Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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The Frabjous Delights of Seriously Silly Poetry

Via the Passive Voice Blog, this from the Wall Street Journal: The Frabjous Delights of Seriously Silly Poetry

I’m linking to The Passive Voice because the WSJ as a paywall.

Side question: do you ever subscribe, with real money, to any publication that has a paywall in order to read their articles? Someone must, right? Because otherwise nothing would have a paywall. But to me it seems like there are plenty of other things to read.

Anyway:

Today, when public language can seem slippery or unreliable, we might, for pleasure as well as reassurance, check in with the masters of English poetry. They may sometimes use gibberish, gobbledygook or balderdash for fun but, in the end, they leave us delighted rather than confused. Some kinds of nonsense are consoling….

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

On its face, this may seem like nonsense, and in fact Alice herself has problems with it: “It’s very pretty, but it’s rather hard to understand.” She’s wrong. It may distort sense, but it is not nonsense. If you know English syntax and parts of speech, you know immediately that “toves” and “wabe,” like “borogroves” and “raths,” are nouns, even if you have no idea what else they are. “Gyre” and “gimble” are verbs, “mimsy” and “mome” adjectives. “Brillig” and “outgrabe” are ambiguous. In poetry, all words are important, and the odder they are, the more provocative.

I’ve always had a soft spot for The Jabberwocky. Don’t we all? The Passive Guy adds:

In poems, sounds gather meaning through suggestion. (This is why rhyme is important.) “Wabe” sounds like “wave,” and “Callooh! Callay!” isn’t far from “Hip-Hip, Hooray!” Some of the words are original portmanteau coinages. “Frabjous” combines “joyous” and a hint of “fabulous.” “Mimsy,” according to Humpty, is “flimsy” and “miserable.” No wonder everyone loves “Jabberwocky”: it turns readers into etymologists. They can make their own definitions.

Which is all true, though obviously it all happens below the level of conscious thought.

What other nonsense poetry do you like?

Here’s one of my picks, by Mervyn Peake. I like the first verse best — it’s going to be stuck in my head for hours after reading it again just now. This verse is the one I remembered, but the whole thing was easy to find online, so here’s the complete poem:

I CANNOT GIVE THE REASONS

I cannot give the reasons,
I only sing the tunes:
the sadness of the seasons
the madness of the moons.

I cannot be didactic
or lucid, but I can
be quite obscure and practic-
ally marzipan

In gorgery and gushness
and all that’s squishified.
My voice has all the lushness
of what I can’t abide

And yet it has a beauty
most proud and terrible
denied to those whose duty
is to be cerebral.

Among the antlered mountains
I make my viscous way
and watch the sepia mountains
throw up their lime-green spray.

*****

Speaking of getting stuck in my head, this topic reminds me of a particular filksong by Vixy and Tony, on a CD I lost by putting it in, apparently, a random jewel case somewhere amid the vast number of CDs I have on a rack in the other room.

Eventually I need to find that sucker so I can listen to this song again. The lyrics are not nonsense. They are a series of wonderful analogies. If you aren’t familiar with Vixy and Tony, here a link.

And here’s the song —

And My Love Was Like the Moon

And my love was like the moon
When my world was dark he lit the starless skies
And my hopes for what I’d be
While his faith still lived in me
Shone reflected in his eyes

And my love was like the moon
And the phases of his mood would wax and wane
And he had his darker side
And he chose what he would hide
And concealed his deepest pain

He was like the speed of light
Always sure when he was right
And I knew he’d never change
He was like the value pi
Though predictions I might try
Still his code was always strange

And my love was like the sun
And he always kept me warm when day was through
Burning with his fusion’s fire,
Blending passion with desire,
Making one soul out of two

And my love was like the sun
Though he’s gone his blazing image fills my sight
Dazzled still, and left behind
I am groping as though blind
And can scarce tell dark from light

Like a pitch too high to hear
He enhanced what he was near
Everything seemed sharp and bright
Like the golden section, phi,
His proportions could not lie,
every part of him was right

And my love was like the sea
I was rocked to peaceful sleep upon his waves
And he brought before my eyes,
As a diver brings his prize,
many gifts my heart still craves

And my love was like the sea
And his depths held secrets I could never know
Needs unfathomably deep
Longings that I could not keep
And I had to let him go

And my love was like the moon
And my love was like the moon…

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A personality quiz —

Here is a personality quiz that matches you to a fictional character, statistically, it says, rather in that careless Buzzfeed way.

So, sure, whatever, I took the quiz. It only took a few minutes. It says I’m “most like” Betsy Heron from Mean Girls. Well, I’ve never watched Mean Girls, so that is pretty meaningless to me. Even then, it’s only an 84% match.

A casual search suggests that Betsy Heron is a perfectly nice person despite the name of the show, so there’s that.

If you feel so inclined, go take this quiz and see what you get. I’d like to know what other fictional characters one can draw. Also, the supplementary questions were all about Deep Space Nine. I watched a lot of DS9 at one point, but wow, it’s been a while. I wonder how much those questions tweaked my result.

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Coronavirus: Optimistic update

I know several people who click on the plethora of sky-is-falling links. I get that the media loves terrifying stories because those generate the most links. I get that this is a tough situation and that quite a lot of people are going to get seriously sick no matter what. Nevertheless, there are many signs of progress that may, possibly, tend to get buried in the world-is-ending stories. So, here:

Malaria drug hydroxychloroquine is the most effective coronavirus treatment currently available, finds international poll of 6,000 doctors

Cutting Through the Fog Around a Cure for COVID-19

UPMC, Pitt scientists unveil potential COVID-19 vaccine

It will take some time, but rest assured: a coronavirus vaccine is coming, and it will work.

The first US coronavirus patients are being treated with convalescent plasma therapy. Will it work? Not even the doctors know

I haven’t read any of those articles. I just present them to you, in case you would like to read some optimistic articles.

And of course there are nice small-scale stories, like this one:

Boston police officer buys groceries for single mom

I do read pessimistic articles as well as optimistic ones. Here are my actual, real predictions:

–The drugs that are under investigation will work, and they will very substantially lower the risk of catching this virus. I mean, everyone is going to catch it eventually, but once the drug regime has been tweaked and all the drugs are easily available, very few people will have to worry particularly about catching it.

–The blood plasma thing will pan out, but maybe not for the most critically ill patients. But it will turn out to be useful for a large percentage of patients.

–A vaccine of some sort will be available long before experts say it will; eg, way before 2 years.

Here is something I would like to see that I think will happen:

–A ton of drug manufacture will come back to this country, and stay here for at least 50 years before people forget that outsourcing all drug manufacture to China is a really stupid thing to do.

Here is something I would like to see that I don’t think will happen:

–The FDA gutted and every single person over the rank of administrative assistant fired. The CDC as well. I remember clearly a time when I thought those organizations were competent. Not anymore. I cannot believe the overwhelmingly awful, terrible, horrible, no-good response to this virus that we have seen from both organizations.

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Recent acquisitions

Okay, I’ve picked up a good many samples recently, plus some full novels or series. They range from something that sounded potentially good, through a bunch of author recommendations you all offered here, to a new(ish) Mercy Thompson novel. That last is Storm Cursed, not the most recent novel in that series but the one before that, which I realized I hadn’t yet read and which came down in price when the newest installment came out. A wide variety, mostly secondary-world fantasy and historical fantasy and romance. Let’s take a look:

1. The Horn by J Kathleen Cheney

This trilogy actually starts with an author’s note which explains the backstory and political context. That, in my opinion, is a terrible way to open a secondary-world fantasy. It’s exactly like opening with a backstory prologue that explains the political history of the world; it’s like trying to have that kind of prologue without using the word “prologue.” Ugh. I can’t express how little I care about the political backstory or the history of the world. If the story is good, maybe I will care later, but at the beginning, no.

Here’s the actual beginning:

The tent was empty. Amal knelt to peer farther inside, her heavy overcoat bunching about her heels in the snow. The tent was easily large enough for a few people, but a single pack rested against the tent wall next to a pile of clothing, neatly stacked. Atop that lay a leather book. She pushed into the tent and, holding the flap open with one foot, grabbed the book.

Whoever had set up the tent here was trespassing. She was within her rights to seize everything.

She backed out of the tent into the chill air. The story had passed, leaving the late spring sky brilliant and the snow blinding. If not for the wind, it would be beautiful.

While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this opening, it’s not what I would call grabby. I read a little farther, but I didn’t get very interested and wound up deleting this sample.

2. Magic and the Shinigarni Detective by, um, it says Honor Raconteur.

I can’t say I am impressed by the author’s pseudonym. But fine, let’s look at the way the novel opens.

Emulating a breathing statue, I kept my eyes at half-mast, my body still. I’d learned over the time in this dank, bat-infested cave that stillness was best. She didn’t question stillness. She sometimes forgot her victims were even there.

Well, victim, now. That other poor man had died this morning, leaving me as the lone survivor. She’d captured six of us in the beginning, all from different worlds, as we’d barely been able to communicate with each other, even with the potions and language spells she heaped upon us. We’d lost the first man within a week, his body too different, his spirit too easily crushed.

The witch even now poured over her notes – flitting about the huge and scarred worktable, picking up different vials, sketches of magical designs – only to put them down again with foul oaths. Her thin lips twisted as she snarled the words, making her narrow face even more pinched.

Okay, no, I don’t think so. What here doesn’t work? Let me see. The first paragraph is good. The second is, like an author’s note or a prologue, handing the reader some backstory. It’s too heavy-handed imo. I raised an eyebrow at “from different worlds.” Really. And this witch “heaped” potions and language spells on her captives, for some reason. And they tried to communicate with each other, even though they were also learning to be quiet and not draw attention to themselves. Well, I don’t believe it and I’m not impressed by a phrase that includes “heaping” potions. The third paragraph is enough. I don’t care for the writing style here.

Moving on.

3. From Kiss to Queen by Janet Chapman

The sharp, roaring shrill of a powerful engine shattered the slumberous quiet of the deep Maine woods. Birds scattered, chipmunks scurried for cover, and Jane Abbot instinctively ducked when a fast-moving aircraft shot overhead just above the treetops. Deciding someone was doing a bit of illegal scouting for next week’s moose hunt, Jane frowned when she noticed the wing flaps of the floatplane were set for landing. Except that didn’t make sense, since the closest lake big enough to land a plane that size on was at least twenty miles away.

Surely the pilot wasn’t eyeing the pond she’d just passed.

Jane actually screamed when another plane roared overhead, this one smooth-bellied instead of rigged with floats. Her shotgun hanging forgotten at her side, she stood in the center of the old tote road and watched the sleek, twin-engine Cessna sharply bank after the first plane like a metallic hawk trying to drive its pretty to ground.

What in holy heaven was going on?

I’m not going to delete it just yet – I am more forgiving with fluffy contemporary romance than secondary-world fantasy – but I don’t think of “roaring” and “shrill” in the same breath myself. I’ve heard lions roar and howler monkeys roar and engines roar and I wouldn’t say “shrill” fit any of those. Plus, you don’t decide something and then notice something. Do you? Doesn’t deciding take a second? Wouldn’t you notice the contradictory thing before you have a chance to decide anything? Wouldn’t this be more like, “Jane’s first fleeting thought was thus and so, but the plane’s wing-flaps were set for landing. Frowning, Jane …”

However, as I said, I’m more forgiving when the novel is meant to be fluffy, which I imagine this one probably is. But you know, the first paragraphs are super important and I’m not sure these particular first paragraphs are as good as they could be. Still, I’m interested. What in holy heaven IS going on?

4.  Wild Mountain Thyme by Rosamunda Pilcher

Once, before the bypass had been built, the main road ran through the heart of the village, a constant stream of heavy traffic that threatened to rattle the heart out of the gracious Queen Anne houses and the small shops with their bulging windows. Woodbridge had been, not such a long time ago, simply a place you drove through in order to reach some other places.

But since the opening of the bypass, things had changed. For the better, said the residents. For the worse, said the shopkeepers and the garage proprietors and the man who had run the lorry-drivers’ restaurant.

Good writing. But a slow opening. Two more paragraphs, one quite long, before the novel begins as a young man drives into town and looks at it and parks in front of a house and looks at the house. I don’t mean to sound too negative. I don’t necessarily mind a slow opening with plenty of description. But this is certainly a quite slow opening with definitely plenty of description. It’s an interesting contrast to the many, many novels that open by blowing something up or setting something on fire or stabbing someone with a sword or whatever. The implication is that the whole novel will be slower paced, that the overall atmosphere will be quiet and leisurely. The reader who is in the mood for that will be drawn in, perhaps, while anyone wanting a more lively story would probably prefer a plane crash.

All right, let’s see the next one.

5. Evil Genius: Family Genius Mysteries by Patricia Rice

My name is Ana, and I’m a doormat.

I’m also one of the best virtual assistants in the world, if you’ll pardon my modesty. Being a virtual assistant and a wuss often go hand in hand. Most of us are introverts who prefer to work in cyberspace because human nature is messy and unpredictable and computers aren’t. My excuse is that my family is messier than most and so far beyond volatile as to establish whole new spectrums of the definition, so being their doormat involves a great deal of mud and muddle that I couldn’t take anymore.

So four years ago, I left my family halfway around the world, and I never had reason to believe they had interest in finding me until the day my doorbell rang.

So, first person voice is clear already. Nothing wrong with this opening. Good writing. I’m not a particular fan of doormat protagonists, though of course it turns out that viewed from another angle, Ana is just good at quietly organizing things. Her relatives are indeed wacky, with unusual skill-sets. I sort of liked the sample, which I read all of, but I didn’t immediately feel like grabbing the whole novel and going on with the story.

I’ve got a lot more samples and novels here, but I’m out of time, so I’ll add just one more to this post: the third book of the Joanna Bourne Spymaster romance series. This one I definitely expect to like, since I very much enjoyed the first two books in this series.

6. My Lord and Spymaster by Joanna Bourne

Once you get a taste for thievery, you never lose it. Papa used to say that, clouting her on the side of the head a bit to let her know who he was talking about.

She missed picking pockets. Missed the cool, stealthy slide of fingers into a coat. Slithering away with a purse, wise and secret. She missed the best part – jingling the coins out on the cobbles, squatting down with her mates, and counting out the take. She’d learned to keep accounts, working out a fair cut.

Respectable was flat beer compared to that. Maybe that was why she’d talked herself into running this rig. She was so damn tired of being respectable.

Well, that’s a fine opening. After the five above, I particularly appreciate the neat, unobtrusive way backstory is alluded to without anything heavy-handed. Clean, smooth writing too, with no odd word choices or whatever.

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I hope I’m done with veterinarians for the year

I mean, except chatting on the phone now and then. But, wow, yesterday was a little . . . a little more . . . well, just a little more than I was expecting (or hoping).

Pippa — yes, the one who had disc surgery — has had tooth issues for a while, but I didn’t want to put her through anything major if I didn’t have to because, see above, disc surgery. Well, my ordinary vet gave me a pretty firm, “This really isn’t great, here is the number of the dental specialist in St Louis, you could put this off but …”

So yesterday Pippa had dental surgery. She had nine teeth removed and six “retained roots” extracted — I’m not sure what that latter category encompasses, but maybe all those premolars that dogs generally lose young tend to have retained roots? — and an abscess cleaned up. Let me emphasize that Pippa has never shown any particular discomfort regarding her mouth. She’s lost lots of teeth before — she is now down to a grand total of three (3) teeth left in her whole mouth. Let me see, okay, dogs have 42 teeth. Yeah, so three is pretty pathetic.

She’s on pain meds, but she isn’t too uncomfortable. Certainly this is nothing like the TOTAL HELL of the disc problem, and she is just supposed to be restricted for 24 hours rather than 6 weeks, so . . . but still, I hated to do that to her. I am told she should, quote, start acting like a puppy again. Since she always acts like a puppy, I am not quite sure what to expect. I will say, she has gotten grouchier with the younger dogs in the last few months. Maybe she will lighten up and not be so cantankerous when the younger dogs try to get on her half of the couch. I gather being bumped the wrong way might have broken her jaw because of the abscess, and she will be in a lot less danger of that in a few weeks. I can see how that kind of fragility and (I guess, though she never showed it) chronic pain could make anybody grouchy.

As a side note, the boys — Ish and Conner — would not go outside this morning without checking first on Pippa. They are such good boys, and they are both attached to the older girls. They are by far Pippa’s favorites. She has always preferred male dogs. It’s the separate hierarchy thing, I’m sure. She doesn’t care if they strut around declaring they are HOT STUFF, and they don’t take it seriously if she growls at them, so they get along great.

Canned food for two weeks, and then I will ask Pippa whether she would like to eat dry food. She can’t chew it, obviously, but I’m pretty sure she hasn’t been chewing dry food for years. I think she swallows it whole.

No chew toys ever, poor baby. I will find special non-chew treats for her. She has always loved playing tug, too. I have been very gentle with that for some time. I wonder if toothless dogs can still play gentle tug games.

As a side note, I did not expect dental surgery to get within an order of magnitude of the cost of the disc surgery. But wow, it sure did. To be fair, she was in surgery for more than two hours.

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Quarantine Reads

Here’s a post at The Passive Voice blog: Quarantine Reads — Dhalgren.

I started reading Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, a prismatic, nightmarish work of speculative fiction, in New York City a couple weeks ago, when the coronavirus had just begun to spread into the West. Italy had fallen and the threat in the United States was imminent, but the real panic and anxiety still hadn’t sunk in...

This is from an article in The Paris Review, not from The Passive Guy himself. Not that it matters; I was just struck by the idea that anybody would pick a “prismatic, nightmarish work” for quarantine reading.

I’m currently reading The Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan. Sorry, the computer I’m using doesn’t want me to post an image. Whatever, computer. I’ll add a picture later when I get a chance, maybe.

A quiet seaside resort. An abandoned shop. A small flat. This is what awaits Polly Waterford when she arrives at the Cornish coast, fleeing a ruined relationship.

The book, if not this particular computer, is perfect. The puffin is almost too much, but no, I’m actually okay with a pet baby puffin that acts like it was raised by hand and is still being called a puffling (yes, that’s very cute; yes, that’s what baby puffins are called) even though it can fly well enough to get into trouble.

Cute, is what I’m saying, but not so over-the-top cutesy that it turns me off.

The thing I’m liking about this story is the resurrection of the abandoned bakery into a warm, fragrant working bakery. It’s very soothing to read about someone putting things to rights, especially relatively simple things like a bakery, though one presumes Polly will also put her personal life in order by the end of the book.

Anyway, though it is different in every possible way, The Little Beach Street Bakery reminds me of Merrie Haskel’s Castle Behind Thorns. You recall, that’s the one where a boy, a blacksmith’s apprentice, wakes up in an abandoned castle. The first half of the story is him, all by himself, putting the castle back in order. It’s a great story in lots of ways. I may re-read that next.

What are you all reading at the moment? Something prismatic and nightmarish? Or something a bit more soothing?

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Recent Reading: The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Bradley

This is a straight historical MG story, not necessary something that would appeal to those who mostly read secondary-world SFF. I don’t recall where I picked it up, but it has been on my physical TBR shelves for ages, it’s short, and I guess I was in the mood for a MG story that I was pretty sure had a happy ending.

Ten-year-old Ada has never left her one-room apartment. Her mother is too humiliated by Ada’s twisted foot to let her outside. So when her little brother Jamie is shipped out of London to escape the war, Ada doesn’t waste a minute—she sneaks out to join him.

So, The War That Saved My Life is enormously touching. Watching Ada adjust to the remarkably different life in the village is quite something. “This is a needle. See, it has a hole at this end for thread to go through, and this other end is pointy so you can stick it through cloth . . .”

I enjoyed it very much and I’m glad I picked it up. For a MG reader, it’s probably a great choice, at least if that particular younger reader likes history and/or overcoming-bad-childhood stories.

Good things that an adult reader might notice:

Wow, is it obvious that Ada is suffering from PTSD. Not by that name, which is appropriate because of the historical setting.

Ditto for Susan, who is obviously clinically depressed.

Ada, Jamie, and Susan are all well-drawn, with realistic problems stemming from their lives, that are handled well and with subtlety and without bashing the reader over the head with them. I mean, Susan and her deceased friend were pretty clearly in a lesbian relationship, but the author never quite says so and the children certainly don’t realize this, which is fine because Susan would certainly never have discussed anything of the kind with children.

Less-great things that an adult reader might notice:

a. Susan is pretty amazingly good at handling Jamie and Ada, considering her lack of experience with children. But some people probably do just have a knack. I thought this was handled in a believable-enough way, but I can see that some adult readers might raise a skeptical eyebrow.

b. The plot has a couple of unbelievable twists, including a too-pat ending. I didn’t notice this until after I finished the book, though, because I had no problem suspending disbelief while reading the story.

c. The mother is probably too evil.

I’m pretty sure that none of this would bother most young readers, though. All those concerns are things that, it seems to me, might strike an adult reader but not readers of the intended age demographic. Also, I personally found the story highly engaging regardless.

Plus, I read the whole thing in one evening after basically vaporizing my brain by spending the entire day making PowerPoints over evolutionary theory. This story was just about perfect for an evening where I could not have enjoyed anything as complex as, say, Pyramids of London.

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Recent Reading: Pyramids of London by Andrea K Höst

Sunlight picked out motes of dust and burnished mellow wood to match Arianne Seaforth’s hair as she strolled through the Southern Nomarch’s library. Heavy bookcases jutted from the inner wall, stopping short of the many-paned windows, and Rian walked along a corridor formed by the gap, watching a drama of wind.

I have put off reading Pyramids of London for years, partly because I don’t like reading the last new-to-me novel by an author and often delay reading a novel for that reason; and because I knew it was the first book of a series and thought it would be nice to wait for the sequel to hit the shelves. [It hasn’t yet, btw.] Anyway, while I bought Pyramids when it was released, it’s just been sitting in the AKH folder of my Kindle ever since.

But Andrea K Höst always writes novels that I will like even if I am not in the mood to read anything. There are a handful of authors like that for me, and AKH is one of them. This spring is all about comfort reads and re-reads for me, so I just re-read Hunting, which honestly, I think I like better every time I read it. (This was the third.) That made me one to read something else of hers, and Pyramids was sitting there in the folder, and I thought What the heck, who needs sequels? Anyway, I knew Höst would tie this one up pretty well. So I opened it up.

Now, I saw somewhere – her blog perhaps – that AKH considers Pyramids of London her best novel.

I agree!

It’s not my favorite; it’s not going to be the one I re-read the most often (that’ll be the Touchstone trilogy, which I also re-read this spring already). Nevertheless, Pyramids of London is imo Höst’s best novel. It is also a candidate for the list of “Books I Never Would Have Guessed Were by the Same Author.” Just as The Speed of Dark is (a) Elizabeth Moon’s best work, and (b) really, really different from all her other work, so Pyramids of London is for AKH.

Things that make Pyramids stand out:

Wow, it has the MOST BAROQUE alternate history EVER in the entire history of fantasy literature.

If you are into alternate history, read this and tell me I’m wrong.

I can think of exactly one other contender that comes close: Richard Garfinkle’s Celestial Matters. In Garfinkle’s novel, Greek natural philosophy is true for the Greeks and Chinese natural philosophy is true for the Chinese and so on. AKH’s world is something like that, but her characterization is better. For that reason among others, her story is substantially more gripping. And I literally can’t think of any other fantasy world where the worldbuilding is both sort of based on real history and yet tremendously different way down deep, with ramifications that echo all through history and through basic societal assumptions and individual psychology and … I don’t know, the ramifications echo through everything.

Here in Pyramids, we have a world where the Egyptian conceptions of the gods and the afterlife are true. Also Roman mythology and the Roman afterlife; that’s true for Romans, who are still around but not all that influential. Also Scandinavian mythology, which is true for the important Swedish Empire. Also who knows what else.

I gather that in many countries, when the people call on the gods, the gods may Answer, capital “A,” but the characters don’t spend a lot of time discussing or thinking about basic facts of history, so I’m not entirely sure exactly how all this worked, or still works. My impression is that once the gods Answer, that country is bound to that god forever, or as near as makes no difference.

There is nothing remotely like Christianity, but wow are there afterlives, and travelers may be in a pickle if they die in a foreign country. If they’re lucky their soul will move on to some nice-ish afterlife which applies in that country and if they’re not lucky I guess their soul … disappears, maybe? Or there are such things as “punishment Otherworlds” – Otherworlds being the term for afterlives. This is the sort of thing that changes how people behave. Do you really want to travel? Are you sure?

But the world is way more ornate than that. Because vampirism appeared in Egypt a long, long time ago, and is all tied up now with the way the Egyptian afterlife works. Extraordinarily long-lived vampires have ruled Egypt since basically forever.

Oh, and the vampire afterlife involves the possibility of becoming a star. Which is to say, a god. Because gods and stars are definitely linked somehow. In Prytennia – I guess the equivalent of Britannia, part of England anyway – the important god is definitely the sun. Who, by the way, sometimes sends down to the world solar entities that remind me of cherubim from A Wind in the Door – wings, no other familiar anatomy, heat, song, incomprehensible but not badly disposed to people. A whole different order of life.

And then there are the Night Breezes.

Also, the Forest Lord, the horned god of the eternal Great Forest, is an important figure.

Did I mention already that this world is incredibly cluttered and baroque and ornate? I said that, right?

Oh, by the way, France is ruled by creatures that aren’t human, that remind me somewhat of the Fae, but aren’t the same. They only come out at night and only in Paris, which is almost entirely under the shadow of the Court of the Moon, where gravity suddenly lessens dramatically at sunset. Oh, also, if you die in France, your soul has a very good chance of being re-incorporated into a flying creature in the Court of the Moon. There is, in fact, a Sun King – who is very much subordinate to the Court of the Moon. A lot about this is developed in an associated novella and I am actually leaving out a lot of the complexities of the situation in France. I would not want to live there, probably, depending on what the afterlife is like in other places, but probably I wouldn’t pick France.

There’s just so much, is what I’m saying.

Meanwhile, the actual story.

So, we have Rian, whose brother was recently murdered, orphaning three children for whom she is now responsible. Her goal is to find out who killed her brother, not so much to bring the murderer to justice but to clear his name of the carelessness that seemed responsible for his death, in order to help the children cope.

Her first step is to get herself bound to the service of a particular vampire, for reasons. This goes wrong and she gets bound to a much, much older and more scary vampire instead. After which everything gets complicated.

There’s no point trying to describe the plot. It’s a murder mystery set in a really ornate, unique world. The murder was committed for peculiar reasons that don’t have anything to do with ordinary motives for murder. The viewpoint alternates between Rian and one of the children. We meet a large cast of characters. The theme is, oh, let’s say the theme is the importance of being true to yourself, and the difficulty of knowing what that entails. The plot centers around the murder mystery. The characters are well-drawn, as you’d expect from Andrea K Höst.

Take-home message: this is a great book. Not my favorite of hers, no. But it’s a book I want to press on everyone. Pyramids of London belongs on everyone’s must-read list. If you haven’t read it yet, you have to go get a copy right now and read it and then let me know what you think.

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Yesterday —

I sent to the students in my General Biology class

–three short recorded lectures about genetics;

–two extremely detailed powerpoint presentations covering the same material;

–an associated genetics problem set meant to help them think about genetics correctly so they can do a good job on the real problem set;

–numbers to use to fill out three tables for Lab 10 so they can do this lab individually without actually being in a lab.

Today, I will send them:

–one more recorded video, this one over pedigree analysis

–another detailed powerpoint over that topic

–numbers to use to fill out a table for Lab 11

–the actual 50-point genetic problem set that will be due at the end of next week.

Today I will also:

–record two lectures over evolution and natural selection, to accompany

–complete powerpoints that cover those two chapters

I also need to:

–painfully convert the actual genetics test into the online format; it will probably be easiest just to type each question in by hand to the online test generator.

–write the test over evolution and natural selection, which I will later have to convert the same way.

–develop lab projects to take the place of the labs that would have been done in a normal semester.

So if you wonder why posting has been and will be light for a bit, this is why.

On the plus side, if you are interested in dinosaurs, here is a neat website. I’m going to use for a lab project for sure. I’m thinking of a set of questions like this: How many Neotheropods are listed for each period from the late Triassic to the Late Cretaceous? How many Sauropodans? How many Maniraptorans? Briefly describe each group.

Still working on it.

Also, neat little video here.

There’s another video I’m trying to find; black background, with various types of dinosaurs that appear …. linger for a second or 15 seconds … and disappear as they become extinct. It’s another good way to show that “dinosaurs” is a terrible term for the wildly different animals that are shoehorned into the category. However, I can’t find that one. I’d like to, so if anybody knows the one I mean or can use google-fu to find it quickly, if you’d post a link in the comments, that would be great.

Or, actually, any dinosaur-related reference you especially like.

My goal is to get my students to conclude that birds are NOT dinosaurs, but that birds ARE maniraptorans.

As far as I’m concerned, it would be nice to have fewer people say, Oh, no, birds are dinosaurs! Or worse, Oh, but birds are reptiles! I know taxonomic fads come and go, but please. Statements like that render the term “reptiles” as meaningless as the term “dinosaur” already is. Or wait, even more meaningless than that! There is absolutely no justification for saying that mammals are NOT reptiles, if you insist that birds ARE. The proper way of thinking about this, as far as I’m concerned, is to say reptile … reptile … still a reptile … this is still a reptile … here we have arrived at the reptile-derived group of maniraptorans, and over here the reptile-derived group of mammals.

Well, that was a digression. Anyway, if you have a dinosaur video, or a maniraptoran video for that matter, that you think is especially inviting, point me to it, please.

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Comfort reads do not have to lack emotional stakes

A post at tor.com: Comfort, Connection, and Community in Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura

The author of the post, Kali Wallace, writes:

I certainly don’t believe that there’s anything at all wrong with seeking pure escapism in your reading and other media. (Example: When the world gets especially rough, I sometimes pass an evening helping a friend search for Korok seeds in Breath of the Wild, an activity which requires no effort and has absolutely no stakes.) But there is value in considering why certain stories comfort us during times of fear and uncertainty. 

Lonely heroes in search of connection and understanding are all over all literature, especially science fiction and fantasy, and there’s a good reason for that. There are quite a lot of good reasons, in fact, including the reality that it’s just plain fun to stick a loner into a variety of situations that require them to connect with, trust, and maybe even kinda sorta like other people. It works in everything from Artemis Fowl to Mad Max: Fury Road. We want the ragtag group of outcasts to find each other. We want the shy wallflower to make friends. We want the tragic warrior to reveal a bit of themselves to an unlikely ally. We want the samurai space bounty hunter to adopt the tiny baby alien.

My immediate response: Ooh, yes, by all means let’s have the samurai space bounty hunter adopt the tiny baby alien!

However, I really wonder about the idea that a comfort read should have, or often has, “absolutely no stakes.” I mean, seriously?

a) the Raksura are absolutely comfort reads for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve read the original trilogy. I mean, I’ve actually lost count. I’ve read the second duology twice.

b) Kali Wallace is quite right about the basic reasons Moon is such an appealing character in The Cloud Roads.

c) In my opinion, a comfort read should “feel like” it has a guaranteed happilyeveryafter ending, even the first time you read it. Lots of books do! A book may have that feel because it’s a romance, like LMB’s Sharing Knife series or Sharon Shinn’s Elemental Blessings series; or it may intrinsically have that feeling, like Andrea K Host’s Touchstone trilogy or (imo) the Raksura series; or it may have that feeling only because you’ve learned to trust that the author won’t do anything terrible to you.

d) In my opinion, a comfort read should not wind the emotional tension up too high during the course of the book, even if you expect and trust that the ending will be okay. In other words, Sarah Rees Brennan’s Demon’s Lexicon series is not a contender for “comfort read” for me, even though I love it and have read it twice.

It also should not put the characters through a grindingly horrible extended experience at any point in the book. Tough situations, sure. Tough situations where the protagonist is dragged through unrelieved awfulness for 300 pages, no. That is, Moon’s experience when he is hauled off to face his birth court in the third Raksura novel is fine. The reader sees what Moon doesn’t: that there is absolutely no way Jade and Stone will abandon him, period. Plus, intense as it is, this part of the story does not last that long. Plus Moon’s relationship with his mother is fraught for them, but surely the reader is pretty confident that they’ll begin to work out the tension between them before the end of the story. Malachite is such a fantastic character, let me add.

But feeling like the story will have a HEA ending and avoiding extended awfulness through the majority of the middle does not mean “no stakes,” or even “low stakes.”

Personally, I don’t find no-stakes stories work as comfort reads. Add too much fluff and avoid anything but the most trivial emotional stakes and I don’t care about the story. That’s why I don’t like “cutesy” mysteries, although I do like cozy mysteries.

How about you all? Do you find the emotional stakes must be low throughout the story for you to consider it a comfort read?

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