Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Well, my manuscript hasn’t revised itself.

Turns out even if you ignore the file for six months, it never does pull itself together for you.

Actually, though it’s taken a LOT longer to get to this revision (of The Mountain of Kept Memory, which is a title that I’m still proud of) than I hoped, and I still haven’t actually started work as such, I have some hope I’ll be able to dash through it pretty briskly. This is because I now have an outline! No, no, not an outline of the actual events in the book. An outline of the events that should be in the book but aren’t, plus an outline of how the protagonists feel about those events!

Making this weird kind of outline has been, I hope, really helpful. I now think that I may well be able to get the story into the kind of shape my editor wants. Setting the manuscript aside for six months really was helpful, even if it didn’t take the opportunity to re-work itself while I was doing other things.

So . . . at this point, I’ve decided to devote the first week of Christmas break to this project. The other aspect of this plan is that I now intend to write only 100 pages of the new project. I should be able to do that in a lot less than a month, if I need to, so I don’t have to feel stressed about putting the new project off while I work on the old.

Also! The sweet potato-ginger-chocolate chip cookies have humbled me. I frankly think I knocked my first two cookie recipes out of the park. And on the first try with each of them! I was feeling pretty smug about my talent as a baker, let me tell you. But these sweet potato cookies! Wrong, wrong, wrong texture! I want a MUCH cakier cookie. And even the flavor’s off. I need them sweeter, and also more complex.

Sigh. I’m disposing of the non-great cookies here at work, where I’m getting many comments but few complaints. The next try will be better! Probably.

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Kind of a fun post over at Janet Reid’s blog —

You have to scroll down a bit to find the one I mean, though there are several interesting posts on the way which are worth reading, too. The one I mean starts off

“Imagine for a moment you are applying to be an extra in “The Hobbit”.
The casting director asks “what makes you special?”
Your answer: “I’m the only person available for the job.”

And then it goes from there, with an illustrative photo and a useful bit of advice: Don’t claim that your book is the only one ever written on the subject of, say, sandwich cookies, unless you KNOW FOR SURE THAT IS TRUE.

That actually kind of reminds me of a similar issue that from time to time comes up when I’m reading about (say) the behavior of wolves and the author of the article or book says: “This behavior is totally unknown except in wolves!” And I know that actually very similar behavior is also seen in dwarf mongooses, grasshopper mice, and Harris’ hawks.

So, Janet Reid’s advice to queriers: Know your stuff. Good advice for us all!

She also has an entertaining query up front-and-center at QueryShark right now, also worth a glance, even if you’re not interested in advice about how to query your very own novel.

And! On the subject of sandwich cookies, which you saw me work cleverly into this post! I have created an ABSOLUTELY KILLER ginger chocolate cookie, which I am convinced is the VERY BEST ginger chocolate cookie EVER CREATED. I will share the recipe with you all after the Scharffen Berger contest closes. A contest which has already been worthwhile, btw, because of THIS COOKIE I HAVE CREATED.

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Recent reading: Liveship Traders

Okay . . . over the past couple of weeks, I very slowly worked my way through SHIP OF MAGIC, MAD SHIP, and SHIP OF DESTINY by Robin Hobb.

Honestly . . . I can’t decide what I think of them. They’re solidly in the modern-epic-fantasy subgenre. Lots of pov characters, lots of intersecting plotlines.

The difference between this trilogy and George RR Martin’s series is: nobody important gets killed in the first book. Actually, I don’t think anybody really important gets killed at all.

The difference between this trilogy and Joe Abercrombe’s BEST SERVED COLD trilogy is that all the characters either become better people over time, or at least don’t start off as decent people and then become corrupted, weak, and/or evil. And one of the more evil characters? Turns out there’s a very good reason for why he is the way he is, and I don’t mean a pseudopsychological explanation involving unhappy childhoods. (Though he also had an unhappy childhood, but seriously, that wasn’t why he was the way he was.)

When I started this trilogy, I was pretty sure I would wind up giving it away. And maybe I will. But I ended up liking it a lot better than I thought I would, largely because of the characters growing up and changing in good ways over the course of the books.

We have The Willful, Headstrong Heiress, Althea. I am not a big fan of the Willful, Headstrong Heroine in general, but Althea was not as annoying as some and she did turn out well.

Then there’s her niece, the Other Willful, Headstrong Heiress, Malta, who is also selfish and stupid. Thank the Lord, she grows up a LOT and becomes a very different kind of person by the end. Plus, she turns out not to be stupid after all, once she gets over being ultimately self-centered.

There’s the Dispossessed Son Trying To Prove Himself. Brashen does okay, though. He’s flawed in believable and not-too-serious ways and he really is a competent guy.

There’s the Evil Pirate, Kennit, who turns out to be very interesting, though ordinarily I’m not at all interested in seeing the pov of the bad guys. Too, too tedious. But he’s a sociopath trying to pass himself off as a good guy, which raises all these questions about what it means to be a good guy. I mean, if you do all these good-guy things, but don’t feel it, are you a good guy after all? Or not?

There’s the Whore-Turned-Pirate-Queen, Etta. Okay, I DID love Etta, right from the first.

We have the Oppressed Wife, Keffria, who takes longer to stand on her own two feet than seems strictly necessary. And her Evil Husband, who raises the question: Is he actually insane? Or just extremely selfish and stupid?

And Ronica, her mother, who works so hard to protect her family, against considerable odds. Though if she hadn’t supported Kyle over Althea in the beginning, well, whatever. I guess that would have changed the plot a whole lot.

And the Satrap’s Companion of the Heart, whose name I unfortunately have forgotten, who has some pretty dramatic ups and downs when it comes to coping with her life. Granted, she has a lot to contend with from time to time, but she’s definitely making more of her own problems than some of the others.

There’s The Boy Priest, Whitrow, who does enough stupid, stupid things in the first book to nearly make me give up on the whole book. Like: leaving the ship with no money and planning just to wing it on your way back to the monastery? This is your plan? And then letting yourself get drawn in to the very first altercation that you pass? It’s not like all his trouble is of his own making, but his worst trouble sure is.

And Reyn, who listens to dragons a bit too much, or just enough, whatever.

There’s the mad liveship, Paragon. Actually, Paragon was almost the only character I found interesting in the first book — the others grew on me later, but Paragon was always fascinating. We barely see him in the first book, though.

There’s the other liveship, Vivacia. I liked her, except when her Evil Twin took over for a while.

And last — the serpents! I like them fine. They are not exactly nice or pleasant, but they are interesting and not at all human. And the dragon herself is SUCH a selfish, egotistical creature, but I guess I can see why. Not that I liked her. Very interesting, for Robin Hobb to choose to create really unlikeable dragons.

I think that’s, what, fourteen point-of-view characters? Excessive much?

Still, there’s no doubt Hobb is a good writer. And okay, okay, yes, it did work out in ways that made me like it. I’m glad I read it all the way through. Really. But I’m not sure I will ever read it again, so I think it is still destined for the give-away pile.

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What exactly is an adventurous cookie?

Because I happened across this contest. Too bad I didn’t find out about this earlier, but there’s still almost a month to go, so there’s time to develop some great entries!

This contest is offered by Scharffen Berger and entries must be sandwich cookies that include Scharffen Berger chocolate plus one or another of twelve “adventure” ingredients. The “adventure ingredients” include coconut milk or coconut cream, sweet potato, tapioca or tapioca flour, tequila, banana, chili pepper, pine nuts, cornmeal, Sumatra coffee, fresh ginger, yerba mate (which I’d never heard of but turns out to be the dried leaves of a tropical holly (Ilex paraguariensis), which are used as a tea), and cacao nibs.

So, doesn’t that sound like fun? In the first round, cookies are judged equally on “showing creativity and a spirit of adventure”, use of chocolate, taste, and ease of preparation.

In the final round, cookies are judged more heavily according to whether they show creativity and “a spirit of adventure” and taste, less heavily according to ease of prep and overall appearance.

Creativity I get, but “a spirit of adventure”? What could that be?

You’ll notice that all the “adventure” ingredients are tropical. I’ve got some cookies in mind to enter, and I’m tempted to give all my entries names like “Mayan End of the World Dark Chocolate Cookies”. Don’t you think that might earn the cookies points for adventurousness?

I’ve never entered a baking contest before! I’m kind of excited about this one, though, and spent several hours last night playing around with recipes. So far the cookies I have in mind include pine nuts, coconut milk, fresh ginger, chili, and sweet potatoes. (Not all in the same cookie!) I’m pretty sure I will not be using any of the other “adventure” ingredients, though coffee would be easy to add to a chocolate cookie, so maybe.

I need to try out some of the recipes I have in mind. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find willing tasters! If they turn out great, I’ll post the recipes. If I manage to develop a winning recipe, hey, I’ll definitely post that recipe here!

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Smugglivus . . . and cookies!

Okay, first, just a quick note that I’ll have a guest post appearing over at The Book Smugglers later today. It’s a month-by-month best-reads-of-2012 type of post, and thus is a bit similar to my recent post here on Best Everything for 2012. But it’s definitely not identical, so click over and take a look at it if you like.

Keeping a list of books bought / books read has made such a difference to me; I’d never be able to remember anything if I didn’t write it down. It’s really interesting to see how my reading breaks down for the year. For example, about 75% of the books I buy get read in same year I buy them. I would have thought the proportion would be smaller. And I thought these days I read almost all fantasy and very little SF, but The List makes it clear I still do read quite a bit of SF.

How well do you remember what you’ve read? And, if you had to pick a top-five list of books you read this year, what would be on it?

And while we’re on the subject of Smugglivus, let me just say that there are lots and lots of guest posts over there this month, many very much worth reading — Smugglivus is where I find out what great books are coming out next year, for example. Angie at Angieville says that we can expect both a new Mercy book from Patricia Briggs and a new Kate Daniels book from Ilona Andrews — good news for me, since those are my two favorite paranormal / UF writers. Plus there’s apparently an intriguing book coming out called A Spear of Summer Grass by Deanna Raybourn, which is abut “a scandalous flapper exiled to Africa.” Doesn’t that sound fun? It was Angie who gave me a pointer to The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen, and that sure turned out well, so probably I’ll try this one.

And here’s another post I appreciated: Andrea K Höst, a self-published author whom Ana describes as “a talented self-published writer of awesome Sci Fi and Fantasy novels” — which makes me want to pick up something of hers, it’s so amazing to hear from a blogger I trust about an “awesome” self-published author — gives an overview of all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books. You know, there are still a few I haven’t read? Amazing, isn’t it? Someday I will complete my set.

Okay! Now! The promised cookie recipes:

I have two great intensely chocolate cookie recipes, both of which are very popular with tasters.

CHOCOLATE TRUFFLE COOKIES

4 oz unsweetened chocolate — I use Ghirardelli
1 C semisweet chocolate chips — I use Callebaut or Ghirardelli
1/3 C butter
1 C sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 C flour
2 Tbsp cocoa
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 C mini choc chips

Melt the unsweetened chocolate and the 1 C chips and the butter together in the microwave, stirring every thirty seconds. Cool ten minutes. Beat sugar and eggs for two minutes. Beat in vanilla and chocolate mixture. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Add to creamed mixture. Stir in mini chocolate chips. Cover and chill at least 3 hours.

Roll into 1″ balls, place on parchment-lined baking sheets, and bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, until lightly puffed and set. Try not to overbake — err on the side of taking them out a bit early. Let cool on sheets 3-4 minutes before removing to racks to cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar and serve. These cookies freeze very well.

CHOCOLATE NUT TRUFFLE COOKIES

1 C butter, divided
1/4 C heavy cream
2 Tbsp honey
6 oz chocolate chips — again, I use Callebaut, which I buy in 22 lb bags, which is quite cost effective as far as great chocolate goes.
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 C powdered sugar
2 1/4 C flour
1/4 tsp nutmeg — yes, really; unless you’re a supertaster, you won’t actually be able to tell it’s in there, but it adds a different kind of depth.
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 C toasted pecans, coarsely ground

Combine 1/4 C butter, cream, and honey in a saucepan and heat to a simmer. Add the chocolate chips and stir until smooth. Stir in vanilla. Cool slightly.

Cream remaining butter with powdered sugar. Beat in chocolate mixture. Combine flour, nutmeg, and salt and stir in. Chill 1 hour. Shape into 1″ balls and roll in pecans. Place on parchment-lined baking sheets and back at 375 degrees for 6-8 minutes.

And! As a bonus!

Commenter Elaine Thompson contributes this recipe, which I certainly must try:

ABSOLUTELY DEEP DARK CHOCOLATE FUDGE COOKIES
(From Death by Chocolate, by M. Desaulniers)

!/2 C cocoa
8 oz semisweet chocolate
4 oz unsweetened chocolate
3 C semisweet chocolate chips
1-1/2 C all purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1-1/2 C tightly packed light brown sugar
12 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

Note on ingredients: We use Bendsdorp’s Dutch cocoa, the recipe specifies Nestle cocoa. Substituting Demerara sugar (or similarly coarse brown sugar) changes the texture in a way I like. We use either Ghirardelli chocolate or Scharffenberger. For these cookies we use pure Tahitian vanilla. And I almost never have unsalted butter on hand, and don’t notice a difference when I do use it. (although our daughter the supertaster probably would but she doesn’t eat these because of the mixed chocolate & cocoa.) Not in the official recipe, but we add sometimes to punch up the flavor: ¼ tsp powdered instant coffee.

These can be tricky to bake – they’re easy to overcook, and In Our Humble Opinions taste best soft, not hard. [I would definitely agree that all these cookies should be barely baked through — R]

Preheat oven to 325F.

Melt the 4 oz unsweetened chocolate and 8 oz semisweet chocolate together. Set aside.

Blend the sugar and butter in mixer, add eggs, vanilla, salt, soda. (I’m skipping all the add one, mix x seconds, scrape down, add something else. As well as sifting all the dry ingredients together, which I never bother with.) Carefully pour in the melted chocolates as well as the cocoa. Mix well, and add the flour, then the 3 cups of semisweet chips. The batter tends to be pretty stiff, and I’m glad I have a good stand mixer to mix it. [Note: I don’t! I keep meaning to get one! I suggest that if you don’t have a great stand mixer, simply do the last part of the mixing with your hands — R] Mix as well as you can.

“Portion 6 – 8 cookies per baking sheet by dropping 2 level tablespoons of batter per cookie onto each of the 2 baking sheets.” Or use your usual cookie scoop and do it the usual way. Bake 18-22 minutes – even 1 tablespoon cookies do tend to take about that long. [I make all my Christmas cookies very small, because they’re pretty that way and because I want people to feel free to eat more than one cookie — so I’ll probably be using a tsp scoop and guessing about the timing — R]

“If a nocturnal lust for chocolate has you making furtive movements towards the kitchen, I suggest a few Absolutely Deep Dark Chocolate Fudge cookies, each one dipped into your favorite chocolate ganache. It is a fact that this confection will assuage even the most passionate chocophile regardless of the hour.”

Even for us, adding the ganache is a bit much.

I bet! But I may try it anyway!

Okay, everyone, enjoy!

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Best of 2012

Which, I know, is not quite over. But, since I don’t expect to be reading much fiction in December, I hereby declare the year of reading is over! (Basically! close enough!)

Lotta great books out there, it turns out. Here are my picks for the year:

Best male lead:

Nick in The Demon’s Lexicon (Sarah Rees Brennen). I’m a sucker for really unusual protagonists with really unique points of view. Nick certainly was the most unusual protagonist I encountered this year. Though I’d just as soon encounter him only metaphorically – I’m honestly just as glad not to live in the world of The Demon’s Lexicon.

Best female lead:

Torin Kerr in the Valor series (Tanya Huff). Torin just walks away with “best grown-up woman protagonist” for 2012. I am not kidding. Selecting a sergeant the pov protagonist for her Valor series was a truly inspired choice. Torin’s very secure in herself, thoroughly (and justifiably) confident of her own competence, and completely committed to her troops. Plus, it’s entertaining watching her handle the officers who think they’re in command. She sure is dealing with an interesting situation by the fifth book of the series, though – I sure hope there are more books on the way, because that situation with the alien is far from resolved.

Elisa in Girl of Fire and Thorns (Rae Carson). It was a tough choice for “best YA girl protagonist” this year, but Elisa was definitely a strong contender. (Kind of fighting it out with Mae from Brennen’s series.) I loved how Elisa grew into herself over the course of the story. The ending was a little pat, and I’m a bit nervous about a plot element I can see might go in an annoying direction in the sequel . . . but still, a topnotch YA, and I will definitely be picking up the sequel!

Best unresolvable dilemma that winds up resolved:

The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater). I loved both Sean Kendrick and Puck Connelly, I loved the slow development of the relationship between them, I loved how they both really, desperately needed to win the race, and I loved how everything worked out. Stiefvater really kept me guessing all the way to the end on this one. The Scorpio Races is one of my top picks for the whole year. But I hear The Raven Boys ends on something of a cliffhanger? So I think I will not be reading that one until the sequel is out.

Best Diana Wynne Jones:

The Power of Three. It’s been so long since I read this one that I didn’t count it as a re-read . . . and I’d forgotten how good it really is. It’s got a surprisingly complicated cast of characters considering how effortlessly everything is woven together. And a surprisingly complicated plot, considering how seamlessly it flows. I re-read a lot of DWJ this year, and though I’m amazed by the variety of her books, I vote for this one as definitely one of her top stories.

Best surprise:

Almost Perfect (Brian Katcher). I never go out of my way to find contemporary titles. And I don’t expect much from books given to me by their authors. (Sorry, but my limited personal experience suggests that expectations for such books had better not be high.) But this one had everything – tight plot, perfect characterization, great dialogue, and effortless writing. Almost Perfect is the other contender for best book I read in 2012. I’ve got Katcher’s first book down on my TBR shelves right now and I expect it to be fabulous.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson). I honestly don’t expect much from Really Popular Bestsellers, and mostly I don’t read them. But, okay, fine, this one was very good. But I must admit, I have very little urge to read the second book. I like the way this one ended and I’m not sure I want to see the characters wind up in the horrible situation the author seems to have planned for them. Still, this one was excellent.

Best secondary fantasy world:

The Cloud Roads, The Serpent Sea, The Siren Depths (Martha Wells). These are certainly as “secondary” as it gets, since there’s no correspondence between the Raksura world and our world, and no actual humans on the Raksura world. After reading these, I could hardly bring myself to leave the world of the Raksura by picking up another book. It’s a wonderful world with great characters. Wells’ says there are four Raksura e-novellas scheduled for release next year, featuring familiar characters. If I don’t have an e-reader by then, I will read them on my phone! Which I am not normally keen on reading anything much longer than an email on my phone. But for these, I will make an exception.

Best contemporary setting:

Wide Open (Deb Coates). I’m a total sucker for setting, and Coates really brought South Dakota to life in this swift-moving ghost story about memory, grief, family relationships, and with just a little romance. The villain wasn’t very interesting, but that was okay with me, since I don’t necessarily demand a complex fully-drawn bad guy. Plus, I really admired Coates’ gift for dialogue. I know there’s a sequel scheduled; I’ll be keeping an eye out for it next year.

Best historical setting:

A Vision of Light, In Pursuit of the Green Lion, The Water Devil (Judith Riley). Beautiful writing and a protagonist with the best voice ever – and the best medieval setting ever, too. I can’t believe I didn’t read anything by Riley until this year.

The Abigail Adams mysteries by Barbara ‘Hamilton’. This installment in the Abigail Adams mystery series once again brought pre-Independent Boston and nearby Cambridge to life. No one does historical mysteries better than Barbara Hambly, whatever name she uses — A Free Man of Color and that whole series is also one of my favorites.

Most thrilling:

Deep Sky (Patrick Lee). The last book of an incredible SF thriller trilogy that started with The Breach, and possibly the best of the three. Also the book with the most mind-bending plot twist imaginable, in a trilogy in which mind-bending plot twists are not exactly in short supply. Certain suspension-of-disbelief issues aside, whatever Lee writes next, I’m there.

Most perfectly beautiful:

The Peach Keeper (Sarah Addison Allen). Almost contemporary but with just a little magic around the edges, this lovely little novel about family relationships will leave anybody smiling. I’ve now read two of Allen’s and have the other two down on my TBR shelves.

Best Short Story / Novella:

“Stories of Your Life” (Ted Chiang). I don’t go out of my way to read short stories, but this story, in a collection by the same name, was really impressive. All the stories in this collection were impressive. I’m hardly an authority on short stories, but surely Chiang is just about the best writer today in the short form.

“Oak Hill” (Patricia McKillip). This story left me seriously inclined to steal the protagonist and write a book around her.

“The Man Who Bridged The Mist” (Kij Johnson). Absolutely deft characterization, so unobtrusively handled that it’s hard to realize just how deft the author really was.

Best Nonfiction:

Why We Get Fat (Gary Taubes). Completely changed my mind about the causes of obesity and what people should try first if they want to lose weight and improve their health. I never again expect to go on a diet that requires me to be hungry. Quite the reverse – I expect to be less hungry when dieting than when eating a carb-unrestricted diet. I plan to do this diet again . . . after Christmas.

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So that’s what hydroplaning feels like. Plus, marshmallows.

It turns out my tires were bald, bald, bald. Who knew? I commented to my Dad that it felt like I kept starting to hydroplane coming back from the Springfield show the other week. I couldn’t go above sixty (the speed limit was seventy) and it wasn’t even raining that hard. How could I have let my tires get that bald and not notice? Well, I never said I knew anything about cars or tires. And after all, it didn’t rain at all this summer, so not a problem until recently. But it’s a good thing at least my Dad can recognize an obviously bald tire when he sees one.

Do you know how long it can take to get your tires changed? Especially if the tire place doesn’t seem to really get the concept of an “appointment”?

So, see, it’s NOT MY FAULT that I haven’t even STARTED the revision that I planned to have FINISHED by December 15th. Dog shows! Tires and other random annoyances! And now, the year’s round of Christmas parties! I’m not so much of a hermit that I just skip all the parties. No, indeed.

Well, the show season is now over for me, and alas, Kenya did not pick up her other major. Next year for sure! And for the Cavalier party this past Sunday, I took this beautiful platter of intense chocolate cookies surrounded by swooshes of coconut marshmallows and these pretty pink marshmallows I made with rose water and minced dried cranberries. I will take a similar assortment to the Master Gardener party tonight. And I will turn on my laptop tomorrow FOR SURE.

I posted this marshmallow recipe last year, but it’s so amazingly good that I’m going to post it again. If you have kids, this recipe would be SO NEAT to do with kids. Marshmallows just seem SO artificial when you turn them out of the pan!

Coconut marshmallows (or rose and cranberry marshmallows) (or chocolate marshmallows):

3 env. unflavored gelatin
1 C cold water, divided
2 C sugar
1 C corn syrup
1/8 tsp salt
1 tsp coconut flavoring
1/2 tsp vanilla

Ground toasted coconut

Line a 13 x 9 pan with foil and spray the foil with cooking spray.

Sprinkle the gelatin over 1/2 C water in a LARGE bowl and whisk quickly to break up the gelatin. Set that aside.

Combine the other 1/2 C water, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a pan. Bring to a boil over med-high heat, stirring only until the mixture comes to a boil. Bring to 240 degrees (use a candy thermometer, for heaven’s sake! They’re wonderful to have even if you don’t use them all that often.)

Once the syrup has reached 240 degrees, gradually pour the hot syrup mixture into the bowl with the gelatin, while the mixer is running. Then continue beating on high for 10 minutes or so, until the mixture is white, thick, and trying hard to climb up the beaters so it can engulf the mixer. Beat in the coconut and vanilla flavorings.

Or, for rose and cranberry marshmallows, beat in a bit of red food coloring, plus 1 C of minced cranberries and 1 1/2 tsp rosewater.

Pour and spread into prepared pan. The mixture will be VERY STICKY, so don’t bother trying to get ever bit of it out of the bowl. The kids can clean some of it out for you and then you can run hot water in the bowl to dissolve the rest.

Anyway, let the marshmallows sit, uncovered, in the pan, for six hours or overnight. Although I’ve rushed it with no ill effects, so I think four hours is enough, probably.

Lift the marshmallows out of the pan with the foil, lay it upside down on a cutting board, peel off the foil, and cut it into squares with a pizza cutter sprayed with cooking spray. Roll each square as you cut it in the coconut.

Or, if you made the rose/cranberry marshmallows, mix cornstarch and powdered sugar and toss the cut marshmallows in that.

Store at room temp in an airtight containger. Stores just fine for weeks, but they’re not likely to last that long.

I’ve also done this to make chocolate marshmallows: add 2/3 C cocoa powder to the gelatin before you beat in the syrup, then roll the finished marshmallows in a mixture of 1/3 cornstarch and 2/3 cocoa powder. Also very good!

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Secondary characters are important

Which is obvious, I suppose. It’s a thought that was sparked by this post, on supporting casts, by Jennifer at WriterJenn.

Jennifer says, among other things:

“Subplots and side characters can be fascinating. Usually I enjoy the time I spend with the supporting cast. So I’ve been trying to figure out why I didn’t like it in this case. For one thing, it seemed to come at the expense of the main story line. There were important questions dangling, and instead of pursuing them, the author would pull back and spend all kinds of time in the side characters’ backstories. In addition, the side characters’ stories didn’t really enhance the main theme…”

The emphasis is mine.

I love great supporting characters. Like, Debbie and her family in STILL LIFE — remember I mentioned them specifically? And why did these secondary characters work so well? Well, because

a) We see all secondary characters from Melanie’s pov, so obviously this is going to keep the story feeling cohesive — one plus of a first-person pov.

b) The stuff that happens at that dinner party is crucial to plot and theme development.

c) And yes, the characters themselves are engaging — can’t forget about that.

One plus of writing a short book is that you are forced to keep your plot tight and your story elements restricted — you can’t go everywhere in your world and do everything. And however many secondary characters you have, they have to support the main character and everything they do has to support the plot. My strong guess is that the book that didn’t work for Jennifer was a longer book, and not YA (she doesn’t give the title).

Here are the books I’ve read this month:

The Hollow City — Dan Wells
Shape of Desire and Still Life with Shapeshifter — Sharon Shinn
Fool’s Run — McKillip
Paladin — Cherryh
The Girl Who Chased the Moon — Sarah Addison Allen
The Raksura trilogy — Martha Wells

And some of these books provide an interesting contrast when it comes to the number and use of secondary characters.

The Hollow City . . . doesn’t really have any secondary characters. Not really. Not exactly. I mean, very minor secondary characters, yes, plus the bad guy, plus the protagonist, plus his delusions. It’s a very weird book, as you may gather. I mean, at the end the protagonist kind of defeats the bad guy and you stand up and cheer: Yay? Because is that a happy ending or not? If you read this, let me know what you think. I’m not sure what I think.

And in Paladin? There almost aren’t any secondary characters in that one, either. It’s Shoka and Taizu and that’s it. Oh, I take it back, there’s also the horse, Jiro. He’s as close as it comes to a secondary character for that whole book. I think this tight focus on the two main characters is what gives the story such intensity.

And then in Shape of Desire and Still Life we get excellent secondary characters, and there’s no doubt which ones are the protagonists and which ones are secondary, because both books are in first-person-present. In these books, the secondary characters are perceived solely through the eyes of the protagonist and they’re there to drive the main plotline, which is (usually) the only plotline. Of course this sucks us into the protagonist’s life and makes us identify with her, which is probably why so much YA is written in the first person.

Which is different from Fool’s Run, say, because there are a heap o’ characters in that one, but it would be hard to pick out one main character. And in The Girl Who Chased the Moon, though it’s so different, in this one way it’s quite similar to Fool’s Run. In both books, there are several pov characters and a whole cast of very important secondary characters. And that gives a whole different feel to the book, naturally, since you aren’t allowed to focus tightly on just one character. It makes you first sympathize with one and then a different character, and then a third; and it gives you a nudge away from the characters and encourages a broader attention on the world the author’s built.

Or so it seems to me. Thoughts?

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Recent reading: Still Life With Shapeshifter.

Plus, a minor (well, probably no more than medium-intense) rant about photographers who don’t know their subject. Which, I know! Is not the author’s fault. You don’t have to tell ME that, right? Nevertheless.

I like the cover design. I really love the scrollwork down the sides, which you can’t really see in the picture — you have to tilt the book back and forth to see it. It’s really lovely. But the dog! It’s just painful. Look:

Sorry, but I know too much about correct dog structure and about what REAL Siberian huskies look like. This dog has got quite a German shepherd head. Either it’s a very poor example of a Sibe or else it’s a white German shepherd or shepherd mix.

Worse, it’s standing in such a way that its structure looks all wrong. Probably it’s not as poorly put together as it looks, but its stance makes it look as though it is wheelbacked, over at the knee, too straight in the front pastern, and poorly angulated in the rear.

This dog looks like it would have a tough time with endurance and be prone to injuries to the front pastern and knee, especially moving over rough country. If it really is wheelbacked, it will also be prone to injuries of the spine. If it’s hunched up because it wants to stand with its hind legs this far forward, then it probably has a problem with slipping hocks, slipping patellas, or hip dysplasia — some joint issue that is making it try to carry its weight in its back. If it does that for long, again, it’s going to be liable to spine injuries. Moving this dog’s hind legs back by eight inches before snapping the picture would have enormously improved its appearance.

For comparison, here is a much nicer Siberian, posed in a good show stack:

Just in case you happen to want to take a great picture of a dog, let me just add here that the way to pose a dog so that it looks great even in a natural setting, is to make sure its rear legs are set well back and its topline is straight. You may want to set its front feet up on a rock or log to exaggerate the smooth slope of the topline. You may want to get the dog to point its nose down slightly so that its neck is arched. I’ve certainly got my girls to pose standing that way, just so they look as fabulous as possible.

This photo here is a cheat in some ways, because the snow conceals so much of Pippa’s legs. But her stance is clearly four-square and balanced, and her topline is gorgeous. Take a look:

Pippa always takes great pictures because her structure is excellent. The dog on the cover of Still Life — well, who knows? Maybe it was just caught at a really unfortunate instant. What a shame the publisher’s photographer didn’t ask a dog show photographer for advice!

So, okay, onward (at last!) to the actual book!

First, is that a great title or what? Seriously. I LOVE that title! I know I always seem to focus on titles, but seriously, titles are hard and this is one on my favorite titles EVER. Clever AND evocative.

Now, how about the book itself?

I figured, since I started by providing Goodreads reviews for the first book, I’d do that again for this one. Here’s the second review in the lineup. It is a four-star review.

Posted by Lisa on Nov 13

“I was one of the people who really, really disliked the first book in Shinn’s shape-shifting series. I feel that Shinn’s particular brand of romance doesn’t work in a modern/real-world setting the way it does in fantasy or science fiction; reading about women or men who will die if they can’t be together makes me roll my eyes. So I went into this book expecting little to nothing, after the dissatisfying tale of Maria and Dante and a relationship I thought bordered on the emotionally abusive.

I’m delighted to say how wrong I was.

The story of Melanie and Ann, sisters who are equally devoted to each other, was wonderful. Yes, there was romance that went a bit too far for my liking, and a plot point (leftover from the first novel) that made me shake my head and wonder if Shinn had forgotten where she’d taken us the first time around. But the book was touching, and I adored the protagonists. And in this book, I feel like she’s branching out and finally touching the wider world of shifters. The first book didn’t feel like a set-up to a series, but this one does. I almost wish this one had come first.”

I think this review is really accurate. It’s perfectly true that borderline-obsessive devotion is a whole lot less disturbing between sisters than between lovers. Particularly when the older sister has taken a maternal role toward her much younger shapeshifter sister. We expect a mother or older sister to pull out all the stops when defending a child / younger sister, right? I actually like both Melanie and Brody quite a bit.

I do disagree about one thing, though: I definitely didn’t think there was “too much romance” in this book, as the reviewer above said. In fact, I especially loved the fact that Melanie wouldn’t admit to herself that she was actually dating Brody. And if anything, there was too little shown of the romance between William and Ann — but then, Ann was not the point-of-view character.

And I’m not sure what this reviewer had in mind as a possible forgotten plot point. Having thought about it . . . still not sure. I can’t think of anything that struck me that way.

The interaction between all the characters was good, and in particular I loved some of the secondary characters, especially Debbie and her family. My favorite scene was probably the dinner party at Debbie’s house. The discussion about superpowers? That was so funny! (The superpowers are things like “being able to find keys” and “knowing who the phone is going to be for”, and the idea is not just funny, but also completely crucial to the plot.)

I really enjoyed Ann (the shapeshifting sister). I totally believed in her — in how she acted. I could see why Melanie couldn’t accept the risks her sister was taking, but I thought Ann’s decisions were right for her. And Melanie’s were right for her. I love irreconcilable dilemmas, which is exactly what we had here.

In fact, I really appreciated this unique take on shapeshifters, in which being a shifter is actually a pretty terrible thing in lots of ways. It doesn’t give you superstrength and supersenses and supersexiness and a hot temper and a special pack to belong to — it isolates you and messes up your ability to have a normal life and has serious, sometimes very serious, effects on your health. Though in STILL LIFE we start to see a larger shapeshifter community, which I think could be developed into something that would act as a real support system for shapeshifters. Which they could certainly use!

Yet for all that, I honestly preferred the first book. This was a real surprise to me, but it’s true. I preferred Maria to Melanie — or more accurately, I preferred reading about Maria to reading about Melanie. Maybe this was because Maria started off in such a questionable place psychologically and then wound up in such an improved place, so there was a lot of development over the course of the book. Or maybe it was because I liked the more intense, faster-paced plot of the first book. Or maybe it was because . . .

Okay, the subplot in STILL LIFE? The one where Janet is the pov protagonist, in a plotline only tangentially related to Melanie’s plotline? Janet goes into science, see, and studies shifters scientifically. And that is a problem for me.

See, it’s not just that I know a good bit more than average about canine structure and function; I also know quite a bit about genetics. For me — and I know this won’t be a problem for most readers — reading about the “science” in this story was as painful as looking at the dog on the cover. As a public service, let me suggest that the following terms should never be used by anybody who doesn’t know anything about genetics:

“Dominant”. The word already has a specific meaning in genetics, and this wasn’t it. This makes the third completely different wrong way that I’ve seen this word used in the context of genetics — people also often use it to mean “common in the population” and dog breeders use it to mean “homozygous”, and everyone should cut that out and look up the actual real meaning. Or just not use the word.

“Gene”. Genes absolutely do not and cannot work in any way similar to that depicted in the story. Please don’t use a pseudogenetic explanation for anything magical. It’s painful to those of us who do know how genes work.

On the other hand, it is perfectly fine to say that someone has discovered a previously unknown magical factor in a blood sample. It’s fine to say that this magical factor can get transferred to normal blood via a transfusion, and then proliferate through the normal blood so that the shapeshifter character of the blood overwhelms the normal character of the normal blood. That wouldn’t throw me out of the story.

But, with the appalling state of science education in this country, I doubt very many people are going to have trouble with the (pretty tiny) amount of fake science in this story.

Okay! “Science” aside, I do plan to get the third book, whenever it comes out. I am longing to know how things are going to work out for Dante and Maria and their extended family, which now in a certain sense even includes Melanie. And! I STILL think Caroline has evil mind control powers. I hope we eventually find out what is going on between her and Grant!

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Oh, and one more link for today!

Because I just happened to follow this link from Twitter to this article, and DO I EVER AGREE WITH THIS OR WHAT.

This article, by Nicole Lisa at Reading, Writing and the ‘Rhythmatic of Life, is about how passive women can be on television and in movies — how they just cower in corners while the serial killer breaks down the door to get at them.

This is so true! And it drives me NUTS. About the worst offender I EVER saw was the movie “Scream”. Over and over, someone knocked the killer down — and then ran away. I kept yelling, “He’s DOWN! What do you think that chair right there is FOR? Hit him with it, you doofus!” It would have been a much shorter movie, or at least a very different movie, if anybody had had the guts and basic common sense to bash the killer’s head in when he was sprawled at their feet. I actually think male characters also showed this run-away-screaming reaction, not just the female characters, but I’m certainly not going to suffer through the movie again just to check. I do think there’s this weird omnipresent assumption these days that it’s just wrong to defend yourself against violent attack, and WHERE DID THAT RIDICULOUS IDEA EVEN COME FROM?

I would like to try a five year experiment: for five years, have every woman attacked on tv and in a movie fight back! Have them beat the tar out of their attackers at least a third of the time! And see what happens in the real world. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Incidentally, in Nicola Griffith’s wonderful, intense book ALWAYS, there’s a woman’s self-defense class integrated into the main plotline. I really need to read that book again! Because it’s a great antidote to this awful passivity of women victims on the big screen and on tv.

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