Wednesday, December 25, 2013

White Christmas

The Great Blackout of 2013.

That's how I'll always remember Christmas of this year, as the time of the Ice Storm and the Branches On The Power Lines. When everything died late on the night of the 21st, and over two hundred and fifty thousand people were left in cold dark houses. The neighborhood looked like a ghost town.

Things are getting back to normal, but I'm very grateful for everything I tend to take for granted. Wishing all the best to the people who worked round the clock to get the city operational again, and to all those still waiting for their houses to be warm and bright again.

And of course, it's a white Christmas. The city is frosted and hung with icicles, snowflakes sifting down from the clouds.

May your days be merry and bright,
And may you always have water, heat and light.

A wonderful festive season to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Story of the Christmas Bookcase

A couple of years ago, I went to a friend’s place for the first time. Flanking her large-screen TV were two large, beautiful solid wood bookcases. I wasn’t in the least interested in the TV, but I admired the bookcases and asked her where she had bought them.

She said her father, who was a carpenter, had made them as a gift when she got married. Since it wasn’t likely that my father, who is not a carpenter, would give me a bookcase for marriage or on any other occasion, I decided I’d buy one once I had enough disposable income. I really wanted a large solid piece, because I already had a small one that I assembled from instructions.

One day I noticed someone had left a headboard by the side of the road nearby, and the headboard had shelves. I always need shelves for my books, so I asked my friend Godfrey to help me get it into the basement apartment where I live. While he was doing so, I told him about my plans to get a solid wood bookcase some day. Godfrey, being the dear soul that he is, offered to make me one.

“Ooh,” I said. “Can you do the top in a fretwork design? With carvings of—”

“You’re getting a bookcase,” he said. “Email me the dimensions.”

So I measured the space I had and decided the basement could accommodate a six-foot-tall bookcase. I would need to stand on a chair to reach the top shelf, and it would be so wide my entire Fighting Fantasy collection could fit on one shelf.

Godfrey set up shop in the garage. This is the frame that would be my solid wood bookcase.

Finally the day came when the bookcase was complete, finished and stained. I wanted the wood left unfinished, so it had a beautiful, natural look. And I do mean natural, because one of the shelves had a hole where a knot had fallen out. “It’s a feature, not a bug,” I said, and asked Godfrey to take my picture next to it.

"Wow," I said, "that picture makes me look really tiny."

"News flash," said Godfrey. "You ARE really tiny." Then he called his brother to help him move the bookcase into the basement.

At this point it became clear that although I’d measured the bookcase for my apartment, I hadn’t measured the bookcase for the narrow doorway leading down the steps. Godfrey and his brother lifted and turned and pushed and twisted. But short of breaking through a wall, and possibly having the house (if not my landlady) descend with a roar on our collective heads, that big, beautiful, solid wood bookcase was stuck. It couldn’t go down the steps.

This picture is captioned: "We're gonna need a bigger hallway."

“Godfrey?” I said finally. “For next Christmas, could you make me a coffee table?”

So they moved the bookcase back to the garage and Godfrey said he would build me a smaller one some time soon. Moral of the story: do not look a gift horse in the mouth, but also do not ask for a Shire when you have a Shetland-sized hallway.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Deepest Ocean

Isn't that the most gorgeous cover? :)

Pirates and battles and sharks, oh my. Not to mention hot sex on the high seas. The artist is the award-winning Kanaxa and The Deepest Ocean will be coming to an Internet near you in April 2014. For now I just couldn't wait to share the cover.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Desolation of Smaug

My Christmas present to a friend was tickets to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. My friend’s gift to me was a handmade, solid wood bookcase, but that didn’t turn out as we’d hoped either. I’ll blog about that one soon.

For now, we’ve got movie review sign.

I’ll start with the good. Visually, this is a very vivid film. I loved the locations and all the little details like the huge honeybees in Beorn’s stables.

That was about it, unfortunately. So what didn’t work?

In the book, Gandalf cleverly entertains Beorn with the story of their journey, so he’s more interested in that than in the steadily growing number of dwarves in his house. The film begins with a giant bear chasing them all into the house, but he changes into a man overnight and serves them breakfast in the morning.

That sets the tone. Over-the-top action with cartoon physics is going to be the norm, and characterization falls by the wayside. Beorn, for instance, doesn’t show his caring for his animals by requiring the dwarves to return the ponies, nor does he follow them to make sure they’ll do it, nor do the dwarves grumble at the prospect of trekking through Mirkwood afoot.

Then again, they step into Mirkwood, wander around in a daze like they smoked some very “special” pipeweed and get caught by the spiders. It all happens in one day, perhaps in a matter of hours. I was looking forward to the food running out (imagine the genuine humor that could have resulted), not to mention Bombur falling in the river and having to be carried. None of that. None of the songs, either. But wait, there’s Legolas!

Legolas was never my favorite character in The Lord of the Rings, but there he was at least a canonical part of the Fellowship. Here, he’s shoehorned in to be eye candy for the distaff side of the audience. For the men, there’s Tauriel.

One of my pet peeves in movies is when the producer decides an all-male cast is bad, so he adds a woman who’s gorgeous and kicks ass and falls for the hottest of the males. Basically, she’s a Token Female Action Girl. I’d rather just see an all-male cast, and Tauriel has no personality other than feisty, flawless and fond of Kili, with whom she flirts in an awkward, cliched way.

Kili, for his part, tells her a sob story about how he promised his mom he’d come home. Goodbye, Kili. You were nice in the first movie. I hope you escape soon, and I don’t mean from the elf jail.

Bilbo breaks them all out, but instead of closing the barrels, they all sail along in open upright barrels with Bilbo clinging to the side of one of these. Which would be fine, except Bilbo calls himself “Barrel-rider” when he’s talking to Smaug. When exactly was he riding?

The Orcs chase them. Legolas and Tauriel chase the Orcs. Much action ensues. Legolas actually gets slammed around by the Orc leader on one occasion, but of course he still looks like Barbie’s perfectly groomed younger brother, except for a single artistically placed trickle of blood. Meanwhile the dwarves reach Laketown and meet Bard, your Generic Hero with Adorable Children Who Adore Him.

Then they reach the Lonely Mountain. Bilbo is the only one clever and persistent enough to get them in, and his reward is to be sent to find the Arkenstone (there’s some backstory about how that will unite the dwarven clans somehow). He tiptoes in and Smaug wakes up.

Smaug is the single biggest disappointment in a film crammed to the ceiling with disappointments. He can’t kill one hobbit who’s visible — yes, unlike in the book, Bilbo takes off the Ring and talks to him. He senses the presence of the Ring, yet doesn’t seem at all interested in acquiring it. Then he tries to kill the dwarves and fails miserably.

In fact, the dwarves outwit him at every step of the way, even using his flames to fire up their forges, which make a giant golden statue of a dwarf. It looks like one of those big gold-foil-wrapped chocolate Santas. Smaug stares at it like he’s wondering if it’s a pinata, and the statue dissolves, drowning him in molten gold.

Sadly for Thorin, he hasn’t read A Game of Thrones, so he doesn’t realize that molten gold cannot harm a real dragon. So Smaug swims out and says he’s going to Laketown. Bilbo runs up shouting that those people are innocent. Smaug growls something about revenge, turns and flies off. Presumably he realized the script wouldn’t permit him to so much as singe the beard of a single dwarf in this film — let alone a visible hobbit standing a few yards away and shouting at him — so his only options were either to go to Laketown or to sit around in the Lonely Mountain until a handful of dwarves ate him.

And there the film ended. Thanks be to Eru.

Oh, Gandalf. I almost forgot about him, which is pretty easy to do. He had a major role in the first film, but here he just seems to be at a loose end until the Necromancer captures and imprisons him, like Saruman did in The Fellowship of the Ring. Radagast and his bunny-sled show up for a cameo, but he doesn't do anything either.

This film shows the results of trying to stretch a children’s book out to cover three movies. It’s mostly action, action, action, with none of the camaraderie of the first movie. The dwarves don’t tease Bilbo or joke with each other, and there’s no point in Smaug roaring, “My wings are a hurricane and my breath death!” if he can’t actually do anything except let the dwarves make a fool out of him. Finally, one question. How does Thranduil have both long flowing white hair and eyebrows like Ugly Betty’s?

Friday, December 13, 2013

Be A Sex-Writing Strumpet

What I like most about Stacia Kane’s Be a Sex-Writing Strumpet is that it desensitized me. Completely and utterly popped my mental cherry. After you have read the word “cock” a hundred times, even a Catholic upbringing in a Muslim country can’t make you feel awkward about your sex scenes.

Of course, there’s much much more to the book than that. But the most important thing about it, for me, was that it got me over that hump. No pun intended.

The book is a collection of 24 essays originally published on Stacia’s blog, and although I believe they’re still there, I wanted a copy in physical form. Plus, someone who writes such helpful material deserves to have her book bought. So I got a copy for Christmas last year and it was the best present ever.

I also like how sex-positive this book is. It might seem really obvious that a book with this title would be pro-sex scene, but I’ve come across a lot of writing advice urging people not to describe sex in any detail. Fade to black, summarize, describe it in terms of elegant metaphors, but don’t mention body parts and all that crude unpleasant stuff.

Well, if you want to write a hot or erotic romance, you won’t get very far with that approach. Instead, Stacia shows how to keep the sex scenes an integral part of the relationship and the story—while still being explicit and spicy. The essays even include lists of different words for the sex organs, which was really helpful. It was the first time I’d seen such a list presented seriously, instead of in an amusing collection of purple-prose terms from romance novels (not that there isn’t a time and a place for that too). Plus, I like the discussion of graphic vs. mild and how this needs to be reflected in the story as a whole.

The mechanics of sex, the tone of the writing, even symbolism—it’s all covered here, with detailed examples from Stacia’s work to illustrate points. I think my favorite was the list of unusual places her characters have had sex, because those inspired me to try to be more creative.

If I had a complaint, it would be that this book doesn’t cover enough. I would have liked more discussion of menages, BDSM, etc. A few less-than-positive reviews on Amazon also mentioned the style, which is very breezy, informal and personal (i.e. there are several mentions of Stacia’s preferences in sex scenes, which works for a blog but not so well for a book). But on the whole I enjoyed the book—and I keep it on hand if I ever need help with a sex scene.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Hair in fantasy

“Give me a head with hair,
Long beautiful hair,
Shining, streaming, gleaming, flaxen, waxen hair…”

Hair is ubiquitous. It crops up in mythology and fairy tales, it appears in a hundred different colors, styles and permutations, and I don’t think I’ve read a romance which didn’t provide at least some mention of it. It’s a source of power, a mark of heredity and one of the ways to spot a Mary Sue—her hair is likely to be overpretty or overdescribed. Usually both.


Minus Clairol, hair occurs in a small range of hues—blond, red, brown, black, grey and white. There’s a lot of room for variation within these colors, but in a fantasy characters can have Ramona Flowers hair with streaks in it—if there’s a good reason for them to have such hair.

Unusual colors might also affect how seriously the characters are taken. If everyone has hair like Rainbow Brite’s horse, the story might come off as a parody. I’d pick just one out-of-the-ordinary color, or at the most two (say, different colors for men and women).

As for natural streaks in hair, there’s a genetic condition which produces this – Waardenburg syndrome, which also causes mismatched eyes. A group of characters distinguished by a white streak in their hair is the Mallen family of Catherine Cookson’s novels, beginning with The Mallen Streak.


Hairstyles are a good way to show people’s occupations (monks, soldiers and prostitutes will all wear their hair differently) or age. For instance, girls wear their hair in braids but ladies put their hair up. Complicated styles might also be a sign of social status, because only rich people would have the time or the luxury to have their hair teased into various shapes a la Queen Amidala.

And in A Game of Thrones, Dothraki men braid their hair and cut it off when they lose a fight—so the longer a man’s hair is, the better.


People can wear pretty much anything in their hair, and often do. Ribbons, flowers, jewelry, chopsticks, berries, seashells, cakes of scent (in a hot climate, these will melt slowly) and even stuffed birds.

This is a good way to hint at social status too. At the start of Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, Antoinette’s braid is bound with string, but later on it’s tied with red ribbon, to show that her family’s fortunes have improved.


Samosn’s hair supposedly gave him great strength as long as it wasn’t cut. Though now I’m wondering if “hair” was a euphemism for something else.

And the gift Galadriel gave Legolas was a bow strung with a strand of hair. The color of hair could also be an indication of a person’s ability, though it might be best not to go for the cliché of fire-mages having red hair.

Finally, what’s your favorite hair color? I like black or brown for most of my characters, but the one which most fascinates me is red, especially if the person has green eyes. To me, that’s about as exotic as you can get.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

No Gentle Love

From time to time I pick up a romance of the overwrought bodice-ripper variety. They’re guilty pleasures, the literary version of cotton candy. I don’t have to think and I know I’m not going to feel anything but amusement, so I settle down to enjoy the ride.

In the case of Rebecca Brandewyne’s No Gentle Love, the book was even better than I expected, but then one scene (which I’ll mention later on) completely derailed it. First, though, the characters. All you need to know about them is:

He’s arrogant, jealous, violent; an earl, a ship’s captain and a highwayman; incredibly handsome, incredibly talented, incredibly rich; capable of killing any man and seducing any woman. Oh, and he’s determined never to love. No reason for this is ever given,

She’s innocent, naive, incredibly beautiful, incredibly feisty, incredibly spineless and capable of attracting any man within fifty feet of her without doing a thing.

And does this book have it all!

  • Forced marriage due to I-want-grandchildren-damnit ancestor’s will stipulation
  • At least two insane villains who lust after the heroine
  • A miscarriage due to a suspicious fall down stairs
  • Amnesia
  • Suicide
  • Murder
  • Two jealous ex-mistresses of the zero
  • A trip to an African village, complete with tribal chieftain who lusts after the heroine
  • A trip to exotic India, complete with a Maharajah who lusts after the heroine
  • A trip to the mysterious Orient, complete with foot-binding, fortune-telling Chinese. But none of them lusted after the heroine. Maybe they thought they were in a different book.
  • And rape on every other page.
    I expected the zero of this novel to repeatedly rape the heroine, because hey, the book was published in 1980 and I’ve read Brandewyne before. But wow. He also slaps her several times, bites her and forces her to perform oral sex on him:

    …he forced her head down. He groaned with pleasure as her swollen lips closed over his heated pride.

    Described in the purplest of prose, their relationship proceeds in a predictable cycle throughout various international locations:

    • They are separated
    • She believes that he’s dead or that she’ll never see him again
    • She is either raped by another man or allows another man to seduce her (yet never feels the world-shattering ecstasy that she knows only in his arms)
    • They are reunited
    • He’s furious that she would allow another man to touch her
    • He rapes her while she sobs, shrieks or scratches at him, but of course it feels amazing
    • Rinse and repeat
    The crowning moment of hilarity, for me, was when the heroine was tied up by one of the insane lecherous villains with her hands behind her back. While the villain was gloating in front of her (probably twirling his mustache as he wished the railroad had been invented so he could tie her to the tracks), her puppy got behind her and chewed through the ropes around her wrists.

    And this was an ordinary puppy, mind you, which had never done anything similar before. I felt like I’d wandered into a Tintin comic by mistake.

    I would be able to recommend this novel wholeheartedly for any readers wanting to enjoy the silliness, except for one particular scene. Remember the black chieftain who lusted after the heroine? Well, he kidnaps her (get in line) and takes her to his village, but she escapes. The zero and his loyal men storm the village shortly after, only to be told that she’s lost in the African jungle and probably dead.

    So the zero drops to his knees screaming at the sky — as you do — while his men kill everyone in the village. After raping the women, that is. Then they walk off, and the author describes how a child who’s survived the slaughter crawls out of cover, sits among the corpses and cries. The chapter ends.

    That came close to being the most disgusting thing I’ve read in a romance novel. Though with the zero being a misogynist (he despises all women) and a classist (he sneers at a suitor of the heroine because the man is a doctor, meaning he actually has to work for a living instead of being an earl), he might as well be a racist too. So I can’t recommend this novel even for readers just looking for ridiculous, campy fun.

    Oh, and one other reason I wanted to read this book was because the zero is the captain of a ship, and I’m in love with all things nautical at the moment. Well, they’re on the high seas and there’s a terrible storm that leaves the heroine cringing in terror, but after it’s over the zero tells her everything’s fine, they just lost a mast which can be replaced. This is like coming in from a battlefield and saying, “Hi honey, I’m fine, I just had a leg chopped off. It should grow back, right? I can haz sex now?”

    Friday, November 15, 2013

    Seven things my family would say about my writing

    I don’t often talk about my family on this blog. That’s partly because I wanted to keep it more or less professionally-focused and partly because I haven’t been in touch with my extended family since I escaped to Canada. They’re all very conservative and devoutly religious, so they didn’t like what I turned out to be.

    But when I read 14 ways to tick off a writer yesterday, it reminded me of them, especially the part about asking when a book will hit the NYT bestseller list. I’m not sure my extended family is aware of the NYT bestseller list, since most of them live in rural Sri Lanka and/or don’t read any books except for the Bible, but at once I imagined what they would say if they knew about my novels.

    1. “How can you write about people having intercourse? Who would read that?”

    You can tell the mental image is of shifty-eyed men in long raincoats lining up for brown-paper-wrapped copies of the book.

    2. “I asked my dentist if he had ever heard of you but he said no.”

    3. “Have you thought of writing a book about Jesus?”

    4. “How much money have you earned? …Why is that private?”

    5. “My grandson knows how to get all these free electronic books from this website on the Internet. Such a smart boy, he doesn’t even have to pay for them! I must ask him if he has your book too.”

    6. “Why didn’t they put your Singhalese name on the cover?”

    7. “You know, my friend’s boss’s cousin’s daughter-in-law is a doctor.”

    Monday, November 11, 2013

    Starting with a bang

    When I first started reading romance, which was back in the good old days of the early nineties, I picked up a novel where the hero and heroine had sex in the first chapter.

    I don’t mean they met, felt this fierce instant attraction and gave into it. I mean the book started with a sex scene in media res. It was incredibly off-putting, because rather than being caught up in their story I felt like a voyeur watching two complete strangers get it on.

    The best part, though, was that they didn’t know each other’s real names and wore masks all through the ordeal (well, it was an ordeal for me), but at the end of the chapter they parted sadly because the heroine was married.

    And even though I was a newcomer to romance, I knew right away that the man was the heroine’s husband, because otherwise we’d get into the ickiness of adultery. So that ruined what little suspense there was for me. Plus, it made me wonder just how obtuse the heroine was, since even after having sex with her husband in a later scene where he said the same words Masked Lover did during sex, she never once suspected they were the same man. He had to fill in the blanks for her on the last page.

    The entire experience must have affected me more profoundly than I realized, because every romance I’ve written since then has had the hero and heroine having sex only after they’ve gotten to know each other to some extent. Of course, in most of my stories, the main characters start out with good reason not to trust each other. And I’m not writing erotic romance where the sex needs to start early and happen often.

    The other thing about starting off with sex is that I like a high level of smoldering will-they-or-won’t-they tension. And if they have, then something needs to separate them or prevent them from proceeding to the happy ending. I know there’s going to be an HEA, but as long as it’s not blindingly obvious from the first chapter on, I can enjoy the story. So for all those reasons, I didn’t think I’d ever have a sex scene before, oh, chapter five or so.

    But while I was toying with plans for a new book, I came up with a idea that demanded sex at the start. I liked it so much that I wrote the scene right away and then came up with a story for what happened next.

    To make it work for me, though, the characters had all their clothes on at the start, just before they met each other, and I spent a paragraph or two on what they hoped to get out of the encounter. Very different things, hence the conflict. And what drove them apart at the end of that scene wasn’t something they could overcome easily.

    Starting with sex also sets the tone for the rest of the book. It’ll seem odd if there’s a sex scene at the start (even if there’s coitus interruptus, which I used) but that’s followed by a long stretch with nothing steamy. If you begin with a lightning attraction and people acting on it, you’ll need to be consistent in your (implied) promise to the reader — even if it’s clear that the book isn’t erotica or an erotic romance. I had to think of ways the characters could get together again during the course of the story. That’s not going to be easy for them, given that they both ended up on a warship sailing into dangerous waters and hammocks, IMO, were never meant for sexytimes.

    So this isn’t going to be easy for me either.

    But it’s good for me to try a change from what I usually do, and the chemistry between the characters is drawing me in. I think I could pull this off, and it will be fun to try.

    Friday, November 1, 2013

    Five infamous plagiarists

    1. Q. R. Markham

    He made a splash with his debut novel, Assassin of Secrets, but it turned out the book was a patchwork of plagiarism, with sentences stolen from multiple other authors.

    Seems like it would have been easier to write your own book than to try to cobble dozens of snippets from other people into one coherent whole, but then again, the New Yorker described Markham as an “addict” to plagiarism. Even a blog post he wrote wasn’t entirely original.

    2. Kaavya Viswanathan

    Half a million dollars for a two-book deal before she had graduated from college. Too bad the first book contained so many passages similar to another author’s work.

    The plagiarism, Visvanathan said, was “unintentional and unconscious." Hope she checked her term papers carefully for any other innocent, automatic instances of copying.

    3. Janet Dailey

    Janet Dailey, who plagiarized Nora Roberts, bounced back from the lawsuit that followed. The two books which she admitted contained stolen material were pulled, but she has dozens more published. She blamed a psychological disorder for her crime.

    4. Cassie Edwards

    This is the one I think of as “Savage Plagiarism”.

    In 2008, Cassie Edwards, author of multiple Native American romances with titles like Savage Joy and Savage Devotion, was found to have plagiarized multiple authors—she was pretty indiscriminate, since she copied fiction, non-fiction and poetry. All in complete innocence, of course.

    In a January interview, Edwards admitted that she "takes" material from other works, but said she didn't know she was supposed to credit her sources.

    Signet severed its relationship with her and if she's had any other novels published after that year, it hasn't been under her name.

    5. Shey Stahl

    Plagiarising a Twilight fanfic may not land you in legal trouble, because fanfic authors doesn’t hold any copyrights on their work, but it can still make your name mud. As of today, Shey Stahl’s books are unavailable on Amazon. I checked one to be on the safe side, and a one-star review claimed that book had copied the reviewer’s fanfic, a different one than the Twilight fic (then again, most plagiarizers don’t limit themselves to just the one host source). Her website is down for maintenance, her Facebook page is gone, her Twitter feed is private.

    I’m sure she can and will try again under a pseudonym, but again it makes me wonder why anyone would go through all this. Especially when they’re reaching an audience of millions who read widely and who can use software to check words in seconds.

    Oh, plagiarizers can get away with it for a little while. All these authors did. But the house of cards inevitably comes down in the end—and the longer they’ve done it and the more successful they are by then, the harder they’re going to fall.

    Sunday, October 27, 2013


    Possessions is my favorite Judith Michael novel. Maybe even my favorite when it comes to women’s fiction, period.

    It’s a little dated. The book was published in 1984 and that shows, especially with the references to “Eskimos” and the mention of a computer with disc drives that everyone oohs and aahs over. But although the heroine becomes as beautiful, beloved, accomplished, etc. as any other Judith Michael female protagonist, she starts out on the opposite end of that scale. Which was what hooked me on the novel.

    The story begins when Katherine Fraser, an ordinary housewife in Vancouver, discovers her husband is missing. Craig Fraser left on a business trip but never reached his destination, and everything goes downhill from there. His business partner tells Katherine that Craig was embezzling from the company, and soon the police are involved.

    But the publicity has an unexpected side-effect. Katherine believed her husband was an orphan, but a wealthy family in San Francisco reads about him in the papers and contacts her. They once had a son called Craig who disappeared after an accident, and it soon becomes evident this is no coincidence.

    Rather than being any help, though, Craig’s long-lost family leaves Katherine feelimg even more alone—not to mention poor. Her attempts to get a job only underline the fact that she hasn’t worked during the ten years of her marriage, and even though she loves designing jewelry, her samples are turned down by buyers who point out that she’s an amateur with amateur techniques.

    Finally she sells their house at a loss and moves to a tiny apartment in San Francisco because her best friend lives in the city. Slowly, she starts enjoying her independence. She takes classes in jewelry design, buys different clothes (albeit secondhand ones) and mends bridges with Craig’s family. Though this has an unexpected side-effect too. His cousins Derek and Ross are both intrigued by her—in different ways—but Craig’s presence casts a shadow over her. Especially when he sends money from Canada, without ever divulging his location, writing to her or telling her the truth.

    The story isn’t flawless. I didn’t buy that any jewelry designer could get so good so fast, and—except for Craig—things are perfect for Katherine towards the end. Those who treat her well are good people who are rewarded, while those who do not are bad people who get their comeuppance. But the descriptions of settings—San Francisco, Paris, the Cote d’Azur—are wonderfully written. I always lose myself in those, and yet, because Katherine starts out in such low water, it doesn’t come across as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous either. Not a bad beach read at all.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2013

    The last rose of summer

    Summer is long gone, but look what I found outside.

    Pink-edged petals and golden heart. I'm going to miss this rose when it finally fades.

    ’Tis the last rose of summer
    Left blooming alone.
    All her lovely companions
    Are faded and gone.
    Thomas Moore

    As well as being the title of songs by groups as diverse as Celtic Woman and Judas Priest, The Last Rose of Summer is also an imprint of the Wild Rose Press, for heroes and heroines over 40.

    And that concludes my random thought of the day, inspired by a rose.

    Sunday, October 20, 2013

    Risks of using micropresses

    “It is easy to get overlooked at the big corporate publishing companies…”

    Size does matter. When it comes to publishers, anyway.

    There are the major houses, there are small presses and there are micropresses. Both of the latter vary in size and reputability, so writers need to make an informed decision about what kind of publishing would work for them. A red flag for me, though, is when the publisher is a one-person operation but pitches this as a positive. “We’re not like those big faceless corporations—we’re a family.”

    The greatest risk authors run in such a situation is that the publisher will be unable to live up to their responsibilities. When one person handles everything from acquisitions to editing to cover art to marketing, it’s easy for that person to become overworked and overwhelmed, especially if they have to juggle the needs of a day job and a family. And often, a single person who does take on such responsibilities does so because they have no real experience with publishing, which makes matters all the worse.

    Cases in point? Capri Publishing. Dream Books (the founder was all of 18 years old). Lionsong Publishing. Weaving Dreams Publishing. Luna Brilliante. Tico Publishing. The list is endless.

    This is the main reason I prefer larger companies to micropresses. I want the reassurance of knowing that one person’s crisis or illness does not bring the entire operation to a standstill. Maybe that seems cold-blooded, but this is a business.

    That’s the other risk authors run, when the publisher is more of a family member than a business partner. I’ve seen some writers say this is a reason they prefer, say, Startup Micropress to Macmillan; with the latter, they’ll be the tiniest of cogs in a very big machine, whereas with Startup, there’s a personal touch. It’s friendly and neighborly, the literary version of the small town where everyone knows your name.

    Sometimes this even extends to knowing the publisher personally. In a thread on Absolute Write, discussing Firefly and Wisp Publishing, one of their authors stated that the publisher not only treated her to a meal but paid for a replacement tire for her car. Was that a wonderful thing to do? Of course. Was it a testament to the publisher’s capabilities as a publisher? No.

    The real danger about thinking of one’s publisher as a close friend or family member is that, if something goes wrong, it’s difficult to regard the situation objectively. If the publisher fails to pay royalties and says it’s because she was ill, what do you do—think about your career and your money first, or trust her and give her as much time as she needs to recover?

    And some publishers get very ill.

    “I am sick (flu, sinus infection, fell in a hole gardening, food poisoning, etc.) and haven’t been able to make it to the post office to mail your check.”

    I wish I had a garden with a hole to fall in when my phone bill was due.

    Oh, wait. Bell Canada doesn’t consider itself my family and therefore wouldn’t accept that as an excuse.

    “The bank took all my money repeatedly and took away the house, And then the City of Los Angeles construction destroyed everything else. And then dad died and mom had cancer, and I nearly died myself.”

    That’s a direct quote from Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books, whose authors haven’t been paid for three years.

    Whether the publisher is actually going through all this or not, such excuses for nonpayment put authors in a no-win situation. because if they’re kind and understanding, they’re going to be taken advantage of. On the other hand, if they speak up to request professional and ethical treatment, they become the bad guy for picking on someone who’s depressed, who’s had surgery, who’s fallen in a hole, etc.

    When an author with Sovereign Publications wrote to its owner, Dorothy Deering, to say she had paid over $8000 for her novel’s publication and received nothing in return, she got a reply from the owner’s husband:

    Dorothy is not only recovering from total knee replacement, but she is struggling to survive everyday. Your letter upset her so much that she sat and cried all over again.

    Couldn’t she wipe her tears with some hundred-dollar-bills? She should have had at least eighty of those from that author alone.

    As a poster on Absolute Write put it:

    Family keeps things in the family. They don't tell tales to other people… The result is a very one-sided family, where the publisher gets away with anything and the authors get the short end of the stick.

    That’s not to say that things are perfect in larger publishers, because I don’t think this is the case. But I find one-person operations far more of a risk, and that’s why.

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    How I learned to make an apple pie

    One of my resolutions for 2013 was to learn to make an apple pie.

    This is how far I got. In March I discovered an interesting book called How to Make an Apple Pie and See the World, and put it in my shopping cart on Amazon. Work and then writing consumed most of my attention. Plus, I balked at buying a pie pan which I’d only be using once or twice a year. Not to mention a rolling pin for the pastry.

    But then my landlady invited me for Thanksgiving dinner (as she always does, bless her) and I realized I could watch and help her make the apple pie. So I turned up, notebook in hand and asked what the measurements were.

    She looked faintly puzzled, reached for a bag of sugar and tossed a handful into a bowl. Flour was meted out in much the same way. I wrote down, “Eyeball it”.

    Then we peeled a huge bowl of Macintosh apples together. Or at least she used a knife and peeled lovely long coils that she could have tossed over her shoulder to form whole sentences. I brought my vegetable peeler, which carved off little shreddy bits that either kept spattering me or having to be removed from between the two blades.

    At least I managed to slice the apples without any difficulty while she rolled out the pastry. Then we piled apples, flour, sugar, ground cinnamon, grated nutmeg and butter into the crust and put the top on. She crimped the two crusts together and I poked a few holes into the top one. It wouldn’t have won any pie competitions looks-wise, but it tasted pretty good with ice cream and I got to take a huge slice home as well.

    And since I forgot to take a picture of my first pie, here’s one of me dressed up for Thanksgiving dinner instead, new haircut and all.

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Five methods of environment detection for the blind

    I usually write in pre-modern worlds, so I’m going to assume there are no such things as Seeing Eye dogs here—though a science fiction short story once featured a blind alien which used a human as such a service animal. If anyone remembers what the story was called and/or who the author was, please comment and let me know.

    Anyway, that made me think of ways blind people in a medieval fantasy might become aware of their surroundings.

    1. Sound

    Bats and whales use echolocation, but they have suitable modifications and an environment. Water conducts sound better than air does, and bats have large ears, neither of which are likely to apply to humans. Plus, it might be difficult to have a character constantly making high-pitched noises.

    Though if a blind person had sensitive enough hearing, he might be able to detect even the quietest sounds—or filter said sounds from the soup of a crowded, noisy room. The problem, though, comes when dealing with the completely inanimate. Navigating a maze or even an unfamiliar house would prove more difficult, but that’s where a different sense comes in.

    2. Touch

    Some predators make good use of this—and use structures such as whiskers or cobwebs to maximize the amount of their environment they can detect. Humans are at a distinct disadvantage in this respect. By the time you’re close enough to an intruder to touch him, you’re probably too close and have lost the element of surprise.

    Though if a human did have skin (or skin-connected structures) which extended far enough, and which could be manipulated into exploring an environment at a distance, that could work.

    3. Electrical fields

    I like this one because it could work in almost any world—futuristic, steampunk or medieval. There’s real-life precedent for this as well; sharks sense electrical impulses via specialized organs called the ampullae of Lorenzini.

    It would also be interesting to know how such a method of detection would work. Do the stronger electrical impulses produced by living creatures feel like the shock you get when you walk across a shag carpet and open a door? Or is it more like a monochromatic pointillist world where significant surges show up like Rorschach blots?

    4. Heat

    Snakes can sense the warmth given off by their prey, but it would be even more interesting to intensify this ability. The molecules of substances vibrate unless the temperature is absolute zero, in which case your character is unlikely to be doing much either, and enough vibration produces heat.

    If the character is a sensitive enough thermometer, he could tell the difference between metal and wood from across a room. Or he could tell which of three identical closed doors had been used shortly before, because one handle would be just a few degrees warmer than the others.

    5. Seeing through the eyes of another

    The other set of eyes could belong to an animal or person devoted to that purpose—though I wouldn’t want to have the compound eyes of a fly or the multiple eyes of a spider unless my brain was able to handle that kind of input.

    Alternately, the blind person might be able to look through the eyes of anyone in the immediate vicinity. That might be interesting, to see yourself from the perspective of a lover or an assassin.

    Any other ways of sensing the environment?

    Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    The Art of Rowena

    If you like fantasy art books, The Art of Rowena will be a keeper. Rowena Morrill’s paintings have appeared on calendars and the covers of speculative fiction books such as The Dolphins of Pern, and I bought it because I’d seen two of those paintings before.

    One was of two people kissing through a great iron gate, their limbs twining around the bars. The ironic thing was, there was nothing connected to the gate—no walls whatsoever. They could simply have walked around it and there would have been nothing separating them. The other painting was a portrait of my favorite SF author, Isaac Asimov, seated on a throne carved with symbols and depictions of his work.

    These and many others make for a wonderful visual experience. Another favorite of mine shows a little boy walking home in the dark, hands in pockets, clearly trying to whistle a tune. Following him is a bizarre dragonlike creature, claws extended, jaws agape—but its pink-and-green coloration saves the scene from being completely horrific.

    Several paintings feature people in the skimpiest of clothing, just in case this isn’t your kind of thing, though Rowena has an amazing touch when it comes to small details. Jewelry, weapons and flowers all look vivid and realistic. The settings range from Ancient Egypt to an Aztec altar to medieval lands and outer space. Plus, there are notes on each painting—what inspired Rowena, what it was like working with the models and so on.

    Her style tends to be lush and colorful, as opposed to the cool restrained art of Jacek Yerka. But the paintings are delightful to browse through, and this book would be a good addition to any fantasy collection.

    Saturday, October 5, 2013

    Hair today and gone tomorrow

    I am a shorn sheep.

    For most of my life I had long hair, partly because I was born in Sri Lanka (nearly all the women in my family wore their hair long) and partly because I liked the tumbling-sexily-over-shoulders look.

    Of course, at some point the hassle of maintaining it overtook the tumble factor, especially since I don't have a hairdryer. Once it reached waist length it took forever to dry, got tangled frequently and didn't make me look hot so much as lost under all that hair.

    So I decided to get a pixie cut, just because I'd never done that before. I think my mother would be turning over in her urn if she knew.



    I'm still trying to get used to it (probably why I don't have such a big smile in the second picture). My head feels lighter, it's easier to take care of and I saved the now-disembodied hair to donate. But it's still such a radical change that I haven't shown it to anyone. Until now.

    Friday, October 4, 2013

    Making certain I will never read your client's book

    I recently received an email from someone who said he had translated a historical novel from its original Ukrainian, and would I care to review it?

    The email described the book as "one of the most powerful novels that you have ever read", and generally gushed over it (the word powerful was repeated). I wasn't impressed by that, but I decided to check the book out on Amazon. Read a few pages, noticed one too many comma splices and emailed the translator back to say that because of the errors, I wouldn't request a review copy.

    He replied,

    I looked at the first pages again. Luckily most people who have read the book (including two qualified teachers) don't share your view.

    Is this supposed to make me change my mind about reading the book? Or just to make me doubt my own memory/perception/opinion/reading tastes?

    Either way, mission unaccomplished.

    I replied,

    Luckily I don't care who shares my view or not when it comes to the books I review. Please try to query only the qualified teachers who agree with you when you're looking for reviews.

    And thanks for providing me with material for a future blog post about people who do authors more harm than good.

    Then I blocked his email address.

    This is why I don't respond to most requests for reviews.

    Wednesday, October 2, 2013

    More than just a story

    One way I can tell when a novel is likely to be problematic is if the writer describes it as more than a genre story.

    This first happened when I was discussing a heroic fantasy manuscript with someone online. Despite being queried in this sub-genre, the manuscript didn’t actually have much action, and all the queries stressed the main character’s thoughts and emotions rather than what she was doing, much less who she was fighting. The writer explained that he was trying to say, “My book has more than just heroic fantasy elements.”


    I love originality in fantasy. But if you’re selling a book as part of a sub-genre, you need to show how it fits into that sub-genre, and you absolutely don’t want to give the impression that you look down on that sub-genre. It’s like querying a romance by saying, “My book has more than just people falling in love.” People falling in love is what sells the genre to fans.

    In fact, if I were looking out for a romance, and I read an interview where the author said that, I would be turned off. I'd feel the author didn't have much respect for romance, and I'd get the impression that his or her book would sideline the love story in favor of the style or the action or whatever that author thought was more important.

    Another time I read an interview where the author of a SF novel was asked what her goals were in writing the book, and whether there was a message for readers to grasp. Apparently the author wanted to express her “philosophies of life” and make readers more aware of the world, whatever that meant.

    The interview concluded with “And yes, that means there’s more to my work than just an entertaining story”.

    I always like the word “just” in claims like these. As though it doesn’t take much effort to tell an entertaining story, as if this is some lowest common denominator and the truly memorable books are supposed to provide much more.

    The first duty of a novel is to tell an interesting story. Perhaps with the exception of books intended for a certain niche audience where the message is as or more important, but that wasn’t the case for this novel. I had actually read it prior to finding the interview, and unfortunately it wasn’t entertaining at all. By putting that requirement last (and probably least), the author ensured I would never want to read anything from her again.

    If a reader picks up a novel and gets a new appreciation of endangered tree frogs from it, that’s good. But that’s not the main purpose of the novel. And if it’s not telling the readers a great story, then they probably won’t end up liking the tree frogs either.

    Don’t do that to the tree frogs.

    Or the readers.

    Saturday, September 28, 2013

    Five bad kinds of promotion

    Going far beyond the usual sockpuppetry or spamming message boards with mentions of one’s book…

    1. Anthrax scare

    Sending an editor a can labelled with Anthrax and the biohazard symbol. That’s a good way to make sure no one ever opens anything with your name on the return address.

    2. Telemarketing

    I once saw this posted on an author’s Facebook page :

    “this may sound crazy but ... it's also certainly determined! How about opening up a phone book and just start calling people and asking them if they like to read?”

    My first reaction: “This may sound crazy?”

    3. Fake publicist

    I heard a strange idea at a meeting. The marketing guru suggested "creating" a publicist to help you set up your appointments and events. You introduce him or her with their fictitious persona and they sign all the news releases etc., even though it's really you. It gives the idea that you have a publicist.

    I suppose that could work until someone wonders why this publicist has no internet footprint, no apparent experience and so on. And even the best publicists can’t do much without a good product and adequate distribution on the publisher’s part. So at best, this isn’t likely to go far.


    Our concom got a packet from a self-pubbed author's "publicist." It was one of the most GA things I'd ever seen. In addition, the author was asking for things we can barely afford to provide for our top guests.

    4. Inappropriate locations for book signings

    Even if an author has written the definitive book on abuse, a therapist’s office is not the best place to hold a signing. Of course, that’s trumped by the idea of hawking one’s books in a women’s shelter, though I suppose the shelter residents could be considered a more or less captive audience.

    Though not as captive as those who aren’t going to walk away no matter what the circumstances…

    Once my novel, [title redacted--Marian], is available, I too will target a market other than bookstores. It has a huge story line of murder, so I plan on doing signings at the local morgue. Funeral homes too!!!

    5. Shooting yourself

    Alveson said that even as she waited with the wounded Dolin for emergency personnel to arrive, he began talking about his memoir.
    Talk about suffering for your art.

    Tuesday, September 24, 2013

    Open Water

    Open Water is an amazing film.

    It's not perfect. It's an indie movie shot on digital video, and the movie was made over a span of three years because the crew could only film on weekends away from their day jobs. It's also not a typical disaster movie or killer-animal film, and if you're looking for a happy ending, you won't find one. But in terms of steadily growing mental horror, it's brilliant. I'm actually relieved I didn't watch this on the big screen; I'd have had nightmares.

    Susan and Daniel are two stressed but well-to-do people who decide they need a vacation. Leaving their SUV and cell phones (though they bring their laptop), they go on vacation. Sun, sand, surf and scuba-diving. Part of the latter is a trip out into the ocean with eighteen other tourists, where they all go on a group dive.

    One of the crewmen of the boat hosting the dive keeps track of the passengers by making a tick on a clipboard as each passenger climbs out of the ocean. However, one guy has forgotten his mask so he doesn't dive, but he sits with the returning passengers anyway and the crewman makes a tick corresponding to him. Then the guy borrows a mask and goes for a dive, so when he returns to the boat he's counted for a second time. Since he's taken another returned passenger with him as a diving buddy, that guy gets counted twice too.

    The upshot of it all is that Daniel and Susan, who have separated from the main group, are deep below the surface when the crewman counts twenty ticks and says, "Got everybody!"

    No, I have no idea why they couldn't simply do a head count - there are twenty passengers, not two hundred. Or better still, get the list of names (you know the names of people traveling on your boat, right?) and call them out or have people sign off beside their names. If I hadn't known that this was based on a true story of two people who did get left behind by a boat, I would have found it very difficult to suspend disbelief at this point.

    The filmmaking at this point is good, though. When Daniel and Susan are taking photographs of all the colorful fish, the music is cheerful and light-hearted. As divers return one by one and you realize something's wrong, the music stops. As the crew is pulling up the ladder and preparing to leave, the music is very low-key in the background but ominous nevertheless, and suddenly all the fish have disappeared. Daniel and Susan look around, realizing they're alone in this vast blue world, and they communicate with hand signals that it's time to surface. They're still early, since the crew said they would leave at 10:30 and it's 10:25.

    They surface and there's no boat nearby. There are two boats on the horizon, both well out of swimming distance and both too far to catch a glimpse of the two people frantically waving to them.

    Daniel and Susan try to stay calm. This is just part of their adventure, and soon enough their boat will come back for them.

    "What if they don't know we're missing?"
    "There's no way... Our stuff is on board. We have their tanks!"

    Unfortunately for them, the world's most incompetent tour guides don't do a head count as the passengers disembark, don't check the boat to make sure everyone's personal belongings are off it and don't even count their own tanks to make sure these have all been returned. If this is normal operating procedure, the surprising thing isn't that two divers were left behind; it's that this hasn't happened more often.

    Though they quickly realize that they're drifting away from the dive site, carried on the current, Daniel and Susan try to stay calm and play a six-degrees-of-separation game. That comes to an end when jellyfish sting them and a fin flashes above the waves for a second.

    One of the things I like most about this film is that the sharks are just animals in their natural environment, doing what animals naturally do, rather than swimming around with a KILL ALL HUMANS mentality. The film never focuses on them for too long, so we see them in quick glimpses just as Susan and Daniel might.

    On the surface, there's nothing but waves. Below the surface, something is coming closer - and that something is far more at home in the sea than you are.

    The film plays brilliantly on this. "I don't know what's worse, seeing them or not seeing them," Susan says at one point, and although I love sharks, some of those sequences scared the hell out of me. The grey reef sharks in the film are perhaps five or six feet long, but they gather in groups. At one point Susan falls asleep after waiting several hours for rescue, so she's floating on her aqualungs with just her head and chest out of the water. Daniel dozes off too and they drift apart. The scene shifts to an overhead view and we see Susan in the water, her eyes closed, as the shapes of sharks move just beneath her.

    And these were real sharks. No CGI, no mechanical models. The real things, swimming a few feet under her.

    Another thing the film does very well is to show just how helpless we are once the trappings of civilization are gone. With literally nothing between them and the ocean except for their wetsuits, Daniel and Susan are, effectively, doomed. They can't control where they're going or see what's beneath them. They can't anchor themselves to anything solid or even scratch a mark to show that they were once there and alive.

    This is in stark contrast to a scene from the start of the film where they're in their hotel room, and Susan is bundled up protectively in a sheet while Daniel stalks a mosquito. He finally corners it and whaps it. These two are possibly the last people in the world who should be lost at sea. Then again, it would take superhuman ability and luck to survive under those circumstances.

    And they have no luck. No friendly dolphins push them to shore, no ships pass close enough to see them, not even a convenient piece of driftwood floats by. Something takes a small bite out of Susan's leg and fish begin to feed on the exposed flesh.

    Mentally as well as physically, they give way under the strain. Daniel finally has a tirade where he screams, "We paid for this! We paid those incompetent fuckers to drop us in the middle of the goddamned ocean!" but the argument quickly spirals down into whose fault it is that they're lost. Daniel's, because he spent too much time looking at an eel. Susan's, because her job meant they had to settle for this vacation.

    By the time a storm begins, though, they're both too worn out and too terrified to quarrel any further. Night falls and the sharks hunt at that time, as sharks are wont to do. Daniel, after being bitten, starts to pray but then breaks down in sobs. The ocean doesn't care about either. And if I thought it was frightening to be alone in the water, it's far worse to be alone in the water at night. The filmmakers don't illuminate anything except what's revealed by the occasional flash of lightning, and the terror is all the more visceral as a result.

    Finally, the next morning someone discovers their belongings on the boat and a search begins. By then, though, it's too late.

    Open Water isn't perfect. The start of the film is slow-moving, though there's a nude scene thrown in as if to reward the audience for persisting that far. There's also a sequence in the middle which focuses entirely on water rippling and flowing, and this goes on for a little too long. We get it. There is a lot of moving water in this film. But the rest of it is gripping. And if I ever decide to go scuba diving, I'm going to do so very close to land.

    Monday, September 23, 2013

    Goodbye Summer

    It was an eventful summer.

    I have never completed as many manuscripts in such a short period of time - February to September. Three. None of them below 100K.

    Of course, having a contract position that only lasted till June helped, so I basically sat in front of the computer throughout summer and wrote thousands of words a day. One manuscript, The Deepest Ocean, has been accepted by Samhain (yay!) and I just sent the sequel off as well. The third manuscript needs editing, but since I’m not only a bit tired but need to find a job, I’m taking a short break from writing and returning to blogging as well.

    So. Hi, blogosphere! I’m back!

    Thursday, February 21, 2013

    The Cobra

    Warning: significant spoilers ahead.

    The first Frederick Forsyth novel I read was The Day of the Jackal, which was technically sound, fast-paced and a great read to the last page. The Odessa File wasn’t as good, because the Odessa had too many opportunities to kill the protagonist, who escaped only through authorial fiat. Still, I liked the premise of Forsyth’s The Cobra. The president of the United States hires a retired superspy to destroy the cocaine industry… well, I had to find out how this could be done.

    The Cobra is Paul Devereaux, a Boston Brahmin trained by the CIA. Elegant, controlled and possessed of a nearly eidetic memory, the Cobra is the kind of hero I find really intriguing — someone who never actually kicks ass and takes names himself, but who pulls the strings so that others do this on a grand scale. Think Lord Tywin Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire. He is, in other words, the perfect spymaster, and he also has the perfect second-in-command, Cal Dexter. Think William Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Dexter, a Vietnam veteran, takes most of the risks in enemy territory, including jumping for a Black Hawk helicopter a few feet ahead of a pursuing gangster.

    Between them, the Cobra and Dexter recruit a motley crew of professionals (including a gigolo), buy ships and set a complex plan into action. On the other side of the chessboard, Don Diego, the head of the Colombian Brotherhood, is busy transporting millions of tons of cocaine across the ocean, and at first is blissfully unaware of the gathering storm about to break over his head.

    So far, so good. As one reviewer on Amazon commented, Forsyth knows his hardware, and I enjoyed this aspect of the novel. Anything to do with guns, planes or ships sounds authentic. Where the book failed, for me, was the characterization.

    Just one example. Roberto Cardenas, a member of the Colombian Brotherhood, has a beautiful daughter who is his one weakness. He reminded me of Ming the Merciless that way, and the daughter is easily seduced by the gigolo the Cobra hires. She was lucky he wasn’t a rapist, since on the day she meets him, she allows him to walk her to her apartment and kiss her. We’re not told what the gigolo looks like, just that he’s “drop-dead gorgeous”. If he had been a boat, Forsyth would no doubt have put more effort into his description. Anyway, it’s very convenient for the Cobra that she was such a pushover.

    The welder who worked on all the cocaine-smuggling ships is almost as easily convinced once he’s kidnapped, taken to the States and offered a new life there for his family as well. Dexter assures him that in the States, the welder’s son could grow up to be anyone. “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief.” Okay, not the last one, but the welder is won over. “Pedro? My son, a senator?” he says, and coughs up a list of eighty-seven ships from memory. After that, it’s Global Hawks, Buccaneers, Q-ships and political machinations to put the cartel’s allies away as well.

    The end was where the novel really faltered, though. The Cobra’s plan succeeds so brilliantly that it creates a cocaine deficit in the States, which eventually results in widespread gang warfare that takes out some innocent bystanders as well. To the Cobra, this is acceptable collateral damage—especially since the gang hostilities won’t last for much longer—but the Oval Office thinks differently and orders a ceasefire in the literal War on Drugs. Since it was obvious that the book couldn’t end with cocaine being completely neutralized as a threat, this ending would have worked for me… but apparently it didn’t for the author.

    Therefore, he has the Cobra strike a deal with Don Diego when they finally meet for the first time, and the Cobra offers to sell him back a hundred and fifty tons of stolen cocaine for a billion dollars. His reasoning is that he placed his faith in only God and his country, but now his country has let him down.

    Imagine you are a cocaine kingpin. You meet for the first time with someone who has crippled your operation, stolen billions of dollars from you, convinced your people to betray you and tricked you along every step of the way. This person then offers to sell you back some of your own property. Do you:

    1. Accept the offer in all sincerity?

    2. Shoot the guy and say, “A hundred and fifty tons of cocaine, one billion dollars. Getting rid of you, priceless. For everything else, there’s Mastercard”?

    I’d pick the second option, but that’s why I’m not a cocaine kingpin. So the Cobra, previously an ice-cold spymaster who was nevertheless on the side of the angels, now becomes a venal hypocrite (obviously God can’t have been all that important to him if he was willing to sell cocaine).

    And he also suffers a lobotomy along the way. After the hundred and fifty tons is sunk at sea at the last minute by Dexter when he finds out about the deal, does the Cobra go into hiding? Does he take any steps to protect himself from Don Diego? No, he stays in his house and is murdered. I’d have tried a little harder to stay alive, but then again, I’m not a spy trained by the CIA.

    The Cobra has its bad moments and its good ones. If you enjoy Forsyth novels and want to remember this one fondly, stop at the point where the Oval Office pulls the plug on the operation and you won’t be left with the impression that Forsyth had no idea what to do with the Cobra after that point. He did so much with the Cobra before then that the character deserved a better send-off.

    Wednesday, February 13, 2013

    Size in fantasy

    Extremes of size aren’t something I’ve seen in a lot of fantasies. Of course, there are mentions of giants in mythology — the Nephilim, Goliath, Ajax, the Titans and so on — and they appear in role-playing gamebooks like Fighting Fantasy. But they’re never really defined as a race in their own right, with a unique biology or culture.

    Then again, extremes of size aren’t biologically feasible. As Arthur Conan Doyle pointed out in his essay “The Road to Lilliput”, someone along the lines of Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (an excellent book, by the way) would be dead long before he was able to dig a pit trap for a black widow spider.

    In a fantasy, that wouldn’t matter so much, but there should be some differences of thought and behavior and belief. If there are humanoids only a couple of inches tall, where do they live and how do they deal with a world where everything is so large? Terry Pratchett’s Truckers is a wonderful take on this. The Nomes, who live secretly in a mall, are resourceful and work together to evacuate their population before the mall closes down for good. But there’s still a great deal they don’t know, and the part where they try to drive a truck is hilarious.

    Sharon Baker’s novel Journey to Membliar provides a darker take on the matter. Tadge, a child of the tiny Takanu people, rides on the shoulders of Cassia, who’s one of the bigger and taller Rabu, and even steers her by judicious use of her braids. And in A Song of Ice and Fire, there are giants beyond the Wall, but these are bestial creatures who ride woolly mammoths and speak a different language.

    Sexual dimorphism occurs in so many species in the real world, and my favorite is the anglerfish, where the females look like something out a nightmare but the males look small and innocuous. Probably the best example of this in fantasy is a Nebula award-winning short story by James Tiptree, Jr, called “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (reprinted in the collection Her Smoke Rose Up Forever). The alien narrator of the story—no humans appear in it—is large, powerful, spiderlike and male. He finds a tiny female, falls in very protective love and wraps her carefully in silk so he can carry her everywhere with him.

    The problem? Females of his species eventually grow larger than the males, and are much hungrier when they’re pregnant…

    Finally, size and age could be inversely proportional. There was a Star Trek: Voyager episode where aliens (humanoid, of course) turned into small children as they grew older, but the children behaved like children rather than like octogenarians — probably because the episode would have been over much quicker if they had acted their age. Someone on the Nitcentral forum also speculated on what size these aliens might be at birth (ouch!), which reminded me of a haiku by Darren Greer:

    My child is born
    And gently
    Takes me in its arms