Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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When a book description backfires —

I mean, this book review is meant to sound intriguing and inviting and I think the writer of the review expects to hook your interest and get you to add it to your Must Check It Out List. But, just, no. The book is THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS by Claire Messud. The review is fascinating, in kind of the same way that a train wreck is fascinating: I read the whole thing with a sense of horror, unable to look away.

“This is a novel in which very little happens. Yet it is also an addictive page-turner, and written with such artistry that the reader can do little but succumb. Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling.”

Does that sound possible to you? Have you ever read a book in which nothing happens, yet it’s a page-turner?

Actually, the closest I can think of is AN INTERIOR LIFE, by Katherine Blake, which is a fantasy novel I read a good long time ago. The thing is, there are twin plots, and the one dealing with Susan’s mundane everyday life actually draws you in more than the one dealing with the fantasy elements. Or so it was for me. It’s all, Watch Susan Paint The House! Watch Susan Deal With This Dinner Party! And yet all that part is somehow charming and interesting.

THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS might be interesting, I guess, in theory, but it does not sound very appealing as you go on to read more of the review.

“It opens in the first person with a litany of foul-mouthed complaints that comes as a shock to anyone familiar with Messud’s usual Jamesian prose style. Here is the story of an angry woman whose explosive rage settles into a sense of threat that pulls us along with it, eager to discover its source.”

Um . . . I’m kind of thinking, when I read this, that this kind of opening would actually be a huge turnoff. I don’t think I would feel much interest in discovering the source of this protagonist’s rage. I think I would be more inclined to run away and hide from this protagonist. In fact, it’s this bit of the description, more than the bit about nothing much happening, which makes me feel like I am not very likely at all to read this book.

Then it gets worse:

“Nora Eldridge is a “straight-A, strait-laced, good daughter” who has spent four years looking after her dying mother. Now 42 and responsible for her father, she is an elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts; a frustrated artist dragging abandoned hopes, with no partner and a vivid life of the mind. In her “calcifying spinsterdom”, she is the ubiquitous “woman upstairs”: accommodating, anonymous, almost invisible.”

Please imagine for a moment that this book was written by Sarah Addison Allen. We could have this EXACT character, and yet she would be non-calcified and non-angry, or if she was angry it would be in a good way, and the book would turn out to be a delightful and charming romance with little fantasy bits around the edges.

Not that I require the romance, necessarily, to find the book charming. Allen would do something with some kind of family relationships even if she didn’t put in a romance, and it would still be a quietly beautiful story. “Quietly beautiful is not what THE WOMAN UPSTAIRS is aiming for, obviously. I’m just saying that you could take the same basic backstory and write a character who is not bitter and angry and alienated.

Plus, may I just mention here that, as an unmarried forty-something woman with a vivid life of the mind, I don’t actually feel like a victim of “calcifying spinsterdom”? Good God, “spinsterdom”? What century is this?

It’s really like this whole book description was written to specifically turn me off. I mean, get this:

“The Woman Upstairs is a brave and highly risky novel in that it eschews any significant plot, state-of-the-nation ambition or high concept. It is a strictly artistic endeavour that also works as an entertainment. Kick-starting the story with a rant is a clever device, but it’s the quieter, brooding sense of foreboding, the intimation of disaster, that provides, along with the narrator’s voice, the novel’s engine.”

Oh, God, it’s a Brooding Sense of Foreboding. Excuse me while I run the other way. Fast.

So I’m curious: if you click through and read this review — do you think this book sounds like one to add to your Must Read list? Or like one to put some dedication into avoiding? I am really interested in just who would read this review and say, Wow, that sounds great!

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The right books to read when you don’t actually have time to read a book —

Which, for me, means when I’m writing. Well, when I’m supposed to be writing.

That’s the thing: sometimes I have a deadline and I need to meet it, but I still need something to point my eyes at while eating breakfast. Or I might want a book to read for an hour before bed, but nothing that will compel me to pick it back up in the morning when I should be getting work done.

Or maybe I don’t actually have a deadline, but it’s spring break or (as now) between the end of the semester and the start of the summer session, so I have a week or two off and it would be just criminal to waste all that free time. So I don’t want to get drawn into someone else’s great book, yet I still want something to read while walking with the dogs on the nearby bike trail – the girls love this, but the bike trail is terribly boring if you’re on foot: too straight and level to be interesting, and the scenery is nothing exciting.

Or actually the same kind of situation may come up if you have time to start a book, but you’re soon going to need to go somewhere or do stuff with friends or family and won’t be able to finish your book for a day or two. Obviously that would be a bad time to start The Year’s Most Anticipated Novel.

Nonfiction is good, of course, and I do have some nonfiction books sitting around. I’ll certainly read one or more of those in the next week. But sometimes I’m dying to read something with an actual plot, but don’t want to risk getting distracted from my own work by someone else’s masterpiece. It’s not enough to have read the book before – even to have read it several times. That’s because it can kill your enthusiasm to read something that’s really outstanding, because how can you match that? So this isn’t a good time to reach for, say, A CIVIL CAMPAIGN by Lois McMaster Bujold, even if under other circumstances that book counts as a “comfort read.”

At these moments, what you need is a book which: a) you’ve read before, maybe several times; and also a book which: b) you like, but not that much.

For me, there are several appropriate series. David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, that’s a great choice! I like it well enough, but not nearly well enough to get sucked in. As far as I’m concerned, the writing just isn’t good enough to be compelling, so that’s a series where I can pick a book up and put it down again without a pang after ten minutes. Plus, the series is long enough that it can be stretched out over at least a week.

SM Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series does the trick for me. So is Eric Flint’s 1632 series, and for the same reasons: Lots of bits are entertaining, but the point of view is so scattered that I after the first time I read them, I was never again all that emotionally engaged.

For me, Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series also works. That’s the one I’m reading now. For me, this is a series that might be described as “catchy” without being actually good enough to be compelling – at least, not now that I’ve read it a couple of times. I like a lot of things about this trilogy, especially the humor in the young-Jaenelle scenes, but it’s a series where I flip through and read favorite scenes, not one where I flip it open, read a favorite scene, get caught, and wind up reading the whole thing again.

For me, a book that’s good-enough-but-not-too-good is just as much a keeper as a book which is FABULOUS – because I spend a pretty large chunk of time every year needing books that I can read but put down. That’s something I need to think of before I put a book on my give-away pile. In fact, I should probably go take a close look at the books on the give-away pile right now, just to make sure I haven’t accidentally discarded something which could be useful, even if it will never make my top-ten-of-all-time list.

Okay, gotta go: last day of Finals is over and it’d be ridiculous to get all the way to June 3rd and the start of the summer session without having done anything useful with my time. No time to waste, considering there are also ferns and hostas to transplant, seeds to get in the garden now that it’s finally warm enough to bother planting, and all those apples and peaches to thin quick before they get too heavy for the trees. Busy busy! For the next few days, the only fiction I expect to read is random scenes from the Black Jewels trilogy.

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An interview with Martha Wells —

Over at Tor.com, by Liz Bourke, who’s recently been on a Martha Wells kick. I know just how she feels, since of course I only just recently wound up MY Martha Wells month!

I still haven’t read EMILIE — waiting for the right moment, I guess — but any time now. I believe Liz Bourke herself liked it, so that’s one mark in it’s favor. I haven’t read any reviews of it, because I don’t want to be at all “spoiled” before reading it myself.

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Recent Reading: A complete contrast

So, you know what one of my very least-favorite character types is? I’ll tell you: It’s the impulsive, emotional woman who must be rescued from her emotional impulsivity by the men in her life, who are all, for some inexplicable reason, in love with her. Frankly, I find the histrionic type utterly unappealing. As far as I’m concerned, any adult human being ought to be able to COPE. That’s part of, you know, being an adult. So for me, neither the histrionic female protagonist nor the men who think she’s so wonderful are believable or sympathetic.

I know perfectly well that there are plenty of characters of this type around, mostly (as far as I know) written by female authors, mostly (I think) in paranormals and other forms of romance. (I may be wrong about this; is there another genre where this is common?)

So obviously a lot of readers find emotional, overwrought, impulsive female protagonists appealing. But I just don’t. I’m an INTJ myself, which may explain why the histrionic type of character seems both unbelievable and unappealing to me. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting too analytical, never mind.

Plus, granted, Vicki in Tanya Huff’s BLOOD PACT isn’t that bad, if only because she has more reason to flip out than some other childishly impulsive characters I could mention. I mean, her mother has died, and Vicki lacks any sense of closure in that relationship, so that’s tough. Especially when her mother’s body is stolen. Plus, and this is not really a spoiler because it’s obvious from the start that the story is headed this way, her mother is then zombified by the bad guys. You’ve gotta agree, that would be pretty disturbing.

Nevertheless, I just do not like a protagonist who loses her shit and cannot cope. Add to that a love triangle – God, spare me from love triangles – and, worse, a love triangle that is resolved by removing free choice from the woman through a deus ex plot device – and then add to that a bunch of Impersonal Evil Scientists, which is a trope that is always going to make me roll my eyes at best; and, well. I only barely bothered to finish this book.

It was quite a disappointment, after Huff’s amazingly good military SF Valor series, is what I’m saying. Naturally your mileage may differ if you love UF/Paranormal and hate military SF.

Okay, so after that, I went straight to my Kindle and read a military SF novel that I had waiting there: the self-published TERMS OF ENLISTMENT by a guy named Marko Kloos. Which, incidentally, has now been picked up by a publisher and is due out any time in paper as well as e-format. I found this out because the story was good enough to make me look for a sequel, particularly because it ends on rather a cliffhanger. (I checked, and there will be a sequel shortly, so that’s okay.)

By “good enough,” I mean that TERMS OF ENLISTMENT is engaging, well-written, fast-paced, and adequately plotted. If you read it, I expect it will remind you very strongly of some Heinlein, especially SPACE CADET and STARSHIP TROOPERS. The dialogue is not as snappy as you get in Heinlein, but then the political preachiness is not (quite) so apparent either. Kloos writes a first-person present-tense narrative, which is inherently difficult, but he pulls it off very well.

Also probably Kloos’ book will remind you of David Feintuch’s MIDSHIPMAN’S HOPE, but with far less angst and a significantly less cohesive plot. (I was really impressed with Feintuch’s plotting in his first book, so that’s a high bar.) Kloos’ story is just as episodic as Feintuch’s, but the episodes are not tied together the way Feintuch managed to tie his up. On the other hand . . . less angst. That got pretty tiresome in Feintuch’s sequels. There was nothing like that in Kloos’ story.

To be sure, the flip side of “less angst” is sometimes less character depth and development; Kloos’ Andrew Grayson is FAR less complicated a character than Feintuch’s Nick Seafort. But sometimes a less complicated character can be just what you’re in the mood for. After I barely finished BLOOD PACT? I was pretty well glued to the page for TERMS OF ENLISTMENT.

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A fascinating post about the experience of depression —

By Allie, over at Hyperbole and a Half.

Now, an intro to this post, if you like: Several years ago, I read Peter Kramer’s AGAINST DEPRESSION. Kramer’s a psychiatrist, as you may know, and if I were suffering from any kind of emotional dysfunction, I would probably find out what state he practices in and move there, because his books are amazing.

In particular, AGAINST DEPRESSION persuaded me that clinical depression is a real illness with definable characteristics, that it destroys lives, that antidepressants are crucial lifesavers, and that depression is a huge medical problem. I mean, did you know that depression is so tightly linked to heart disease that it would be one of the biggest killers in the world EVEN IF it was as emotionally neutral as high blood pressure? I mean, who knows that? I had no idea.

One thing I didn’t ever suffer from, though, was any idea that depression somehow offers valuable insight to the tragedy of the human condition, or anything ridiculous like that. I don’t get the “tragedy of the human condition” thing, see. I certainly never, ever granted any credence to the idea that art has to be dark in order to be deep, or that somehow depression grants its sufferers some kind of moral superiority to the healthy. Not hardly. So Kramer’s first chapters were interesting to read, but mostly I found myself saying, Do people really think that depression is alluring and morally uplifting? (Apparently many people do.)

Plus, Kramer’s book made me VERY GRATEFUL that my own family apparently has the great good luck to be genetically protected against depression. It’s a huge extended family, offering plenty of data points, so I’m pretty sure about this. I remind myself of this piece of good fortune when feeling snappish about early-onset osteoarthritis and semi-herniated disks and whatever.

So, so. Evidently Allie suffers, or has been suffering, from a form of depression that Kramer would identify specifically as anhedonia — the inability to feel pleasure in anything. Also a more global flattening of all emotional states. Her post is amazing. With amazing cartoon illustrations. Such as:

I had so very few feelings, and everyone else had so many, and it felt like they were having all of them in front of me at once. I didn’t really know what to do, so I agreed to see a doctor so that everyone would stop having all of their feelings at me.

It’s a wonderful post, one that gets about as close as I can imagine to actually expressing what it feels like to be clinically depressed — a very alien emotional state to those of us who fortunately never experience anything of the kind. And here’s hoping that Allie soon writes another post, one in which she illustrates the phenomenon of complete recovery.

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Book Covers for Boys —

Vs Book Covers for Girls.

Of course, I actually do think some books are likely to appeal mainly to girls (and women), whereas others are likely to appeal to both girls and boys (or women and men).

Nevertheless . . . this is a really fun post about the kinds of covers given to books that are intended to appeal to girls, vs the kinds of covers that are meant to be marketed to guys. And the reason it is funny is that it is true (as well as extremely creative).

I have NO IDEA how you would go about creating a fake cover. If I ever self-pub a book, I will certainly have to hire someone! Which is too bad, because as I say, these altered covers are great!

For example, compare:

Do you think each of these covers would appeal to the same readership? Not a chance! Which looks serious? Which looks fluffy and appealing? I have to say, the “girl” cover also looks VERY YA, which makes me laugh, because if there is a less YA kind of book EVER WRITTEN than GAME OF THRONES, I don’t know what it is.

On the other hand, I don’t know how absolutely universal this kind of marketing is. Maybe some kinds of books are more likely to get serious covers no matter who wrote them? I know that “Robin Hobb” could be a guy’s name, but no one could be in any doubt that “Diana” is a female writer. So, given that, how about these covers?

Is there something about Epic Fantasy which leads publishers to give books of this sort more serious-looking covers? Maybe if the author is particularly well-known?

Also, of course the primary function of the cover is to sell the book — though I certainly prefer an accurate cover, both as a reader and as a writer. I wonder if publishers’ marketing departments are actually right about what kinds of covers appeal to particular segments of the market?

If you’d like to flip through the altered covers and weigh in — which cover DO you prefer, in general? If you’re female, DO you tend to prefer the “girl” covers, and vice versa if you’re a guy?

I’m especially curious because I generally prefer the “guy” covers — but I am not very much into romance. I definitely do prefer the “girl” version of A Clockwork Orange, though. Also the original “girl” cover of Heist Society.

Which raises a separate question: When we talk about marketing a book “to women”, are we really talking about marketing a book “for romance readers”? Because if so, maybe a better axis for marketing departments to think about would be romance vs non-romance rather than any form of girl vs boy?

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Can the movie be better than the book?

Or as good? Or even actually add depth or atmosphere to the reading experience?

Interesting article by Richard Parker on this topic, at criminalelement.com.

“A great screenwriter can create an entirely different entity to the book that still sufficiently addresses the essence of the text.”

Yeah? How often do you think that happens?

I am not actually totally skeptical, because I’ve seen some pretty good adaptations. I loved “The Lord of the Rings” movies! Mostly, anyway. I definitely had some issues with the second movie in particular: what’s all that about having to TRICK the Ents into joining the battle against Saruman? That’s all wrong! But, okay, yes, in general I loved those movies.

But most of the time, a movie makes me want to read the book, but a book doesn’t necessarily set me on fire to see the movie. For example, I thought “The Hunger Games” was just okay, but distinctly inferior to the book, and I may well not bother seeing the other two movies when they come out.

One exception does leap to mind, though. “The Hunt for Red October”? Absolutely no reason to read the book. No. For that one, the movie’s got it all. Plus, hello, Sean Connery. Hard for the book to compete with that!

Anybody got a vote for a movie that didn’t have to depend on Sean Connery to be better than its book?

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Top Ten Comfort Reads

I’m doing a twist on a meme I picked up from Chachic’s Book Nook.

Not so much top ten light-and-fluffy reads, but the top ten for comfortable books when you just don’t want to read some complicated politics-heavy epic, or figure out a new complicated secondary world. You know, the kind of book you pick up one more time because you know you can open it anywhere, fall right into the story, and will wind up reading the whole thing again even if you didn’t really mean to.

For me, those would be — and I’m going to be pretty casual about lumping multiple books into one category, here — in no special order:

1. Anything by Robin McKinley, especially The Blue Sword and Beauty

2. Anything by Sarah Addison Allen, but especially The Girl Who Chased the Moon

3. Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold, but especially The Sharing Knife series

4. Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

5. Jhereg and Yendi by Steven Brust

6. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

7. Watership Down by Richard Adams

8. Anything by Gillian Bradshaw, but especially A Beacon at Alexandria and Island of Ghosts

9. Chanur’s Legacy by CJ Cherryh — this one, on a smaller scale and with less at stake than the original Chanur series, works for me as a light comfort read.

10. Anything by Terry Pratchett, though for me a lot of those are books to listen to, not books to read. Just finishing the last Tiffany Aching book now!

Oh! And one more because why not?

11. Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

How about you, what’s your top comfort read? Any of the above?

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Epic fantasy: one more time

“Epic Fantasy” is gloriously broad, vague, and… resonant. It may be hard to define Epic Fantasy succinctly …, but we know what Epic Fantasy is and isn’t. We know it when we read it, when we hear it. We feel it in our bones. The goal of this round-table discussion, therefore, is to describe Epic Fantasy and to try to illustrate the broadness—the grand sweep, the bigness, and scope — of it.

So says Clarksworld, in the first of two posts on the subject.

Of the 26 authors who participated in Clarksworld’s discussion, I’ve read books by seven. I’ve read more than one book by . . . wait for it . . . four. Just four. (Those are, in case you’re curious: Terry Brooks, whom I read when I was much younger; Kate Elliot, whose JARAN series I really enjoyed but whose more recent books I haven’t read (yet); and NK Jemisin and Robin McKinley, neither of whom actually write epic fantasy, imo. Yes, I know, people these days are tending to name Jemisin in lists of writers-of-epic-fantasy, but to me her stories do not feel like epic fantasy. It’s easier for McKinley; hardly anybody would think of her work as epic fantasy — right? — and she certainly doesn’t think of her books that way herself.

Which of course raises the question: What is epic fantasy? Which is what the Clarksworld posts are all about, naturally. And they’re very good posts.

“”In Epic Fantasy,” [says Victoria] Strauss, “the principal characters’ lives and actions acquire immense meaning and importance within the pattern of a series of hugely significant events. Their lives matter. This is the very opposite of most people’s real lives, and one of the major reasons, I think, why Epic Fantasy has such enduring appeal.””

I could agree with that. But . . .

Q Does your fantasy novel involve great events, where the actions of larger-than-life characters really matter?

Then your novel might be epic fantasy. Or high fantasy, or heroic fantasy, or possibly even sword-and-sorcery. Or no doubt lots of other subgenres. So, what actually defines epic fantasy?

The one answer I agreed with most was this one, from Trudi Canavan:

Bigness. Whether it be size of the world, the length of the tale or the number of books — or combinations of these. But not ideas. A book can have big ideas, but not be “epic” fantasy. Unfortunately, the label “epic” seems to be applied to a lot of fantasy that doesn’t really qualify, and that’s a bit unfair to both true Epic Fantasy and fantasy that is not epic, just as it grates when anyone describes all fantasy as “quest” fantasy. Fantasy is a very broad and varied genre, and lumping it all under one type is never satisfactory.

To me, all of these factors are important. I can’t personally see a series as epic unless it features multiple pov protagonists and takes place in a big world and encompasses more than one book. That’s why Jemisin’s books don’t seem like epic fantasy to me: they take place basically in one location and/or they involve basically one pov character. I would say Jemisin is writing high fantasy or heroic fantasy, not epic fantasy.

And then it gets all complicated these days because (and here I am departing from the Clarksworld posts) Epic Fantasy has gotten together with Horror and spawned evil little offspring with nasty sharp teeth.

Q Does your fantasy epic involve multiple pov characters? Most of whom die? Or become weaker and/or corrupted and/or evil, even though they started off as decent people?

Q Does your fantasy epic involve a vast setting where whole towns full of decent people trying to live their ordinary lives are murdered, tortured, enslaved, transformed into monsters, or possibly all of the above? By pov protagonists who were initially presented as sympathetic?

Q Does your fantasy epic involve huge sweeps of time, over which the world darkens and hope fades, until at the end of the series everything is clearly worse off than it was in the beginning?

Then you do not have an epic fantasy there. No. You have Epic Fantasy’s misbegotten offspring: grimdark fantasy.

I have decided that everything that calls itself Epic Fantasy these days needs a warning label on it if it is really grimdark fantasy, because some of us would appreciate being able to put that sucker back on the shelf without so much as reading the back cover copy.

Maybe a rating on a scale of one to five? Where Daniel Abraham’s Dagger-and-Coin series is about a three, say, and everything by Joe Abercrombie is a five. That would be really useful!


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