Recent Reading: A complete contrast

So, you know what one of my very least-favorite character types is? I’ll tell you: It’s the impulsive, emotional woman who must be rescued from her emotional impulsivity by the men in her life, who are all, for some inexplicable reason, in love with her. Frankly, I find the histrionic type utterly unappealing. As far as I’m concerned, any adult human being ought to be able to COPE. That’s part of, you know, being an adult. So for me, neither the histrionic female protagonist nor the men who think she’s so wonderful are believable or sympathetic.

I know perfectly well that there are plenty of characters of this type around, mostly (as far as I know) written by female authors, mostly (I think) in paranormals and other forms of romance. (I may be wrong about this; is there another genre where this is common?)

So obviously a lot of readers find emotional, overwrought, impulsive female protagonists appealing. But I just don’t. I’m an INTJ myself, which may explain why the histrionic type of character seems both unbelievable and unappealing to me. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting too analytical, never mind.

Plus, granted, Vicki in Tanya Huff’s BLOOD PACT isn’t that bad, if only because she has more reason to flip out than some other childishly impulsive characters I could mention. I mean, her mother has died, and Vicki lacks any sense of closure in that relationship, so that’s tough. Especially when her mother’s body is stolen. Plus, and this is not really a spoiler because it’s obvious from the start that the story is headed this way, her mother is then zombified by the bad guys. You’ve gotta agree, that would be pretty disturbing.

Nevertheless, I just do not like a protagonist who loses her shit and cannot cope. Add to that a love triangle – God, spare me from love triangles – and, worse, a love triangle that is resolved by removing free choice from the woman through a deus ex plot device – and then add to that a bunch of Impersonal Evil Scientists, which is a trope that is always going to make me roll my eyes at best; and, well. I only barely bothered to finish this book.

It was quite a disappointment, after Huff’s amazingly good military SF Valor series, is what I’m saying. Naturally your mileage may differ if you love UF/Paranormal and hate military SF.

Okay, so after that, I went straight to my Kindle and read a military SF novel that I had waiting there: the self-published TERMS OF ENLISTMENT by a guy named Marko Kloos. Which, incidentally, has now been picked up by a publisher and is due out any time in paper as well as e-format. I found this out because the story was good enough to make me look for a sequel, particularly because it ends on rather a cliffhanger. (I checked, and there will be a sequel shortly, so that’s okay.)

By “good enough,” I mean that TERMS OF ENLISTMENT is engaging, well-written, fast-paced, and adequately plotted. If you read it, I expect it will remind you very strongly of some Heinlein, especially SPACE CADET and STARSHIP TROOPERS. The dialogue is not as snappy as you get in Heinlein, but then the political preachiness is not (quite) so apparent either. Kloos writes a first-person present-tense narrative, which is inherently difficult, but he pulls it off very well.

Also probably Kloos’ book will remind you of David Feintuch’s MIDSHIPMAN’S HOPE, but with far less angst and a significantly less cohesive plot. (I was really impressed with Feintuch’s plotting in his first book, so that’s a high bar.) Kloos’ story is just as episodic as Feintuch’s, but the episodes are not tied together the way Feintuch managed to tie his up. On the other hand . . . less angst. That got pretty tiresome in Feintuch’s sequels. There was nothing like that in Kloos’ story.

To be sure, the flip side of “less angst” is sometimes less character depth and development; Kloos’ Andrew Grayson is FAR less complicated a character than Feintuch’s Nick Seafort. But sometimes a less complicated character can be just what you’re in the mood for. After I barely finished BLOOD PACT? I was pretty well glued to the page for TERMS OF ENLISTMENT.

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A fascinating post about the experience of depression —

By Allie, over at Hyperbole and a Half.

Now, an intro to this post, if you like: Several years ago, I read Peter Kramer’s AGAINST DEPRESSION. Kramer’s a psychiatrist, as you may know, and if I were suffering from any kind of emotional dysfunction, I would probably find out what state he practices in and move there, because his books are amazing.

In particular, AGAINST DEPRESSION persuaded me that clinical depression is a real illness with definable characteristics, that it destroys lives, that antidepressants are crucial lifesavers, and that depression is a huge medical problem. I mean, did you know that depression is so tightly linked to heart disease that it would be one of the biggest killers in the world EVEN IF it was as emotionally neutral as high blood pressure? I mean, who knows that? I had no idea.

One thing I didn’t ever suffer from, though, was any idea that depression somehow offers valuable insight to the tragedy of the human condition, or anything ridiculous like that. I don’t get the “tragedy of the human condition” thing, see. I certainly never, ever granted any credence to the idea that art has to be dark in order to be deep, or that somehow depression grants its sufferers some kind of moral superiority to the healthy. Not hardly. So Kramer’s first chapters were interesting to read, but mostly I found myself saying, Do people really think that depression is alluring and morally uplifting? (Apparently many people do.)

Plus, Kramer’s book made me VERY GRATEFUL that my own family apparently has the great good luck to be genetically protected against depression. It’s a huge extended family, offering plenty of data points, so I’m pretty sure about this. I remind myself of this piece of good fortune when feeling snappish about early-onset osteoarthritis and semi-herniated disks and whatever.

So, so. Evidently Allie suffers, or has been suffering, from a form of depression that Kramer would identify specifically as anhedonia — the inability to feel pleasure in anything. Also a more global flattening of all emotional states. Her post is amazing. With amazing cartoon illustrations. Such as:

I had so very few feelings, and everyone else had so many, and it felt like they were having all of them in front of me at once. I didn’t really know what to do, so I agreed to see a doctor so that everyone would stop having all of their feelings at me.

It’s a wonderful post, one that gets about as close as I can imagine to actually expressing what it feels like to be clinically depressed — a very alien emotional state to those of us who fortunately never experience anything of the kind. And here’s hoping that Allie soon writes another post, one in which she illustrates the phenomenon of complete recovery.

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Book Covers for Boys —

Vs Book Covers for Girls.

Of course, I actually do think some books are likely to appeal mainly to girls (and women), whereas others are likely to appeal to both girls and boys (or women and men).

Nevertheless . . . this is a really fun post about the kinds of covers given to books that are intended to appeal to girls, vs the kinds of covers that are meant to be marketed to guys. And the reason it is funny is that it is true (as well as extremely creative).

I have NO IDEA how you would go about creating a fake cover. If I ever self-pub a book, I will certainly have to hire someone! Which is too bad, because as I say, these altered covers are great!

For example, compare:

Do you think each of these covers would appeal to the same readership? Not a chance! Which looks serious? Which looks fluffy and appealing? I have to say, the “girl” cover also looks VERY YA, which makes me laugh, because if there is a less YA kind of book EVER WRITTEN than GAME OF THRONES, I don’t know what it is.

On the other hand, I don’t know how absolutely universal this kind of marketing is. Maybe some kinds of books are more likely to get serious covers no matter who wrote them? I know that “Robin Hobb” could be a guy’s name, but no one could be in any doubt that “Diana” is a female writer. So, given that, how about these covers?

Is there something about Epic Fantasy which leads publishers to give books of this sort more serious-looking covers? Maybe if the author is particularly well-known?

Also, of course the primary function of the cover is to sell the book — though I certainly prefer an accurate cover, both as a reader and as a writer. I wonder if publishers’ marketing departments are actually right about what kinds of covers appeal to particular segments of the market?

If you’d like to flip through the altered covers and weigh in — which cover DO you prefer, in general? If you’re female, DO you tend to prefer the “girl” covers, and vice versa if you’re a guy?

I’m especially curious because I generally prefer the “guy” covers — but I am not very much into romance. I definitely do prefer the “girl” version of A Clockwork Orange, though. Also the original “girl” cover of Heist Society.

Which raises a separate question: When we talk about marketing a book “to women”, are we really talking about marketing a book “for romance readers”? Because if so, maybe a better axis for marketing departments to think about would be romance vs non-romance rather than any form of girl vs boy?

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Can the movie be better than the book?

Or as good? Or even actually add depth or atmosphere to the reading experience?

Interesting article by Richard Parker on this topic, at

“A great screenwriter can create an entirely different entity to the book that still sufficiently addresses the essence of the text.”

Yeah? How often do you think that happens?

I am not actually totally skeptical, because I’ve seen some pretty good adaptations. I loved “The Lord of the Rings” movies! Mostly, anyway. I definitely had some issues with the second movie in particular: what’s all that about having to TRICK the Ents into joining the battle against Saruman? That’s all wrong! But, okay, yes, in general I loved those movies.

But most of the time, a movie makes me want to read the book, but a book doesn’t necessarily set me on fire to see the movie. For example, I thought “The Hunger Games” was just okay, but distinctly inferior to the book, and I may well not bother seeing the other two movies when they come out.

One exception does leap to mind, though. “The Hunt for Red October”? Absolutely no reason to read the book. No. For that one, the movie’s got it all. Plus, hello, Sean Connery. Hard for the book to compete with that!

Anybody got a vote for a movie that didn’t have to depend on Sean Connery to be better than its book?

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Top Ten Comfort Reads

I’m doing a twist on a meme I picked up from Chachic’s Book Nook.

Not so much top ten light-and-fluffy reads, but the top ten for comfortable books when you just don’t want to read some complicated politics-heavy epic, or figure out a new complicated secondary world. You know, the kind of book you pick up one more time because you know you can open it anywhere, fall right into the story, and will wind up reading the whole thing again even if you didn’t really mean to.

For me, those would be — and I’m going to be pretty casual about lumping multiple books into one category, here — in no special order:

1. Anything by Robin McKinley, especially The Blue Sword and Beauty

2. Anything by Sarah Addison Allen, but especially The Girl Who Chased the Moon

3. Anything by Lois McMaster Bujold, but especially The Sharing Knife series

4. Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones

5. Jhereg and Yendi by Steven Brust

6. War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

7. Watership Down by Richard Adams

8. Anything by Gillian Bradshaw, but especially A Beacon at Alexandria and Island of Ghosts

9. Chanur’s Legacy by CJ Cherryh — this one, on a smaller scale and with less at stake than the original Chanur series, works for me as a light comfort read.

10. Anything by Terry Pratchett, though for me a lot of those are books to listen to, not books to read. Just finishing the last Tiffany Aching book now!

Oh! And one more because why not?

11. Troubled Waters by Sharon Shinn

How about you, what’s your top comfort read? Any of the above?

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Epic fantasy: one more time

“Epic Fantasy” is gloriously broad, vague, and… resonant. It may be hard to define Epic Fantasy succinctly …, but we know what Epic Fantasy is and isn’t. We know it when we read it, when we hear it. We feel it in our bones. The goal of this round-table discussion, therefore, is to describe Epic Fantasy and to try to illustrate the broadness—the grand sweep, the bigness, and scope — of it.

So says Clarksworld, in the first of two posts on the subject.

Of the 26 authors who participated in Clarksworld’s discussion, I’ve read books by seven. I’ve read more than one book by . . . wait for it . . . four. Just four. (Those are, in case you’re curious: Terry Brooks, whom I read when I was much younger; Kate Elliot, whose JARAN series I really enjoyed but whose more recent books I haven’t read (yet); and NK Jemisin and Robin McKinley, neither of whom actually write epic fantasy, imo. Yes, I know, people these days are tending to name Jemisin in lists of writers-of-epic-fantasy, but to me her stories do not feel like epic fantasy. It’s easier for McKinley; hardly anybody would think of her work as epic fantasy — right? — and she certainly doesn’t think of her books that way herself.

Which of course raises the question: What is epic fantasy? Which is what the Clarksworld posts are all about, naturally. And they’re very good posts.

“”In Epic Fantasy,” [says Victoria] Strauss, “the principal characters’ lives and actions acquire immense meaning and importance within the pattern of a series of hugely significant events. Their lives matter. This is the very opposite of most people’s real lives, and one of the major reasons, I think, why Epic Fantasy has such enduring appeal.””

I could agree with that. But . . .

Q Does your fantasy novel involve great events, where the actions of larger-than-life characters really matter?

Then your novel might be epic fantasy. Or high fantasy, or heroic fantasy, or possibly even sword-and-sorcery. Or no doubt lots of other subgenres. So, what actually defines epic fantasy?

The one answer I agreed with most was this one, from Trudi Canavan:

Bigness. Whether it be size of the world, the length of the tale or the number of books — or combinations of these. But not ideas. A book can have big ideas, but not be “epic” fantasy. Unfortunately, the label “epic” seems to be applied to a lot of fantasy that doesn’t really qualify, and that’s a bit unfair to both true Epic Fantasy and fantasy that is not epic, just as it grates when anyone describes all fantasy as “quest” fantasy. Fantasy is a very broad and varied genre, and lumping it all under one type is never satisfactory.

To me, all of these factors are important. I can’t personally see a series as epic unless it features multiple pov protagonists and takes place in a big world and encompasses more than one book. That’s why Jemisin’s books don’t seem like epic fantasy to me: they take place basically in one location and/or they involve basically one pov character. I would say Jemisin is writing high fantasy or heroic fantasy, not epic fantasy.

And then it gets all complicated these days because (and here I am departing from the Clarksworld posts) Epic Fantasy has gotten together with Horror and spawned evil little offspring with nasty sharp teeth.

Q Does your fantasy epic involve multiple pov characters? Most of whom die? Or become weaker and/or corrupted and/or evil, even though they started off as decent people?

Q Does your fantasy epic involve a vast setting where whole towns full of decent people trying to live their ordinary lives are murdered, tortured, enslaved, transformed into monsters, or possibly all of the above? By pov protagonists who were initially presented as sympathetic?

Q Does your fantasy epic involve huge sweeps of time, over which the world darkens and hope fades, until at the end of the series everything is clearly worse off than it was in the beginning?

Then you do not have an epic fantasy there. No. You have Epic Fantasy’s misbegotten offspring: grimdark fantasy.

I have decided that everything that calls itself Epic Fantasy these days needs a warning label on it if it is really grimdark fantasy, because some of us would appreciate being able to put that sucker back on the shelf without so much as reading the back cover copy.

Maybe a rating on a scale of one to five? Where Daniel Abraham’s Dagger-and-Coin series is about a three, say, and everything by Joe Abercrombie is a five. That would be really useful!

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Is there such a thing as a critical mass of books read?

At least read, as it were, critically?

Interesting post from Tobias Buckell, about the way that after you’ve read a vast number of books, your perceptions of what’s new and exciting, or even just plain fun and competent, necessarily change.

I think I disagree that this happens because you read a certain vast number of books. But that’s not actually what Buckell means, either, because he’s talking about people who read critically — in particular, book bloggers.

And there I think he’s hit, not the nail, necessarily, but a nail on its head.

“You’ve read so much that what may seem new or interesting to most (and even to the writer of the book you’re reading) is just a variation to you. Your expectations regarding the work change. Due to subjectivity being what it is, many writers can mistake what’s happening and view it as the books getting worse, not their own aesthetic changing. Two things can happen. One, despair at what they perceive is the dying of quality. … Secondly … they begin to gravitate toward something that feels new to them. They seek out ‘artist’s artists’ and are not happy when those voices aren’t welcomed by the mainstream, because these are stories aimed at people who’ve simply consumed a terrific amount of fiction to be able to enjoy the work.”

I think I have seen this happen with some book bloggers. Not exactly this, necessarily, but a change where specific critical criteria are applied to books, when those criteria don’t necessarily seem justly applicable. It’s an interesting point, though on the other hand, it may not be very different from saying that, hey, tastes do change. And we knew that already, of course. So perhaps this isn’t anything new or unexpected after all.

But I expect we will always have new unjaded book reviewers opening up shop, so I don’t suppose we’ll ever lack for book bloggers who can point the way enthusiastically toward books they genuinely love. Which on the one hand, yay! And on the other, my God, those people are dangerous. Do you KNOW how huge my TBR pile is now?

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Recent Reading: at last, the finish to Robin Hobb’s dragon series.

And about time, too!

Actually it didn’t take too long for BLOOD OF DRAGONS to hit the shelves, it’s just that CITY OF DRAGONS ended on a complete lack of resolution that was very frustrating. So frustrating that I think I blocked some of the story; I found I remembered almost nothing of CITY OF DRAGONS and had to skim most of it before I could read BLOOD OF DRAGONS.

So this series is really best tackled all at once, or as two linked duologies: The first set, DRAGON KEEPER and DRAGON HAVEN; followed by CITY OF DRAGONS and now finally BLOOD OF DRAGONS.

Okay: most interesting thing Hobb did with this series, something I don’t believe anybody’s ever done before: the dragons really are the masters of the world. They really and truly are not subservient to humans in any way whatsoever. Nothing like the dragons of Pern; nothing like the magical horses that turn up everywhere in fantasy; nothing like a wolf that is basically a dog. No. The dragon Sintara is truly not a nice person, but not even Mercor is very interested in what humans think about much of anything. Very unusual to establish a world where humans really and truly are not the top of the food chain.

I liked the first two books pretty well. But, and I can see this might be a thing with Hobb, very few of her characters are people you can really admire or truly sympathize with at the beginning. Some are too young and stupid; some are incredibly naïve and/or ineffectual; some are just unlikeable. Captain Leftrin is an exception; to an extent so is Alise; but by and large you are just going to have to wait for the characters to grow into themselves. Which they do, eventually.

Which means that for me, the second duology was a lot more enjoyable than the first. The dragons are finally becoming the top predators they’re meant to be, until you can hardly glimpse their poor crippled beginnings. Sintara is still unkind, but Thymara — her keeper — is mostly over that. And nearly every other character winds up in a far better place than they started. It’s not just the youngsters like Thymara and Tats who finally grow up, it’s everyone. Sedric? Vastly improved. Alise? Of course her life has its ups and downs, but she’s got a great life now. Both of them are in fine relationships now, a real pleasure to see everything work out for them. Even poor Selden, who spent the previous books in a cage, on his way to being murdered, comes out on top at the last minute, with the help of an unexpected ally.

And, having learned from previous books, I skipped sections from bad-guy points of view. In fact, the only bit from Hest’s viewpoint I actually read — here’s an unimportant spoiler — is the bit where he makes a tiny mistake when talking to a dragon and gets eaten. At last. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

So, yeah. Nice to have this series finished off at last, and in such a satisfying way.

I can’t help but notice, here, that this is one of the few true modern epic fantasies I’ve read where nearly every character becomes a better, more competent character over the course of the story; where nearly everyone winds up in substantially improved circumstances by the end of the series; where the world itself might have changed — dragons! — but probably for the better.

It’s not that this series is saccharine. (Hah! Hardly.) Lots of grim stuff happens. But the overall direction of progress is in a positive direction, not in a grim descent into betrayal, murder, corruption, and horror. Of course this kind of positive tone may be more common than I think. I wouldn’t know, because I don’t read much epic fantasy these days. But honestly, the reason I started shying away from epic fantasy in recent years was because too much of it started to fall on the grimdark side of gritty. And Hobb’s dragon series isn’t like that. And I’m glad.

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I’m sick and tired of this no-carb diet

And anyway, I had a potluck to attend. I wanted to make Maggie Stiefvater’s November Cakes, trying out my idea about using more orange extract, but I didn’t have any cream with which to make the caramel glaze, so instead I made these brownies.

Of course there is nothing unusual about cheesecake-layered brownies, but this particular recipe is very good and very reliable, and I invite you all to try them next time you have a party to attend.

8 oz cream cheese, softened
1/3 C sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 egg
4 Tbsp flour

2 1/2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1/2 C. (1 stick) butter
3/4 C flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 C sugar

Beat together filling ingredients and set aside.

Melt chocolate and butter in microwave, stir until smooth, set aside.

Combine flour, baking powder, and salt.

Beat eggs, vanilla, and sugar until smooth. Beat in chocolate mixture. Beat in flour mixture, on low speed. Spread slightly less than half the batter in a greased 8 x 8 pan. Spread filling over bottom layer of brownies. Dollop rest of brownie batter over filling and spread out until it more or less covers the filling. You do not have to achieve perfect coverage when doing this.

Bake at 350 degrees (340 degrees for a glass pan) for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out with moist crumbs clinging to it. Cool the brownies in the pan. Cool completely before slicing, if you have sufficient self control. I have to say that slicing off a little taste before the brownies are completely cool doesn’t seem to have any negative effects on the brownies, but they are easiest to slice if chilled. Because of the cheesecake layer, they should be chilled to store, if they last that long.

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Recent Reading: Blackout by Myra Grant

Okay, so. Finally read BLACKOUT, which as you know is up for the Hugo this year.

Is it good? Yep. As you’d expect if you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy, it’s quite an adventure. Not the high-octane thrill-ride of the first two books, imo, but exciting.

Does Grant pull off the — and here comes a spoiler, if you haven’t read the second book, so look away —

Does Grant pull off the magic clone? For me, not really. She waves her hands and declares that magic science makes it possible to grow a magic clone to adulthood near-instantly and magically install into its brain the memories of the original, and I’m sure a nod to magic science is fine for a lot of readers, but for me it is a tooth-grinding suspension-of-disbelief disaster.

Which I strongly suspected it would be. So I was prepared. So I enjoyed the new Georgia anyway. I liked her sections of the narrative the best, in fact, even if I didn’t believe in her. Can she get out of the evil CDC’s hands before they kill her? Can she persuade her team she’s the real thing, against all their genuine memories of her being dead? Very tense moments in there.

So getting Georgia back and reuniting her and Shaun (in a rather hard-to-believe coincidence of intersecting plotlines, but whatever) — well, I like happy endings, so okay.

BLACKOUT had plenty of other good stuff in it, too: all those tense family dynamics and all those interesting questions about identity and what it takes to make a clone a real person. And about what it takes to be a sane person, and the strange shapes insanity can take. Plus the random betrayals from unexpected directions, and trustworthy allies found in equally unexpected places.

And the writing is still excellent — though switching first-person narratives back and forth between Georgia and Shaun felt awkward to me; once they got together, I kept losing track of who was speaking. Then I’d have to stop and think and figure it out, which was annoying. That wasn’t an issue in the first two books, of course, and it’s probably one reason that, to me, the plotting didn’t seem nearly as tight in this book as it did in the earlier books.

Anyway — to sum up, I totally agree with the perceptive commenter (Maureen E) who noted in a previous post that FEED would have been an utterly brilliant standalone novel and it’s a pity Grant didn’t leave it to stand alone. Yes. Even though I genuinely enjoyed the other two, I hereby declare that the first book is actually lessened by the existence of the other two.

How about the rest of you? If you’ve read the book: agree or disagree?

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