Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: A Long Desire by Evan S Connell

In A Long Desire, Connell describes some of the great explorers of history. Also some of the craziest and some of the most vicious. Connell’s essays are suffused with this wonderful tone of understated irony as he details these absolutely hellish journeys into, for example, the depths of the Neotropics. Particularly striking are his explanations about the way these explorers often sought wonderful places or great treasures on the flimsiest and most remarkably ill-founded rumors.

For example, Connell describes the search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, founded by seven Portuguese bishops – the tale of how that legend morphed and grew and changed over time is a testament to the power of wishful thinking. The seven cities were at first supposed to be on an island. One presumes it would have had to be quite a large island if it had room for seven cities, especially wealthy cities as the legend claimed. But later, when no such island could be found, says Connell, the legend made a different claim: By the early sixteenth century they [the cities] were thought to be on the American mainland. Why? Nothing could be more obvious. These cities existed – obviously they existed, otherwise men would not be searching for them; consequently, if they did not exist in the Atlantic, they must be someplace else, and beyond the Atlantic lay America . . . but they could not be found on the littoral, which meant they must be inland. This brings us to one of history’s classic bunglers – a most unpleasant personage even among odious companions, the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez.

The tale (after a good many complications) continues, Narváez landed on the west side of Tampa Bay in April of 1526, authorized by Charles V to “conquer and govern the provinces which should be encountered from the River of Palms to the cape of Florida.” He had 42 horses and about 600 men, but not for long. First he divided his forces, ordering his ships to proceed up the coast. Then he led his cavalry and infantry into the swamps. Accidents, alligators, snakes, dysentery, malaria, hunger, and misanthropic Indians began to pick them off. …

Nearly all of them died miserably, of starvation and disease. Four lived long enough to be made slaves by one or another native tribe, eventually escaped, and, eight years after the expedition set forth, finally made it to Mexico City.

Eight years. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, it really is. Yet this book is filled with stories like that. It’s particularly remarkable how many men barely survived one expedition only to turn around and plunge back into the jungle on another mad search for conquest and treasure.

On the other hand, every now and then the tales of tremendous treasures were actually true, which I suppose does go some way toward explaining this enthusiasm to engage in horribly dangerous and amazingly uncomfortable journeys of exploration. The success of treasure hunters was, of course, often more to be mourned than their failures. I knew the Spaniards melted down a lot of Incan gold, but I had no idea what an atrocity they performed in strictly artistic terms until I read Connell’s essay “GoldGoldGold.” Listen to this:

Replicas of Indian corn, each gold ear sheathed in silver, with tassels of silver thread. Innumerable gold goblets. Sculpted gold spiders, gold beetles, gold lobsters, gold lizards. A gold fountain that emitted a sparkling jet of gold while gold animals and gold birds played around it. Twelve splendid representations of women, all in fine gold, as lovely and complete as though they were alive. And the sandals, or slippers, that women like – these were reproduced in gold….The list goes on and on … until one can hardly relate all of what was there. Nevertheless, after the death of Atahualpa, some Inca nobles poured a bucket of corn out in front of the Spaniards, and one of them picked up a grain and said, “This is the gold he gave you.” And then, pointing at the heap on the ground, “This much he has kept.”

And a page or so later, again:

Sarmiento writes that in the Corichancha [the Golden Enclosure, a temple complex] every utensil, every ornament – everything – was either silver or gold: religious censers, ewers that held sacrificial water, the pipes that conducted water through subterranean channels, even the agricultural implements used in the gardens.

And at the heart of this spectacle, surrounded by the various shrines, stood a perfect replica of a field of maize, each stalk carefully contrived of gold and planted among golden clods. Here, too, on good authority, stood at least twenty-three life-size llamas with their young, all made of gold, with life-size Indian shepherds to guard them, each shepherd fashioned from gold, each with a golden sling and a golden crook.

Okay, if you put all that in a fantasy novel, it would just not be believable. Not unless you put it in a magical Fairy kingdom. You couldn’t put in stuff like this and get readers to believe it had all been made by ordinary people. A field of maize, all made of gold! Golden spiders and beetles and life-sized llamas with their shepherds! Golden clods of dirt! No one would believe it.

That it all really existed and really was wantonly destroyed and then was actually – much of it – lost at sea … well, that last part serves the Spaniards right, I guess, but it’s a painful thought nevertheless.

A Long Desire is best read in small doses so that you have time to absorb the occasional heroism and remarkable doggedness, the frequent depravity and the scope of disasters, the pathos and tragedy, and most of all the sheer, remarkable distance between the past and the present. The attitudes and actions of almost everyone featured in Connell’s essays are literally almost unimaginable today. If I were teaching history, I’d probably find a part of this book to use – perhaps the part about the Children’s Crusade. The past is truly a foreign country. Essays like this make that plain.

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Are there any subjects you avoid?

Over at Kill Zone Blog, a very simple, short post. Here it is in its entirety:

Are there any subjects you avoid completely in your writing? For example, is there anything you avoid writing about because it might be too disturbing to readers?

Then the comments, which are of course the point of the post. Click through and read them if you feel so inclined. Naturally someone declears that “nothing should be off-limits” which is of course true but does not address the question. Just because topics aren’t off the table for the entire literary world doesn’t mean I’m going to write (or read) books that include certain topics and tropes.

So, my personal response:

There is nothing I avoid because it might be too disturbing to readers. There are plenty of things I avoid because they are too disturbing to me, or because they’re simply distasteful and not necessary to include. I could probably write a top ten list for those things. In fact, I’ll take a stab at doing so:

1. I am very, very unlikely to kill a dog, or any sort of pet. Dogs that are ghosts at the beginning of the book don’t count, and in fact if you decide to make the animal into a ghost during the course of the story and then keep it around as a character, that’s fine.

2. I am even more unlikely to kill an important child secondary character, not once the reader has been offered a chance to get emotionally attached.

Destroying a whole city is different from killing a specific animal or child character. I wouldn’t show the people of that city to the reader in detail and encourage emotional attachment before destroying it.

3. I don’t expect ever to kill a point-of-view protagonist.

4. I doubt I would ever write an evil point-of-view protagonist. I almost always hate any chapters in books that are from the villains’ points of view. I almost never think that is necessary and I am not interested in reading the pov of a villain. Yes, I’m thinking of Game of Thrones here, but there are lots of other examples and I hate them all, or all I can think of right this moment.

5. I detest almost all betrayal plotlines, unless they are part of a larger redemption arc and sometimes even if they are. I am very unlikely to insert that kind of plotline into one of my books.

6. I really dislike petty, selfish, unlikable, mean-spirited characters and generally don’t write them. I often skim over their scenes in other authors’ books.

7. Detailed descriptions of torture are not something I would generally consider writing, although I can tolerate them in books I read (usually). I cannot tolerate them in visual media, it turns out. For me, violence is fine but torture is out when it comes to tv and movies.

8. The sort of plot where the protagonist makes one terrible decision after another and slowly self-destructs is SO AWFUL. I would never write this and I can’t read it. SO. AWFUL.

9. In general, I see no need to discuss, describe, or even mention certain natural functions of the human body. Too much detail of that type turns me right off in other authors’ books too.

10. This is not a subject or topic; it’s an element of storytelling: If the bad guy actually wins at the end of the book, I am done with the author. I would never write that kind of ending in a million years. Never. I mean, I hate to spoil the suspense if you wondered whether the bad guy would win in one of my books, but: No.

Now I am thinking of In the Woods by Tana French here. A wonderfully written novel with (a) an important betrayal plotline; (b) an important character-destroys-his-own-life plotline; and (c) the bad guy wins at the end.

After that I am never touching another book by Tana French, ever, no matter who recommends it.

How about you? What element would you never, ever touch in a novel of your own? Does it also mean an automatic Never-Buy rejection of an author if you see that element in a book you read?

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Typos Breed in Your Manuscript

Just got the second-to-last typo corrections back for the Black Dog novellas that are coming up later this summer. Thanks, Linda!

After getting Linda’s corrections back for Shadow Twin, I was not (very) surprised at the number of typos she found for the short stories. She found 124 typos, or typo-level things to query. After Shadow Twin, I expect there are even some she missed – there is one more person who I hope will have time to look over the manuscript before publication.

But, one hundred twenty-four! It’s amazing. Some of these are stories that have been written for some time and that I have gone over repeatedly. To be fair, I found and corrected … let me see … 20% of these typos myself, during content revisions before Linda send me her list. Also, roughly another 20% of her queries concerned artistic judgment rather than typos: “Should there be a comma after this word?” Sometimes yes, sometimes no. These are not errors as such; they’re questions about technical correctness versus the rhythm of the sentence. Sometimes, given this sort of query, I decide one way and sometimes the other. It depends on the specific situation.

That leaves roughly 75 typos, some pretty egregious.

Probably the most common issue: missing words. Shouldn’t there be a “to” in this sentence? Did you mean “a disaster” or just “disaster?” Did you mean “put away” or just “put?” Amazing how easy it is to just read straight across a word that ought to be there but isn’t.

One type of query where the answer is always No: “Did you mean to use this particular word three times in this paragraph?” “Was the repetition of “order” in this paragraph intentional?” At least 98% of the time, the answer is No, I didn’t; and No, it wasn’t. Repeated words are a plague, and remarkably hard to spot, at least for me.

Here is the typo I think is funniest: Pinchers when I meant pincers. What can I say? I spell the dog breeds’ names far more often than I use the word “pincers.” I may never have typed the word “pincers” before in my entire life, whereas I like Doberman pinchers a lot and have no doubt discussed the entire pincher/schnauzer group of breeds from time to time.

The most embarrassing typos are the ones that make me look illiterate. “Too” for “to” or “There was few other sounds” for “There were few other sounds.” Typing the wrong to/too/two is rare for me, and failing to catch it is seriously rare, but it can happen if I’m tired. So can errors like meaning “people” and typing “pebble” (I did that once and didn’t catch it till later).

I think – I hope – that it is impossible for me to make verb tense errors in just straight-up writing. I am pretty sure mistakes like that happen only when I change the sentence, but not quite all the way. But how stupid mistakes like that look. So glad Linda caught the few errors of that type.

Content errors: any time a beta reader or copy editor queries a sentence with “This doesn’t sound right to me,” I will probably revise (or delete) the sentence. Nearly all the time, such a query means the sentence really is confusing or awkward in some way I missed.

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How Hard Could It Be to Repopulate the Planet?

At Wired, this post: How Hard Could It Be to Repopulate the Planet?

IN THE 1950S many science fiction writers explored the idea of a global disaster that leaves behind only a single man and woman, who would then have to carry on the human race. According to science fiction editor Gordon Van Gelder, a popular variant of this idea featured a twist ending in which the last man and woman turn out to be Adam and Eve.

“It was one of those stories that science fiction would lend itself to so readily, and newbies would be drawn to it, like ants going to a sugar cube,” Van Gelder says in Episode 308 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

The idea became so overused that magazines would specifically prohibit writers from submitting “Adam and Eve stories.” And while such stories would remain the bane of science fiction editors for decades, the theme of repopulation also produced a number of interesting thought experiments, many of which Van Gelder collected in his recent book Go Forth and Multiply.

Interesting! Also, a fun idea for a book.

Go Forth and Multiply came out last summer. It appears to be available only as a physical book, which seems like a peculiar decision. Perhaps there was some issue with copyrights or something?

Here’s what Amazon’s description says:

There was a time when science fiction magazines abounded with tales of repopulating a planet. Brave (well, sometimes they were brave) men and women teamed up in great acts of self-sacrifice to save humanity. These stories fell out of fashion over time, but now this volume collects a dozen of the finest – and a fine batch they are! ‘Mother to the World,’ Richard Wilson’s award-winning novella about the last man and woman on Earth. ‘No Land of Nod’ by Sherwood Springer, perhaps the paradigm of the repopulation story. ‘Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang’ by Kate Wilhelm, a classic of repopulation through cloning. ‘The Queen Bee’ by Randall Garrett, one of the most controversial stories ever published in the SF genre. Other contributors to the book include Poul Anderson, Marion Zimmer Bradley and John Jay Wells, John Brunner, Rex Jatko, Alice Eleanor Jones, Damon Knight, Robert Sheckley, and E. C. Tubb. Some of these stories are classics, others have never before been reprinted. Combined, they make for a great reading experience and a fascinating look at a compelling subgenre

I actually have Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang on my TBR shelves. The others, I don’t know. I’m curious about “The Queen Bee” now, though.

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That’s certainly doing it the hard way

I recently happened across this fascinating article: The Long Way Round: The Plane that Accidentally Circumnavigated the World

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the crew of Pan Am flight 18602 were forced to do something almost impossible: return to America the long way round….

The sudden burst of sound from the radio caught the controller by surprise and he scrambled to try and stop his cup of coffee from falling to the floor.

LAGUARDIA TOWER LAGUARDIA TOWER. THIS IS PAN AMERICAN CLIPPER NC18602 INBOUND FROM AUCKLAND NEW ZEALAND. DUE TO ARRIVE PAN AMERICAN MARINE TERMINAL LAGUARDIA IN SEVEN MINUTES. OVER.

The confused controller gave up trying and let the cup drop, shattering on the floor.

This made no sense, he thought. It was still before six and there were no seaplane flights due. Then, a new wave of confusion hit him: New Zealand was — almost literally — on the other side of the world from New York. There was no Pan Am route between those two places. No airline flew that far from the East Coast!

Wonderful article. Click through and check it out if you have a moment.

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How Freeman Dyson saw Richard Feynman

A quite wonderful collection of letters from Freeman Dyson, some of which concern his ongoing professional and personal relationship with Richard Feynman.

The post offers excerpts. If you’re at all acquainted with Feynman, perhaps through his fascinating autobiography, then definitely click through and check out these excerpts from Dyson’s letters.

March 8, 1948

Yesterday I went for a long walk in the spring sunshine with Trudy Eyges and Richard Feynman. Feynman is the young American professor, half genius and half buffoon, who keeps all physicists and their children amused with his effervescent vitality. …

September 14, 1948,
17 Edwards Place, Princeton

My tremendous luck was to be the only person who had spent six months listening to Feynman expounding his new ideas at Cornell and then spent six weeks listening to Schwinger expounding his new ideas in Ann Arbor. They were both explaining the same experiments, which measure radiation interacting with atoms and electrons. But the two ways of explaining the experiments looked totally different, Feynman drawing little pictures and Schwinger writing down complicated equations. The flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus gave me the connection between the two explanations, allowing me to translate one into the other.

Freeman Dyson’s remarkable humility and pleasant nature comes through clearly; so does Feynman’s ebullience. I’m not very into physics, but maybe I will go on to pick up the collected letters, which have been published as Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters by Freeman Dyson.

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Pluto is so a planet

In a brief article at The Washington Post, David Grinspoon and Alan Stern declare Pluto is too a planet.

Three years ago, NASA’s New Horizons, the fastest spaceship ever launched, raced past Pluto, spectacularly revealing the wonders of that newly seen world. This coming New Year’s Eve — if all goes well on board this small robot operating extremely far from home — it will treat us to images of the most distant body ever explored, provisionally named Ultima Thule. We know very little about it, but we do know it’s not a planet. Pluto, by contrast — despite what you’ve heard — is.

Click through and read the whole thing for a look at the history behind Pluto’s demotion, and a passionate defense of its planetary status. I enjoyed the sharp tone with which the authors of this post critique the decision to demote Pluto:

Even within our solar system, the IAU scientists defined “planet” in a strange way, declaring that if an orbiting world has “cleared its zone,” or thrown its weight around enough to eject all other nearby objects, it is a planet. Otherwise it is not. This criterion is imprecise and leaves many borderline cases, but what’s worse is that they chose a definition that discounts the actual physical properties of a potential planet, electing instead to define “planet” in terms of the other objects that are — or are not — orbiting nearby. This leads to many bizarre and absurd conclusions. For example, it would mean that Earth was not a planet for its first 500 million years of history, because it orbited among a swarm of debris until that time, and also that if you took Earth today and moved it somewhere else, say out to the asteroid belt, it would cease being a planet.

Shiny knife you just stabbed that definition with. Good job!

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Recent Reading: A Variety

I really haven’t been reading much this year, relatively speaking. Except for re-reads; I’m definitely re-reading more books this spring than new-to-me books. This is partly – mostly – because I’m working on stuff of my own, which always puts a damper on reading new-to-me fiction.

Nevertheless, in the last few weeks, I have managed to read a few new-to-me titles. So:

1. Murderbot: “Artificial Condition,” by Martha Wells.

I didn’t necessarily expect to love the second novella as much of the first (“All Systems Red”), because the first one set a high bar. It just won the Nebula,in fact and a well-deserved win that was, too. But I was hoping the second would make it over that bar. Well, I was very pleased because I think the second novella was just about as good as the first. I feared it would be hard to match the secondary characters from the first novella, but I really loved ART, and I liked the human characters as well.

Favorite detail with ART: When the ship started playing the Sanctuary Moon soundtrack when Murderbot was upset. What a nice touch.

Favorite detail with a human character: When Tapan says it was her fault and the Murderbot says it wasn’t and she says, “I kinda think it was.” Great exchange. Also, though the Murderbot is inclined to blame itself for things, Tapan is right. It was totally her fault. I like how she didn’t let it talk her out of that.

Can’t wait for the third novella. I don’t think it’s a super-long wait; I believe it’s coming out in August.

2. A Thousand Nights by EK Johnston.

My favorite kind of secondary world: tons of Arabic flavor, but not based on any historical Arabia, so Johnston could do crazy things with the metaphysics and significantly tweak the culture and so on. The smallgods are original, for example, and so is the balance between the Skeptics and the Priests. And, the demons, though I believe they’re meant to evoke djinn. There’s a smokeless fire kind of magic associated with the demon that has Lo-Melkhiior, for example.

The story has less emphasis on storytelling than I expected. Also, the plot covers nothing like a thousand nights. What was it, three months or so from start to finish? This is mostly a quiet story, rather slow paced. I like the quieter part of the story better than the fast-paced climactic battle, in fact, although when the protagonist creates all those creatures at the end, that’s pretty snazzy.

The writing is beautiful and rather unusual. The emphasis is so strongly on family that the first-person narrator never, or almost never, refers to family members by name – it’s always “my sister,” “my father,” “the sister of my mother.” That, and a formal manner of speech, do as much as the descriptive passages about the setting to give this story an exotic feel.

3. The 3,000-Mile Garden.

This is nonfiction. It’s collected letters exchanged between the American food writer Leslie Land and the English nature photographer Roger Phillips. The letters are very strongly focused on gardening and cooking, so just my kind of thing.

4. Frederica by Georgette Heyer.

Not my favorite Heyer … I believe that would be CotillionFalse Colors. But I liked it very much from the moment Frederica appeared. Teenage boys are rather unusual in Heyer’s books, and though the romance was okay, my favorite part of this one – by a mile – was the developing relationship between Frederica’s brothers and Alverstroke.

4. Dark Alchemy by Laura Bickle.

The raven saw it first.

His dark eye scraped the horizon, scouring the earth for movement in the lengthening shadows. The shadows crawled across the scrub and the sage, wrapping around lodgepole pines and flickering through bits of grass. A hot breeze ruffled the raven’s feathers, pulling him higher over the land. He sensed something old, something malevolent sliding under the fences and over the rocks . . .

The ravens are pretty neat in this one. Very strange magic all over the place, much of it creepy and disturbing. Alchemy, sure, but other, weirder stuff too. Though the alchemy is certainly weird and disturbing enough all by itself. This story is right on the edge between fantasy and horror … if you have read it, which side of the line do you think it comes down on? The writing is very good, which is crucial for building the creepy atmosphere.

The main protagonist, Petra Dee, is a geologist, so from time to time we get to see neat science-y stuff. Best thing about Petra: the way she refuses to let bad things happen without trying to interfere. Worst thing about Petra: my God, woman, when your father whispers from the spirit world Don’t Go, you might give a little more thought to Plan B and Plan C. Walking into a trap is never admirable unless you have seriously thought ahead about how to deal with that trap in some effective way.

Other comments: The coyote does not in any way resemble a coyote, other than physically. It is your standard fictional idealized-dog-that-we-are-calling-a-wolf, except of course that it’s supposedly a coyote. It has only the merest trace of coyote behavior appended over the dog behavior. I feel compelled to mention here, as no doubt I have before, that neither coyotes nor wolves have the same instincts or show the same behaviors as dogs. They just don’t.

However, as Sig is explicitly a spirit coyote rather than a normal coyote, I guess that’s more or less all right. I mean, the ravens are not exactly normal ravens, and I liked them fine, so I am trying to exercise the same tolerance for the coyote.

Also, my favorite secondary protagonist winds up in an unenviable condition at the end, but since this is the first book of a series, I imagine his situation most likely improves in the second book. There is reasonable closure in this book, so that’s good.

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Best books to read right before heading off on a cruise

Okay, well, posting may be just a little bit light for the next couple of weeks, as I will be thoroughly out of town. My brother and I gave ourselves a serious vacation as a belated birthday present, since February is a terrible month for vacations. So we are flying to Barcelona tonight (unless something dire goes wrong, heaven forfend). Our cruise will depart from Barcelona tomorrow, bounce down the coast of Italy, touch here and there in Greece, make its way back up the other coast of Italy, and end in Venice.

I plan to enjoy this cruise as much as possible, as I’ve never gone on a cruise before and I doubt I will ever go on one again.

I’ve scheduled posts for this period, but I may not be able to add others until I’m back. I believe I should be be able to respond to comments.

I hope to be able to post pictures and comments on Facebook, so follow me there if you’d like. I may try to post some here if possible, but I’m not taking my laptop, only my phone, so we’ll see.

Anyway!

To start the whole cruise thing off right, I thought I’d take a look at a handful of cruise-centric books. Not “beach reads” or anything, but stories actually featuring cruises and cruise ships, like so:

Seventeen Best Cruise Books

The first book listed is “Cruise Confidential”, Brian David Bruns, about which they say:

Bruns’ “A Hit Below the Waterline” is the first in a series of books about the “other side of cruising.” His true tale of a year working for Carnival Cruise Line is at once a soap opera and an expose. His hilarious and bizarre accounts of crew life are captivating (truth is always stranger than fiction, even at sea), which makes this a permanent fixture on the cruise-themed bookshelf.

This is exactly the sort of book I’d like to read before or during a cruise. I’m curious about the other people on the ship — the ones who work for the cruise line rather than the ones who paid to go on the cruise.

Also on the list: books about the cruise industry, books about the actual ships, books about maritime history and the rise of cruise ships. None of that sounds nearly as interesting to me.

Perhaps especially not this one:

Stranded by Aaron Saunders

It might not be the best book to download to your e-reader right before an Alaska cruise, but Saunders’ account of the 1918 sinking of the steamship Princess Sophia, a harrowing disaster on the voyage from Skagway to Vancouver, is hard to put down. What’s even harder to believe is that nearly eight decades later, the cruise ship Star Princess almost met the same fate.

If I were superstitious and thought things went in threes, I’d deliberately avoid any cruise ship with “princess” in the name. Just in case.

How about this one:

The Boxcar Children: The Mystery Cruise in the series begun by Gertrude Chandler Warner

The Boxcar Children series has captivated young readers for nearly a century. This tale follows the Alden kids as their family takes a Caribbean cruise. A false “man overboard” claim could have implications for the professor they dine with each night — is someone sabotaging his relative’s will by delaying his arrival? As always, the children investigate.

I loved the Bobbsey Twin stories when I was a child (and eventually gave the complete set to a woman who had two sets of twins, so I hope some of those children loved them as much as I did). Now I’m experiencing a strong kick of nostalgia, thinking about these mystery series for children. Pity I didn’t know the Boxcar Children was part of the same sort of long, continuing series. Wikipedia tells me there are more than 150 titles now, of which the first nineteen were written by Warner. That doesn’t include this one.

Well, moving on. Perhaps the seventeen books on the above list aren’t enough for you, or don’t tickle your fancy. How about this impressive list of fifty mystery standalones and series that take place on cruise ships? Apparently that’s quite a popular setting!

Unfortunately the linked post just provides titles, with links but without descriptions. Some of the titles are silly enough to suggest the book would be too cutesy for me, but clicking on just a few intriguing titles is enough to establish that others are not so cute and in fact aren’t cozy mysteries, but — is there a term for this? — regular mysteries. For example, these:

Murder on the Lusitania by Conrad Allen

September 1907. George Porter Dillman sets sail from Liverpool on the New York-bound Lusitania for its maiden voyage. Hired by the ship’s captain to pose as a passenger, George is in fact sailing the high seas as a private detective for the Cunard Line. While on board, he expects to deal with only petty crimes – some random vandalism, perhaps a scuffle or two in the bar – but then the ship’s blueprints are stolen from the chief engineer’s room and a man is killed in his cabin…

I might enjoy that even though at the moment I’m more interested in contemporary cruise settings.

Here’s another:

Grave Passage by William Doonan

With only days until their final port, the passengers of the Contessa Voyager learn that their guest lecturer, an ex-F.B.I. profiler, has been found hanging from the ship’s rock-climbing wall. Suddenly their balmy, carefree idyll on the Caribbean is fraught with danger and anxiety. Will someone else be next? What can the shipping line do to ease the passengers fears? Clearly, this is a job for Henry Grave, a professional maritime detective. Join him as he helicopters aboard to solve the crime. His methods and style are unusual, and guaranteed to keep you laughing as you follow him from one hidden clue to the next.

One more:

The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey

The year is 1921. A passionate affair between voracious romance reader Alma Webster and her dentist, Walter Baranov, has led to his wife’s murder. The lovers take flight aboard the Mauretania and the dentist takes the name of Inspector Dew, the detective who arrested the notorious wifekiller Dr. Crippen. But, in a disquieting twist, a murder occurs aboard ship and the captain invites “Inspector Dew” to investigate.

What an idea! Wow.

Surely there are a million romances set on cruise ships? Google is letting me down for that one, but I can’t believe there’s any shortage in this category.

Here at aLibris is a huge list of books featuring a cruise setting — too huge and unwieldy for me to wade through. Here’s the first entry, which sounds too tense for me:

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

This was meant to be the perfect trip. The Northern Lights. A luxury press launch on a boutique cruise ship. A chance for travel journalist Lo Blacklock to recover from a traumatic break-in that has left her on the verge of collapse. Except things don’t go as planned. Woken in the night by screams, Lo rushes to her window to see a body thrown overboard from the next door cabin. But the records show that no-one ever checked into that cabin, and no passengers are missing from the boat. Exhausted and emotional, Lo has to face the fact that she may have made a mistake – either that, or she is now trapped on a boat with a murderer…

No, thanks.

How about SFF that features a cruise ship setting?

I can think of two: the cruise ship in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, which I don’t think we get until the second book, right? But then it is a very important setting after that.

And this one:

The Wheel of Darkness (Pendergast Series Book 8)

In the exciting eighth supernatural thriller from bestsellers Preston and Child (after 2006’s The Book of the Dead), FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast and his ward, Constance Greene, seek peace of mind at a remote Tibetan monastery, only to fall into yet another perilous, potentially earthshaking assignment. The monastery’s abbot asks them to recover a stolen relic, the cryptic Agozyen, which could, in the wrong hands, wipe out humanity. The pair follow the trail to a luxury cruise ship, where a series of brutal murders suggests the relic’s evil spirit might already have been invoked.

This was the second Pendergast novel I read and I had trouble suspending disbelief in both of them. In this case, I could not believe no one just dropped everything and searched every single cabin until they found the bad guy. Following rules is all very well, but good heavens above, there are limits. I had other issues with the plot, but as I recall, this was the single biggest suspension-of-disbelief I encountered.

You know what, now that I think of it, Nicholas Valliard would have wrapped Pendergast’s whole problem up in a tenth the time and with a tenth the drama.

All right! If you’ve got a favorite cruise ship story, especially SFF, drop it in the comments, please. I will be checking comments here from time to time — I hope no one will get stuck in the spam filter during the next two weeks.

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Top Ten Novels With Protagonists Who Are Scientists

So, I’m reading Laura Bickle’s Dark Alchemy, a contemporary fantasy with a weird west setting. It’s a title that’s been on my Kindle’s TBR pile for quite some time, but I thought of it recently and since I’m usually in the mood for a western setting, I actually started reading it.

Lots of creepy stuff going on. Dark Alchemy is right on the edge between fantasy and horror, which is fine – I don’t like real horror much, but this isn’t too horrific for me. Excellent, evocative description, which of course is an important component of building a creepy atmosphere. My favorite thing so far is the thing with the ravens. How do writers come up with these ideas?

Anyway, the protagonist of Dark Alchemy, Petra Dee, is a geologist. (Her father, missing for 20 years, was an alchemist, so one gathers the name Dee is not a coincidence.)

I do enjoy protagonists who are scientists! At one point fairly early on, Petra acquires a sample of blood that fluoresces in certain lighting conditions. Weird! she thinks, and immediately builds a homemade spectroscope to see what the sample actually contains.

My kind of protagonist, for sure. So I thought I’d come up with a list of science-y protagonists and fantasy novels that emphasize science. Let’s see if I can make it to ten without help!

1. Dark Alchemy by Laura Bickle.

2. Land of the Burning Sands by yours truly. Of course Tehre thinks of what she does as a branch of natural philosophy, but science by any other name, right?

3. The Lindsey Chamberlain mystery series by Beverly Conner. Of course this is a departure from fantasy, but hey, I read them pretty recently, they’re fresh in my mind, and I really, really loved them and Lindsey, their archeologist protagonist.

4. The Martian by Andy Weir. Another departure from fantasy – sorry. Still, nothing like having to science the shit out of your disastrous situation. I’m sure there are a million SF novels with scientist protagonists, but this is the one that springs to my mind because the science was so central.

5. The Chronicles of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. Now, here’s a perfect example. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it at once. I love this series for its successful presentation of the Victorian naturalist frame of mind, just modified barely enough for the naturalist attitudes to be more or less palatable to a modern audience. And, of course, there are the dragons.

6. Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley also treats dragons in sort of the same way, as creatures that are the focus of scientific study, though I grant you the protagonist is not himself a scientist and doesn’t have a very scientific frame of mind.

7. A Thousand Nights by EK Johnston Not the protagonist at all, but in contrast to Dragonhaventhe Skeptics have a perfect scientific frame of mind in a nonscientific world:

“Could you not find out?” I asked of him. “I mean, revered Skeptic, if you took a ball and a lamp, could you not find out?”

He laughed then, and winked one eye at me. “I could,” he said to me. “And I have. Never tell the other Skeptics that, for they will think it blasphemous. They would rather argue about it forever.”

“But then how will they know?”

“They do know, more or less. But in arguing, they will ask and answer a dozen other questions.”

Great, eh? Also, thank heavens, Johnston does not present the Skeptics as opposed to the Priests. There’s a tiresomely common bullet, dodged.

8. Not a protagonist, but the Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas has got to be the only fantasy setting ever written where someone uses the word “stoichiometry” correctly. Very impressive.

9. Hellspark by Janet Kagan. Linguistics is not quite what I was thinking of as “science,” but the book was great, so it’ll do.

10. And … saving the very best for last … The Steerswoman by Rosemary Kirstein. Not just Rowan, but all the steerswomen – and the kid who’s singlehandedly inventing a science of explosives. An amazing job writing characters with a scientific mindset in a pre-science world.

There – ten! Some more arguable than others, I grant you.

How about you? Got a favorite novel where science is central, or the protagonist is a scientist, or both?

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