Friday, September 30, 2011

Where Has Oprah Taken Us?

Stephen Mansfield’s previous books include The Faith of George W. Bush and The Faith of Barack Obama, but this book is not called The Faith of Oprah Winfrey. Because from his point of view, she’s got the wrong faith.

Therefore it’s called Where Has Oprah Taken Us?: The Religious Influence of the World's Most Famous Woman. Partly an examination of Winfrey’s life from an evangelical Christian perspective, and partly a commentary on the effects of religions in America, it made me curious. I haven’t watched a single episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I didn’t know much about her except that she was in The Color Purple.

One review copy later, courtesy of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze Program, and I settled down to find out.

The start of the book is gripping. Winfrey was born in circumstances that were challenging to say the least—her unmarried mother was a maid, and this was rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Her adolescence was marked by a pregnancy at fourteen, the baby dying a month after birth.

Yet she never stopped believing that she had “a higher calling”. And when she was hired by the local CBS affiliate to become the first black female anchor in Nashville history, she capitalized on her talents—intelligence, an ability to connect with people and an innate strength.

During one early assignment, Oprah introduced herself to a shopkeeper and offered her hand. “We don’t shake hands with niggers down here,” the man angrily retorted. “I’ll bet the niggers are glad,” she fired back, unflinching.

In her twenties, though, the religion she’d been taught in the Baptist church she attended no longer satisfied her. Years later, though, as she struggled to reinvent her show, she embraced spirituality and endorsed the careers of many New Age mystics with the Winfrey rubberstamp.

That’s where the book stopped being interesting. After that point it’s no longer a biography, albeit a biased one—instead, it’s an attempt to counter Winfrey’s beliefs with Mansfield’s beliefs. Italics set his more evangelical commentaries apart from the rest of the book, so readers who don’t already agree with this perspective know what they can avoid.

I read them all, though, and found Mansfield’s views as unrealistic as he clearly finds those of Deepak Chopra. In his world, all humans need gods to tell them what to do. Minus the god, he believes we either worship myths or ourselves—or in Winfrey’s case, combine the two by elevating oneself to mythical status.

And while her dreams (especially with regard to the film Beloved) may sometimes cross the line between ambitious and inflated, I’m not sure that Mansfield’s perspective is any better. He describes humans as “servants” and “subjects” who “do not create themselves or their destinies by thoughts or mantras or anything else” (pg 178). If Winfrey had believed that she could not influence her own future with her hard work and talent, where would she be today?

Then again, Mansfield displays a consistent fear of other people’s independence, especially their mental freedom of thought. One of his chief criticisms about Winfrey is that she picks and chooses what is meaningful to her from the beliefs of various religions. Another is that she leads us into temptation—specifically, that she uses her power and influence to foist New Age mysticism on people.

Jesus said something about eyes and planks which may be relevant here.

So where has Oprah taken us? I finished this book unconvinced that she was contributing to the downward spiral of America, mostly because there was no evidence that her religion—whatever it is—was doing anything to people that Mansfield’s hasn’t done as well. Though the book does include fictionalized accounts of how Oprah viewers “Jenny” and “Tina” became dissatisfied with Christianity or with their lives as a result of absorbing Winfrey’s endorsements of New Age gurus. And after reading those stories, I think Mansfield should try writing non-fiction instead.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Money in fantasy

Monetary systems in fantasy often fall into the gold/silver/copper lines. Partly because this is familiar and partly because it’s easier for readers to remember than, say, platinum/steel/tin.

Usually, the variations come in what the different types of coins are called. In Westeros, the world of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, gold coins are dragons and silver coins are stags – an interesting tip of the head to the political system, where the previous (dead) king’s symbol was a dragon, and the current king’s sigil is a stag.

In China Mieville’s world of Bas-Lag, people use shekels as currency, which I liked a lot because it reminded me of the ancient Middle East. Jack Vance’s world of Tschai is even more imaginative, though, since people there use sequins.

Sequins, on Tschai, are small colored gemstone-like objects that grow in nodes that bud unpredictably from the ground. Nodes can produce over a hundred sequins, which all start off clear, but take time to ripen to their final colors of scarlet and purple (passing through white, blue, green, etc. along the way). This sets the system in place – the clears are almost worthless while the purples are the most valuable.

So fortune-hunters on Tschai look for nodes. Needless to say, there’s an area where nodes do grow in some quantity, and it’s a hunting province patrolled by the vicious aliens called the Dirdir.

In our own past, people have used cowrie shells and salt as currency (the word “salary” derives from “salt”). Theoretically, money can be made of anything, as long as people can’t easily reproduce or damage it – coins made of glass would be unfeasible. It should also be in a form that can be readily transported and transferred.

Only in modern times has money been digital, existing as information passed from one computer network to another. I’ve thought and thought, but there seems to be no way to translate this to a fantasy world, without first setting up a banking system and teaching people finance. Until then, characters will just have to carry around their shekels, sequins, stags and so on.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Your last meal?

I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s going on the list. Last Suppers: Famous Final Meals from Death Row, by Ty Treadwell and Michelle Vernon, not only describes what condemned prisoners last ate, but includes jailhouse recipes.

That would make for an interesting dinner-table conversation. “This soup is delicious.” “Why, thank you. It’s based on the Alcatraz recipe – with a dash of fish sauce for that Hanoi Hilton flavor!”

But for those of us who aren’t into cooking for large numbers of hungry felons, there’s still a lot to enjoy. James Smith requested a lump of dirt, which he didn’t get. Maybe the prison yard dirt was just too gravelly for him. And Victor Feguer asked for a single olive, unpitted. He probably got that.

David Castillo, though, went to the opposite extreme and ordered “24 tacos, 2 cheeseburgers, 2 whole onions, 5 jalapeno peppers, 6 enchiladas, 6 tostadas, one quart of milk and one chocolate milkshake”. I’m thinking that after such a meal, prison officials might as well have sat back and waited for his cholesterol levels to kill him.

Entertaining though this is, the authors never let you forget that the people in question committed despicable crimes – each section has at least a one-line mention of the condemned prisoner’s murders. I won’t say you need a strong stomach (no pun intended) but it’s not entirely light-hearted either.

Which got me to thinking about my own last meal. No contest, really. I’d want a full Sri Lankan spread – rice, chicken curry, murrunga (drumstick curry), mallung (chopped greens), mango chutney, poppadums and coconut sambol hot enough to cause spontaneous weeping six feet away, washed down with a glass of sweet coconut water. The only thing I’d decline would be a banana leaf platter. I am somewhat Westernized.

What would your ideal last meal be?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Price is Wrong

PublishAmerica’s royalty checks – or lack thereof – went out at the start of September, and most writers received a reality check as a result. While their shocked and disillusioned reactions are painful even to witness, they’re also predictable. Without exception, PublishAmerica’s books are priced so highly that they’re not likely to sell except to the author's family and friends. Some Kindle ebooks are priced at well over $20 (after the author has paid $49 for the book to be uploaded to the Kindle).

That made me think of book pricing in general, though.

Writers can directly control the prices of their books only when self-publishing, and even then a self-publishing service such as CreateSpace won’t take a loss on a book, so there's a minimum price which needs to be set. There’s more flexibility with ebooks, though. Self-published ebooks tend to be between $0.99 and $2.99 on the Kindle, and some are even offered for free.

There’s some debate about this – does a cost of $0.99 devalue the book and scream “self-published”? A number of readers will still take a chance on any book which costs only a dollar, so would that make up for the readers who’ll automatically avoid it? I’m not sure what to think about this, perhaps because I don’t have an ereader of any kind, and I generally don’t take chances on print books unless they’re free.

Still, if I were selling a self-published ebook I’d probably go for $1.99 no matter how long the book was. That seems like a safe compromise.

In general, readers won’t pay more than $5 for an ebook unless the author is a household name. And even if they do pay $10 or more, which some publishers charge, they won’t enjoy it. Many one-star reviews for highly-priced ebooks on Amazon are complaints about the price rather than about the quality of the book.

That’s self-publishing. What about trade publishing?

The longer the book, the more the publisher needs to charge, and there’s a threshold above which readers won’t go. Usually that’s around $30 for a hardback, $10 for a mass market paperback and so on. Even Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an 800-page doorstopper in hardcover, sells for $27.95 – and was backed up by an "imaginative (and aggressive) marketing campaign" from Bloomsbury.

Too high and the reading public simply won't buy. Too low and there won't be much reward for the writer's hard work, unless the sheer number of copies sold makes up for that. It's a balancing act.

Finally, editor Anna Genoese wrote a great article on how publishers determine profit and loss – and how a book can fail to make the former. Check it out. I especially like the article because it blows a hole in the myth that if your book doesn’t earn out, you have to return the advance.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Horses in fantasy

Horses are common in fantasy, and have as much of a mystical appeal as swords. When I was a kid, I loved reading horse books – My Friend Flicka and The Black Stallion. Horses feature prominently in mythology as well – the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are often identified by the colors of their mounts, and Odin was said to ride the eight-legged horse Sleipnir.

The most well-known horse in fantasy may be Shadowfax from The Lord of the Rings, but there are dozens of others, such as the white horses in Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books. The horses are telepathic beings called Companions that choose certain humans.

But because horses are so often haloed in this way, I enjoy seeing them hostile and dangerous. The Keplians in Andre Norton’s Witch World are red-eyed beasts that lure humans to their deaths, though even they were civilized in The Key of the Keplian, when a girl saved a Keplian mare and her foal.

I’d love to see ugly horses as well. With horns or tusks, maybe, or natural bridles in the form of tendrils sprouting from their heads. Said tendrils would sink into the flesh of a rider, linking the two creatures via nervous system and meaning that commands could be given mentally and instantaneously.

They could have sharp, slashing blades growing from their bodies – like the Hippae in Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass. When people ride these horses, they’re forced to sit perfectly upright so they don’t get impaled on the spikes jutting from the back of each horse’s neck. As for the Hippae themselves, they’re intelligent and vicious – one review described them as being “velociraptor-like”.

Armored horses are also an option. They might grow flat close-fitting plates of keratin along their backs and sides for protection – though that would also reduce their speed and they might have broader hooves to carry the excess weight. They just wouldn’t have the “champagne-glass ankles” of thoroughbreds.

In the world of Eden, I like to characterize lands by the different types of horses they use. Dagre, in Before the Storm, is the closest to what we’d consider normal, so their horses are ordinary too, but the only breed of horse in Iternum is the palomino.

And Lunacy has intelligent but wild horses, which prey on people. Natives of Lunacy ride anything but horses, because there’s too much of a risk of the wild horses trying to impersonate tame ones, or even breed with them.

In Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a humorous parody of the cliches of fantasy, she mentions horses being treated as living motorbikes. That’s something a writer needs to take into account if the horses are covering miles and miles of rough terrain without rest or food. And if they’re a different breed of horse which is capable of this – like the sandsteeds in A Feast for Crows – it might be more realistic to give them a weakness too.

What are your favorite horses or horse stories?

Image from:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Rotten Reviews and Rejections

A lot of writers have read Pushcart Press’s Rotten Reviews and Rejections… or if they haven’t, they might like to. If literary greats like Emily Dickinson and John le Carre could receive rejection letters, it could take the sting off the polite refusals in a hopeful writer’s inbox.

So I enjoyed reading most of the entries. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was turned down with the comment,

Regret the American public is not interested in anything on China.

“The what Luck Club?”

Then then there are the rejections that just don’t make sense, such as the one which seems to mistake George Orwell’s Animal Farm for a story about animals. I once did that too, but I was eleven at the time.

On the other hand, some of the rejections are understandable. If a book is 350,000 words long, it’s very unlikely to be published (and if it is, it'll need a marketing push to make up for the higher price). Many of the entries are also rejections or reviews of older books and classics. So this book is still well worth a look, but I wouldn’t take it as evidence that the publishing industry is dying, that editors don’t know a good book when they see one, etc.

Finally, my favorite rejection was the one for Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere's Fan.

My dear sir,

I have read your manuscript. Oh, my dear sir.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Five kinds of houses in fantasy

From fairytales to epic fantasies, this genre has some of the most mind-stretching concepts when it comes to houses. Children’s stories have the gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, which uses an easily adapted concept – use one’s living quarters to attract prey. Then there’s the chicken-footed cottage of Baba Yaga, and it only gets better from here…

1. Living houses

One of my favorite paintings in The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe depicts a Villar, which looks like a gigantic human hundreds of feet tall… from the waist down. Its torso is a castle, complete with turrets and battlements (it has no head, adding to the alien look), and inside the torso, the Dwellers ride the nomadic Villar.

What I like most about living houses is that they take care of waste management and food supplies. Living in the fruiting body of a giant fungus, for instance, means breaking off a chunk of the wall whenever it’s time to eat.

2. Organic houses

Huge seashells come to mind, especially if they have many coils and turns within. Or what about the exoskeletons of giant insects or the skulls of ancient creatures? One of the most memorable things about China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is Bonetown, which sprang up around the Ribs that are part of a giant skeleton. If the body of a dragon was preserved, people might only need to hollow out the interior.

3. Moving houses

Going a step beyond houseboats, houses might drift through the sky – either built on something which already floats (such as rocks in the Edge Chronicles) or soaring on their own power. People might never need to descend from a skyhouse if it has some means of catching food, perhaps trapping birds or snaring prey on the ground. And in an arid land, this would be a good way to follow the seasonal rains.

4. Segregated houses

Especially in cultures which practice polygamy, each wife may have her own house which the husband visits – though I wouldn’t mind seeing it done the other way around.

5. Sentient houses

In Ray Bradbury’s “There Shall Come Soft Rains”, a fully automated house goes on cleaning itself, cooking breakfast and running hot bathwater long after its inhabitants have died in a nuclear holocaust. I would love to have an apartment that cleaned itself. And a house which could communicate with me might be very convenient, not to mention excellent for security.

Unless intruders managed to foil its defences somehow, perhaps turning the house against its owners. Then it would not be so good.

And while the Bradbury story is SF, it could be easily adapted to a fantasy or horror setting, as the characters slowly realize their house is sentient or as they and the house work together against a common threat.

Which kind of house is your favorite?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

First day

Today was my first day in Clinical Placement.

Technically that started yesterday but that was mainly orientation, meeting with Human Resources and so on. The real work, in the labs, began today and I was in Histology.

Histology is the study of tissues. So if you find a lump somewhere a lump should not be, and if the doctors do a biopsy of it, the little bit they take out is sent to the histology department (or pathology department, as it's sometimes called). We get to process the little bit into such a form that the pathologist can look at it under a microscope and tell whether the lump is a bad lump that needs to be removed before it makes any more lumps.

One thing I always liked about medical laboratory technology was the distance it maintained between the lab and the patients, because while empathy is important, a certain degree of detachment is also necessary to go about your work. You can't start feeling for everyone, or you'll burn out. In medical laboratory technology, samples are delivered to the lab in labeled containers and results go out in printed or digital reports, which is fine by me... but in histology, some of those samples are very recognizable as once having been on people.

And sometimes they are people. There is a chance I may see an autopsy. Not quite sure what to think or feel about this, although the staff at the hospital are very kind and would understand if I had to leave halfway through the procedure. Actually, they'd probably prefer that to my keeling over and needing to be carried out.

Anyway, that was my first day. I wasn't rushed off my feet, but there's a lot to know and study about the discipline. And future jobs depend on this first impression, so I have to work hard.

Wish me luck, everyone. :)

Image from:

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Skin Map

Kit has a difficult enough time navigating the London Underground, but he soon finds out that making his way through a network of ley lines is infinitely harder. An old man calling himself Cosimo Livingstone – and claiming to be Kit’s great-grandfather – shows him one of the lines, but Kit declines to help with Cosimo’s mysterious “project”. That is, until Kit’s skeptical girlfriend Wilhelmina decides to check the ley lines out herself and vanishes.

This is the start of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Skin Map, a fantasy that hooked me from the start. For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by ley lines, ever since I first read about them in Graham Masterton’s horror novel Walkers. Given that this book was likely to be a great deal less scary, I requested it from Thomas Nelson as part of their Booksneeze program and dived in as soon as it arrived.

Since ley lines can take people “anywhere or anywhen”, Kit and Cosimo have their work cut out to find Wilhelmina. They also have avoid the Burley Men, who are searching for the titular map, a guide to the secrets of the ley lines. The map was once tattooed on a man’s skin and is now parchment.

The story goes from Merrie Olde England to a sojourn in Egypt where the antagonist, Lord Burleigh, meets Howard Carter and helps excavate a tomb. Meanwhile, Wilhelmina – who is nothing if not adaptable – ends up in Prague in 1606, where she earns her keep by working for a baker and opening the city’s first coffeehouse.

Some suspension of disbelief is required to buy a modern woman not only doing all this but happily managing without hot water on tap, electricity, etc. But what kept me interested despite this niggling doubt were the descriptions. Lawhead does these extremely well, whether it comes to depictions of characters or of historical details such as apostle spoons. I especially liked the alchemist’s laboratory with its granite mortars and “prehistoric insects in lambent lumps of Baltic amber”.

One problem, though, were the said-bookisms. Characters rarely just say something. Instead they declare, venture, assert, prod, echo, offer, object, declaim, prompt, allow, wonder, counter and even yip. This is the first book I’ve read where people yipped. Finally, although the different threads converge at the end, the plot is by no means resolved—this is the first in the Bright Empires series—so it’s not for anyone who wants a self-contained book.

For what it is, though, it was an entertaining read. I’ll probably check out the sequel, if Thomas Nelson offers that as well.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Shields in fantasy

The first memorable shield I ever read about was Athena’s, which bore the head of the Gorgon Medusa. Continuing the Greek motif, the movie Troy had the Greeks using shields in a testudo formation, plus Brad Pitt Achilles made good use of his during fights.

But there weren’t too many famous shields in fantasy, which is understandable. Swords are offensive weapons; shields are defensive. You can barely read classic or heroic fantasy without tripping over a sword that’s special in some way; not so for shields. When I started thinking of shields, though, numerous ideas came to mind.


On a battlefield where combatants had their faces covered, shields could be used as an identifying device, hence the practice of painting them with a knight’s coat of arms. Of course, they don’t necessarily have to sport such a crest. They might simply be designed in such a way as to strike fear into their opponents – worked with a snarling face, for instance, or constructed of human bones.

That being said, keep the environment and the technological level of the society in mind. Not to mention the strength of whoever’s lifting the shield; a slab of granite studded with diamonds may turn aside any weapon, but it’s also completely impractical.


Highly polished shields could be mirrors. Prince Oberyn Martell makes good use of such a shield in a climactic battle in George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords. Although he had to wait for the sun to emerge. Maybe someone with a spelled shield might be able to make it glow so fiercely that opponents would be forced to look away – if the shield bore the image of a sun, perhaps?

A shield could also have a design that produces the opposite effect. Say, a hypnotic swirl that mesmerizes opponents, or at least gives them a splitting headache. Or what if it’s a featureless blank that takes on the image of whatever most affected an enemy?


This is the best part, because almost anything can be done to make shields dangerous. Maybe they attract the enemy’s weapon as if it’s magnetized – meaning it’s all but yanked out of his hand. Or they could repel weapons instead.

They could be enchanted so that their wielder can see them, but the enemy can’t. They could suddenly (and scarily) sprout long clawed tendrils or chains when an enemy is within arm’s-length, trying to grab him.

They might be the portals to abysses that are terrifying and yet compelling at the same time. You can’t look away from the black nothingness before you, and yet you know that whatever goes into it – whether it’s your weapon or your arm – won’t be coming out again.

That was fun to write.