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.