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New eBook Release: When Ai Met Yu

After being published in five parts on my own blog, it's time for this story to come to a wider audience. My first attempts at both a re...

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Four Books I Couldn't Put Down

I'll admit it; I haven't got the best track record for reading and finishing books. A combination of being an avid viewer and listener, and the type of dyslexia I work with make it difficult to read some text fonts with or without glasses. But when the font -- or the story -- is right, I'll plough through a book at lightning speed. These are four books I devoured with uncharacteristic voraciousness.

1 -- A Wizard of Earthsea: I was quite sad when Ursula le Guin died in January. I haven't read as much of her work as I should, but I've gone through her entire Earthsea series. And that's due to the first book. I got my own copy for my bookshelf, and when I got it I just couldn't put it down. I didn't work that day, or do anything much beside take the book on walks up the garden, lie on my bed, sit in a chair by the fire, and read. I finished the book in six to eight hours. I was utterly entranced by her world and the flawed protagonists Ged. It convinced me to get the other four books in the series, and I've never looked back.

2 -- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: I was almost entirely put off the series by the plodding pace of The Order of the Pheonix, but the next two books were bought by the family. I picked up the sixth volume and read the first chapter or two. The next day, I picked it up again, and when I put it down later that same evening I'd finished the whole book. The story hooked me in a way both The Order of the Phoenix and The Goblet of Fire had failed to do, and it prompted me to read the final book and see the story's conclusion, which I did in a week.

3 -- Dune: This took a bit longer to get into, but it's still wonderful. I tried reading an old edition in the house but the text font defeated me. I finally got round to reading a new edition bought for me, and I was utterly entranced. I didn't expect the story to be quite as mature and arresting as it was. But then, my only exposure to the Dune universe was under twenty minutes of fragmented clips from the poor movie adaptation while I was channel surfing. I'm still unsure about whether to get the next two books, but this original work will always stand as one of my best reads.

4 -- Angels and Demons; I'd first seen the movie adaptation of The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons before my sister got me both books as part of a large charity shop haul. I started reading the original Robert Langdon story, and found myself devouring it over a few days. It can get quite long-winded, but it made me realise how far from the original the movie strayed. Darker, uglier, more pessimistic about what people are, the book was a wonderful bit of fluff to pass a few days between work sessions and housework.

And there you have it. Perhaps you've read it, perhaps you haven't. Perhaps you loved them, perhaps you hate them. But to me, they're special. Because I read them.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Shared post: Erica Verrillo's "One of my books saved someone from suicide"

I've been keeping my weather eye on authoress and general font of advice Erica Verrillo. One of her more recent posts caught my attention: from December last year, I bring you a sample of her story of how one of her books -- an early co-authored effort self-published as a second edition -- saved someone from self-destruction.

Five years ago, I self-published the second edition of a book I’d originally written with my friend and associate Lauren Gellman in 1998. The first edition, which was published by St. Martin’s Press, was out of print, and I didn’t want to go through the long, grueling process of finding an agent and publisher again. So I went ahead and published an electronic second edition on Amazon. 
After a few months of promotion, during which I gave away more than 15,000 copies, I turned my attention to other projects. I stopped reading the reviews on Amazon — until yesterday, when for some undefinable reason I decided to see if anything new had popped up.
The book is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: A Treatment Guide, 2nd Edition. At the time of its first release in 1998, there were no other books on the market focusing on treatments for the disease, which is not only difficult to treat, but permanently disables about a quarter of the people who contract it. (In the late 90s, the press was still calling it “yuppie flu.” It is properly called myalgic encephalomyelitis.) The book was groundbreaking. But only 5,000 copies were sold. The book’s release was, as a British friend of mine put it, “Silent as a pee in bath.”
The second edition was about twice as long as the first. (One reason I published the second edition as an ebook was that nobody would have been able to afford, let alone lift, a 750-page book.) I put a year of work into it, which I chalked up as a “labor of love” — something that was a noble effort, if ultimately unacknowledged.
All of that changed yesterday. Below is the review I found of my book. I don’t know this person. I will never meet this person. But my heart was torn when I read this review on Amazon.

Read the rest on her blog. And hope that your writing, or a book you find online or in a book store, can help someone in a similar way.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Sci-fi I Read; Hard vs. Soft

In this week's post, I thought I'd look at something I've been struggling with in terms of both my personal tastes and my writing preferences with science fiction (hereafter sci-fi). There are two major branches of sci-fi: "Hard" and "Soft", or at least those are names for them. Hard sci-fi is characterised by a reliance on and accuracy to scientific facts, while Soft sci-fi explores other aspects of science such as psychology and is often not scientifically accurate. Each has its merits, each has its drawbacks, and I like them both. The two I've decided to use for this piece are A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke and Dune by Frank Herbert.

I first read A Fall of Moondust on the recommendation of my father, and to be frank I didn't expect to enjoy it. My only real contact with Arthur Clarke at that point was 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I consider to be one of the most boring and nonsensical movies it's been my misfortune to watch. But as I read, I was pleasantly surprised. While the difficulties of performing the major rescue operation in the book are amazing on their own, it's the believably of a future where lunar tourism is commonplace and vehicles such as the tourist-cruiser Selene make regular trips across our satellite's dusty surface. It also predates the Apollo 11 million, and is still noted for its accurate depiction of lunar life despite some elements being impacted by time and advancing scientific knowledge. It pushed me a little further towards my current attitude towards sci-fi; be as accurate as possible to current practical and theoretical scientific theory. So not Avatar, basically.

Dune is a huge book, and while I might've gotten round to it sooner, the edition we had used a difficult typeface. It was a while before I a) had an edition I could read and b) had the energy and inclination to dive into the book. It's not the most scientifically-accurate book in the world. Alright, it borders on fantasy. But it's a sweeping epic which tells a tale as old as time; of warring families and politico-religious struggles. I also managed to find plenty of likable characters and complex situations in its vast cast. And given the context and actions of all the cast from main protagonists down, that's saying something. It ends on a pseudo-cliffhanger, but I've yet to read its sequels Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

Well, that's it for this week. Next week, we'll be talking to a man who was recently launched into space...after failing to meet his work deadline at NASA. Good night!

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Review - Movie - Ninja Scroll

This review is based on the DVD Collector's Edition, published in the United Kingdom by Manga Entertainment.

Anime in the 1990s are sometimes a mixed bag. Several of them show their age through their animation or dubbing, but some remain great to this day. One of them is 1993's Ninja Scroll, a period action drama that cemented both the career of its writer/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri and the rise of animation studio Madhouse.

The story is pretty standard fair for its time. During the Edo period, a group of ninja are sent to investigate the death of an entire village, only to be all but massacred by one of a shadowy group called the Eight Devils of Kimon. The main protagonists are Jubei Kibagami, a cross between a ronin and a ninja who is blackmailed into helping by the Edo spy Dakuan; and Kagero, a survivor of the Eight Devils who has some serious relationship issues due to being a walking weapon whose touch alone is poisonous. The main plot is somewhat convoluted, but this movie's appeal is in its high action and the freaky powers of the Eight Demons, who fall directly into the tropes associated with ninja during the 20th to 21st century.

In the animation department, the movie is a triumph. It does use the common tricks of that era of anime (repeating animations, mostly-static conversation scenes), but it also features layered backgrounds and choreography that is stunning even after over two decades. The amount of love for the project is clear, ranging from the detail of the various ninja abilities, to the dedicated fight scenes featuring Jubei. There's plenty to enjoy during both the moments of calm and the hectic action scenes which come at frequent intervals. There's also the trait of arousing female and oh-so-manly male character designs that remains ingrained in anime culture.

The music from Kaoru Wada is very good. Not at all in keeping with the period, but also amazingly enjoyable. It pushes along the action and punctuates scenes of emotion without being intrusive. That also means that, aside from a few places where the music forms most of the scene, it can become unmemorable. The English dub is good for the time, having just the right amount of camp without reaching Dragon Ball Z or Pokemon levels.

Please note that this anime isn't for kids. Alongside Ghost in the Shell and Akira, it was one of the pioneers of true adult feature-length anime. This means that there is violence a plenty, blood and gore, disturbing imagery, nudity, and some traditionally awkward animated sexual encounters. I was surprised that it only contains very mild swearing, at least in the English dub. Despite being older than me, Ninja Scroll remains a classic for all the right reasons, even though it shows its age in places.


Oh yes, and a final note. I came to this movie after watching Madhouse's follow-up television series of the same name. I'll probably be reviewing the series next week.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Return to Submitting

I know, the title looks like a cheesy sequel. And that's the irony; it is. It's been some little time since I've been doing submissions on a regular basis. This isn't due to nerves, but due to the holiday season. Lasting from December through to January, it's pretty much a dead time for anyone submitting to publishing houses and agents. And it's been difficult in several ways.

So what's difficult about this? Well, I'm brought face-to-face with how much my style's changed. You think "what the heck were you thinking when you wrote that" or "that's never going to get me published". You know, the usual stuff. The stuff anxiety attacks are made of. But the thing about me is that, under the pessimism and habit of getting into absolute tizzies at the drop of a hat, I'm generally quite optimistic and determined in my goals. I've chosen to do all I can to become a writer, have several avenues to follow, and won't give up just because my last few attempts weren't as good as they could be.

On top of that, the work  I'm submitting is new. My adventure story, built on facts and history rather than the crutches of magic and science fiction. It's something that's got appeal, but it's also something that may be a hard sell as I'm a pretty-much unknown name and this isn't some established blockbuster or macho adventure; it's a woman's slightly whimsical first-person journey with occasional asides to deconstruct the genre and its absurd pitfalls. I've already sent one submission off, and plan more. I've also sent a submission for a non-fiction book, yet another first for which I'm not holding out massive hopes. But that's the point; you try your best and try multiple avenues. I've even got some plans for one of my works that's in publishable form but hasn't been taken up yet - something I wouldn't have dreamed of a year or so ago. If nothing comes back by February, I'll feel no qualms about polishing it up and sending it out.

So what's this? What am I doing? Well, I'm talking. It's an outlet I can't let slip. It stops me from becoming a completely closed system, which is the worst thing a writer can be. Close yourself off, whether from talking about your work or from the work of others, and you handicap yourself to the point of crippling your chances. You can't do stuff in total vacuum. So here I am, talking. And it's a huge relief, as well as an act of bravery as I'm exposing my own weaknesses. And if there're any mistakes I didn't pick up before this got published, there's a living example for you. :)

Sunday, 28 January 2018

What's Missing?: Doctor Who

This is the beginning of a new blog series I've decided to dub "What's Missing?". Here, I look at stories from multiple media and look at how, over time, those stories may have lost something that originally made them iconic or helped them stand out from the crowd. This week, it's a classic of the science fiction genre: Doctor Who.

For those not in the know, Doctor Who is a science fiction series following the adventures of the Doctor, an alien being whose TARDIS machine is capable of space-time travel. Together with a changing roster of companions (human, alien and otherwise) and a changing set of actors (and now actresses) taking on the role, the Doctor becomes mixed up in more conflicts than any one world's history could comfortably accommodate. Originally running from 1963 to 1989, then successfully reviving in 2005 to the present day, the series is one of the longest (continuous and extant) drama series in television history.

The series' biggest shift, arguably, was with its 2005 revival. It saw classic monsters revived in new ways, and for its first series experimentation with monster and alien concepts comparable with the era of Philip Hinchcliff during the mid-1970s. But as the series has continued and gone from strength to strength, something's become apparent. While it still has moral messages and complex characters at its core, something else Doctor Who once reveled in is gone; commentary. For these comparisons, I'm taking three stories from the series' original run and comparing them with the revived series; The Daleks, The Green Death, and The Talons of Weng Chiang.

The Daleks (1963-64) is notable for introducing the series' most recognisable alien nemesis, the titular menace which has endured multiple exterminations and a temporal war. But what were they actually about? Their writer Terry Nation created the Daleks out of two prevalent ideas in the 1960s; the threat of nuclear war, and the legacy of the Nazi regime in Europe. The setting of The Daleks, where neutron bombs have turned most of the planet into a petrified wasteland. The Daleks' own attitudes, seeing all other races as either a threat or inferior and thus disposable, reflect the core Nazi ideologies of superiority and racial purity. Even without knowledge of these, The Daleks makes bleak watching for a modern viewer.

The Green Death (1973) reflects a different mood. It covers several different issues of the day; the possibilities of green energy, the dangers of new and untested energy sources, concerns about corporate power and their influence on politics, and labour issues. Global Chemicals acts as the focal point for all of these; through the sci-fi veneer of Global Chemicals's new energy process creating a poisonous mutagen which turns a population of maggots into giant killers, The Green Death tells a cautionary tale about corporate power gone mad. Even as the byproducts of their "clean" energy process literally start to swarm, Global Chemicals use their political muscle to have the problem hushed up. In these days of the suspicious dealings by politicians and questions about the states of private companies, The Green Death remains relevant even after some forty years.

The Talons of Weng Chiang has an interesting twist on its otherwise fairly conventional Gothic tale in the vein of The Phantom of the Opera and multiple Hammer classics. The character of Magnus Greel, posing as the eponymous Chinese deity, acts as a parallel to a phenomenon of the time. During the mid 1970s, several high-profile Nazi members were being located and brought for trial by a dedicated group of "Nazi hunters", many survivors of the regime's concentration camps. Greel's legacy as a war criminal with thousands of deaths on his hands who escaped through time mirrors how many Nazi soldiers and elites escaped to sympathetic countries like South America to hide from the Allied powers' retribution. His horrendous experiments, hinted at and partially seen in the serial, also reflect the terrible crimes of Nazi scientists such as Josef Mengele.

Now I'm not saying that the revived series doesn't do commentary like this. It's just changed its focus, and with the concept of overarching narratives dilutes it considerably. The two-part story The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People is an example of this. Taken on its own with excess drama put to one side, it's an unsettling take on modern labour issues, in addition to the question of personal identity. But that whole concept is somewhat undermined by the plot twist at the end, which yanks the viewer out of an thought-provoking self-contained narrative to throw them into a science fiction premise that - to me at least - seemed rather trite. You could say the revived series is less obvious about it, but to be honest the original series could be quite subtle about its themes. For every Silurians, there's an Inferno. For every Mutants, there's Seeds of Doom.

Now there are a number of factors which contribute to this, but the ones that leap to mind are runtime, themes, tastes, and audience. The runtime has changed drastically, with most single 45-minute episodes from the revived series equating to half or less than half an original story's length in the original series (except in the Colin Baker era, where it was a series of two-to-three part stories with episodes of that length). The series' themes also shifted from current events and issues to people-focused drama and focusing far more on the pseudo-mythical themes previous original series stories had dabbled in. Tastes also want more people stories and seem to move further away from reality, and when it does touch on reality it causes massive controversy where before it would be seen as commentary. And the audience has also shifted; while Doctor Who was always intended for children, it now seems to aim for evoke the child in us where before it reached out to children and adults alike (more towards teens to adults as the series went on).

Let me be perfectly clear. I'm not saying either series is necessarily better than the other. There are several original series stories that are just plain bad, and I very much enjoy some of the stories and monsters the revived series has produced (the Weeping Angels being one of my all-time favourite Doctor Who creations) The "What's Missing" series seeks only to show how something may have changed without many people noticing. On the surface, the two phases of Doctor Who are basically the same. But there is a different. Something missing, for better or worse. Now, let's go and find that old copy of The Unquiet Dead, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, 42, The Doctor's Wife, The Crimson Horror or Thin Ice...or whichever your revival favourites are, and enjoy!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Separating Work, Play and Hearth

Sorry for a lack of content last week, but there's an excellent reason for it. I was moving my work space (desktop computer, printer, lamp and other such items) into another room in my current home, separating my work space from my bedroom after several month of growing discomfort of having them in the same space. It's this that inspired my latest post.

The working environment is something everyone has issues with at some point in their lives, no matter how tolerant they are of things. You may wish to be in the midst of wide open spaces when stuck in an office, or vice versa. But how about a working environment in the same room as your bedroom, or your other areas?

This is the state of being I've been content with since my mid-teens, but now I've had enough. It's difficult to think of my bedroom as my little private sanctum when I've got a computer and monitor staring at me. Even moving the bed doesn't really help as it's just there, waiting for me. Add to this the fact that it effectively became my multimedia center for many of those years (playing DVDs, watching television, ect.) and you've got a device that was beginning to intrude upon what that room was originally meant to be -- my bedroom.

This meant massive moving of furniture, but it also meant a reevaluation of what I consider necessary for my work space. A window view? I've still got it, it's just in my peripheral vision and I've only got to glance out to see a beautiful exterior and know that it's a good time to take a walk (or, conversely, a bad time). Quiet? I've got that whichever place I choose. An ear on the wider goings-on of the household? I didn't have that in my room, and I've got that here.

But separating work from pleasure is about more than just separating work from rest. It's also about realising that I'm effectively an adult sharing the house as an equal, not a little kid in his room with his hobby. For various reasons, that realisation's been a long time coming. It's difficult to grow out of things, particularly accepted ways of living. History's full of people who couldn't take a hint. I've tried not to be one of them, but even still...

Well, here I am, writing at my new office space in the library/office area of our house, my room blissfully free of any inclination towards work, the sun setting outside behind nearby forest, the apple trees in the front garden looking stark but alive, my muscles complaining about a week of moving heavy books and furniture all over the place, my wallet noticeably lighter after getting myself a new TV/DVD/CD-Cassette set-up for my room. And I'm not regretting one bit of it.