Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Cliffhanger endings

There are basically five types of cliffhanger-ish endings I can think of. Here they are:

Type A: At least one main character is in a truly dire predicament and wham! The book ends. This is like The Silent Tower by Barbara Hambly, which is still the worst cliffhanger ending I have ever seen in a fantasy novel. In response to Elaine’s comment, I think I’d tend to put Frodo’s predicament here, and note that it took at least a decade for me to read the whole LotR trilogy rather than skipping forward to pick up Frodo and Sam’s plotline in the next book.

Type B: All the important characters are in an okay place and there is a natural pause in the action, but none of the big plot threads have been resolved.

Type C: The Big Bad is ascendant plus at least one important character is in a fairly dire predicament when the story ends. This is like Jinx by Sage Blackwood. Also perhaps like the 4th book of Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series.

Type D: All the biggest stuff has been resolved, but nevertheless, an important character has been left in a predicament of some kind when the story ends.

Type E: All the biggest stuff has been resolved, but there is at least one important plot thread that has been left hanging.

Vote, please! Which of the above types are really disturbing to you as a reader? Which, if any, are okay?

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Comfort reading this weekend

I’ve read this one a couple of times. It’s rather low-stress because (a) the big revelation that the protagonist is a young woman rather than a boy has startling few serious repercussions; and (b) there is no serious delay in working out the romantic relationship after that revelation; and (c) there is no doubt about the happily-ever-after ending.

One death of a character the reader has been led to like. Other than that, as I say, a low-stress, comfortable story. I like it enough that it was difficult to put down even though I’ve read it at least twice before.

So, after Hunting, I went on to read this one for the first time:

And good heavens, I had no idea what a strange, baroque alternate history we would get in this story. Wow. Very different from any other world Andrea K Höst has built. Ornate, cluttered . . . I hardly know how to describe it.

I guess I will say that the BASIC idea is that all the pantheons are real and that the question of whether you have your afterlife in order is as important as whether you have your actual life in order. But . . . wow. Lots of stuff layered on top of that basic idea.

If I’d read the back cover copy, I might have known that going in. Here is is:

In a world where lightning sustained the Roman Empire, and Egypt’s vampiric god-kings spread their influence through medicine and good weather, tiny Prytennia’s fortunes are rising with the ships that have made her undisputed ruler of the air.

But the peace of recent decades is under threat. Rome’s automaton-driven wealth is waning along with the New Republic’s supply of power crystals, while Sweden uses fear of Rome to add to her Protectorates. And Prytennia is under attack from the wind itself. Relentless daily blasts destroy crops, buildings, and lives, and neither the weather vampires nor Prytennia’s Trifold Goddess have been able to find a way to stop them.

With events so grand scouring the horizon, the deaths of Eiliff and Aedric Tenning raise little interest. The official verdict is accident: two careless automaton makers, killed by their own construct. The Tenning children and Aedric’s sister, Arianne, know this cannot be true. Nothing will stop their search for what really happened.

Not even if, to follow the first clue, Aunt Arianne must sell herself to a vampire.

It’s a great story so far. I’m about 2/3 of the way through. Arianne and one of the children are the protagonists, by the way; and right up front Arianne’s plans are upset when she accidentally gets bound to the wrong vampire. I cannot even begin to describe what happens next.

Anyway, it’s quite something, and shortly I will be waiting impatiently for the sequels to TWO of Andrea K Höst’s series.

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Pass

One of those ever-interesting posts about “reasons I passed on your query,” over at Janet Reid’s blog.

1. You’re using the memoir format to make a political or domestic point.
I’m not interested in being lectured to in any form, and particularly not in 300+ pages.

A good memoir is so brutally honest that it’s painful. That means you’re exploring yourself, not pointing fingers at someone else.

Wow, yes. I mean, definitely no. Cannot think of anything I want less, personally, than to be lectured at for 300 pages.

Not that I read very much memoir.

Let’s see, what else … okay, here’s another:

4. Misused/wrong words
I’ve steeled myself to overlook your almost universal inability to properly conjugate the verb to lie.
I’ve shut my eyes to consistent its/it’s errors.

But honestly, words are your tools. When you get them wrong, it’s just painful.

Oh, no no no. I have definitely not steeled myself regarding misuse of “lie” versus “lay.” I don’t care how universal that error is. It’s a hill worth dying on. That’s before we get to the even more important hill involving “it’s” versus “its.”

Interesting to me that an agent would make herself read past that kind of error. I think that would be a dealbreaker for me, if I were an agent. It’s very nearly a dealbreaker for me as a reader. Not quiiiiite. But very nearly.

I’ll tolerate confusion about “may” versus “might.” And I will also tolerate, under protest, errors regarding “effect” and “affect.” Those two just about exhaust my tolerance of misused words, though.

Oh, fine. I can just barely stand to read a book where the author thinks that “alright” is a legitimate word. Ugh. Like fingernails on a blackboard. But if I really, really like the story, I will tolerate those awful scraping fingernails.

Click through to read the whole thing if you wish.

But before you click away, is there any misuse-of-words thing that you WILL overlook, if you like the writing in other respects? Or are you even tougher than I am on things like that?

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Finished!

I hope you all had a nice, relaxing, springlike weekend! Here in southern MO, we had freezing rain and little snow flurries, so that was . . . well, not ideal, let us say. I haven’t gone out to check on my magnolias. The saucer magnolia was just about to open its buds before the freezing rain started falling, so we’ll have a chance to see how much those flowers can stand.

It did give me a chance to stay in, where I finished the last powerpoint over pedigrees, gazed thoughtfully over the four chapters about selection and evolution I hoped to cover and considered how much work it will be turning them into real lecture-style powerpoints, and sighed.

I also finished the draft of Copper Mountain. At last! So next step: beta readers. No rush. I have in mind July-ish for the release date, which should give me time for revisions and so on. I have three (3) other things I would like to work on, so that, along with handling General Biology in an unexpected online format, will keep me busy for sure.

Big questions for beta readers this time:

Does the story start at the right place?

Does the story stop at the right place?

In between, is there any chapter too slow-paced where you lose interest?

I’m half inclined to stop the story two chapters or so before the current end and let it end on a cliffhanger-ish type of situation, but that would screw up the timing of a novella that is already written, so not sure what to do. I’ll be interested in the responses of beta readers, that’s for sure.

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Passing the time at home

I hear that this is the golden age of board games, and that kickstarter has produced a tremendous resurgence of interest in board games.

The dogs aren’t all that great at playing board games, but when I have company, we sometimes play one or another of the new ones, along with old standbys like Scrabble.

Here’s a game you might like to try, if you’re stuck at home and need something to do:

Many games strike me as too complicated or too demanding or just not interesting enough, but I had an opportunity to play this with my brother a week or so ago, when he visited for our dad’s birthday. I liked it a lot! It works just fine for as few as two players. I’m pretty sure kids would like it as well as adults. Maybe it would add to the fun to have a Firefly viewing binge first and then play the game. If you’ve got kids, they may never have seen Firefly, since it aired (this is hard to believe, I must say) eighteen years ago. Perhaps now’s a good time to introduce younger people to the show if they haven’t happened across it yet.

The game really does make one fall into the role of a small merchant ship. You really do think about fuel and distance and would this job pay for itself given you have to pay your crew and can you pick up a job you could do on the way to a different job that’s a long way away, to make the travel worthwhile. I was impressed.

Strategic tip #1: do not attempt high-value crimes or illegal jobs until you have a decent crew, guns, and transport. You will lose the game if you fail difficult illegal jobs before you can handle them.

Strategic tip #2: the game will take perhaps five hours from start to finish. To speed it up, you might consider giving every player two crewmembers from the original show to start with. That way everyone would get a jump start and be ready to handle difficult jobs much earlier.

Earnest suggestion for game designers:

LISTEN, YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE SUPER COOL?

Using the same mechanics to create a game based on the Chanur series. That would be soooo neat! Same small merchant type of game, but in this case the alien species would be fabulous game elements. You could include one human card with special features! You could have the knn zip through and cause random effects! Listen, if somebody does this, I’d buy the game for sure.

Another universe that would work great with the same basic mechanics would be the Liaden universe by Miller and Lee. Liadens, Yxtrang, ordinary humans for the basic characters. Clutch Turtles for random elements. Plenty of named characters to interact with — I would take Pat Rin for my team any day — and a broad, well-developed universe. Again, I’d be right there for that.

Okay! If you have a favorite newish game that maybe other people would like to know about, drop it in the comments, please.

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Recent Reading: The Spymaster’s Lady by Joanna Bourne

Okay! I want to start by saying I never stay up late reading! That is one factor that prompts headaches, so I never voluntarily change my sleep schedule unless I have a super-important reason that forces me to do that. Therefore, when I say I stayed up an extra hour because it was so difficult to put this book down in the middle, well, that is a really meaningful statement.

She was willing to die, of course, but she had not planned to do it so soon, or in such a prolonged and uncomfortable fashion, or at the hands of her own countrymen.

Annique is a French spy during the Napoleonic era. She’s been a spy since she was knee high, learning the craft from her mother, who was also a French spy until her recent death. Annique has plenty of skills suited to this career. She’s quick-witted, she’s great at playing a role, she picks locks, she throws knives . . . I don’t want to spoil too much, but I do think the astute reader will realize quite soon that she also has a photographic memory, which is why her mother and others used her extensively as a spy beginning when she was just a child. She is also a naturally happy and optimistic young woman. This comes through despite her circumstances, which are not exactly conducive to cheerfulness or optimism. Remarkably, the author makes all this believable. (Really!).

Grey is an English spy, who happens to be trapped in the same cell as Annique when the story opens. We don’t ever find out exactly how he came to be there, which certainly represents a severe failure of spycraft on his part. However, there he is, and the story pours itself onto the page with enough speed and delightful twists that the reader may well forget to wonder about that particular element of the backstory.

This story strikes me more as a HISTORICAL romance than a historical ROMANCE. If the romance were backgrounded just a little more, it’d be a subplot rather than a real plot. However, the author does use a bunch of standard romance techniques, like switching back and forth between the female lead’s and the male lead’s points of view. As is typical in romance novels, we are left in no doubt about their mutual attraction. We also have The Deep Misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. We definitely get The Insurmountable Obstacles to their happily-ever-after. In this case, those obstacles do seem pretty insurmountable. I mean, they’re on opposite sides! (Sort of.) Plus Grey has taken Annique captive because he knows that she knows various important things about Napoleon’s plans to invade England. That part is for real, as she honestly does try to escape, quite a few times. Grey and his compatriots barely manage to hang onto her. Complicating matters, a high-level French spy with plenty of resources is determined to kill Annique for various reasons.

Strengths:

a) Clever characters! You know, if you follow this blog at all, how much I hate stupid characters. These characters are the exact opposite of stupid. They are so good at what they do and the author actually makes all that seem plausible, which is quite a trick given hyper-competent characters. Both Annique and Grey come across as believable and sympathetic and witty and dedicated. Not infallible, which is one of their strengths as characters. Conflicted, both of them. Annique doesn’t want Napoleon to invade England, but she also doesn’t want to give the English anything they can use to hurt France – quite a needle to thread. Grey is going to have to force Annique to divulge the invasion plans she knows, but he doesn’t want to hurt her or make her do anything that will make her despise herself. It’s a tough situation for them both.

b) Plot twists! You are not going to see THAT coming, let me tell you. Or that either. Or probably that. Yet all these things are believable, at least more or less, at least in context. It takes great writing to pull off this plot, because less-good writing could not possibly have made any of these plot twists plausible. Also, until right before the end, I could not figure out how Annique could possibly get things to work out. It was obvious once she did it, but I’m not sure I saw it coming until it was practically finished. Then surviving was a bit of a trick. But this is a romance, so although the story is exciting, it’s low stress in the sense that the reader can be certain there will be a HEA ending, which there is.

Weaknesses:

a) A certain degree of implausibility is just intrinsic to this story.

b) I hate titles like The Someone’s Daughter or The Someone’s Wife or The Someone’s Lady. Titles are often not the author’s fault, and titles are not that important anyway, but I would like to see a stake driven through the heart of the continuing fashion for these titles.

Who would like this story:          

Me! I loved it and I’m delighted that it’s the first book of a series. I imagine it’s going to be a series where one member of the group of spies gets involved in a romance, because that’s how romances work. Oh, yes, I see it’s a prequel story that explains how Doyle (English spy) winds up married to Marguerite (French aristocrat). These are both continuing characters from the first book.

Anyone who enjoys historical romances and likes the Napoleonic era should enjoy this book.

Anyone who enjoys spy stories and is not too opposed to a romance subplot might well enjoy this book. I’ll add that despite the shirtless dude on the ebook cover, the romance is fairly subplottish for a romance novel. I mean, it’s important, but the spy stuff is indeed actually more important, most of the time. The sex scenes are not super explicit or prolonged.

Anyone who likes clever plotting and is interested in the craft of making implausible events and charaters seem plausible and real also might want to take a look at this story. Ditto for pacing and excitement.

Update: I wrote this post a couple of days ago. I’m now halfway through the second book, and it’s good too. I particularly like seeing Adrian as a cutthroat boy.

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Interesting news about vaccines

New Tech Could Make Coronavirus Vaccine in Record Time

From Feb. 1st —

Ever since Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine in the 18th century, against smallpox, vaccines have worked essentially the same way. Patients get an inoculation containing a weakened or killed germ or some of its key proteins. The body’s immune system reacts to it, and the next time the germ shows up, the body can recognize and neutralize it. …

In recent years, though, scientists have started exploring a different approach. Rather than injecting part of the germ itself, experimental vaccines deliver the genetic blueprints for germ parts and let the patient’s own body manufacture them.

To develop a coronavirus vaccine, synthetic biologists try to outdo nature

March 7th —

King and his synbio colleagues knew there would be another coronavirus epidemic, like the SARS and MERS outbreaks before this one, he said, “and there will be another one after this,” perhaps from yet another member of this virus family. “We need a universal coronavirus vaccine.”

Achieving that is so high on scientists’ to-do list that when President Trump visited NIH last week, his tour included the lab that’s collaborating with UW’s, and researchers showed him a mock-up of what synthetic biology can do: Design and build nanoparticles out of proteins and attach viral molecules in a repetitive array so that, when the whole thing is packed into a vaccine, it can make people resistant to the new coronavirus. (The human immune system has evolved to interpret repetitive arrangements of molecules as a sign of danger: bacterial cell walls have repetitive chemical groups on them.)

With a few tweaks, the nanoparticle can be studded with molecules from additional coronaviruses to, scientists hope, protect against all of them — the original SARS virus, MERS, and, crucially, a mutated form of the Covid-19-causing virus, called SARS-CoV-2.

Scientists believe they’ve made a huge breakthrough in coronavirus vaccine effort

March 13th —

A team of Canadian scientists has successfully isolated and grown copies of the coronavirus — bringing the world a step closer to finding a vaccine to fight the deadly illness. …

The lab-grown copies will now be able to help scientists study the pathogen to develop better diagnostic testing, treatments, vaccines, and gain a better understanding of its biology

NIH clinical trial of investigational vaccine for COVID-19 begins

March 16th —

A Phase 1 clinical trial evaluating an investigational vaccine designed to protect against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has begun at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute (KPWHRI) in Seattle. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health, is funding the trial. KPWHRI is part of NIAID’s Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Consortium. The open-label trial will enroll 45 healthy adult volunteers ages 18 to 55 years over approximately 6 weeks. The first participant received the investigational vaccine today.

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Warm, low-stress novels

We can definitely all use a comfort read from time to time, or in this case probably all spring at least, am I right?

I suspect a lot of us may be looking for a story that is:

a) catchy and engaging, so that the story will pull you in even if you’re distracted by real-world concerns.

b) possibly exciting but not especially stressful, with a guaranteed happy ending.

c) warm in tone, with “warm” as an antonym for . . . I don’t know . . . gritty, maybe. I mean something that feels warm and fuzzy, like curling up in your favorite fluffy robe with a couple of spaniels and a roaring fireplace and a mug of hot chocolate. Or whatever you prefer. That feeling, anyway.

Here are some novels, in no particular order, that to me fit these criteria:

  1. Chalice by Robin McKinley

2. Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

3. Fortune and Fate, also by Sharon Shinn, preferably with the original cover rather than the worst cover in the world.

4. Island of Ghosts by Gillian Bradshaw

5. Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by LMB

6. Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

7. Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

8. Oh, yes, The Blue Sword, also by Robin McKinley

9. Dealing with Dragons by Patricia Wrede

10. And, to wrap it up, of my own books, I think the best comfort-book candidate is:

Also, to be sure, a lot of romances. Nothing like romances for a definite happily-ever-after. I’m reading a very good historical romance at the moment, but for contemporary romances, I particularly favor Laura Florand:

How about you all? What books do you find especially comforting when you want something warm and reassuring to read?

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Best first lines

Here’s a post at Amazon’s This Week in Books: The best first lines from the past decade

The post leads off with this: I never imagined I would shoot a man…

It turns out that’s part of an opening, thus:

The Painter

“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.”

Interesting! Three very short, disconnected sentences. I think I like it, though I don’t know if the book’s description makes it sound all that appealing:

Heller’s novel is a punch to the gut about fly fishing, painting, violence, the reconciliation of one man’s actions, and the hurt that surrounds him in the landscape of the outlaw west. 

I’m thinking, Not for me. Still, that is a good opening.

A handful of others at the link; click through if you have a minute.

The book I’m reading now starts this way:

“You have not been foolish,” she said. “But you have been unlucky. The results are indistinguishable.”

Pretty good, eh? I’ll write a review of this one in a few days.

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