Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Is there such a thing as a critical mass of books read?

At least read, as it were, critically?

Interesting post from Tobias Buckell, about the way that after you’ve read a vast number of books, your perceptions of what’s new and exciting, or even just plain fun and competent, necessarily change.

I think I disagree that this happens because you read a certain vast number of books. But that’s not actually what Buckell means, either, because he’s talking about people who read critically — in particular, book bloggers.

And there I think he’s hit, not the nail, necessarily, but a nail on its head.

“You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change. Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. … Secondly … they begin to gravitate toward something that feels new to them. They seek out ‘artist’s artists’ and are not happy when those voices aren’t welcomed by the mainstream, because these are stories aimed at people who’ve simply consumed a terrific amount of fiction to be able to enjoy the work.”

I think I have seen this happen with some book bloggers. Not exactly this, necessarily, but a change where specific critical criteria are applied to books, when those criteria don’t necessarily seem justly applicable. It’s an interesting point, though on the other hand, it may not be very different from saying that, hey, tastes do change. And we knew that already, of course. So perhaps this isn’t anything new or unexpected after all.

But I expect we will always have new unjaded book reviewers opening up shop, so I don’t suppose we’ll ever lack for book bloggers who can point the way enthusiastically toward books they genuinely love. Which on the one hand, yay! And on the other, my God, those people are dangerous. Do you KNOW how huge my TBR pile is now?

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Recent Reading: at last, the finish to Robin Hobb’s dragon series.

And about time, too!

Actually it didn’t take too long for BLOOD OF DRAGONS to hit the shelves, it’s just that CITY OF DRAGONS ended on a complete lack of resolution that was very frustrating. So frustrating that I think I blocked some of the story; I found I remembered almost nothing of CITY OF DRAGONS and had to skim most of it before I could read BLOOD OF DRAGONS.

So this series is really best tackled all at once, or as two linked duologies: The first set, DRAGON KEEPER and DRAGON HAVEN; followed by CITY OF DRAGONS and now finally BLOOD OF DRAGONS.

Okay: most interesting thing Hobb did with this series, something I don’t believe anybody’s ever done before: the dragons really are the masters of the world. They really and truly are not subservient to humans in any way whatsoever. Nothing like the dragons of Pern; nothing like the magical horses that turn up everywhere in fantasy; nothing like a wolf that is basically a dog. No. The dragon Sintara is truly not a nice person, but not even Mercor is very interested in what humans think about much of anything. Very unusual to establish a world where humans really and truly are not the top of the food chain.

I liked the first two books pretty well. But, and I can see this might be a thing with Hobb, very few of her characters are people you can really admire or truly sympathize with at the beginning. Some are too young and stupid; some are incredibly naïve and/or ineffectual; some are just unlikeable. Captain Leftrin is an exception; to an extent so is Alise; but by and large you are just going to have to wait for the characters to grow into themselves. Which they do, eventually.

Which means that for me, the second duology was a lot more enjoyable than the first. The dragons are finally becoming the top predators they’re meant to be, until you can hardly glimpse their poor crippled beginnings. Sintara is still unkind, but Thymara — her keeper — is mostly over that. And nearly every other character winds up in a far better place than they started. It’s not just the youngsters like Thymara and Tats who finally grow up, it’s everyone. Sedric? Vastly improved. Alise? Of course her life has its ups and downs, but she’s got a great life now. Both of them are in fine relationships now, a real pleasure to see everything work out for them. Even poor Selden, who spent the previous books in a cage, on his way to being murdered, comes out on top at the last minute, with the help of an unexpected ally.

And, having learned from previous books, I skipped sections from bad-guy points of view. In fact, the only bit from Hest’s viewpoint I actually read — here’s an unimportant spoiler — is the bit where he makes a tiny mistake when talking to a dragon and gets eaten. At last. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

So, yeah. Nice to have this series finished off at last, and in such a satisfying way.

I can’t help but notice, here, that this is one of the few true modern epic fantasies I’ve read where nearly every character becomes a better, more competent character over the course of the story; where nearly everyone winds up in substantially improved circumstances by the end of the series; where the world itself might have changed — dragons! — but probably for the better.

It’s not that this series is saccharine. (Hah! Hardly.) Lots of grim stuff happens. But the overall direction of progress is in a positive direction, not in a grim descent into betrayal, murder, corruption, and horror. Of course this kind of positive tone may be more common than I think. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t read much epic fantasy these days. But honestly, the reason I started shying away from epic fantasy in recent years was because too much of it started to fall on the grimdark side of gritty. And Hobb’s dragon series isn’t like that. And I’m glad.

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And Cake!

I’m sick and tired of this no-carb diet

And anyway, I had a potluck to attend. I wanted to make Maggie Stiefvater’s November Cakes, trying out my idea about using more orange extract, but I didn’t have any cream with which to make the caramel glaze, so instead I made these brownies.

Of course there is nothing unusual about cheesecake-layered brownies, but this particular recipe is very good and very reliable, and I invite you all to try them next time you have a party to attend.

8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/3 C sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
4 Tbsp flour

2 1/2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/2 C. (1 stick) butter
3/4 C flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 C sugar

Beat together filling ingredients and set aside.

Melt chocolate and butter in microwave, stir until smooth, set aside.

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt.

Beat eggs, vanilla, and sugar until smooth. Beat in chocolate mixture. Beat in flour mixture, on low speed. Spread slightly less than half the batter in a greased 8 x 8 pan. Spread filling over bottom layer of brownies. Dollop rest of brownie batter over filling and spread out until it more or less covers the filling. You do not have to achieve perfect coverage when doing this.

Bake at 350 degrees (340 degrees for a glass pan) for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool the brownies in the pan. Cool completely before slicing, if you have sufficient self control. I have to say that slicing off a little taste before the brownies are completely cool doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on the brownies, but they are easiest to slice if chilled. Because of the cheesecake layer, they should be chilled to store, if they last that long.

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Recent Reading: Blackout by Myra Grant

Okay, so. Finally read BLACKOUT, which as you know is up for the Hugo this year.

Is it good? Yep. As you’d expect if you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy, it’s quite an adventure. Not the high-octane thrill-ride of the first two books, imo, but exciting.

Does Grant pull off the — and here comes a spoiler, if you haven’t read the second book, so look away —

Does Grant pull off the magic clone? For me, not really. She waves her hands and declares that magic science makes it possible to grow a magic clone to adulthood near-instantly and magically install into its brain the memories of the original, and I’m sure a nod to magic science is fine for a lot of readers, but for me it is a tooth-grinding suspension-of-disbelief disaster.

Which I strongly suspected it would be. So I was prepared. So I enjoyed the new Georgia anyway. I liked her sections of the narrative the best, in fact, even if I didn’t believe in her. Can she get out of the evil CDC’s hands before they kill her? Can she persuade her team she’s the real thing, against all their genuine memories of her being dead? Very tense moments in there.

So getting Georgia back and reuniting her and Shaun (in a rather hard-to-believe coincidence of intersecting plotlines, but whatever) — well, I like happy endings, so okay.

BLACKOUT had plenty of other good stuff in it, too: all those tense family dynamics and all those interesting questions about identity and what it takes to make a clone a real person. And about what it takes to be a sane person, and the strange shapes insanity can take. Plus the random betrayals from unexpected directions, and trustworthy allies found in equally unexpected places.

And the writing is still excellent — though switching first-person narratives back and forth between Georgia and Shaun felt awkward to me; once they got together, I kept losing track of who was speaking. Then I’d have to stop and think and figure it out, which was annoying. That wasn’t an issue in the first two books, of course, and it’s probably one reason that, to me, the plotting didn’t seem nearly as tight in this book as it did in the earlier books.

Anyway — to sum up, I totally agree with the perceptive commenter (Maureen E) who noted in a previous post that FEED would have been an utterly brilliant standalone novel and it’s a pity Grant didn’t leave it to stand alone. Yes. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the other two, I hereby declare that the first book is actually lessened by the existence of the other two.

How about the rest of you? If you’ve read the book: agree or disagree?

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Everybody’s familiar with Dr Horrible, right?

Because in that case you really must go check out this link.

Because, if you can believe it? Rico Simpkins at Worlds Without Ends blog actually used the lyrics in Dr Horrible’s Sing Along to teach poetry. Isn’t that a hilarious idea?

Simpkins says, “I spend a lot time teaching Shakespeare, Shelly, Keats, Frost and pretty much any other English language poet to my students. I have pretty high standards for them, and lyric poetry can be pretty intimidating. Consequently, I have tried to dispel the notion that poetry is hard to read or that the literary figures I teach them to identify can only exist in elite centuries-old verse. In fact, I maintain that every trope and scheme tested in an AP English exam can be found in contemporary entertainment ranging from Top 40 music to popular musicals.”

And then, as I say, he analyzes the lyrics of “Hail to the King” and “Now Your World is Mine” and so forth. Very entertaining. You should click over if you have a moment — unless you haven’t seen Dr. Horrible yet. In that case, perhaps you should plan to do that first.

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Recent reading: a potpourri

So am I the only person in creation to hate Cronin’s THE PASSAGE? Because it was a DNF for me.

It’s true I don’t-finish a much higher proportion of books than used to be the case. I decided, you know, life is short and the TBR pile is long and why waste my time reading a book I don’t like? But I sure didn’t expect THE PASSAGE to be one of the books I didn’t like, after The Book Smugglers gave it a, get this, nine. A nine. I expected to love this book.

But, no.

I mean, we open with this young mother who is basically forced into prostitution to support her child, Amy. Although I was definitely wondering, why is she unable to get welfare? You’d think this was set in the 1850s when poor women really could be forced into prostitution, not in the modern day where there is, you know, a safety net. Is it possible for a woman to really not realize she would totally be eligible for all kinds of services? So right there I had questions about how Cronin set this up. But they were short lived questions, because — here comes a spoiler — the young mother, who is quite a sympathetic protagonist, leaves her little girl with nuns and vanishes. We never see her again.

So then this fascinating nun from Africa, Sister Lacey, takes over Amy’s care and becomes the story’s protagonist. I was definitely pulled into caring about Sister Lacey. Too bad because — spoiler alert — she is very quickly killed helping to rescue Amy from a rather typical Evil Federal Agency. The Feds accidentally-but-so-predictably set loose a vampire apocalypse, thus leading to the end of the world.

So Amy now depends on the Good Federal Agent, Agent Wolgast. Who is an interesting new protagonist, only he — is this getting repetitive? — he dies, leaving Amy alone in a world that has basically come to an end.

Fast forward 100 years and . . . never mind, I no longer care. After losing three protagonists in a row, I no longer trust Cronin to give me a character I can care about and to leave that character alive for more than 50 pages. I’m done.

So after THE PASSAGE was a bust, I thought, fine, try something completely different. So I picked up a Tamora Pierce novel I found at a library sale last year: THE WILL OF THE EMPRESS. Unfortunately, I’m a little old for Tamora Pierce, whom I suspect is an author that appeals more if you first started reading her books when you were fourteen. Even more unfortunately, this book turns out to follow not just one prior series, but two.

This novel had four main characters, but I just didn’t find any of them very interesting. That might have been different if I’d read the prequels. As it is — they all just annoyed me. All these unnecessary misunderstandings, and the plot looked like it was going to unroll in an extremely predictable way, and I just found myself unwilling to go on with the story to see if I was right about how all the plot elements would fit together. So . . . my second DNF in two days, which may be a record for me.

The third try was the charm, thankfully, because I really enjoyed the murder mystery I tried next: SLOW DOLLOR by Margaret Maron. My mother, who reads a lot of mysteries, didn’t much care for this one, so my expectations weren’t high. It was nice to be surprised in a good way.

SLOW DOLLAR is by no means the first in the series, but unlike the Pierce novel, it’s easy to get into without having read the others. Well, I guess that’s typical for a murder mystery series, maybe more so than for a fantasy series. But it was a welcome difference.

Anyway, I liked Maron’s protagonist, Judge Deborah Knott. You know what I thought was especially entertaining? The way Judge Knott tried such boring, ordinary, everyday kinds of cases. DUIs and vandalism and other petty crimes. No sensational murder trials, nothing like that. I liked this ordinary-life feel to the book. Not that the book devotes much time to the minutiae of all these trials but we definitely get a feel for Judge Knott’s ordinary courtroom life, and her ordinary life outside the courtroom, too. I think I’m starting to really notice stories about protagonists who aren’t lost princesses or the subjects of prophecies or the heirs to immense fortunes or anything, but rather just ordinary people. I mean, how many stories like that do you see? It seems like not very many. I enjoyed that aspect of Bujold’s Sharing Knife series, too.

I liked the carnival element in Maron’s mystery, and I really liked the complicated family relationships that wrapped around the whole plot from top to bottom, and I liked how the author worked things out in a positive way, getting Andrew to acknowledge his (adult) illegitimate daughter after all, and having Andrew’s current wife be instrumental in making the daughter feel like maybe she could be part of the family. I loved Deborah’s father — what a guy.

I liked the sort of hidden romance between Dwight and Deborah — I mean, actually hidden from Deborah herself, in a way, even though she is one of the people involved in the romance. That was definitely different. I loved how Maron showed us just enough of Dwight’s pov so that we — the readers — understand the relationship better than Deborah herself does. This is all SO different from the super-hot paranormal romances and angsty teen romances that are so very very common these days. Plus, I’m definitely rooting for Dwight. I think I’ll get the next book along in the series just to see how this plot element develops — and after seeing how Maron sets things up so that they work out, I think I trust her to develop this relationship in a way I’ll enjoy.

So . . . what all have you all been surprised by lately, either liking a book less than you expected, or more?

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Recent Reading: DEEP DOWN by Deb Coates

Okay! Anybody think the first book, WIDE OPEN, was a tad predictable? I did. It didn’t bother me, because I was reading for the characters and dialogue and setting, all of which were so good that I didn’t care that it was super-obvious that Martin was the bad guy.

But in DEEP DOWN? We still have the characters and dialogue and setting, but the story is also less predictable. I did guess what was special about Lily and Beth, but not much more than that. Several details took me totally by surprise!

In DEEP DOWN, we have two subplots that sort of look like they’re separate, but they actually tie together as the story progresses. We get the thing with the black dogs, that are not, of course, dogs at all — they’re harbingers of death, and they talk. At least the one that hangs out with Hallie talks. Still not clear why this particular black dog is hanging out with Hallie; I think we have a lead in to the third book, here. Which is fine. I like the black dogs and look forward to seeing them again.

So, anyway, the thing with the black dogs and reapers and a personified Death — I always do enjoy a personified Death — and the thing with the spooky bad guy, Travis Hollowell. Who is indeed pretty spooky. And, as I say, turns out to be involved with all those black dogs and reapers and everything, and in fact it all even ties together with the magic we saw from the first book.

One thing I really like about this story: the way there is ALL THIS weird spooky stuff going on, so that every time you turn around you bump into somebody else who can foretell the future (sometimes) or talk to dead people (if they’re in the right mood). Usually these are not comfortable gifts; they are small and not very helpful and sometimes actually pretty dangerous, but they do turn up. And yet you can totally believe that most people don’t notice the weird supernatural stuff that goes on behind the scenes, because Deb Coates is really good at showing how ordinary people just don’t want to notice or acknowledge the weird stuff.

Another thing I really like: You may remember I mentioned before how very, very gifted Coates is with dialogue? Still true. I love the dialogue; and I love the things people don’t say, which can be as vivid as the things they do say; and I love the relationships between even minor characters. And the relationship between Boyd and Hallie. Like this, for example:

There was something about the way [Boyd] said her name, about the way he entered a space, whether she was looking at him or not, like the air changed, like he figured she would always know that it was him. And maybe she would. Like a dance without music. Like they almost knew each other.

And this:

He paused, like he was figuring out what to say next, a problem they both had, not just because they didn’t know who or what they were to each other, but because the subject of their conversations kept being things neither of them had ever heard of or knew anything about.

I could quote so many great bits! It’s all so much more interesting and evocative and somehow real-sounding than the way the Female Lead thinks about the Male Lead in your typical paranormal/UF kind of story. Hallie and Boyd argue, and stop themselves from arguing, and protect each other, and stop themselves from protecting each other, and it’s just a really great developing relationship. We learn a lot more about Boyd in this book. He really does suit Hallie down to the ground. There’s this neat bit where she says, “You’re not my type,” and he just says, “Yes, I am.” And of course he’s right, and she knows he is. It’s like, there’s this great relationships that’s rocky and sometimes tense, but without the angst that gets so tiresome in so many romances.

So, yeah, this one worked for me. Plus, that beautiful cover! I’m definitely looking forward to the third book.

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Coincidence? Or a dangerous sign for the future?

You know, I got my Kindle in March? Well, I bought six books in January, six in February, 30 in March, and 30 in April. Kind of scary, isn’t it?

In March, I bought 14 books in paper and 16 in e-format.

In April I bought 12 books in paper and 18 in e-format. Oh, and six audio, because I need to eventually use up my Audible credits plus they had a sale. So that’s really 36 books in April. Heaven knows how long it will take me to listen to the audible books. The next major road trip coming up is in July, but I plan to listen to audible books while weeding this summer. (If we ever get a summer, which at this point is not looking like it’s ever going to happen.)

ANYway, it’s terrible. All these books! I see these great recommendations over at Bunbury in the Stacks or Fantasy Book Café or Chachic’s Book Nook or whatever, and then it turns out the book is an absolute steal in Kindle format, and there you go. Add that to the authors I love who come out with new books which I just have to get in paper. It all adds up.

In case you’re interested:

April acquisitions, in paper format:

Blackout, by Myra Grant, because it’s nominated for the Hugo and I have the first two anyway.
The Lost Gate (Orson Scott Card)
The Bones of the Old Ones (Jones)
Blood of Dragons (Hobb) — I have the others in this series, so naturally I must see how she finishes it.
Protector (Cherryh)
Froi of the Exiles (Marchetta) — turns out I don’t have the first one, though, so I really need to get that before I read this one.
I Hunt Killers (Barry Lyga)
Snake Agent (Liz Williams)
Steel’s Edge (Ilona Andrews) — because, hey, Ilona Andrews, right?
Sword Dancer / Sword Singer (Jennifer Roberson)
Elfland (Freda Warrington)

And in Kindle format:

Katya’s World (Jonathon Howard)
Emilie and the Hollow World (Wells)
The Chocolate Thief (Florand)
Terms of Enlistment (Kloos)
Crown Duel (Duology) (Sherwood Smith)
A Stranger to Command (Smith)
Stolen Magic (Stephanie Burgis)
Stealing the Elf-King’s Roses(Duane)
A Wind from the South (Duane)
Hollowland (Hocking) — time to try one by Hocking, I decided
The Secret Countess (Ibbotson)
Writing Down the Dragon (Tom Simon)
Stargate Atlantis: Entanglement (Wells)
Stargate Atlantis: Reliquary
Shadow Unit 1 (Emma Bull et al)
Shadow Unit 2
The Spark (Bigelow)
The Three Languages of Politics (Arnold Kling) — the only nonfiction title on the list.

And in Audible format:

False Colours by Georgette Heyer
Dark and Stormy Knights — a short story UF collection with lots of authors I like
A Beautiful Friendship (David Weber)
Warm Bodies (Isaac Marion)
The Blood of Flowers (Anita Amirrezvani)
To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis) — amazingly long, so I guess maybe this one will work for weeding all summer?

I can’t even tell you which titles I’m most excited about. I mean, lots of them.

I can tell you, though, that I MUST whittle down my paper TBR pile before I open my Kindle again!

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The books you remember forever —

Are, it seems to me, generally the ones you first read in high school. I don’t mean the ones that you’re forced to read for class, of course, though come to that I think I was scarred for life by LORD OF THE FLIES and ANIMAL FARM. No, I mean the stories you read voluntarily and fall in love with and read again and again. The books that turn into comfort reads, so that you reach for them when, say, you need to take yourself away from the exhaustion and misery of pneumonia.

For me, this was THE RIDDLE-MASTER trilogy by Patricia McKillip. And THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley. And LENS OF THE WORLD by RA MacAvoy. (Is there something about authors whose name start with Mc or Mac?) Let’s see, what else? All right: CUCKOO’S EGG by CJ Cherryh is on the list, and the Chanur series. So is SHARDS OF HONOR by Bujold. There are others, but that’s a reasonable sample.

I don’t think you can really tell, when you’re a teenager, whether a book is objectively great — I suspect you tend to forgive a book’s flaws if it really speaks to you. Though, to be sure, a book can be flawed and yet be great.

But what I do know for sure is, the really good ones grab you hard. They glow in your memory: There, that one, that one is perfect. Even years and decades later, you might be actually offended when you read any non-glowing review of one of these perfect books. And rightly so. Those stories deserve your passion: they shaped you not only as a reader, but also as a person. What you can compromise on, where you must stand firm, what matters most, the kind of person you want to be, all those deep questions of identity that you’re struggling with in your teenage years, that’s where those books sink in and take hold.

And no wonder. Because it turns out that teenagers probably really do feel everything more intensely than adults, that the memories laid down during adolescence really are more vivid and more emotionally charged, that a teenager’s social experiences really do have an important and permanent effect on how he or she reacts to all kinds of social interactions later.

Which is not necessarily a good thing, since the hothouse of teen society we call high school is often pretty toxic. The article I just linked is pretty negative about the effects of the high school experience, even for popular kids. Probably justifiably. Remember a few weeks ago when a long-time teacher, Brandy, weighed in on a discussion about “books for boys” vs “books for girls”, commenting that boys in public school totally reject books with girl protagonists, whereas boys in co-op schools don’t? I think there’s a lot to worry about in high school culture today, especially in the way it’s so divorced from the often more generous and more tolerant adult culture.

But. But, especially with that kind of concern . . . isn’t it then even more important to find the kind of story which holds up before you, in the most vivid way possible, a model to which you can rightly aspire? When, besides your teen years, do you more need to fall into stories featuring heroes who take responsibility for their own lives and for the people around them and the whole world, who show clear agency, who fight to defeat evil, who never give up or give in? Heroes who are, perhaps, a bit larger than life; who might be realistically flawed but are still genuinely admirable, who aspire to be better people and to achieve great things — and who, against long odds, succeed.

Or at least, those are the sorts of books I wanted as a kid, and the sort I hope kids fall in love with today.

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