Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Today's Jane Austen Quote

“It is very often nothing but our own vanity that deceives us.”

 – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Monday, March 29, 2021

Beware Fake Science News!

Barbara McClintock, geneticist
Science news articles abound, everything from the results of carefully designed peer-reviewed research studies to fear-based rumors and anti-science biased conspiracy theories. How are we to discern which are reliable, which are hype based on misinterpretation, flawed studies, and the like, and which are clickbait nonsense?

The first thing I do is look at the source. Mediabiasfactcheck and other sites provide information as to the right-left biases and factual accuracy of a given source, although not of a particular story. Science Based Medicine is also helpful. I've been known to search under "Is Dr. So-and-So a quack?" and get useful answers. 

I also check my own reactions: Is this too good to be true? Is it at odds with what I understand about science (my academic background is biology and health sciences)? Have I seen an article in a trusted source (such as the newsletter from Center for Science in the Public Interest) debunking this or similar claims? I've been also known to check with friends with special expertise in the field.

The Conversation offers some guidelines on assessing the quackery scale of science new stories. Their suggestions:

1. Has the story undergone peer review?

Scientists rely on journal papers to share their scientific results. They let the world see what research has been done, and how.

Once researchers are confident of their results, they write up a manuscript and send it to a journal. Editors forward the submitted manuscripts to at least two external referees who have expertise in the topic. These reviewers can suggest the manuscript be rejected, published as is, or sent back to the scientists for more experiments. That process is called “peer review.”

Research published in peer-reviewed journals has undergone rigorous quality control by experts. Each year, about 2,800 peer-reviewed journals publish roughly 1.8 million scientific papers. The body of scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and updating, but you can trust that the science these journals describe is sound. Retraction policies help correct the record if mistakes are discovered post-publication.

Peer review takes months. To get the word out faster, scientists sometimes post research papers on what’s called a preprint server. These often have “RXiv” – pronounced “archive” – in their name: MedRXiv, BioRXiv and so on. These articles have not been peer-reviewed and so are not validated by other scientists. Preprints provide an opportunity for other scientists to evaluate and use the research as building blocks in their own work sooner.

How long has this work been on the preprint server? If it’s been months and it hasn’t yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature, be very skeptical. Are the scientists who submitted the preprint from a reputable institution? During the COVID-19 crisis, with researchers scrambling to understand a dangerous new virus and rushing to develop lifesaving treatments, preprint servers have been littered with immature and unproven science. Fastidious research standards have been sacrificed for speed.

A last warning: Be on the alert for research published in what are called predatory journals. They don’t peer-review manuscripts, and they charge authors a fee to publish. Papers from any of the thousands of known predatory journals should be treated with strong skepticism.

2. Be aware of your own biases.

Beware of biases in your own thinking that might predispose you to fall for a particular piece of fake science news.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Juliette Marillier at Her Most Addictive

 A Dance with Fate, by Juliet Marillier (Ace)

In The Harp of Kings, only the most promising students qualify for the elite Swan Island school for assassins, warriors, and spies. Two such were Liobhan, a gifted singer and even more gifted fighter, and self-exiled prince, Dau. Sent together on a spy mission along with Liobhan’s bard brother, Brocc, it was hate at first sight and an ongoing challenge to work together for the success of the mission. Now Brocc has followed his fae heritage into the Otherworld, leaving Liobhan and Dau to continue honing their skills and an increasingly friendly rivalry. A freak training accident leaves Dau blind. Liobhan blames herself, since the two were sparring at the time, but so does Dau’s vicious, abusive older brother. Rather than expose the secrets of Swan Island, the elders strike a bargain with Dau’s family: he is to return home, where he will be cared for, and Liobhan will serve as an indentured bondswoman for a year. Dau’s brother has agreed not to harm her physically, but there is nothing to stop his cruelty.

The situation is a recipe for disaster. Dau is right to be fearful of being at the mercy of his older brother and heir to the estate, doubly so because of the extreme vulnerability due to his blindness. Old traumas haunt him, threatening to drag him into suicidal despair. It will take all Liobhan’s healing skills, empathy, and bloody-minded authority to keep him alive. Meanwhile, the violently aggressive Crow People launch ever-increasing attacks on both fae and human communities.

Engaging, dramatic, romantic, and thoughtful, A Dance with Fate is Marillier at her most addictive. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Today's Jane Austen Quote


“Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another.” 

– Jane Austen, Emma

Monday, March 22, 2021

Auntie Deborah Answers Your Writing Questions

Dear Auntie Deborah, How do I stick with my story idea and finish writing it? 

Deborah: You may be confusing a story idea with a story structure.  The idea is just the starting point, without character development, rising tension and resolution, turning points, or plot. If this is true, you’re diving into writing before you have a story — a story meaning an emotionally satisfying journey you take the reader on.

Some writers can take an idea and launch it into a story while writing, but most of us can’t — or else end up revising many times to whip that shapeless manuscript into something that resembles a true story. Your description of losing motivation suggests that you, like me, need to have more structure in place before beginning.

What do I mean by structure? I need to have a hook or inciting incident — the action, situation, crisis, or decision that fuels the first part of the story. Then something goes wrong (or right, or unexpected) and spins the story in a new direction — that’s the first plot point. I need to know what it’s all building toward, and also the feeling or flavor I want to leave the reader with (sadness, triumph, satisfaction, chocolates on the pillow?). I need at least 2 or 3 characters I’m in love with, although I don’t necessarily need to know what happens to them. I write all this down, do flow charts and maybe a map or two. If I’m submitting on proposal, I’ll need to flesh it out into a proper synopsis plus the first 3 chapters, but for writing for myself on spec, that’s enough to get me going.

If these concepts are unfamiliar with you, I encourage you to learn more about storycraft and the journey from idea to plot/character/dramatic arc. Ideas aren’t a bad place to start, they’re just not enough.

Dear Auntie Deborah: My critique group keeps giving me contradictory advice. I'm at a loss as to which direction to take. Help!

Deborah: It is as important to know which advice to ignore as which to pay attention to! Without knowing the sources of your opinions, I can’t evaluate their validity, but — BUT — I am always leery of anyone who tells me how to fix problems in my own work. This was true when I began writing on a professional level 35 years ago, and it certainly is true now. What helps me are comments like, “I’m confused about x,” or “This didn’t work for me,” or “I don’t care what happens to this character.” In other words, careful readers marking where they had problems. Then it’s up to me, the author, to discern where I went wrong and how I want to remedy it. (This is how my publishing editor and I work together, by the way.)

Friday, March 19, 2021

Book Reviews: The Lady Astronaut Series

 Mary Robinette’s Lady Astronaut Series: Three Novels and A Novella


The Lady Astronaut (novella)

This was the tale that began it all. The Lady Astronaut has the shape and emotional clarity of short fiction while evoking a larger story both in time and space. Thirty years ago, in the early 1950s, a meteorite strike on the Eastern United States ignited a space race. The central character, Elma York, was once a pioneering astronaut, world-famous as The Lady Astronaut of Mars. Now in her 60s, she still yearns to return to space, but the upcoming mission is a one-way trip and her beloved husband has only a short time left to live. Elma’s dilemma is the centerpiece of a beautifully crafted, perfectly balanced story.


The Calculating Stars

A concept like The Lady Astronaut cries out for development, and here we journey backward

in time to the origin story. In 1952, history took a different turn when a meteorite obliterated most of the East Coast of the United States. Elma and Nathanael York were among the survivors, eventually making their way to the new capitol and the newly formed International Aerospace Coalition. Here he becomes the lead engineer and she, a computer. They understand all too well the danger that the dust and water vapor thrown into the atmosphere will lead first to a prolonged drop in Earth’s temperatures, and then a runaway greenhouse effect. It’s entirely likely that the world will become uninhabitable. If humanity is to survive, it must be on another planet. They have time, but only if they devote all their resources to it. Thus, the Space Race of the 1960s begins a decade earlier, and with a very different mission.

Elma’s experience as a wartime pilot, along with her genius for mathematical computations, makes her a prime candidate for astronaut training. But this is the 1950s, when sexism as well as racism run rampant and the head of the program is determined to find any excuse to exclude women. A few white women might stand a chance but minorities are out of the running, which is a terrible loss because many of the superb women pilots trained in World War II are Black or Asian.

At this point, the story shifts focus from an alternate history disaster thriller to an examination of how an earlier space race would have run up against the social institutions and prejudices of the day. Racism, attitudes towards women, and antisemitism, are pervasive. Characters range from those, like Elma, who forge alliances and friendships, to rabidly pro-apartheid South African astronaut trainees. Elma’s personal experiences as a Jew and a woman in a male-dominated field make her not only sympathetic in herself but believable in her advocacy of equality. Elma witnesses the struggles of her Black colleagues and friends from the outside, never truly able to understand but willing to acknowledge her limitations. She is all too aware of when she blunders into thinking she understands the lives of her Black friends, even as she is willing to use her white privilege to open doors for them.

As a note: The alliance between Blacks and Jews dates back at least to the 1950s, when both were targets of white supremacist groups like the KKK. In 1958, the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta, Georgia, was bombed by a group calling itself the Confederate Underground. The bombing was in retaliation for the outspoken activism of the senior rabbi, who criticized segregation and advocated for racial equality.

Elma is anything but a cardboard soapbox character. She suffers from a crippling anxiety disorder. I love flawed characters and I cheer them on as they struggle to overcome their challenges. Elma’s social anxiety is severe enough that the physical symptoms threaten to overwhelm her, yet she never gives up. She uses mathematics as a mantra to calm herself. Despite her attempts to avoid being in the spotlight, she’s catapulted into fame with an appearance on “Ask Mr. Wizard” and subsequently became the public face of the space program as “The Lady Astronaut.” When the stresses of public appearances become too much, she seeks medical help and receives a prescription for Miltown (meprobamate), an early anxiolytic drug. The medication is of tremendous help, even though Elma feels obliged to keep it a secret or risk losing her chance at actually going into space.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Today's Jane Austen Quote


“There are as many forms of love as there are moments in time.” 

– Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Monday, March 15, 2021

[personal rant] Another Rant About Vaccination

Back in April, 2019, I posted a personal rant, Why I Am Adamant About Vaccination. This was way before Covid-19 and the more than half million American deaths. The issue was childhood vaccination against measles, mumps, rubella, and the like. I shared a deeply personal story:

During my first pregnancy, an antibody titer that revealed I’d had rubella as a child. A series of conversations with my mother and sister put together the pieces of my own family tragedy due to contagious disease. In most cases, rubella is a mild infection, except when a woman is pregnant. Contracted in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, babies have an 85% chance of Congenital Rubella Syndrome, including deafness, cataracts, heart defects, neurological issues, and other significant problems. The risk goes down as pregnancy progresses.

This is what happened to my baby sister.

My mother had been mildly ill, and I had been, as well. My sister Madeleine was born blind and with heart defects. She lived only 6 months.

At the time (1950) there was no vaccine, but there is now. Today this loss would have been completely preventable by vaccination, not just for the mother but for all the people around her. This is a public health issue that involves us all.

So when I hear the anti-scientific justifications for refusing to vaccinate children, I think of the baby that could have lived and the grief that haunted my mother the rest of her life. I don’t care about personal choice or fears of governmental conspiracies. None of them count in my mind against the lives of my baby sister, and everyone’s sisters and brothers.

I honestly do not care what their reasons are. This is not a “tomaytoe, tomahtoe” discussion where understanding through respectful dialog is the goal. This is about whether we as human beings are capable of acting for our common good (which in this case includes protecting our most vulnerable from preventable severe disability and death itself), at the cost of a much smaller risk and a little inconvenience. Do not ever try to convince me that this area of public health is an infringement on civil liberties, or is a plot on the part of Big Pharma. My sister’s life was more precious than your conspiracy theories.


Fast forward to 2020. People are dying or suffering chronic, debilitating effects from Covid-19.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Short Book Reviews: Fear and Longing in 19th Century Spiritualism

House of the Patriarch
, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

This latest “Benjamin January” mystery begins with yet another commission to find a missing daughter. In this case, the lost girl is a young lady from a modestly well-to-do white family, recently introduced into society but given to fanciful questions. The last thing Ben wants is to leave his family and put himself at risk of being nabbed by slave-catchers, or worse. But the fee will mean his family’s security during a long lean season.

That said, House of the Patriarch stands apart in its depiction of the social experiments that flourished at the time. Spiritualism (séances, communicating with the dead), communal living, charismatic leaders, all abounded. The Mormon church and others trace their beginnings to this time. The “House” to which Ben ventures is the resident of one such leader. Since the leader has also a reputation for helping escaped slaves on their route to Canada, Ben disguises himself as such and quickly infiltrates the hidden areas of the house. Needless to say, plot twists and dark secrets abound.

Hambly marries her knowledge of history and social customs to a pitch-perfect story of human fears and longing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Today's Jane Austen Quote

Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra
“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” 

– Jane Austen, Letter to her sister

Monday, March 8, 2021

Guest Post: Deborah Grabien Says Rock and Roll Never Forgets

How I Accidentally Brushed George Harrison’s Hair

By Deborah Grabien


Since this is going to be all about interweaving real world Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame musicians with fictional musicians in a fictional band at the same level of stardom, let me throw this out there: Back in the day, just as 1970 was officially becoming 1971, I accidentally spent fifteen or so minutes playing with George Harrison's hair.

Yes, that that actually happened. And yes, there's a story in there, but it's not the story I want to tell, here. Nor is this simple name-dropping. What it does do is to hint at why, when writing fiction about a very public profession—in this case, a world-famous guitar player—the occasional presence of the actual real-world stars of that profession is inevitable.

In my day, I wrote—among many other things—two mystery series with music and musicians at their core. The first series, the Haunted Ballads, had a traditional Scots guitarist Ringan Laine and his theatrical troupe leader girlfriend Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes as the protagonists. In those, I learned how to be comfortable letting some of the genuine stars of British trad music filter through into my fictional setting. There were mentions of Ringan's band switching start times at a festival show with "Martin and Dave." I suspect most readers of the Haunted Ballads knew that I was talking about Martin Carthy and the late Fairport Convention fiddler, Dave Swarbrick. I did get some fan mail asking who some of the names belonged to. I still take pride in being able to steer them towards the legendary bands of that musical genre.

But the need to move actual musicians in and out of my own fictional universe really came with the JP Kinkaid Chronicles. John Kinkaid, when we meet him in the first of the eight Chronicles, is in his mid-fifties. He's an English ex-pat, who has lived in San Francisco for 25 years with his life partner, Bree Godwin. Like me, he's a guitarist with multiple sclerosis; those two things, music and MS, are not happy bedfellows.

JP is a touring musician with Blacklight, a fictional band roughly as successful, and nearly as long-lived, as the Rolling Stones. And since JP's voice is the voice of my own first love, legendary pianist Nicky Hopkins, some of JP's memories and experiences are drawn from the few years I spent doing very much what Bree does: being fierce about his health and safety, not wanting to step out of the shadows to do real shows (like JP, Nicky was unhappily married at the time), and just wish all this rock star stuff would disappear and leave me alone with him. But the reality is that, if JP is touring and recording at that level of stardom, he's going to interact with some real world legends.

It's tricky. For one thing, I have to be true to how the character would see, feel, speak, react. Since JP is narrator, he's not going to say "oh, yeah, then Heart came out and jammed with us." He wouldn't think that way. The band's official blogger might, but JP wouldn't.

So I took it on this way. From "Dead Flowers", Kinkaid #7. Bree is reacting hard to the woman fronting the opening act for JP's side band, The Fog City Geezers. And JP thinks she's jealous. As it turns out, she is, but he has the reason wrong, at least at first: 

"I didn't say freaked out, did I? I didn't say scared, either." We were eye to eye again, just enough moonlight to see what was happening in her face, and this time, I was keeping my voice even. "I said jealous. And yeah, I said nuts. Crikey, Bree, you'd have to be, to not trust me after all this time. So she plays a Les Paul, so what? You didn't lose it like this when we played with Heart, back on the Book of Days tour. Nancy Wilson didn't flip your switches, and if we're talking about a hot chick who knows her way around a Les Paul, she's the gold standard. So what the hell is the real story here? Because I don't buy that this is about Elaine Wilde being a musician, you know? Not unless you're jealous of that kid, as well."

Friday, March 5, 2021

Book Reviews: The Brutal and Hopeless Beauty of Ballet

 Bright Burning Stars, by A.K. Small (Algonquin Young Readers)

Ballet, for all its ethereal beauty, is brutal physically and even more devastating emotionally as young dancers distort their bodies and vie with one another for the precious few openings that lead to stardom. Nowhere is this pressure-cooker atmosphere more evident than in the boarding schools that feed dancers into prestigious companies. Bright Burning Stars examines the price of such success and asks whether a friendship can survive it.

The story centers on two young women in their final year at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Kate and Marine have been inseparable, best friends, declaring that if they cannot both receive the coveted Prize, neither will have it. As the year progresses, however, pressures mount. Marine, still unable to come to terms with the death of her twin brother who was her inspiration in ballet, descends into anorexia. Kate throws herself into an infatuation with the charismatic senior male dancer, with the result of an unintended pregnancy. Instead of drawing Kate and Marine closer for support, each turn for the worse only seems to widen the gulf between them.

The strengths of the story include strong, flowing prose; engaging characters that change and grow; a vivid depiction of a world that few outside the profession of ballet ever experience; a passionate portrayal of the sensual glory of ballet as an art form; and keen insight into the psychological and physical stresses on dancers. These are significant strengths, indeed, enough to captivate the reader. The narrative kept me turning the pages and caring about the fate of Kate and Marine.

On the down side, watching the two main characters slide into mental illness (for example, eating disorder, severe codependence, obsession, suicidal ideation) was unrelentingly grim. The absence of adult supervision and care was exemplified by the scene, late in the book, where Kate goes to the director with concerns about Marine’s life-threatening symptoms and is essentially blown off and accused of trying to eliminate a rival.

Either these young women are particularly dysfunctional or else the entire realm of ballet is remarkably deficient in healthy relationships. That much I could buy, however, and even the way the school encourages toxic competition at the expense of the health of its students. What was less believable was the ease with which Kate and Marine turned their lives around. Both suffer from serious disorders, neither receives competent psychotherapy – or any counseling at all – and yet a simple “realization” seems sufficient to resolve their problems.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Today's Jane Austen Quote

Jane Austen by her sister, Cassandra
“There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart.”

 – Jane Austen, Emma

Monday, March 1, 2021

[shameless self-promotion] Tanja Nathanael Reviews Collaborators

 Here's what literary scholar Tanja Nathanael says about Collaborators:

A deeply sympathetic portrayal from my friend and author Deborah J. Ross of the havoc that ensues when a damaged Earth ship arrives on an alien world. Misunderstandings and tragedies occur on both sides as a result of language and cultural differences. Most especially convincing, the Bandari--the feline gender fluid native population of the planet--are deftly constructed in terms of their biological, emotional, intellectual, and political motives. Like all good #scifibooks , Collaborators engages with the ethics of alien encounters and the consequences of making assumptions based on one's own limited world view.

Happy author smile!

Buying information:

Amazon (ebook and trade paperback) 

B & N (ebook, trade paperback, and hardcover/laminated cover) 


Ingram: (for your local bookstore orders)

Trade paperback: 9781952589003

Hardcover/dust jacket: 9781952589027

Also available from GooglePlay, Apple, and Overdrive