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Can the movie be better than the book?

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

Interesting article by Richard Parker on this topic, at

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

Yeah? How often do you think that happens?

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

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

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

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

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Top Ten Comfort Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

5. Jhereg and Yendi by Steven Brust

6. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

7. Watership Down by Richard Adams

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

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

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

Oh! And one more because why not?

11. Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

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

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Epic fantasy: one more time

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

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

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

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

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

I could agree with that. But . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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