Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Well, this is a crushing disappointment

So, did you know William Gibson apparently wrote a screenplay for Aliens III?

Without knowing a thing about it, I am sure it was greatly superior to the actual Aliens III movie, which I have done my best to forget in its entirety.

Here’s what this post at a site called vulture.com says:

One of the many problems with Alien 3 was its lack of escalation. The first film in the franchise, Ridley Scott’s Alien, was a claustrophobic monster movie about a small group of underqualified people trying to escape a murderous creature. The sequel, James Cameron’s action masterpiece Aliens, opened up the concept by adding a squad of soldiers, a massive space colony, and — as the title suggested — more than one bad beast. Then 1992’s Alien 3, the directorial debut of a young David Fincher, was … a claustrophobic monster movie about a small group of underqualified people trying to escape a murderous creature.

Yeah, I’d agree that lack of escalation was ONE of Alien III’s problems.

What a pity Gibson’s version didn’t get filmed! Especially given this bit:

“Having been deprived of Ripley, I became aware of how much I’d liked Bishop” — the benevolent android played by Lance Henriksen. But he couldn’t just have Bishop in the spotlight, so he reconciled with the fact that Michael Biehn’s gentle Space Marine Hicks would have to take a more prominent role. All the elements were in place. Gibson sat at his Apple IIc, fired up Microsoft Word (he didn’t have any script-writing software; the biggest challenge of the script was “doing all the tabulation by hand,” hitting keys a million times to center things), and got to work.

I loved Bishop! And I liked Hicks a whole lot too. Can you imagine how much better any movie would have been if it just brought those two characters more front-and-center?

Anyway, read the whole thing if you are interested. And join me in weeping for what might have been.

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What are people *really* reading?

I suspect the NYT Bestseller List is going to get a shove toward irrelevance from this: Introducing Amazon Charts – A Bestseller List for What People are Really Reading and Buying

The above is a link to The Passive Voice Blog.

Here is a link to the actual Amazon Charts page

I will add, I cannot even begin to imagine re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale, which I loathed in college.

Also, very interesting to see how many of the top twenty most-read books this week are . . . Harry Potter books. Wow. Like a quarter of the whole list. I would have assumed those would have faded out of the top twenty most-read category by now, but no. Not one is on the most-sold list, though. I guess that means Amazon is tracking people reading ebooks and listening to audiobooks they bought previously.

I expect this list to have no impact on my personal reading or buying habits, but it’s still interesting to see what ideas Amazon comes up with.

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Okay, fine, I’ve gone and picked up yet another story bundle

Here’s a fifteen-book military SF bundle.

Aargh. So hard to turn bundles down even when you are iffy about some of the authors involved AND have a huge TBR pile already. After all, if you come across just three or four titles you really enjoy, you get your money’s worth.

The bundle includes:

Assault on Alpha Base by Dough Beason
Better to Beg Forgiveness by Michael Z Williamson
Comrades in Arms by Kevin J Anderson
Empire’s Rift by Steven Rzasa
March or Die by Andrew and William Keith
One Day on Mars by Travis Taylor
Sniper by Jonathan Brazee
Strong Arm Tactics by Jody Lynn Nye
The Golden Queen by David Farland
Triorion: Awakening by LJ Hatchmeister
Under a Graveyard Sky by John Ringo
Phule’s Company by Robert Asprin

There are also three or so anthologies in the bundle, but of course I’m not super interested in those. One’s novellas rather than short stories, though, so I may take a look at that one.

Of the whole bunch, I have previously read only the last one, Phule’s Company . . . which I liked quite a bit. If you’re familiar with Robert Asprin, then you know he’s pretty good at writing humorous SF and fantasy. Not a very easy thing to pull off, but he does it.

I really have not much cared for other books I’ve tried by Anderson. The others, well, we’ll see. I doubt I’ll find anything here I like nearly as much as Tanya Huff’s Valor series, but that’s a high bar.

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Just letting you all know —

Posting will continue over the next couple weeks, but is likely to be spotty. I’ve scheduled some posts in advance, but I’ll be away from a good internet connection for a good deal of the time from now until June 5th.

If you happen to have a comment caught in moderation, which sometimes happens even with an email address that should go right through, it may take a couple days for me to free it up.

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The Red Pen, Or Whose Book is It?

Here’s an interesting article at Slate by Colin Dickey: Red Pens and Invisible Ink

In 2008 I published a short piece in Cabinet magazine on the fate of writer Thomas Browne’s skull, stolen from his coffin 158 years after his death. It caught the attention of an editor at a small press called Unbridled Books, Fred Ramey, who contacted me and asked if I would develop it into what became my first book. He particularly praised the final line of the Cabinet piece, saying that line showed him I was a strong writer. I didn’t have the courage to tell him that the line in question had not been written by me but added by my editor at Cabinet, Sina Najafi.

As you see, this article is all about the hidden work of the editor; it poses the question of whose work is that book, anyway? There’s a long discussion about a particular novel called Insect Dreams, later republished by the author in its pre-edited form as Kafka’s Roach, which includes this bit:

What’s clear is that Estrin, despite his gratitude for a publishing break, never seems to have considered Insect Dreams entirely his. He refers to it as “my book in Fred’s edit,” or “Fred’s Gregor,” the novel that’s been “fredited,” all the while keeping hold of the manuscript he calls “the original Gregor.” Ramey in turn sees Estrin’s decision to publish his original manuscript as, at least in part, a repudiation both of Ramey’s editorial work and the larger question of editing altogether. “At the end of the day,” he worries, “Kafka’s Roach will become and always be the real novel; Insect Dreams will be the artificial, tainted construct.”

Well, of course Ramey sees it as a repudiation of his editorial work. It IS a repudiation of his editorial work.

You know what this reminds me of? The Stand by Stephen King. I read the original (edited, cut by 150,000 words) version long ago, and then when King re-published the uncut version, I read that. I greatly preferred the edited version. I thought basically every one of the 500 or so pages that had been cut should have been cut; I thought the plotlines added back into the book ultimately detracted from the story. Anybody else read both? What did you think?

I had the same basic experience when I finally read the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo. I didn’t notice for the longest time that the edition I fell in love with as a child was abridged; as soon as I realized I rushed out and read the unabridged version. … And it wasn’t as good. I liked some of the original material, but it just wasn’t in general an asset to the overall story.

So, I don’t know. I don’t particularly plan to read either Insect Dreams or Kafka’s Roach, but it wouldn’t surprise me unduly to find that the former is a tighter, smoother, generally superior story.

I will add that the most-edited book of mine is The Mountain of Kept Memory, which as you may recall lost a major protagonist, had Gulien shift from a secondary to a primary character to take over that part of the plot, and had the plot substantially adjusted. And yes, the overall story wound up tighter as a result. Not shorter (it got significantly longer, actually). But tighter. And none of that work is visible to the reader.

Must be odd, being an editor and having your work just vanish from view like that.

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Zebra Cake

Here’s the last of a cake I made for a coworker’s birthday; also for Mother’s Day.

I actually made five layers and wow, was that an undertaking! Fourteen eggs, eight cups of flour . . . actually the recipe is quite simple for such a fancy effect, as long as you just make one cake at a time. If you’re going to double the recipe as I did, I recommend making the first cake layers and then while they’re in the over making the second batch of cake layers, unless your mixing bowls are muuuuch bigger than mine.

I got this recipe from Martha Stewart Living, a magazine which my mother gets. She passes me the issues and I look over the recipes. This one was a keeper. I made it almost-but-not-quite according to the recipe.

Zebra Cake

1 stick unsalted butter, melted
4 C flour
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp kosher salt (the recipe called for two tsp, but I think that was too much)
3 large eggs, separated, room temp
4 egg whites, room temp
2 1/2 C sugar
2 C whole milk, room temp, divided
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla (the original recipe calls for a Tbsp, which I think is way overboard, but you can certainly try it that way if you like)
1/2 C cocoa powder

Frosting
2/3 C cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp instant espresso powder (I left this out)
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 C hot water
1 tsp vanilla
2 1/2 sticks butter (I substituted cream cheese for half the butter), softened
1 1/2 C powdered sugar
8 oz semisweet chocolate chip, melted (the recipe called for 10 oz)
3 Tbsp corn syrup

Line two 9-inch cake pans with circles of parchment. Spray with cooking spray and set aside.

Melt the butter.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Whisk together the egg whites and sugar until light, opaque, and foamy, about two minutes. I used a stand mixer and it didn’t take two minutes to get to this point. Whisk in 1 1/2 C milk, butter, oil, and vanilla. Add flour mixture and whisk until smooth.

Combine egg yolks, 1/3 C milk, and cocoa. It says to whisk until smooth, but this forms a very thick dough, so I suggest a spoon.

Add 3 1/2 C vanilla batter to the cocoa mixture and whisk until smooth. Here you really can use a whisk.

Whisk the remaining milk into the remaining vanilla batter.

Now, pour 1/4 C of vanilla batter into the center of each cake pan. Then pour 1/4 C of the chocolate batter right in the center. Then pour another 1/4 C vanilla batter right in the center . . . you can see how this is going, right? Just keep pouring alternate batters into the center of the pan. This will form concentric circles of batter right out to the edge. It really will. I suggest using a very generous 1/4 C of batter each time, though, or maybe a scant-ish 1/2 C, because what tends to happen is very narrow stripes indeed around the outside and then much bigger circles toward the middle.

I bet what would actually work best is using a 1/2 C measure for the first four or five times you pour batter in the center of each pan, then switching to a 1/4 C measure. If you try that, I bet you will get more even stripes right through the cake.

It will be beautiful no matter what you do, though.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35-40 minutes, rotating pans halfway through if necessary for even baking. Let cool in pans 10 minutes, turn out onto racks, and peel off parchment. Cool completely.

Frosting:

This is a very nice frosting, not too sweet. I liked it a lot and I generally throw the icing away when I get a piece of cake at a party or whatever, because it is usually much too sweet for me.

Whisk together the cocoa, espresso powder if you use that, salt, hot water, and vanilla. Beat butter and cream cheese with powdered sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in melted chocolate. Beat in cocoa mixture and corn syrup.

Frost cake with swirls and swoops of frosting. Chill to store, but bring to room temp before serving.

I found this cake a little heavier than some, which probably comes from using melted butter rather than beating the butter with the sugar for five minutes or so like you normally would in a butter cake. But it was good. I definitely suggest you try it if you want to impress people, because I doubt anybody will have seen a vertically striped cake before!

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Writer’s Block

Here’s a post by Maurice Broaddus, author of this book, Buffalo Soldier, on his experience with writer’s block. I noticed this post particularly because the cover is quite eyecatching.

Lots of cool stuff going on in that cover!

Anyway:

Like many writers, I’ve had to wrestle with the idea of writer’s block. Honestly, every time I sit down in front of a blank page, I have a flutter of anxiety, as if I may have forgotten how to string words together to form a sentence. At this point, I usually recall a comment my wife made early in my career:”we can’t pay bills with your writer’s angst.” Bills don’t wait on inspiration or the comings and goings of “my Muse.” To me, most times “writer’s block” is a romantic way to describe a story not being done yet, that the creative mind still had work to do on a project. Still, I’d say that I’ve had three occasions when I’ve experienced something close to true “writer’s block…”

Basically a pretty good take on what I suppose might be called “normal writer’s block.” I had problems with the still-cooking-in-the-oven-don’t-rush-it kind of thing for Shadow Twin, which was one reason (not the only one) why it took an extra four months to finish the draft. I swear I only worked out the last couple chapters in reasonable detail in April, with the manuscript already well over 100,000 words. Sigh.

Broaddus also discusses the very real situation where a writer slams into a brick wall because of Stuff In Their Life. Yeah. It’s all very well to say you should write every day, but sometimes you can’t if you believe you should.

Then there’s this:

Ultimately I realized it wasn’t my fear of getting it wrong paralyzing me (that should give me pause). It was the fear of a lot of people (read: teh interwebz) falling on my head. I wanted to tell this story, but I had all of these voices in my head shouting me down, stopping the process. It was essentially the same as fearing critics (which shouldn’t give me pause). But with all of this outside anxiety in the form of looming social media fallout, I froze.

Yes. All too imaginable these days.

Anyway, I gather Buffalo Soldier is about “An autistic child whose guardian takes him into Native American territory.” It sounds intriguing, and the cover is great, so yep, there goes another sample onto my Kindle.

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Good News Tuesday

Okay, first, here’s that snazzy new dinosaur fossil:

‘Rare as winning the lottery’: New dinosaur fossil so well-preserved it looks like a statue

This is “the snout-to-hips portion of a nodosaur, a “member of the heavily-armored ankylosaur subgroup,” that roamed during the Cretaceous Period, according to Smithsonian. This group of heavy herbivores, which walked on four legs, likely resembled a cross between a lizard and a lion — but covered in scales.”

Wonderful!

Here’s one that’s welcome news for everyone, but especially for those hoping to have children in the near future:

Zika crisis is over as Brazil declares end to national emergency the virus caused

Brazil had declared a national emergency in November 2015. The threat led to a campaign to eradicate the mosquitoes which carry the virus….New figures showed there were 7,911 cases of Zika from January to April this year, compared to 170,535 cases reported in the same time last year, according to the health ministry.

Whew! That’s great.

So is this:

New UNICEF Report: Child Deaths Cut in Half Since 1990

Further good news: the under-five mortality rate is falling faster than at any other time during the past two decades with a tripling in the annual rate of decline. Thanks to this accelerated progress, almost 100 million children’s lives have been saved over the past two decades, including those of 24 million newborns. These are babies who would have died had mortality remained at 1990 rates.

The leading infectious diseases—pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria—are still the main killers of children, despite significant declines. Together, they contribute to about one-third of all under-five deaths.

With all the violence in the world, it’s easy to lose track of the diseases that are actually the biggest killers. My vote for most important thing governments don’t prioritize: clean drinking water. It would be great to see all three of these issues drop out of the top causes of child mortality in the next twenty years.

One more in the same basic category:

Cancer Facts and Figures: US Death Rate Down 25% Since 1991

The death rate from cancer in the US has declined steadily over the past 2 decades, according to annual statistics reporting from the American Cancer Society. The cancer death rate for men and women combined fell 25% from its peak in 1991 to 2014, the most recent year for which data are available. This decline translates to more than 2.1 million deaths averted during this time period.

Yay! Faster with that! I have always hoped cancer would fade into the past *before* I personally got cancer of any kind. But progress has been spottier and slower than I expected when I was a teenager. Let’s move this along, please, and get there for the Millennials if not for my generation.

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The best animal sidekicks in SFF

Here’s a timely post from Black Gate, considering that I was just trying to decide whether I sort of like the bat sidekick in Railsea (not really) or can see an easy way for the author to keep the plot but lose the bat (not really). And also considering the wolf-really-a-furry-person in Queen of Blood, which I only just read a week or so ago. Let’s see what Constance Cooper has to say on this theme:

Wolves, Bears, Cats & Dragons: The Best Animal Sidekicks in Fantasy

Category 1: Really, an animal: Ah hah, Cooper lists Wolf and Iron by Gordon Dickson. Now THERE is a wolf, by gum. That wolf is definitely a wolf and not a dog, far less a furry person. Two thumbs up on that choice, although I must add that Dickson’s work mostly has not worn all that well for me and I gave most of his books away a decade or two ago rather than keeping them in my personal library. Still: that is a great wolf.

Category 2: Not quite an animal: Oh, here’s another older series I liked a lot: the giant telepathic cats in the Raithskar series by Garrett and Heydron. That was before I got tired of telepathic cats. Also, this is a pretty cool example of the trope: the cats have more of their own personalities and agendas than some in that genre. This is a series I still own, though I haven’t read it in a while.

Come to think of it, the dragons in Novik’s Temeraire series go even farther in the real-people-with-their-own-agendas direction. They may not count as animals at all, though.

Category 3: More than human: Cooper mentions Pullman’s Dark Materials world, where “every human has a daemon — an animal companion that is an outward manifestation of their soul.” That’s interesting. I haven’t actually read this series, though.

My all-time favorite fictional animal is not a sidekick, as it happens, but the protagonist. Also, not really an animal, just stuck temporarily in animal form. I bet that’s enough to let most of you guess:

Sirius, the dog star, in Dogsbody by DWJ. It’s not just the dog; that whole story is just so well put together, despite the wildly disparate elements that go into it.

Also, another where the animals are protagonists and not sidekicks — Watership Down. What a wonderful story that is.

Actual favorite animal sidekick . . . hmmm. Maybe the horses in Robin McKinley’s books, The Blue Sword and particularly The Hero and the Crown.

Here, by the way, is a fun quiz: Which animal would be YOUR fantasy companion?. The quiz has a stupid advertisement that doesn’t appear to be avoidable, but it redeemed itself by assuring me that MY fantasy companion is a giant elephant. I’ll go with that!

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Recent Reading: Railsea by China Miéville

Okay, now I’ve read four books by Miéville: The City and the City, Embassytown, Un Lun Dun (which I did not finish) and now Railsea.. I have two more of his most recent titles on my current physical TBR shelves, too. For me Miéville is not the sort of author where I read through his whole backlist in a month. His books work better for me spaced waaaay out. But after Railsea, I believe I’m more likely to actually open one of the others before too very long.

Okay, let me see. The City and the City is a police procedural, sort of, with (as I’m sure you all know) a weird setting. Just how weird is kind of open to interpretation. I liked it a lot, partly because I like police procedurals and partly because I liked the strange setting and mostly because I found the protagonist compelling. Embassytown was interesting in concept and intellectually engaging, without being (for me) especially emotionally engaging. Also, I don’t think I ever quiiiite believed in the essential premise of Embassytown. For whatever reason, Un Lun Dun did not work for me and I wound up reading about half of it, skimming the ending, and giving it away.

How does Railsea fit in to this set?

Right at the top, it turns out.

Railsea is essentially a YA novel. I don’t know if it was marketed that way. It was published in 2012, recently enough that perhaps it falls into the (continuing) era where, without an angst-infused central romance, a book may be called Adult and marketed as Adult no matter how thoroughly it otherwise fits the YA category. However it was presented, Railsea is definitely YA.

At first I wasn’t at all sure I was going to like this book. I didn’t like the protagonist, Sham ap Soorap, who may be, at the beginning, the least introspective and least aware of his own feelings and even his own thoughts of any protagonist ever. With the possible exception of Breq in the Anxillary Justice trilogy, except unlike Breq, Sham is also globally maladroit. Also, the world is not merely peculiar, it is biologically implausible. I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy the book enough to bother willingly suspending disbelief about the subterranean ecosystem.

Then, about fifty pages in, Sham finds the camera card and everything takes off. He quickly grows into a more likeable protagonist, the situation gets more compelling, the supporting characters get more interesting (especially the captain), and all of that continues to snowball right up to the end. When I was fifty pages in, I wasn’t sure I’d finish the book. When I was a hundred pages in, I thought probably I’d finish it and then give the book away. But by the end, I’d changed my mind. This one gets shelf space, because I definitely see myself coming back to it and re-reading it one of these days.

You probably know that Railsea is supposed to be an homage to or a retelling of Moby Dick. How true is that? Well, without going back to re-read Melville’s classic, I’d say it’s pretty close. But first, Sham is off on his own a lot of the book, so the focus is pulled off the giant pale-colored mole and Captain Naphi’s obsession with it. Second, China Miéville re-interprets and uses the captain’s obsession in some really unexpected ways. Captain Naphi may be my favorite character. She is certainly likely to surprise the reader more than anyone else. The plotting was interesting, and tighter than I at first thought it was going to be, integrating the obsessive hunt for the giant mole with an entirely different plot that ultimately took the story in a completely different direction.

Stuff that didn’t work quite as well for me:

The moderately horrifying prologue probably made me delay reading this one for an extra couple of years. I’m not totally sure that prologue is doing the book any favors.

Periodically, including in the prologue, Miéville takes a moment to address the reader directly. Mostly I found the coy tone of these intermission-style chapters a bit unappealing, and I’m not sure addressing the reader felt natural or necessary. If you’ve read this book, what did you think?

The Loyal Animal Companion so typical in YA appears here in the form of a little bat. That trope is a tough sell for me and I have to admit I didn’t find it just super-plausible here, though I grant, taking out the bat would have produced some awkwardness with various plot points.

Aside from Captain Naphi, and to a (limited) extent the Shroake siblings, none of the supporting characters seemed very well developed. In particular, I’m not quite sure I bought everybody’s fondness for Sham. This may have been because I was anything but fond of him myself for the first quarter of the book.

And no, actually, I never, ever got comfortable with replacing all the “ands” with &s. Four hundred pages did not suffice to make that look okay to my eye.

However, all that aside, the wacky peculiarity of the worldbuilding, the way Sham developed as a character, the cleverness of the plot, and the delightful, satisfying resolution were more than enough to make this book a keeper, and to bump every other book of Miéville’s up a bit higher on the TBR pile.

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