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Wait, what’s that definition of “dystopia” again?

January 30th, 2015

There’s a particularly interesting book in the latest SFBC mailing:


Okay, first observation: That is an intriguing title. For a change, it is not a cop-out to use the main character’s name as a title, because “Ice Cream Star” as a name? Wow. Frankly, I would have used just that and not added “The Country of”.

Here is what the SFBC says about this title:

In the ruins of a future America, fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star and her nomadic tribe live off the detritus of a crumbled civilization. Theirs is a world of children; before reaching the age of twenty, they all die of a mysterious disease they call Posies — a plague that has killed for generations. There is no medicine, no treatment; only the mysterious rumors of a cure.

When her brother begins showing signs of the disease, Ice Cream Star sets off on a bold journey to find the cure. Travelling hundreds of miles across treacherous unfamiliar territory, she will experience love, heartbreak, cruelty, terror and betrayal, fighting with her whole heart and soul to protect the only world she has ever known.

And here’s what Booklist said: “A richly detailed dystopian epic . . . this suspenseful, provocative tale is The Hunger Games meets Lord of the Flies and The Walking Dead, only much, much better.”

I have to say, the phrase “The Hunger Games meets …” annoys me. The whole point of The Hunger Games is to rebel against and eventually pull down a horribly repressive central government. The games are totally artificial in that world. I doubt there’s anything game-like about the world of Ice Cream Star.

So, the book has forty reviews on Goodreads so far and a rating of 3.62. Goodreads uses the same back cover copy as the SFBC, but adds a couple of short paragraphs, including this one: A postapocalyptic literary epic as imaginative as The Passage and as linguistically ambitious as Cloud Atlas, The Country of Ice Cream Star is a breathtaking work from a writer of rare and unconventional talent.

I would say that Goodreads got it right and Booklist got it wrong: this is plainly postapocalyptic, but also plainly not dystopian. Because don’t we generally consider a powerful repressive government part of the definition of “dystopia” when we are talking about current SFF? I sure thought so. Plainly this society, such as it is, must be an anarchy. I don’t know that it’s possible for children to build any kind of greater society, even if they have generations to do so. Notwithstanding Alexander the Great, who started conquering the world before he turned twenty. He did it with lots and lots of adult soldiers. How could you possibly accumulate power or pass it on intact if everyone dies before twenty? Or knowledge, or experience. I don’t think writing alone will do it — and anyway, how are you going to pass along written language under these circumstances? So, anarchy.

Anyway, I’ve been known to enjoy postapocalyptic stories, but this one . . . it sounds good, but hmm. Look at this review from Goodreads, from Scott Rose, posted Oct 8 2014: “As so many others have pointed out, the invented dialect was of the type that I just couldn’t get past. I found myself trying so hard to “just get used to it” to no avail. I must have picked this book up and put it down so many times that that should have been my first sign that it just wasn’t for me.”

Ah. Good to know: the book is written in dialect. That’s very reasonable given the world as designed: generations of kids living in an anarchic world. Of course they’d be speaking some kind of nonstandard dialect by this time. If the author did a good job, this could be fascinating and wonderful. The commenter above obviously hated it.

But here’s another commenter, Megz on June 19 2014: “One thing that takes a while to get used to is the language. Newman has essentially created a new dialect for her characters – I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a new language, but it is kind of a Pidgin English, although that’s not all too fair because it is not at all simplified. It reminds me a little of Valleysmen in Cloud Atlas. Eventually I really started enjoying this dialect, because it’s kind of similar to the way that I think, sometimes. Newman also REALLY displays her prowess when she brings other dialects into her story with other communities.”

That sounds really interesting. I’m putting this book on my Wishlist just for that. It’s not possible to get a sample yet, as the book isn’t officially out, but you can “look inside” from Amazon, so here’s a sample. I hope you appreciate that I had to look back and forth a million times to type this:

My name be Ice Cream Fifteen Star. My brother be Driver Eighteen Star and my ghost brother Mo-Jacques Five Star, dead when I myself was only six years old. Still my heart is rain for him, my brother dead of posies little.

My mother and my grands and my great grands been Sengle pure. My people be a tarry night sort, and we skinny and long. My brother Driver climb a tree with only hands, because our bones so light, our muscles fortey strong. We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see. Other children go deranged and unpredictable for our love.

We Sengles be a wandering sort. We never grown nothing from anything, never had no tato patch nor cornfield. Be thieves, and brave to hunt. A Sengle hungry even when he eat, even when he rich, he still want to grab and rob, he hungry for something he ain’t never seen nor thought of. We was so proud, we was ridiculous as wild animals, but we was bell and strong.

So, hmm. This is quite something for Sandra Newman to even attempt. Newman has been around for a while, apparently, writing books about classical Greece and the Incan Empire and so on for kids, and things like The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner. I’m impressed and intrigued by what she tried to do with this one, I’ll definitely try a sample and take a look at it, and kudos to the publisher (Ecco; HarperCollins) for taking a chance on a book that must surely be limited in appeal in ways that books like, say, Divergent just aren’t.

Incidentally, I saw a link yesterday . . . oh here it is: a middle school reading list from 1908 compared with a reading list today.

I expect it’s true that many schools and teachers are now emphasizing modern books with familiar vocabulary and syntax, much more so than a hundred years ago. The specific samples provided in the article are actually painful to compare (Nothing But the Truth vs Longfellow’s Evangeline). The former is . . . words fail me, but I would not assign this book in any class ever. It looks like reading it would be like reading one long text message of a kid to his best friend. All those exclamation points make my eyes bleed and the sample provided is just one paragraph. You can take this as a warning if you click through.

Anyway, any young readers who have encountered, both in and out of school, mostly stories written in modern super-casual English, well, yeah, I bet a lot of them will indeed bounce off Ice Cream Starpretty hard.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 30th, 2015
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Capturing truth

January 29th, 2015

So, I was just reading Patricia Briggs THE HOB’S BARGAIN, a book someone loaned me, so I had to try to read it fairly fast, obviously. I’ve read all of Briggs’ UF, but not all of her secondary-world fantasy, and this was one I hadn’t gotten around to in the past.


I still like Briggs’ UF best, I think, but I definitely did enjoy this book. The cover pictured above is a good one, that looks about right for the hob. The world is one in which magic was bound a long time ago and has just been released, and stuff happens. The story is fine, but here’s the bit I wanted to pull out:

[I said] “The deeds of the mercenaries must fall upon their captain’s back.” Every man is responsible for his own actions, I thought. But there was too much guilt here. If we didn’t give some of it to the dead, we would all drown in it.

And that, it seems to me, goes beyond the kind of observation where you nod and move on, and into a phrase that kind of captures some basic truth about the human condition in a nutshell. Pretty awesome when you can pull that off! Though no doubt the one phrase that jumps out at a particular reader will vary. But the above is one of just a handful of moments I can think of when an author neatly captured a truth in one pithy phrase or a couple of sentences.

Another for me came in Sharon Shinn’s book FORTUNE AND FATE, when Wen is talking to Justin, and says something like: “I just don’t know how I can go on after that.” And Justin answers, “But, Wen, you already have.”

For me, that moment perfectly captures a basic truth about going on after tragedy: that you just do go on, and eventually you look back and realize that life didn’t stop after all.

Another author who caught something of the same idea was Barbara Hambly in THE DARK HAND OF MAGIC, which was by no means my favorite in that series, incidentally. Things are so unrelentingly bad for so long in that book! Even though the story ends well enough, it’s just such a slog to get to the ending. But at one point, a character who has had both his daughters murdered says, “I mean, I know I’ll get over it. I mean, people do.”

You can just *hear* how emotionally drained that character is at this point in the book. At least in context, you can.

On a lighter note, did anybody besides me have this bit leap out at them from Bujold’s A CIVIL CAMPAIGN?

“Adulthood isn’t a prize they give you for being a good child. You can waste . . . years, trying to get someone to give respect to you, as though it were a sort of promotion or raise in pay. If only you do enough, if only you are good enough. No. You have to just . . . take it. Give it to yourself, I suppose. Say, I’m sorry you feel like that, and walk away.”

Talk about capturing an important truth! Who doesn’t need to hear someone point that out, at some point in their teens or twenties, or even when they’re older?

One more: I don’t remember it exactly and don’t have the book, but there’s one moment in one of Rex Stout’s NERO WOLFE mysteries where Nero says something like this to Archie, after Archie has just failed to save a woman from a murderer: “Archie, you can’t be held responsible for failings you share with all of humanity, such as lack of omniscience.”

Yep, that’s just about perfect.

I do wonder sometimes whether many (most? any?) other readers find themselves stopping at those particular lines, or what lines I just read over that stop other readers.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 29th, 2015
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On naming characters and places

January 28th, 2015

This post by Brenda W. Clough at Book View Cafe caught my eye this morning. In particular, I liked this bit:

In this day of interconnectivity, it takes maybe five minutes to find the top-rated Chicago-style pizza restaurant in downtown Ulan Baator or the highlands just outside Luang Prabang. Just fish it up off of Yelp, and send your characters over for a pie and a brew. You can probably view the menu on the restaurant’s web site, look at the street facade through Google, and email the owner for permission to reproduce the sign on the book cover.

That’s so true! It’s not just names. I have an idea what New England towns look like, but I totally called up images of Vermont towns when writing BLACK DOG and PURE MAGIC and the associated short stories. Those street level view are so awesom!

Of course there’s a big difference between naming characters and places in contemporary or contemporary-ish settings, vs secondary world settings.

Brenda Clough’s written related posts, on contemporary and fantasy names. I must say, I didn’t do this for my BLACK DOG names:

All names, and in fact all terms and invented places, should be shoved through Google. If someone with your hero’s name was just executed in Beijing for sex crimes, you want to know this. You say nobody will likely notice? It is possible you will sell those Chinese-language rights, you know.

That’s true, come to think of it. I ought to have googled my names. Oops. As far as I know, the only character I have with someone’s real name is a minor character in PURE MAGIC who happens to have the name of my agent’s grandfather, or something like that.

For contemporary names, one great resource which Clough doesn’t mention is the website Behind the Name, which lets you dig into not just the origin of names, but trends in popularity over time and stuff like that. I admit that most often I just open a phone book and flip through it till I find names that “feel right.”

Or, for secondary world fantasy, I open a foreign language dictionary and start picking out words and switching letters around. Granted, that added a layer of weirdness to The Griffin Mage trilogy when it came out in Germany: I’d used German to create the sounds of the Prechen language, and then naturally some of my names sounded very strange to German speakers, so they went through and re-named some of the characters and places when doing the translation (with my permission) (which I would have been insane to withhold).

I wonder how “Katherine Addison” created her names and words for THE GOBLIN EMPEROR? That one was, for me, the one that stood out for names and words last year.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 28th, 2015
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Finished! For about the fifth time with this manuscript.

January 26th, 2015

Sometimes the concept of “finished” gets stretched a bit, but still, I have indeed gotten all of THE MOUNTAIN OF KEPT MEMORY revised. It started with two pov protagonists and now one of them has been removed completely and replaced with a character who used to be an important secondary character. And the plot has been adjusted, of course, to make that work. And the plot has also been tightened up in ways that were obvious to me now, even though I didn’t perceive the plot as not-tight-enough earlier.

This isn’t really finished-finished, though. Here are the next steps:

1. Wait a week or so and then reread from the top for continuity and characterization. Oressa is now twenty rather than fifteen and so far I haven’t paid much attention to adjusting her pov to reflect the difference. I have quite a few boldfaced bits scattered through the back half of the manuscript, each of which is meant to call my attention to something that may be out of continuity or ought to be foreshadowed or whatever. I feel like some later scenes may not work, but maybe they do, a re-read from the top may let me figure out which. Also, the manuscript is 132,000 words right now, which is okay — this is adult fantasy — but I expect that the story would only improve if I cut it by about 10,000 words. Every manuscript benefits from a sharp knife at the end, in my experience.

After I do all that, I will once again move this manuscript from the “in progress” folder to the “finished” folder. But even then it won’t really be finished-finished. Next, I will:

2. Send the manuscript to Caitlin and get her take on it. She is especially good with plot and pacing. I like to have a manuscript just as good as possible before my editor sees it, so I will revise according to her comments.

3. Send the manuscript to Navah. Eventually I will then get an editorial letter. I will once again revise the manuscript.

4. Repeat (3), hopefully just once but twice is not unusual.

5. At that point, the manuscript is as close to basically finished as makes no difference. There will be copy edits to go over, and right at the end, page proofs that must be read through carefully because it’s your very last chance to tweak and correct minor things. After the page proofs are sent in, you are indeed finished-finished. After that, the only step is to admire your finished book on the shelves. For MOUNTAIN, that will be . . . I can’t remember. Either spring or fall 2016, with THE KEEPER OF THE MISTS released at the other season.

So, anyway, finished this step of the revision on Saturday at nine pm, which was very satisfactory, because it let me close down my laptop and pick up THE SHADOWED THRONE by Django Wexler. Which I liked a lot, but not as much as the first book. Because . . . I’m not sure. Because political intrigue doesn’t do it for me as much as a military campaign? Because there was more character growth in the first book? Because the first book felt more focused, even though there were almost as many pov characters? Maybe for all those reasons. I liked the new characters very much, but of course every page you spend with some new character is a page you are not spending with an established character. It’s tough when your pov characters start to multiply: we have three important pov protagonists now (rather than two) and three important secondary characters, and that’s a lot, even before you get to the plethora of less-important secondary characters. I would say that THE SHADOWED THRONE does feel like a middle book in a series. There’s lots of good stuff in it, and it is self-contained enough not to be frustrating, but you can see where the story is going to open up again in the next book.

Then I watched — I know I am behind the times here — “Ender’s Game.” I thought it was actually rather dreadful. It’s interesting because it stuck to the book much more than, say “Winter’s Tale,” and ordinarily I would think that would be an advantage, but not this time. In “Winter’s Tale,” limiting and altering the plot created a story that flowed rather well despite the sharp discontinuity in time. In “Ender’s Game,” though we hit many of the important scenes from the book, I felt zero emotional involvement with Ender or any other character. It was as though, in order to fit the movie in two hours, we had about a quarter of each important scene and basically no transitional scenes in between. There was no way to fall into the movie, because the flow was not there. It even lacked visual impact on my tv, though maybe it had at least that on the big screen. Frankly, Julia Ecklar’s “Tin Soldier” song captured the book better in five minutes than the movie did in two hours.

Or that was my take. I’d be curious to know how you all felt about “Ender’s Game.” I’m re-reading bits of the book now in order to clear the movie out of my head. And I will put the movie on the give-away pile, because I can’t imagine I will want to re-watch it. Very disappointing.

Tonight: I could go on with another novel from my potential-Hugo stack, but in fact I don’t like to read one really good book right after another. I enjoy good books more if I put a day or so between them. So I will probably work on a light revision of THE WHITE ROAD OF THE MOON partial so I can send that to Michelle. I would like a thumb’s-up on the partial before I really get into writing the rest of the book. I expect to really start work on that in June. It’s due in September, which means it will be my big project for the summer.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 26th, 2015
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Accumulating “samples”

January 24th, 2015

This “try a sample” feature on Amazon is a pretty snazzy thing, which I know is not a revelation to anyone, but still.

I mean, I do just buy a lot of books outright if they’re not too expensive — a debut title that sounds promising, a familiar author’s new release, a title by someone I know, a title recommended by someone whose taste reliably aligns with mine, a Kindle Daily Deal title that sounds interesting or is by someone I know. Anyway, so far this year I’ve bought six books:

Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout, because of his Twitter comment when I was reading DWJ’s Eight Days of Luke, and also because I’ve wanted to try his adult titles anyway, he’s funny on Twitter, and we share an agent. Now I have two of his adult titles on my TBR shelves.

Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond, because I’ve met her and I know she’s excited about this title and it was a Kindle daily deal and not only is that good for me, it’s good for the author to have her daily deal title bounce as much as possible.

Show Me the Murder by Carolyn Mulford, because Janet Reid said something about it that made me think I would like it and because it wasn’t too expensive.

Palace of Spies by Sarah Zettel because I’ve wanted to try something of hers for a whie.

Mercenary Instinct, by “Ruby Lionsdrake”, which is the rather, uh, dramatic pen name of Lindsay Buroker, who was experimenting to see what she could do with an unknown pen name.

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre, because you all made me.

But I’ve also picked up more samples than usual. As it happens, samples bug me. They sit there saying, “Thumbs up or Thumbs down? Can we make a decision? This decision is WAITING FOR YOU TO MAKE IT.” So I will definitely be reading them soon and deciding whether to buy the book AND that means that I will probably read them before I read ANY of the actual full books I have available.

And that is why I like the sample feature on Amazon, as an author and as a reader. Because there have to be other people who feel that way about samples, and it’s good for authors to have people kind of feel like they must get around to trying your book because the sample is sitting there.

Anyway, samples. Naturally it’s a good idea to give a book several pages or a chapter before making a decision, and ordinarily (though not always) a sample is about long enough to do that. Even so, as you know, I like to look at the first couple of sentences just to see how that looks. So, here are the samples I have currently sitting on my Kindle, each with a tiny little snippet:

Broken Trust by Thomas Maurin because someone on Goodreads recommended it and why not? It’s supposed to be a edge-of-the-seat financial thriller.

Two women in black stood next to their priest on the stairs of St. Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Varna, the bustling Bulgarian shipping city on the Black Sea between Romania and Turkey. A heavy scent of incense wafted out of the open doors. This church had served the women’s large extended family since 1865. Now, family and friends carried three heavy caskets toward idling hearses. The women watched with immobile faces.

So, setting the scene. Reading ahead a bit, I can see that the women are not happy about losing their loved ones and that an investigation of the deaths is probably what we’ll start with. I wouldn’t necessarily have explained to the reader where Varna is and that it is a bustling port city; to me that seems a bit infodumpy, but it’s just one sentence, I’d definitely read on before deciding. And if this is going to pick up into a page-turner of a thriller, then I bet stuff will start happening sooner rather than later. Let’s see what’s going on by the time we reach the end of the sample.

Grand Central Arena by Ryk Spoor, because Elaine T recommended it a few days ago in a comment, and it sounds fun.

“Watch that next keyhole, Ariane, that bastard’s going to try to force a scrape – or worse!”

Ariane Austin heard the concerned voice in her helmet as she pulled round the third turn, spinning Whip Hand and then relaxing the gyros, lining up the nuclear rocket blast through instinct and experience, firing to skirt the marker asteroid and get on a vector to pass through the next course obstacle – the “keyhole” that Carl had mentioned. The power of the rocket pinned her to the acceleration chair with the thrilling force she sometimes felt was drawn from and through her, making her feel a part of the little racing ship.

Oh, it’s fine, it’s fine. Nothing especially catchy. However, the book description makes me pretty sure I will really enjoy this one when it gets going. I’m looking forward to it, actually. It just sounds fun. I want to see Our Heroes actually in the arena, so if they haven’t gotten there by the end of the sample, I will probably simply get the book and go on.

A Veiled Antiquity by Rett MacPhearson because I met her at Archon and I thought I’d like to try one of her books.

I marched across the street still in my vintage clothing from the tour I had just finished. I wore a pink paisley-print gown with wide lapels, a high neck, puffed sleeves, and straight skirt. On my head was a large flowered hat that matched the dress. In one hand I carried a lace-trimmed parasol. In the other was a copy of the town newspaper.

I was a woman on a mission.

My mission was to find and strangle Eleanore Murdoch, the town gossip and inkslinger.

Not bad! The narrator is obviously on her way to hand somebody her head for something, so I’ll let that situation unroll and then we’ll see. Since I’ve met the author personally, I’m fairly likely to buy her book if it looks okay, even if I’m not as interested in contemporary settings as F / SF and historical.

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray, because someone or other recommended Libba Bray. Oh, I think that might have been people at Archon.

A word from your sponsor: This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this. According to the U.S. Department of Unnecessary Statistics, your chances of dying in a plane crash are one in half a million. Whereas your chances of losing your bathing suit bottoms to a strong tide are two to one. So, all in all, it’s safer to fly than to go to beach. As said, this book begins with a plane crash. But there are survivors. You see? Already it’s a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. You do not need to know their names here. But you will get to know them. They are each nice girls. Yes, they are nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls who happen to have interests in baton twirling, sign language, AIDS prevention in the animal population, the ancient preparation of popadam, feminine firearms, interpretive dance, and sequins. Such a happy story. And shiny, too.

This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better ™ . We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading. If you should happen to notice anything suspicious in the coming pages, do alert the proper authorities.

My goodness. That’s kind of fabulous. What an unexpected beginning. I would be astonished if I don’t buy this book, and then look up other titles by Libba Bray.

A Taste of the Nightlife by Sarah Zettel, because though I haven’t read the book by her I got this year, when I try a new-to-me author who keeps getting recommended, I generally want to look at more than one book. There are a whole lot of authors I love who have written one or two books I didn’t like, so trying more than one of an author’s books seems better than trying just one, and this one looks like a good contrast to her title listed above, which looks like it has a more Regency setting. This one looks like light UF.

“Charlotte! We got Anatole Sevarin!”

I replied to this news with the most reasonable words in the most reasonable tone I could manage: “Get out of my kitchen!”

In case you think I overreacted, let me tell you that my kitchen is in the back of Nightlife, the restaurant I co-own with my brother, Chet. . . . It was Friday night and the house was packed. Because we cater to vampires, paranormals and their guests, our dinner rush happens later than at most places, even in autumn, but I’d already been on my feet for eight hours . . . and in another hour the vampire theater crowd would be out looking for someplace to eat. We had to get those full tables served, satisfied, and cleared.

Okay, you can see the tone at once, I think. Don’t you think it looks like a cheerful, not-very-serious urban fantasy? Probably rather fluffy. Something to read when you don’t necessarily want All The Feels. While not particularly compelling, when I’m on my next UF kick, I might enjoy trying this. Of course I will read the full sample first and then decide.

The Gatekeeper’s Son by CR Fladmark; I have no idea why I got this sample. Someone must have said something about it, but I don’t remember. Let’s take a look at the first few lines:

I waved at the security cameras as I crossed the cobblestones and headed toward the arched gateway of the old carriage house, and the wrought-iron gates began to swing inward. A little creepy, I always thought, but convenient. Behind me, the street sloped down a steep hill lined with manicured gardens. The Crescent was home to some of the finest mansions in San Francisco, including my grandpa’s.

I was about to enter the driveway when I felt a weird sensation on the back of my neck, a tingling, like hot water hitting cold hands. I turned back to the street and looked around. The street was empty, nothing out of place – except the girl.

Well, it’s okay, but not too catchy. This one has an Asian thing going on, judging from the cover. For this one, let me quote the back cover copy:

Junya’s grandfather is a billionaire who keeps the secret to his success hidden in a heavily guarded safe. His mother is a martial artist who wields a razor-sharp katana—and seems to read his mind. And a mysterious girl in a Japanese school uniform can knock him over—literally—with just a look. What do they know that he doesn’t? Junya’s life takes a dangerous turn on his sixteenth birthday, … Junya’s journey takes him from the narrow streets of San Francisco to Japan, and through hidden portals to the top of the ancient Japanese Izumo Shinto shrine, to places where death and violence are a way of life. And in a mystical world he’s never imagined, he finds his true destiny.

Yeah, NOW I can see why I wanted to take a look at this one. This is a book where the beginning lines are just okay, but the description is excellent.

Alternate Susan by Kater Cheek, I believe because of a mention at World Fantasy last fall.

I realized I was in an alternate reality when I came home Thursday night and tried to order pizza.

What a fun sentence! I don’t need to quote more than just this one sentence, this is catchy right here.

Okay, that’s it: the current samples on my Kindle. Do you all like and use the sample function, and do you think the sample generally gives you enough to go on? Every now and then the whole thing is taken up by, I don’t know, the table of contents and then an infodumpy prologue, and that’s generally not very appealing. I don’t know how samples are set up or how much choice the author has, but really, it would be a question whether to skip straight to chapter one for some books. In Libba Bray’s case above, though, the prologue is amazingly catchy.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 24th, 2015
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I didn’t even know this was possible: a condensed “Hobbit” movie

January 23rd, 2015

From, a link to a site called Tolkien Editor, where we get a description of how the Tolkien Editor cut Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy into a single four-hour movie.

Let me start by saying that I enjoy many aspects of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Overall, however, I felt that the story was spoiled by an interminable running time, unengaging plot tangents and constant narrative filibustering. What especially saddened me was how Bilbo (the supposed protagonist of the story) was rendered absent for large portions of the final two films.

Now, I wasn’t at all engaged by the movie trilogy, not just for the reasons Tolkien Editor gives, but because of substantial silliness. The ridiculous (though charming) bunny chariot! I loved it, but it was beyond silly. That fight with the orcs in their underground city? Our Heroes would have been so, so, so dead. It was all spectacle, no believability. The elf-dwarf romance subplot? Oh, come on!

Tolkien editor cuts almost all of that and reframes the movie around Bilbo. It’s fascinating to read about the choices made in this condensation.

Apparently there’s a way to download the condensed movie. I’m curious enough that I’d try it, but my connection is awfully slow from my house, so slow that I doubt it’s possible. But such a fascinating project!

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 23rd, 2015
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Ah, here we are: Hugo nominations

January 23rd, 2015

Trust to keep us apprised of this kind of thing! I’m glad to see that Hugo nominations are now open for works published in 2014, because for a change I have read enough works from 2014 to have a nomination slate in mind. And nominations don’t close till March, so there’s time to read more stuff, too!

Who is eligible to nominate? Here is what says:

Anyone who is or was a voting member of the 2014, 2015, or 2016 Worldcons by the end of the day (Pacific Time/GMT – 8) on January 31, 2015 is eligible to nominate. You may nominate only once, regardless of how many of those three Worldcons you are a member.

And that’s fine for me, because I am going to go register for the 2016 WorldCon in Kansas City in about a minute. I definitely plan to attend the 2016 WorldCon because (a) Kansas City! That is not as good for me as St. Louis, but it is (very) drivable, whereas Spokane (the site of WorldCon this year) would definitely require a plane ticket. And also because (b) I will have two traditionally published books coming out in 2016, so I would kind of want to go anyway.

Here, in case you are interested, is the nominating ballot.

And in case you, like me, are from the Midwest and are possibly interested in attending the 2016 WorldCon, here is a link for registering.

Now: A nominating slate. Of course BLACK DOG is eligible and I suppose I might nominate it, because hey. BUT! Here are the titles I definitely plan to nominate and will hoping lots of other people nominate:

THE GOBLIN EMPEROR by “Katherine Addison.” One of my favorite books published last year, with astounding depth of worldbuilding on an intimate scale and one of my favorite protagonists ever. Also, I’m hoping that if this one gets on the ballot for the Hugo and Nebula, Sarah Monette will get a nudge from her publisher to write a sequel. I really want a sequel!

A DARKLING SEA by James Cambias, because of his admirable job developing the world and those alien species.

I think there was something else that I’ve already read that I wanted to nominate; I’ll have to think about that. But there are a good number of books I want to read because I think there’s a fair chance I will want to nominate them. These are all second or third books in series, which in fact I am not necessarily keen on nominating unless they totally stand on their own and are great books on their own, without reference to the first book. That is not always the easiest standard to meet, obviously, and if I love a series enough I may bend on either or both of those points, because hey, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, as whoever it was said.

So, these titles include:

ANCILLARY SWORD by Ann Leckie. Since her first book won last year, I will be somewhat less inclined to nominate the second, on the grounds that probably other people will (which is fine) and I would rather see more different authors on the ballot instead of the same ones in consecutive years. But if I think the book is too great to pass over, I’ll nominate it anyway.

THE SHADOW THRONE by Django Wexler. THE THOUSAND NAMES was my second-favorite fantasy title last year. If I love this second book enough, I would be happy to nominate it.

TROPIC OF SERPENTS by Marie Brennen. The first book was very much a first book, setting up the world. I thought Brennen did an outstanding job with that, but I wonder if I might like the second book even better now that the story is underway. I must admit that the beautiful job Tor did with the actual physical book doesn’t hurt, though I do think any title should be judged exclusively on the story, really.

STELES OF THE SKY by Elizabeth Bear. I have only read the first book of this trilogy, but the depth of worldbuilding (on a broad scale) was so impressive. This is a true epic fantasy. I admired so much about the first book. If the whole series is that good, I will be happy to nominate this book.

As a happy consequence of wanting to participate in nominations this year, I will be compelled to read all those books before March. So in fact to make sure I get through them all, I will probably read them in the next couple of weeks, after I finish revising MOUNTAIN (nearly done!), while I am letting the manuscript rest before reading through it again for continuity and other small-scale stuff.

Okay! What am I missing or forgetting? Please chime in with novels you definitely feel ought to be nominated, and if I possibly can add them to the To Be Read Immediately stack, I will.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 23rd, 2015
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Bedtime reading: why didn’t I think of this before?

January 22nd, 2015

So, a day or so ago, I found out that this new mattress company, Casper, is running a creative promotion in honor of National Readathon Day, which it turns out is on January 24th. Who knew? Never heard of it, but hey, up with National Readathon Day, although I doubt very much I will be reading any great novel on Saturday because my current revision (MOUNTAIN) is sort of not done yet. But it’s kinda clever that a mattress company would encourage blog posts about bedtime reading. One can see that they’d like to know about avid readers settling into their bed with a good book. I’m sure they’d be pleased if anybody else jumped in with posts on the topic, and as it happens, it’s a suggestion that caught my eye because I actually only just started reading in bed a couple of months ago.

I didn’t start reading in bed because I got a new mattress last summer, though I did in fact get a new mattress, and I’m glad to say it did reduce my hip pain by a lot, so I no longer wake up in pain at three AM every single morning, which is great. I don’t know why it took me so long to think that a different kind of mattress might help, but hey, it’s a lot better to think of it late than never. I should get a little ottoman or something to make it easier for the dogs to jump up on the bed, though, ’cause it’s higher than the old one. (It’s a memory foam mattress, btw. For me it is too warm in the summer, a common problem with memory foam, but it’s worth it to reduce the hip pain. I see Mattress Engineers are trying harder and harder to design out the problem with heat, lots of different designs out there now, including this new kind of foam at Casper, evidently.)

Anyway, as I say, I didn’t start reading in bed because of the new mattress. Naturally the dogs made me do it. Specifically Kenya.

20131222_152909 (275x350)

Kenya has her little quirks. For example, she starts staring at me and wagging her tail suggestively at about four, or even three thirty, because supper time is five and she doesn’t want me to forget. When wagging her tail doesn’t work fast enough, she starts barking.

She barks at me to get me to move the other dogs out of her spot on the couch, too. Did I mention she has a shrill, annoying bark?

AND she recently started doing the same kind of thing about an hour before bedtime, because she knows she gets a biscuit at bedtime. Rather than yell at her to shut up (to which she is completely oblivious) or quit giving out biscuits at bedtime (harsh!) I have just gotten in the habit of going downstairs early, handing out biscuits, and reading for a while.

But! This definitely doesn’t mean I wake up groggily at two am with pages stuck to my face. No. After all, as a dedicated morning person, I will be waking up at about five or five thirty. Intense page-turning thrillers are not what I want at bedtime. For me, *bedtime* reading is nonfiction — even when I’m tearing through my enormous fiction backlog, I’ll put the fiction down and pick up nonfiction as I go downstairs. At the moment, my bedtime reading is ROOTS AND BRANCHES, a collection of essays by Tom Shippey, about Tolkien and philology. I don’t always get through too much of that before switching off the light! But on the other hand, they are fascinating essays. At the moment, Shippey is explaining how “fiction” and “dough” have the same root word. Hmmm.

Unlike with fiction, I often have multiple nonfiction titles going at once. At the moment, I’m also reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir about going to China and learning to cook Chinese food at this cooking school in Sichuan. Let’s see. Okay, the actual title is: Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China. I have a couple of Dunlop’s cookbooks and like them and I thought I would like this memoir, which I do, more or less. It is interesting and engaging, but a bit horrifying in spots, because at least at the time, Chinese cooks were not the least bit concerned about animal suffering and they would do things like, well, never mind. And they really do eat dogs. Dunlop does not whitewash out those bits, which I . . . am glad of? . . . but you can see why it is not necessarily the best bedtime reading. I may bring it back upstairs and finish it during other times of day.

I am partway through Brain Surgeon: A Doctors Inspiring Encounters with Mortality and Miracles – written by Keith Black, a truly gifted neurosurgeon. I would go straight to the neurological institute he founded at Cedars-Sinai if I had brain cancer. He sounds like an amazing guy and an incredible surgeon. This is an easy, inspiring book to read and I think I will give it to a local school when I’ve finished it.

Let’s see, what else? Okay, I see I have a book called Across Many Mountains: A Tibetan Family’s Epic Journey from Oppression to Freedom, by Yangzom Brauen. I expect that will be truly grim in spots, but can you imagine the courage it took to leave Tibet for the unknown? This is about three generations of women in one family, it says on the back, and they wound up building a new life for themselves in Switzerland, where the author was born. I think the story of what happened to Tibet should not be forgotten, and this memoir is supposed to be beautiful. Though it may not work as bedtime reading for me, because it is probably also harrowing.

More suitable may be Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye. Oliver Sacks writes with such fundamental humanity. He always sees his patients as people first and then as interesting problems.

Okay, the best for last: my brother gave me a book of essays about CJ Cherryh for Christmas! I didn’t even know it existed! It came out in 2004. The Cherryh Odyssey edited by Edward Carmien. It has tons of essays that sound great: “The Human as Other in the SF Novels of CJ Cherryh”, “Self-Creation in Cyteen”, “A Great Deal in Sand: Hammerfall”; I will even read the essay on her Rusalka trilogy despite hating that trilogy and having no plans to pick it up again after giving it away once.

Clearly this new thing of reading in bed is going to cause me to finish a lot more nonfiction titles this year than I did last year. That’s great! And it really is a good way to unwind (if I pick the correct kind of nonfiction, anyway). Honestly, I should have started reading in bed a long time ago. *Pats Kenya, who is annoying but right about going downstairs early.*

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 22nd, 2015
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Tea-leaf eggs

January 20th, 2015

I’m feeling like a couple low-carb weeks may be a good idea, and since lunches are kind of an issue if you’re planning to sharply reduce carbs, I looked up my recipe for tea-leaf eggs. They’re pretty, they’re tasty, they’re good at room-temp, they’re not expensive to make, what’s not to like?

1 Eggs

I should have lined that plate with spinach or parsley or something, but I didn’t think of it. But didn’t they come out well? No big brown blotches anywhere.

Now, I’ve seen somebody or other mention that her tea-leaf eggs were flavorless and disappointing. These are not, and the way you cook ‘em, one can see why they come out with a subtle but distinctive flavor. They’re easy, but they do take (unsupervised) time, so it’s something to plan ahead. Here’s how you make them:


12 medium (or any size, really) eggs
2 Tbsp salt
2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 whole star anise (I hate anise, but I like star anise in this recipe; the flavor is so subtle and yet it adds something.)
4 tea bags of any black tea (I am not a tea connoisseur, so if you are, you know what you like. I use the first brand that says “black tea” that I find on the shelf)

Okay, cover the eggs with cold water, bring to a boil, lower heat, simmer gently for 15 or 20 minutes. Cool enough to handle. Now take a small spoon and tap the shell of each egg gently all over in order to make a network of fine cracks. I was as gentle as possible, but I thought the cracks were too extensive. But as you see, the eggs came out beautifully.

Return the eggs to the pan, add four cups of cold water and all the rest of the ingredients. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to very very very low, cover (or partly cover if you can’t turn your heat that low) and simmer gently for two hours. Yes, two hours. That’s why you need the heat so low; otherwise they’ll start to boil pretty briskly and while this is probably okay, the recipe says “simmer gently.”

Turn off the heat and let the eggs rest in the pan for eight hours or overnight. You see why you need to plan ahead. Actually, I ate one after the two-hour simmer and it was perfectly fine, but I did let the others stay in the pan overnight.

Now, you can put the eggs on a tray whole, like in the above picture, but whatever you do, you want to show off the marbling. One way to do that is cut them in quarters and arrange the quarters on a tray so that the marbling shows clearly.

These are tasty as-is and do not need extra salt.

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 20th, 2015
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Exciting SF titles

January 19th, 2015

Here’s a good column by Jo Walton at, reprinted from 2013, listing 8 (relatively) recent SF novels that, she says, made her excited about the genre. One of the interesting things about this column is that I’ve only read one (1) of the novels: THE SPEED OF DARK, which is in fact one of my all-time favorite SF novels, though I can’t say I think of it as recent. (It was published in 2003.)

Jo Walton says: The “sense of wonder” is easy to get when you’re twelve, because everything is new, but books that can give it to me now are valuable.

Then she lists these eight titles — seven because I already mentioned THE SPEED OF DARK — with comments that you can click through to read:

Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes (2005), which Walton describes as “post-everything SF.”

Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin (2006), which sounds like it has a truly unique premise.

Susan Palwick’s Shelter (2007), which she describes as “a thoroughly imagined near future US” about “the medicalization of character flaws.” Hmmm.

Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (2008) is evidently “a big novel about the history of philosophy and science” in an alternate world.

Geoff Ryman’s Air (2005), which Walton says is “about a future mind-internet coming to a little third world village that has been on the edges of technological civilization for a long time.” That doesn’t necessarily sound fun, but it does sound interesting.

Kasuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), I have to say, this one sounds like something I do not want to read: “dystopia that uses the mode usually used for writing about privilege and nostalgia to talk about appalling things.” Um, okay, not sure I’m up for that.

M.J. Locke’s Up Against It (2012), which Walton describes as “doing what old SF did, taking current science and engineering and writing fun stories with it, only with current science and engineering. And current practice of characterisation and plot.” Now, that sounds fun.

Now, if I were asked to recommend exciting SF — not fantasy — titles that came out within the last decade, well, hmm. I couldn’t recommend THE SPEED OF DARK because, published in 2003, it is no longer within the ten-year window.

So, then, what?

Though I read a lot more fantasy than SF, I think I would feel good recommending these five SF novels:

LEVIATHAN WAKES by “James S A Corey”, though I haven’t read the sequels. This first book of the series does big things, and it does them well, with good character development and an ambitious setting.

A DARKLING SEA by James Cambias, because great alien species like these are exactly why I love science fiction.

THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir, which does the science/engineering thing wonderfully, on a very small scale.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, which does the science/engineering thing on a very big scale.

AND ALL THE STARS by Andrea K. Höst, for a different kind of alien invasion plus superpowers.

How about you all? Any other recent-ish SF titles that leap to your minds?

Posted in: Blog by Rachel on January 19th, 2015
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