Monday, January 29, 2024

Period, Full Stop

Who cares if a late night comedian's voice-over says PERIOD and displays an exclamation point? How influential is that? It is thoroughly illiterate, and wrong... or is it, if a powerful governor bases their remarks on the misinformation?

A period is either a full stop, or a certain uncomfortable time of the month for a woman... for a cis woman, some might disclaim.

“They have the right not be harassed, not to be denied, not to be arrested for peaceful protesting. Full stop. Period," said Newsom.

"We have the best three year record of any modern American presidency. Period. Full stop.”

"Period, full stop" is a fine example of tautology. Tautology is consider poor style and a red flag of ignorance. It is like saying "ATM machine". That is, Automated Teller Machine machine. Or, "widow woman", cited by the site.

On the other hand, and still not considered good style, it might be explained as saying the same word in American English and also in British English, like "hood/bonnet", "trunk/boot", "windshield/windscreen", "chin/pecker" and "fender/wing".

All the best,

Rowena Cherry

Friday, January 26, 2024

Karen S. Wiesner: Combating Big Book Overwhelm with Audiobooks or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, A Fractalverse Novel by Christopher Paolini

Combating Big Book Overwhelm with Audiobooks or

{Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review:

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, A Fractalverse Novel

by Christopher Paolini

by Karen S. Wiesner

Within an extensive article I wrote called "Presentation is King", previously published on the Alien Romances Blog, I talked about Christopher Paolini's first science fiction mega-novel, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, which was the first offering in his Fractalverse series, and provided a review for it. While I thought the novel was well-written, I complained about the obscene length that overwhelmed my basic enjoyment of the story. You can read the article here:

               Part 1:

               Part 2:

               Part 3:

The weird thing is, I wanted to love that book wholeheartedly instead of just liking it but fervently wished it'd been published as three, manageable, separate stories (which it could so easily have been, given the way the book was conveniently divided into several parts) instead of a massive one. That way my overwhelmed brain could have enjoyed it more.

Within my three-part article, I also talked about Paolini's other series, The Inheritance Cycle, which suffered from the same problem. His stories are too big to allow true immersion and would be so much better presented in multiple parts, allowing the reader time between to recover from the page-overloaded, detail-heavy material. This brings to my mind my favorite fantasy series. Most people who love this genre know that J.R.R. Tolkien intended The Lord of the Rings to be one, exceptionally long novel. Wisely, I think, his publisher thought one book would be cost prohibitive and also they wanted to get the material to eager readers faster, so they turned one book into a trilogy. I might never have read that book--my all-time favorite fantasy--if not for the brilliant presentation. As one volume, I would have been instantly intimidated and deterred from even starting it. Instead, we now have three installments, presented in a way that allows readers to enjoy segments of the story without becoming overwhelmed by the sheer size of the material and ponderous details that need to be absorbed to follow it.

I wondered in the time since I wrote the article/review for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars what other people thought of the book. I found a review by Lotte on The Escape Velocity Collection website, which amused me, though it was a bit too harsh in my opinion--however, I didn't fully disagree with the conclusions drawn. You can read Lotte's review here, if you want:

Two things stood out for me in that review. First, that the reviewer felt Paolini was a good writer and wanted to love To Sleep… just like I did but didn't quite get there. The second thing that stood out was in the very first sentence of the review: "…I've been listening to the audiobook of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars…" This is how the reviewer managed to get through the enormous amount of material without giving up out of exhaustion. I think one of the biggest reasons people prefer to watch a movie over reading the book is because it's just so much easier to grasp the concepts in that visual form. What may be hard to wade through and grasp in a dense, overloaded read is simpler to see and comprehend playing out on a screen. The brain pulls everything together in a different way that doesn't lead to fatigue, the way it might in reading. I think audiobooks may also provide another means of making sense of a tremendous amount of material--not quite as visual as a film, but I was hopeful this was an avenue that could help my brain fatigue with some large books that I genuinely wanted to love.

I thought about it for months and finally decided to start 2024 with a new willingness to listen to audiobooks, which I confess I tend to think of as cheating for a true reader. But if the sole reason I'm avoiding certain books I know I'd enjoy if they were presented in a different way is because the size overwhelms me, why not try?

The best time for me to listen to an audiobook is while getting ready for the day in the morning as well as while I'm doing household chores at various points throughout the day. Normally, I listen to music during those times, which I'd miss, but it seemed like a worthwhile, temporary swap. I'm not a fan of downloaded audio files, in part because I want something tangible for my money that can be utilized even when technology changes, as it inevitably does and would. Finding cd audiobooks wasn't easy (Amazon doesn't seem to carry them, that I found anyway--only offers files, and Barnes and Noble has the same issue) but I did manage to purchase audio cds elsewhere for To Sleep in a Sea of Stars as well as all of Paolini's Inheritance Cycle titles, including the brand new offering in that series, Murtagh, Book 5. I started with Eragon, Book 1, since I received that first. I enjoyed listening each day and looked forward to progressing in the story. As soon as I got the audio cds of To Sleep…, though, I switched to that.

This is a much, much better way of digesting Paolini's brilliant Fractalverse, a way that doesn't strain my brain and make me share in Lotte's hilarious, wearied weeping for reprieve: "Please save me. This book is legitimately 900 pages long and I don't deserve this." Thus far, incorporating audiobooks into my "reading" is a revelation for this diehard, traditional bibliophile. I never would have realized what a difference it would make in dealing with what could otherwise be considered an agonizing endeavor in reading a book too big to be believed.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars was well-written with exciting and compelling, well-developed characters and plot conflicts, with plenty of universe and contextual detail to make everything logical. I love science fiction, and, when combined with horror…forget about it. Win-win. I do admit with To Sleep…, I wanted more Alien, less Enemy Mine (Dennis Quaid). Regardless, the bottom line is that I highly recommend not just To Sleep… but the whole Fractalverse series to any fantasy and sci-fi lover. I especially enjoyed listening to Jennifer Hale read To Sleep… with the audiobook. Like Paolini, I'm a huge fan of Mass Effect, and Jennifer Hale was the voice actress for fem Shep in that videogame series. I also learned that Hale, with music producer Todd Herfindal, wrote and performed some beautiful music for To Sleep… Find out more here: If you want to dig deeper into anything in the Fractalverse Universe, Paolini's website has a ton of visuals and explanations for anything from lifeforms to star systems, organizations and religions, as well as a fairly detailed timeline.

There's also talk about a film adaptation or possibly a TV series of To Sleep… I strongly believe either of these would make the most of an incredible story that almost can't be enjoyed in its original format.

Over the next two weeks, I'll review Paolini's other two, subsequent offerings in his Fractalverse.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

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Thursday, January 25, 2024

Deities in Fantasy Worlds

Recently T. Kingfisher published the fourth book in her "Saint of Steel" series, PALADIN'S FAITH. (The others are PALADIN'S GRACE, PALADIN'S STRENGTH, and PALADIN'S HOPE.) Also in the same setting: The Clocktaur War duology (CLOCKWORK BOYS and THE WONDER ENGINE) and the stand-alone novel SWORDHEART. These works may be broadly described as sword-and-sorcery romances in a late medieval or an early steampunk milieu.

The premise of "Saint of Steel" is that the deity in the series title died, from a cause so far unknown. His paladins felt his violent death. The few who survived the cataclysmic trauma struggle to carry on with their lives despite a void where the bond with their god should be. Two gifts of their divine patron remain, the "voice" that empowers them to persuade anyone of almost anything (provided the paladin sincerely means what he or she says) and a battle frenzy called the "black tide," which grants them superhuman strength and speed but leaves scars on their souls. The surviving paladins have been taken under the protection of the temple of the White Rat.

The stories in this fictional universe feature three principal deities, although others are mentioned: The Saint of Steel, whose warriors fight evil and protect its victims; the pragmatic White Rat, whose temples are noted for exercising charity and correcting injustices, many of whose devotees are lawyers or investigative accountants; and the Dreaming God, whose servants specialize in exorcizing demons. As illustrated by a scene at the climax of PALADIN'S FAITH when the Saint of Steel speaks to a large crowd through the mouth of a character, everyone knows and takes for granted the existence of the gods. In the face of incontrovertible evidence, nobody disbelieves in supernatural beings. If there are any "flat-earth atheists" in this world, we don't meet them:

Flat-Earth Atheist

The background of the Dungeons and Dragons games is similar, but even more so. Everybody knows that multiple gods exist and that clerics acquire their magic spells by praying to their patron deities.

What would it be like to live in a world where the existence of deities is a routinely accepted truth? Faith in the sense of intellectual belief would be unnecessary and nonexistent. You don't have that type of "faith" in something definitely known. No matter how powerful, divine entities would be as mundane a fact as the sun and the moon. Faith in the sense of trust, of course, would be an entirely different matter. Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett's Discworld doesn't approve of believing in gods; it only encourages them.

The rare person who experiences an epiphany like the characters in the aforementioned scene would presumably react with awe. Most ordinary people, lacking either a personal divine encounter or Granny Weatherwax's strength of character, would probably regard the gods as powers to be approached with caution, placating them but not getting too deeply involved. Rather like living next to a forest infested by semi-tame tigers, maybe.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Untrained Melody

I was planning to regurgitate some of the current discussions about AI, particularly with respect to copyright (this is, after all, a blog by and for authors), but I have just changed my title to Untrained Melody because of something I noticed this morning on Amazon.

One of the most important factors in buying something on Amazon is how many stars a book or other product has, and how many five-star reviews there are. Well, now that Amazon is using AI to sort reviews, one maybe cannot trust Amazon star ratings and reviews.

I am looking for a magic mat that will gently shock my feet and make foot and leg pain vanish temporarily. Walmart has something of the sort on clearance for less than $10, and it appears to have very poor reviews. So, of course I visited Amazon, willing to pay four or five times the Walmart price for a foot-shocker for authors and other sedentary people, providing that the Amazon product has good reviews.
Check this out, not literally, of course. 
"Customers like the quality and sturdiness of the health personal care product. They mention that it is beautiful and well made.
AI-generated from the text of customer reviews"

The sentence about AI is in very fine print. (I put up a screen shot, but that was not permitted).

Intrigued for many reasons, I scrolled until I found the reviews. Here is the reviews link:

What should tires and a low-slung skirt, or a necklace, or a router table, or a sandbag have to do with a stimulating bit of electrified leather or plastic?

Maybe, authors, you should investigate what Amazon AI may have done to your reviews. Maybe, would-be-buyers, you should check if you are looking at a product where the reviews have been AI generated from the text of customer reviews.

I might have happened upon an isolated SNAFU.
Even so, the AI does not appear to have perfected the spelling, punctuation, grammar of the reviews, so what use is it?

The Mintz law firm's Insights Center has an excellent (if possibly over-punctuated) examination of the (Un)fair Use? Copyrighted Works as AI Training Data.

Authors Bruce D. Sokler, Alexander Hecht, Christian Tamotsu-fjeld, and Raj Gambhir discuss the dilemmas that have arisen around the world from the methods used by developers to train their tools and models.

As they write:

"Many have been amazed by the capacity of generative AI tools to answer questions, crack jokes, and compose poetry."


".. for training AI models, researchers have “scraped” various data sources including internet forums, book corpuses, and online code repositories."

Allegedly, it wasn't a contentious issue until AI became commericalized. Perhaps a use can be fair as long as it is for the benefit of all mankind, and is not exploited for the financial gain of a few.

Apparently, in Europe, there is a right for copyright holders to opt-out of having their work data mined, and if they do so, the AI trainers must seek permission. It would have been simpler if the AI trainers had stuck to works that are unquestionably in the public domain, but would they find Chaucer, Aphra Behn, Shakespeare, The Castle of Otranto, and the Bible a tad inconvenient for training purposes?

The Mintz authors supply links to efforts in the USA, including President Biden’s “Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence” and a couple of partisan lawmakers' AI Foundation Model Transparency Act.
Meanwhile, there are lawsuits. Last month, the New York Times sued leading generative AI companies for “unlawful use of The Times’s .... content without permission to develop their models and tools.” 
The Authors Guild has organized a class-action lawsuit against OpenAI. There is an article about it on the Times site, here:
The purpose of the law suite is to take a stand against wholesale theft of the work of all authors, no matter the genre in which they write. The Authors Guild penned an open letter, which thousands of authors supported. You can use the search function to check whether or not you signed. 
My name is on page 22 of 200 pages of supporters' names,

All the best,

Rowena Cherry 


Friday, January 19, 2024

Karen S Wiesner: The Conundrum of Spoilers or {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling

The Conundrum of Spoilers

or {Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling

by Karen S. Wiesner

Several criteria guide book-buying strategies, which is something I've spoken of at length in articles as well as in my book Writing Blurbs That Sizzle--And Sell! (Fiction Fundamentals, Book 7). Personalizing those standards, here's what guides my decisions on whether or not to commit to purchasing a book to read:

First and foremost, for me, is the author. If it's one I've loved his or her past offerings, that may be all that's necessary for me to sweep up every new release and get to the checkout ASAP. If it's an author who I inconsistently enjoy their work or a brand-new writer for me, I may waffle about buying. The format, price, genre, and subject matter would all have to come into play for me to cross the threshold of firm decision in whether to buy something from them.

Second, whether the book is available as a paperback almost always plays a significant role in my choice. There are almost no authors I would automatically buy a hardcover book for. In my opinion, hardcovers are too expensive, unless you can get them on sale. I only buy ebooks if there are no other formats available--because I spend far too many hours every single day looking at screens, it's hard for me to choose electronic reading material for pleasure, given the strain on my eyes and brain. Inevitably, I wait until the paperback edition is available before buying, period, even for my most favorite authors. However, I do occasionally make exceptions.

The third factor for me is the genre. If I'm sold on the previous two criteria and it's a horror story, it's a done deal--as in, I can't get to the cash register fast enough. My second favorite genre is (sigh!) all other genres. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, Regency romance, thriller…you name it. I wish I could choose between them, but they're all in constant competition with each other and my interest at a particular moment.

Back cover blurbs tend to be the tie-breaker for all the previous directives, and it's the make-it-or-break-it point of whatever came before. If the back cover blurb doesn't sell me, that's it. It's either hello, or sorry thanks for coming goodbye. Most importantly, a blurb can't be too short. I need to know who the characters are, what they're facing, and what the stakes are. I want details up until the point of spoilers but never beyond. If I don't get the information I need in a blurb, little can convince me to move forward since the risk of buying something that doesn't have enough persuasive evidence to warrant spending money and time on is too great for me. Though back cover blurbs are the fourth and last factor in whether or not I may a book purchase, it's the one that plays the most significant role in my decision.

Note: Cover art and reviews--bad or good--aren't considerations in my book-buying choices even one iota. I would buy a book with a cover that doesn't appeal to me if it meets my four crucial requirements. As for reviews, I don't read them at all until the book has been purchased and I'm just about to start reading it. I absolutely hate it when a back cover blurb is little more than a publisher thrusting a fistful of reviews or accolades at me in place of the blurb, like most book distributors (Amazon!!!) do these days, as if any of that matters to me in the least.

Last to Leave the Room by Caitlin Starling has had many genres attached to it. I think psychological horror sums it up best. Some reviews mentioned science fiction as a potential genre, but I don't really see how that fits after having read it. (Too much of a stretch in my mind to classify this title that way.) Techno-thriller could also fit because there is a lot of technical information given about physics, technology, computers, engineering, etc. In any case, the horror aspects were what appealed most to me for this story.

I was eagerly awaiting Starling's next release, given how much I enjoyed two of her previous books. See my reviews for them here:

The Luminous Dead:


The Death of Jane Lawrence:

The basic idea of this story is that a brilliant scientist with almost no moral boundaries embarks on ground-breaking research that leads to the city she's living in sinking. She's funded by an equally immoral corporation--though it's respectable on the surface--that retains a "bully" who makes sure none of the prone-to-lunacy scientists goes too far off the edge of the world. The scientist's own private research is actually the cause of what's happening to the city and that makes the consequences not only diabolically personal but universally dangerous.

The hardcover and ebook editions came out October 10, 2023. I held out until November 11, 2023, hoping to see the paperback release become imminent in that time. For reasons involving reaching a low point in my TBR pile and the additional motivation of Christmas only a month away, but mainly because I was very eager to read this author's next book (the genre and blurb utterly sold me), I decided to splurge and get the hardcover.

After I held the hardback with the wraparound paper cover art in my hands, I studied the cover for a long time. It was an interesting design, showing eight women who all looked identical. One of the women, the one in the spotlight, sat at the bottom of a staircase and was the central focus of the design. The others were obviously listening to her and giving her their attention. The fact that they so closely resembled each other intrigued me. Having read the back cover blurb earlier, before my purchase of the book, I started to form clear ideas about what the book's central themes were.

Next, I re-read the back cover blurb that was printed on the inner leaf of the slipcover. From there, I had a very strong concept of the plot. This was followed by reading the back cover of the book, which had no fewer than nine reviews put forth from other authors of the genre, I assume (I'd never heard of any of them, though some accolades were included for most of them). The reviews stunned me a little bit because they gave away what felt like crucial elements of the story conflict that I wasn't sure should have been leaked prematurely.

Let me inject here that I've never understood what people consider spoilers. An article on Wikipedia states that, "A spoiler is an element of a disseminated summary or description of a media narrative that reveals significant plot elements, with the implication that the experience of discovering the plot naturally, as the creator intended it, has been robbed of its full effect." On the sitcom Big Bang Theory, Sheldon calls a spoiler anything revealed that "pre-blows" the mind; as in, the only place the mind can and should be blown is where the writer intended shock and awe to dazzle like fireworks within the viewer's individual brain.

The only part I've ever been sure of when it comes to spoilers is that I'm apparently guilty of giving crucial information away too often. I've lost count of how many people have screamed out in the middle of an active discussion "Spoiler!", as if I committed a murder or worse. I know people who won't read a synopsis of a book, movie, or videogame in advance because those handful of words might wreck something for them. How do they know if it's something they'll like without reading even that much? I don't get it. Even after being called on it, I can't fathom why the perfectly innocuous thing I'd said is being viewed as an illegal revelation of vital plot elements that would have otherwise been an awestruck surprise to the one who hadn't yet read the story, seen the film, or played the videogame.

To so many people, spoilers are a serious miscarriage of justice. In the past, for me, I've actually enjoyed spoilers. I'm the type of person who reads as much as possible about a story (whether it's a book, a movie, or a videogame) in advance of submerging in it. For videogames in particular, I prefer not to have big surprises hit me while I'm immersed. I always read in-depth walkthroughs in their entirety before undertaking any game I'm interested in. I don't want to miss anything vital to gaining the best possible ending just because I didn't realize I had to say something specific that isn't obvious to anyone but the game developers. It's possible to miss or lose so much in videogames if you're not aware in advance of the event that causes potentially disastrous consequences. I once played a game that took about 25 minutes from start to finish. I solved all the extremely challenging puzzles, made the correct choices, and did literally everything right. I had a single misstep. I said something I didn't realize was even a bad thing to say; at the time, it seemed like the best choice of the few options I was given. The ramifications of that decision led to an ending that didn't seem fair. Though it was a short game, it was an exhausting one that I didn't want to ever repeat. I rue now that I didn't read a walkthrough first so I could avoid the seemingly fatal mistake of not reading the developer's minds. I haven't made that mistake since.

In any case, for books and movies, I need to read the back cover blurbs, any reviews I come across, and if I happen to hear too much detail in advance on social media or elsewhere, I don't mind. For mysteries or psychological thrillers, I generally guess the finer details almost immediately after starting the story. As a writer, I love the reverse engineer process of that. It doesn't ruin anything for me. If anything, it makes it more exciting for me as a writer. Yes, a twist is always welcome in any type of story, but, up until Last to Leave the Room, I'd have to say I've never minded spoilers at all, no matter how explicit and thorough. Ultimately, I'd say I've had a major blind spot where spoilers are concerned.

With Last to Leave the Room, something happened to me that I'm not sure has ever occurred before except in the case of most of M. Night Shyamalan's films, where the big reveal will forever change the story for me as I initially knew it. While most of Shyamalan's movies are still really good once I know the core element, that big twist in the story is the point of it for me. I don't want that ruined in advance. His promoters are good at telling the fringe edges of the story in the blurb and previews so nothing crucial is ever given away thereby wrecking the shocking twist to come.

After viewing the cover for this particular Starling tale, followed by reading the blurb and reviews slipcover, I felt like I went into starting the story with far too much information--revealed with too on-point cover art and reviews that sabotaged the jolt I'd been looking forward to getting while reading the story. I guess without really realizing it, I'd allowed this author to be the one I wanted to give me a horrifying shock or several in the course of reading her books, the same way I feel about Shyamalan movies. For the first time, I really understood why people got mad at me for, in essence, telling the punch line of a joke before giving the lead-up.

For those who don't mind spoilers, I'll include details below in very small writing about what it was that was "spoiled" or given away before I started reading Last to Leave the Room. If you don't want spoilers, don't read it and don't look at the book cover or reviews too closely.

The cover of the book shows nine identical women, eight of whom are circled around the central figure in the light, who's obviously the leader, almost looking like she's teaching them. Given that the back cover blurb speaks of the main character Tamsin finding a door in her basement that wasn't there before the distorting dimensions leading to accelerated subsidence affecting the entire city of San Siroco, and that an exact physical copy of Tamsin emerges from that door, it was easy to deduce that whatever this phenomenon destroying the city is, it creates doppelgängers--possibly many of them. In fact, Tamsin's cat also gains its own doppelgänger early in the story, after Tamsin's copy emerges. So I went into the story aware this would be the focus of the story. Reviews on the back cover talk about other focuses and conflicts, like gender, identity, and memory being central in the story premise. All of the things in this paragraph led to further deductions on my part, which were borne out almost exactly how I imagined they would be in reading the actual story.

I read through the first part of the book (titled "The City", comprising the first 28 pages), the second "The Door" (40 pages), and the third "The Double" (136 pages) with almost no surprises revealed that I hadn't already figured out before I ever started reading the book. I'll also add that on page 96, I felt compelled to re-read the back cover blurb and realized that the blurb contained information that was either highly inaccurate or wildly misleading. Again, so I can't be criticized for spoilers, here's what that is below, in tiny print that you'll really have to strain to read if you want to know:

The back cover blurb states emphatically that, at the bottom of the stairs, Tamsin "finds a door that didn't exist before--and one night, it opens to reveal an exact physical copy of her." Point of fact, the door never actually opened in the story at the point before the doppelgänger appeared. If it did, it happened off-screen. Which is to say, it didn't happen at all, or the author was trying to trick the reader--blatant cheating when it comes to giving readers foundational facts. The opening of that door is a pivotal conflict in the story! In fact, the opening of the door is almost shown to be impossible throughout the story until the end. So telling the reader in so blasé a fashion in the blurb that the door opened (when it won't and can't and seems unlikely to within the story) and Tamsin's copy came out of it when the reader would find out soon enough that that event happened off-screen was beyond toleration for me. As a reader, I was denied seeing that take place within the story. I see this as a gross error on the part of the author or the publisher, or blatant cheating. Either that part of the blurb was accidentally or deliberately wrong, or it's wildly misleading, and, as such, in my opinion, is completely unfair.

Readers have to be given certain, foundational facts in the setup of a story. On the face of it, those foundations have to be valid from start to finish, or there have to be at least two very different perspectives that are equally true in order to justify the setup. Any alteration has to feel natural and be properly built-in from the beginning. In this case, I don't believe it was. I feel this inaccuracy unfairly altered and colored my perceptions pre-read. At the very least, I believe the word "presumably" should have been added to the blurb (in the area I spoke of in my last spoiler paragraph) in order to allow it to stand where it does as a foundational fact. Providing that one little word would have allowed me to feel satisfied on this point. I would have accepted everything as is with its inclusion. Without it, I couldn't help feeling that I'd been unreasonably deceived from the off by the author. This eroded some of my trust in the author-reader contract. I believe I will be wary about the next book she offers and worried she won't play fair again.

By way of review, Last to Leave the Room is certainly one of the slowest moving stories I've ever read. That's not a criticism per se because I genuinely enjoyed the story, but, given that I basically knew everything foundational about the story before I started reading it, 205 pages of developing the characters, themes, and conflicts did seem a little excessive in the process of reading them--despite how well-written and compelling those pages were.

Additionally, I was put off by the present tense perspective the story was told in. On her website, the author said the reason she wrote the book this way was "in an attempt to capture that transitory feeling, of existing only in that moment in the narrative with no promise of a future, and an at times fast-receding glimpse of the past." Regardless, I lost track of how many times I had to read and re-read sentences because the present tense didn't sound quite right and I had to figure out where I was getting confused before continuing. In all cases, the present tense was the reason for why I became tripped up.

My final bit of criticism before I get into the good stuff is that Starling almost seems incapable of writing a protagonist that I as a reader can feel the slightest bit of sympathy for. She sets up a thoroughly unlikeable cast that, instead of growing, and maturing, and learning from mistakes, disintegrates page by page and frequently becomes an outright villain by the end. [It's this very reason I didn't enjoy Starling's novella "Yellow Jessamine". Absolutely nothing was redeemable by the end of that twisted little tale.] These are the kinds of characters you come to hate and secretly wish for the worst to happen to them instead of the best. As a writer myself, I don't understand that mentality in developing characters. I want readers to come to love, empathize with, and root for my characters. Could authors who create utterly despicable main characters actually want readers to root for their character's demise, pumping their fists in victory when the consequences of bad behavior inevitably come a-knockin'? I can't begin to fathom this. Regardless, I still find this author's stories utterly compelling, if for no other reason than that you simply can't walk away from these train wrecks without seeing how they resolve, satisfactorily if not happily.

On the plus side, the fourth and last section of the book gave me everything I was looking for in a Caitlin Starling novel. There was shock, disgust, horror, awe, unexpected developments, validation of several theories I'd been playing with throughout, and the answer that was pretty close to what I'd predicted before actually starting the book felt justified and captivating. I especially loved the explanation of the title. In fact, it may be what I loved most about the book. I apologize to those of you who don't care about spoilers having to read the next tiny paragraph, but in an effort not to be shouted at for revealing a spoiler, though I can't see how, here's how the title fits in with the story (and matches the cover art):

Tamsin reads endless theories, arguments, psychoanalytic reviews, and stories about doubles. In most of them, the doppelgänger causes destruction. The original usually tries to kill the double and is harmed in the process. Sometimes it disappears, other times it's the last one standing. Ultimately, the original always loses. In one particular yarn, the devil teaches black magic to seven students. The last one to leave each night forfeits his or her soul. In the case of a doppelgänger, that "shadow" is always the last to leave the room, so that's what the devil takes as payment.

While it took me two weeks to read Parts 1-3 of Last to Leave the Room, I read Part 4 in about two days, actually getting up at one a.m. one night to read more as the noose tightened. Ultimately, I found this story worth the price I paid for the hardcover. Starling never fails to deliver an impactful story with an explosive ending.

That said, I'm left with conundrums I've rarely had before about whether front-loading a story with what could easily be considered spoilers (even with my previous, blasé tolerance of them) can or will adversely influence the reading experience. About the closest I can come to an accurate response is that any spoilers, some spoilers, a lot of spoilers--it's all subjective. In the case of this novel, I was put off by what I felt was too much pivotal information being given in advance of reading a single word of it--almost to the point of fury. To add to my confusion, after finishing the book and just before writing this review, I went to the author's website. I found two essay/articles there concerning this particular story, and both gave away so much information about the plot that I was certain had I read either of them in advance, I wouldn't have enjoyed the book at all. They left little or nothing for me to discover on my own in the process of reading.

This experience leaves me with uncertainty about something that, in the past, before reading this particular title, I would have responded to very differently: At what point is a surfeit of information given in advance about the plot of a story overkill or buzz-kill, so that there's almost no point to reading the book since you can already guess the core elements? I simply don't know. Anyone else want to give it a try?

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, January 18, 2024

WEIRD TALES Centenary Tribute

I've recently finished reading an anthology called WEIRD TALES: 100 YEARS OF WEIRD, edited by Jonathan Maberry, current editor of "The Unique Magazine." As the subtitle implies, this book was published in honor of the magazine's 2023 centennial. It hasn't operated continuously all those years, having lapsed and been revived several times, but its present incarnation claims continuity with the venerable pulp zine famed for showcasing the early works of H. P. Lovecraft and many other classic twentieth-century horror and fantasy authors. The contents of the anthology consist mainly of fiction (plus a few poems) but also several essays. One of the latter, "Swords and Sorcery: WEIRD TALES and Beyond," by Charles R. Rutledge, is a reprint from the November 2022 issue of the periodical. The others, original to this volume, explore topics such as the history of the magazine, the evolution of occult detectives, cosmic terror, shared world authorship, and some sources of Lovecraft's visionary horror.

As for the fiction, I was mildly disappointed to discover that this isn't exclusively a reprint anthology. Stories from the actual magazine are outnumbered by new ones. In addition to two pieces from twenty-first-century issues, "Up from Slavery" (2021) by Victor LaValle and "Jagannath" (2011) by Karen Tidbeck, we get eight "classic reprints." The vintage authors comprise H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams (under a pen name), Richard Matheson, and Allison V. Harding. While I thought it was a bit of a cop-out to choose what's probably Lovecraft's best-known and most often reprinted tale, "The Call of Cthulhu," to represent him, several other "classic" entries may be new to many readers, as some were to me. And one can hardly complain about the original stories, given their uniformly high quality. This compilation offers abundant thrills for lovers of weird fiction, however we define the term.

Horror fans in general would enjoy the anthology, and for devotees of WEIRD TALES, it's a must-read book. The numerous illustrations and ads reprinted from the magazine practically justify the purchase price in themselves.

I count as one of my most treasured writing milestones a story published in WEIRD TALES (September-October 2003): "Manila Peril," featuring Filipino vampires in southern California.

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Once A Pirate...

"Once..." is an odd and exciting word. It sets up expectations for what is to come next. Three possibilities come to mind.

Once... Twice, as in "Once bitten, twice shy," the proverb, and the Great White hit.

Once... upon a time.

Once... Always... in the sense of irredeemability of a thief, a scoundrel, a kleptomaniac, a cheat, or the ingrained and noble nature of a king or queen, a marine, a warrior.

Once is an adverb, a conjunction, and very rarely and idiosyncratically, a noun (just the once). 

"Once a pirate" sounds like the title to a fantastic novel, and indeed, it is.

Not all pirates are equal. Business writer and regular Forbes contributor Tendayi Viki explains the difference between rogue pirates and government-licensed pirates (privateers) in an article on innovation and the advantages of not following the rules.

His most interesting point, IMHO, is about the piratical nature of Start-ups.

"Unlike startups, large companies have to follow the rules. As Steve Blank notes:

Startups can do anything. Companies can only do what’s legal.

Having no business model and no market reputation to defend makes startups quite dangerous as competitors."

Corsairs could be pirates or privateers. Buccaneers were the original pirates of the Caribbean, but many were under license to attack Spanish shipping. Paying taxes does not mean that one has Letters of Marque. What are we to call Big Tech?

Business writer Sara Todd makes some interesting points about piracy and the start up days of Apple Computers.

"[Steve Jobs] offered a maxim meant to motivate the developers: “It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy.”


"The pirate metaphor also involved a certain willingness to plunder. “Steve also never minded occasionally stealing good ideas from others, like the Picasso quote—’good artists copy, great artists steal,’” Hertzfeld adds."

Picasso's might be a philosophy not only shared by tech geniuses, but also by great musicians, as Paul Resnikoff discusses for digital music news.

Despite admissions, if one is good enough, one gets away with whatever alleged copyright infringement one might be accused of, presumably because the "borrowing" is transformative or otherwise is de minimus. 

The same may not apply to distributors of other people's whole work. Paul Resnikoff writes about the problems for musicians that streaming music has created.

Long time legal blogger about the music industry,  Chris Castle of Music Tech Policy speaks to the emerging moral hazard when a service provider unilaterally decides whom to pay and whom not to pay for essentially the same product.

What if Amazon were to decide not to pay self-published authors? Not that they don't. Oh, wait...

The authors who were allegedly punished, were the innocent victims of e-book piracy. The musicians who are being stiffed are the innocent victims of streaming fraud.

As Chris writes: "it’s good to remember that this whole episode is somehow excused by overcoming streaming fraud. I think there are a lot more direct ways to stop fraud than stiffing an entire category of artists."

Please follow the Music Tech Policy link for potential solutions.

Book piracy has many tentacles. Next time, I may look at the unfair use of copyrighted written works as AI training materials.
All the best,


Friday, January 12, 2024

Karen S Wiesner: {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Heart's Blood by Juliet Marillier

by Karen S. Wiesner

A rare single title novel by New Zealand author Juliet Marillier, Heart's Blood was published in 2009. This historical fantasy is loosely based on Beauty and the Beast but it's a richer, more complex tale with a heroine, Caitrin, who flees a home life much more terrifying than anything she might encounter in her search for a safe haven. Her chief ability and means of employment is as a scribe, not a skill most young women in the time period possess. Her father taught his daughter his craft before his death.

Caitrin flees to Whistling Tor and its crumbling hilltop fortress. The chieftain, Anluan, is feared and repulsed by the townsfolk because of the dark curse over the ghost-filled woods that enthralls him. Not surprisingly, Caitrin causes a stir in the shroud that hovers like a dense mist over the household, bringing unexpected light and promise to most of the staff--and the reclusive master of the house caught in the web of sorcery that destroyed his ancestors and will soon claim his life as well. To free Anluan will also release Whistling Tor from the evil surrounding it, but to do so will require sacrifices and something perhaps more terrifying than misfortune: Hope.

This was a beautifully written tale, despite how slow moving (to the point of, at times, plodding). Complete with complicated, fully fleshed out characters and a rich, wonderfully elaborate setting, the Gothic atmosphere of creepiness in a dark castle surrounded by a forest haunted by spirits that may or may not be malevolent kept me guessing about who was actually trustworthy. I was interested, as well, in the plant in Anluan's garden called "Heart's Blood". I found out after reading this book that there's a flower commonly called bleeding heart, Lamprocapnos spectabilis, that's supposed to signify rejected or unrequited love. Too bad the beautiful woodland plant didn't make it to the cover of the book. It's really quite striking! 

Incidentally, while Heart's Blood is sometimes referred to as part of the "Whistling Tor series", the author's website states emphatically that it was intended as a standalone and no follow-up is planned. Bit of a letdown there, as this is an amazing world I would have liked to enter again. But the author does have six other series to immerse her readership in, and I highly recommend giving them a try.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

Visit her website here:


Find out more about her books and see her art here:

Visit her publisher here:

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Robotic Companions

A robotic device called ElliQ, which functions as an AI "companion" for older people, is now available for purchase by the general public at a price of only $249.99 (plus a monthly subscription fee):

Companion Robot

As shown in the brief video on this page, "she" has a light-up bobble-head but no face. Her head turns and its light flickers in rhythm with her voice, which in my opinion is pleasant and soothing. The video describes her as "empathetic." From the description of the machine, it sounds to me like a more advanced incarnation of inanimate personal assistants similar to Alexa (although I can't say for sure because I've never used one). The bot can generate displays on what looks like the screen of a cell phone. ElliQ's makers claim she "can act as a proactive tool to combat loneliness, interacting with users in a variety of ways." She can remind people about health-related activities such as exercising and taking medicine, place video calls, order groceries, engage in games, tell jokes, play music or audiobooks, and take her owner on virtual "road trips," among other services. She can even initiate conversations by asking general questions.

Here's the manufacturer's site extolling the wonders of ElliQ:

ElliQ Product Page

They call her "the sidekick for healthier, happier aging" that "offers positive small talk and daily conversation with a unique, compassionate personality." One has to doubt the "unique" label for a mass-produced, pre-programmed companion, but she does look like fun to interact with. I can't help laughing, however, at the photo of ElliQ's screen greeting her owner with "Good morning, Dave." Haven't the creators of this ad seen 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY? Or maybe they inserted the allusion deliberately? I visualize ElliQ locking the client in the house and stripping the premises of all potentially dangerous features.

Some people have reservations about devices of this kind, naturally. Critics express concerns that dependence on bots for elder care may be "alienating" and actually increase the negative effects of isolation and loneliness. On the other hand, in my opinion, if someone has to choose between an AI companion or nothing, wouldn't an AI be better?

I wonder why ElliQ doesn't have a face. Worries about the uncanny valley effect, maybe? I'd think she could be given animated eyes and mouth without getting close enough to a human appearance to become creepy.

If this AI were combined with existing machines that can move around and fetch objects autonomously, we'd have an appliance approaching the household servant robots of Heinlein's novel THE DOOR INTO SUMMER. That book envisioned such marvels existing in 1970, a wildly optimistic notion, alas. While I treasure my basic Roomba, it does nothing but clean carpets and isn't really autonomous. I'm not at all interested in flying cars, except in SF fiction or films. Can you imagine the two-dimensional, ground-based traffic problems we already live with expanded into three dimensions? Could the average driver be trusted with what amounts to a personal aircraft in a crowded urban environment? No flying car for me, thanks -- where's my cleaning robot?

Margaret L. Carter

Please explore love among the monsters at Carter's Crypt.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

Scammer Time

Just what we need for an AI-enhanced Happy New Year: AI-enhanced scams, data breaches involving everything a "population health technology company" has on millions of patients, trademark scams from scammers pretending to be lawyers, untouchable data brokers...

So, my earworm for today is "Can't Touch This" in all its jolly, ironic glory.

For writers, blogsite owners, and website owners, it's that time (which comes around every two or three months) to update your passwords on the U.S. Copyright Office DMCA Designated copyright agent directory.

More annoying and depressing, if you write under the protection of an LLC, you should know that the laws are changing, and LLC owners' social security numbers and drivers license numbers are going to be a matter of public record.

Wealth Lawyer and Coach Mat Sorensen explains what a pain all this is:
For those of us who prefer advice in writing, lawyer Eli N. Krafte-Jacobs with the Finney Law firmhas an explanation.

One of many bottom lines is that, if you have an active LLC or Corporation and do not file a BOI (Beneficial Ownership Information) report, you could be fined, imprisoned, and your bank may refuse to do business with your business.

It's not a scam. My Norton 360 seems to think that a link on the topic with reference to Homeowners Associations and Condominium Owners Associations is a harmful link, and I surmise that Norton's AI systems detected an offensive word for a male member or a male barnyard fowl within the name of the respectable Massachusetts law firm and flagged it.

I think that is hilarious.

Now I will turn to scams.

Legal blogger and associate lawyer Lisa Bollinger Gehman for the intellectual property law firm Baker Hostetler reports on the increasingly sophisticated trademark email scams.

Some writers own trademarks, so this might be of interest. As you may know, trademarks have to be renewed with the USPTO something like every five years. Also, like copyright agent registrations, or website ownership information, anyone can search the database and send official-looking letters and emails aimed at tricking the trademark owner into sending them a huge fee. Usually, in my experience, if you read the fine print with a magnifying glass, they are selling SEO registration, or spurious trademark registration in a foreign country.

Lisa says:

"Trademark owners should be wary of official-looking email solicitations from attorneys or law firms that claim to specialize in trademarks and are masquerading as Good Samaritans who wish to aid in protecting the company’s brand against another company that has contracted that firm to register the same mark."

Among other valuable advice and insights, Lisa points out that email scammers may forget to spoof the official .gov domain extension. Maybe one cannot spoof dot gov.

Now, the scammers claim to be specialist trademark lawyers, and their pitch may attempt to outrage and panic their target by saying that someone else is trying to register the same trademark or business name.

More information about trademark scams can be found on the USPTO’s website:

Trademark scams: How to avoid them and what to do if you get fooled: 
Caution: Scam alert: 


Also of interest, a large group of bloggers for the law offices of Troutman Pepper including Molly S. DiRago, Robyn Lin, Natasha E, Halloran, Ronald I Raether Jr, James Koenig, and Kim Phan compiled a very comprehensive round up of privacy laws, breaches, and violations.

Their article More Privacy Please is compelling reading, discussing topical issues with a health care company that filed to adequately protect DNA data, and made misleading promises to potential clients about how their privacy and data would be respected and securely stored; also discussing tax preparation companies that share clients' information without permission; also revealing issues with generative artificial intelligence (GenAI).

In California, there is a Delete Act to rein in data brokers, but it does not appear that this Law will have any teeth for several years (until 2026). They also discuss investigations of alleged data leaks from 23andMe and from Twitter, and much, much more.

More detailed information on the ground-breaking, Californian "Delete Act" (to whom it applies, how it should work, why is it superior to existing law etc) is provided by Amy de La Lama, Christian M. Auty, Goli Mahdavi, and Gabrielle A. Harwell of the law firm BryanCave Leighton Paisner LLP.


"Data brokers are entities that knowingly collect and sell to “third parties the personal information of a consumer with whom the business does not have a direct relationship.” Cal. Civ. Code §1798.99.80(c). This likely includes entities that receive personal information received from third parties and compile that data into a form that can be used to enrich data sets of third parties, such as by adding data appends to a third party’s data set for marketing purposes."

Shocking to this writer is the implication that some of these data brokers collect, store, and sell information about ordinary persons' reproductive healthcare. Another revelation seems to be that one has to resubmit requests to delete information every 45 days. In other words, it looks like its whack-a-mole with these privacy invaders. (My words!).

Finally, after all this talk of data leaks, breaches, and legal selling of personal information, class action law firm Shamis Gentile has a fascinating breakdown of what your data is worth to the first seller:

While your social security number might sell for as little as $1, your medical records could be worth $1,000. Scroll down the page to see what everything else about you might cost a crook.

All the best,

Rowena Cherry