Saturday, May 28, 2011

Surviving the Extremes

The subtitle of Surviving the Extremes is “What Happens to the Body and Mind at the Limits of Human Endurance”. And it more than delivers in that respect. The author, Dr Kenneth Kamler, has been to the Amazonian rainforest and on an Everest expedition and those parts are written from experience. But he discusses desert and underwater and high seas survival just as well.

The book examines the effects of environments in which the human body never adapted and was never meant to experience, much less live in. It also provides examples of people who both survived such conditions and those who succumbed. The saddest of the latter, to me, was the story of Audrey Mestre, who attempted to beat her own record for free diving by ascending from a depth of 166 metres.

Dr. Kamler explains the biological effects of such environments in detail. I loved those parts. From the atomic level up to the cellular, the book depicts how platelets and the immune system and the finely regulated chemistry of the brain respond to stress and starvation and lack of oxygen. Pulmonary edema due to the high altitude of Mount Everest, treating snakebite in the Amazon, how exactly camels thrive in the desert, it’s all here.

The book even includes a chapter on what it might be like in outer space, as a member of an expedition to a distant star. Yes, that will carry its own biological and psychological risks.

My favorite chapter is the one about surviving in a desert, because I lived in the Middle East for 18 years. Granted, most of those were spent in an air-conditioned room rather than, say, digging up roots in the bottom of a wadi to suck a few droplets of moisture from them. But I’d recommend this book to any writers hoping to throw their characters into such environmental danger zones.

You could learn ways to make it even more difficult for them.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Cover Cafe Contest

If you haven't already seen the Cover Cafe's annual contest for romance novel covers, check it out. Not only are there plenty of beautiful covers in the categories of historical, series, contemporary and alternate reality (I think one of Samhain's is in the finals for this), there's also a Worse Cover section. This one is always entertaining.

And voting is open to anyone until May 31. So pick out your favorites - for the Worst Covers, mine is the one with the woman who looks as though Hannibal Lecter has been at her. Have fun!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Once a winner...

Cool, I got a blog award!

This is from Becky Regalado, who blogs at Beckah-Rah. One of the rules is to share seven random facts about myself, and although I don't have that many, there is some very good news I was planning to mention.

Remember the lottery to determine who would stay in Toronto? I was so relieved at not drawing the black spot that I decided to be happy (or at least accepting) of whichever clinical site was assigned to me. Even if it was a two-hour commute away, at least I could stay in my apartment and keep my job.

I just found out that I'll be doing my clinical placement in the Hospital for Sick Children. Not only does that have an excellent reputation, it's only a forty-minute commute away and downtown as well, so most of my friends will be in other hospitals a few steps away. And of course, it's such a big hospital that they're not likely to ask me to draw blood. Performing venipuncture on adults makes me nervous enough.

But for the moment, SimClin (the simulated clinical semester) is going well. I just finished the hardest rotation, in Hematology; the grand finale of that was a test where 90% accuracy was needed to pass. One down, four to go.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Dance with Dragons

So it's almost here.

I read George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones in 2000, and was immediately hooked on the series. A vivid complex world, flawed and compelling characters, witty dialogue and plot twists that were both unpredictable and inevitable - it was the perfect fantasy novel for me. The next book in the series, A Clash of Kings, was even better. I bought A Storm of Swords just before I left the States for the Middle East, and the book was as wrenching as the departure.

A friend in the States sent me a copy of A Feast for Crows in December 2005, my last Christmas in Dubai. I dived into it, but this book is the sophomore slump of the series. A breathing space - or more likely, a convalescent period - would have been fine after the Red Wedding and Tyrion's trial. But AFFC introduced five new viewpoint characters and a host of minor ones (most of whom have the usual exotic monikers, though thankfully not their own catchphrases).

Meanwhile, the characters I'd come to care about in previous books were either absent or hopelessly wandering the land. If we know in advance that Brienne isn't going to find either of the Stark girls, it's difficult to take much interest in her search no matter who she encounters along the way. Cersei's descent into self-destruction was great (although the prophecy about her future came across as a new idea, rather than something Martin had in mind from the start) and I hope to see more of Doran Martell's plots in the future, but nothing about the book really stood out as amazing. Plus, I missed Dany, Bran and Tyrion.

But now A Dance with Dragons is going to be released. I pre-ordered it, and am hoping that this book will pack the punch its predecessor didn't. Just the fact that so many people (Tyrion, Victarion, Quentyn Martell) are traveling to find Dany makes me want to read it.

Anyone else planning to read ADWD as soon as it comes out?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Borders in fantasy

Politics and geography are not my fortes, so I first became interested in the borders and boundaries of fantasy lands when I read about Ravenloft.

Ravenloft is divided into domains, each of which has a ruler. The ruler can’t leave the domain, but wields a great deal of power within it, including the ability to close the borders of the land at will. When the borders are closed, supernatural effects prevent anyone from leaving. I love this, because it’s so varied and imaginative.

When Caleb wants his borders sealed, an army of tornadoes whirl to life all across the desert, throwing up sandstorms…

When Játiva wishes to close Ricoba's borders, thousands and thousands of rats swarm from the shadows themselves to gather at the edges of the domain.

Another magical border – albeit not a temporary one – is the Raraku Whirlwind in Stephen Erickson’s Gardens of the Moon. A border could also take the form of a great abyss around a city or land. Falling into such a chasm might be instant death, it might result in falling forever or it might drop a person into whatever subterranean settlements have sprung up inside such a fissure.

As this article points out, many such borders in fantasy worlds are geographical barriers such as mountains and rivers. But constructed borders are fun too. There’s the Wall of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels – a slab of ice hundreds of feet tall that “defends itself”. When raiders from the north try to climb it, part of the ice breaks off and they fall to their deaths.

There’s the Great Wall, which seems to have made an appearance in every Civilization game so far. Granted, that wasn’t so successful, but there’s no reason things can’t be different in a fantasy world, though the logistics of having many troops to man the wall will have to be taken into account. Martin does a great job of that. Because of political issues in the south, the Wall is becoming neglected, and fewer and fewer men are being sent to patrol and watch over it.

Organic walls would repair themselves and might enjoy nothing more than to snack on whoever’s trying to cross without authorization. Or a wall could be not a solid block but instead a mass of cylindrical-esque pieces joined at random and with lots of odd angles, like a demented pick-up-sticks game.

And some walls are there to prevent the people within from leaving, rather than the ones outside from getting in. Though some of them will cross regardless…. because where there’s a wall, there’s a way.

Monday, May 16, 2011


Since the Emerging Writers Network calls May the National Short Story Month, I found one of my favorite Stephen King stories online. It's called Beachworld and is in the collection Skeleton Crew.

The premise is simple - a spaceship crashes on a deserted planet. Literally "deserted" - the planet's surface is completely covered with sand.

It was a beach in no need of an ocean—it was its own ocean, a sculpted sea of sand.

I love monoculture worlds like the one in Sheri S. Tepper's Grass, and the beginning is just like those Ray Bradbury stories where a spaceship lands on a planet that seems welcoming or innocuous at first ("The City", "Mars is Heaven", etc). This particular world has no water at all, but that's the least of the two survivors' problems. One of them starts to go insane, and remains outside the ship, staring out over the endless sand.

“One hell of a big beach. Something like this could go on forever. You could walk a hundred miles with your surfboard under your arm and still be where you started, almost, with nothing behind you but six or seven footprints. And if you stood in the same place for five minutes, the last six or seven would be gone, too.”

The other survivor tries to repair the emergency beacon. That's when he finds the sand is everywhere - it seeps into the ship despite closed doors and seals, getting into the machines to seize them up. Or perhaps just to seize the entire ship, to drag it down into the soft shifting depths of the planet.

I would never have thought that something as simple as sand could be frightening, but in this story it's a constant presence that can't be held off or reasoned with. And the effects it has - both physical and mental - on the two survivors is terrifying.

Enjoy it. :)

Image from :

Friday, May 13, 2011

Playing Russian Roulette

That's how my friend described the lottery as we waited for it to begin.

The placement of students in different clinical sites begins in September, but since our college is in Toronto, most of the students in our class live in the GTA. That invariably causes a bottleneck, since there aren't as many clinical sites in Toronto as there are students. As a result, some unlucky people have to go somewhere else.

This year, the other option was Peterborough, which is something like two and a half hours away. I suppose it could have been worse. In previous years, it was New Brunswick. Either way, though, someone would have to move to another city for five months, and none of us wanted to do so.

We all had good reasons for staying in Toronto, but the placement administrators made it clear that they couldn't consider anything other than 1. children 2. some kind of disability or special need that required therapy/treatment which could only be provided in Toronto. Since none of us qualified on those grounds, the administrators asked if there were any volunteers for the exile.

Needless to say, no one threw themselves on that grenade. So the administrators said they would hold a lottery.

On Thursday, at lunchtime, they assembled us before a table on which were a glass and a juice pitcher, both of which contained tiny folded strips of paper. The glass contained our student numbers, all 42 of them. The pitcher contained 39 strips of paper with Toronto on them, and three black spots strips marked Peterborough.

Cake or death, basically.

I was so nervous that I hadn't been able to eat lunch, so I sat rigidly on my chair as the lottery began. "112450." *rustle* "Toronto." "118831." *rustle* "Toronto." One of my friends got Toronto early on (she said her family had prayed and fasted about it last week), but the first ticket to Peterborough was drawn five numbers in. Shortly after that they called out my student number. I clenched my fists on my knees and waited.


For a moment I thought I hadn't heard correctly, mostly because I'd wanted it to be Toronto so badly. They'd moved on by then, though, and someone ate the second Peterborough bullet about half-way through. The third remained in the pitcher and was drawn last, which made the lottery a nerve-wracking experience right up till the end. And after it was all over, I went to the admins to confirm that yes, I was staying in Toronto. I'd been worrying about it for so long that the good news took a little time to sink in.

I don't know where in the GTA they'll send me, but I can handle that kind of curveball. Especially since I'll have my apartment and my friends in Toronto and my job.

And I'll never have to play Russian Roulette again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Saving money

One reason I worked full-time before going to college was to earn enough money to pay for my education in case I didn’t get student loans. Well, that pretty much ensured I wouldn’t get much help, since I had just enough savings to scrape by.

Now there’s less than a year remaining for my education, and at least tuition for summer semester is paid up (the final semester still circles hungrily like a shark). But there are all the other expenses – rent, phone, transportation and food – and I have to handle those until I graduate and can apply for a full-time job again.

A couple of years ago I spotted a copy of The Complete Tightwad Gazette in a library sale and grabbed it for a dollar. I was very pleased with my find, but it soon became clear that the compendium, while stuffed with tips, wasn’t the best book I could have read on this topic.

1. A great deal of its advice relates to kids – cloth diapers, toys, etc. My life plan has three Cs (citizenship, certification and condo), none of which stand for “children”.

2. I don’t have a garden to grow my own vegetables, or even a sunny place for a pot of basil. I live in a basement apartment, which I like very much apart for the fact that there’s no natural light at all. It’s like being a hobbit.

3. The book was released thirteen years ago, and it shows. There’s an article which mentions tuna fish costing fifty cents a can. Recently tuna fish went on sale at Zellers, for a dollar.

There’s plenty of good advice in the book about thrift stores, garage sales and so on, but I feel as though I knew most of that already. I used to work in a thrift store in Dubai, and I still enjoy going to yard sales or thrift stores here. So it’s time to start looking for a more up-to-date book on the topic.

As well as ways to save money, there’s also the possibility of making more. About a month ago I got a Saturday job in a psychic centre/used-bookstore. The owner is a psychic and wanted someone to keep the place tidy, shelve the books and look after the customers while she did readings. I get an employee discount on the books too, and the job pays half my rent each month, which is good.

Though after I’ve quit I may write a tell-all article about the experience.

As for the other half of the rent, I’m going to try to do more editing this summer. I edit papers for college students – spelling, grammar, punctuation and so on – but the work has become sporadic now that two of my customers have graduated. Lucky ducks. I’m going to try putting up flyers on campuses and see if that gets results.

I also joined Swagbucks after seeing it promoted on this personal finance blog, though I’m not sure if it’ll be any help. It’s taken me two weeks to get to 100 points, for instance, and the minimum for a $5 gift card from Amazon is 450 points. Speaking of which, I’m also an Amazon Associate, though it does take a while to collect enough for a gift card. Still, every little bit helps, though there are a few lines I don’t want to cross – like having Google ads on my blog.

What strategies can you suggest for me to save or make money?

Image from :

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Evil children

A stereotype about children is that they’re cute, sweet and innocent.

*pause for laughter*

That’s one reason Lord of the Flies had so much shock value when it was first published (now, of course, we’ve seen children do much worse things). It wouldn’t have had the same impact if Jack and Roger had been grown men. But that made me wonder what other books featured cruel and sadistic children, and what impact these had.

Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “The Small Assassin”, where the titular character is a murderous baby. Some children may be naturally evil (in speculative fiction and horror, not in real life!) or they may have been made this way through some process such as vampirism. Whatever the vampire children in 'Salem's Lot were like in life, after it they’re just… thirsty.

Ditto for the creepiest child vampire of all, Claudia in Interview with the Vampire.

Some kids may be disturbed or mean, but as long as they’re by themselves, that’s as far as it goes. However, when they’re put in a group and all constraints on their behavior are removed… matters can move out of control. There’s a horror novel called Let's Go Play at the Adams', where a group of children tie up their twenty-year-old babysitter and torture her.

I read the book some time ago and don’t really want to again - this review says it all – but the psychology behind it is solid. One of the children is the ringleader, another is the muscle, another is going along for the ride and so on. Alone, none of them could accomplish much – together, they’re deadly.

Children may also be twisted by their environment to the point where they have no moral compasses or empathy. I have a manuscript with a character who was systematically brainwashed and brutalized from his infancy, to the point where he’s now half-insane and fully lethal. In some ways he’s still a child – since he was locked up for most of his life, he’s fascinated by small things that most people would take for granted, like nesting birds.

It’s sweet. And hopefully it’s also a wrenching contrast to the fact that he’s murdered dozens of people, feels no regret at all and would murder thousands more if he was ordered to do so.

Realistic children have negative qualities, and sometimes these flaws go all the way down to evil. Eva and Little Lord Fauntleroy will never be as interesting as self-centered, arrogant, wild-child Peter Pan.

What kinds of flaws would you like to see in child characters?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Beyond Talent

I enjoyed John C. Maxwell’s Put Your Dream To The Test, so when his book Beyond Talent: Become Someone Who Gets Extraordinary Results was released, I requested it immediately through Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program. On the whole, I’m pleased – this book is another keeper for my collection.

Its core message is simple : sheer talent may be enough to attract attention and admiration, but it’s not enough to last the distance and succeed. I always consider whether this kind of book would be useful for writers, and in this case the answer is yes. There are many people with talent who want to write but never do, or who write but can’t or don’t publish. What holds them back from achieving their full potential?

Maxwell’s theory is that it takes more than talent to achieve greatness – it takes belief, initiative, practice, perserverance and character. But those can all be learned or developed. It isn’t just up to one’s inherent skill.

Maxwell writes what I think of as inspiring (as opposed to inspirational) self-improvement. It’s easy to state that it’s important to believe in oneself – that’s a hoary platitude at best – but this book tells stories instead, short and entertaining anecdotes about people who didn’t win the first time they tried something but who didn’t give up. Before reading this, for instance, I wasn’t aware that Edmund Hillary was once part of a failed expedition to Everest before his much better known, successful climb.

The book also illustrates points with pithy or insightful quotes by everyone from famous sports players to Helen Keller to Hannibal (the Carthaginian general, not the Thomas Harris character), and the application exercises are balanced with humorous asides, like these statements reported to have come from employee performance evaluations (page 187).

This employee should go far, and the sooner he starts, the better.

Some drink from the fountain of knowledge; he only gargled.

So it’s a very easy read. The only thing I disagree with – emphatically – is this claim on page 22.

Only a life lived for others is worthwhile.

If I had lived my life for others, I would have studied economics instead of science, gone to Pensacola Christian College instead of the University of Georgia and decided that getting published wasn’t worth it. The others who wanted this of me – my parents, in other words – might have been happy. I’m not sure the same could have been said of me.

And if you live your life for others, who are the others living their lives for?

Maxwell goes on to elaborate that people around you should feel that their lives are being made better by your purpose, but to me that’s the side-effect rather than the goal. Other than this one issue, though, I enjoyed the book.

More importantly, it made me want to send out more query letters.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Five ways alien eyes might see

1. Black/white

There’s no reason creatures from another world have to see in all the colors that we do. For that matter, I’ve read that dogs have dichromatic vision, rather than trichromatic, as we do.

Maybe aliens see everything in black or white – or in shades of colors like red or blue. Their identifying marks and decorations might therefore be very clear and obvious rather than relying on subtle variations in color. Or since they receive less visual information, perhaps they rely more on sound and smell cues.

Makes me think of the Jack Vance race which carried and played small musical instruments to compensate for their lack of facial expression. The type of instrument and the music played provided emotional cues.

2. Ultraviolet

To bees, flowers look like this in visible light…

…and like this in ultraviolet light.

An intelligent species capable of seeing in UV would have a distinct advantage when it came to espionage. Hidden messages could be written in chemical compounds that are only visible in UV, and those messages would be hidden from humans but blindingly obvious (pun intended) to them.

3. Ability to see in darkness/through water

Eyes capable of detecting infrared radiation would be able to see in the dark. I’ve always liked those infrared photographs with colors based on heat – white is the hottest, blue or violet the coolest. The only problem would be the detection of objects which are at the same ambient temperature as their surroundings – a rock on the floor, perhaps.

As for seeing in water… I don’t mind beautiful naked mer-people with long flowing hair, but I always wonder how they can see underwater. Water doesn’t transmit light as well as air, so even if they had a transparent eyelid (similar to the nictitating membrane) to protect the lenses of their eyes from saltwater, they’d still have difficulty seeing.

They could have relatively large eyes, as fish do, though an Ariel with huge bulging eyes would not have been as attractive. In fish, that also compensates for the lack of an neck; fish can’t turn their heads from side to side, so their eyes have a greater field of vision.

4. Ability to see gases

This might come in very handy in a world where there were pockets of dangerous gases such as carbon monoxide or hydrogen cyanide.

5. Transparency

I once read a book about a girl who had an illness that made everything appear like glass to her – people and trees and buildings alike. Of course, like glass, these were also transparent. She could see the inner workings of everything, from sap rising in the stems of plants to tumors growing in people.

That ability could be modified a little – allowing an alien race to look through armor, outer coverings such as clothes or even flesh. I’m just not sure what it would be called, given that X-ray vision would be misleading and would immediately make people think of Superman. Maybe just “transparency” would do.

Flower photographs from here: