenagers in Dubai once drove out to a wadi and decided to swim. They were still in the water when a flash flood struck.

Unusual weather

I wasn’t able to get very far into Steven Erickson’s Malazan
novels, but my favorite aspect of the worldbuilding is the Whirlwind in the Raraku Desert – a great sorcerous wall of wind and sand, constantly in motion. Try crossing that. I’d love to see more such phenomena – a permanent blizzard, maybe?

In Ray Bradbury’s story “The Long Rain”, a human crew survive a crash-landing on Venus, but the planet is a place of permanent rain.

…it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains. It came by the pound and the ton, it hacked at the jungle and cut the trees like scissors and shaved the grass and tunneled the soil and molted the bushes. It shrank men's hands into the hands of wrinkled apes; it rained a solid glassy rain, and it never stopped.

Permanent summer/winter (or fall or spring, more rarely seen) are possibilities too. So are seasons lasting for years or longer, as in Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Spring, where the planet revolves around a binary star system. Individual seasons stretch for centuries, affecting all life on Helliconia; humans are dominant in the summer and white-furred phagors in the winter.

Even under more normal conditions, people in a medieval world will have to make preparations for poor weather, especially if they can’t predict how long it might last. Gathering, hunting, preparing and stockpiling food, bringing in flocks, collecting fuel, reinforcing shelters… a heroine who returns to her snowbound village with gold and glory might be less welcome than one who simply comes home with some sacks of corn.

The weather is not a mirror

I’m guilty of this. At least thrice now, I’ve had a protagonist fight a climactic battle while a storm raged overhead. It’s dramatic and symbolic (and in one case, the storm played an unexpected role in the battle), but it has the potential to be abused.

The weather can too often be reflection of the characters’ moods – she’s grief-stricken, so the rain falls; he realizes she loved him all along, and the sun shines down from clouds drawing apart. Sometimes that works, as in Gone with the Wind, when Rhett walks away into a misty night to show the ambiguousity of the ending. That’s subtle.

What wouldn’t work is if the narrative explicitly underlined the symbolism, or worse, descended into anthropomorphism. Something like:

As she began to dig the grave, the skies wept above her.

Because the weather doesn’t care about the characters… unless it’s caused by a weather god, maybe.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

One-word titles

Back in the eighties, I enjoyed the crisp one-word titles of Dean Koontz's books. Whispers. Watchers. Midnight.

Intriguing. Compelling. Terse. And reflecting the content of the books too. I find that to be true of many of his current books as well.

Amanda Quick did this for romance novels as well. I’d gotten tired of flowery titles like “The Pirate’s Passion” and “The Duke’s Desire” (even those do convey information about the time period and the characters), so it was a refreshing change to see titles like Mischief, Mystique and Rendezvous.

Not only are those to-the-point while still being romantic, they remind me of the names of perfumes. Always a good thing. The same goes for novels like Shirley Conran’s Lace.

On the other hand, I couldn’t think of any fantasy novels with one-word titles that I found really memorable. Erewhon, maybe, but that’s because it’s an anagram of nowhere. A one-word title would ideally convey the genre, but that’s difficult to do with a proper noun - when I first picked up Kara Dalkey's Goa, I thought it was a historical novel set in the Indian city.

Even New Crobuzon isn’t as evocative as Perdido Street Station. That hints at something lost, while simultaneously showing the industrialized nature of the setting.

Are there any one-word titles you especially like, of fantasy novels or otherwise?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope it'll be a happy and productive time for us all. I'm completing the first round of edits for my manuscript, and trying to get it done before classes start again.

I also borrowed Lynn Grabhorn's Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting: The Astonishing Power of Feelings from the library after someone recommended it as a good way to achieve success in life. It was a New York Times bestseller, so I was expecting something interesting, if not revolutionary.

Warning in advance : this is not going to be a favorable review.

I’ll start with the pros, though. Grabhorn’s main theme is that emotions have power, and positive emotions help us achieve what we want. I agree with this. I’ve always felt that optimism and joie de vivre are not only attractive to other people, but are beneficial in accomplishment as well. So while this wasn’t exactly original, it was fine.

The problem is that Grabhorn turns this simple idea into an entire pseudo-religion, revolving around “vibrations” and the Law of Attraction. The Law of Attraction, by the way, is that like attracts like (we’re dealing with metaphysics rather than physics here). Therefore, if your vibrations are positive, you will attract positive things and see positive outcomes in your life.

And if you vibrate positively enough, the entire universe will give you what you want. Grabhorn is short on evidence, providing perhaps a dozen anecdotes of people who followed her philosophy (and I use the term loosely) and ended up miraculously successful. But she’s long on buzzwords. And I use that term literally.

The third, which we’ll explore now, is called “buzzing”, which gives you a RIGHT NOW change in vibration… You are in absolute alignment with your Inner Being/Expanded Self… and… you can feel the sensation right smack in the pit of your stomach!

That’s what makes buzzing so much fun. Through emotion, you’re creating an undeniable physical sensation… (pg 110)

Was it good for you too?

At that point I realized I was right smack in the pit of a New Age tome, but since I’d shivered my way to the library to pick it up, I decided to finish it. Grabhorn is also fond of using the term “WHOOSH!” (repeated seven times on page 106 alone) and of stretching out the word “feel” (done so many times I lost count).

Just remember, you must feeeeel the passion behind every word.

Until the two-thirds point, though, the book was merely silly. Then it got into the causes of illness and death and became offensive as well.

Illness exists for only one reason: someone has flowed more low-frequency energy than high… Always! People who are sick have shut themselves off from their Lifeline. (pg 187)

Also, accidents only affect people who think negative thoughts, and there’s an example of this. The mother of one of Ms. Grabhorn’s closest friends was killed when a boulder was tossed from an overpass and it hit her car. Unbelievably, the author lays responsibility for this on the dead woman, because she was “resentful” of some things in life. The man who caused her death was her “executioner”.

And that’s not even getting into how genocide is caused by people who focus on negative events in the past. I get the impression that Lifeline/Inner Self/whatever it’s called is frighteningly devoid of empathy, since all this culminates in the section titled “Death Is a Joke”. Here, the author claims that when people “die”, they’re actually “bipping from one frequency to another”.

I don’t normally read this kind of book, let alone review it, but at that point I was so repelled that I decided to keep others from wasting their time (or worse, money). Especially since the blurb is about believing in yourself and gives no indication of the lunacy within.

As a postscript, I went to Amazon to check what other readers thought of this book. That was where I learned that Ms. Grabhorn is now “dead”. Opinions are divided as to whether this was due to cirrhosis of the liver, suicide brought on by schizophrenia or “an invisible entity that was murderous in intent” - link. Oh, and there are claims that she plagiarized parts of this book, but I don’t think I’ll be reading the source material to find out.