Category Archives: Literature

My vote for the Nobel Peace Prize: the girl who defied the Taliban.

Sometimes there are people who seem to have guts and moral fibre that leave the rest of us behind. 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck a year ago by the Taliban, for advocating that girls should be allowed to go to school.

MalalaShe had been writing a blog about life in the Swat Valley, where the Talibs were gradually taking over, forcing girls’ schools to close by threats of violence. Violence was so common that one day, when her younger brother was playing in their front yard, she asked what he was doing. “Digging a grave,” he answered. The Taliban found where Malala went to school, got on her bus and fired. The results became world news. After surgery and rehab in England, she is now (this Wednesday) on the anniversary of the attack talking about her future. She can’t go back to Pakistan yet, but she wants to improve her education, and keep pushing.

She has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a long shot, since there are over 200 nominees. But I hope she gets it.

Malala reminds me a lot of people who have stood up against injustice, and/or to promote the cause of women. Rosa Parks may not have been shot or lynched  for refusing to go to the back of the bus with the “coloured folk,” in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, but she could have been. Protesters in Egypt two years ago risked death in the hope of democracy. Aun Sung Sui Kee endured 20 years of house arrest in Burma for upsetting the military by winning a democratic election.

The world needs more Malalas. The world need more people like you and I to give to charities that are specifically directed to educating girls in third world countries. The world needs people to put their money where their mouth is.

Malala has a book out, the kindle version is here, and there is a paperback in Book Depository.

Best wishes until next week.


How many characters spoil the plot?

Last night I saw Prometheus, the supposed prequel to 1973 film Alien, with Sigourney Weaver. Frankly, the plot didn’t impress me, and the film suffered from what I suspect is a common fault in films and books: too many “main” characters. It becomes difficult to emotionally identify with any one character. I felt no real identification with any of the on-screen characters in Prometheus. When I think back over some of the best films, there are usually one or two, maybe three main characters, but that’s the limit. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoohas Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Poster for 1984, from Wikipedia

Catch 22 has Captain Yossarian. We see the other characters, but none of them gets even remotely equal time with Yossarian.  George Orwell’s 1984 has Winston Smith. As best I recall we never see his lover, Julia, nor his torturer, O’Brien, without him. As a result, we are totally invested in Winston. Even though Harry Potter has Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, and Snape, we know who the main character is. (And Rowling had the advantage of seven books over which to tell her story.) Steel Magnolias had half a dozen, but we are mostly invested in Julia Roberts, as Shelby, who is diabetic, not expected to be able to carry a child, and becomes pregnant anyway. She needs a kidney transplant, gets it, it fails, and finally she has to be disconnected from life support.

In order for me to be invested in the fate of a character, they need to be centre-front. They need to have a problem I can identify with.

So what about you? Do too many characters make it hard for you to get invested in a film or book? What’s your limit? what do you prefer? when you think about the films you thought were “best” films, how many lead characters did they have?

(On an unrelated topic, Piper Bayard and Holmes have an interesting article on spy ships between WWI and WWII. at

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My novel ‘Fire Damage,’ an action thriller, is available on Amazon Kindle, at:
The novel is based on the Japanese religious cult Aum Shinrikyo, which released Sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s. If you don’t have a Kindle, you can download the app to read it on your computer or phone from here:

Should novels have a “Moral”?

I recently posted this a facebook page to do with fiction writing, in response to a thread, “Do you think a fictional story should teach (or attempt to teach) a moral lesson?”

Should novels ” teach a moral lesson?” Well it depends on what you want. If I want to learn something theological, I’ll buy a theology book. If I want to know why an author claims that evolutionary biology supports atheism, I’ll buy something by Richard Dawkins. If I want to earn about a certain political view, I’ll buy a book from someone in that political movement. If I read Aayan Hirsi Ali about her experiences growing up Muslim, I know what I’m in for: but she writes as a polemicist, not a novelist.

But if I buy a thriller – and pay money -and THEN discover that I’m getting someone’s political or theological view  I’m likely to get a little irritated and think that my $10 (or whatever) has obtained under false pretenses.

An example is Michael Chrichton’s State of Fear. I know it got to #1, and  I do like Michael Crichton – I have several books of his on my shelf. But in State of Fear, one of his characters gave long lectures about how climate change modeling doesn’t prove anything. Well of course it doesn’t. Modelling never does. A model consistes largely of beliefs put into eqautions and then distured in some way: If we assume, or believe, that the world includes like A, B and C which between them produce X, and we change C by this much, the result is  X changes this much. Of course the model doesnt proove that climate change is real: that’s not a model’s job. They illustrate.

Chrighton’s points would be appropriate (or not) in a scientific work if it had come from a reputable scientist. Crichton stuck in numerous footnotes and graphs to plug his views: I thought footnotes in a thriller??)  For me they became, a boring and tedious diversion from the plot . Chrichton is entitled to his view, and he’s entitled to give lectures and write a straightforward polemical book about this. And he IS entitled to write the novel he did if that’s what he wants. We all have our rights. But doing this  comes at a cost. The cost is detracting from the quality of the novel by making his characters clumsy mouthpieces for his own views.

If you want the novel to have a ‘moral’ it requires great subtlety. “The Other Boleyn Girl” might  be read as a story with a moral about getting too involved in high stakes conniving and double dealing when you can’t control the one thing your life will ultimately depend upon (the ability to produce a live baby boy.) But it doesn’t have a character who constantly preaches that Ann will end up dead. We can see the risks she’s running for ourselves. The readers have brains. (And some readers know their history.) If you want to have a moral in your story, a bit of subtlety and ambiguity go a long way: try My Sister’s Keeper by Jody Picoult.

But Michael Crighton obviously disagrees. and his not here to defend himself. He died just after the book was published. It’s a pity. I would have liked to read more of him – but without the footnotes and graphs.