Stardust [Reading Challenge 2017]

Neil Gaiman Stardust


by Neil Gaiman
HarperCollins; Reprint edition

[Challenge # 1: Coming to theater near you]

I had never read Neil Gaiman before, so I was pleasantly surprised by his “Fairy tale for Grown-ups” Stardust. (A movie was made of it in 2007 starring Clare Danes and Charlie Cox, but I haven’t seen it, so can’t compare.) It was not a long book, nor a quest one in the Tolkien mode, or an urban fantasy. The closest analog I can find to describe it would be Lord Dunsany crossed with hedge fantasy, that typically English genre where fairies and hobgoblins lurk yet in country villages or secret worlds in wardrobes. The basic plot did remind me, in fact, of Clive Barker’s Imagica — a sensual (read: there’s sex) parallel world with its own fantastic characters based on English tropes, and the hero who enters it — but without being detailed to death, or having Barker’s sense of claustrophobia.

Tristran — I kept reading it as Tristan — Thorn, the young hero, lives in one of those quaint villages that just happens to have a gate connecting it to the realms of Faerie. This isn’t made a big deal of in the story, just accepted by the inhabitants in a low-key, matter-of-fact way. Guards are posted at the gate to ensure no one enters, for their own safety. But once a year, Faerie denizens come to the meadow that is just beyond the gate, and a big fair takes place for them and the Victorian-era villagers alike. During one of these Tristan is conceived on a Faerie mother and left on his father’s doorstep after he is born. Again, not a lot of fuss is made about this. When he becomes a young man, he sees a shooting star fall beyond the Faerie gate and promises to retrieve it for the young woman he has a crush on, and thus starts the story. The star turns out to be a girl who was knocked out of the sky by a talisman thrown by a dying lord whose dastardly sons are out to retrieve it. At the same time, a witch is out to also capture the star for her youth-giving blood. Complications ensue between these four parties, their friends, and their enemies.

All this sounds chaotic, but it really wasn’t, again presented in a low-key, turn of the century way by an omniscient narrator who is calm and in control. The book read more epic and longer than it actually was, in a good way, which was refreshing to me. It kept my attention and I looked forward to the time I could read it, something that does not always happen with my recreational reading. The story did not have the rising-action-big climax-tiny denouement structure of a typical fantasy novel, which again was refreshing, and different. There were, in fact, several endings: the escape of the couple from Faerie, the revelation of the Tristran’s true heritage, his discovery that his crush was not who he thought she was and had a life of her own; and at least three more. These soft endings were refreshing after the big Hollywood climaxes of modern SF/fantasy, where it’s often heroes vs. bad guys in a titanic battle that goes on freaking forever, at the end of which the good guys escape by the slimmest of margins. Think of the climactic escape from the movie Chicken Run and you will understand what I mean, where the freedom of the heroes hinges on a string of Christmas tree lights and a blunt-nosed child’s pair of scissors. (This is amusingly spoofed in the slow-mo escape sequence at the end of the animated French movie The Triplets of Belleville, where it’s apparent the old ladies have the upper hand.)

I don’t think Gaiman is the quite the master of  prose a lot of readers think he is, but his language fits the story, it’s succinct yet robust, and though he often approaches twee territory, he never really goes there. On the whole, an enjoyable read, and I would recommend it.


Reading Challenge 2017

Inspired by the fine folks at the Writers Water Cooler forums, I have taken on a reading challenge for this year, my first ever. As a writer, I tend to not read a lot of fiction when I’m working, but of course as writers we must read, just to see how other writers do things, and keep up with what’s current. And it’s enjoyable, a joy I admit I’ve forgotten.

So here is my list, 12 topics chosen from a suggested list of 40, with each book I have chosen.


  1. Coming to a theater near you: A book made into a major motion picture. (Stardust by Neil Gaimon)
  2. East meets West: A book taking place in Asia (anywhere in Asia; Turkey to Japan, Siberia to Indonesia) (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See) 
  3. What you read: A book you loved as a child. (The Jungle Books by Rudyard Kipling)
  4. Loose ends: A book you started last year and haven’t yet finished. (Cinder by Marissa Meyer)
  5. No hablo: A translation. (The King of the Fields, Isaac Bashevis Singer)
  6. Out of the park on first at bat: A debut. (Faeries of Dreamdark: Blackbringer, by Laini Taylor) 
  7. Huh, I never knew that: A book in a new-to-you genre. (The Aviary Gate, by Katie Hickman. It’s Historical Romance.)
  8. Rainbow warrior: A book with a color in the title. (Yellowtail, Crow Medicine Man and Sun Dance Chief, an Autobiography told to Michael Oren Fitzgerald)
  9. Who was that, again?: A book about a person you know little about. (The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire, by Jack Weatherford)
  10. God’s mansion has many rooms: A book based in a religion not your own. (Harm, by Brian W. Aldiss)
  11. Ye olde booke shoppe: A book written before 1700. (Gilgamesh.)
  12. Three-color mythology: A graphic novel or comic book. (Tiger Lung, by Roy Simon) 




Twilight’s Two Apples

On October 6th Little, Brown Books released the 10th Anniversary edition of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, which included a special bonus: the novel rewritten and gender-reversed, with Edward now Edyth, and Bella now Beau. The bonus was born of the author’s desire to show the story as truly universal and that the gender of the protagonists did not matter, in response to crticism of the original narrator’s tendency to be a moon-eyed damsel in distress.

I have not read either one, Twilight being in fact on my to-read list; but let’s examine the covers the Little, Brown chose for each one and see what they code.

twilight cover and life and death cover, by stephenie meyer

Red apple, green apple; on the surface both are pretty sweet (sorry for the pun) and a great example of series branding.In the first one, note that the female offers the apple, symbolic of temptation and loss of innocence, somewhat tentatively. The use of both hands cupping it implies it weighs heavily on her, that it requires more than the usual effort to hold.  Alternatively, she might be cupping it to protect it, like it’s her virginity. We can’t see the rest of her body, but she is holding it with arms lowered at the level of where her genitals might be. For someone to take it, the recipient must come close and bend low — an intimate position.

The male hand, in contrast, boldly holds the apple as if he were freely offering it to someone. There is almost a dare in it. He holds it away from his body. If it was given to him and he accepted it, he might be holding it at arm’s length, weighing and appraising. He might pitch it away in a second, or  take a bite. He might also be boasting of his possession of it. In any case, his ownership, offer, or acceptance are all active and decisive.

The typeface of Twilight is curving, slightly baroque, while the typeface used for Life and Death — a far more florid and ambitious title — is more modern and techno. The red apple implies sweetness and juiciness; the green, tartness and zest.

Not too hard to guess that the stories inside do indeed differ according to gender’s protagonist, and how, right?

Erotica vs. Romance: The Covers

The romance covers post got me thinking. How do plain old erotica book covers stack up to the waxed and buff male torso that signifies a hot read? Let’s see. I’m going to start with A. N. Roquelaure’s Sleeping Beauty Trilogy, which is the porniest mainstream book I know, chockablock with kink, and one that would be stocked widely.

These are the versions I have. Subtle, but you have to wonder what the hell is going on in those pics. They have a coloring book feel, as if repeatedly xeroxed artwork has been filled in with colored pencils. I know that sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t. They’re subtle and suggestive, the blurriness implying naughty stuff is going on in the parts of the picture we can’t see, and the naughtiness has a classic, old-fashioned feel, fairy-tale feel, as the actual novels do. They create a mood, in short, and subtly inform the reader what to expect.

the claiming of sleeping beauty trilogy, by anne rice

A similar principal is at work here, though the sleeping woman is older and more worldly looking than Beauty as presented in the books. She is flushed, suggesting she is having an erotic dream. The nightdress looks Victorian, but has fallen, exposing her breasts. This suggests she will be losing her repressions in the book. She is not model-perfect or “sexy” by today’s porn standards — think blow-up doll — or movie-star sensual (think Monica Bellucci in her heyday) but still it is a sensual picture.

Here, a single flower represents the main character’s… pureness? Virginity? It has a Georgia O’Keefe feel, but without the genitalia suggestions. It’s elegant, but the book might be about wedding planning as far as we know. I would guess this version was released recently, when it is more commonly known Anne Rice wrote explicit erotica that it is available in major bookstores for everyone to read. As such, neither the book nor she need much help from a cover to inform readers what the book is and what it does.

the claiming of sleeping beauty erotica book
These editions (the combined erotica trilogy is on the right) forestall puritan criticism by being simply text. but notice also the similarity to the Andrew Lang fairy tale book at the bottom, published by Dover Publications. Every book in the Lang series had the name of color in the title and all got this treatment. The books are copyright free now so perhaps there will be other versions from different publishers.

the claiming of sleeping beauty by anne rice


I’ll be continuing this series later.

Outlander Coloring Book

Combining two red-hot publishing trends of the moment, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series has been adapted into an adult coloring book. Which tickles my funnybone to no end because of its marketing savvy.

Outlander coloring book
Outlander coloring book

Adult users of coloring books are referred to as colorists, according to Dover Publications, which has been publishing wonderful, high-quality coloring books for decades now. There are also tons and tons of individual coloring pages available throughout the net; a simple search will net you hours of coloring frenzy. The published books, however, have the advantage of being printed on thicker, toothier paper than what the average computer user feeds into their laser printer. Thick paper is essential if you want to get into using wet media or pastels. If you then want to display your masterpiece, you can excise the page with a single-edge razor blade.

On the other hand, coloring pages have the advantage of being able to be imported into Photoshop or other illustration programs. Using layers, they can be colored with fills, patterns, brushes, and other effects. Useful if you don’t like the mess of a bunch of crayons or watercolors everywhere.

Adult — as in erotic — coloring books are tougher to come by (sorry for the pun.) Here’s one I found on Amazon: The Adult Coloring Book Paperback, by Dan Ginsberg. The sample pic given is sort of tame, but perhaps the more explicit ones could not be shown.

Erotic coloring bookIs anyone else reminded of The Beatles’Yellow Submarine? That the Blue Meanies might come crashing through that picture window any second?

For Ipad users, there are dozens of coloring apps available, most of them designed to keep children entertained, but I have used them happily during lulls in  conversation at the dinner table when the nieces are otherwise occupied.  I prefer variation in the sizes of areas to color. I don’t like the Zentangle like illustrations with a million spaces to fill in. Too OCD.

Want to zen out and get your color on? The Coloring Books for Adults website can tell you everything you need to know.


The Anti-Romance Sneer

Again I am a little late on the bandwagon here, but this article by Justin Moyer of the Washington Post exemplifies an attitude common to genre Romance readers and writers in the mainstream. The Sneer.

I am neither a writer or reader of the genre — at least at this point in time — but it does steam me that the tone is, offhandedly, dismissive of women, of which I am one, and the emotional needs and sexual fantasies of some, though not all, women.

What causes the sneer?

Well, the stereotype. I really doubt the sneerers have read enough of the current crop to realize the diversity, breadth, and robustness of the Romance market today. (I think of it as a dancing multi-armed Indian fertility deity.) In fact, I doubt they’re read more than one or two of the books, period. So where does the contempt, and often the contempt of women, come from? I believe it’s the visual representation, what’s on the covers of the books on display in the bookstore, the trade show, the author websites. It’s the more florid representations, specifically, the ones that shout the loudest and overwhelm the rest. You know the kind I mean.

Readers and publishers from mainstream to indie might say these covers sell (even though they may be in no way representative of what’s going on in the book, save there’s a man, and a woman, and there’s passion between them). But do they sell because it’s what readers expect, even if said reader doesn’t like them or is insulted by them? I’d certainly be insulted by them (not the least by their artistic merit) because they imply that a publisher thinks so little of a book, or an entire genre, that it slaps a cookie-cutter illustration on it that might fit on at least fifty or more other books as part of a mass production line. It is in fact contemptuous of the reader, to think they don’t deserve something more intelligent and sophisticated.

For example, here are Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series books, which are shelved alongside the “general best selling authors” in most grab-and-go book sections, like you’d see in a Rite-Aid or an airport concourse newstand.

Diana Gabalan romance novel cover

Classy, no? Name recognition, a discrete Celtic design element, and title. You’d have to read the blurb to tell it’s a meaty, historic time-traveling romance with fantastic elements.

Here’s John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.”

the fault in our stars, a YA romance

Again you have to read the blurb to see what the story is about, assuming you haven’t heard the hype. Design is young and lively in feel, but not too teenish. An adult could buy it, carry it around without feeling awkward.

Some books by Stephanie Perkins, a female YA writer, in case one would think John Green has more respectability in the genre because he is male. all of which are boy-girl romances:

Stephanie Perkins books, all romances

Aside from the choice of title, they don’t exactly scream ROMANCE! either. The Isla book looks like it’s about a girl’s adventures in NYC, for example. Actually, all of them imply adventures in glamorous locations in addition to the romance.

Now here’s a Highland romance I picked at random:

waxed buff male body on highland romance cover

This book makes no bones about what it is, by its title, the florid typeface of the title, and the uncanny waxed perfection of the male model. It’s published by Macmillan as part of their mass market romance line. Being a large publisher, I would say they had total say over the packaging. The book (I haven’t read it, so am neither criticizing the author or the story) and by extension the series, might be aslucrative and intriguing as Outlander, but the general public, or a TV producer, is not gonna pick it up to find out because it just screams all the cliches of the genre. This kind of  is what people sneer at when you mention “romance.” If I could give it a name, I’d call it, “The Torso.” What they used to call Beefcake in the 1960s, and Fabio in the 1980s.

I know this is only one type of cover the big publishers favor. Other houses — the Harlequin Silhouettes, for example, have their own standards. But all are clear about what they depict and what the reader can expect. Which is good for both publishers and readers — the former make money, the latter are telegraphed visually with what kind of story they’re getting. But it also means a lack of crossover.

Batman Knows What You’re Doing


A Ponygirl Project

I’m currently doing rewrites/edits on some earlier stuff of mine from way back that I intend to publish in a volume of ponygirl stories. There will be one or two new ones included. One is promising to be Romantic Erotica, the incestuous cousin, I suppose, of Erotic Romance, and I am quite tickled at the thought of writing it because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ponygirl story treated that way. Or a ponygirl element in any romantic tale, anyway.

Here’s a short snippet of what will be the mildest story in the collection, which is pony more by association (it has to do with shenanigans on a carousel) than character.


She put one foot into the cold stirrup of the saddle and hoisted herself onto the horse’s back. The quilts helped deter the cold. As a child, this horse had seemed huge to her. Now she knew it was nowhere near the size of an actual stallion, even though it was large enough still to accommodate an adult…or two.

She sat in saddle but faced backwards, resting her back against the pole.


She nodded as he came back with the harness. It was something he had crafted just for this. He buckled one long piece of leather around her waist, then down and around to secure her to the horse’s barrel, then crossed a second one over her breasts to secure her to the pole. “Sorry for the kink, darlin’. But we don’t want you falling off now, do we?”

“Oh no, of course not.” Another strip secured her wrists at the small of her back. She was helpless. The feeling was delicious.

He kissed her, his mouth was the promise of pleasure to come. He kissed her breasts. She felt her flesh suffuse with sensation like ripples on a pond. Then, a blindfold, a length of dark silk that knotted easily behind her head.

“Don’t be long,” she whispered.

“I don’t intend to.”

Genres and Plagiarism

There’s been a kerfluffle in the indie publishing world lately regarding one Laura Harner, whose extensive self-published catalog of erotic romance books includes plagiarized — and not very well disguised — versions of works from a mainstream romance author. Becky McGraw. To makes things more juicy, the books in question were changed from M/F romances to M/M ones. You can read about it in detail in Jenny Trout’s exhaustive posts here, and here.

This is wrong, and stupid. The publishers backing McGraw are big names. They have big money and the means to sue. And after developing a lucrative online market for herself, Harner has just torpedoed it big time with this mistake, and don’t think Amazon and Barnes and Noble will not hear of it. Don’t piss off your distributors folks!

On a moral level, it is heinous, of course. The same sort of thing has been going in fanfic circles, one writer stealing another’s work, and claiming it as their own. Since many romance writers have started out writing fanfic, I hate to say that it seems a learned behavior that can be enacted without consequences.

It’s all courtesy of the digital age where it’s extremely easy to search, replace, cut, and paste. Granted, it may have happened in pre-word processor days, but since it was a lot more time-consuming to type out a copy back then, such cases must have fewer.

I hate to say it, also, but the Romance genre is particularly ripe for this sort of plagiarism. It’s a huge market, with lots of books, lots of writers, lots of interchangable plots and characters, and lots of subgenres that come in and out of fashion, each flooded with its own tropes and character types. (This isn’t a criticism; it just is.) The Men’s Adventure genre was once just as huge as Romance is today, and through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s had a similar reliance on a limited set of tropes. If it had remained just as huge today, I’ve no doubt it would have plagiarizers at work for a quick buck.

This brings up some other questions. Would male readers and writers care as much? Would the code of conduct be different? Would the charges be taken more seriously, since it’s a male dominated genre and more worthy of “respect”?

Things to think about, certainly.


The Tale of Lassok and Zairbhreena available on Amazon

The Tale of Lassok and Zairbhreena, by Cobalt Jade

The Tale of Lassok and Zairbhreena is available now! You can find it on exclusively for three months. (And if you have Kindle Unlimited, it is free.)

I still need to tweak the formatting a little, but it’s enjoyable just  the way it is now.

What is it about? A tale of love and betrayal in the Arabian Nights vein, speckled with sex, sorcery, and adventure. Prince Lassok claims a bride in the luscious Princess Zairbhreena, but Lassok’s ex-lover Jaseloris has other plans. Drawing a magic wand, she turns her rival into STONE:


As the princess stood gazing in the mirror Jaseloris reached for a slim casket she kept hidden in a pocket of her robe. Her father had given it to her years ago, realizing the dangers that could befall his daughter while she bartered valuable gems alone in the bazaar. He had bought it at great expense from a sorceress and told Jaseloris she should only use it in the severest danger.

Jaseloris flipped open the casket. Inside was a rod of chrysoprase. She took it firmly in her right hand and pointed it at the princess, muttering the words her father had taught her.

A gout of crackling energy poured from the tip of the wand, jerking Jaseloris backwards. It struck the princess in a blinding flash of light and heat. The princess’s cries were strangled as the energy enveloped her, batting her about like a fly in a bottle. Her legs and arms flailed wildly as her clothing burned off and even her hair began to smolder. Yet her flesh was not consumed, though it took on a pale yellow hue.
She began to spin. Around and around she went, like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. Her nude body went straight as a pin: her arms compressed against her sides and her slim legs pressed tightly together, toes pointed down. Her head and chin lifted so she stared directly in front of her, incredulous fear in her eyes.

She spun faster and faster. Her features were a blur, her figure a spindle. Yet even with the speed of her rotation Jaseloris saw her soft white flesh take on the hard glaze of stone.

There came a second flash of light even more blinding than the first. Jaseloris let out a shrill scream of terror and shielded her eyes. And opened them to see the nude, petrified body of the princess fall with a heavy thump on the soft, bundled carpets below her.

Adventure ensues as the prince tries to track her down and restore her. There’s romance, intrigue, sex, sandstorms, dragons, gorgons, and efreet! Will Prince Lassok find his beloved? Can he transform her back?

I’ve long held a fascination with the idea of people being turned into stone, and this story, inspired partly by the wonderful fantasy fiction of Tanith Lee, explores the idea of just what might happen to that still-conscious but essentially helpless and immobile person.