Saturday, October 30, 2010

Burial in fantasy

Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.
Stephen King, Pet Semetary

Burial practices vary from culture to culture. Burial and cremation are common in First World countries, but the Zoroastrians believe that dead bodies pollute earth or fire. So they place corpses at the top of a tower – sometimes called a tower of silence - and exposed to birds of prey and natural decomposition.

If burial is intended to preserve the corpse, there are several ways to do this. Corpses could be immersed in wax – or better still, embalmed. In the far north, they might be frozen – imagine a huge berg/graveyard with headstones carved from ice. The classic example comes from the ancient Egyptians, who extracted internal organs and preserved those along with the bodies.

Makes you wonder if their elaborate tombs are to keep robbers out or to keep the dead in. Maybe both.

Of course, some burials are intended to have a different result. In the Stephen King novel, two graveyards are different sides of the same coin – there’s the Pet Semetary, where pets are buried, and there’s the Micmac burial ground beyond it. That’s the place from which animals – and humans – can come back.

Sailors have no choice but to carry out burial at sea, though they may also try salt preservation of corpses. Assuming they have the time and the space to carry these, which is by no means a given. What if each such ship had a specially bred shark following it for that purpose, though? Each time someone was newly dead or near dead, the body would be given to the shark, so that some part of the person’s soul would live on in the creature’s body.

There are other options for burials – placing a corpse within the heart of a hollow tree and closing that up, for instance. Or there may be a special city set aside for that purpose – a necropolis or gravetown. Or burial may be seen as more wasteful than continuing to utilize the body. Maybe it’s offered to an alien species which needs hosts and which is happy to accept the gift.

Burial of the dead is one of the things that links us to the earliest humans, and can be a fascinating part of another culture.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

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Sunday, October 24, 2010

Your Money God's Way

I was skeptical about this book.

My parents, who were devout Christians, would lend money to anyone whom they perceived as similarly devout Christians, with the result that they were nearly defrauded out of thousands of dollars. I wasn’t sure if Amie Streater would adopt a similar approach in her financial self-help book Your Money God's Way, or if it would be more of a “sell all you have” philosophy.

But something about the book’s subtitle – “Overcoming the 7 Money Myths That Keep Christians Broke” appealed to me. I’ve always been interested in ways to save money, so I decided to give the book a try, and Thomas Nelson sent it to me as part of the Book Review Bloggers program. And it turned out to be an excellent read – straightforward, sensible, helpful and written by someone who knows what she’s talking about when it comes to both finances and Christianity.

Amie Streater identifies several “counterfeit convictions” that cause Christians to make poor financial decisions. For instance, these could be the (unfounded) beliefs that God will provide no matter what, or that it is always safe to do business with a “brother in Christ”. She then goes on to show why these convictions don’t help anyone, illustrating her points with practical examples as well as verses from the Bible. And I do mean practical.

How are you going to be generous if you’re broke?

You can be generous with your time, of course, and you can be generous of spirit, but your time and good nature are of little use to a starving child in Africa…

At the same time, Streater doesn’t preach a “prosperity gospel”, where you only have to pay a monthly “Jesus tax” to receive great bounty in return. She makes it clear that if you give, you should do so for the joy of helping others and out of gratitude for what you have received, not in the hope of a payback.

To summarize : I’d definitely recommend this book to any Christians who were having financial difficulties, but I’d also recommend it to people of other religions or none. It will make you feel as though you’re being either entertained or educated or both – not preached to.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Guest post : Maria Zannini and the Nephilim

Maria Zannini's blog first caught my eye because of her Prudent Penny posts - I'm a big fan of creative ways to save money. But she's also a homesteader, a very talented writer and an expert in social networking. Plus, she had the most adorable Rottweiler puppy ever. I say "had" because he has now grown up, but I am certain he is still adorable. Right, Maria?

But anyway, on to the story. Maria's new story, that is, a hot-covered release called True Believers. And she's here today to talk about the fantastic in the fiction, the myth of the Nephilim...


Ever since I was a kid, I've been fascinated with the Nephilim, sometimes called "Giants" or the "Watchers". According to biblical legend, they are the offspring of angels and human women.

The first time I'd heard about them, it was mentioned in passing by an elderly nun who spoke in near whispers. Did I hear her right? The offspring of angels and mortals?

I rolled the name around on my tongue and imprinted it to memory. Since I couldn't get any more information from her, I was determined to research it on my own. With Google not yet invented, I was forced to do it the old fashion way—reading the Bible. (Made me a great hit with the nuns. Little did they know I was doing research for a book I wouldn't write for thirty-six years.)

Who were the Nephilim? And what happened to them?

There were brief references to them in Genesis, the Book Of Numbers, the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilees. That's a lot of books and yet they provided very little information. As I dug deeper much of the information even contradicted itself. Why was so little known?

As the centuries rolled past some texts changed so that the Nephilim were no longer the offspring of angels, but the children of nobles. Others stated the Nephilim were the offspring of the righteous men descended of Seth, while the daughters were the descendents from the line of the unrighteous Cain.

Goliath is rumored to have been a Nephilim as was Gilgamesh, king of Ur.

According to the book of Jubilees, God granted ten percent of the Nephilim to remain after the flood and preside as demons. I still haven't quite figured out why God would inflict demons on the world. And why ten percent? I would have happily settled for five percent less demons myself. This is one of those instances when downsizing is a good thing.

Nonetheless, it was fuel to a story that refused to go away. I took these bits and pieces and fashioned the world of the Nephilim. In my world, these weren't the offspring of angels and they weren't demons. They were men and women seeded here (and elsewhere) by a race of beings so evolved an ancient people might very well see them as angels.

Immortal? To a point. They still had human DNA and a third strand from their progenitors that gave them the capability to regenerate at will, extending their lives almost indefinitely. It's enough to give them delusions of grandeur—delusions of godhood.

But what happens when one of their own doesn't want to be a god? And what if she wasn't given a choice?

I adore the Nephilim in my novel. They're pompous and arrogant, absolutely certain they're at the top of the food chain until a little technology brings them to their knees.

Now they're going to need help. And it's not going to come cheap.

I have a fun question for everyone today. If you could live for centuries, what sort of occupation(s) would be on your resume? What would you do with your time if you had dozen lifetimes instead of one?


Maria Zannini's latest release is a science fiction romance called TRUE BELIEVERS.

Mix one cynical immortal and one true believer and throw them into the biggest alien-hunt the world has never known. Rachel Cruz is a Nephilim masquerading as an archeologist and she's stuck with an alien who believes she can lead him to his ancestral gods. Black Ops wants to find these gods too. They want them dead.

Follow Maria here:


Contest time! Every time you leave a comment, tweet or mention "Maria Zannini" anywhere with a link to my blog, your name goes in the hat for a chance to win a Texas sized prize. Go here for more information.

PS And if you're a real pal, you'll go to RT Reviews and vote for my novel, MISTRESS OF THE STONE. Go on. You know you want to. And if you vote for me, I'll love you forever.


Will do, Maria. :) Thanks again, and all the best for the new book!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Midterms over!

I haven't been very active in the blogosphere thanks to midterm exams, but those are finally done and the grades have arrived. More or less pleased with mine, and here they are :

Clinical Chemistry : 92
Clinical Microbiology : 90
Hematology : 79
Transfusion Science : 77

Guess I shouldn't be assigned to the blood bank just yet. :)

To celebrate that being over, there'll be a guest post by Maria Zannini tomorrow - and she's got a wonderful new release called True Believers. Stay tuned!

Image from :

Monday, October 18, 2010

The alienness of it all

There’s alien and there’s alien. There’s something different but accessible, someone we can still communicate with, albeit with difficulty. And then there’s something which is alive and sentient and yet which we can never really reach and may never understand.

The creatures of James Tiptree Jr.’s Nebula Award-winning short story “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” are a great example. There aren’t any humans in this, no easy point of reference. It’s narrated from the first-person point of view of a male of an unnamed alien species, and isn’t easy to get into – but when you do, it’s a wonderful read.

The narrator discovers a female of the same species, who is extremely tiny and delicate. He’s large and powerful – claws and mandibles and what-have-you – so after he falls in love with the female, he protects her and takes excellent care of her, wrapping her in silk each night. She grows, and grows, and grows. Eventually they mate.

And after that point in their reproductive cycle… well, the male isn’t needed any longer, is he?

“Great is the Plan,” are some of his last – still loving – words.

Aliens who think differently are fascinating. There’s Solaris, the living ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s novel of the same name, and The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle’s creation. Both are wonderfully unlike anything in human experience. As a result, of course, they’re unreachable – they can’t really be communicated with, understood or controlled.

Such aliens aren’t likely to interact with humans, the same way we don’t really interact with dust mites. They might even kill humans casually, unthinkingly, the same way I kill spiders. The spiders are going about their business quietly in a corner – and death descends from above, a death they can’t understand or fight. It’s not done maliciously and it’s not done to survive. It’s just done because that’s what I do with spiders.

Iain M. Banks’s Dwellers are massive floating creatures native to gas giants, who live for millions of years. Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman has starfish-like aliens – no bilateral symmetry! – which also have very different patterns of thought. And the aliens in Asimov’s The Gods Themselves require three to reproduce, but unlike the Cogenitors in Star Trek : Enterprise and the binnaum of Alien Nation, all three individuals fuse together.

The idea of such fusion is very alien because it effectively erases physical identity and personal space, boundaries that we take for granted and yet which define what a person is. What if aliens of another species fused easily and readily, perhaps to pass on information, perhaps simply to absorb food?

Let’s say you have a huge seven-course meal, but I miss out. So we fuse, and I get some of the nutrients. Maybe even the tastes, if we share memories. Then we separate, perhaps with both of us now looking different since appearance isn’t as important among amoeboid aliens.

Or what if our only chance of communication with an alien species was to fuse alien and human? Or to allow one of their number to permanently parasitize a human?

As a commenter in this discussion points out, one problem with such books is that there’s usually no real point of reference. We don’t get into the extraterrestrials’ minds and grieve for them the way I did for the last surviving alien in Poul Anderson’s “Terminal Quest”. It’s difficult, at best, to identify with them.

But the ideas in these stories are bright as fireworks, and burn themselves across your mind.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Five vanity awards

Awards are good things for books – the Pulitzer Prize, the Newberry Award, the Hugo, the Nebula. Awards imply the winning of contests. The problem is, not all contests are created equal.

1. EVVY Awards

Outskirts Press’s website says that the EVVY Award is presented by the Colorado Independent Publishers Association for self-published (read: vanity published) books.

EVVY Nominees and Winners may receive (“May?” -- Marian) any number of the following opportunities and recognition:

The recognition includes “a framed plaque”, which you may or may not receive. But what are the conditions? What do you have to do to enter the contest?

Competition is fierce and standards are high. New books published via the Diamond and Pearl packages are eligible for a 2008 EVVY Award Nomination (and all that comes with it).

Ahhh. You just need to have bought into one or both of the two most expensive packages Outskirts Press offers.

Diamond: $999.
Pearl: $1099.
Being published for real, and earning money instead of paying it: priceless.

Finally, I checked out the winners of the 2010 EVVY Awards. Of the 56 winners, 16 were published by Outskirts. Then again, some of the books seem to have won in multiple categories. Perhaps the competition wasn’t so “fierce” after all.

2. Readers’ Favorite Awards

According to the Readers’ Favorite website,

the primary purpose for this site is to help authors, so we will not list one or two-star books.

If people only say good things about authors, they’re not reviewers – they’re publicists. But on to the Readers’ Favorite contest. This has “Four award levels in each of 40 categories”, which means that there are 160 chances to win an award. And 160 ways to pay for it.

Entry Fee is $85.00 USD to enter your work in one Genre Category. You may enter in up to 2 additional Genre Categories for a fee of $65.00 for each one.

So Readers’ Favorite could potentially earn $13,600 from these awards. And what do the winners get for their money?

Book Awards grab the attention of book stores, publishers, libraries, and readers, which can translate into increased sales.

Note the wording again. “Can translate”. May not, when the librarians realize they’ve never heard of this particular award.

You can refer to your book as an “Award Winning Book” and you as an “Award Winning Author” on your book cover, website, and all other marketing materials.

Reminds me of vanity presses telling hopeful but inexperienced writers that they can now call themselves Published Authors.

You can say you’re a boiled egg but that doesn’t make you one.

You can add your Award Sticker to existing copies of your book, or incorporate a digital image of it into new or reprinted versions. We provide winners with a digital award seal for future publications of their book, 500 award stickers to affix to current printed books, and an award certificate.

To cut a long story short, you’re paying $85 (at a minimum) for stickers and a certificate.

3. Premier Book Awards

One way to check if a contest is legitimate or not is to see whether whoever’s running it is making a profit from the entrance fees. I found out about the Premier Book Awards because the grand prize winner posted about her win of $500.

But there are prizes… and there are prices.

For example, if you submit an entry in "Fiction - Fantasy" and also in "Fiction - Science Fiction" you would submit 2 copies of the book, $55 for the first category and $20 for the second category, for a total of $75.

In one year, 44 books were submitted, so the contest holder could theoretically have made a maximum of $2420. For that, I’d shell out $500 too – I’d still make a profit.

Another way to check the legitimacy of a contest is to see who the judges are. Premier Book Awards doesn’t release that information, and most of the books on its list of winners are published by vanity presses. There’s not much point in entering such a contest.

4. Best New Christian Writer

I first learned about this contest in a discussion of vanity press Tate Publishing, when one of their supporters and authors, Leon Mentzer, claimed that he was voted “Best New Christian Writer 2005” by

But who owns Christian Storyteller? I checked their website.

Use the PayPal button or send in a Check or money order for $35.00 to
Att: Leon Mentzer
480 East Grove Road
Decatur, Il. 62521

Which would be like my using this blog to give myself an award. Or, for that matter, to give my publisher one.

Tate Publishing named Best Christian Publisher

The award came from the “National Christian Storytellers Association”, a now defunct site. I wonder who owned and operated it?

Sadly, I’ve read of at least one person who was impressed enough by this award to sign up (and pay out).

5. International Open Poetry Contest

This was an excellent example of how you don’t have to shell out money upfront for something to be a vanity press. Anyone could send a poem in to the International Library of Poetry, and not only receive an acceptance letter but also be a semi-finalist.

The problem was that most people wanted some proof of this accomplishment – perhaps a copy of the anthology in which their poems appeared, or a plaque. And that’s where the fees applied. The anthology cost over $50. Bio? $25. Poems on a CD, a plaque, a medallion… it all adds up.

Finally, as an antidote to these and an example of a contest which charges no fees and offers a substantial prize, here’s the Wergle Flomp contest, which was actually inspired by a sting poem submitted to

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Five famous duels in fantasy

1. Bigwig vs. General Woundwort
Watership Down, Richard Adams

Who would have thought that a fight between two rabbits would be so desperate and gripping? But that duel takes place as Woundwort’s army is digging its way into the home of the Watership Down rabbits, and it’s the only way Bigwig can hope to hold them at bay. Despite the fact that Woundwort is larger and fiercer than he is.

My favorite part of it is where Woundwort, fought to a standstill, tells Bigwig that he can bring in troops to tear the walls down around them, so why doesn’t he just give up? Bigwig replies that his Chief Rabbit has told him to hold his position, and until his Chief Rabbit says otherwise he’s holding it.

Until that moment, it has never occurred to Woundwort that Bigwig is not the Chief Rabbit of his warren. And that’s a shock to him and to the troops who hear it. There’s another rabbit who’s perhaps tougher than Bigwig? Where is he? What’s he going to do to them?

2. Prince Oberyn Martell vs. Ser Gregor the Mountain
A Storm of Swords, George R. R. Martin

This is one of the most shocking and unexpected scenes I’ve ever read.

It’s also a great example of how to use description. Start a story with the details about what characters are wearing and what weapons they carry, and it may not hold attention, but this duel occurs toward the end of the book and there’s significance to everything from the type of shield Oberyn carries to the spectators lined up to watch.

Plus, not only is there a great deal of bad blood between Oberyn and Gregor – Gregor raped Oberyn’s sister, then murdered her and her two small children – but the entire duel is taking place as a trial by combat, and the life of an innocent man hangs in the balance. So I’m emotionally invested in what happens, and that makes the colors of armor and the emblems on shields interesting.

That, and Martin really stacks the deck against Oberyn. Gregor outstrips him in height and is far stronger. Gregor also wears full plate armor over chainmail, whereas Oberyn is lightly armored. What happens in the end will startle any reader.

3. King Fingolfin vs. Morgoth
The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien

The only thing more terrifying than going up against Ser Gregor the Mountain would be taking on the Dark Lord whom Sauron served – Melkor, Morgoth, He Who Arises In Might. The book isn’t an easy read, but I love the duel.

Therefore Morgoth came, climbing slowly from his subterranean throne, and the rumour of his feet was like thunder underground. And he issued forth, clad in black armour; and he stood before the King like a tower, iron-crowned, and his vast shield, sable unblazoned, cast a shadow over him like a stormcloud. But Fingolfin gleamed beneath it as a star; for his mail was overlaid with silver, and his blue shield was set with crystals; and he drew his sword Ringil, that glittered like ice.

That description – and the subsequent battle to the death – always makes me shiver.

4. Iorek Byrnison vs. Iofur Raknison
The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman

The first time Lyra meets the armored polar bear Iorek Byrnison, he’s doing demeaning work for people who have stolen his armor and who pay him in liquor. Once he gets his armor back, he’s a terrifying force – massive, sharp of tooth and claw, clad in overlapping plates of rust-red iron.

Naturally, Iofur Raknison is bigger as well as having more armor; each of his paws is described as a sledgehammer tipped with six-inch-long spikes. And the future of the Svalbard bears rides of the outcome of their duel.

Iofur had noticed. He began to taunt Iorek, calling him broken-hand, whimpering cub, rust-eaten, soon-to-die and other names, all the while swinging blows at him from right and left which Iorek could no longer parry.

5. Barra vs. Yahweh Sabaoth, El Shaddai
Jericho Moon, Matthew Woodring Stover

This historical fantasy is set in Jebusi (or Jerusalem, as some called it in those days). Barra is a foreign mercenary hired by the king of Jebusi because a huge army called the Habiru Horde is being led against the city by an old but charismatic general, Joshua ben Nun. Seems they believe the city is theirs by rights – and they have a strange but very powerful god on their side.

Barra draws on her own people’s beliefs and the strength of Jebusi’s goddess in her struggle against this titanic enemy, who turns sand grains into scorpions and makes meteors rain from the sky. I love the use of religion in the book, and the fact that she’s up against something which can’t be killed, much less reasoned with, and which commands tens of thousands of fanatical followers.

What duels – in fantasy or otherwise – are your favorites?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Passion of Ayn Rand

I don’t often read biographies, but I’ve wanted a look at this one for some time. While I don’t either support or damn Ayn Rand’s philosophy, I like two of her novels and thought it might be interesting to read the story behind them.

But The Passion of Ayn Rand, by Barbara Branden, is much more than that. It’s the riches-to-rags-to-riches recounting of an unforgettable life, a story that is both sensitive and brutally honest. I’m very glad I read it.

The future Ayn Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum, the oldest daughter in a middle-class family living a comfortable life in St Petersburg. From the start, Rand was a grimly serious child who preferred intellectual pursuits, but soon a series of events began that would start her on the tumultous journey that would bring her to fame and infamy. The Revolution began, and her father’s shop was nationalized. The family was left in poverty, which turned into slow starvation.

They ate handfuls of peas and millet (now I know where those endless mentions of Kira and Leo eating fried millet in her first novel came from). Rand nevertheless enrolled in college, where she was assigned a student ration card, and studied history despite her father’s objections. She was always strong-willed and single-minded.

At that point, though, cousins who had migrated to the States offered her a chance to visit them. She applied for a passport and then traveled to Latvia to get a visa, aware that at every step of the way she could be refused, aware too that if she left she would never return. When she arrived in the States, she was no longer Alice. She had a new name – Ayn – and a dream, to be a writer.

Her struggle hadn’t stopped, not by any means.

After a chance meeting with cinema legend Cecil B. DeMille, she worked in Hollywood, wrote screenplays and began the first of her novels. She also married an actor called Frank O’Connor.

Branden’s description of Rand’s eventually morganatic marriage is both balanced and sad. Rand cared deeply for her husband – many of the lines in her novels came from him, and one book is dedicated to him. They were married for fifty years. Yet his star declined as hers rose, to the point where he couldn’t leave her no matter what she did, and although he wanted children they didn’t fit into her plans.

Rand’s next challenge was rejection. Her first novel, We the Living (original title: Air Tight) sank after it was released without advertising. Next came The Fountainhead (original title: Second-Hand Lives), which was rejected by twelve editors – one of whom said it had no commercial value. Archibald Ogden, a new editor at Boggs-Merrill, was the thirteenth, and when the head office declined the book he placed his job on the line for it.

The book has since sold over five million copies.

Sales were slow at first, but the book’s increasing popularity freed Rand from the burden of grinding poverty. In 1943, she insisted on fifty thousand dollars for the movie rights – and got it, so after learning the good news, she and Frank went out to eat and happily selected the sixty-five cent meals instead of the forty-five cent ones. But her intransigent personality only strengthened, evident in demands such as an insistence that Roark’s courtroom speech be filmed in its entirety*.

And many of the reviews were negative. The book still achieved a grassroots popularity that resulted in good sales, though, and the royalties enabled Rand to work on her masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged (original title: The Strike).

There was as much drama in her personal life as in her professional one. Rand’s brilliance and charisma couldn’t always compensate for her “hair-trigger temper” and a curious lack of emotional intelligence. When she discovered her youngest sister Nora was the sole surviving member of her family - her parents and other sister died in the siege of Leningrad - she did everything she could to bring Nora to the States for a “visit”.

Yet Nora, unlike Rand, had no intention of staying. She was accustomed to life in Soviet Russia and eventually returned, after many bitter arguments with her older sister on the subject. Rand couldn’t tolerate a difference of opinion when it came to Communism.

But even that pales beside Rand’s affair with Branden’s husband. Nathaniel Branden was a psychologist twenty-five years Rand’s junior, who met Barbara through their mutual admiration for Rand’s work. He became Rand’s “intellectual heir” and they finally held a meeting with their respective spouses to discuss their attraction.

Rand explained that since she and Nathaniel were so well-matched intellectually, it only made sense for them to be together. So Barbara Branden and Frank O’Connor agreed to give them an afternoon a week for a meeting of the minds (and bodies).

Rational and civilized though this agreement may have been, the affair did not end happily, and it culminated in Rand’s discovery that Nathaniel was having another affair with a younger woman. The account of it in Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things makes it sound like farce, but Barbara Branden spells it out in much more painful detail, not sparing either herself or Rand. That was the beginning of the end for Rand’s personal life, if not her professional one.

I loved reading this book, partly because I could identify with a writer who wasn’t accepted by her family and who fled her native land to live in a First World country. But also because it’s a meticulous and deeply insightful study of a famous (or infamous) life. And Barbara Branden’s discussion is always balanced. As she put it, those who hold Rand in either adoration or abhorrence overlook her humanity… which is sometimes what Rand did for people who disagreed with her values.

Ultimately, this is the story of the triumph and the tragedy of Ayn Rand. I recommend it.

*Granted, it’s shorter than John Galt’s, but that’s not saying much.