Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The world is filled with distractions . . .

Some of them clamoring for attention with surprising urgency. Like, for example, the apricots.

This is the first year we’ve really gotten a good crop of apricots. Missouri is really too cold to expect to get apricots — we’re told to expect a crop about 2 out of 7 years, and I think that’s probably accurate.

They’re beautiful when they’re ripening, though.

And beautiful in the bowl, too.

I don’t much care for fresh apricots just as something to, you know, eat. Although the little tiny ‘Sweetheart’ apricots, barely larger than cherries, are good just out of hand.

But of course there’s an infinite number of very tasty things to do with apricots. It may amuse you to know — depends, I guess — but yesterday? I had pancakes with apricot syrup for breakfast, fresh apricots for dessert at lunch, chicken with apricot sauce for supper (plus snow peas and stuff, but let’s stay focused, right?) and then I couldn’t decide which to try, so I had a little sliver of apricot cheesecake AND an apricot-sunny-side up pastry to finish off the day.

The apricot-sunny-side-up pastries come for Julia Child, but I didn’t use the puff pastry base she recommends — I used a sweet pie pastry. Then you layer on ordinary pastry cream and poached apricot halves. Very tasty and not actually too much trouble.

The apricot cheesecake was even easier — I just used a pumpkin cheesecake recipe, but took out all the spices and substituted 16 oz of a thick simmered-down apricot puree instead of pumpkin. Except come to think of it, I was a little worried the puree might be too liquidy compared to pumpkin, so I added an extra 8 oz cream cheese, an extra egg, and an extra 1/4 C sugar, plus 3 Tbsp flour. It worked great. Honestly, you can’t beat cheesecake, right?

The apricot chicken was quite good. I added sugar and balsamic vinegar to the apricots and let that set while I sauted cubed chicken breasts. Then I pureed half the apricots and added the puree and a tsp of hot sauce and a little water, simmered that to reduce, added the rest of the apricots, and there you go.

So that was The Day of Apricots. Now my mother’s home from visiting relatives, and SHE can take over picking and processing apricots!

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Warmer . . . warmer . . . and award nominees

Literally, in fact. We’ve had several unseasonably cool days (lows in the sixties, highs in the low eighties). Not that this was accompanied by rain or anything, but it’s been nice to have the windows open. And a chance to take some of the dogs hiking! As far as they’re concerned, that’s what cool mornings are FOR.

Now, Pippa and Adora have to be on leash every minute, because WHOA, SQUIRREL!

But Dara and particularly Kenya don’t, because they stay right with me and ignore the squirrels. Kenya in particular never gets more than twenty feet away before turning to make sure I’m still coming. And I noticed something funny: she always turns the same way and takes the same pose. Check it out:

Doesn’t it look like I was just carrying around a Kenya statue, and every now and then put it down, backed up, and took a picture? I found this endlessly entertaining and took lots more pictures, but don’t worry, this one representative sampling is all I’ll post. I do seem to have become a convert to the overwhelming snazzyness of having a camera in my phone.

Alas for us all, it was seventy degrees already at nine this morning — more than likely that means the AC late this afternoon or at best tomorrow. And no more hiking for a while.

Now! In other news!

Not much to say about the WIP. It is progressing, slowly. It’s meant to be progressing slowly right now; done with the big push after all, and I don’t want to kill myself. I’ve got this cool scene in mind, but I won’t touch it till maybe Sunday — I want time to work on it uninterrupted, so I left it for now while I work one other bits.

Oh! Good news, though: I did figure out the main role of one secondary character, so I guess she can stay in the story. I was worried she might have to be written out. I have one other character like that, so we’ll see what turns up for him, if anything.

Also! I’m reading EMBASSYTOWN. China Mieville sort of intimidates me: you have to pay attention to his books when you read them. Don’t you think? Kind of the antithesis of a comfort read. Anyway, EMBASSYTOWN is up for the Hugo and Nebula this year, and since I get to vote in both, I figured I ought to read at least some of the contenders. And I already had this one because I really loved THE CITY AND THE CITY. I think I’m not going to like EMBASSYTOWN as well, but I could see voting for it.

AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton has been on my wishlist since last year, but I don’t have it. I guess I should get it at this point. It’s the other one that I think would appeal to me. DEADLINE by Myra Grant? No way. I enjoyed it — I really did — but vote for it? I had some MAJOR plot issues with it, which I kind of ranted about over at Goodreads, in fact. And the other nominees don’t really sound like my thing. Well, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS would, sure, but I’m not voting for a fraction of a huge series. Plus I’m not reading it until the whole series is done, anyway.

You can see a list of the Hugo and Nebula nominees (and get lots of the novellas and short stories that were nominated) here, btw, if you’re interested. I would never read the short stories if they weren’t offered free online, because basically I just don’t do short stories. I don’t mind novellas, but I sure won’t go to any trouble to track them down, so a (perfectly legal) site that links to online copies (with the author’s permission) is definitely a good thing.

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Five Signs You’re About to Land an Agent

From The INTERN, who as always has written an entertaining post that is also potentially useful.

You should of course click over and read the whole thing, but here are the five cues that to The INTERN’s signal approaching success:

1) You’ve been at it for a while
2) You have a good grasp of your book’s potential issues
3) You are willing to make dramatic changes to your ms
4) You value improvement for itself, and
5) You are friendly and professional.

The INTERN does think that number five there may just be a fluke of sampling, but hey, it can’t hurt!

The one that seriously rang a bell for me was #2. I immediately thought of the time I sent a loooong ms to my brother and said plaintively, There’s something wrong with it structurally, but I can’t figure out what.

(And he suggested cutting the entire middle section, which I immediately saw was the right thing to do. This then forced me to change stuff later on, and it was all just The Neverending Revision From Hell, which certainly takes us to #3 in the above list.)

As for #1, if you’re curious, no CITY IN THE LAKE wasn’t my first book. It was just the first for which I seriously pursued publication. I had a completed fantasy trilogy and an overlong SF novel “under my bed” by that point. I suspect that The INTERN is right and that the first item on her list is the key. But they all look good to me.

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Well, isn’t this relevent.

Check out this article I just stumbled across. At Bibliophile Stalker, btw.

But here I am, just having decided to plow forward rather than go back to revise, and here’s Alyx Dellamonica, with this keen little article about this exact decision.

I hadn’t heard of Dellamonica before, either, so I dropped over to Amazon and checked to see what she’d written. Turns out it’s a couple of books that sound interesting but maybe not like my cup of tea: INDIGO SPRING and BLUE MAGIC. I love the title INDIGO SPRING, but I dunno. Booklist says:

“When Astrid returns to [the town of] Indigo Spring, she discovers her father has been using the magic that flows in a blue stream underneath the family house. Following suit, she starts enchanting everyday objects, with at first harmless results. But when she shows the vitagua to some less stable and more selfish friends, the results then are less benign, and the true potential of the water’s magic begins to emerge. The theme here—the problems of power in irresponsible hands—is archetypal, but Dellamonica realizes it very well through characters you wouldn’t want in your neighborhood but who certainly hold your attention in what becomes an edge-of-the-seat thriller.”

And I don’t know if I’m crazy about the idea of watching unstable, selfish people screw everything up. Especially because the rest of the reviews of this book imply that things definitely do not get straightened out again, except maybe in the sequel. But that gives you at least a rough idea of what Alyx Dellamonica is doing, in case like me you hadn’t heard of her before.

And I like her post.

“If you are truly a pantser and you try to force yourself to outline–because you feel you should, or because you have a proposal due, or because some element of pantser writing seems really hard or frustrating on any given day–you may end up investing a lot of energy in trying to embrace something that just isn’t part of who you are. If that’s the case and you’re sure of it, you might be better off trying to find a… well, a pants way to address the tough stuff.

By the same token, if you truly are a polish-as-you-go writer, if you simply can’t go forward to page 2 until page 1 is perfect, so be it. Accept that your day to day writing speed may seem slower than that of the people who routinely toss off Nanowrimo novels in thirty days. Tell yourself you’re saving yourself the time that I’ll be spending in rewrite.”

Seems like good advice to me. Compared to Dellamonica, I have a considerably more finished first draft — I hardly ever leave holes in a rough draft — not that it can’t happen — but although I polish at the sentence level as I go, there is so much to do later. Like address pacing issues by combining two chapters while cutting half the combined length of those chapters. Or writing out a character I introduced who wound up never taking on an important role. And always, always, always working to deepen characterization throughout. (I never feel like I’ve done that enough.)

Dellamonica concludes:

“However — if you aren’t sure —

I recommend making the experiment: just once, push on to the end.

I can’t stress enough how valuable it can be to have a whole draft assembled before you as you buckle down to tweaking.

There is danger in perfectionism. Trying to retool every sentence and story development before you have a whole story can simply mean not finishing it.”

And I wholeheartedly agree. Because I have met several people — really more than “several” — who have told me they’re working on a novel. And they can’t finish it. And this is exactly the problem they describe.

So that’s advice which I, too, pass along when I happen to be taking part in a writing workshop or whatever, even though I get that everyone works in a different way. Even though I get that, I still say: For heaven’s sake, once you’ve got something that’s starting to resemble a novel? Finish it. Just get words in a row until you can type THE END. And then polish.

And it’s also advice I’m taking myself, this time around. Moving ahead!

Though maybe not tonight. Because tonight I need to pick apricots — I wonder if I can find the extendable fruit picker? — and the rest of the plucots. And water some young trees and shrubs, because WE ARE HAVING A LATE SUMMER DROUGHT EVEN THOUGH IT IS NOT LATE SUMMER, which is a bummer and I hope very much does not mean we are going to have a nonstop six-month drought this year. Watering takes up lots and lots of time, and yet I can’t just let my babies all burn up.

Screwed up weather really does feel personal, like some god is doing it to you on purpose. Someday I will write a story where, rather than placating the weather gods, the main character will HUNT THEM DOWN AND DESTROY THEM. A year like this makes me want to get started on that story.

But not till I finish this one.

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Aaand . . . summer vacation is over

Yes, I know, not for actual students, unless they’re taking summer classes. Which, to be sure, plenty of them are. I haven’t got the list of students enrolled in summer classes — I mean Support Services students, which are the ones I work with — so not sure yet just how many students have optimistically decided to take College Algebra (say) over the summer. Math in doubletime, what fun!

This is where we find out which students were passed along by the Nice Teacher and are actually totally clueless about algebra. If only we didn’t have this moment of revelation every single semester! My modest proposal is to make all students test into each math class, regardless of grades. This would avoid letting the Nice Teacher screw up the students by pretending they’ve learned math when they really, really haven’t. Alas, not politically feasible. Although I, at least, would greatly enjoy the firestorm of protest that would come when students who “passed” one math class were told they’d have to retake. I expect standards would be tightened up in a big, big hurry if we started mandatory testing.

Oh, well.

If you’re a parent though, my personal advice is: be very suspicious of your kids’ curricula. Or your own if you’re a student, of course. Way too many Nice Teachers out there, and does it ever bite to realize you’ve been paying tuition for a fake class. Though honestly, if you’re taking group “tests”? That should be a clue.

And for heaven’s sake, make sure your little kids learn (REALLY learn) the multiplication tables, how to add and subtract fractions, how to add and subtract negative numbers, and preferably long division. Everything else falls into place if you have that foundation. Honest.

Okay! On a completely different note:

Did I write 160 pp over the past 20 days?

No. But I wrote 150! Which is close enough! So I am happy.

The big question now is: shall I keep moving forward, albeit more slowly? Or stop at this point and revise?

And the answer is . . . I can’t bear to cut any of my beautiful pages, yet. So I will move on, although I’m actually taking notes about revision and I know perfectly well that I’m going to combine two of the earlier chapters. And I can see some things I will have to work on during revision regarding characterization.

So much psychology involved in what works for a particular writer. For me — and I’m sure for lots of other people — seeing the page number grow is Very Important as a motivator. The total length of the ms now is 206 pages. That is 64,000 words, roughly. That had better be more than half done, but it’s probably not — I expect to slightly overshoot my 400 pp (120,000 word) limit. As I get closer to the limit, cutting stops being psychologically hard and I may start revision without quite finishing the ms.

I once quit with two chapters to go, went back, and cut 100 pages (yes, an even 100) from a ms. Then I wrote the final two chapters and started real revisions. That was the third Griffin Mage book, by the way. Yes, indeed, I overshot my length by 100 pages WHILE ON A DEADLINE. Which I made the deadline, but my plan is never to overshoot that far again. Hope this one doesn’t go anything like that far over!

So . . . that was my summer vacation. Deadline to finish the rough draft? September 1st. It’s really nice to expect to finish in a reasonable time, without killing myself.

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And hey! Did you see this?

You know The Book Smugglers are my very favorite book bloggers, right?

And so naturally I was happy for them when Thea and Ana got asked to write a weekly review for Kirkus?

Well, it turns out I had an extra reason to be happy about this, though I didn’t know it at the time, because for their second Kirkus column, they wrote this list.

Which I know got mentioned in the comments below a previous post, and thanks, Michelle, you can hijack a comment thread any time for a link of that kind!

Anyway, I was particularly amused by commenter Kevin Mcveigh:

Whilst this is an interesting list, with the exception possibly of Valente, it is a predictable list . . .

Really? Well, gosh, I’m glad you think so, Kevin. I assure you I am not bored with appearing on Top Ten lists and if anybody else happens to be putting together such a list, feel free to include me on it!

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And Cake! / Blog

100 pages! Plus, cake.

So, yesterday? I reached the 100 page mark! As in, 100 pages written — the actual WIP was 53 pp when I picked it up on May 16th and reached 158 pp yesterday. Go, me!

Plus, the proportion of the plot that is still a mystery is shrinking. A few days ago I had about 2/3 of the plot, but now I would say it’s more like 9/10. Of course, the tenth that I don’t have? That is kind of the crucial “And then the good guys win after all by . . .”

The good guys are just reaching the part where things will start going totally wrong. They’re going to do something sensible, which will work but produce unexpected (and very bad) side effects, after which they will do something else sensible which won’t be sufficient (I know what that is), after which they will find out JUST how much trouble they are really in and do something to pull their chestnuts out of the fire (I have no idea about that).

Plus, this WIP is YA, so what’s really going on is that the adults in the story are doing sensible things that ought to work, but won’t. The kids will then save the day, but not because the adults are stupid or clueless. I hate stupid adults in YA.

I’m expecting to hit pretty close to 200 pp or the halfway mark by June 4th, which is when the summer session starts and I will suddenly lose four or five hours a day. Which I’m not complaining; part-time jobs are fabulous! I don’t know how anybody gets anything done when they also have a full-time job.

Anyway, at that point I’ll undoubtedly slow down, but I don’t want to stop. I want this book finished by the time school starts in the fall (late August). Then I’ll go through and cut — I always overshoot any reasonable page limit — and take a break and then look at it again to see if it seems to flow. And then cut again, I expect, and finally send it to my agent. So that’s the plan.

Meanwhile!

I got moderately stuck last night, and you know what I did? Well, I stopped of course, to let things work themselves out in the back of my head (they did, everything sorted itself out and I figured out the whole next chapter or maybe two chapters when I woke up this morning but before the alarm went off, which is my best thinking time. So that’s all good.

But what’s really important here is, last night I finally started watching the Battlestar Galactica DVDs I’ve had sitting on a shelf for, like, years and years. (How long ago did that come out?) I have the initial miniseries and the first couple of seasons after that and I figure a tv show will be less distracting than reading fiction. I hope.

Didn’t I read a warning on some blog way long ago that B G jumps the shark someplace in the middle? I wonder if I should be planning to get the other seasons? Anybody got an opinion on that one?

Anyway, I’m at the part where it looks like Apollo got blown up. I’m pretty sure he is actually still alive, but it was well past my normal bedtime and the dogs don’t let me oversleep, so I went to bed. So I don’t know how he and the new Madam President — I like her, btw, a great combo of hesitancy and decisiveness — are going to have survived what looks like a ground zero nuke.

And what’s with that human-woman-cylon? She sort of seems like a ghost, what’s with that? Is that idiot who hacked her into the defense net hallucinating or what? My guess is “or what”. Don’t tell me, btw. Those are rhetorical questions. I like the whole “God told me to do it” thing. What, the cylons are all into religion? Because what a neat idea, if so.

Okay! Also having time to cook, of course, because you can’t work on your laptop 24/7. At least, I can’t. And now that the upstairs (main floor) is all clean, I find it hard to bother with the downstairs. The spring cleaning is suffering from an out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing. Though I have almost another week to finish, so there’s a pretty good chance I will get to it. Or most of it.

But anyway, I like baking a lot more than dusting, and I had this extra 8 oz of sour cream that needed to get used up, so I made this cake:

Double-Ginger Bundt Cake

This recipe is from the April 2009 issue of Bon Appetit, in case you want to track down the original, which involves ginger-infused strawberries, which I didn’t make.

1/2 C raw (Demerara) sugar
2 1/4 C all-purpose flour
4 tsp ground ginger
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda (my addition, the recipe didn’t call for it, but hello, we’re putting in sour cream? So of course baking soda is an expected ingredient and I don’t know why it wasn’t in there.)
1/2 tsp salt
1 C butter, room temp (I always microwave it for a few seconds because I never remember to take it out of the fridge beforehand. No, it is not okay to melt it, that will really change the texture of baked goods, so be sure you pay attention and just soften it.)
2 C sugar
4 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 tsp vanilla (I used 1 tsp of double-strength vanilla, but that’s just me.)
1 C sour cream
1 C crystallized ginger, chopped (which if you don’t have a handy supply, I will tell you how to make.)
Ginger syrup (my addition, so it’s optional, but you automatically have it on hand if you make your own crystallized ginger, so why not?)

Butter or spray the Bundt pan. Put in the raw sugar and swish it around to generously coat the pan.

Whisk together the dry ingredients.

Beat the butter until smooth. Add the sugar and beat two to five minutes (longer is better if you’re using a handheld mixer.)

Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in egg yolk and vanilla.

Add a third of the flour, then half the sour cream, and repeat until you’ve added all the flour and sour cream.

The batter will be stiff. Spoon it into the pan, trying not to dislodge the sugar more than strictly necessary.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with a few small crumbs attached. Cool in the pan on a rack for 15 minutes. Turn out onto a cake plate.

Now, when I made this cake, I didn’t put enough Demerara sugar in the pan, and the cake didn’t come out as glittery and pretty as the picture showed. So I brushed the cake with ginger syrup and then sprinkled more raw sugar over it, and that worked fine. So that’s an option to keep in mind.

This cake is really good, with a creamy crumb and a surprisingly crisp crust (from the raw sugar in the pan). I wasn’t sure how people who aren’t gingerophilic would feel about this cake, but the people I offered it to for a taste test (the staff at my vet clinic — believe me, we’re on a first-name basis) liked it a lot. So did I, but with all that ginger, that goes without saying.

Crystallized Ginger and Ginger Syrup

14 oz fresh ginger root
3 1/2 C water
3 1/2 C sugar, plus additional sugar
A candy thermometer or instant-read thermometer

Peel and slice the ginger into pieces that are . . . oh . . . about an eighth to as much as a fourth of an inch thick, and up to three inches long or so, which means you can slice the root lengthwise and make fewer but larger slices, which will make your life easier later.

Stir the sugar into the water. Add the ginger. Bring to a boil. Boil gently until the mixture reaches 220 degrees. This will take at least one and a quarter hours and actually for me it always seems to take nearly an hour and a half. I know this seems unbelievable, but I am not kidding. The temp rises fairly fast to begin with, but those last five degrees just take FOREVER. The ginger syrup will be thin but usable if you get it to a mere 216 degrees, but I want it thicker, so I sit there with a book for the last bit, checking the thermometer periodically.

If you do this without a thermometer, then plan to boil the ginger (fairly gently) for an hour and twenty-five minutes, and I expect that will work, but watch the syrup like a hawk for the last fifteen minutes and get it off the burner the instant you see it starting to show the least trace of color. If you caramelize the sugar, you’ll have made ginger brittle, which is perfectly edible but not the plan.

Let the ginger cool in the syrup just to make everything easier to handle. Strain the ginger slices out of the syrup. Store the syrup in a glass jar in the fridge. It’ll last for a good long time, possibly until the heat death of the universe, so don’t worry about it going bad if you shove it to the back and forget it for a while. However, it doesn’t last that long for me. It packs a powerful ginger kick and it’s really good on lots of things. I like it with yogurt and bananas. Or drizzled over ginger pancakes. Whatever.

Meanwhile, lay the ginger slices out in a single layer on a wire rack. (This is why it’s easier to make larger slices.) Let the slices air dry for a while. Toss them in sugar. Let them dry on the rack overnight. Store in an airtight container. I personally store crystallized ginger in the fridge because I once had a batch mold, which was really disappointing. It’ll get harder and drier with time, but there’s no great rush to use it up. Although making the above cake twice would probably do it if you were worried about that.

So . . . there you go.

Incidentally, I just realized that not only do I have ordinary powdered dried ginger and crystallized ginger and ginger syrup on hand, but also fresh ginger; frozen ginger; pickled ginger; and ginger peeled, sliced thin, and preserved in sake (by far my favorite way to preserve ginger, you use it identically to fresh (you can use sherry or vodka or whatever instead of sake (the alcohol does not seem to contribute anything to the taste of the ginger))).

But I honestly think you’ll love this cake even if you’re not the ginger fiend I am.

Okay! Back to REAL writing now.

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Summer Break!

Which, for me, is 20 days. After that the summer session starts. Though I work reduced hours until the Fall semester starts. Even more reduced than usual, I mean (I’m always part time) (Yes, I love my life.).

So!

Today: Took two of the girls hiking at Pickle Springs Natural Area — all big rocks and sandy soil, an easy trail. I took Kenya and Dara and let them both go off-lead — Kenya never voluntarily gets more than 15 feet from me regardless of squirrels, and Dara stays almost as close. I’d post pictures but I have to admit I’m not sure how to get the pictures off my phone. Later for that!

Then I came home and started spring cleaning. I figur one hour or one room per day, whichever. No taking books off shelves to dust or anything, though. Way too many books to go that far. Only relatively easy surfaces get dusted.

Then wrote 1800 words. Only 700 words to go to make the 2500 I want to write every single day. Which is roughly 8 pp a day, so if you do a quick bit of math you will see that I would like to write 160 pages or roughly 50,000 words before June 4th. (No promises.)

Then a break to thin peaches. Again. Or more. Whatever. I need a ladder now, all the branches that still need attention are up high. Then picked the cherries and made another cherry cobbler for Dad (neither Mom nor I like cherries) and almond pastries for Mom and me because why should we be deprived and anyway I had leftover almond paste sitting around from another use.

Now it’s seven in the evening and I’ve got the computer out again. 700 words — how hard can that be? Right?

Back to work!

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Recent reading . . . and yet the TBR pile does not shrink

So, made some inroads on the TBR pile this past weekend! Also had a handful of new books arrive, so actual net progress in whittling the pile down was zero. Even negative if you count the couple of books on their way but not yet arrived.

Read: THE SCORPIO RACES by Stiefvater, THE GIRL WHO by Valente, TOADS AND DIAMONDS BY Tomlinson, and the third vampire romance by Ward, LOVER AWAKENED.

Arrived: SHADOWS IN FLIGHT by Card, CRUCIBLE OF GOLD by Novik, THE PEACH KEEPER by Allen, and GUARDIAN OF NIGHT by Daniel.

The first of these? From the heft, it’s a novella. Can I just say here how much I hate it when the publisher packages a novella as a novel and prices it like a novel and never says a word to indicate that it’s not really a novel? So I’m peeved about that.

Have you tried the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik? The series set during the Napoleonic era, with dragons and Jane Austin-ish language? Actually I wasn’t totally overwhelmed by the Australian novel in the series, but you’ll notice I still picked up this latest installment.

The thing by Daniel, I know nothing at all about, I was filling out an order from the SFBC and it looked promising despite the extremely generic title. It says it’s kind of The Hunt For Red October in space and I’m up for that, though of course I’d prefer to have Sean Connery in the leading role. Red October is one of the very very very few movies that I think is better than the book and partly that’s because Tom Clancy always puts too much exposition in the books but mostly it’s because, hey, Sean Connery.

And THE PEACH KEEPER? That’s because of this review. Also this one (much briefer). I think it’s kind of a mystery, which I was sort of short of on the TBR pile anyway, but really I think it’s a relationship book and a romance. Plus I like the title. And the cover.

Now! The recent reading:

Ward’s vampire romances continue to be good. I was really afraid that the third book was going to turn out to be one of those situations where if the main characters only TALKED to one another, everything would be fine, but they just won’t, so everything goes to blazes. I hate plots like that more than words can say. Maybe even worse than Stupid Gas, if possible. There were, to be honest, elements of this, but not as much so as I was afraid of. I quite liked it. I have to just mention that to enjoy this series, you do get used to the stupid ‘H’ names and kind of read past them. The even stupider ‘H’ words from, I guess, the ‘old language’ make NO SENSE AT ALL, but that is just a detail and I guess we can ignore them. With an effort.

You know what’s bothering me a bit, though? The doggen. The happy servant people. I get that to the author, they are just a plot device to smooth out the lives of the Real Characters, but it is actually kind of disturbing to stick in a slave class and have nobody think that this is problematic – not even Beth or Butch, who are outsiders and ought to get that it is icky to have hereditary servants who call all the Real Characters ‘Sire’. Ick ick ick.

Well, I still like the books, though, and I’m certainly planning to head on to the fourth installment shortly. The author’s surprised me before, maybe she’ll suddenly turn out to be just kidding about being oblivious to the situation she’s set up.

TOADS AND DIAMONDS – and have I mentioned how great a title that is, and what a wonderful cover the book has? – is set in a kind of alternate India. What I loved: the setting, which had lots of great details; the whole idea of the twin blessings and the way both the diamonds and the toads really are blessings; the genuine niceness of both main characters, each in a different way. What I didn’t like: both Diribani (The Diamond Girl) and Tana (The Toad Girl) seemed a bit dim. I didn’t get why Diribani failed to insist on her jewels going back to her home province through someone other than Governor Alwar. I mean, once the prince showed that he was going to be generous with her gift, why didn’t she at least TRY to get around Alwar?

And it’s probably not fair to hold against Tana a certain slowness to get the connection between disease and rats and her snake gift – that probably depends on a modern knowledge of the Black Death – but still, waiting for that shoe to drop was kind of tedious.

This is a short novel and the focus on Diribani and Tana is pretty tight; other characters are not drawn out in any great depth. The two cultures – which are certainly Hinduism for the conquered people and Islam for the conquerors, disclaimers aside – well, certainly they clash, but again the clash feels sort of superficial. Prince Zahid and Princess Ruqayya are just too nice, and Diribani too accommodating of their customs, for the conflict between their peoples to seem all that real. It’s pretty unusual for me to complain about characters being too nice, but that’s how it seemed to me in this case. To me, this novel seemed like a charming MG rather than a YA story – and I would have liked more depth throughout – but it’s hardly the story’s fault that it wasn’t really written to suit my taste.

THE GIRL WHO – very clever use of language, very clever details all through, I laughed out loud at some of the most unexpected lines. It is reminiscent of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, which is the impression I’d gained from reading reviews, but I wasn’t as totally overwhelmed as a lot of other people have been. In fact, I think TOLLBOOTH is definitely the stronger book. That might be because I was younger when I read it, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that actually it’s because of a more coherent storyline to the TOLLBOOTH allegory and also to a protagonist who developed more through the course of the book.
Of course your mileage may differ. And I did enjoy THE GIRL WHO, so don’t get me wrong.

Of course its very cleverness sort of holds the reader at a distance. You certainly aren’t going to fall right into the story and feel like it’s a true story about real people.

Which is why THE SCORPIO RACES was the outstanding book of the weekend, because you totally DO fall right into this one. I didn’t know much about it before going in, but it turns out to be much more a contemporary fantasy than I’d expected. With just one fantastic element, which is not hidden at all, but just taken for granted: of course the capaill uisce, the water horses, come out of the sea in the fall – just on this one island – and of course they’re bigger and more beautiful and much, much more dangerous than ordinary horses. Naturally we have this ritual race built around the capaill uisce. Everything feels totally real, the way Stiefvater tells it.

I love Sean Kendrick. I love Puck Connelly. I love the way there’s no insta-romance and absolutely no description of Sean Kendrick as super-hot. I love the development of the relationship between them, much slower and more awkward than has become typical in recent YA releases.

Not only that, but I love the way they both HAVE to win the Scorpio Races – when naturally it has to actually be one or the other. I even believe how this worked out in the end – because Stiefvater is that good a storyteller. I do particularly love the bit when Finn saves the day right at the end. Brilliant! And yet obvious in retrospect.

And the thing with Corr? So sad, and yet satisfying.

I expect this one was marketed as YA, but to me it seems almost more like an adult novel – yes, it’s a coming-of-age story for both main characters, true, but it’s got all the depth and character development you could want. And it’s not paced super-fast. There’s room to appreciate the world and the unfolding story. Whether you lean more YA or more adult, I think you’d stand a very good chance of appreciating this one.

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Beautifully written nonfiction

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, comparatively, but I read some. Animal behavior and psychology and economics and just, you know, whatever. Sometimes a nonfiction work will spark ideas and world building immediately – for example, I read this one book, GEISHA, by Liza Dalby before I wrote HOUSE OF SHADOWS, which, may I remind you, is due out in July. I bet you’ll see the influence when you read that one.

Others I suddenly find useful long after I read them, or else some of the stuff I learned from them settles to the back of my mind and hopefully adds depth to worldbuilding later.

Generally the nonfiction books I read is competently written, or, you know, I wouldn’t read it. Some have flawless, precise English which is a pleasure to read, in a quiet way. But I have to say, it’s certainly nice to find something where the language itself goes well beyond competent to clever, entertaining, or even poetic.

I have two great examples here in front of me, both kind of dealing with physics (well, aspects of physics, sort of), and as it happens one of ’em was written thirty-odd years ago and the other more than sixty, and I do kind of wonder if the standards for writing have fallen so far that you just don’t get entertaining writing from engineers these days. But probably that’s too cynical, because I guess generally nonfiction authors are shooting for prose that is competent and clear, but not necessarily for prose that is clever or beautiful.

Anyway! Check this out:

“A bulldog without a hide and a half is no more a bulldog than a hinny is a mule in the stockman’s eye, but the scowl was originally unintentional and a by-product of a functional goal.”

“The forehand assembly of a dog is as busy as a centipede crossing the floor.”

“The laws of leverage come galloping into this picture like tax collectors.”

“The vaudeville performer balancing spinning plates atop long poles, which rest on chin or forehead, and a cantilever or suspension bridge may seem a far cry from the front assembly of a dog; even so the dog might be termed ‘brother to a bridge’. His front assembly must be dynamically balanced for it to function with the highest degree of efficiency, even as the bridge and the juggler’s tricks.”

“The broken-down pastern finds the carpal assembly awry and askew and not supporting the weight carried by the leg, but putting this burden on the muscles whose tendons act over the pisiform and down to contact the digits.”

All this is from McDowell Lyon’s book THE DOG IN ACTION, first published in 1950. This is still the best and most complete book available that deals with canine structure and movement. It also has the cleverest and most enjoyable turns of phrase. Lyon also scatters anecdotes all through his book in order to lighten up what might (I concede) possibly be considered by some to be a dry subject. I just wrote a review of it for the Cavalier Bulletin, so I’ve been re-reading bits.

I admit, after reading . . . um . . . five books on canine structure and movement, I get pretty snide when I see an animal with poor structure in the show ring, and even more snide when I hear someone insist that good fronts don’t matter to a toy dog. Oh, yes, they do. Go read McDowell Lyon and quit breeding dogs that are going to be crippled by the time they’re middle-aged. Jeez.

Public service message here: Even the most knowledgeable and committed pet buyers — and I am a big fan of educated, committed puppy buyers — focus too much on health as it relates to actual disease (say, sebacious adenitis, for example) (which is not a Cavalier issue, btw, but you’d be wise to ask about it if you were buying a poodle or akita) and too little on structural breakdown. Both are important, but if anything unsound structure is more common and more likely to eventually hit you in the vet bills than actual disease. Lotta totally unsound mixed breeds out there, too, just in case you think getting a mixed breed animal will magically protect you from those vet bills. The best way to make sure you get a sound dog from a shelter? Ask somebody like me to go with you to look at the animals.

Okay, sorry, kind of got sidetracked for a minute there. Now back to the actual subject!

How about this:

“With fashionable subjects like physics or astronomy, the correspondence between model and reality is so exact that some people tend to regard Nature as a sort of Divine Mathematician. However attractive this doctrine may be to earthly mathematicians, there are some phenomena where it is wise to use mathematical analogies with great caution. The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea and the way of a man with a maid are difficult to predict analytically. One does sometimes wonder how mathematicians ever manage to get married.”

“It is a pity, therefore, that the whole idea of energy has been confused in many people’s minds by the way in which the word is used to refer to a condition in human beings: in this case one which might be described as an officious tendency to rush about doing things and pestering other people. This use of the word has really only a tenuous connection with the precise, objective, physical quantity with which we are now concerned.”

“For instance, instead of messing about with thoroughly bogus ‘factors of safety’, one can nowadays simply try to design a structure to accommodate a crack of pre-determined length without breaking . . . Where human life is concerned, it is clearly desirable that a ‘safe’ crack should be long enough to be visible to a bored and rather stupid inspector working in bad light on a Friday afternoon.”

“As we have seen, unless one is as clever as Nature is, the whole business of making tension structures is set about with difficulties, complications, and treacherous traps for the unwary.”

“Out of all the different kinds of structures which might be made, the masonry building is, as we shall see, the only one in which a blind reliance on traditional proportions will not automatically lead to disaster. This is why, historically, masonry buildings were by far the largest and most imposing of the works of man. The desire to build cloud-capp’d towers and solemn temples goes far back into history and indeed into pre-history.”

“Of course it is a bad thing for walls to crack, and it should not be allowed to happen in well-regulated buildings, but it does not necessarily follow that the wall is going to fall down immediately. What is likely to occur in real life is simply that the crack will gape a bit but the wall will continue to stand up, resting on the parts which are still in contact. All this savours somewhat of living dangerously, and one of these days the line of thrust may stray outside the surface of the wall, when, as a little thought will show, since no tension forces are available, one or more of the joints will hinge about its outside edge and the wall will tip up and fall down. It really will.”

“Feathers not only enable birds to get away with more local scrapes and abrasions than other animals, but the body of the bird is protected from more serious damage by its thick resilient armor. The Japanese feather armor which one sees in museums was not, as one might suppose, the picturesque nonsense of a primitive people who did not know any better. It was an effective protection against weapons like swords.”

Feather armor? Wouldn’t that a wonderful detail to slip into a story some day?

Anyway, all that about cracks and walls tipping over might possibly lead you to suspect that this book was an important resource for me when I was writing Book II of the Griffin Mage trilogy. You would be right!

This is all from a book called STRUCTURES: OR WHY THINGS DON’T FALL DOWN by JE Gordon, a materials scientist who, one gathers from some of his anecdotes, was active in his field at least during WWII, and maybe even WWI. I could just quote his book all day, but perhaps mercifully will make myself stop now.

Want to know why yew bows only work in cool climates? Gordon will tell you why. Why did so many boilers explode? Gordon is pretty scathing on that subject. But along with a bit of math and loads of anecdotes about accidents — things breaking up or falling down, despite the title – there are many snatches of poetry in this book, and, of course, there is clever wordplay simply everywhere.

At the moment, these are my two picks for Nonfiction Books You Wouldn’t Think Would Be Entertaining But You Would Be So Wrong. Anybody else got a candidate for this category? Because I could use some entertaining nonfiction right about now.

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