Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Out now: The River South by Marta Randall

If you got interested in the re-written and re-published Sword of Winter / Mapping Winter by Marta Randall, then you’ll want to be aware the sequel has become available.

South? I expected Our Heroes to go north!

Oh, wait, we are changing protagonists completely, or at least that’s implied. Here’s the description from Amazon:

Iset Kievesdaughter has no idea why somebody wants to kidnap her, but somebody does, and the attempts are growing ever more deadly.

Rescued from the Riders Guildhall by the Lord of Kyst, and taken aboard his sailing barge, Iset begins to piece together clues as to her enemy’s identity. But when she struggles to confront the mysterious talent developing within herself, she and Kyst’s Rider are banished from the craft.

As Iset strives to understand what and who she is, the two companions must journey through a perilous world in search of a refuge that may not exist.

“The Lord of Kyst” is ringing faint bells, but … yep, pretty faint. Was that a character from the first book? If so, who? I may do a search of my Kindle ebook and see, or I may just start reading The River South and find out that way. I wonder if Kieve will appear at all?

This is most likely going to be next up on the “actually read” stack this year. Right now I’m reading a new release from Ilona Andrews, but right after that.

Also, were you all aware of the new Penric novella? It came out in July, but I only realized that this past weekend. It’s a good one — I liked it a lot. I must admit, I especially enjoyed it when Penric finally got fed up and let Desdemona loose.

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All the Little Women

Via Passive Voice blog, trailers from many of the Little Women movies.

I hadn’t realized there were so many. Let’s see … Passive Guy showcases the ones from 1933, 1949, 1978 (with William Shatner! Who knew?), 1994, and now 2019. The newest one is due to be released this coming Christmas, I see.

Here’s a post about the new Little Women movie. Apparently it is going to focus more on the lives of the four sisters when they are young adults. Or three sisters, perhaps, depending on whether main focus is before or after Beth’s death. The film won’t be straight chronological, but shift back and forth from childhood to adulthood.

Here’s another post. Of course Jo is the main protagonist. I see that the new movie is probably going to modern-ify her attitudes. Well, fine, but I actually like Jo as she is in the original novel: a product of her era, like all her sisters.

How interesting it would be to watch each version in full, in chronological order. I think I’ve only ever seen the 1994 version. If you’ve seen other versions, which was your favorite?

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I learned a new word today

I don’t learn a new word all that often, so I always enjoy it as much as possible when it happens.

Medical and other jargon excluded, of course. I mean regular words. Today’s word:


It’s clear where it comes from, or at least I immediately see parallels between this and words like “perchlorate,” in which the “per-” is essentially short for “hyper-” and is therefore an intensifying prefix that means “more.”

So if “fervid” means “intensely passionate about something,” I guess “perfervid” must mean “excessively over-the-top passionate about something.” Which is indeed the case.

It’s not that attractive a word, though. That “per-fer-” repeats the -er- sound, which is not aesthetically pleasing. This is a word I’m actually more likely to drop into casual conversation for the fun of it, rather than using in a novel. If I did use it in a novel, it’d be SF, not high fantasy. The word sounds all wrong for high fantasy, though “fervid” is fine.

Did you all know the word “perfervid” already?

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Sports in SFF


As it happens, when it comes to sports, I am among the most entirely disinterested people you’ll ever meet. I barely know (or care) whether the Super Bowl is a football thing or a baseball thing.

Nevertheless, the title of that post did catch my eye. It made me think immediately of the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliot, where a particular type of handball sport was very important. I believe the reader encounters this aspect of the plot in the second book, but regardless, it’s definitely front and center for some part of the trilogy.

And obviously there’s quidditch.

Still, it’s true that we don’t see that many teams playing sports in SFF worlds (do we?). The author of the post says:

Because this is something that’s always been a mystery to me: how is that these elaborate SFF worlds come with their own ecology and political landscape and four fictional languages with five dialects each, but so rarely feature their own sporting events?

Which, okay, I grant, that’s a fair point. The author goes on to note a few instances where sports appear in SFF novels, and I have to admit, I totally missed the gladiatorial combat with sharks in Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamorra series (How did I miss that? It sounds pretty impressive.).

She then goes on to suggest reasons sports might not be a thing SFF authors include in worldbuilding. In my case, I guess it’s #1 (not a sports fan in real life) and #4 (not an expected feature, so I don’t think about it).

However, I do feel like I’ve skimmed across descriptions of sports here and there in SFF novels. Anybody got an example they can think of?

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15 books “like Lord of the Rings”

This is a Book Riot post, so immediately I’m entertained by wondering (a) what 15 books the Book Riot author will consider “like” TLotR, and (b) will one of them be Watership Down?

As you can see, as far as I’m concerned, Book Riot is never going to live down that Urban Fantasy post.

So let’s check out the post!

  1. Aurora Rising by Kaufman and Kristoff. Well, that one is an interesting choice. It’s SF, not fantasy; the stakes look, to a first glance, small-scale and personal rather than epic; so the only thing this story has in common with TLotR is a “band of adventurers.” While not as wildly out of place as Watership Down, I have to say, so far I am questioning the criteria used by the author of this post. In fact, if “band of adventurers” is enough to get a book into this list, then Watership Down would actually qualify. That right there should indicate that this single criterion should not be sufficient to do the job. Let’s see what else …
  2. Legend of Drizzt: Homeland, by Salvatore
  3. A Wizard of Earthsea
  4. An Ember in the Ashes by Tahir
  5. The Fifth Season by Jemisin
  6. Sorcerer to the Crown by Cho
  7. The Demon King by Chima
  8. The Deed of Paksennarion by Moon
  9. Sabriel by Nix
  10. Dragonsong by McCaffery
  11. The Dragon Sword and Wind Child by Ogiwara
  12. The Grace of Kings by Liu
  13. Graceling by Cashore
  14. Song of Blood and Stone by Penelope
  15. Thrown of the Crescent Moon by Ahmed

Okay, of those, I have read five. I have started and DNF … let me see … wow, no fewer than five! That is a LOT of DNF entries for this kind of list! Of those DNF, four were books I just did not think were that good, while one just appalled me with the set up and I could not go on with it. That was Jemisin’s, of course, and WHY not pick ONE OF HER OTHER LESS HORRIFYING BOOKS FOR THIS LIST?

The author of the post says things like: “This one is like TLotR because it has an unlikely hero” and “This one is like TLotR because there’s a journey” and I have to say, throwing books or series on this list for reasons of that kind is ridiculous. Practically every book ever written has SOME characteristic that is vaguely similar to something in TLotR. Saying “The plot involves a journey, so if you liked TLotR, you’ll like this one because they are alike!” is just silly.

To actually qualify for a like-TLotR list, I would say a book needs to:

  1. Be epic in scope, literary in tone, and not too gritty.
  2. Have a clear good-versus-evil setup, and good has to win through the heroic efforts of badly outmatched protagonists.
  3. Be really well written, though not necessarily in a Tolkien-esque style; bad knock-offs need not apply.
  4. Be set in a sort of vaguely Tolkien-esque setting.
  5. Have some philosophical depth to it, though not necessarily the same themes that are important in TLotR.

Of the list above, I think one entry qualifies. Wait, two. I’m going to start with those and then go on to build a list of novels that are REALLY LIKE TOLKIEN, as opposed to the list above, where almost none of the entries are remotely like TLotR.

  1. The Deed of Paksennarion
  2. The Wizard of Earthsea
  3. The Longest Road trilogy by Guy Gaviel Kay
  4. The Shadowed Sun / The Killer Moon by Jemisin
  5. The Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear
  6. The Riddlemaster of Hed by McKillip
  7. The Riftwar Saga by Feist
  8. …. and I’m running low on good candidates for this list.

What would you pick for a No-Kidding-Like-TLotR-in-Important-Ways list?

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Pegasus Award nominees

The Pegasus Award is for filksongs.

I know very little about the world of filk, but I do like to go to filk concerts when I’m at conventions. Tom Smith is always a hoot, and I usually come away with a CD from someone else as well. Last time I was at WindyCon, I picked up a CD by Vixy and Tony that included a whole bunch of great songs, including, for example, “Eight-Legged Blues” and “Uplift.” Several others I’ve listened to a bunch of times.

So, from File 770, here’s a list of the Pegasus finalists for this year.

Here’s a link so you can listen to song clips for the finalists.

One song, up for “Best Filk Song” is called “Vor.” I must listen to that! But I want to listen to all of them.

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Novel openings: recent acquisitions

So, that recent post on abandoning novels to the DNF pile made me realize it’s been some time since I looked over the books and samples recently added to the TBR file on my Kindle. There’ve been a bunch, a bit ironic considering how few new-to-me novels I’ve been reading this year. Big year for re-reads, and the books I have read for the first time have mostly been additions to series I started a year or two (or more) ago. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! About time I finished Brennan’s Lady Trent series, for example.) (Though I did read, and very much enjoyed, Sabrina Chase’s space opera Sequoyah trilogy.)

Still, despite having no idea when I might get to them, I’ve added a good many books and some samples to the pile. Let’s take a look at some of those:

1. The Dragons of Esternes by Steve Turnbull. This is one of those from the SPFBO book sale, which I mentioned a couple days ago. Here’s how it opens:

The floorboards trembled beneath her and she came awake with a jerk.

The air in the eyrie was cold against her skin, and the light of the smaller moon, Colimar, shone red through the arched window in the tower’s stone wall. It was still deepest night.

Must have been a dream, thought Kantees, as she re-adjusted the thin blanket and tried to burrow deeper into the pricking straw. The boards beneath her shifted again, and there was a quiet grumble. Oh, by the mother’s milk. What now? Stupid animal.


Okay, this is perfectly fine, if not very interesting. I read the next few pages and nothing much happens for a bit. Then enemies invade, or at least attack, and I expect the story picks up at that point. So far the story seems okay, but not much above okay. We were mostly in agreement that the protagonist needs to be likeable or at least not boring, and right off the bat Kantees’ voice is not that catchy, though her situation – a servant girl taking care of a racing dragon – is intrinsically interesting. I’d certainly go on at least for a chapter or two and see how the story unfolds.


2. Heart of Dragons by Meg Cowley:

The gigantic trees of the living forest rustled and contorted, but there was no wind to move them. It was as if the very trees themselves were angry. Aedon knew it to be true. The forest was furious.

He dashed across the rope bridge walkways that soared above the forest floor, clinging on for dear life. The living trees, the dhiran, buckled their limbs around him, sending the walkways swinging like ribbons in the wind.

Aedon was lucky he had always been a nimble elf. Even so, he struggled to keep his footing. He ducked and wove as branches tore at him, their leaves razor sharp. Every knobby arm of wood stabbed at him like a sword, leaving his skin peppered with nicks and grazes.

Still, it was better than descending to the forest floor. If he did, Aedon had no doubt he would be eaten by the forest itself – or at least strangled in the writhing roots of the trees that strained to rip themselves free from the earth in their determination to grasp and punish him.

Tir-na-Alathea was a special place. No one left if the forest did not wish it. Luckily, Aedon had a better plan.


And then we learn that a couple other elves are pursuing Aedon; that Aedon apparently stole something of theirs.

This is another of the SPFBO novels. Although this opening is certainly more lively than the first one and I don’t actually dislike it, I do see some problems here. I should add that reading just the opening like this puts me in super-picky mode. Still, it seems to me there are a lot of clichés in these few sentences. “Clinging on for dear life.” “Ducked and wove.” “Leaves razor sharp.” “Stabbed like a sword.” Plus there are other slightly awkward word-choices:

The gigantic trees of the living forest rustled and contorted, but there was no wind to move them.

Shouldn’t it be “though there was no wind”?

And, “living forest” and “living trees”? Aren’t most trees living? I get that this is a special use of the word, but this usage still struck me as a little peculiar.

No one left if the forest did not wish it. Luckily, Aedon had a better plan.

Better than what? Shouldn’t it just be: “Aedon had a plan”?

Still, quibbles aside, I’d go on for a bit and see how the story looks after a chapter or so. But I’m not too hopeful right up front.

Okay, moving on:

3. Eyrie by K Vale Nagle

Thirty feet up a tree that reached twice that height into the forest canopy, Zeph clung beak-down and surveyed the forest floor. Several large, flightless ground parrots pecked at crushed berries. Violet stains covered their green plumage. The berries were casualties of a conflict much higher up. Two flying squirrels fighting on the sunny tree tops had dropped them, splashing Zeph with juice when the berries landed. While the rush of sugar the berries offered was tempting, that was short-term thinking. Instead, he groomed the juice from his feathered face, left the area, climbed one of the many massive redwoods, and glided back to a good vantage point. The local ground parrots had become wary of the fresh scratches on trees that marked the climbing habits of gryphons. …


And then we get a little hunting scene in which Zeph kills a couple of these giant parrots, during the hunt he happens to spot a scene of earlier minor carnage, and the story goes on from there. This is a story where all the characters are gryphons of one type or another, and in fact there are quite good line drawings of radically different types of gryphons at the beginning of the book. The types are so different I want to say “species,” but apparently they can and do interbreed quite freely, so perhaps that term is not the best.

Anyway, this seems to be more of a slice-of-life beginning. The “minor carnage” involves the slaughter of livestock – capybaras! – rather than people. There’s potential for conflict between different groups of gryphons, but so far, in the first chapters, conflict seems more potential than active. The writing’s decent, though so far Zeph isn’t doing enough or thinking enough to be all that interesting as a protagonist. The setting may carry this story forward until the plot gets going, because hey, different types of gryphons are intrinsically fun. I’d go on with all these books, at least for a chapter or so, but so far this one is more appealing than the first two.

4. Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Mehr woke up to a soft voice calling her name. Without thought, she reached a hand beneath her pillow and closed her fingers carefully around the hilt of her dagger. She could feel the smoothness of the large opal embedded in the hilt, and its familiar weight beneath her fingertips calmed her. She sat up and pushed back the layer of gauze surrounding her divan.

“Who is it?” she called out.

The room was dark apart from one wavering light. As the light approached, Mehr realized it was an oil lantern, held aloft by a maidservant whom Mehr knew by sight but not by name. Through the glare of the lit flame, the maidservant’s features looked distorted, her eyes wide with nervousness.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, my lady,” the maid said. “But your sister is asking for you.”


I think the three above were self-published, while this one is from Orbit. I picked it up because of a recommendation on Twitter that made it sound appealing. This opening is okay, I think. The servant wants Mehr to come comfort her baby sister, who has been frightened by a spirit that came out of the desert – these spirits might have been much more powerful in the past, I gather. It’s well written and in fact I’ve read about a third of the book so far. For me it’s just okay, but I have mentioned that new-to-me fiction has an uphill battle to appeal to me this year, right? This story has an arranged-marriage plotline, which works for me because I know (from the Twitter recommendation) that the romance component of the story has a Happily Ever After ending. That’s important because at the moment, the protagonist and her new husband are in a pretty dire situation.

I expect I’ll go on with this story pretty soon, though I interrupted it to re-read the entire Valor series by Tanya Huff. So at least I finally finished that series; I’d been waiting for the final book to come out and finally realized it had.

5. Blade and Rose by Miranda Honfleur

Out the fifth-story window, or not at all.

It was her only chance to sneak out unnoticed. Rielle sprang from the bed and grabbed a coat, white wool with the master mage’s four-bar chevron, and fastened the double rows of buttons from neck to hip.

Gloves next. No glow of spellcasting to give her away. She slipped her hands into the wool-lined leather and flexed her fingers. A new pair. The heat of her pyromancy last mission had ruined the previous set.

With a flick of her wrist, she extinguished the fireplace and every candle in the room, willing the flames away until only darkness and the faint glow of the gibbous moon remained.

She tossed her braid over her shoulders and opened the window latch. Her boot perched on the sill, she peered at the ground. Dark. Quiet. Empty.

Farther away from the Tower, torches illuminated the walls of the inner bailey, dotted the outer bailey and the gates. Beyond them, white pines challenged the midnight sky, their peaks silvered by the moon. The forest – that was her destination.


Okay, now we’re talking! I so admire artistic use of fragments. This is another one from the SPFBO sale. I’m glad I picked it up, because this is a promising start. Most definitely going on with this one, and crossing my fingers that the story will prove as strong as it continues as this beginning suggests.

6. The Songweaver’s Vow by Laura Vanarendonk Bough

The attack came at down.

Euthalia woke to the terse, worried voices of men, and she crawled into the dawn light. “What is it?” she asked, only half-expecting an answer.

But Miloslav stopped mid-sentence to turn toward her. “Get back!” he snapped. “Hide yourself!”

Euthalia swept her eyes across the camp, seeing men picking up weapons and looking up the river, where she saw a dragon.

Its head rose from the water and curled upward, glaring down upon the surface in disdain. The river barely rippled around its sinuous neck. Its body was long and narrow, and she saw now oars protruded from either side, launching it across the river. Behind it came other boats, also bearing beast heads, but somehow – because she had seen it first, or because it was the nearest, or because for just a moment it had been a real sea serpent in her mind – the first one seemed the most frightening.

Pirates, she realized. Terrifying, horrific men who went a-viking to prey on traders.


The last of the books I picked up from the SPFBO sale. This is a promising opening. A lot to like about it. Nice cover, too.

Historical fantasy, obviously. That’s a subgenre that appeals to me very much, so I’ll look forward to going on with this one.

7. His Own Good Sword by Amanda McGrina

In truth, he’d rather not go to Vessy.

He’d considered just sending a letter from the post-station at Chaelor. That would be the easiest thing for himself and his father both. Certainly for his mother. But if he didn’t go now, there was no telling when he’d have the chance to go again and it was two years already since he’d last been home. No – better to go, to break the news in person. Harder, maybe, but he owed them that much. This was the last time in what would probably be a very long time he’d see either of them. Harder, in person, but it was the right thing to do.

At the crossroads at Chaelor, where most of the big roads in this northern part of the province came together, he took Risun onto the eastward road leading to Vessy. The road ran close along the shore of Lake Morin and for most of the way it went on pilings because the ground was reed beds and soft green marshland that flooded in the springtime. Vessy itself, the ancient Cesino capital, was built on a hillside above the lake. The oldest part of the city was at the base of the hill, below the causeway: fishermen’s huts and ships’ housing and rows and rows of mossy weathered mooring stones. The younger part, above, was Vareno-built, and the buildings stood out starkly from the old Cesino buildings below – walls of white marble rather than flagstone, roofs of clay tile instead of straw thatch.

The villa of the Risti sat on the very crown of the hill because Torien Risto, Tyren’s father, was the most powerful man in Cesin, and one of the more powerful men in the Empire.


Okay! I think that is a good first sentence, followed by way too much description wrapped around too little story. I should add that the next pages go on in the same vein. I am a fan of good description, and this description is mostly quite good, but the author has fallen into textbook mode. Let me tell you about the setting rather than the protagonist really existing within the setting. Story and setting really need to be integrated, and here, after the first sentence, it seems to me that the author has paused the story to do an extended stop-action scene where she pans the camera sloooowly around to show the reader the scenery. That’s not the impression the reader should get in the first pages.

The biggest problem, or at least one big problem for me here, is the names. There are lots and none of them mean anything to the reader. Is Risun the name of the protagonist’s horse? Can’t tell, though that is my tentative conclusion. Is Tyren Risto the protagonist of the story? Can’t tell that either, not for sure. This is one of the dangers of starting off the story with a pronoun rather than a name. While it’s true that people don’t think of themselves by name, it’s also true that the reader needs to know the name of the protagonist. This should be crystal clear. Here, it’s really not.

However … the description is good. I do plan to go on for a chapter or two.                                  

8. As the Crow Flies by Robyn Lythgoe

I am called Crow, and I am a thief. The name and the profession go hand in hand and, like the bird, I am not at all opposed to appropriating what pleases me. I am good at it. Crows are smart and clever. Black of hair, dark of eye, and dusky of skin, I am as like that much-maligned bird as any man can be. My nimble fingers and quick mind have guaranteed me the most profitable jobs and a comfortable place in the annals of history.

I always work alone. Most of my life has been spent alone, a situation I never felt inclined to alter until, in my thirty-first spring, I fell in love. Ah, Tarsha, my beautiful jewel …

It was for her sake that I perched on the ledge of a arrow window in Baron Metin Duzayan’s residence more than three stories above the churning waters of the Zenn River.

The din of pursuit clattered down the hall behind me. Which way would the guardsmen most likely look for me? Down. Down was the easy way to go, the quick way, but any fool can leap to his death in a raging river, and I am no fool. With vengeful Winter tramping through the land, it would be bitterly cold, too. I would rather fly than take a wetting, so up it was.


Voice is particularly important in first-person narratives, and this guy immediately strikes me as a jerk. I often like arrogant protagonists, as long as they are in fact (nearly) as competent as they think they are, but I’m not sure I like them as much in first-person narratives as third.

Well, we’ll see. I liked the back-cover description of this book, so I’ll go on and see how the story unfolds. I believe the protagonist is going to find himself in a tough spot very shortly, which might not knock the arrogance back a touch, but perhaps it will.

9. Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

“My lady.” The voice was urgent. “My lady, please – please wake up.”

Marian swam up out of dreamless sleep, her mind groggy and confused. It was dark, but as her eyes adjusted, the light of a candle came into view. Behind it she could see a familiar face, drawn and frightened.

“Elena,” she croaked, dragging herself upright. “What is it?”

Her maid swallowed, the candlelight bobbing and swaying with the trembling of her hand. “It’s my brother, my Lady. They’ve got him – they’ve arrested him and they’re going to kill him at dawn. Please, my Lady, I don’t know what to do.”

Marian was on her feet before she could think, reaching for yesterday’s dress handing over her changing screen. She threw it on over her shift, ignoring the trailing laces at its back. “Where is my cloak?” she demanded, quick and curt.


Kind of funny that this opening is so similar to Empire of Sand, above! I wonder how many stories in the world open with someone saying, My lady, wake up!

This is a Robin Hood story. There’s a prologue in which Robin himself, fighting in the Holy Land with the king, is killed. Then we start here at Chapter One with Marian. You can probably imagine how the story unfolds after this, as Marian is determined to keep the story of Robin Hood alive even though Robin himself is dead. I’m looking forward to it. For one thing, this version of the Robin Hood story simply cannot suffer from the common weakness of Robin Hood retellings, which is a weak ending. They all have a weak ending. But in a sense this one gets that over with right at the beginning – Robin Hood is dead! – so the author should be able to take this story in a very different direction at the end.

Okay, one more:

10. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

Do you remember where you were when the Meteor hit? I’ve never understood why people phrase it as a question, because of course you remember. I was in the mountains with Nathaniel. He had inherited this cabin from his father and we used to go up there for stargazing. By which I mean: sex. Oh, don’t pretend that you’re shocked. Nathaniel and I were a healthy young married couple, so most of the stars I saw were painted across the inside of my eyelids.

If I had known how long the stars were going to be hidden, I would have spent a lot more time outside with the telescope.

We were lying in the bed with the covers in a tangled mess around us. The morning light filtered through silver snowfall and did nothing to warm the room. We’d been awake for hours, but hadn’t gotten out of bed yet for obvious reasons. Nathaniel had his leg thrown over me and was snuggled up against my side, tracing a finger along my collarbone in time with the music on our little battery-powered transistor radio. …

… I pulled the covers up over myself and turned on my side to watch him. He was lean, and only his time in the Army during World War II kept him from being scrawny. I loved watching the muscles play under his skin as he pulled wood off the pile under the big picture window. The snow framed him beautifully, its silver light just catching in the strands of his blond hair.

And then the world outside lit up.


I wanted to get to the meteor hitting, so I cut a bit out of the first pages. However, here you go, this is basically the opening to The Calculating Stars, which as you all know won the Hugo a few days ago. A bit like cheating to include it with a bunch of random books picked up partly because they were on sale! But it’s fun to compare. I don’t think I’m biased when I say that Kowal brings an assurance to her writing that’s lacking in most of the selections above. Great first line. Clearly established first-person voice. Protagonist and story effortlessly integrated with the setting.

As far as I’m concerned, the two obvious standouts from this set of ten are The Calculating Stars and Blade and Rose. What do you all think?

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Can this be true?

Leisure reading in the US has fallen 30% since 2004, it says here.

Associated statistics:

Numbers from the National Endowment for the Arts show that the share of adults reading at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the prior year fell from 57 percent in 1982 to 43 percent in 2015.

Survey data from the Pew Research Center and Gallup have shown, meanwhile, that the share of adults not reading any book in a given year nearly tripled between 1978 and 2014.


This article suggests that the steepest declines occurred prior to Facebook and pins the blame primarily on television. This seems iffy to me. Why would a decline due to television not have leveled out waaaaay before 2004? A new decline — of 30%! — since 2004 suggests to me that television is not the culprit, even though sure, Netflix and stuff.

One thing I’d like to see is the methodology. I suspect if you count unforced reading of nonfiction as “leisure reading” and then counted reading online opinion columns as this kind of leisure reading, you might not see any decline at all from 2004 to 2017. I kind of suspect that the authors of this survey defined “leisure reading” in a way that let them get a steep gosh-wow decline in order — ironically — to drive clicks to their article.

I hope I’m not just being, let’s say, optimistically cynical in that suspicion.

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Book abandonment

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog, about raising the stakes for your protagonist in order to keep readers hooked — thus avoiding the reader deciding to DNF your book.

But what storytelling elements should you focus on?

I humbly suggest an element that might not even be on your radar: the stakes, or the negative consequences of failure. Without stakes, your protagonist doesn’t have a reason to keep on pursuing his goal. Readers may question why he perseveres despite the obstacles mounted against him. Once readers question the plot, they’ll disengage from your story. And once they disengage…well, book abandonment becomes almost inevitable.

With stakes, however, the protagonist does have a reason to continue—and there’s no cause for readers to disengage. Not only that, stakes put readers under tension. That’s because they don’t know how your protagonist is going to avoid those nasty negative consequences. The only way to relieve that tension is to—wait for it—finish your book.

Read the whole thing, if you feel so inclined. I don’t disagree — sure, it’s important to produce tension and yes, high stakes are important. High in emotional terms; in a romance, the protagonist(s) are probably not saving the world, so there’s low stakes in that sense, but high stakes personally.

Anyway, sure, high stakes and rising tension, good in principle.


I’m not completely sure I’ve ever DNF’ed a book because of low stakes. I don’t quite remember that ever happening. Don’t get me wrong; I think the advice in the post is pretty good advice. Like this:

The fate of a nation. The fate of the world. Objectively speaking, these are high stakes indeed.

However, it might not feel that way to readers—not at an emotional level. That’s because these stakes are too vast to grasp. Subjectively, these stakes might not generate much emotional weight. As a result, the reader experience can become more of an intellectual exercise, and your story may not contain the emotional intensity you anticipated.

That’s why, if you want readers to invest in your novel, you should draw their attention to the plight of a few individuals within the larger group comprising the stakes.

I think this is very true, and in fact not so long ago I re-wrote a scene in which a lot of people died, in order to let the reader focus on just one of those people. Instant increase in pathos of the scene by about 100x, because the death of one character you know is much more powerful than the death of several hundred characters you’ve never met.

However! I still don’t think I’ve ever abandoned a book because of low stakes. For me, I think it’s nearly always lack of investment in the protagonist, grading into active dislike of the protagonist.


It’s too-gritty worldbuilding. If the author mentions urine, feces, or vomit in the first pages, then the story is probably not for me. The wrong kind of mutilated beggar sitting by the side of the road, a gibbet with a decomposed body and carrion flies . . . no. I DNF’ed a book a year or two ago because it opened with young losers taking drugs and experiencing weird effects, and nothing at all about that scene worked for me. Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong: I can handle some grittiness, but not up front like that. I am much more likely to tolerate it later, after I already care about the protagonist and the story.

Boredom with the stakes . . . I cannot offhand remember setting a book on the DNF pile for that particular sin. Lack of interest in the protagonist or being turned off by the worldbuilding: those are the things that make that happen.

Oh, one more thing: if the actual sentence-level writing is not very good, then I probably won’t get too far into the book in the first place.

Okay, a top-five-turnoffs list:

  1. Stakes too low; story not exciting enough
  2. Protagonist boring or actively repulsive
  3. Worldbuilding too gritty
  4. Sentence-level writing not that great
  5. Dog dies

What is most likely to make you abandon a book you’ve started? One of those, or something else?

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Not sure I’d pay $74,000 for this

A giant hand which has been described as a “Lovecraftian nightmare come to life” has been lifted into place atop Wellington’s City Gallery in New Zealand.

Opinions in Wellington are divided, as one might expect. However, I have to say, if the people of Nice, France, can get used to the Head:

Then I’m fairly sure the people of Wellington, NZ, will get used to the Hand.

But I’m also pretty sure that little kids in both Nice and Wellington probably have these images turn up in nightmares.

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