Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Pet Peeves

I happened to notice this, and this and of course it’s always somehow entertaining to see a list of pet peeves, the same way it’s entertaining to read very negative reviews. Or maybe that’s just me?

Anyway, what’s interesting to me is how you can read a list of somebody else’s pet peeves, and even though you wouldn’t have specifically thought of ANY of those pet peeves, the moment you see them in print, you think, OH, YEAH, ME TOO. Or is that also just me?

So! Orphaned kids attached to prophecies — yep, that’s a trope I’m tired of, all right. Someday I want to write a novel in which there is a prophecy that is just wrong. Would that make readers mad, do you think, or do you think they would be amused and pleased to see a prophecy not come true?

Precocious kids and idiotic adults — check. It is just offensive to see parents presented as totally clueless in order to force their kids to save the day. The author ought to be able to come up with a better reason for the kids to save the day than “Well, their parents are just stupid as turnips.” A really neat kid-parent relationship can be a huge plus in a book. Or a movie, because in this context what comes to mind is Veronica Mars, where the writers did a fabulous job on the relationship between Veronica and her dad. That was one of my favorite aspects of the show.

Writers who think their main characters are just too dreamy for words — actually, this isn’t a pet peeve of mine. As long as the main character really is dreamy. If everybody is in awe of how cool the protagonist is, when she is in fact impulsive and childish and dumb as a post, I will hate that book. I’m thinking of Kim Harrison’s Rachal Morgan series here. Everybody is just all “Ooh, she’s so dreamy!” and I think she is SUCH an idiot.

Weird names: well, obviously this is not a pet peeve of mine, as you’re certainly aware if you’ve read my books. I see absolutely nothing wrong with any of the names presented as “too weird” in that linked post. For heaven’s sake, “Trevanion”? Are you kidding me? It’s easy to pronounce and it looks fine on the page. Who could have a problem with it?

And then in part two:

Book and series titles that are confusing: well, I don’t spend time worrying about this, but yes, I don’t like confusing series/book titles either.

Weird use of perfectly ordinary words: That only bothers me some of the time. “Gifting” probably wouldn’t bother me all that much. Well, it would now that Charlotte has ranted about it, but if I’d read the book without reading this pet peeve list, it probably wouldn’t have. And yet I can be a major stickler for correct word use. So a definite pet peeve for me is “alright.” Two words! TWO! WORDS! There is no such word as “alright”! How complicated can this be?

Okay, taking a deep breath and moving on:

Intrusive narrators: Sometimes I think that is clever and fun, though I agree that the technique is always going to have a distancing effect.

Prologues: I used to say that I hated all prologues. Well, now I’ve written two books with prologues, so I can’t exactly say that anymore, at least not with much fervor. (One of those books isn’t yet published, so don’t rack your mind wondering if you missed a prologue somewhere.) I can’t even say that I hate all unnecessary prologues, because frankly I’m not sure if there’s any such thing as a truly crucial prologue. Even so, I have reluctantly been forced to admit that some prologues actually add to the story rather than detracting from it, even if they’re not strictly necessary. So all I can say now is: I hate badly written unnecessary prologues. Which is still going to cover most of ’em, imo.

I like most epilogues, though, but not if they do violence to the preceding story, which I think happens now and then. I grant you, epilogues are a matter of personal taste. The epilogue which has annoyed me most in the recent past was the one for UNDER HEAVEN by Guy Gavial Kay. Loved the book! But at the end, I was all, “My God, man, just write a second book and put all this epilogue stuff in that one!”

None of these are my REAL pet peeve, though.

My REAL pet peeve is stupid or ineffectual characters. The examples that leap to mind for me, right at the moment, and meaning no offense here, but way too many characters — not just the protagonist, but nearly everybody else, too — in EON and EONA, by Alison Goodman, were deeply, unbelievably stupid about recognizing and countering the big bad guy, and I couldn’t stand it. Yes the worldbuilding was good; yes, I like the alternate China-esque setting, but good Lord above, people, you might consider taking measures to protect yourselves from the bad guy you know perfectly well is planning t kill you all. Gave those two books to the library the day I finished them.

And I know, I know, Juliet Marillier is a great writer, okay? And usually I love her books. Really. But WILDWOOD DANCING, her retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses? Jena is not all that stupid, but she is totally ineffectual. Everything falls apart around her and she just stands there wringing her hands. I wanted to shake her and shout, “You’re the protagonist! Do something clever!”

How about you? What absolutely drives you nuts in a novel?

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A List: Best YA and MG of 2012

Here’s a nice list. Of course I’m sure there’re many many such lists around, but I do like this one.

What I like about this list:

The categories. Best Prose, Best Non-Dystopian Novel, Most Lyrical, Best For Highly Literate Children, Best Page-Turner, Best Slow Read — among other categories. I like the way these categories let me pay more attention to the types of books which would appeal to me (Most Lyrical) and gloss over the ones that probably wouldn’t (Best Book About Mean Girls).

This list is not especially for SFF, but there are a lot of SFF titles. Besides, every now and then I do read a contemporary YA story — usually because Ana at The Book Smugglers recommends them highly and so I make an exception. (So far I’ve always been happy I did.) So I’m more inclined than I might have been a few years ago to pick up one or two of the contemporary titles that made ths list.

Anyway, I’ve heard of a lot of the recommended titles, but I’ve read exactly . . . wait for it . . . one of them. Just one.

And I didn’t even like it all that much (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children).

I have one other book from this list on my TBR pile (The Raven Boys). Just one. I feel so behind on my reading now!

I have quite a few of these titles on my Amazon wishlist — which I use as a supplementary memory so I don’t forget about them — and this list includes several others that I’m interested in and ought to either buy or add to my wishlist. For example, Bitterblue by Cashore — I heard such different things about it, and I think it might really appeal to me, though actually I’m one of the few who wasn’t so terribly blown away by Graceling. I haven’t even read the second one in the series, what was it called, Fire?

I have heard all these fabulous things about Seraphina , which is a debut by Rachel Hartman, and even more fabulous things about Code Name Verity, which is by Elizabeth Wein, who I already know is an amazing writer. They’re both on my must-read list, but I haven’t actually got them yet. I just read a review of Under The Never Sky (at Bunbury in the Stacks) that makes me want to read that one. I’ve heard of For Darkness Shows the Stars, by Diana Peterfreund — it’s supposed to be a retelling of Jane Austin’s Persuasion. Doesn’t that sound like a must-try?

And there’s yet another mention of Frances Hardinge here, whom I’ve never read, but evidently I really must. She’s MG, which normally I’m not too inclined to try, but she’s starting to sound like another DWJ, the way people rave about her.

So many books, so little time!

And to add a note of urgency, I believe nominations for the Hugo close in mid-March. I wonder if this gives me enough of an excuse to go ahead and pick up at least a couple of the SFF titles?

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On the subject of movie parodies —

You just can’t beat this one! If you didn’t happen to run across it before, you really must follow the link and read it now! Warning: It’s quite long. But it’s really funny!

I never actually saw Avatar, and frankly after reading this parody, I have no special desire to see it, either. But the parody is just priceless. Enjoy!

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Here’s something fun —

A parody of “The Hobbit.”

I didn’t really like the movie very much . . . for me, it was nothing like as good as “The Lord of the Rings.” It didn’t stick as closely to the book as I thought it should and Jackson changed details where he didn’t need to, in ways that hurt the story. IMO.

And that fighting retreat from the goblin lair was totally, ridiculously unbelievable.

Although I must admit that I was charmed all to pieces by the bunny sled. That made up for a lot.

But whether you liked the movie or not, I hope you will appreciate this parody!

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What adult SFF novels would YOU recommend?

To someone who has previously focused mainly on MG and YA fantasy?

Charlotte of Charlotte’s Library requests suggestions, and this is exactly the sort of thing that is likely to make me zip downstairs to my own personal library and start selecting fabulous books that might fit the bill.

Note that Charlotte is specifically requestion relatively recent books. That makes it harder! I have LOTS of suggestions for books published a decade or more ago. She also asks for books that “are strong on character, and the characters are smart, often witty, and (if they are central characters) likable. …. These books are strong on setting, with lots of lovely details about place, and/or fascinating twists of world building (such as alternate histories) that really make the territory of the book an undiscovered country.”

As it happens, I think that it’s very likely that readers who love current YA generally are likely to prefer stories that are strong on character. I don’t think you often get a YA novel that emphasizes plot, ideas, or worldbuilding over character. A focus on character is very important to YA. And the characters do need to be likeable, generally. No Joe Abercrombe antiheros here, no characters who start off okay but become corrupted, no bad guys winning. Sure, we get semi-sociopaths like the John Cleaver in I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, but then John is a very likeable sociopath who, during the course of the trilogy, actually carves out a niche for himself that is solidly on the good-guy side of things.

In addition the the books Charlotte lists in her post, I would add:

Barbara Hambly, particularly BRIDE OF THE RAT GOD, THOSE WHO HUNT THE NIGHT, STRANGER AT THE WEDDING, and DRAGONSBANE. I think if you don’t like those, you definitely aren’t going to fall in love with Hambly! Granted, these may not meet the “relatively current” criterion, but I think they are perfect. So is —

Doris Egan, the trilogy starting with GATE OF IVORY. Egan never wrote much, but this is a wonderful trilogy that never got the attention it deserved. And one more —

Gillian Bradshaw. In my opinion, anybody who loves fantasy should think of trying historicals, and in particular this author.

Who do you all think belongs on a list of “adult fantasy novels that would appeal to adult readers of YA”?

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Recent reading: Some books should come with a warning label

By which I mean, at least this time, books in which the bad guy wins. And I don’t mean a charming bad guy such as, say, Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder or Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos. No. I mean a real bad guy, the kind where it’s an offense against the universe when they win.

I also mean the sort of books in which the good guy loses. I mean really loses, so that his life is thoroughly screwed up at the end. Worse: the sort of story where the good guy does it to himself, so that you, as the reader, can see everything going wrong while the protagonist’s mistakes pile up and then come crashing down on him and everyone around him with all the power and inevitability of a tsunami.

Don’t tell me real life is sometimes like that. If I wanted to read stories like that, I could read current news or ancient history or whatever.

So. I picked up IN THE WOODS, a debut novel by Tana French that came out several years ago, at a recent book sale. Here’s what the back cover copy says: “. . . three children leave their small Dublin neighborhood to play in the surrounding woods. Hours later, their mother’s calls go unanswered. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
“Twenty years later, Detective Rob Ryan – the found boy, who has kept his past a secret – and his partner Cassie Maddox investigate the murder of a twelve-year-old girl in the same woods. No, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him, and that of his own shadowy past.”

My tolerance for horror is fairly low, but I sometimes do like suspense and crime dramas, and I often like cop books, and this book was an Edgar Award finalist, and I liked the cover. So I read the first couple of pages. Here’s the first paragraph, to give you an idea:

“Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolor nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silkscreen blue. This summer explodes on your tongue tasting of chewed blades of grass, your own clean sweat, Marie biscuits with butter squirting through the holes and shaken bottles of red lemonade picnicked in tree houses. It tingles on your skin with BMX wind in your face, ladybug feet up your arm; it packs every breath full of mown grass and billowing wash lines; it chimes and fountains with birdcalls, bees, leaves and football-bounces and skipping chants, One! two! three! This summer will never end. It starts every day with a shower of Mr. Whippy notes and your best friend’s knock at the door, finishes it with long slow twilight and mothers silhouetted in doorways calling you to come in, through the bats shrilling among the black lace trees. This is Everysummer decked in all its best glory.”

Okay, I’d call that promising, wouldn’t you? The second sentence got me. Beautiful! And then the rest of the paragraph: setting is very important to me in mysteries, and this story, set in Ireland, looks like it will be perfect. Just exotic enough to be appealing without being challenging. I may not know what Marie biscuits are or what a BMX wind is, but not knowing stuff like that isn’t going to bother me a bit.

And the writing here is top-notch. That part is undeniable. But I started to see the trend toward the protagonist’s life unraveling pretty early, and though the writing was good enough to keep me going, I definitely took a gooood step back emotionally and wound up not being very emotionally engaged with the characters. Which was wise. Because this author really ticked me off. And it’s not just because of the ending where the bad guy gets away with murder, and worse than murder, and is clearly going to go on destroying people’s lives for the foreseeable future. It’s also because of the way we get to that ending.

First, French provides one of the very, very few true nonsexual friendships between a man and a woman in all of fiction – Ryan and his partner Maddox. How often do you EVER see that? The author does it so well, the relationship comes across as totally believable. Then . . . well, then the author throws sex back in there after all and that relationship gets completely, irretrievably screwed up. I’m not saying this isn’t believable. Ryan’s all messed up because of his personal history, and although I don’t totally get his reactions with regard to this relationship with his partner, fine, I can believe he might possibly react the way he did. But I hate it. And I hate what it puts his partner through, and I hate where Ryan himself ends up.

Not only that, but Ryan’s personal history? The bit about being found gripping a tree trunk with his shoes full of blood? You see how the back cover copy invites you to believe that Ryan is going to figure out what actually happened to himself and his two friends when they were kids? And that unraveling that old mystery is going to be connected to the current murder? Well: sorry to spoil this for you if you were going to rush out and buy this book, but no.

There are hints about supernatural weirdness, probably evil supernatural weirdness, connected with those woods and that old disappearance. But in fact those hints stay completely unexplained. We never find out what really happened. Those shoes full of blood, a distinctly weird and creepy image the author rather dwells on? We never find out about those. We don’t even find out whose blood it was! Was it the blood of the two kids who disappeared? Don’t know, could be! Why was there blood in the shoes and nowhere else? We have no idea. Is there a connection between the old disappearance and the current crime? You’d think so, right? But if there was supposed to be such a connection, it was so subtle and mystical that I missed it.

And then the bad guy won.

I don’t care how good the writing was. I won’t be coming back for Tana French’s second book.

Here’s the Goodreads page for IN THE WOODS.

I particularly recommend Matt Sommer’s review, which is the second one down. Yeah, what he said. There’s an interesting comment in his thread, that Ryan himself may be supposed to be a sociopath and that he himself killed his friends. I don’t think I buy it, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. I think we see enough relatively normal emotions in his head to rule out that he his himself sociopathic, and I don’t *think* he killed his friends. But I don’t know. If you’re into psychological mysteries, hey, maybe you’d like to read this one after all and see what you think.

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Interesting statistics

Over at Kristen Nelson’s blog. (She’s an agent, as you may know.)

I like statistics. And I’m familiar with the notion that most queries don’t get a “send me pages” request from an agent. But check this out:

32,000 queries in 2012, and

81 full manuscripts requested.

In case you’re curious, that is two tenths of one percent of the queries. Wow.

But then, if you’re sending out queries of your own? Or thinking about it? Whatever proportion of queries look like this are not your competition.

And if you’ve never seen it, you MUST go read the post “Slushkiller” by Teresa Nelson Hayden, which has got to be just about the best post ever written about slushpile queries.

And, if you ARE thinking of tackling a query letter? Then here’s a resource you may want to explore: a list that links to various successful query letters. And of course you’re familiar with Janet Reid’s Query Shark?

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Did you know Amazon’s just zapped thousands of reviews from their site?

Or so it says here .

In general, I don’t know that I care that much. But: here is the first comment to this article:

“Here’s my standard: any book with five stars is likely cause for suspicion. It probably means either the reviewer has something to gain or the reviewer’s standards are low and therefore untrustworthy. Indeed, of the, let’s say, 10 million books written and reviewed, maybe less than 1% deserve five stars. Five star books are those by authors whose books have stood the test of time (e.g. Tolstoy, Twain, etc.). Usually, I go straight to the negative reviews, which are often more informative and accurate in my experience.”

To which my immediate response is: Well, buddy, it’s nice you have such high high high standards, but I almost never review books I don’t like, which means I often DO give a book five stars. And I hardly think I have such low low low standards compared to you. Or need a book to become a time-tested classic before I can tell whether it’s any good. So lighten up.

You know what? Five stars is not that many. If this was a ten star system, then I expect I would be giving very few books ten stars and I’d be a bit suspicious of books that garnered a lot of ten-out-of-ten stars. But it hardly seems out of the way to give a book five-out-of-five. Four out of five is actually too low for quite a lot of books.

Which that guy in the comments actually would realize, if he could do math. Because if 1% of 10 million books — his guess, not mine — deserves five stars, that’s 100,000 books, which is going to be a whole lot of the ones people have actually heard of.

If I’m using reviews to make a buying decision, which I actually sometimes do, I personally read a good handful of both the positive and negative reviews. A negative review that declares a book is “boring” may actually be a suggestion that I will like it, particularly if someone else left a comment about the book’s leisurely pace and lyrical writing.

And! Something else that is interesting: Harriet Klausner, who is cited in the article linked above because she has 25,000 reviews on Amazon? Well, her reviews make it perfectly clear that she really did read the Griffin trilogy, and since I know *I* didn’t pay her for those reviews, my guess is, she REALLY DOES read roughly a zillion books a day. I’m glad I don’t read that fast, as how could you linger over a book long enough to actually enjoy it if you read half a dozen per day?

But, in fact, overall, I don’t know that I care that much about what Amazon does with its review policy, since I actually go to Goodreads to read reviews or post my own. Besides, it doesn’t look to me like Amazon did anything to my reviews. Not (in case you wonder) that any close family members have ever left a review for any of my books. (Not that I would object if they did.)

How about you all? Anybody tend to write reviews, and if so, do you do it at Amazon or Goodreads or someplace else?

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The best of the Adventurous Cookies

Or at least the ones that I personally liked best — though I thought all of the cookies were good, or I’d hardly have submitted them for the contest!

AZTEC GOLD / MAYAN END-OF-THE-WORLD CHOCOLATE COOKIES

For these, I started out with the Death-By-Chocolate Cookies that Elaine T. sent me. The first thing was to de-death them so that I could use a ganache filling without overloading the chocolate tolerance of a normal chocolate-loving person. I did this by dropping the amount of unsweetened chocolate and replacing the lost chocolate and part of the butter with cream cheese – that gives a nice texture and softens the flavor. I also removed the chocolate chips entirely. Then I added a bit of chipotle powder (to make them adventurous) and, to half the dough, a bit of cinnamon. The cinnamon is the only difference between these two versions. I don’t ordinarily care for cinnamon combined with chocolate, but I found the tiny amount here very nice.

8 oz bittersweet chocolate
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 ½ C. flour
½ C. cocoa powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
½ tsp chipotle powder
1 tsp Ceylon cinnamon, optional – I prefer true cinnamon to the cassia that is sold as cinnamon in this country, because true cinnamon is actually less “cinnamony” and has a lighter, almost floral fragrance. But I’m not a cinnamon lover, and if you are, you would probably prefer ordinary cinnamon (which is really cassia, if you follow me, sorry, it’s not my fault, I’m not the one who decided on this the terminology).
1 ½ C. Demerara or other raw sugar
8 oz cream cheese
1 stick butter
3 eggs
1 tsp vanilla

12 oz bittersweet chocolate
½ C cream
2 Tbsp Anejo tequila, optional – I didn’t use it, but I put it into the cookie lacking cinnamon to increase its “adventurousness”
¼ to ½ tsp chipotle powder
¼ tsp cinnamon extract, optional

Edible gold dust

Melt the chocolates together. Combine the dry ingredients. Cream the sugar with the cream cheese and butter. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture. Chill one hour to overnight. Roll into 60 balls and place on parchment-lined baking sheets. Flatten each ball to a 1 ½ inch circle with a glass dipped in flour (or sugar, or Demerara sugar, whatever you like). Bake at 325 degrees for about 12 minutes, until set. Try not to overbake.

Heat the chocolate and cream together in the microwave and stir until smooth. Add the remaining ingredients. Let set until the ganache thickens, 30 to 40 minutes. Assemble the cookies. Dust the top cookies with the gold dust, for a particularly exotic and attractive presentation – I think I got my gold dust from King Arthur Flour, and it is a beautiful touch.

Okay! And my favorite of the bunch:

TASTE FOR ADVENTURE TRIPLE GINGER CHOCOLATE COOKIES

These are basically an easy chocolate-gingerbread whoopie pie type of cookie. Even if you think you would hate chocolate gingerbread, you really might try them, because that’s honestly what I thought and boy was I wrong.

Basically what I wanted with these was a cookie like chocolate gingerbread, NOT like a gingersnap or molasses spice cookie, not flat, not chewy and certainly not crunchy. I was really happy to get this cookie just right on the first try. But they’re not a very fancy looking cookie, so I don’t know that they have much of a chance in the contest.

2 ¾ C. flour
¼ C. cocoa powder
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¾ C. butter
¾ C. packed brown sugar
1 egg
½ C. molasses
2 Tbsp grated fresh ginger
2/3 C. buttermilk
½ C. minced crystallized ginger
1 ½ C. semisweet chocolate chips

Filling:

6 oz cream cheese
2 ½ to 3 C. powdered sugar
1 Tbsp grated ginger
½ C. minced crystallized ginger

Combine the dry ingredients. Cream the butter and sugar. Beat in the molasses, egg, and grated ginger. Beat in the buttermilk. Stir in the flour mixture. Fold in the crystallized ginger and chocolate chips. Drop rounded Tbsp on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes, until set. Try not to overbake. It’s easier to tell with these than some, because they’re so cake-like. If a cookie springs back when touched, it’s done. Cool about 2 minutes on the sheets. Remove to racks to cool completely.

Combine the filling ingredients, using enough powdered sugar to make a decently thick, spreadable filling – getting that right was the hardest part – and assemble the sandwich cookies.

There! I hope you enjoy all of these recipes as much as I did!

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