History is written by the victors. But not all the victors will find their deserved place in history. This is my remembrance of a small victor, a country caught in the whirlwind of the Great War that no school kid outside its borders will ever write a social studies assignment on. My high school student son couldn’t. His topic was Russia in the Great War. The other two “angles” he could’ve chosen from were the big Allies states, or the states of the Central Powers.

This small country which won the Great War also paid the highest price for its victory: it lost one quarter of its total population and sixty percent of its army.

Photo by Oscar Nord on Unsplash

On June 28, 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a 19-year-old, young nationalist (fanatic, patriot, terrorist – he’s been different things to different people, there will never be a consensus about him) from Bosnia killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, in Sarajevo. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had illegally occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina some time earlier, was quick to blame the small Balkan Kingdom of Serbia for this act. Princip was a Bosnian Serb, after all; he’d lived there for some time. Princip was a teenager who had dreamed a Pan-Slavic dream – the state for all south Slavs – Yugoslavia – with Serbia as its “Piedmont”. (“Yug” means “south” in south Slavic languages.) He’d  been connected to some extreme nationalistic groups in Serbia, true, but certainly not with the government. Serbia, which had fought for freedom from the five-century-long Ottoman rule less than fifty years before, yet still had to fight the Turks in 1912, and then Bulgaria in 1913, didn’t need nor want another war. The insane act of Gavrilo (“Gabriel”) Princip and his group ignited the war that would have happened anyway. They didn’t cause it, even though they have been blamed for it since then. (This part, history didn’t forget. Funny, but no one blames the victorious Allies for setting the stage for WWII by imposing the humiliating and impossible war reparations on Germany after WWI. Even the former U.S. president, Clinton, in his arrogance and disturbing lack of knowledge of modern history, blamed Serbia, in one of his speeches, for starting not only WWI but WWII as well.)

Yet, a month later, in July 1914, after Serbia refused only one of a long list of humiliating terms of an Austro-Hungarian ultimatum, the mighty Empire, the huge multinational country with 52.8 million people and one of the greatest military powers of its time, declared war upon the tiny Kingdom of Serbia, whose population was 4.5 million.

Germany followed suit and in the next few days, the Allies and the Central Powers declared war upon each other. Within weeks, almost the whole world was in flames.

The Austro-Hungarian Army invaded Serbia in August 1914. And then the impossible happened. The much smaller and poorly-armed Serbian soldiers, most of them drafted peasants, won two big battles – those of Cer and Kolubara – and pushed the enemy back over the Drina River, the border between Serbia and Austria-Hungary. The Battle of Cer (Cer is a mountain in Serbia; the world itself means ‘oak’), under the command of General – later Field marshal, or Duke, the highest military rank in Serbian Army – Stepa Stepanović, is still considered a “masterpiece of the art of war and it’s studied, even today, in many serious military academies, including West Point, as an example of the shift from strategic defense to counter-attack.” In November, General Živojin Mišić, who would later also became a field marshal/duke, won the Kolubara Battle. These were the two first Allies’ victories in the Great War.

This embedded composition, The March to Drina, was composed in honour of the victory at Cer and the commander of the elite Iron Regiment, who had been killed in the battle.

In 1915, Austro-Hungarians and Germans occupied the larger part of Serbia and the capital, Belgrade. Bulgarians attacked Serbia without declaring war, preventing their retreat toward Greece. The Supreme Command of the Serbian Army decided to withdraw toward the Adriatic Sea through Albania. There, France and Italy would help the army to recover and return back to Serbia. That was the plan.

The withdrawal lasted from November 24th to December 21st 1915. It was an event unknown in the war’s history. The bulk of the army, civilians, the entire government, the Supreme Mommand, King Peter (already in his seventies and sick), the diplomats, writers, poets, painters, actors… children, young, old… set off across the snowy Albanian mountains toward the sea.  Hungry, poorly dressed, with very few weapons, with thousands of wounded and sick… It’s said that King Peter crossed Albania riding on an ox cart. The soldiers carried the old and gravely ill Field marshal Radomir Putnik, the Head of the Supreme Command, in an improvised wooden litter, a vertical rectangular box with a  slot so that light could get in. Later he would joke that it was like a coffin with a window.

About 72,000 people died on the narrow, icy roads of the Albanian mountains. Those who made it to the shores of the Adriatic Sea soon realized there was no one waiting for them there. No allies, no food, no clothes, no help.

After weeks of long negotiations, the Allies, mainly French and Italians, finally transported them to the Greek island of Corfu – around 160,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians. For thousands and thousands it was too late. At first they were buried on the islands, later in the Ionian Sea – more than 10,000 people.

The survivors were sent back to the Salonica Front in Greece in spring of 1916. After heavy losses – more than 4,000 soldiers – they liberated the town of Bitola in Macedonia, but all further actions were ceased due to problems on other fronts. The army would stay on Salonica Front fighting until the fall of 1918, losing almost 10,000 people.

In September 1918, a breakthrough was made. As a part of the Allied forces, the Serbian Army under the command of Field marshal Petar Bojović launched an attack, breaking the main part of the front. They entered Skoplje on September 25th. Four days later, Bulgaria surrendered. The First Army liberated Niš, and on November 1st they victoriously marched in Belgrade. On November 3rd, Austria-Hungary capitulated, followed by her allies. Soon, it would cease to exist, along with two other empires – the Ottoman and the Russian.

The small Balkan kingdom would soon fulfill Gavrilo Princip’s dream. On December 1st, several South Slavic nations would unite in the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. This “association”, the naive vision and hope of pan-utopians, idealists and romantics wouldn’t last long and wouldn’t make anyone happy. It would break twice, in 1941 and again in 1991 in two devastating wars. But this is another tale, one I won’t attempt to write about.

This story of unimaginable suffering, terrible loss and incredible moral strength is mostly forgotten. It should not be, but it is – that’s the fate of the small and less significant. We often forget that wars, victories, losses, destruction… are wars, victories, losses and destruction, equally tragic to everyone. They don’t happen only to big and powerful countries. Others suffer, too, no matter how small they seem in the great scheme of things.

Every man’s death diminishes all of us, to paraphrase John Donne. May all those killed and perished in the Great War rest in peace, no matter the side they fought on. Millions suffered: the same pain, same wounds, visible and invisible, some that healed by time, some never. Indirectly, this is my story, and that’s why I wanted to tell it: my own Austrian grandfather fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army on the Eastern Front. When he returned from a Russian war prison in 1920, he married my Serbian grandmother.

But this memento mori is my personal homage to a small, brave and forgotten victor of the Great War and my tribute to one-eighth of my own blood.

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The nightmare is almost over

I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again – they are a nightmare, but after days of thinking, checking the shelves and shelves of fiction novels, writing and rewriting, I think Book 1 of The Red Cliffs Chronicles is covered — I have the title, the tag line, and the blurb! (The title and the tag line are revealed at the end of the post and the blurb — 98 words! — is under the picture.)

To come up with this blurb also meant reading tons of online blogs and articles. One of them, which I found particularly helpful, seemed to summarize everything I’d read elsewhere. I’m sure these will sound familiar, but here they are, nicely listed.

Meet Astrid Vandermeer and Jack Canagan – a young wizardess unaware of her legacy, and a wolf-man hesitant to take over his responsibility.
Until their paths cross.
Between them and the future – an ancient alliance to honour, a brutal enemy to outwit, a war to win.
Drawn to each other by a higher power neither of them understands, tied by unbreakable bonds they had no choice but to accept, Astrid and Jack know that the unimaginable still could happen and that they could lose everything… including each other.
Did destiny bring them together only to separate them for an eternity?

Look at samples – find the bestsellers in your genre and read their blurbs. Couldn’t argue with that. I found many decent examples (not a single one that left me awed, though) as well as plenty that didn’t follow most of the basic rules, particularly when it came to the length.

Make your first sentence like a pick-up line. Lots of readers don’t read past the first sentence, the article states, so it should have the greatest impact. It should, “entice them to read on. It needs to be clever, engaging and new.” (Funny that the first sentence of their example of a good blurb, that of The Girl on the Train, is everything but “clever, engaging and new”. It says, “Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning.” )

Use the ABCD formula. A blurb begins with A – a situation, introduces B – a problem, promises C – a twist and emphasizes D – the mood.

Introduce your main characters, end it with a cliffhanger, use words that evoke the genre (in my blurb these are “ancient alliance”, “legacy”, “bond”, etc.) as well as hyperbolic and emotionally charged words and phrases  (“brutal enemy”, “higher power”,  “unbreakable bonds”, “unimaginable”).

Keep it short. They say, 100-150 words. Amazon doesn’t give you lots of space, and if it’s longer than that, readers will need to click on ‘read more’ to see the rest.

Well, about this one… I can’t recollect the last time I didn’t need to click on “read more”. Nor I think this is necessarily a turn off. Amazon doesn’t allow you even 100 words, and squeezing the entire novel into 60 or 70 words might be counterproductive, unless you’re a blurb genius and can pull it off. This is what you see when you go to Amazon and look for the mentioned example, The Girl on the Train.

This is the Number One Bestseller. You Dont Know Her. But She Knows You. Rear Window meets Gone Girl, in this exceptional and startling psychological thriller “Gripping, enthralling – a top-notch thriller and a compulsive read.” (S J WATSON, bestselling author of Before I Go To Sleep). Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess 

Only 90 words is how much space Amazon allowed for this novel. Besides, this is a clumsy looking blurb, with at least one typo and a few grammar errors (something an indie author would’ve never been forgiven for) and it cuts you off rather absurdly on the word “Jess”. The beginning “You Dont Know Her. But She Knows You” is, I guess, a tag line. The blurb experts also warn not to reveal the plot, no matter how tempting it is. This blurb does. The moment I read “Rear Window” and Hitchcockian thriller, I knew the direction in which the plot was going to develop. I knew who the killer was before I read the first third of the book. So much for being exceptional, gripping and startling. All the excitement fizzled out on page 86.

Having said all this, I’m glad that titles, blurbs and covers aren’t the exclusive ways to find a good book.

So, the title will likely be

The Two-blood Legacy

The Red Cliffs Chronicles, book 1

and the tag-line, the last sentence of the blurb:

Did destiny bring them together only to separate them for an eternity?

The next nightmare – the cover.

*Photo courtesy of Linda Xu on Unsplash

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The Meaning of Rosebud

Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. Once I told someone I had the same dress.

“…When I was five, my grandfather had bought me a picture book collection of fairy tales. It’d included, among others, my favorite princess stories: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and Beauty and the Beast.

I’d fallen in love with the illustrations. The princesses were lovely and wore brightly colored baroque gowns with deep necklines, narrow waistline and cascades of brocade and silk supported by wide hoops. In my young imagination, the princes, with their pageboy haircuts, sweet faces and flamboyant clothes, represented the epitome of male beauty. I think I had my first crush on one of them.

Cinderella in her beautiful gown and her prince with the pageboy haircut.

Most vividly I remembered the fairy godmother from Cinderella. Unlike her plump, grandmotherly Disney counterpart wrapped in a shapeless cloak, that particular fairy godmother was a young woman in a beautiful bluish-white organdy gown. She looked more like Cinderella’s best friend than her fairy godmother.

That was the image that immediately popped up in my mind when Morgaine, the Ellida of Gelltydd Coch clan, stepped into the hallway…”

BFFs – The beautiful Fairy Godmother and her protege.

The true story that inspired this episode from my book goes like this: when I was five, my aunt bought me a collection of sixteen fairy tales. Beauty and the Beast, my favorite, wasn’t among them. I was already familiar with the stories, but the illustrations… Oh! My five-year-old mind was absolutely fascinated, my imagination on fire. Thanks to them, I began to dream, to create my own world and live happily in it. I’ve never stopped.

In my own version, the dwarfs left the forest with SW and her prince and lived in the palace. They also deserved their HEA, didn’t they?

Those picture books, of course, weren’t my first experience with children’s literature, but their influence was profound. I would entertain myself for hours by continuing those stories, adding new characters and twists, imagining the palaces and gardens. Risen by loving grandparents, but deprived of the company of peers, I wasn’t lonely anymore. All of a sudden, I could have everything I was lacking – parents, siblings, other children… I only needed to close my eyes.

Later, I’d learn how to do that with my eyes open.

Just awoken, Sleeping Beauty is riding to her new home. The SB illustrations resemble the simple elegance of medieval tapestries compared to the baroque splendor of Cinderella.

I soon became a passionate reader and much, much later a writer — those fairy tales had planted the seeds. When I turned seven and left my grandparents, the books stayed there. I had to hand them over to the future generations – my younger sister, who’d just replaced me at my grandparents’ home, and even younger cousins. All I could take with me were those stories and pictures stored in my memory, and a hope that my successors wouldn’t ruin my books–still in pristine condition–in my absence.

And then, one summer, when I returned, they weren’t there anymore.

Not until the Internet age was I able to track them down. It still took me forever, but a few years ago, I bought twelve from an online seller, among them Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. I’m still searching for the four that I’m missing.

The cover of SB.

Sometimes–not often–I take them from the shelf and I look at them — my ‘rosebud’, the symbol of childhood innocence and true happiness. Right, Mr. Welles?

About the illustrator: The collection is illustrated by F. Nerri, an Italian watercolor painter. I couldn’t find much about him on the Internet. All the covers for this collection were made in the same elaborate, vibrant manner that evokes the grandeur of the of times of Charles Perrault (1628-1703), who re-told those fairy tales. Inside, however, Nerri used many styles and techniques to match the stories (Aladdin, for example, is very different from Sleeping Beauty, or Alice in Wonderland from The Little Mermaid). It seems to me that he tried to suggest the geographical origins as well as the epoque when some stories appeared or were for the first time recorded, situating, through his illustrations, for example, Sleeping Beauty in the late medieval/early renaissance age, but Cinderella in some later times.

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The Autumn That Didn’t Happen

Unbelievable! My last post was from July (and it wasn’t mine, strictly speaking). Where did August and September go?

It’s already winter. Fall is always short here, everyone knows that, but it’s never happened that it missed us completely.

Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

A quick update: as of this week, my novella is not free anymore on Voracious Readers Only. I had more than 400 requests for downloads. I got quite a few great reviews (as well as a couple of awful ones). The best thing of all was that some readers contacted me, asking if I had anything else written. I offered them my two novels to read. They genuinely liked them and promised to write reviews once I publish them.

Once I publish them…

The first novel, still without a title, is with my editor now. Besides the title, which should be pretty/poetic, imply the genre (urban fantasy/supernatural romance), and contain the right keyword(s) (Moon, moonlight, shadow, blood, wolf), I have to come up with a blurb, a tagline, and ideas for the cover. And then everything again, for the second book. I’m not looking forward to this part at all. (At least I’m done with changing the names. About that, next time.)

And I miss writing. I’ve been tangled up with this re-writing, editing and futile marketing efforts for way too long. I yearn to open a new Word document and type in that first sentence of a new story.

But before that, as I said, there is still that mountain that I have to cross: the blurbs, the taglines, the covers, possibly a new pen name…

… and the titles. I gave titles to thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, yet I’m helpless when it comes to my own books.

I came up with some ideas, though.

A Song of Light and Shadow (too much George R. R. Martinish?)

A Dance of Light and Shadow (same as above)

The Pull of the Moon (too flat?) The Lure of the Moon(?)

Moon Light, Moon Bright (too kitschy?)

The Forever Side of the Moon (I like this one)

The Edge of the Moon

I’ll give you my heart under the light of the Moon (I kinda like this one, too, but I’m not sure it fits the genre). And it’s a bit too long.

Written in Crimson and Silver

Both books belong to the Red Cliffs Chronicles series.

So what do you think about these titles? I’ll be grateful for any input.

And thanks in advance.



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A Curator of Dreams

I am not a big poetry person, but I do like some poets and poetesses. One of them is Dieu Dinh, who I would like to introduce in this post. Dieu writes poetry about the little things she observes in life. From a lonely winter day in the park, to the small gestures of love, Dieu expresses those quiet moments of life that are both subtle and potent. Sometimes she takes pictures, sometimes she writes, and sometimes she makes art, all of which are a curation of her thoughts and dreams. “After Bei Dao” is one of her poems that I like very much.

Image courtesy of Unsplash


After Bei Dao


Between me and the world
you are an echo, a cathedral,
a silence between two breaths,
a murmur, a photograph,
a hidden word at the center of my dream.

Between me and the world
you are an eclipse, a blade,
a tree I would like to climb,
a halo, a mosaic,
a childhood toy lost then found.

Between me and the world
you are a soliloquy, a blanket,
a deep well among the sands,
a bell, a lighthouse,
a map leading me home.

Between me and the world,
you are a lullaby, a flickering flame,
a smile masked by night,
a prism, an etching,
a book of secrets never read.

Between me and the world,
you are a carousel, an arabesque,
a hesitation before the leap,
a cliff, a constellation,
a sky revealing everything.

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Smashwords’s Summer/Winter Sale Specials July 1-31

Once Upon a Night is among hundreds of other books that are FREE to download during

Smashwords’s Summer/Winter Sale Specials July 1-31

The Smashowrds membership is also free.

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Story of O, dark and beautiful

Story of O was so beautifully written that this alone should’ve been enough to give it literary credibility.

I recently read the 1954 infamous, mysterious and controversial short novel by French author Pauline Réage.

When it was published, the book caused a considerable upheaval. Nobody knew who wrote it. Nobody knew what to say and how to approach it, so they did the worst thing—they labeled it wrongly as pornography. The theme was sexual submission, a highly improper issue in the times of post-WWII propriety, and unbending moral values.

It was easy not to see the forest for the trees.

Why the pornography tag persisted for decades is beyond comprehension. Story of O was so beautifully written that this alone should’ve been enough to give it literary credibility.

The movie from the 1970’s based on the book, which I did watch, fascinated me on a superficial level, although I didn’t find any true value in it.  I don’t know enough about the art of film to prove it. But thanks to it, I neglected to read the book. It is pornography, after all, isn’t it?

It’s not. It’s a masterpiece.

Even to say that Story of O is an erotic novel, let alone pornographic, would be wrong. Story of O is many things but foremost an allegory, a probe into the subject of human submissiveness and dominance on the absolute level, not just sexual. S/D is one of the basic human relationships, after all. Most of us are submissive to some (your boss, your military superior, your parents, partners…) and dominant over some others (the people we supervise at work, our children, our partners). Most of these S/D relationships are considered normal. They are sanctioned by law, customs, habits, regulations. They’re deeply rooted in our psychology.  This is the way we function—socially, emotionally, biologically.

What is submission? Dominance in disguise?

Pauline Réage throws us a challenge by taking this natural order of things to an extreme level and presenting us with (some of) the possible consequences.

How far are we ready to go? Where is the line? Can human isolation and loneliness be so profound that some of us can’t find ourselves within us but only within another human being? Where we stop being us and become someone else? (Can I live if living is without you?) How far would the other person go to dominate us, and what kind of need does he/she have to fulfill through dominance?

What is submission then? Dominance in disguise? And vice versa.

It opens many other questions–of freedom, freedom of choice, absence of love, perception of love, alienation… name it.

Story of O had two endings, cleverly interwoven in the last paragraph/epilogue. Pauline Réage leaves it to us to chose how to conclude her story in our imagination.

But which ending did she chose? For some reason, it was important to me to know. (Once someone asked Margaret Mitchell what happened to Scarlet O’Hara after Reth Butler had left. She became a better woman, Mitchell said, but she never had him back. I always find this interesting.)

Story of O will always make me feel uneasy. Like every great book should.

I didn’t get it right away. So indefinitely sad was I for days that I couldn’t see it. I felt the same heartbreaking sorrow as after reading some other ‘small books’: Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, or Anna, Sorror by Margaret Yourcenar, or Embers by Sandor Marai. Masterpieces often come in small packages indeed. I actually really like Story of O in the above mentioned company of powerful small books. It is its right place.

Then, only days after I read Story of O, I stumbled upon (and isn’t that fascinating!) another small literary gem, Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Anne Rice, whose story is based on Story of O, understood Pauline Réage’s novel so well that she was able to give us the definitive answer to that question with her own ending. And yes, we chose the same one, Pauline Réage, Anne Rice and I. It helped my sadness to disappear, although Story of O (as well as The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty) will always make me feel uneasy. Like every great book should.

Decades after being published, Story of O continues to inspire writers, albeit with various success. The wildly popular Fifty Shades saga was also inspired by it, but it’s like a glass imitation of a genuine diamond. Or, if you like, a McDonald’s Happy Meal in comparison to the finest foie gras on a toasted French baguette, to stay close to the geographical origins of the novel.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that one of my favourite pop fiction authors, Sylvia Day, wrote an introduction to one of the latest editions of Story of O. Her insight is interesting—yet another facet of this phenomenally complex novel.

About the terrific Sylvia Day perhaps some other time. I’ll be back to the topic of erotica as well. There are four erotic novels that I’ve been madly in love with for years…



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