Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Browsing Category Blog

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Let there be cake!

Yeah, actually, I’m avoiding sugar this week, but I thought you all deserved a pointer to this delightfully-named cake. The recipe is at Smitten Kitchen and I would never have known about it except for a link via Maureen at By Singing Light.

Blueberry Boy Bait as posted at Smitten Kitchen

I mean, seriously, Boy Bait could have been blueberry gravy for meatloaf, garlic-pickled blueberries for a potato salad or any other unforutnate-sounding blueberry concoctions (though I now suspect it’s just a matter of time before someone emails me a blueberry gravy or pickled blueberry recipe; go on, bring it on, I guess I asked for it) and I probably would have still made it because: boy plus bait. If nothing else, the story would have had a great title.

Yep, great title, and the cake looks good, too, plus Maureen said:

I love the ridiculousness of the name, and the actual cake is SO GOOD. Buttery and delicious, with a little bit of cinnamon. I added more berries than the recipe called for but otherwise made it as written. And then I ate all of it.

Yeah, eating the whole cake, that would be me, which is why I’m not making any cake this week. Or next week. I splurged on ice cream last week and I’m still gently encouraging my weight to go back down. It’s like: one carton of ice cream = two pounds, sometimes three, and then it takes four or five days to coax those pounds back off. It didn’t used to BE that way. This is SO UNFAIR.

Two thumbs down on age-related metabolic changes; two thumbs up on low-carb diets that let you maintain a moderately acceptable weight without starving yourself.

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Things that don’t impress me

You know, one kind of post that is simultaneously helpful and annoying are these “Bookseller’s recommended August releases” posts, as here, for example, at tor.com.

It’s not that I don’t like knowing what’s coming out. It’s that I don’t buy for a second that these are lists of *recommended* titles. They’re just titles the bookseller thinks will sell a lot, end of story. Having kept an eye on these lists for some time, I must say, I don’t think for a second that the bookseller thinks these particular titles are especially outstanding or noteworthy or excellent. No. They’re just being pushed by their publisher, who is paying booksellers like Barnes and Noble to put the title front-and-center. Or they’re titles by famous authors that the bookseller plans to push on their own account. They are expected to be popular, excellence is optional.

Or that’s how these lists always come across to me, anyway.

I prefer the occasional emails I get from Goodreads: Forthcoming titles by authors whose books you love. Of course Goodreads can do that, because they can tailor the email you get based on the reviews you’ve written in the past. There’s no implication: THIS IS GREAT. Instead, it’s a simpler message: YOU MIGHT LIKE THIS ONE TOO. That’s a lot more helpful and less eye-rollingly OOH FAMOUS AUTHOR HERE than the lists you see from Barnes and Nobel’s acquisitions people.

Having said that, FINE, I’m definite interested in two of the titles on this particular Barnes and Nobel list: Magic Shifts, by Ilona Andrews; and The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin. Though I gather the latter is the beginning of a new trilogy, so no rush, no rush, I do not really want to find out if there is a cliffhanger the hard way. I’ll let someone else read it first and point that out before I touch it.

Meanwhile, just out: A Wish Upon Jasmine by Laura Florand has just hit the shelves. Mmmm. It’ll be a book to cuddle up with, I’m sure.

Also, for something completely different and not at all cuddly, Dan Well’s newest John Cleever book, The Devil’s Only Friend, was recently released. I may not read that for a while since it is also the first book of a new trilogy. But in the past, Wells has done a good job of tying each book up well enough, so maybe I’ll read it soonish after all.

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Bridges are magical

Really. That’s why you always are dying to run across any bridge you see, right?

Here are a couple of magical bridges I’ve collected from Twitter:

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A bridge AND a lighthouse! What could be more magical? We need a white horse on that bridge. I’m thinking the white horse from Helprin’s A WINTER’S TALE would look great on this bridge.

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Mmmm. Serene. Who would resist a romantic stroll across this bridge in the springtime?

And my favorite bridge ever, which I would totally put in a book except I’m not sure how to capture it properly in words:

Leshan Bridge

This is Leshan bridge in Sichuan. It is plainly magical. I bet if you cross it at just the right moment, it takes you to an alternate China filled with dragons and phoenixes.

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How to destroy love of reading

This link via @HoppingReads on Twitter: 6 WAYS TEACHERS KILL THE JOY OF READING

I don’t actually agree with quite all of these, unusually for me, because I do think it’s pretty easy to think of ways teachers accidentally kill the joy of reading in the classroom. But here are the six ways, briefly — click through to see the more extensive comments in the post —

1. Assigning particular novels

2. Telling students not to read ahead

3. Rolling your eyes at particular choices of free-reading material (eg, graphic novels)

4. Not reading in class every day

5. Assigning book reports

6. Not celebrating the joy of reading

I totally agree with #2 and #3 and #6. Those seem like absolute no-brainers.

Not assigning particular novels? Uh, if you want to have a class discussion about a novel, and you want the whole class to be able to participate, and oh by the way if you think it might be nice if students were exposed to some of the great books that form part of the overarching cultural backdrop, then yes, you are going to have to assign particular novels.

The author of the post, Mark Barnes, says that for example some students may be turned off by the genre of the chosen novel. So? Maybe students should be exposed to genres they think they hate. If the teacher picks great books, most of the class will hopefully like them. And if not, well, you don’t have to love *every* book that is assigned. I say this even though I hated nearly every book that was assigned to me. I don’t think that’s necessary if teachers would only step back from only assigning horrible tragic grim books all the time. Of course I’ve posted about that before.

Okay, and: Not assigning book reports. Believe me, I see illiterate students all the time. Students who have never written a book report and, in fact, cannot write. IMO, it is not possible to assign too many written assignments in the lower grades, with a concentration on writing sentences that say what you think they say, on producing a coherent argument backed up by evidence, and yes, on grammar.

Mind you, I can’t see the point of the trivial pursuit type of worksheet to which Barnes refers. Stupidest question I ever heard of a teacher putting on a test: “What were the spokes of Apollo’s chariot made out of?” This became the classic stupid question in my family.

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Ever read a book that didn’t end?

So, I just finished reading Harry Turtledove’s HOMEWARD BOUND, which is the eighth and last book of his alien-invasion alternate history Worldwar series. The series goes: Worldwar Books 1-4; Colonization 1-3, and then Homeward Bound, which is where a small number of humans visit the Lizard home world. I must admit, I skipped over the Colonization trilogy. I liked the Worldwar series okay, but not enough to want to read another zillion pages in the universe. I found there were enough references to important events of the Colonization trilogy in HOMEWARD BOUND that having skipped them was no trouble.

So.

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This may be the least-finished story I have ever read. I mean, of stories that are meant to be taken as finished; not stories like McKinley’s PEGASUS which are just stalled.

I’m almost sure I picked this book up at a library sale. I had it on my TBR shelves for a long time, along with the first Worldwar book. Homeward Bound came out in 2004, so I presume if Turtledove meant to publish other works in this universe, he would already have done so. I mean, he’s written plenty of books since. So he must think he’s finished with this world.

Well, I don’t think so. I thought it just . . . petered out. The big question, about whether there would be an immense war that would wind up destroying all three planets of the Lizards and probably Earth as well? Yeah, don’t know. Maybe it’s going to happen a week after the book closes, maybe it’s not going to happen at all, no way to guess. The lives of the important characters? Nope, no feeling of completion there, either. It’s like their character arcs go up . . . and start down . . . and then just fade away without reaching any kind of resolution. It’s really rather odd.

My final take on this book and the series generally.

1. The history elements are awesome. You can sure tell Turtledove is all about the history.

2. The writing is adequate, if unexciting. Turtledove could have cut at least 50 pages from each book, maybe more, if he had stopped repeating himself so much. WE GET THAT LUDMILLA’S PLANE IS ITTY-BITTY. We don’t have to hear about that every. single. time. that Ludmilla appears for an entire four-book series. This kind of repetition applies to absolutely everything. I got the feeling that Turtledove just doesn’t trust his readers to remember anything for more than 30 pages. It was tiresome. Other than that, though, the writing was fine.

3. Man, I SO expected Colonel Heinrich Jäger to shoot Hitler. I mean, isn’t part of the fun of writing WWII alternate history getting to have someone shoot Hitler? I could not believe this didn’t happen.

4. The Lizards are pathetic. If your planet is going to be invaded by aliens, these are the aliens to choose. They are technologically static, almost unable to adapt to unexpected circumstances, utterly entirely unable to comprehend other species’ point of view, completely unprepared for conquered populations to resent and try to sabotage them, and — get this — they find ginger extraordinarily addictive and it all but destroys what small ability to cope they have.

Also, as an entirely separate issue that probably does not annoy most readers, socially, the Lizards are not believable. I see no possible way to get lack of family bonds in a social species. It doesn’t matter that there are no male-female pair bonds. When a female lays eggs, she is 50% related to each potential hatchling and it is not possible for that not to matter. When the young hatch, they are on average 50% related to one another, and in a social species that is going to matter, too. In any group, you will be much more closely related to some individuals than others. You WILL get preferential care of your OWN relatives under those circumstances. Shoot, little corn snakes, with no brains to speak of and no social behavior that matters, curl up around their eggs and guard them. And crocodilians makes snakes look just sad when it comes to maternal care. The lack of family bonds in Lizards is just impossible. Therefore the lack of any family or tribal structure in modern Lizards is not believable, either.

Back to the Lizards in story terms, though. Everyone, both Lizard and human, seem convinced that if the Lizards had invaded a few hundred years earlier, they’d have walked right over the knights-in-shining-armor that were the height of human technology at the time. Because of the thing with repetition, we get to hear various characters say so over … and over … and over. Well, I’m not convinced. Remember Anderson’s THE HIGH CRUSADE? I can totally see that scenario playing out in Turtledove’s universe.

5. I felt really bad for Uzzmak. I would never have wound up his story the way Turtledove did. No, not even to make the Soviets look brutal. They looked brutal enough without that.

6. The technological twist that is so important in HOMEWARD BOUND is beyond predictable. You can see it coming not just from miles away, but from light years away.

7. There is no ending. Here is how I would have ended the story: I would have startled everyone, Lizard and human alike, by having another alien species unexpectedly show up with FTL drive and unknown technological capabilities. Wow, I bet NOW both Lizards and humans are WAY less eager to go to war and destroy each other. Who knows if they’ll suddenly need all their resources for other purposes? Maybe they’ll even need each other as allies! The one thing we know for sure is that Lizards and humans can work together if they have to — maybe that might prove of overwhelming importance, huh? And you know who might be pretty good as an ambassador to a brand-new totally unknown species? Why, Sam Yeager, that’s who, and no doubt his son Jonathon, and shoot, maybe Kassquit and Donald might themselves particularly well-suited to that kind of effort. NOW we can resolve some of those character arcs as well as the overall situation.

I really, honestly thought Turtledove might do that. In fact, I was more than half convinced that was going to happen. But, no.

So. As alternate history, I guess the series is fine (I’m not the best judge of the subgenre). As a novel of first contact, the aliens are too inferior to humans and it’s really annoying. As a story, though the initial four-book series concludes properly and I presume the Colonization trilogy most likely does as well, the series as a whole offers very little sense of arriving somewhere or accomplishing something.

General rating: I dunno. Six out of ten for the Worldwar quadrilogy, maybe six and a half. Five out of ten for HOMEWARD BOUND, maybe four.

If you’ve read this series, did you also feel that it didn’t really end and did you feel that was a problem?

Can anybody else offer an example of a story that just seemed to peter out without actually ending?

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Finished!

I moved THE WHITE ROAD to the “Finished” folder from the “In Progress” folder Sunday evening.

Woo hoo! No better feeling.

468 pages, 147,000 words. That is longer than I think is ideal, and anyway, my books nearly always improve with some hatchet work. This is not necessarily true; the saying is that every book is improved by being cut 10%, but I have heard of writers who ADD 10% or more to finished manuscripts, fleshing them out, so like any other truism, you need to take the so-called rule with a grain of salt.

But for me . . . I would like to cut this right back to 400 pages or so, about 120,000 words. That is my average finished length and for me a 15% cut is generally about right.

I have 38 notes to myself about stuff to fix. I sorted them out into “trivial”, “plot issues”, and “character issues,” and I will deal with them in that order. For me, it’s easier to nerve myself up for working through the trivial fixes, plus I can do those along with the first read-through-and-cut pass through the draft. Then, with the story more complete and fresh in my head, I can deal with the far more demanding character issues.

Stuff that surprised me in THE WHITE ROAD:

1. I did not have a good feel for the actual personalities of some of the important characters till right close to the end. That is why the character issues loom so large for the revision.

2. I was still fiddling with the actual plot till I was right at the ending.

3. About 20 pages from the end, I killed a character. I did not see that coming until it happened. I’m not 100% sure that character is going to stay dead. I may change how that worked. But it sure avoids the feeling that things have worked out too pat for everyone. Anyway, I’ve never sudden unexpected death strike down a character before. I sort of thought I was supposed to see that kind of thing coming.

Anyway, regardless of revision work, it’s deeply satisfying to type “the end” across the page and declare the draft complete.

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I’m sure you’ve all heard about this possible Earth-like planet —

National Geographic announces the discovery of a planet smack dab in its sun’s habitable zone.

I’ve been hearing about this as a planet “slightly larger than Earth.” That appears to be an exaggeration, because apparently this planet is actually about 2.5 times the size of Earth, which is pretty big. Still, the sun is similar to our sun, the planet is located in just the right spot . . . raise your hand if you are dying to take a closer look at it.

I KNOW, right?

It’s 600 light years away, so alas, not much chance of getting a real look at it any time soon.

They’re going to try to get a decent estimate of its mass next. Mass = density times volume, so if we’ve got the mass and the volume, we can calculate density and thus figure out if there’s a lot of water on this planet.

Exciting times, exciting times. First Pluto turns out to have all these weird features and then we find this potentially Earth-like planet.

Little planets like this are tough to find, but I bet this one won’t be the last we find in its star’s habitable zone.

Neptune-Kepler22b-Earth-full

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The gift of names

For no reason in particular, I was thinking about character names in SFF. Generally I think about that when starting a new book, not when finishing a book. I mean, I might re-name a few characters in THE WHITE ROAD so as to avoid having two important characters whose names begin with the same letter of the alphabet. My eye occasionally confuses them, and that means trouble for the reader, so yeah, I’ll probably change one name or the other. But it’s when generally when starting a new book that one must develop naming conventions (for secondary world fantasy) or pick contemporary names that sound right for the characters (also difficult), so that’s when I usually think more about names.

However! Three categories of good SFF names:

1. Names based on real languages, but that show you’re not scared to challenge your readers: Meadhbh in ARAFEL’S SAGA by CJ Cherryh. Oh, did I love the names in this book when I was a kid! *Loved* them! CJC gave me a taste for Celtic languages that remains to this day. I have myself deliberately avoided really difficult names since so many readers commented negatively about the griffins’ names in The Griffin Mage trilogy, but I will never really understand not loving complicated names.

2. Names that just sound good: Kaoren Ruuel in The Touchstone Trilogy by Andrea K Höst. Some authors just have a knack for creating names that look right on the page and sound good to a subvocalizer like me.

3. Names that are easy to pronounce, based on familiar language, and yet utterly creative and different: Butterflies Are Free Saint Sincere in the Hellflower trilogy by Eluki bes Shahar. There is hardly another story out there with such a distinctive, fun use of language, and this name! It is beyond wonderful.

Then, you know, every now and then there is unfortunately an author who appears to have the anti-gift for names. I’m thinking here of Raymond Feist’s Magician, a good trilogy, but with the primary protagonist named Pug.

Pug.

This is a pug:

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It is charming, I grant you.

Pug puppies are particularly adorable:

Pug-playing-with-ball

Could anything be cuter?

As a name for your protagonist, however, “Pug” is surely a contender for the very, very worst name you could possibly choose. When Feist had his protagonist go back to that name after becoming a powerful magician, it was . . . well, let’s just say that Feist’s decision to do that left me speechless.

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Are you sure this is the future?

So, if we’re living in the future, where’s all the Cool Stuff? Don’t tell me about smartphones. I’m used to smartphones. What I want is a flying car.

But what I want waaaay more than that is a house where every horizontal surface repels dust.

If you gather from this that I have started dusting a significant number of horizontal surfaces in my house you are right! It is going to take days because I don’t want to do a huge marathon session. Dusting the kitchen island takes 45 minutes (I timed it). Dusting all the other counters and surfaces in and around the kitchen also takes a lot of time, particularly, I admit, when you have to put away accumulated clutter and therefore have to decide where to put everything.

I want the many, many books to repel dust, too. I have about 100 cookbooks displayed on the island, which is why it takes so long to dust; they all have to be picked up and dusted individually before the island itself can be dusted. Then they all have to be put back.

While we’re at it, I want the dogs’ hair to repel mulch bits and damp grass and burrs. I know, I know, I could have Italian Greyhounds and then it wouldn’t be a problem. But do you realize it took 25 minutes to brush the grass bits out of their hair this morning? I knew it was going to be like that because the grass just got mowed a couple of days ago and there’s so much dew. But they really enjoyed their run. Alas, a little too much. I’m sure that bird was dead already or Ish would never have got it. It was totally not his fault. It was a thrush, I think, and it sure seemed old enough to fly. At least he let me have it so I could throw it over the fence. Not sure there’s any imaginable techno-fix for that kind of thing.

However!

If you have a minute, check out this list of Futuristic Stuff via buzzfeed. Me, I particularly admire the wastebasket that moves over to catch the paper you throw at it. I never, ever hit my wastebasket. I always, always have to get up and pick up balled up paper from the floor and put it in there.

The tree removal device is by far the scariest.

The handiest to avoid everyday annoyance is perhaps the zipper. Or the extreme stain resistance of the clothing.

And yes, okay, fine, I do appreciate my smartphone, too.

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Top Ten Authors I Most Wish Had Written Lots More Books

Elaine T mentioned Cordwainer Smith in a recent comment, and you know, it made me realize that he belongs to the broad category of Authors Who Unfortunately Wrote Just A Few Books.

It’s a shame how some fine authors write just one or a few books and then vanish from the scene for one reason or another. Here are a handful of authors I wish had a backlist about an order of magnitude greater than actually exists:

1. Cordwainer Smith, actually Dr. Paul Linebarger, wrote peculiar stories set in a peculiar far-future. His stories are simply not like anything else in SFF. At the time he wrote them, they were unique; today, they are still unique. Mostly they were shorter works, though NORSTRILIA was novel-length. It’s a real tragedy that he died young, having written just that handful of stories and single novel.

2. Doris Egan. She wrote the Ivory trilogy, which I love, and CITY OF DIAMOND (as Jane Emerson), which was far from flawless — it has a kitchen-sink clutter to it — but which I also love. There was plenty of room in both worlds to go on and I very much wish she had, but she switched to writing TV shows instead.

3. Janet Kagan wrote the Star Trek tie-in novel UHURA’S SONG, one of my great favorites; also HELLSPARK and MIRABILE, both of which I loved. Unfortunately she did not go on with her writing career and then passed away in 2008.

4. Emma Bull. I know, I know, she participated in the Shadow Unit shared world stories, along with Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette and others. The first book in that series is free, by the way. I really enjoyed that series, but I would love to see Emma Bull go on and write some more actual novels. I really enjoyed WAR FOR THE OAKS, which I see now has a contender for Worst Cover Ever:

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Who in the blazes came up with that cover for WAR FOR THE OAKS? Man, that’s bad.

Also, I wonder if Bull will ever actually write the other half of TERRITORY? Cause along with McKinley’s PEGASUS, that is the unfinished duology I would most like to see finished.

4. Barry Hughart. BRIDGE OF BIRDS and its two sequels are so charming, but I believe I heard that he simply felt he was done writing after that one trilogy. What a shame.

5. Zenna Henderson. Such charming stories. Alas, she only produced a relative handful of stories. They’re all short work, but mostly linked.

6. Joy Chant. I really enjoyed RED MOON AND BLACK MOUNTAIN, a rather odd but very lyrical portal story. Chant wrote a few other books, too, but this was my favorite.

7. Marta Randall. She wrote half a dozen or so novels. THE SWORD OF WINTER was my favorite of hers.

8. I’m not going to get quite to ten, but the final author I’d just like to mention is . . . Jane Austen. If her life and publishing career had not been cut tragically short, just think how many more books of hers would now be on our shelves.

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