Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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End of finals week tomorrow!

Which will give me three weeks off during which I should finish my current WIP. I think!

I have 226 pages done so far, and I want it to come in at about 300 pages long, but I can tell you right now, I am going to overshoot that length. Too bad! I could in theory, if I had the ending solid in my head, and if the weather was cruddy so I was forced to stay inside, and if I didn’t have any dog shows or anything to interrupt me, write eighty pages in less than a week.

But I don’t think I have the ending THAT solid, and I expect to need more than eighty pages anyway. Plus the weather is finally warm and less wet, AND I have two dog show weekends in there, plus I am making ALL the desserts for the party my mother’s having for the choir on the last Sunday of the month . . . it’ll take every bit of those three weeks, I expect. Still! The end will be in sight the minute I sit down with my laptop and open the WIP file.

I will be having a Best-Of-Chocolate-Chip-Cookies bake-off, by the way, in which I will furnish nine kinds of chocolate chip cookies that have all won contests (not for me! I copied them from here and there, and this will be a No-Really-Which-Is-The-Best taste trial. Also, for those who don’t like chocolate chip cookies (I know at least one attendee will fall into this category) I will make a cheesecake and an apple cake and maybe these neat little marzipan-wrapped petit fours-types of mini cakes, if I have time. And maybe something light? Like a trifle? I made an orange trifle for mom on Mother’s Day and that turned out well. I’ll think about it.

A busy second spring break for me!

Then the summer session will start . . . lots of people optimistic enough to sign up for algebra classes in the eight-week summer session. Fun for all!

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Recent reading —

Got stuck in a traffic jam on Saturday. Thirty minutes stop-and-go, and what did I get to show for it? A lousy reserve ribbon. It’s officially “Reserve Winners”, but unofficially “First Loser”.

And the girl that beat my lovely Kenya? Not a tenth as good as she is. The judge goes on my “To Avoid” list, since we apparently have fundamental disagreements about correct type and movement in Cavaliers.

Phooey.

But! Nice weather, for a change! Hot, even! Since this was a nearby show, I was home every afternoon. Planted out the peppers, at last! And the zinnias — at LAST! They weren’t in great shape: too long in small pots under lights. But I started a bunch of ’em, so if half survive, that’ll be enough.

Also read several books, starting with A Princess of Roumania, by Paul Parks.

This book was a World Fantasy Award nominee. I really wanted to love it, and I honestly thought I would, but honestly, I couldn’t get really attached to any of the characters. Yes, I liked the dog. I loved the whole concept of the dog! I loved a lot of the concepts, in this book, but I didn’t love the book.

Also, for me, there was too much time spent in the point of view of the evil Baroness. I mean, she was well-drawn and everything, but I found myself just skimming her chapters.

Overall take on the book: neat concept, neat world, excellent writing, didn’t like it. Too bad!

So then I read Maximum Ride by James Patterson. Again, I thought I would really love it — again, it fell a little flat for me. For totally different reasons. It’s meant to be a YA and I get that, but there were too many suspension-of-disbelief problems for me — regarding the underlying idea and the plot both. We’re superstrong and can punch like mules kick, only we also have light bones! Explain how we don’t shatter our bones when we hit someone?

And the bad guys — sorry, didn’t believe in them much.

Also, the superpowers were a little much of a muchness! We can fly! AND talk to animals! AND breathe underwater! AND read minds! O-Kay.

Anyway, kind of a relief I wasn’t overwhelmed, since there are zillions of books in the series and now I don’t have to buy them. Though I’m tempted to get the one that focuses on Fang. I did like Fang.

THEN I read Ghost Country by Patrick Lee.

Whoa.

That was a thrill ride. Fast paced? You have no idea. I can’t think of anybody who can make you turn the pages faster. Loved this book. Better than the first, even, and I loved that one! I read the whole thing in one swift evening, stayed up late and everything (I never do this!).

Patrick Lee is the very newest addition to my preorder-anything-he-writes list of authors. I’m dying for a sequel to Ghost Country, but hey — anything he writes, I’m right there.

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In the Ring . . . and ringside reading

Yesterday, Dara beat Kenya. There were exactly two Cavaliers entered in the show, both mine, so I was pretty confident that one of my girls would get Winners and Best of Breed — but I thought it would be Kenya.

Here’s Dara — though, granted, this was a win from a month or so ago. I cropped myself out of the photo because it’s an awful picture of me, though Dara’s shown to advantage, which is what matters. The purple ribbon is for Winners — the Best of Breed is purple and gold. It’s nice that Dara has a BoB ribbon for her scrapbook, but actually she got more points with the win shown below than the win yesterday because she beat nine other girls that day rather than just one.

It’s not that Dara isn’t nice — she has an excellent body and great movement — but I asked the judge why he put her over Kenya. “I’ve been thinking of her head as plain,” I said. “Have I been too critical?” Yes, said the judge. He said her nose might be a little long, but Kenya’s is a little short for him. I’m thinking now that really Kenya has a modern more extreme style of head, whereas Dara doesn’t have a bad head, exactly, but a more old-fashioned style of head. I admit I still prefer Kenya’s, but at this rate, Dara will certainly finish her championship faster.

Changing the subject! To a topic of possibly greater general interest!

I like to read books about writing, even though I don’t actually think this is mostly a very useful thing to do. This seems a little strange even to me, but it’s kind of like reading agent’s blogs and Query Shark even though I already have an agent and don’t need to write queries (thank God). Reading about writing is, for me, sometimes reassuring, sometimes worrying, often entertaining.

Plus, like all nonfiction reading, it’s something to do when I really don’t want to get absorbed in a story. For example, for a few minutes here and there at dog shows.

So recently I have been reorganizing my personal library and re-reading, or at least re-glancing-through, a lot of my books on writing. It turns out I have more than I thought:

Armstrong, David. 2003. How (Not) to Write a Novel.

Bishop, Leonard. 1988. Dare to Be a Great Writer: 329 Keys to Powerful Fiction.

Block, Lawrence. 1979. Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print.

Bova, Ben. 1994. The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells.

Bradbury, Ray. 1990. Zen in the Art of Writing.

Butler, Robert Olen. 2005. From Where You Dream.

Card, Orson Scott. 1988. Characters and Viewpoint.

Ibid. 1990. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Dillard, Annie. 1989. The Writing Life.

Kessel, John, et al (eds.). 1996. Intersections: The Sycamore Hill Anthology.

King, Steven. 2000. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Maass, Donald. 2001. Writing the Breakout Novel.

Ibid. The Career Novelist.

Prose, Francine. 2006. Reading Like a Writer.

Silverberg, Robert. 2001. Science Fiction 101: Where to Start Reading and Writing Science Fiction.

Wilson, Robin (ed.). 1996. Paragons: Twelve Master Science Fiction Writer Ply Their Craft.

Ibid. 1996. Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader.

So, seventeen books on writing.

I wouldn’t necessarily *recommend* most of them, exactly. Armstrong? Too negative a tone. Bishop? Too much like reading a word-a-day calendar. Annie Dillard? Like reading poetry disguised as nonfiction — beautiful, yes. But helpful? Not so much.

And quite a few of these books are aimed at short fiction, and while taking short stories apart can be informative, I fundamentally just am not interested in short stories, don’t much like reading them, and don’t get as much from books oriented towards that form as other people might.

However, okay, yes, there are a few that I actually *do* think could be helpful to anybody who wants to improve as a writer.

First, there’s the free downloadable book by Donald Maass. I mean, why not? It’s free! And it’s by Donald Maass! Actually, I liked both books by Maass and think they could both be helpful — though some of the practical how-to-be-a-writer advice is dated, of course.

Speaking of dated, how about Lawrence Block’s book? 1979! He’s got all these great references to typing and typewriters! But actually, I kind of do recommend this book. Block addresses developing plot, characters, starting, getting through snags and dead ends, etc. Though Block draws on his own experiences, he almost completely avoids the “This is the way I do it, so it’s the right way,” tone.

Francine Prose’s great book will never be dated. It’s about the love of language and the *craft* of writing. She’s got chapters on words, sentences, and paragraphs; on narration, character, and dialogue; on details and gestures. She really takes a close look at the role *attentive* reading plays in learning to write. I loved this book so much I actually started reading classics, which I used to avoid, having been burned in high school by Animal Farm and the Lord of the Flies. (I mean, not exactly cheerful, are they? For years, until I discovered Jane Austin, I thought all classics were depressing.)

And last but not least, I definitely recommend Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint. Really. It’s an excellent, in-depth look at creating believable characters, raising the stakes, character transformations, verb tenses, points of view, and lots more. Very valuable book to read and re-read. A lot of it is valuable, and not just about characterization as such.

I mean, I thought I knew why I don’t like first-person point of view — that is, WHEN first-person narratives are badly done, I HATE them, and they so often seem to be badly done. I’ve said for years that verb tenses are hard to handle right in first-person narratives, and I’m happy to rant about what goes wrong to anybody who will hold still long enough (in a nutshell: clumsy writers fail to switch from past to present tense when they need to).

Well, I stand by that. Definitely! But (among much else) Card lays out the OTHER reasons first-person narratives go wrong: problems with intensity and tone, with an imposed distance between the narrator and the reader (yes, really), with the author’s need to withhold information and then justify withholding it.

Of course, Card also mentions books where first person narratives are handled extremely well, and I’m sure we can all think of lots of others. For example, Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms springs forcefully to mind this year. I won’t be at all surprised if The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sweeps all the awards this year, and it’ll deserve to. But not only is it a fantastic book, it’s also a great book to read over again carefully, especially after reading Card’s book, to see how Jemisin *deals* with the potential problems a first-person narrative raises.

Oh, there are lots of really well done first-person narratives! I totally get that! Let me recommend one more in particular: The Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, which to me shows a huge step up in sophistication from her earlier books. Notice the author’s note at the end of the first book — which by an amazing coincidence is about the difficulty of writing in the first person. Pierce did a fantastic job, possibly because she realized she’d taken on a challenge and was conciously paying attention to what she was doing.

And that’s an effort Card’s book could help with, for any writer who wanted to do the same.

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Me, read short stories?

I am not a short story kind of person. I don’t generally write ’em, and I don’t ordinarily read ’em. I just don’t.

An anthology now and then, yes. Or very occasionally I’ll track down a short story by a friend or one that was recommended. But basically, I read novels.

But I read quite a few short stories in February and March so I could have a couple to nominate for the WF award. My basic criterion was simple: I read only stories that were available online, and only stories written in 2010 so they’d be eligible to be nominated.

And I found two I loved! Along with a story I LOATHED but have to admit was very effectively written, plus lots that I liked pretty well, but not enough to nominate. Here are the two that I nominated:

Peter Watts’ “The Things”

and

Nikki Alfar’s “Bearing Fruit”

The former is an extremely clever riff on “Who Goes There?”, which is a great novella by John W Campbell that even I had read.

The latter is a delightful fairy-tale kind of story told in this really engaging second-person voice.

I loved them both, and now, hey, I actually care about which 2010 short story wins major awards!

But don’t blame me if you read Ponies and then have nightmares. I’m not kidding.

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2011 is a third over and it’s not even warm yet

May Day! With a low of 42 degrees. Everything’s green and lush and the rugosa roses are flowering like mad and can I get out to admire everything? No, I cannot, because it is raining AGAIN.

I’d say this is the coldest spring ever, except we’ve kept records for the past ten or so years and therefore I know that actually 2008 was just like this. Difficult to get the tomatoes and peppers out in a spring where the cold lingers and lingers, impossible to plant shrubs and trees when the whole landscape turns to marshlands.

Well, my tomatoes are bumping their heads against the lights and I can’t raise the lights any farther, so they’ll go out this week, cold or not. They won’t be happy and they’ll get off to a slow start, but tough: they are big plants now and they will just have to cope.

Meanwhile, moving the eggplants up to larger pots because they really *can’t* cope.

Well, at least the rain gave me a good excuse to mostly stay in. All that weeding to do! But it will have to wait, again. Even though I have a dog show next weekend. I will be driving back and forth to this show, which is a lot of trouble, but maybe I can weed the herb garden around the edges. A ridiculous little one-point show: only five female Cavaliers entered, counting mine. What a disappointing entry! Maybe the rain has depressed everyone.

I could just stay home and write off the entry fees as a loss, but hey, the show is close by and actually the young half-sisters (Dara and Kenya) can use points even if they earn them one at a time. Adora can stay home, poor baby — she’d love to go, but one-point shows are totally useless to her and taking fewer dogs makes it easier for me. Also, I’ll go just because I want to put Dara and Kenya head to head and see what the judges do.

Here’s what Frank Kane said about Kenya, btw — he wrote his critiques up super-fast, which I really appreciate:

“Lovely-bodied bitch who moves soundly. Good head type. Shows a little white in one eye but convincing winner of this class, holding a very good topline and tail carriage.”

Go, Kenya! But the last AKC show, Dara beat Kenya, so we’ll see what happens.

It’s so interesting keeping track of the books I’ve bought and read this year! I did this last year for the first time, and now this year now that I’m in the habit of noting down books as they arrive. Since I was stuck inside and didn’t want to do anything actually useful, I took a look at the list so far:

In the first four months of 2011, I’ve bought 47 books and read 48, which seems amazingly balanced, except that only half of the books I’ve read this year are books I also bought this year.

In January, I bought 25 books, including 15 fantasy, 1 SF, 1 history, 1 dog book (Bones Would Rain from the Sky), 2 books on writing, and 5 cookbooks.

I read 17 books in January, including a mere 4 of the ones I bought. The rest I took off my TBR pile — some books have been on that pile for five years or more (not kidding).

The best books I read in January were The Sky is Everywhere by Nelson, which is an awesome contemporary YA and also has an awesome title (titles are really hard for me!), and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms, by Jemisin. I (along with no doubt lots of other people) nominated The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms for the Nebula and the WF award. I was glad to see it made the ballot, and I hope it wins. Another awesome book, in a completely different way. I also loved The Black Prism, by Brent Weeks. Those four were the highlights for January.

In February, I bought 10 books, including six novels by Nina Kiriki Hoffman and one anthology (Firebirds Soaring) that featured a novella by Hoffman. From this you can probably guess that I read my first couple of Hoffman books in February, which would be true.

I read a total of 17 books in February, of which I most admired The King’s Last Song by Ryman but most enjoyed the above-mentioned Hoffman novels, especially A Fistful of Sky. They both had lovely covers, but that’s just coincidence, I swear!

Also in February I read Joe Abercrombe’s The Blade Itself trilogy and also his fourth book, Best Served Cold. These followed Lowachee’s The Gaslight Dogs, which I read in January, so I have now officially OVERDOSED on decent-characters-turn-evil, bad-guys-win plots and will do my utmost to avoid ANY PLOT EVEN REMOTELY LIKE THIS for the rest of the year.

In March I bought a whopping 1 book and read 2 — you may correctly surmise from this that I was working on a project of my own in March. The one book I bought was River Marked, by Patricia Briggs, and it was also the first book of the year that I sat down and read THE VERY DAY IT ARRIVED. My very favorite Urban Fantasy series and author! Can’t wait for Briggs’ next installment of her Alpha-and-Omega series, which unfortunately I will actually have to wait for because it isn’t scheduled to hit the shelves until next January.

In April I bought 10 books and read 13. 2 in April fell into the category of “read them instantly” — Dan Well’s I don’t Want to Kill You, finishing up his outstanding trilogy — I do think there’s room for more in this series, though he says he’s done with it — and CJ Cherryh’s Betrayer, which was the 12th in *that* series. Personally I think there’s at least three more books coming in Cherryh’s series, but I haven’t looked to see if there’s anything official about that.

Now . . . here we are in May! The Spring semester ends in the middle of May and the summer session doesn’t start for three weeks, if I recall correctly, so I expect to work on my current Work In Progress in between. Despite dog shows and gardening! Or at least, around the edges of dog shows and gardening!

But for the next week or so, I still have guilt-free playtime! How far down can I whittle my TBR pile in a week or ten days? And can I resist adding to the pile in the meantime? [Hint: not that far, because no, I can’t.]

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How to Stop Traffic in April

You know what I would do if I had a nice pristine corner of a yard that had nothing in it but grass? Let’s say you might do this if you had a corner that you would look straight into from your kitchen window, but that would also be nicely visible from at least one road. And let’s say, while we’re setting it up, that your yard also has just enough of a slope that you could put in a six-to-twelve-inch terrace about twenty feet or so from the edge of your property.

First, I would pace off the distances and put in the terrace and fill in behind it with a nice, light soil mix that would drain well.

Then I would plant three or so old-fashioned Vanhoutte spirea along one edge of the corner, remembering that Vanhoutte spirea get huge (say, twelve feet wide).

Then, along the other edge of the corner, I would plant one doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum tometosum ‘Shasta’):

Or you could plant three ‘Shastas’ and one spirea instead, whatever you like. The viburnum is a great shrub, but it’s not going to bloom as quick as the spirea, by the way. The spirea is easy from cuttings and will bloom in one or two years; the viburnum is actually also pretty easy from cuttings, but it takes five or six years to bloom so you may want to buy some that are already a decent size.

And if there was lots of room, you might add a rugosa rose such as Rosaraie de l’Hay, which by the way has a very strong clove fragrance.

Then I would come forward about fifteen feet and plant one ordinary white-flowering dogwood. Not a pink, probably, though that would work, I suppose. Having admired my dogwood-spirea combo this weekend . . . no, stick to white. Pink dogwoods aren’t a clear pink, but a pink with some blue in it, but the other pinks I’m suggesting here are also on the blue side, so they shouldn’t clash. But even so, stick with white: that’s my official advice for how to stop traffic. Don’t use a Kousa dogwood, though those are wonderful, because that would bloom too late most years to match everything else.

Then I would plant the whole area under the dogwood with Narcissus ‘Actaea’

which is a very late flowering, small-cupped, fragrant narcissus that naturalizes well. And I’d add about five clumps of any decent late-flowering pink tulip, and I’d also add hostas if the area got afternoon shade or daylilies if it was a full-sun area, because I want something to hide the bulb foliage later.

Then, along the edge of the terrace, I’d put in candytuft (Iberis sempervivens) and / or snow-in-summer (Cerastium), or possibly both:

Iberis has bright green foliage

Cerastium has silvery foliage and spreads widely and self-seeds

And I would also add one of the Dianthus varieties, probably ‘Firewitch’, along the edge too. Also very fragrant, also clove-scented, and the foliage is nice after the flowers are gone:

Keeping in mind that Dianthus SERIOUSLY hates wet feet, so don’t put it in unless you have a terrace! Six inches of height is plenty!

And then, in a year like this year, where cool weather has kept the dogwoods going longer than usual, everything would overlap in bloom and it WOULD KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF. In any spring, lots of these plants would overlap, just not necessarily everything all at once.

I have all these beauties, but alas, not all gathered together in one spot. Still beautiful! But the traffic, what there is of it past my house, only slows down rather than skidding to a halt.

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Blog / The Craft of Writing

Protagonists with disabilities —

Five Flavors of Dumb is a contemporary YA, which as I said below is not a category to which I usually give a second look. In Five Flavors, the protagonist, Piper, makes herself into the manager for a wannabe band (Dumb). Adding an ironic twist to this aspect of the plot, Piper is deaf.

I haven’t read this book yet, but it’s on my To Be Read pile (now down to only 50 books! It’s rare I whittle the pile down that far.).

It’s Ana’s review (linked below) which caught me, and the one line of the Kirkus review Ana quoted: It’s not that Piper is a Great Deaf Character, but that Piper is a great character who is deaf. I’m instantly hooked: What can Piper and her family show me about the world of the deaf? I don’t want to be preached at by a Great Deaf Character, but I’m interested in Piper and her world.

It’s rare for a genre author to hand a protagonist a real handicap, a disability in the sense we usually mean the term today. There’s Piper, and another who springs to mind is Miles Vorkosigan, who isn’t merely short (not quite five feet, I think), but also has brittle bones that break at the least little thing — as I’m sure you know. (You haven’t read Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books? Well, run, don’t walk, to your nearest computer or bookstore and buy them all, this minute.)

Even rarer is a protagonist whose disability is mental rather than physical, and here I can think of a couple, but the one I’m thinking of *particularly* is Lou Arrendale, in Elizabeth Moon’s incomparable The Speed of Dark.

If you’re thinking of Elizabeth Moon as the author of the Paksenarrion books plus quite a lot of space opera, well, yes. Also no.

It’s not that The Speed of Dark defines Moon as a writer — it’s quite a departure. But this one is just a masterpiece. It won the Nebula, which it richly deserved because it is truly one of the great books of the decade.

Lou Arrendale is an autistic person, see, inhabiting a very near-future world, and there’s an incredible feeling of authenticity to his first-person narrative. Moon does such an awesome job capturing his point of view — sort of sideways to the rest of us. Here’s a sample passage:

“The floor in the hall is tile, each tile treaked with two shades of green on beige. The tiles are twelve-inch squares; the hall is five squares wide and forty-five and a half squares long. The person who laid the tiles laid them so that the streaks are crosswise to each other — each tile is laid so that the streaks are facing ninety degrees to the tile next to it. Most of the tiles are laid in one of two ways, but eight of them are laid upside down to the other tiles in the same orientation.

I like to look at this hall and think about having those eight tiles. What pattern could be completed by having those eight tiles laid in reverse? So far I have come up with three possible patterns. I tried to tell Tom about it once, but he was not able to see the pattern in his head the way I can . . .

I look for the places where the line between the tiles can go up the wall and over the ceiling and back around without stopping. There is one place in this hall where the line almost makes it, but not quite. I used to think if the hall were twice as long there would be two places, but that’s not how it works. When I really look at it, I can tell that the hall would have to be five and a third times as long for all the lines to match exactly twice.”

There’s also this delightful bit:

“The next page [of the book] has the title, the authors’ names — Betsy R Cego and Malcolm R Clinton. I wonder if the R stands for the same middle name in both and if that is why they wrote the book together.”

I laughed out loud! What a perfect tidbit to show how differently Lou interprets normal trivial details he encounters.

Now, that kind of thing is like reading an alien’s point of view, and actually it’s also like reading Gillian Bradshaw’s The Sand Reckoner, where Archimedes is the main character and keep drifting off on mathematical tangents (it’s a great book!). Writing really good aliens is certainly a challenge and so is writing geniuses. I certainly did tons of research on materials science when writing my genius-protagonist, Tehre Amnachudran (The Griffin Mage, Book II). And actually, Lou is kind of a genius with some kinds of math, so Moon is doing several hard things at the same time.

But what she does is more than that. Both harder and more meaningful. Moon really brings the reader into the emotional and philosophical world of her autistic protagonist.

For example, though an important secondary character has a grudge against Lou, Lou has enormous trouble first perceiving and then acknowledging that the man is not is friend:

“When I think of the people who know my car by sight and then the people who know where I go on Wednesday nights, the possibilities contract. The evidence sucks in to a point, dragging along a name. It is an impossible name. It is a friend’s name. Friends do not break the windshields of friends. And he has no reason to be angry with me, even if he is angry with Tom and Lucia.”

Every stylistic choice Moon makes as a writer — choices of sentence length and structure, of Lou’s diction and for that matter the diction of all the autistic character, of using first person for Lou’s point of view and third for occasional dips into other character’s points of view — are so perfect for the story. Check out the style here, for example:

“I want to go home now,” Eric says. Dr. Fornum would want me to ask if he is upset. I know he is not upset. If he goes home now he will see his favorite TV program. We say goodbye because we are in public and we all know you are supposed to say goodbye in public.”

And behind all those stylistic details, Moon also addresses all these big questions — about what ‘normal’ is and about the difference between what we conventionally pretend normal people do and feel vs. what normal people *really* do and feel; about what we consider appropriate behavior for ourselves vs. what we think is appropriate behavior from others — the whole idea of the double standard re-interpreted through the lens of autism. The Speed of Dark is really about identity and about the degree to which we choose who we are.

As Kirkus said about Piper in Five Flavors of Dumb, it’s not that Lou Arrendale is a Great Autistic Character. He’s a great character who is autistic.

The Speed of Dark is a beautiful book. Honestly, when I took it off the shelf, I meant to just look up one or two passages, but I re-read the whole thing instead. I loved it the first time and now I love it even more. Plus, having written a good handful of books of my own, I can now really appreciate the skill as well as the passion that went into a novel that should, if the fates are just, be a classic for the ages.

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Somehow when it’s raining —

I like dishes that are really meant for fall, even if it’s April. Plus a few days ago I got down my second-to-the-newest arrival to the cookbook shelves, Urban Italian, by Andrew Carmellini, and lo! What did I find? This great-looking recipe involving orzo and mushrooms, a very warm-sounding dish for which I had virtually everything, including the odd ingredients.

I may love Indian food the best, but Italian is great, too! And Urban Italian is a pretty neat book, with lots of great stories in the front and entertaining comments about each recipe as you go. This recipe was very easy and worked great:

1/2 broken-up dried porcini pieces
4 1/2 C. water
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
4 oz mushrooms, sliced (I used regular button mushrooms, and I used 8 oz)
1 1/2 tsp salt
Coarsely ground pepper
2 Tbsp vermouth (I left it out, that’s the item I didn’t have)
1 1/2 C. orzo
2 Tbsp butter
1/4 C. grated Parmesan
1 tsp white truffle oil (Had some! You can get it at Viviano’s on The Hill, which is this great Italian grocery store I get to too seldom).

Add the porcini to the water and bring to a boil; remove from the heat and set aside. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium saucepan. Saute the onion 3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and saute 1 minute. Add the salt and pepper and saute 5 minutes or so. Add the vermouth, if you happen to have some, and stir 1 minute or so. Add the orzo and stir a minute or so. Add the porcinis with their liquid. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until the orzo is tender — about 12 minutes, but your mileage may vary. You don’t want quite all the liquid to be absorbed. Remove from heat and stir in first the butter and then the Parmesan and then the truffle oil.

There! I’m not too keen on the term “comfort food”, but, well, this is.

Tonight, I’m making a veeerrrry 70s kind of dish where you make choux pastry, drop it in mounds around the edge of a round pie plate, bake it, and then serve it with a creamy sauce of ham and asparagus in the middle. What can I say? I’m in the mood, it’ll probably be very good, and I’ve got lots of asparagus coming out of the garden right now.

Though you have to slosh through the marshes to get it. The rain can stop now!

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Surrender vs. Culling

Here’s an excellent article at npr.com by Linda Holms.

Surrender, she says, is what you do when you realize that you will never, ever be able to read more than a tiny fraction of the books you would love, and you accept this fact.

Culling is what you do when you declare that all romances / westerns / fantasies / vampire novels are trash and therefore you’re not missing anything when you ignore them. Culling is a psychological trick that protects you from having to acknowledge how much you’re inevitably going to miss.

And Holms says she kind of wonders whether these days there might be a strengthening tendency toward culling:

“What I’ve observed in recent years is that many people, in cultural conversations, are far more interested in culling than in surrender. And they want to cull as aggressively as they can. After all, you can eliminate a lot of discernment you’d otherwise have to apply to your choices of books if you say, “All genre fiction is trash.” You have just massively reduced your effective surrender load, because you’ve thrown out so much at once.”

Well, of course, when *I* cull, it works, because all romances really *are* trash.

Kidding! Kidding!

Of course you can’t read everything, or even a significant minority of everything, and naturally it’s helpful to narrow your attention down to those chunks of everything in which you’re more likely to find things you really do love . . . but there’s no question that every single time you declare a genre or subgenre not-of-interest and ignore it, you’re setting yourself up to miss those parts of it you really would love.

I do think that this is the exact problem — the problem of finding things you’d love when they’re in genres you’re not focused on — that online book review sites such as The Book Smugglers address, and that the need for great (and prolific) reviewers will become more and more important as self-publishing rises and the enormous pool of books we’d love becomes ever more diluted by the far more immense ocean of books we’d hate.

It’s true I almost never read contemporary YA — just YA fantasy and SF. And I seldom read romances, YA or otherwise. But I bought The Sky is Everywhere and Five Flavors of Dumb because of Ana’s reviews at The Book Smugglers blog, and I haven’t read Five Flavors yet, but The Sky is Everywhere is utterly fantastic and definitely one of my favorite books of those I’ve read this year.

And I wouldn’t have ever noticed either if I’d declared contemporary YA and YA romances uninteresting — as Holms puts it, if I’d culled those categories. So put me down on the side of just surrendering to the knowledge that it’s impossible to read everything I’d love. But I’ll try! And focused book reviewers whose taste agree with mine are to my mind the single most important aid for the attempt.

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Quite an Easter —

If you like rain. And severe thunderstorms. And more rain. And yet more thunderstorms. Poor Adora has been afraid of thunder ever since the big hailstorm a few years ago, which to be fair really did sound extremely dramatic. Now when we have thunder, she climbs on me and cowers. At night, if the thunder is really bad, she crawls under the covers, which is not normally something I permit any dog to do. Poor baby. Here’s my favorite picture of Adora:

Adora, eight weeks old

Of course, she is a good deal older than that, now. She is from the first litter of puppies I ever bred. Nearly four years old now. How time flies.

More storms tonight, I hear. Well, at least no other dog of mine is afraid of thunder, which is just as well or it would get pretty crowded in the bed on stormy nights.

You know what else rain does? Makes it impossible to plant new shrubs and perennials outdoors. I spent my Easter transplanting three winterberry hollies, a Calycanthus ‘Venus’, and a pearlbush up into large containers. If I can’t plant fairly soon, I’ll have to pot up the Echinacea, Solidago (goldenrod), and various other perennials up as well. A lot of extra work which would be totally unnecessary if it would just quit raining!

Also got two baby pawpaw trees this spring — those’ll be interesting. Luckily I enjoy watching babies grow up, otherwise I’d probably not bother planting something that will take five or six years to bear when I don’t even know if anybody will like the fruit. But they’ll be interesting, and if we all turn out to hate the fruit, I’m sure the raccoons will eat it.

Odd year for the real fruit trees! I sloshed through the orchard this morning and took a look at every tree. Of course, every year is odd in some way, but I’m stunned that the apricots have some fruit on them, even after our low of 27 degrees when they were flowering. Who would have guessed? The peaches made it through the cold, too, but the Japanese plums aren’t going to bear this year. The European plums will, I think, but honestly I like the Japanese plums better.

Plenty of cherries this year for Dad! No one else in my family likes cherries, so just one tree.

This year, it looks like the Fuji, the Pink Lady, the Goldrush, and the Honeycrisp are going to bear well. Not the Hokuto, but you can’t have everything, and after all it bore last year. Even the pear is going to have fruit, even though its partner was replaced last year and the new replacement isn’t big enough to flower. The neighbor’s kieffer pear must have provided enough pollen for limited fruit set, even though the kieffer is 100 yards away at least.

Always exciting watching the trees come along in the spring!

But I would be delighted if we didn’t get ANY rain in May.

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