And now for something a little different —

Okay, I haven’t in general said much about the nonfiction books I read, and I certainly haven’t done a long post about any of ’em, but this one deserves it. So —

The book: WHY WE GET FAT by Gary Taubes

Taube’s argument: Obesity is not a moral penalty for the twin sins of gluttony and sloth. Instead, obesity is caused by a problem with insulin regulation driven by an overabundance of carbohydrates in the diet. People will lose weight and improve their health regardless of their caloric intake and/or exercise regime if they remove carbohydrates from their diet and allow their insulin metabolism to correct itself.

I read this book because I kept seeing people mention Taubes and I finally decided to see what he was saying. My bias before I read the book was solidly against the low-carb idea, partly because I thought it sounded like one of the innumerable stupid modern diet fads that’s supposed to work by magic and partly because I personally love carbohydrates in all their forms and would rather remove meat from my diet than bread, pasta, rice, and desserts. I mean, I have nine kinds of rice in my pantry! (In case you’re interested, these are: ordinary Carolina long grain rice, brown rice, dhura dun basmati rice, jasmine rice, Thai red cargo rice, Arborio rice, Calrose rice (a short grain rice I use for Chinese cooking and sushi), glutinous rice, and wild rice.) I also have many kinds of lentils for Indian cooking, and many kinds of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai noodles. I am definitely not someone a low-carb diet would appeal to.

But I have to admit, Taubes provided a lot of evidence that a carb-heavy diet causes obesity. You may well want to read the book and get all the details, but allow me to present this evidence, briefly. (Well, not all that briefly! This is a very long post! If you want to skip it, but are interested in my personal low-carb experiment, skip to the end. But I hope you will stay with me and let the experiment be the punchline, okay?)

The fact: When insulin levels rise, we accumulate fat in our fat tissue; when insulin levels fall, we release fat from our fat tissue. Insulin is secreted in response to carbohydrates and particularly in response to sweet, easily digested carbohydrates. This is evidently not at all medically controversial. Taubes goes into a lot of detail about insulin metabolism.

The evidence:

* The modern obesity problem can’t possibly be due to fast food or the sudden popularity of high-fructose corn syrup or the modern sedentary lifestyle, because the problem is not actually all that modern. It was already very noticeable in the 1930s. Not only was that way before fast food etc, it was also the era of soup kitchens and bread lines – not the conditions under which one would reasonably expect an explosion in the rate of obesity.

* Physicians in the 1930s were already trying to help obese children slim down, but found the children just couldn’t.

* The Pima Indians have about the highest obesity and diabetes rates in America. They didn’t always, but their problems started way, way back – before 1900. In fact, their problems started when they went from being one of the wealthiest Indian groups to one of the poorest. In the 1850s, the Pima were hunters and farmers, enjoyed an abundance of food, and were not fat. By the 1900s, they had gone through years of starvation and were living on government rations that were calorically and nutritionally inadequate but that included a lot of white flour and sugar. Malnutrition and obesity coexisted in this and other very poor Indian tribes living on government rations. A lot more women than men were fat despite the fact that women did nearly all the hard labor, while men were much more sedentary. Nearby tribes, such as the Pueblos, who did not live on government rations, were not fat.

* Other very poor populations have shown simultaneous malnutrition and obesity, including the Italians of Naples in the 1950s, who ate a diet of pasta, bread, salads, olive oil, and wine. Taube cites 14 other populations which simultaneously experienced poverty and very high rates of obesity. In all cases, the rates of obesity were much higher in women than men and especially high in women past middle age.

* Taubes cites a British specialist on Jamaican diabetes, who in the 1970s declared inadequate nutrition accounted for almost 25% of all pediatric admissions, that inadequate nutrition continued through adolescence, that obesity began to manifest itself in the female population as the women reached their mid-twenties, and that two-thirds of the women then became very obese (and 10% of the men). From birth through their early teens, Jamaican children were very thin, lacking enough food and also nutritious food (Taubes does not report on the actual diet in this population). They then became obese as they reached maturity, especially the women.

* In the 1990s, the National Institute of Health enrolled 50,000 women, the great majority of them overweight, in a study. They randomly selected 20,000 of these women to eat a low-fat diet emphasizing vegetables and high-fiber foods. These women also consumed 360 calories less per day than they had prior to enrolling in the study, a total of 1/5 fewer calories than what public-health agencies advise today. After eight years, these women had lost an average of only two pounds, while their average waist circumference increased, implying that they had lost lean muscle mass, not fat.

* Jeffrey Flier, Dean of Harvard’s medical school and a specialist on obesity, wrote the chapter on obesity for the 2005 edition of Joslin’s Diabetes Mellitus. In this chapter, he states that “reduction of caloric intake” is “the cornerstone of any therapy for obesity.” But after examining all kinds of reduced calorie diets, including very extreme starvation diets, he also concluded that “none of these approaches has any proven merit.”

* Taubes cites one study (among many others) that enrolled 13,000 runners and compared their weekly mileage with their weight from year to year. Those that ran the most tended to weigh the least, but all the runners gained weight over the years, even those who averaged 40 miles running per week. Taubes spends a whole chapter knocking to pieces the idea that an active vs a sedentary lifestyle matters significantly when considering weight gain. Rather than going into exhaustive detail, let me just say that he’s pretty convincing.

* Okay, just one more detail, because wow: one study in Denmark got 18 men and 9 women who had been leading sedentary lives to train for marathons. (Seriously, wow. They would never have got me to enroll in this study, let me tell you!) After eighteen months of training, the men had lost an average of 5 lbs of body fat. The women hadn’t lost any weight.

* You can sum up this part of the book by noting that people have been trying for decades to prove that exercise can reduce weight or maintain weight loss, but have not been able to produce compelling evidence that this is so. After this many studies, it seems pretty safe to conclude that the hypothesis that exercise is important in weight loss sounds reasonable but is not true.

* We can see very plainly that genetics play a large role in fat accumulation, but let’s think for a moment about just how big a role that is. Take beef cattle vs dairy cattle. Beef cattle are fat. Dairy cows are bony. Their hip bones stick out. Their ribs show. These are animals in excellent condition. They certainly are not eating different low-fat grass or running marathons through their pastures. They are genetically selected to put the calories they consume toward milk production rather than fat and muscle accumulation.

* Ground squirrels double their weight in the fall, all of the extra weight being fat. They do this even in captivity and even if they are placed on a restricted-calorie diet. Unless they are actually starved nearly to death, they gain a ton of weight in the fall regardless of diet.

* Also, as anybody can see, boys and girls put on weight differently. It obviously isn’t girls eating more than boys that causes girls to put on a lot more body fat during puberty.

* Also, there’s a rare genetic disorder called progressive lipodystrophy, in which the affected person, almost always a woman, accumulates a ton of fat and becomes obese – but only below the waist. Above the waist, she loses essentially all her subcutaneous fat. (Yes, this looks strange.) It is obviously stupid to suggest that these women undereat above the waist but overeat below the waist.

* Rats that are spayed – ovaries removed – eat a lot, quickly gain a lot of weight and become seriously obese. They gain just as much weight if placed on a restricted-calorie diet – to compensate for the lack of calories, they become extremely sedentary. In other words, the rats become sedentary because they are becoming fat and thus have less energy available for activity; they are not becoming fat because they are sedentary. Both gluttony and sloth are caused by the fat tissue sequestering calories rather than allowing those calories to be used for activity.

* Spaying the rats removes estrogen from their systems, estrogen regulates lipoprotein lipase (LPL), in the absence of estrogen, LPL causes a lot more fat to enter fat cells for storage than muscle cells for use. Thus the fat tissue sequesters the available calories, so the rats have to eat a lot more if they want to stay active. If they can’t eat more, they must become sedentary.

* Isn’t that interesting? Getting fat is driving increased appetite and sedentary behavior; the customary view that gluttony and sloth drive fat accumulation gets the causal relationship backwards.

* Zucker rats, bred to be obese, become obese even if they are put on severe calorie-restricted diets from the time they are weaned. On restricted diets, they actually wind up fatter than unrestricted siblings. But the rats on the calorie-restricted diets also have muscles, organs, and brains that are significantly reduced in size compared to their unrestricted siblings. The nutrients they needed for normal organ and muscle development got sequestered in the fat tissue.

* If those rats are actually starved to death, they die with a lot of their fat tissue intact. They compromise their crucial muscles and organs and die rather than burn fat tissue.

* Re-read that last point.

* This implies that thin people have fat cells programmed not to take up calories, or muscle cells programed to burn calories. If they are more active than fat people, it is because they are driven to use the calories they take in for physical activity. They are not thin because they are active, they are active because their fat tissue is not hogging the calories needed by their muscles.

* I can certainly confirm that my mother has great trouble gaining weight. She is right at the low end of the normal weight range for women, and in fact she is probably significantly underweight for her age. I can’t get her to eat enough things like cheesecake, but Taubes’ book implies it wouldn’t help anyway.

* Also, I can certainly confirm that some, but by no means all, Cavalier puppies are VERY thin as teenagers and feeding them more just doesn’t help them gain weight. (They refuse to eat as much as I offer). They will gain weight when they are about 18 months old and there’s just no point fussing about it before that. I don’t plan to show Folly till next year! Right now she is all legs and ribs and hip bones! If she is like her mother, she will suddenly fill out when she is about 16 months old. I certainly believe teenage puppy weights are governed by genetics!

The counter-evidence Taubes should have addressed, but didn’t, adequately:

“Uncooked, rice is called mai; cooked it is fan. Once cooked rice was traditionally taken as food at least three times each day, first for jo chan, or early meal, either as congee or, if the weather was cool, cooked and served with a spoonful of liquid lard, soy sauce, and an egg. To eat rice is to sik fan, and there is, in addition to those morning preparations, n’fan, or “afternoon rice,” and mon fan, or “evening rice.” There is even a custom called siu yeh, which translates literally as “cooked midnight” and means rice eaten as a late evening snack. No time of any day in China is without its rice.” Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, The Chinese Kitchen (I just happened across this quote at the same time I was writing this post; Taubes didn’t quote it.)

Taubes doesn’t completely ignore China. On p. 138, he very briefly mentions that the Chinese and Japanese didn’t get fat even though they ate so much rice, an easily digested carb. He ascribes the non-fatness of the East Asian peoples to the lack of sugar in their traditional diets. This is perfectly plausible, especially as Taubes spends quite a lot of time describing the ins and outs of insulin and why sugar might reasonably be a more potent fattening agent than other carbohydrates. On the other hand, Taubes constantly blames white flour for disarranging insulin metabolism, too, and it’s not clear to me why white flour would be worse than white rice.

Also, in India, where the diet of a lot of people is VERY carb heavy, there is a solid tradition of extremely sweet milk-based desserts. I have no idea how frequently those desserts were consumed by most people. And the reason I don’t have any idea is that Taubes didn’t address the populations of India at all.

The evidence Taubes should have included but didn’t:

A rundown of the typical diets of the fifteen poverty-stricken-and-obese populations he mentions specifically, compared to historical and modern American diets, the historical diets of some Asian populations, and the historical diets of some East Indian populations – in each case with notes on rates of obesity.

Tracking all that information down would of course be tedious, but honestly, that’s kind of what you let yourself in for when you write this kind of book, isn’t it? I get why Taubes barely mentioned China and all but ignored India: he wanted to deliver a clean, straightforward, consistent message. But it does weaken his argument to leave out the kind of data that would let us really estimate the kind of dietary and weight variance that has existed between populations that have historically emphasized carbohydrates in their diets.

Taubes does, however, trace out the history of the idea that carbohydrates are uniquely fattening – hardly a new idea, and well-tested experimentally in the early part of the 1900s, but thoroughly driven out of fashion in the sixties and seventies by historical contingency and the sheer refusal of medical and public health organizations to believe the evidence. The take-home message of this entire section is that obesity somehow always seems to be incurable when the diets prescribed to treat it are the exact diets that cause it.

And Taubes also has a pretty extensive section refuting the idea that high-fat diets are bad for heart health or for your health in general.

* Experimental evidence does not support the idea that saturated fat is bad for health. (Taubes acknowledges that this will seem hard to believe given how vehemently health authorities insist on this point, but declares that “what we’ve been told and what the evidence actually supports parted ways in 1984, when the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute launched its massive health campaign.”).

* The NHLBI spent $115 million on a huge clinical trial and found that a reduction in saturated fat did not have any effect on heart attack rates. Despite this, they continued to claim that reducing saturated fat in the diet would reduce heart attacks.

* An international organization was formed in the 1990s to do an unbiased literature survey on the issue. This was the Cochrane Collaboration. Its judgment is highly regarded when it comes to deciding whether a diet, a surgical procedure, or a diagnostic technique actually does what it is supposed to do. The CC assessed the benefits of reducing dietary saturated fat in 2001 and concluded that the evidence that such a reduction is beneficial is at best limited and inconclusive.

* Since then, a huge trial focused on women, the Women’s Health Initiative, tested the benefits and risks of eating less fat and less saturated fat. The study was the one mentioned above, that enrolled nearly 50,000 middle-aged women. Not only did the 20,000 women assigned to the low-fat diets (diets emphasizing less meat, more vegetables, more fruit, and more whole grains) fail to lose weight, they also showed absolutely no reduction in heart disease, stroke, or breast or colon cancer compared to the women who ate whatever they wanted.

* Triglycerides levels in the blood definitely do constitute a risk factor for heart attacks. This is not controversial. Triglycerides rise when we eat a diet high in carbohydrates. If you replace bacon and eggs for breakfast with yogurt and bananas, both your HDL and LDL cholesterol will go down, but your triglycerides will go up. And though lowering LDL cholesterol might possibly reduce your risk of heart attacks, lowering your HDL cholesterol definitely and substantially increases your risk.

* No, really, low HDL cholesterol levels is definitely a huge risk factor, especially for women, and a high carb / low fat diet definitely lowers HDL cholesterol levels. Absolutely nobody argues with these two facts.

* Clinical trials of the Atkins diet, trials that specifically examined the effects of eating a diet high in saturated fat diet on weight and heart disease and diabetes, have consistently shown that people who eat a high fat / low carb diet lost more weight than people instructed to limit calories and avoid fat and saturated fat. The high fat / low carb diet also causes levels of HDL cholesterol to rise, triglycerides to fall dramatically, blood pressure to fall, LDL cholesterol levels to rise slightly, and the risk of heart attacks to decrease significantly.

* Yes, really. There’s one particular Stanford study Taubes cites in detail. There’s just no question but that the people on the Atkins diet lost more weight and had much better health indicators in every important category than the people on a low fat / exercise regime. Yes, really.

I must admit that this whole section has made me really doubt that we want government agencies deciding what’s best for us and going on huge national campaigns to persuade us to change our diets to suit their misconceived ideas about nutrition. Because when they’re wrong, whoa, the harm that they cause just boggles the mind. And you evidently had better not trust health organizations to actually pay attention to any kind of experimental evidence, even from huge well-designed studies they organize themselves, when the results conflict with their pet theories. Because once they get an idea in their heads, they just cling to it like grim death. I mean, Taubes sure convinced me to ignore all official health advice for the rest of my life.

The take home message: Just how completely you have to cut carbs in order to lose weight or maintain weight loss, and how long it will be before you see the effects of a low carb diet, depends on your genetics and how screwed up your personal insulin metabolism is. Women, older people, and people who are already seriously obese are more likely to fail to lose weight even on a carb-restricted diet, either because they give up too soon, because they don’t restrict carbs enough, or because they have already reached the point of no return.

The experimental results:

Okay, after all that, I was curious to see what a low-carb diet would do in action. I only had one easily available test subject, of course.

As it happens, at the beginning of September, I was just about exactly at the top of the official normal weight for a woman of my height and age. I had also been trying to lose five or so vanity pounds, in the standard counting-calories way. (I would have been happy to lose more than five pounds, but had just given up on that, on the grounds that life’s too short to renounce food.) I had been more or less seriously trying to lose those five pounds for about two months, with zero success. In the past, I have lost up to 15 pounds at a time on a semi-starvation diet. I do not enjoy this kind of diet any more than the next person, and this time around it didn’t seem to be working anyway.

Did I actually go zero carb?

No. I meant to, but I never quite out all carbs. I didn’t drink anything but water, but in fact I never do drink anything but water, so that wasn’t a difference. For the first two weeks, I had a lot of omelets with bacon and cheddar, cheese and sausage for lunches, and baked dishes made with eggs, cottage cheese, spinach, and ham. I also made deviled eggs with bacon and avocado (very good; I made them twice). I cooked pork in foil with squash and onions, then did the same thing with kielbasa. I made chipotle burgers and ate them without the bun. I made “Rubin dip” with corned beef and sauerkraut and cheese and mayonnaise – I spread the dip on slices of raw yellow squash. I sprinkled cauliflower with oil, cumin and salt and roasted it at high heat. Salads with steak, I did that several times. It was sort of fun going for all this high-calorie meat-heavy stuff I normally avoid. I didn’t really eat that many vegetables as vegetables, but I had eggplant several times in various dishes because I have a lot of eggplant in the freezer – eggplant did well for me this year and it freezes surprisingly well after it’s cooked.

But I also made kasha dishes several times (I have a lot of kasha in the freezer). Right at first I ate the rest of the frozen grapes I had in the freezer (don’t knock frozen grapes till you try them!). I added corn to the steak salads. I ate carrots with my cheese and sausage. I had chocolate a couple of times, because, hey, chocolate. I had a doughnut at work when someone brought in a box, because I only have an average amount of willpower and I didn’t figure one doughnut would make much difference.

In the first two weeks, I lost eight pounds. This was on a much higher calorie diet than I usually eat. I was never hungry, believe me. In fact, it was amazing, how I never got hungry. I usually do get hungry before lunchtime when I have pancakes or biscuits for breakfast. The lack of hunger was a huge difference between normal life and this diet. I was sort of hoping to also find myself with plenty of extra physical energy from all those extra calories, but I have to say, unfortunately, no. Well, you can’t have everything.

In the second two weeks, I had bread several times, half a cup of flour at a time as I made single-serving recipes of various things. I had cereal for breakfast twice, with sugar. I ate 1000 calories at one meal the day I was showing my girls and skipped lunch. That was a fast-food burger and fries and I enjoyed it thoroughly, thank you. I had rice several times, in a rice/coleslaw/chicken salad with Thai peanut sauce (it wasn’t as good as it should have been). I made chili with black beans (a carb), sweet potatoes (ditto), and chorizo. And served that over rice, too, because it turned out too spicy to eat plain. I did not watch portion sizes at all. In fact, I specifically had more cereal at a time than I usually would. (I honestly hadn’t realized how constantly I count calories in my normal life, until this experiment when I specifically ignored portion-size advice.) I didn’t have desserts, though, except for chocolate several times, twice quite a lot of chocolate. (This was Sarah Rees Brennen’s fault, because I do love chocolate when I’m reading a good book.) In this second two-week period, I lost two pounds.

I have no idea how much more weight I’d lose if I kept up the low-carb/ low sugar thing. Maybe not much, since I’m now down right in the middle of the normal weight range for my age and height? Anyway, my experiment is over, and I assure you I have every intention of adding desserts back to my diet. For breakfast today I had pumpkin chocolate-chip bread, for example. And I don’t plan to worry about it. Because at this point, I plan to simply plug a two-week zero-carb diet period into my life every three months or so.

Also, in a different but related experiment, I switched one of my girls to a grain-free food. Unlike my other dogs, she’s had trouble losing that extra little bit of weight on a restricted-calorie diet, and she sure hasn’t appreciated my feeding her less, and what with Taubes and his obese rats that compromised their organs rather than lose weight, I thought, well, let’s just try the nearest thing to a low-carb diet there is for dogs. (The food has potatoes and sweet potatoes in it.) Kenya is now eating more calories than before on this high-protein, high-fat food. She hasn’t lost weight, but she hasn’t gained significantly either. I think her activity level is up a bit – she was very sedentary before. I mean, I know she is more active now, but this could be the cooler weather, so that’s hard to know for sure. But I do know for sure that she is happy to have more food in her bowl!

If you want to experiment:

Taubes does not provide detailed dietary suggestions in this book, but he suggests that a seriously overweight person might try a diet including all the meat, poultry, fish, and eggs you want, at least 2 cups of leafy greens per day, and any of the non-sweet vegetables, including the brassicas – broccoli and cauliflower and that stuff – squash, eggplant, green beans, celery, and mushrooms. Also peas, tomatoes, and rhubarb, which surprised me. Of course I can’t imagine eating rhubarb without adding sugar, so not sure why he bothered putting that on there.

He suggested clear broth for sodium replenishment, which strikes me as highly peculiar, since you are not likely to suffer a sodium shortage on a high-meat diet. For heaven’s sake, salt your steak and quit worrying about sodium.

Taubbes suggests four oz of cheese per day, and up to four tbsp. of cream and mayonnaise per day. And up to half an avocado. I made absolutely no effort to limit the cheese I consumed and certainly had a lot more than four oz a day. I have no idea why he would want you to limit cheese. It’s not like it has lactose in it.

What you don’t eat: you don’t get any sugar, flour products, creamed soups, milk or flavored yogurt, rice or other grains, starchy beans, potatoes or sweet potatoes, carrots or parsnips, or fruit. You can use Splenda and Truvia and stuff like that if you really want to. Me, I hold out for real desserts made with real sugar, but your mileage may vary.

It’s very important you not try to maximize protein and minimize fat, because a high-protein low-fat diet is uniquely toxic. (It’s sometimes called fat starvation, I happen to know, and the Louis and Clark expedition nearly died because of it, so don’t do that!)

Then, after you give your metabolism a chance to readjust your insulin metabolism and see what happens on this diet, you add back in various items and see how your body responds. If it were me, I’d add in whole grains first and then try whole wheat flour and then other carbs.

I am not, of course, actually suggesting anybody try this or any other diet. But if you happen to, I’d be interested in knowing what results you get!

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One more on cover art —

I’m pulling this link out of the comments:

This is the STORMDANCER cover Mary Beth actually had in mind, only it’s really a “making of” post, that shows stages in the development of the cover art. Which is very cool! I really enjoy this kind of post! I hope you do, too.

Plus, hey, a griffin! Which was not even hinted at on the other cover I posted (which I still like, but a griffin definitely improves the cover!)

I don’t mind steampunk, but I don’t seek it out, either. But I need to check out this title now that I know there’s a griffin!

While on the topic of cover design, if you missed it previously, you MUST go watch this “Cover Design In 2 Minutes” thing on YouTube. It is so much fun!

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More Cover Art

Yes! Because we totally need a “Best Michael Whelan Cover” category!

Only there are so many, many great Whelan covers, how can you choose? We have at the moment specific votes for Rawn’s dragon cover on SUNRUNNER’S FIRE:

And the one for Friedman’s BLACK SUN RISING is certainly great:

Though it’s a real shame so much of the art is covered up by that big black square. And for me this one is overly stylized. Or maybe I mean overly formal. That straight-on pose, I don’t know, it’s not my favorite way to pose the figure. Not that I think a pose needs to be active. I don’t mind that. But it looks to me just like this guy is in fact posing for a heroic painting by some famous painter, and I’d rather have a pose that suggests the artist caught him in a moment of his actual life.

Of the three Whelan covers mentioned in the comments, my favorite is this one:

I love the exuberant quality, the flung-wide arms that seem to embrace the whole sky. I haven’t read the book. In fact, I haven’t read any of these three books. Are they good enough to match their covers? (Not that I need more books on my TBR pile.)

But of all Whelan covers ever? Cherryh has some GREAT Whelan covers — on her Chanur books and on her Foreigner books. Any I love Whelan’s covers for The Dragonrider of Pern series. For dragon covers, I would vote for those. But overall? From all possible Whelan covers? I vote for the Little Fuzzy covers, including this one:

I just think the Fuzzies look wonderful. It’s so hard to make teddy bear aliens look real, but I think Whelan pulled it off. Cuter than Cavailer puppies and carrying those keen little spears! Cute, and yet they might actually be competent to survive in those woods. BTW, though I really enjoyed H Beam Piper’s original Little Fuzzy books, and Ardath Mayhar’s contribution from the Fuzzy point of view (Fuzzy Dreams, I think was the name), I haven’t read Scalzi’s recent re-telling of the story. Which is unique in my experience; has anybody else ever retold an older SFF writer’s story? How did that even come about? Anyway, I have no urge to read the Scalzi version, unless some of you have and you think it was great?

Also, while on the subject of covers, I found these two non-Whelan covers interesting — one was mentioned in the comments of the previous cover post and the other I own; I was struck by how similar they are.


I love both of these covers. But is there a thing where you MUST put red flowers in the upper right if doing an Oriental-ish cover? Girl with sword and flowers? Of course red is supposed to draw the eye.

Also, in case you see the covers and fall in love and wonder about the book? I haven’t read STORMDANCER (is it good?), but KATANA isn’t bad. It’s got some very nice snappy dialogue, but I found it a little disappointing. This may have been caused by inaccurate expectations. It’s sold as girl-gets-possessed-by-spirit-of-Samurai, and while this is accurate, I had in my head the idea that we would see this fabulous culture clash between a modern American teenage girl and the possessing spirit of a traditional older male Samurai warrior. No. The possessing spirit is that of a young female Samurai warrior. Not only was I disappointed, I slammed into the idea of a young female Samurai warrior with total disbelief and never recovered. But I can see how YA readers might like it better the way Gibson wrote it.

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Recent Reading: SRB

So! All done with Sarah Rees Brennen’s Demon trilogy.

It’s been interesting to hear peoples’ varying opinions about these three books, and interesting now to compare my own reaction with theirs.

I thought the first book, THE DEMON’S LEXICON, was very strong and it is still my favorite. This is because of Nick. I’m just so impressed by Brennen’s use of his point of view. Remember that Nick has a very circumscribed range of emotions. He’s certainly, um, unique, when it comes to protagonists. I can see why some readers might find him hard to like as the point-of-view character, but I thought he was fabulous. One of the things that makes this book so fascinating is that the reader gets the subtext that Nick misses, and one reason the book works so well is that the really strong sibling relationships come across so vividly even though Nick misses so much of the normal interaction among the other characters.

People who love this book should definitely think about finding a copy of Dan Wells’ I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. There are definite similarities between Brennen’s emotionally limited protagonist and Wells’ sociopathic main character. Presenting a character like that as a convincing good guy takes nerve! Both Brennen and Wells really pull it off splendidly.

The second book, THE DEMON’S COVENANT, is also really good and it might be my favorite sometimes, if I’m in the right mood. The pov character is Mae, of course, and she works extremely well as a protagonist. I honestly don’t think Nick could have carried off another book, plus of course the protagonist needed to be someone who did NOT know about the details of the ultimate plan, because it was important for Brennen not to give too much away to the reader.

I did think Mae was stupid about a couple of things. I can see how she would deceive herself about Seb, but honestly, she should have realized instantly what Nick’s greatest fear actually had to be – obviously it would be losing Alan; obviously nothing else could come close.

On the other hand, Mae could definitely be clever about most things, and I loved her attitude in general. Check out this passage – it really captures Mae:

“I wasn’t distracted,” Mae said. “I was just, uh, thinking about something else.”

She had been thinking about something else all day. It was all well and good to decide she was going to save someone, but she didn’t have the first idea how to go about doing so. Everything she could think of ended up sounding like the modern equivalent of a single knight saddling up his horse and going on a quest to rescue a princess – very brave and showy and all, but unlikely to actually work.

If Mae had been a fairy-tale knight, she would’ve brought an army.

“What were you thinking about?”

She glanced from the passenger seat to Seb and his gorgeous profile at the wheel, feeling a flash of guilt. Gorgeous profiles should not be ignored like this.

She gave him her best smile. “Armies.”

“Uh, joining one?” Seb asked. “Not the career path I would’ve expected you to choose, but okay.”

“Leading one,” said Mae.

“That does sound more like you,” he admitted, and smiled at her sidelong.

It sure does! Mae had more of her mother in her than I think she recognizes or would be comfortable with. And speaking of that, her mother is a GREAT secondary character. I love how Brennen made the mother into a real character in this book.

I thought the ending of the first book was amazing; I thought the ending of the second was also strong but a bit more predictable. Though I admit, the ending of the first book would be hard to beat. I was not sure I believed in Jamie’s actions at the end of the second book.

Now, I was sort of expecting Jamie to be the pov protagonist of the third book. Of course Brennen couldn’t do it that way, because in the third book Jamie knew too much about the wrong things and she had to try to hide some of that stuff from the reader. One problem for me with the third book was it was pretty obvious what some of that stuff was.

But the main reason I didn’t like the third book as well as the other two was the lack of on-stage time for Jamie himself. He made me laugh in the first two; I was sorry we saw so little of him in the third.

Like here in the first book, shortly after we meet Jamie and Mae:

[Nick says] “. . . A few people in this world are born with a certain amount of magic, but they don’t grow out of it. They either learn to control it and keep it a secret forever, or they try to do something with the magic. Which means that most of them become magicians and call up demons. It’s the safest and easiest way to get more power, but there’re also rituals with the dead, and –”

“Rituals with the dead,” Jamie repeated in a faint, stunned voice. Nick turned and looked at him coldly. “I mean,” Jamie said, and swallowed, “how interesting and not at all creepy! Please go on!”

Or here, when Jamie’s offering to help (dyslexic) Nick with his homework:

“So we could go over some stuff together,” Jamie persevered. “We’d be in the same class. It will just be homework. Everyone has to do homework. Maybe sometimes I could read the assigned books to you. Auditory learning helps a lot of people with reading problems. And it would help me remember as well!”

Jamie looked up to see how this sales pitch was going, and frowned some more.
“And if I help you with schoolwork,” he continued in a small, reluctant voice, “it would be great if you could help me with . . . self-defense.”

“You want to learn how to use knives?” Nick asked. He might have dwelled on the word “knives” an instant too long.

Jamie flinched. “Absolutely,” he said. “Instruments of brutal death? I’m very keen.”

Or right at the end of the second book, when Nick gives Jamie a knife:

“A knife, Nick?” he asked piteously. “I feel so betrayed.”

“It’s a magic knife,” Nick said. “I made it myself.”

“I don’t want to seem ungrateful when you have given me this thoughtful, homemade, and totally terrifying gift,” Jamie told him. “But you can’t imagine that I’m going to use it.”

So in the third book, when we very seldom see Jamie, and when we do he is mostly putting on an act, well, it’s a loss, that’s all.

The third book, THE DEMON’S SURRENDER, is from Sin’s point of view, of course. (Cynthia’s her given name, for those who haven’t read it.) At first I found that disappointing because I’d expected to have Brennen show us Jamie’s pov, but Sin is actually a really good protagonist. I loved the way she developed as a character, and – this isn’t really giving much away – I REALLY loved the way it worked out between her and Alan. Because Alan is pretty amazing, though I know I’ve barely mentioned him, and I get why it didn’t work between him and Mae, but he really needed and deserved to have things work between himself and somebody, and Sin will really suit him. She is pretty darned good with masks and roles and presenting herself the way she wants people to see her, and that does make her just about perfect for Alan.

But, having said that, you know what else I really appreciated about this whole trilogy? That the most important relationships are not the romantic relationships; that they are sibling relationships instead; and that the parent-child relationships are also really important, although they get relatively little time on screen. The most profoundly touching scene in the whole third book, for me, was the one when Sin showed up on her father’s doorstep with her little brother and sister. And in the second book? The bit where Mae rescues Jamie from embarrassing himself at the club? That was great, too.

So, the things I had trouble with – Jamie’s act when he was with the magicians, which I thought was too transparent; the thing about how he got himself free, which I didn’t really believe; the way he was willing to forgive all the magicians, which I thought was a stretch for some of them in particular – yes, those were things I had trouble with, but since Sin was the main character and Jamie was by no means the focus of the story, I did very much enjoy the third book.

I do agree with some commenters that making Sin the protagonist and keeping the pov limited did force Brennen to go to some trouble getting Sin into places where she could overhear important conversations, and this strained credulity, but thus it goes with a limited pov! Yes, it was awkward, but it’s hard to see how Brennen could have done it better.

Overall a really strong trilogy, and now I have yet another author to keep an eye out for.

Also! The short stories here , well, I could have done without the ones from Gerald’s pov — honestly, don’t care — but I LOVED “Nick and Jamie Go To The Movies” — so if you haven’t read that one, why not go check it out? And thanks again, Mary Beth, for the link!

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Cover Art Faves

So yesterday I happened to see this post at Into The Hall of Books. It’s always so interesting to see what covers other people pick as their favorites — especially when you can’t imagine what they see in a particular book cover!

THE NIGHT CIRCUS cover doesn’t do it for me at all. Nor does that edition of THE HOBBIT. Nothing cartoonish is likely to appeal to me, though sometimes I like stylized. For me, the only one of those five that stand out is the RAILSEA cover; I like that one. Evocative and interesting and not at all generic. I like the one for GRAVE MERCY, but to me that one is fairly generic: Girl With Weapon. But I like the swirly dress.

So naturally I went down and looked at covers in my library. Naturally picking just five is really really really impossible, but if you think about covers in categories, it’s a little easier. Or at least it is for me.

My favorite for YA Girls is this one:

I like the way the girl is standing with her back to the reader; I like the blasted landscape; I like the city rising up in the distance. For YA covers with girls, I think this one is really outstanding — evocative and artistic and it would make me want to read this book even if it wasn’t by Dan Wells. Though since it is, I’d have bought it no matter what the cover looked like.

I must admit that if I was picking a Beautiful Girl cover, I might very well go for HOUSE OF SHADOWS, but I don’t necessarily want to pick one of my own covers. And besides, I am resisting the urge to do Beautiful Woman / Beefcake Guy categories. Instead —

For Dragons, I pick this one:

To me, this dragon looks ambiguous. Is he menacing the woman? To me, he looks like he might be protecting her. The stance of the man in the background contributes to the effect, because he’s not racing forward — he’s standing back and looking down at the scene. Of course if you’ve read the book, you know how suitable this ambiguity really is. I really love this cover!

For Creepiest, this is my pick:

I’ve come near buying this one just for its cover, but in fact I haven’t got it and haven’t read it. Anybody else read this one yet? Because if it’s good, I’ll pick it up in a heartbeat!

For Most Beautiful, I’m tempted to declare that THE FLOATING ISLANDS beats them all! But still resisting the urge to name my own books, I pick this one:

For Cleverest Concept, I pick a mystery I have on my TBR pile but haven’t read yet:

For Best CJ Cherryh cover, it’s a tough choice, because she’s had some GREAT artists do a lot of her covers. But I just love this one:

And for Best SF Cover Ever, it’s a REALLY tough choice, but . . . um . . . if you twist my arm and MAKE me pick one, I might go for:

Cover art is important to me! I have some books on my shelves that I’d discard except that I really love the cover. What are some of your favorite covers? If you’ve ever bought a book just because you loved the cover, what was it? It counts if you bought a new edition of a book because you liked the new cover better than the old! (I confess I’ve done that!)

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Recent reading

So, yeah, kinda decided to take a week off and read books instead of write ’em. I think this weekend, when I’ll be home and not traveling, will be a great time to do the final revision of my WIP. I can just start at the top and go straight through fast and I think that will be a good thing. Plus, it means I have an excuse to stop for a week! And read books! By other people!

So I re-read TROUBLED WATERS by Shinn because I wanted a nice comfortable book. Yep, I still love that book!

Then I finally (FINALLY) read a book by Sarah Rees Brennen, whom I know some of you really love, so her book THE DEMON’S LEXICON had been filtering up toward the top of the TBR pile for a while.

I really enjoyed it! I’m sure that’s not a surprise. Have you all read it? I loved the first paragraph:

“The pipe under the sink was leaking again. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that Nick kept his favorite sword under the sink.”

Okay, I’m hooked — that’s a great couple of sentences. This is excellent book to think about “starting with action,” in a good way. Also, the dialogue is so snappy and clever. I really admire a writer with a gift for dialogue.

I loved the protagonist. Nick is so interesting! He is an emotional cripple, and of course with his personal history you can see why. Or you think you can. And then you turn out to be wrong. Did anybody see that coming, the thing about Nick? I admit I did not, although Brennen certainly plays fair and you can see she dropped plenty of clues. I hope my saying this is not going to spoil the surprise for anybody who hasn’t read this book. I am trying not to give the important twist at the end away.

I loved all four main characters — I loved Mae and Jamie, I loved Alan and Nick. I really enjoyed have the older and younger brothers both take on the role of protector, in different ways and for different reasons. What a tough job Alan’s had all these years! But then, what a tough job Nick’s had all these years, too. I really feel for them both. Brennen did such clever things with relationships all the way through this book. All the relationships not only feel real, they are genuinely touching. I really appreciated the ending.

Particularly because I also just read a short story collection by Ted Chiang called STORIES OF YOUR LIFE, and frankly a story with an ending like “Hell is the Absence of God” should come with a warning label. (The stories are all very good, though — I would read more short stories if they were all as good as this. Unless they often had endings like “Hell is the Absence of God.” Then, not so much.

Anyway, back to Brennen! I’ve got the second book on my TBR pile and I plan to start it tonight. I just ordered the third one, so I expect it to arrive Friday — just in time for me to read it before starting the final (well, final for now) revision of my own book.

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Non-fairy-tale retellings —

A post by Leah Cypess here. Cypess wrote MISTWOOD, which I’ve sort of meant to pick up because I’ve heard good things about it, but I must admit I haven’t read it yet. (Has anybody else? I’d be interested in your opinions.)

I definitely enjoy retellings, fairy tale or otherwise, and in fact I’m pretty likely to go read the original classic in order to properly enjoy a retold tale. Here’s one Leah didn’t mention, probably because it’s not new:

Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn is a Jane Eyre retelling. It’s very good! Amazingly true to the original, while being quite different in its details. I will never love Jane Eyre the way Shinn does, but I read it for the first time solely because I was going to read Jenna Starborn. Obviously I am a better person for reading the classics, so Shinn did me a favor by (finally!) making me read Jane Eyre.

Of the ones Leah Cypess mentions . . . I’m not sure I’m up for another Eyre interpretation, but wouldn’t the dystopian Persuasion be interesting?

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No actual writing type of work got done this weekend. But it wasn’t my fault! I was tired!

It was a show weekend — the second of, let’s see, eight this fall, I think. Last year I wasn’t showing, but this year I am. The points are good, there are many more majors available, and I would love to finish championships on some of my girls quick before the points are recalculated next May. My friend Deb is entering some of the same shows so we can boost the entry numbers and help each other at ringside. We each showed three girls at the previous show — it was MAD and we will never show that many again without lining up [A LOT] more help. In advance. There are all these exciting moments where you suddenly need to take three dogs in to compete for winners and you’re grabbing just anybody from ringside and handing them a leash and an armband and saying “Just keep her pointed in the right direction! Try to get her to look happy! You need to be second in the line! Run!”

And then off the bewildered dog goes, spinning in circles to keep her real owner in sight, wondering who this total stranger is who’s trying to feed her liver. This does not make a dog look her best! So, a little too exciting.

In general no one wants to hear the point system explained, so I won’t explain it, but! Kenya won her first major this past Saturday! Yay! Hurrah! Go Kenya! There were ten girls entered and all but one were quite nice and several were VERY nice and my Kenya won! (Someone else won on Sunday.)

This is Kenya’s first win photo; I haven’t got her current win photo yet but this one from last year will give you an idea:

This picture was at a small show and she only got one point. Saturday’s win was much more important! She is now for all intents and purposes halfway to her championship! Because you can pick up single points anywhere, but majors are not easy to come by.

Anyway, it’s not just a matter of showing up in time for your class. Even after bathing the girls on Friday, all morning Saturday AND Sunday was taken up by touching up feet and ears and tails and flattening coats and trying this volumizing cream on Kenya’s ears and that perfumed oil on Adora’s back (yes, really, it makes the ruby’s coat shiny, a very nice effect, not artificial looking at all). So what with one thing and another, I just didn’t even turn on the computer. But I felt bad about it!

Well, sort of bad about it. Actually, I was listening to SNUFF by Terry Pratchett while driving, and I must admit that this led me to re-read bits of NIGHT WATCH when I got home, and I was not very inclined to work on anything. And I really was too tired anyway.

I’m going to join Audible this week and download a lot of Pratchett’s books for the rest of the show season driving. Starting with the rest of the Sam Vimes ones. Almost makes me look forward to those long drives! There are lots I’ve never read because I’ve honestly been saving them for this exact purpose, and now with Audible I don’t think it will be too expensive.

So, anyway, the only part of the revision left is the hard part. I mean deciding whether there needs to be a touch more romance (yes) and putting it in; and deepening the character arcs and all that sort of thing. So you see why I am not keen on doing it while in a partial coma. I would LIKE to put it off till this weekend, when I will actually be home because I’m not showing this weekend, and I can do one marathon session and get done with it. But I may tackle it tonight if I feel too guilty to take a whole week off.

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A good idea whose time has come . . . and gone

I’m leaning toward declaring my support for this idea — the idea that it would be better if physical bookstores didn’t have subsections for different fiction genres, but just shelved all fiction alphabetically by author.

It won’t happen, of course, but what if it did? Sure, you’d spend more time browsing past romances / horror / literary fiction / and more romances while you looked for the fantasy novel you want, but

a) time browsing in a bookstore is certainly not wasted;

b) discovering that stuff outside your genre sometimes looks appealing might well broaden everybody’s reading experience;

c) it would sure discourage treating literary fiction as a special elevated category of fiction.

All three of those effects look like features rather than bugs to me.

On the other hand, how long are physical bookstores going to be important, anyway? And would anybody at all find it helpful or pleasant to “browse” online? I don’t see how. I even think the categories at Amazon are almost 100% useless — DOES anybody ever just browse through the no doubt infinite offerings under “fantasy books”? Surely not. Surely everyone searches strictly by author?

“Browsing” for me means looking through the SFBC mailing to see what’s out and reading blogs to see what’s good, and that sure limits my view of what’s out there. The only things that generally expand my horizons as a reader is getting sold on a book outside my normal range by a fantastic review on a book review blog, or getting hooked by a well-written hook on the SFBC mailing.

Of course, I can’t really browse in a physical store because the nearest said store is an 80 mile trip, one way. I do miss browsing sometimes! One of the very few disadvantages to living in the country.

How and where do you all browse? Or notice books usually outside your range?

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