Thursday, May 16, 2019

Everything's a learning experience

One thing the First Reader and I have in common is that, as introverted readers from childhood, each of us has a large vocabulary of words that we know from reading but have never heard or used in conversation. This leads to frequent exchanges like:
"Have you ever heard of X-x-x?"
"Oh, is that how you pronounce it? I always thought it was x-X-x."
"Well... it's how I pronounce it; I haven't a clue what is correct."
Of recent years, it's likely that at least one of us will have a smartphone within reach and we'll figure out the approved pronunciation on the spot. But there's no telling how many Debatable Words remain.
I hadn't expected that knee-surgery-complicated-by-pneumonia would affect this phenomenon, but it's become one of the less boring side effects of the whole thing. For about ten days I felt like a limp dishrag, too tired even to hold a book or a Kindle, and for the first time in my life I've been listening to audiobooks. When in normal health I find them too slow, but for the last week and a half "slow" has matched my comprehension perfectly.
Naturally, I haven't been taking notes and can't tell you which words I've heard out loud for the first time ever. The only ones I remember are the mysteries.
When I read Jane Austen, I see "shew" and hear "show," assuming that spelling but not pronunciation has changed. But whoever read my audiobook of Persuasion consistently read it as "sh-you". Which jarred, but may be correct; I'm too tired to do the research now.
The other surprise came while I was listening to Connie Willis' Blackout. Her characters, stumbling around in the Blitz, frequently encountered "arp wardens" and every time that jarred too. Without thinking about it, I'd always mentally heard "ARP" in this context as "Ay-ar-pee," spelling out the letters instead of pronouncing them as an acronym. Now I wonder which pronunciation the contemps used. That should be discoverable if I dig out enough contemporary radio broadcasts, but I'm not going to do it today. A native speaker of English-English rather than America-English might know; Ashley, if you read this, what's your pronunciation of ARP?

Monday, April 29, 2019

Promises, promises

Knee surgery is so much easier now than it was 20 years ago, they said.
Think how much you'll enjoy being able to take a walk in the park, they said.
You'll be so much happier and healthier afterward, they said.

Yeah, well, maybe. Eventually. I wanted to believe all that, and I don't think I did enough research before plunging into this project. I certainly hadn't counted on living at my daughter's house for two and a half weeks after surgery! As for pain... I really don't like pain.

Let's just say it hasn't exactly been a walk in the park.

However. As of today I'm back in my own house, with a laptop and Internet access, and maybe in a couple of days I'll get back to regular posting. (Along with paying for the final cover of Salt Magic, entering all the edits on Language of the Dragon so that I'll be ready to shove that book through formatting and KDP when Cedar finalizes that cover, doing a sort-of-last edit on A Child of Magic so that I can inflict it on beta readers... things pile up when you lose a couple of weeks, don't they?)

Now that pain pills are no longer fogging my brain, I hope that I'll be able to get back to plotting Tangled Magic, which is languishing as a collection of disconnected notes made just before surgery. I miss writing. I want to get back to work.

For today, though, I think I'm going to be a wimp, lie down and listen to an audiobook. The new knee is complaining loudly about what I've put it through already, and I don't seem to be very good at concentrating through pain. Yeah. Total wimp. Definitely flunking Stoicism 101. And I don't even want to think about the prospect of going through this all over again with the other knee!

Monday, April 8, 2019


The first knee surgery is scheduled for tomorrow morning, after which I'll be at the hospital for a couple of days. Once I get sprung, I expect to be stuck in the one part of our house which has a bedroom and a bathroom at the same level, at least until I can manage stairs again -- no idea how long that's going to take, but I hope it won't be more than another couple of days. The thing is that this part of the house is the part where Internet access is patchy at best and mostly nonexistent.

Given my relaxed "schedule" of blog postings, this gap should hardly be noticeable. But if anybody wonders why I'm not responding to comments or emails this week, now you know.

Sunday, April 7, 2019


Not that it's of great importance or immediate relevance, but the First Reader is out and the kids could care less, and I have to gloat to somebody. I've just typed the last words of the seventh book in the Applied Topology series - the one I thought I wasn't going to write, but Thalia ambushed me. And as usual, I'm inordinately pleased. Not to mention being grateful to Real Life, for letting me finish it thirty-six hours before I have to present myself to the hospital for the first knee surgery. I figure I can lounge in bed or on a couch and edit the thing, even in the hospital and then at home, but I'm not so sure about placing a laptop on my knees or concentrating well enough to write new words in that first week.

For chronological reasons this book will have to be published after the first two books in the upcoming Dragon Speech series, because the first one has to take place less than a year after A Revolution of Rubies. Furthermore, Thalia makes cameo appearances in both Dragon Speech books; in the first one she's pregnant, in the second she's nursing a newborn, and in this book the baby is 10 months and she is just, with some reluctance, agreeing to go back to work part-time. I could edit the cameo appearances, but I don't see any way around the Revolution of Rubies connection. Ah, the joys of writing two series in the same universe! And when I think that I did this to myself... oh, well. It does not materially diminish the joy of completing this one.

The working title, which I rather like, is A Child of Magic. As always, reactions and suggestions are always welcome, but bear in mind that I'd like to keep to the format of the first six Applied Topology books: A [NOUN] of [NOUN].

Thursday, April 4, 2019

It's not #MeToo, it's just plain creepy.

I’ve been watching in stunned disbelief as a parade of women accuse Joe Biden of embarrassing them with inappropriate touching… and a parade of opinion writers, many of them conservative, rush to assure us that there is nothing to see here, nothing at all.

A popular line of argument is, “We didn’t believe Kavanaugh’s accuser because she had no evidence, therefore we should not believe Lucy Flores (or the other six-and-still-counting women who have complained.)” Huh? If there’d been a string of publicly available videos showing Kavanaugh throwing girls onto beds and jumping on them, you bet your sweet patootie we’d have believed his accuser. In Biden’s case there is just such a string of videos showing him behaving precisely as Lucy Flores describes, except in most cases his victims are not grown women but young girls. (More on that later.) Why wouldn’t I believe that at an event which wasn’t videotaped he behaved exactly as badly as he did when the cameras were on him?

Cue the defenders.

He didn’t actually rape anyone, so what’s the big deal?
Tucker Carlson: “Hugging is not sexual assault. Eskimo kisses are not rape. That used to be obvious. It's not obvious anymore. And so we are sorry for helping to blur the distinction between human affection and coercive immoral behavior.”
Excuse me? Nobody has accused Biden of rape. They’ve accused him of behaving inappropriately, in a way that caused them discomfort, and – this is important, y’all – in a public setting where they were part of the display. Where they felt inhibited against pulling away, telling him to back off, slapping his face, or whatever else women are supposed to do when a man puts his hands where they are not wanted. Being grabby isn’t rape. But it’s also not okay. And when you choose to do it where the woman concerned feels that to object might be a breech of decorum that would harm the political party you both belong to, it actually is “coercive immoral behavior,” Tucker.

He's just a victim of changing standards.
Andrea Peyser: “Weird Joe, who’s been showing keen affection to members of the fairer sex since before he became a big Democratic macher, has done the unforgivable in this humorless age. He’s shown genuine human warmth of the male variety to females in the scary era of #MeToo…. Once, a man who gave a lady a friendly pat, a shoulder rub or an encouraging peck on the noggin was either thanked profusely, ignored or simply asked to stop.
Women, it was presumed, weren’t so powerless as to be unable to avoid unasked-for contact.”
What world did you grow up in, Andrea? Yes, women are usually able to avoid unasked-for contact, though it helps if they are (a) grown women and not young girls, and (b) not standing in front of cameras at a public event meant to honor their fathers. But why should they have to fight off such contact from men who ought to know better?
When I was growing up, in the fifties and sixties, I attended plenty of adult gatherings, most of them male-dominated; that was the reality of academic life in mathematics at that time, and having a father who was chairman of the department meant I had less freedom than my peers to duck out of such gatherings. Some of them were arranged to honor distinguished visitors to whom I was supposed to be very, very polite.
Not one of those men ever put his hands on me, sniffed my hair, or whispered sweet nothings into my ear. They knew better. It had nothing to do with “the scary era of #MeToo” and everything to do with the standards governing male behavior. Is Joe Biden a victim of changing standards? Hell, no. He’s somebody who never learned the rules in the first place, or more likely, somebody who decided the standards for common decency didn’t apply to him.
The people who are coming forward to complain about Biden’s behavior are mostly adult women, and I might be inclined to say, “You made your choice to let a senior member of your party grope you rather than make a scene that would be politically embarrassing.” But what do we say to the young girls who’ve suffered from Biden’s handsiness? Take a look at the video compilations – there’s a short one here, if Youtube hasn’t taken it down yet – and tell me those little girls should have been able to evade Biden’s hands, or that they deserve this treatment for trying to stand still and not embarrass their parents by making a scene. But don’t worry, Biden’s apologists have that covered too.

He didn’t drag them backstage and rape them, did he?
Heather MacDonald on the widely publicized pictures of Biden with young girls: “In almost every one, the girls’ parents are standing next to them in an even larger crowd. There is no possibility that Biden is going to abduct the children for sexual favors.”
Oh well, that’s all right, then. I totally don’t mind you rubbing your hands all over my daughter and snuffling her hair, Uncle Joe, even if it makes her miserable, because it’s not rape-rape.

Should this behavior disqualify Biden for the presidency? I don’t know. What I do know is that it’s creepy and that he should have been called out on it years ago.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Salt Magic is live on Kindle!

Well, that didn't take long! I think it's magic; a little public grumbling works wonders. I got the .mobi
version of Salt Magic

last night, promptly uploaded it to Kindle, and it was live this morning. (As usual, the paperback version will take longer; I still have to go through the minuet of providing KDP with a version of the cover that it likes. No matter how carefully Cedar Sanderson and I follow their published rules, we have never yet achieved that with at least one "correction."


Sunday, March 31, 2019

More Salt Magic snippets

Getting the typos in the e-book fixed is taking way longer than it should. Yeah, yeah, I know, formatting books for Kindle is so easy now and there's no excuse for hiring somebody instead of learning how to do it myself and I should try [THE LATEST TOOL]. Yeah. On those mornings when I wake up and say to myself, "I really feel like getting frustrated out of my mind trying to use a software tool that doesn't work as advertised," I try one of those tools. Meanwhile, I'm still using a formatting service.

And so, while I wait:

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Salt Magic: something completely different

Today I'm fixing a couple of typos and preparing to release the e-book of Salt Magic, a Regency fantasy romance -- more fantasy than romance; I won't be listing it in any of Amazon's "romance" categories. I'm a bit nervous about this release because it represents a radical departure from my previous e-books and I don't know how readers will take it. If there are any readers, that is. I think of the Applied Topology books as light, fast-moving, funny. Popcorn books: a little something crunchy and tasty when you're in the mood for it.

Salt Magic is more... oh... dreamy, stylized, flavored with Regency romance and Orkney lore of the sea. Cedar Sanderson has done her usual excellent job as cover artist, giving me a cover that signals in every
possible way that this is a sea fantasy and not a quick tour of mathematical magic.

And I'm changing the kind of teasers I post, as well. No clever chapter titles or entire first chapters; instead I'm shamelessly imitating Amanda Green, who is much better at promotion than I am, with very short excerpts on, I
hope, evocative backgrounds. (Given the length of Salt Magic -- 100,000 words, as compared to 60-70,000 words for the Applied Topology books -- I'm afraid that the sheer length of a sample chapter would put people off.)

I'll probably post some more mini-excerpts over the next few days. Comments and reactions?

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Charles Town and the Internet

Bookworm's delightful post on her visit to Charleston reminded me of another way in which life has become much easier in this century -- at least for writers. Way back in the twentieth century I wrote a historical novel set in, I think, the early eighteenth century. (Oh, okay, to be precise it was a bodice-ripper; that's what was paying the mortgage back then. But I did my research!) I shipped off the manuscript (a big stack of paper. Remember those things?) and eventually it went past the editor and stalled out with the copyeditor. We had a somewhat acrimonious exchange that went roughly like this:

Copyeditor: There's no such place as Charles Town. Did you mean to write Charleston?

Me: This is a historical novel. At the time of the book there was no such place as Charleston. My characters refer to the town by its original name, Charles Town.

Copyeditor: No. There is no "Charles Town" in my atlas.

Me: Of course there isn't, you idiot, it's a modern atlas I suggest you consult an eighteenth-century atlas.

We went a few more rounds in this style. Eventually I trudged over to the university library, xeroxed a solid pound of contemporary documents referring to Charles Town, highlighted the references and sent the papers to the copyeditor. The argument ended; I don't have any illusion that I had persuaded her I was right, more likely she simply decided I was too insane to be worth arguing with. (In retrospect, there were a number of incidents in my younger days where I thought I'd won an argument with facts and reason, and now suspect my opponents concededed just to get me to stop talking.)

Nowadays, this particular argument wouldn't have happened at all... or if it did, it could have been resolved by a few clicks in a search engine.

For at least the next week, I swear that I will not grumble about the deleterious effects of the Internet on our social fabric without at least adding But I don't have to go through stupid fights with copyeditors any more!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The odalisque and the tech operative

I'm working on a couple of longish blog posts. One is about the necessary adjustments forced on me by increasing age and infirmity, and it may never go up because frankly, the whole subject is just too depressing for words. The other is about Biblical interpretation through the centuries -- or rather, a plea for suggested reading on the topic, because I don't even know where to look for the information I've begun wanting since I started my 2019 project of reading the King James Version from top to bottom.

So, in lieu of serious thought, and just to demonstrate that like Granny Weatherwax I ATN'T DEAD, here's a tiny snippet from A Revolution of Rubies:


I was just apologizing to Sheng for not being able to teleport him home – I’d never been to his apartment – when TheSila showed up and, as was her wont, complicated everything.

“Thalia, dear little pet,” she purred behind me, “aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”

“I hadn’t planned to, no,” I said without turning around. Pretending extreme boredom was one of the few ways I’d found to make the djinn go away.

“Oh, but I insist!” She poured herself around me in a flicker of cold flames. At least she’d chosen to manifest herself in almost-normal guise; apart from the little shivers of flame chasing themselves over her form, she looked like any Oriental odalisque you might encounter in Paris – you know: voluptuous figure spilling out of a skimpy gold-filigreed costume, elaborate henna patterns on much of the exposed skin, huge kohl-rimmed dark eyes.

Okay, so you don’t actually see that many scantily dressed Oriental odalisques in Paris. Sheng was stammering, poised awkwardly between the Company’s training in diplomatic manners and the natural human desire to scream and run.

“TheSila, this is Sheng, a colleague of mine from the embassy,” I said tiredly. “Sheng, meet TheSila, an Indian Ocean djinn. Folks, it’s late, and tomorrow I have to…” rescue Aunt Alesia. Damn. I’d actually forgotten about her for a couple of hours. Now the weight of her problem came crashing down on me again. I wondered whether “darling Daryush” would be understanding about his girlfriend’s loss of a national treasure, or whether my next job was going to be springing Aunt Alesia out of a French jail.

Sheng collected himself enough to bow over the hennaed hand that TheSila extended, but his eyes were showing way too much white. Teleportation and unexpected canine encounters had already taken their toll on his self-possession; clearly he wasn’t up to discussing life with a djinn from the Indian Ocean.

“TheSila and I met off the coast of Kenya this summer,” I said, ruthlessly condensing the multi-chapter detailed version, “and she visited me in Texas afterwards.” And she’d been quite enough of a nuisance there without inviting herself along on this assignment. Silly me, I had thought that leaving her blue glass bottle on the mantelpiece of our condo in Austin would guarantee some privacy in Paris.

The trouble was that I hadn’t gone the traditional route of trapping her in the bottle, luring her in with the powerfully stinky perfumes she favored and then slamming a cork into the opening. No, I’d done her the favor of breaking the bottle somebody else had used to trap her. And then, as a free agent, she’d found a lidless bottle in which to transport herself from East Africa to Austin.

At least that was how I’d thought it worked. Now it seemed that she didn’t require the bottle in order to follow me around the world and interfere with my life. Who knew?

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Intertwingled series

Everything is deeply intertwingled - Ted Nelson

Yes, but he was talking about hypertext and computers! I wasn't prepared for intertwingularity in my writing life!

Back in January, when I stopped writing to wrestle with the alligators that occasionally crop up in Real Life, my writing plans were straightforward. The sixth and final book in the Applied Topology series was ready to go, and in fact I did manage to hold off the swamp denizens long enough release A Revolution of Rubies last month. Subsequently I had written a stand-alone Regency fantasy, Salt Magic, and had started a new series that I thought of as a spin-off from the Applied Topology books. It was set in Austin and had a new set of characters and a new take on magic. Thalia from Applied Topology made a couple of cameo appearances, but the books could be read completely independently. I'd written The Language of the Dragon and A Trail of Dragon Scales and was halfway through Like a Dragon when I had to put everything on hold for a while.

Fast-forward to last week, when I resumed working, and... well, I should never have named the lead character in the Applied Topology series for Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy. She has enjoyed messing with my mind from Day One. And so while my attention was all on putting out fires, she used the unwatched back of my head to develop a seventh Applied Topology book. What's more, internal considerations dictate that this book happens after the first two Dragon Speech books but before the third.

Does't necessarily mean that they have to be written or published in this order, of course. Lois McMaster Bujold hops back and forth a lot in her Vorkosigan universe. But it's easier on me if I write the books in chronological order; that way I don't run into the problem of characters in Book N+1 not being aware of events that scarred them for life in Book N. And it's probably easier on readers if the books are published in chronological order.

So here I am with two different series operating in the same fictional world. How do I signal to readers that these books actually share not only a world but some characters and events, and that if they want to follow a strict chronology they should read Applied Topology 1-6, Dragon Speech 1-2, Applied Topology 7 and then Dragon Speech 3? Do I even need to do that? The first two Dragon Speech novels can be read without knowing anything about the Applied Topology events, although readers of the first series may get a few chuckles at how Thalia is perceived by someone outside her little circle of topologists. If I'm careful about writing the 7th Applied Topology book, it should neither depend on events in the Dragon Speech books nor give away the major elements of those books. Similar care will be required when I get back to Like a Dragon.

I guess I've muddled around to the point of answering my own question! Separate series, separate numberings, and do some fancy dancing around the intertwingularities.

Still, I'd like some way of letting potential readers know that these series operate in the same world and even overlap to some extent. After a suggestion from Mad Genius Club, I'm wondering if there's some way to tag all the books with something like "A Keep Austin Weird Book". Or would that be too much information? And would it be meaningless to people from the rest of the known universe? I'm used to seeing "Keep Austin Weird" bumper stickers every time I go out, but would someone from Michigan get the reference?

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

If we could only see the future

I said "future" but this rambling train of thought originated in the past -- a hundred and ten years ago, to be precise, when Edith Nesbit wrote a children's book called The House of Arden. During my excessively fraught January I was looking for soothing reading; I like Nesbit's other books and was delighted to discover this one that I had somehow overlooked before. It's about a brother and sister living in 1908 who get the ability to travel to other times. On a visit to the England of Henry VIII they meet a boy who seems to know a lot about 1908 and doesn't like what he knows:


"I hate your times. They're ugly, they're cruel," said Richard.

"They don't cut your head off for nothing anyhow in our times," said Edred, "and shut you up in the Tower."

"They do worse things," Richard said. "I know. They make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or to be happy in. They won't give people food or clothes, or let them work to get them; and then they put the people in prison if they take enough to keep them alive. They let people get horid diseases, till their jaws drop off, so as to have a particular kind of china. Women have to go out to work instead of looking after their babies, and the little girl that's left in charge drops the baby and it's crippled for life. Oh! I know. I won't go back with you."


My jaw dropped when I read this passage. Surely by 1908 the Industrial Revolution had improved life in England past this point?

That sent me to a very useful reference book, Ralph Fogel's The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100. I'd read this book many years ago but as it turns out, I was a bit shaky on the details. Yes, the Industrial Revolution and other developments (public sanitation, antibiotics) did eventually put humanity in the Western World on a rising path of better nutrition, better health, and longer lives -- but in 1900, though Fogel's graphs show the improvement was just around the corner, it wasn't there yet. Life expectancy in England had risen from 36 in 1800 to 48 in 1900 -- an improvement, but it could easily be missed in comparison with the astonishing gains of the next century: by 1990, life expectancy in England was up to 76. The English poor of 1908 were still undernourished, overworked, and prey to chronic ailments.

Nesbit's character Richard is a member of the aristocracy in Tudor times, but a poor orphan boy in 1908. He probably would have been better off staying in the time of Henry VIII. (Especially when you add what we know but Nesbit didn't: in 1908, Richard is just ten years away from the muddy trenches of the First World War.)

In 1908 Nesbit (and other writers, as I'll discuss in future posts) could see the disruption caused by the Industrial Revolution, the pollution of town and countryside, the ongoing misery of the poor. They couldn't see the vast improvement in the lives of everyday people that was going to happen over the next century. One can't blame them for thinking, "This industrialization business was a mistake; people might have been just as poor, sick, and hungry a hundred and fifty years ago, but at least they had 'England's green and pleasant land' in which to live out their miserable lives."

And given that, like most writers in any period, rigorous historical and economic analysis was not their forte, they could even have been forgiven for romanticizing, say, eighteenth century rural life. They would have seen it in terms of John Constable's paintings. The Hay Wain doesn't come with an attached note saying, "Those farm workers are undernourished, subject to injuries through regularly overstressing their bodies, and chronically ill."

I wonder if they would have been so quick to condemn industrial progress if they could have seen a hundred years into the future? If they could have seen the abundance of our society, the wealth available not only in the West but to countries like Japan and India, the reduction of severe poverty worldwide, the incidence of homelessness in England dropping from 10-20% in the mid-nineteenth century to .4% of the population today? If they could have known that as countries become wealthy through industry, they reach a point at which they clean up the pollution that industry created?

And all that leads me to wonder... what is just around the corner, practically under our noses, that we can't see yet? What terrible, horrible, very bad, no good problem in today's society is actually the harbinger of glorious improvements to come?


Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Now at just $0.99!

After looking at recent sales numbers and reading a whole slew of advice, I've decided to change the prices of my Applied Topology series. The first 5 books were all priced at $2.99. A couple of weeks ago I released the 6th book, A Revolution of Rubies, at $3.99. The slightly higher price hasn't hurt sales; if anything, it's selling better than the earlier books. I've also been looking at the results of an acquaintance's attempt to boost sales by dropping prices from $3.99 to $2.99. I've yet to hear his analysis of the results, but judging from Amazon rankings, the price drop doesn't seem to have made much difference.

So... I've decided to raise the price on Books 2-5 to $3.99. This is not so much about the slightly increased royalty (I'll make a whopping 65 cents extra on each sale, whee) as about perceptions of what the book is worth. I feel that raising the price to the average e-book price in the fantasy genre is a statement that I believe this is a good book and well worth $3.99. The $2.99 price is below average and seems to me to be slightly apologetic: please please please take a chance on this book!

Yeah, yeah, it's all in my head. What else? That's where I live!

At the same time, I've dropped the price of the first book in series, A Pocketful of Stars, to $0.99. I'm hoping that the lowered price will attract more new readers (who will then, of course, be so taken with the book that they'll rush right back to Amazon and download the other 5 books). I'd actually have liked to make it free, but at present that requires a little dance with Amazon that I don't have the patience for. I'd have to format it for publication on another platform, price it at $0.00 there, then write to Amazon and ask them to pretty please match the price on the other platform.

In a couple of months I'll report on the first results of this change... just in case anybody here is passionately interested in the details of ebook pricing.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Revolution is live...

...but I'm not so sure about me. We've been in nonstop crisis mode since before the previous post. Nothing life-threatening, and the crisis mostly belongs to other family members so I'm not going into details, but it has been physically and emotionally exhausting. So in lieu of anything original, here's the first chapter of A Revolution of Rubies:

* * *

1. The Shaimak Rubies

It all started with Aunt Alesia and the dragon rubies, and that dance at the Austrian embassy in Paris.

Purists would go farther back, maybe as far back as the day a couple of years ago when I was concentrating really hard on the Axiom of Choice and accidentally selected several objects out of my kid brother’s miscellaneous collections of plastic junk. Without touching them. You could make a case that it all started there.

But I’d been applying topology, and researching further applications of topology, for nearly two and a half years since then without ever causing an international incident. So I blame this one entirely on Aunt Alesia.

When Lensky and I agreed that his career would take priority for a while, because I could do my research anywhere that he might be stationed, we’d both envisioned the usual CIA overseas posting. He’d be assigned to some interesting part of the world to collect information and recruit people to bring in more information, preferably not breaking too many laws of the host country too noticeably. We’d set up house wherever he was sent and I would settle down with my books and a stack of blank notepads for a long, quiet period of research.

What we hadn’t figured on was that after we successfully retrieved the hostages from East Africa, the entire Operations side of the CIA would become very, very interested in applied topology. And I certainly hadn’t figured on being expected to deal with diplomatic social life in Paris, of all places, as part of my service to the Company. All I had going for me was a decent French accent, a one-month crash course that the CIA called “charm school,” and a modestly fashionable wardrobe (also courtesy of the CIA.) That wasn’t a whole lot of equipment, linguistic or otherwise, with which to tackle a glittering social life in the fashion capital of the world.

“Cheer up,” Lensky said when I whined to him, “you’re vastly overestimating the sophistication of State Department social life. It’s more like an infinitely boring desert with not nearly enough oases.”

“Tell me again about the infinitely boring desert,” I suggested under my breath while surveying the ivory and gold ballroom that filled the entire second floor of the Austrian embassy. Men in sober black and white were surrounded by women in a rainbow array of formal gowns, many of them sparkling with enough jewels to rival the GDP of a small country.

This sort of thing had never been hinted at when the CIA funded a grant for me and the other topologists at the Center for Applied Topology. Silly us, we thought we were being supported to continue our research into topological ways to achieve paranormal effects. And for the first couple of years, that was mostly true. Apart from sending Brad Lensky to pass on occasional requests and to try to keep us out of trouble, they’d left us pretty much alone. In the weeks following the bombing and the hostage retrieval this summer, I realized that this was because most of the people in Operations didn’t really believe in our paranormal abilities. They’d been too afraid of looking like gullible fools to actually use us.

Now, though, the careful people at Langley had realized what an asset they had in the Center, and they were lining up around the block to use us. Their principal interest, to begin with, was in black bag jobs. Every field office in every capital city had a list of places they’d dearly like to bug. Other countries’ embassies were high on that list, together with ambassadors’ residences, military clubs, private political clubs, you name it. Up to now, they’d had to work with a series of difficult tradeoffs. How hard would it be to break into a given location, and what was the cost if they were caught sneaking around there? Everybody in this business spied on everybody else, but getting caught was not cool and sometimes resulted in embarrassing diplomatic conflicts. Putting your own ambassador on the spot could be a quick ticket out of field work and back home to a basement full of analysts.

Now they thought they could bug every place they’d ever dreamed of, for free – that is, at little or no risk. The theory was simple enough. We – the applied topologists at the Center – could teleport to any place we’d been previously, and we could take passengers. Let a topologist mingle with the legitimate embassy personnel, get invitations to parties at various embassies and other places of interest, then teleport back in the small hours with a technician who would place the bugs. Even if surprised, we could vanish before anybody believed what they were seeing.

There was just one catch. There weren’t anywhere near as many applied topologists as there were field offices begging for our services.

To be precise, there were exactly four of us: me, Ben Sutherland, Ingrid Thorn, and Colton Edwards.
We did have an infinite set of the magic-enhancing stars that Mr. M. had brought with him from ancient Babylon, but since they could only be deployed by topologists – or Mr. M. himself, of course – that didn’t solve the CIA’s problem. Too, most of them were not real clear on the whole concept of infinite sets, nor did they find it easy to believe in tiny sparkling points of light that were invisible to anybody but topologists – or Mr. M., of course. The stars didn’t really feature in most Company discussions of how to use us.

Lensky tells me there were some nasty scenes, and almost some blood spilled, in the initial discussions of how to divvy up the treasure that we represented. He was in most of those meetings to advise the department heads on how we could best be used, and he took the opportunity to advocate on our behalf before anybody got crazy or cruel notions.

We were going to start in European capitals, because those would be the easiest locales for our untraveled crew to begin with. Postings would consist of one topologist and one partner of the opposite sex, because there were always places a man could go that a woman couldn’t, and vice versa. This worked out nicely for us, as we all had non-topologist partners.

I, of course, was married to Lensky. Just before the diplomatic initiative got started, Ingrid had married our computer expert, Jimmy DiGrazio. Colton had a thing going with Meadow Melendez, the robotics engineer who maintained Mr. M.’s prosthetic body and built the enhancements for it. And Ben was living with his rich girlfriend Annelise, who also worked for the Center as our resident liar. She was an expert at spinning stories to convince people who stumbled across our paranormal work that they hadn’t seen what they’d seen, and she looked forward to doing the same, or better, to foreign diplomats.

For our first assignments, they tried to match us with cities that would be relatively easy for us. The Swedish embassy didn’t actually have a long list of places they desperately wanted bugged, but Stockholm would be a good place for Ingrid, with her parents’ Swedish background, to start work. Colton was assigned to Spain because Meadow was fluent in Spanish. Ben got London, and he swore that Annelise’s rich father hadn’t influenced anybody to give him the easy English-language assignment. “And besides, Thalia, you got the best posting of all!”

“Paris,” Ingrid sighed. “While I’m freezing in Stockholm…”

“Paris,” Annelise echoed. “Do you realize Paris Fashion Week is just starting? Balmain, Balenciaga, Lanvin…”

“Barcelona is pretty interesting too,” Colton said cheerfully. He and Meadow were being sent to the consulate in Barcelona, rather than to Madrid, because the Catalan independence movement was heating up to boiling again after several months at a slow simmer. “I’ve always wanted to see Sagrada Familia and Parc Güell.”

I’ve always wanted to see Notre Dame,” Ingrid grumbled. “The Louvre. The Louis Vuitton Museum: they’re doing a temporary exhibit of that Icelandic artist’s light installations this month.”

“Well, you can go look at the Little Mermaid instead,” I suggested.

“Really, Thalia. That’s in Copenhagen, not Stockholm. Why they’re sending a cultural illiterate like you abroad at all escapes me.”

“I’m a State Department intern taking advantage of this new program to give me a smattering of overseas experience before I settle in to a permanent post,” I said, repeating the line we’d all been told to use as an explanation for our joining the various embassies. In most cases the American ambassador didn’t know any more than that. Officially, at least. Lensky’s agency is very big on plausible deniability.

In fact, I wasn’t that thrilled about being sent to Paris. Ingrid could have had it with my best wishes. I’m not exactly the person you would think of in connection with elegant Parisians; ever since graduation I’d managed to use the same little black dress for almost every occasion that demanded something more than T-shirts and jeans. Mom had forced me into ivory satin for the wedding, but apart from that my little-black-dress record was perfect.

The CIA makeover budget did not include jewelry. Fortunately, as a mere intern, I wasn’t really expected to compete in that league. My topaz-colored silk sheath with a frill of lighter gold chiffon bursting out from knees to floor was more than adequate for my official position. All the same, I could have used a modest spray of citrines, or something of the sort, to build up my morale. Too bad I couldn’t wear my infinite set of stars – well, I could have, but since they were invisible to everybody else they wouldn’t have much of an effect.

“How am I supposed to compete with that?” I groused as a tall brunette wearing a fountain of rubies and diamonds whirled past. “Holy shit,” I gasped as her profile came into view. “I don’t believe it.”

“That kind of language will certainly make you stand out,” said Lensky. I ignored him. Men have it so easy; one good dark suit and they could fit in everywhere. I started after the brunette and Lensky grabbed my arm.

“Hey, when they said mingle, they didn’t mean charge out on the dance floor and trip over people,” he said.

“Didn’t you recognize her?”


I jerked my chin towards the ruby-bedecked brunette. “Considering she was Koumbara at our wedding, I’d think you would remember her. That. Is. My. Aunt. Alesia.” She was thirty years older than me and I was willing to swear she didn’t own any rubies. What was she doing at the Austrian embassy’s ball of the year? For that matter, what was she doing in Paris at all? I’d last seen her sitting at Mom’s kitchen table, peeling carrots.

“Let’s catch up with her and find out,” Lensky suggested, swinging me out onto the dance floor with surprising competence. The man could waltz like a Viennese, something I had not previously discovered during the year and a half we’d known each other. He was even good enough to make up for my awkward steps; the month of makeover-and-training provided before the CIA threw us in at the deep end hadn’t been nearly enough to turn me into an expert dancer, but it didn’t matter with Lensky taking the lead.

Staying upright through a Viennese waltz was enough of a challenge without trying to look for Alesia. I concentrated on my steps. We turned, dipped, swooped and suddenly backtracked. The music ended with us standing beside Alesia and her partner, a short man with thinning blond hair whom I’d never seen before.
“Thalia, ma petite!” Alesia exclaimed. “What brings you here?”

“Funny, I was just about to ask the same question.” Up close, I got the full impact of the rubies. The necklace was shaped like two dragon figures, the heads meeting just above the cleavage of Alesia’s dress. The eyes were huge rubies surrounded by tiny diamonds, and each of the overlapping scales was set with a smaller ruby. The wings were solid gold accented by wires, with another ruby dangling from each point. The scaled shapes changed subtly with her breathing, suggesting that the scales were attached to something flexible.

“Oh, Daryush and I are old friends,” she said. “He was the Cultural Attaché for the Taklanistan embassy in Rome when my dear Georges was posted there, you know. And now he’s an ambassador! We were just remembering those happy, happy days.”

“Not so happy for all of us,” said Daryush in a heavily accented voice, “since you, ma chére Alesia, were so devoted to that Georges of yours!” He turned to me. “All of us young men in Rome wished him at the devil, that lucky Georges, monopolizing the loveliest lady in diplomatic circles!”

“Daryush, you will shock my niece,” Alesia laughed, “she doesn’t know that old people like us ever loved and laughed. This is my little niece Thalia, Daryush.”

He clicked his heels, bowed over my hand and just brushed his lips across the knuckles.

“And she is newly married,” Alesia went on, “so you mustn’t flirt with her, Daryush. Her nice American husband would not understand!”

“But Alesia, ma belle, you know my heart is entirely yours!” Daryush protested.

“Do my parents know where you are, Aunt Alesia?”

She shrugged. “I may have said something about going to Paris with my old friend Solange. Or I may not… I believe, actually, I had intended to return to Austin after meeting Solange in New York. But when she was so kind as to invite me back to Paris, how could I refuse?”

The music started again. Daryush, taking my aunt in his arms, whirled back out onto the dance floor. I stayed where I was, frowning.

“Is this going to be a problem?” Lensky asked.

“Oh. No, I don’t think so. You never mentioned where you work to Aunt Alesia, did you?”

“Thalia, even your parents don’t know who I work for.”

“Oh. Right.” I have occasionally made fun of the Company’s passion for secrecy, but just now it struck me as a very good thing. I wouldn’t get many invitations to parties on other embassies’ turf if I were identified as a CIA field officer rather than a State Department intern.

Lensky’s waltzing style had attracted some attention among the diplomatic wives, so I found that mingling was relatively easy now. The wives wanted to dance with my husband, and offered me up to their escorts in exchange. It worked out reasonably well. The husbands didn’t want to dance and neither did I. They fetched me flutes of champagne and little plates of snacks and we chatted amicably enough; they were so grateful that I didn’t pine for the dance floor that it was easy to keep them happy. By the end of the evening I had scored invitations for cocktail parties at the Ukrainian and Polish embassies, a reception in honor of Central Asian artists at the Guimet – the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – and a dinner party at the home of the Egyptian cultural attaché. Not to mention figs wrapped in paper-thin Parma ham, asparagus spears in puff pastry, and Sachertorte under whipped cream. Lensky hadn’t done too badly himself: two more dinner parties, a concert and a museum opening.

Aunt Alesia and her date the ambassador were nowhere to be seen. Oh, well. It wasn’t like Taklanistan, wherever that might be, was a country of burning interest to the CIA. I could safely leave that to my wayward aunt and concentrate on the Ukrainians, Poles, Egyptians, and whoever Lensky had scooped up.

We decided that we could skip the reception for Central Asian artists, as nobody at the embassy had any desire to bug the Musée Guimet – and if they did, they could walk in there any time; it was a public place. The concert and the museum opening also didn’t offer much of interest. We’d be busy enough for the next week dealing with all the other invites.

I fell into bed with a gratifying sense of duty well done. For somebody who doesn’t mingle, I thought I had filled out my dance card pretty well on this first excursion. Paris wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

I thought that right up until the Friday of the following week, when we returned from our dinner party at the Israeli political officer’s home to find Aunt Alesia pacing up and down the marble hall outside our temporary apartment. “Thalia, you have to help me,” she burst out as soon as we were inside. “The most terrible thing has happened. The Shaimak Rubies are gone!”

I blinked. “What, that…” I quickly ruled out insane, extravagant and flamboyant… “that lovely necklace you were wearing at the Austrian embassy ball? How did you lose your rubies, Aunt Alesia?”

“That’s just it,” she said. “They weren’t my rubies. They were a loan from dear Daryush.”

“Okay, how did you lose his rubies?”

“And they aren’t his either. They come from the Shaimak ruby mines in Taklanistan. The mines were closed over a century ago, which makes the rubies even more valuable because of their rarity. They are the property of the nation. And those – those canaille who took them are blackmailing me!”

When I was so ungenteel as to mutter Oh shit at the embassy ball, who knew I was prescient? Because this was a genuine oh shit moment if I’d ever seen one.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A Revolution of Rubies

Just uploaded the ebook, and if Amazon stays true to form it'll be live within a day. When that happens, I'll put up a snippet from the first chapter.
This is the sixth and (for the moment) last book in the Applied Topology series that began with A Pocketful of Stars. I failed to specify that when uploading, so I'll have to fix it at some point. Right now Amazon won't let me edit the submission, maybe because it's officially "in review," maybe because they don't let you change details on Wednesdays in January; who knows? I've spent enough time waltzing with the 800-pound gorilla for now, I'm going to do something comparatively easy and relaxing like writing the next chapter of the third Dragon Speech series and I'll poke at Amazon again later.

I had the usual fun with chapter headings:

1. The Shaimak Rubies
2. Best quality Russian vodka
3. Black bags and big dogs
4. Cuisse de nymphe émue
5. Meadow is shocked out of her sandals
6. Catch me if you can
7. Mata Hari had nothing to do with it
8. The same zip code as a poker game
9. Getting to first base in Barcelona
10. Pomegranate seeds
11. A dialect with its own army and navy
12. Varieties of sudden death
13. A civil war waiting to happen
14. Excuses for the devil
15. When in doubt, throw something
16. The Lake Shaimak Threat
17. Hostages
18. Playing tag with the mountains
19. A broken city
20. The continuous perception of reality
21. All the help he could get
22. I dislike hurting women
23. The Bronx is up
24. The dragon of the lake
25. A divided khngl

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Definitely a debt to someone

This isn't about writing or fiber art; I'm just venting my mild irritation with a blog post I read elsewhere, about someone's fury at having been told by a commencement speaker that they owed "a debt to society." Maybe it's true for this generation, and even the previous generation, that they did it all themselves; I'm old, I haven't lived their experience. But speaking for myself:

My father served during WWII. So had all the men I met who were his contemporaries. Every. Single. One. Including the one who lost a hand, and the one who ended up in a psychiatric hospital.

The public schools I attended varied in quality, but at least they taught long division in third grade. (They don’t now. It was fifth or sixth grade when our kids went to school, and I suspect by now they just say, “Oh, use your calculator.”)

I went to the University of Texas at a time when you could get a first-class education there (though you could also avoid it if that was your choice), any graduate of a Texas high school could attend, and tuition for in-state students was $100, which even people who were working their way through college could manage without getting a bank loan.

I feel I owe a lot to the previous generation, who defended our country and this system; and since I can't pay it back, it was my responsibility to pay it forward. It's still my responsibility, and will be until the day I die. Maybe that’s not the same thing as “a debt to society,” but it feels like it. I can certainly understand the adverse reactions from people who feel they’ve been screwed by society (with outlandish tuition fees, going or sending their children to worthless public schools, etc.) but I don’t, personally, share their sentiments.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

My Kindle is an enabler

So this morning, in the place where it usually shows me a carousel of book thumbnails just too small to read, my Kindle displayed the "encouraging" message:

"You read 31 days last month.
That's one more day than the previous month.
Keep it up!"

Sad to say, I don't think there's any way I can score 32 reading days in January. Although if I do find some way to open a slit in the calendar and jump through into a magic land of unlimited days to lounge around with my nose in a book, y'all will be the first to know!

And to think that the Kindle doesn't even know about all the dead-tree books on and beside my bed: Yoruba Kingship, Takedown Twenty, Wolf Boys and A Needle in the Right Hand of God. (Because by bedtime my eyes are tired of looking at screens.)

At least, I hope it doesn't know about them. I will get seriously creeped out if I pick up the Kindle later this month and it cheerily congratulates me on finishing Yoruba Kingship. But then, that particular book is written in academic-ese and published in relatively small print, so my chances of finishing it are not 100%.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Endings and Beginnings

Old year, new year? No... old series, new series. A Revolution of Rubies is now in the publication pipeline. It may not be the last book ever in the Applied Topology series, but for now it's the sixth and last, after which I'm going to publish a Regency fantasy and then start a new series that's kind of a spin-off from the previous one. I've been trying to think of something different to put at the end of this book, since I don't have a teaser chapter for "next in series" this time.

I’ve noticed that a lot of books now have a list of Book Group Questions at the end. I can see the benefit from the publisher’s point of view – getting a book picked up by a discussion group has to be great for sales – but most of the questions seem to be written by literary types who are all about symbolism and subtext and not at all interested in storytelling and having fun. So I had a crack at creating my own BGQ’s for A Revolution of Rubies. And concluded that I’m no good at this; most of these questions are only fun before you’ve read the book. Oh, well. I put the opening of the Regency Fantasy,Salt Magic, at the end of the book, after all. But I hate to just throw the questions away, so here they are:

1. Thalia and the rest of the Center for Applied Topology have been sent to Europe to ingratiate themselves in diplomatic circles so that they can help bug the homes and offices of the diplomats. What could possibly go wrong with turning a bunch of topologists loose among diplomats? What couldn’t go wrong?

2. Would you steal a woman’s borrowed rubies in order to get access to her niece’s paranormal abilities? Wouldn’t you even wonder about the wisdom of provoking someone who can become invisible and walk through walls?

3. If a foreign agent and a woman with serious skills in card manipulation walk into Casino Barcelona, who’s going to have to borrow cab fare home?

4. Lensky flatly forbids Thalia to try using her paranormal abilities in certain contexts. More than once. Whatever could have given him the illusion this would work? Will the handcuffs do it?

5. A Revolution of Rubies takes place in Paris, Barcelona, and the imaginary Central Asian country of Taklanistan. Talk about these places from Thalia’s point of view, with particular attention to the various forms of chocolate-enhanced snacks available in each one.
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