Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author


Re-reading all of DWJ

Here’s a post at tor.com: Making the Metaphor Literal: Fantastic Reality in The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones. The post starts like this:

Over the last few months I have been rereading the complete works of Diana Wynne Jones in publication order….

My instant reaction: What a great idea! I’m absolutely up for that.

I’ve actually been reading Andrea K Host’s Touchstone books, in reverse order of publication, starting with the snow day short story and moving backward to In Arcadia and then going to the Epilogue. These are the most completely soothing books I know, plus I have read them a lot of times, so it’s relatively easy to dip in and out of them while I work on my own stuff. I’m now reading the actual trilogy (in correct order).

When I’m through with these books, I think I will do exactly what this post suggests and read all of DWJ, although possibly not in publication order. Anyway, she goes on:

Jones’ books are simply brilliant. Some are undeniably better than others, but even a dud DWJ is a decent read, and at her best she is extraordinary. In fact I would argue that she is one of the greatest fantasy writers of the last fifty years. So the value of my reread (still ongoing!) has turned out to be considerably more than the nostalgia of returning to beloved children’s books that you first read decades ago. Speaking as an adult reader, and an adult writer of fantasy: there’s a real joy in watching a master at work.

This is all true, although I’m not sure that I think even the duds are necessarily worth a re-read. This particular book, The Time of the Ghost, is not one I particularly liked, as I recall. I’ve only read it once. But perhaps this post will persuade me to read it again.

The Time of the Ghost, in my opinion, belongs squarely in this last [Best of DWJ] category.

It comes from a period in the early 80s where Jones seems to have had a creative blossoming—The Time of the Ghost, The Homeward Bounders, Witch Week, Archer’s Goon, Fire and Hemlock, and Howl’s Moving Castle were all published between 1981-1986. From a writer’s perspective this kills me with jealousy. Most of us can only dream of publishing six books that good in six years. This is also a pretty dark period in Jones’s oeuvre—with the exception of Howl, all of these books deal with themes of abuse, isolation, and neglect. (I would argue you can still see echoes of this in Howl too, albeit handled much more lightly.)

A lot of people really love Fire and Hemlock, I know. Me, I’d pick The Homeward Bounders out of this list. Let me see …

Okay, this is officially a really good post. That is, I very much like the observations this person is making, even if I probably wouldn’t rank-order DWJ’s books in the same order she would.

This is, I think, a perfect example of how not to start with the action. Nothing happens on the first page of The Time of the Ghost. Most of it is taken up by an exceedingly lovely and lyrical description of a quiet afternoon in the English countryside in summer. Notice the sounds and colours of Jones’s descriptive writing—the sleepy, heavy humming; the distant flap and caw; fields, just as she expected, sleepy grey-green; trees almost black in the heat haze. Try reading it aloud, and hear the lazy, rocking rhythm of those long sentences, perfect for that summer afternoon.

The post quotes the opening paragraphs and points out how Jones starts not with action, but with tension, brilliantly conveyed through description. Really, this is an excellent analysis. You should certainly click through and read the whole thing.

I don’t really know that this analysis makes me want to re-read the story, though. I mean, in a way, yes, to watch how DWJ puts it together. That’s what this post makes me want to do: join in the analysis. But I don’t find that I want to re-read this story to enjoy it. No wonder I only read it once and only sort of liked it. Dark indeed.

I don’t know that I feel up to ranking DWJs books from top to bottom. Instead, I think I’ll list the ten DWJ novels I would like to re-read, which won’t include this one.

Let me see. All right, I’m going to start with the two I like best and then toss in another eight I like a lot, in no particular order:

  1. Dogsbody. The dogs are really well drawn, and so is Kathleen, and in fact so are the other people in the family. And the ending is bittersweet, not bitter. This book has had a lot of covers. Here’s one I like:

2. Power of Three

3. The Ogre Downstairs

4. A Tale of Time City

5. Charmed Life

6. The Lives of Christopher Chant

7. Cart and Cwidder

8. Dark Lord of Derkholm

9. Year of the Griffin

How about you all? Which are the DWJs novels you like best, and perhaps the ones you like least?

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The future of vampire books


Always entertaining to try to predict what might happen next in a subgenre, so sure! I’m interested to see what Book Riot thinks is up next for vampire stories.

We’ve done the Creature of the Night vampire and the Detective vampire and Sexy vampire — in many, many iterations — and the peculiar subset of the Sexy Glittery vampire who is perfectly fine in sunlight. So sure, now what?

… this desire to see our norms flipped can come from a need to see alternative perspectives of that which we have been told is concrete and unchanging, such as societal roles or historical events. Vampires have a habit of reflecting the times we live in, not only disrupting them but personifying them, and as we begin to be more aware of how our media and education systems construct false realities for us based on historical revisionism and misinformation, I anticipate the ‘norms’ of vampirism being dissected and rewritten as well, with the vampire emerging as a victim of centuries-long smear campaigns. I can see the vampire portrayed as a Cassandra-like figure, violently shoved aside despite their evident humanity, unfairly framed as a monster for revealing the truth about the world we live in.

Hmm! The vampire as … how could we sum this up … okay: the vampire as wise but unfairly marginalized race? Is that where the above paragraph is aiming?

Yes, yes, reading the rest of the article, I think that is a fair summation of this prediction. That actually seems like a fairly plausible direction for vampire stories to take.

The author of the post refers to Octavia Butler’s Fledgling as an example of this kind of vampire story. I was just thinking about that book for a different reason. I really do not remember much about it — I only read it once, and it seemed to me very much like the first book of a series. I was very sorry Butler would never have a chance to go on with it, and so I never re-read it.

But since I’ve now thought of it twice in the past couple of hours, maybe I should bring it upstairs and plan to re-read it.

I will add that I haven’t personally recovered from a surfeit of vampires five or ten years ago, so I don’t read many vampire stories anymore. The only ones I always pick up are Barbara Hambly’s ongoing Ysidro series. The first book, Those Who Hunt the Night, may be my favorite vampire story of all time.

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Adding story drama to a first draft

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: How to Move From First Draft to Second Draft to Publishable Book

This post has a fun way of framing the dramatic action of the story, thus:

To find your story’s dramatic action, use the “In a World…” test.

Think about the cheesy movie-trailer cliché. There’s a shot of alien-created devastation. Or a sunrise over a battlefield. Or a sunset over a castle. A deep voice intones:

In a world…

And tells us the hero’s intolerable dramatic situation. Overturning this situation is a high-risk, high-stakes problem.

One man… 

That’s the protagonist.


…take a dramatic action. Embark on the quest. They must do it. Not “kinda-sorta feel like doing it,” not “maybe if they have time,” they must. The action is urgent and compelling and they can’t live without taking this action. …

Chances are, if it’s hard to find your “In a world…” moment, your stakes aren’t high enough. The dramatic situation isn’t personal, or the protagonist doesn’t have enough at stake to make the story compelling.

That’s not bad! It’s a fun way to think about how to peg the dramatic action or stakes in a novel.

Here it is in one sentence:

In intolerable SITUATION, PROTAGONIST must ACTION against OBSTACLE toward GOAL or else/because STAKES.

I’ve seen this sort of format for a one-sentence summary of the book before — these elevator pitches are useful for various reasons — but I do like the idea of re-casting this sentence in the IN A WORLD WHERE mode. That’s just an entertaining way to do it.

Still not easy, though.

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Hard pass on winter horror

At tor.com: 5 Books About the Horror of Winter

This is the season for horror. By the end of a book or movie the crisis will be over in some way, and the danger will have passed: this applies, of course, to much fiction, but when the stakes are at their highest, the catharsis is all the more wonderful. As GK Chesterton wrote, ‘Fairy tales don’t tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.’ And winter horror reminds you that spring will come.

While this is a fine reason to read horror, I guess, let us pause to examine the last book listed in the linked post:

This opens with gut-wrenching scenes as Simon, by his own admission a loser, pays a strange man to guide him through closed caves in Wales so he can take photos, for his website, of the bodies of earlier adventurers who died down there. When Simon is the only one to make it out alive he becomes notorious and needs to do something even bigger to capitalize on his fame. Off he goes to Mount Everest, ‘the highest graveyard in the world’, lying about his climbing experience to get him to a place where he can film the corpses on the mountainside.

Ugh! This might turn into a horror novel, but right now it sounds like a character study of a terrible person. From this description, I’m totally on board with this guy meeting a grisly end! I wonder if that is quite the effect the author is going for.

Should you want to try this book, for some reason, I notice it’s only $1.99 on Amazon right now. Definitely not one I’ll be looking at, though, not this winter, but probably also not any winter.

Instead of stories where winter is a season that leads to horror, this year I definitely prefer stories where winter is, though perhaps dangerous, also glorious.

1.Mapping Winter by Marta Randall, the winter-themed story I am most pleased the author wrote and released.

2. Winter’s Tale by Helprin, which does the glory of winter better than any other book ever written

3. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

4. The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

New cover for that one:

I don’t quite get what these circles are supposed to represent. But I never liked the original cover, so, well, meaningless circles are all right with me, I guess. Can anybody suggest what they are supposed to be, though?

5. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

6. The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge

7. Cloud’s Rider by CJC

8. Anvil of Ice by Scott Michael Rohan

9. The Ice Dragon by GRR Martin

10. And, of course, Tuyo

If you’ve got a favorite winter-themed story — particularly one where winter is not presented as something to endure, or not only something to endure, but as as beautiful and/or glorious — by all means, drop it in the comments.

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The … cozy catastrophe?

At tor.com, James Davis Nicoll: Four Stories That Subvert the Cosy Catastrophe Genre

My first response: There is something that fits a sub-sub-genre called “cozy catastrophe”? Apparently this is enough of a thing that there are also multiple books that subvert the common tropes of this category. What could this sub-sub-genre be? What sort of catastrophe is “cozy?”

My second response: Hmm, still not coming up with anything that could be described in this way.

So let’s take a look at the article and see what Nicoll has to say:

It seems that some authors are happy to kill off most of humanity as long there’s interstellar colonization. Perhaps getting rid of most of the population is the point? Jo Walton would describe this as a cosy catastrophe. Finally, an end to all those other people while the virtuous get a brand-new world.

Oh, so this is Jo Walton’s term? Let us pause and click through to Walton’s post on this topic:

Cosy catastrophes are science fiction novels in which some bizarre calamity occurs that wipes out a large percentage of the population, but the protagonists survive and even thrive in the new world that follows. They are related to but distinct from the disaster novel where some relatively realistic disaster wipes out a large percentage of the population and the protagonists also have a horrible time. The name was coined by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, and used by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by analogy to the cosy mystery, in which people die violently but there’s always tea and crumpets.

Huh. Well, this is a new one on me.

I am not completely on board with this concept. For example, let’s consider SM Stirling’s Dies The Fire. In this world, all electronics quit working and we’re back to swords and horses and so on. The primary protagonists do indeed survive and thrive, eventually. But cozy? I wouldn’t say so. They have lots of struggles and not many crumpets. This isn’t cozy. It’s an adventure story. Is Jo Walton familiar with a significant number of stories like this, except with afternoon tea rather than dire struggles against bad guys?

She would say yes. You can click through and read her post, if you wish. I haven’t read any of her examples. Day of the Triffids is the one she uses to define the type.

Triffids are odd, interesting little plants that grow in everyone’s garden. Triffids are no more than mere curiosities—until an event occurs that alters human life forever. What seems to be a spectacular meteor shower turns into a bizarre, green inferno that blinds everyone and renders humankind helpless. What follows is even stranger: spores from the inferno cause the triffids to suddenly take on a life of their own. They become large, crawling vegetation, with the ability to uproot and roam about the country, attacking humans and inflicting pain and agony. William Masen somehow managed to escape being blinded in the inferno, and now after leaving the hospital, he is one of the few survivors who can see. And he may be the only one who can save his species from chaos and eventual extinction . . .

I am not sure this sounds all that cozy. But I haven’t read it. Maybe it feels less like a dire struggle than this description makes it sound.

Well, back to Nicoll’s post:

Firefly’s backstory provides a marvelous example of the sort of thing I don’t ever want to see again: The Earth was somehow used up, despite which an astonishingly homogeneous subset of humanity managed to make it to another star system armed with the exact sort of terraforming technology that should have made repairing Earth easy-peasy.

I grant, that is indeed implausible. Though the people who colonized space don’t seem all that homogeneous to me, so that is an odd complaint. But it’s true that if you could terraform a planet like Mars, you could certainly turn around and repair Earth. No question there.

Nicoll’s goes on to describe four books he feels subverts this general type. Without going on and on about whether the type exists and whether “cozy” is a appropriate adjective, I will say that this first one sounds really kind of neat:

A UN report predicting the near-certainty of nuclear war spurred a golden age of space colonization R&D. Twenty years later, atomic war having failed to materialize, the product of that R&D was available for a group of Quakers to purchase as surplus. Imagine their surprise when they reached their destination to hear only ominous silence from the Solar System. Apparently, that UN report was correct after all, and Earth has perished in fire. Except, as we learn at the beginning of the novel, that is not quite correct either. Foxfield’s colonists, isolated for generations, must deal with sudden and unexpected contact from a world they assumed dead.

I never heard of Still Forms on Foxfield. Sounds intriguing! It does not, however, appear to be available as an ebook. It IS available as a paper book. Copies range from a non-insane $18 to a remarkably insane $920, which may be the highest price I’ve seen for an out-of-print used book. Wow.

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This is nice

Blue whales are doing better than I realized.

Back from the brink of extinction, blue whales return to South Georgia

So far, 41 blue whales in South Georgia have been photo-identified between 2011 and 2020. None of the South Georgia whales matched the profiles of the 517 whales in the Antarctic blue whale photographic catalogue.

“We don’t quite know why it has taken the blue whales so long to come back,” Calderan said. “It may be that so many of them were killed at South Georgia that there was a loss of cultural memory in the population that the area was a foraging ground, and that it is only now being rediscovered.”

Still fewer than 600 catalogued individuals, but it’s certainly good to see this species slowly increasing in numbers and reappearing in historical regions.

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“Due to” does not mean “because of” — or does it?

So, I ran into this particular detail of grammar because I said to a student, “Due to basically means the same thing as “because of –” and then paused, feeling that perhaps this was not the case, but not sure.

So, given this sudden uncertainty, I poked around and found this article:

“Because Of” and “Due To”

Many are of the opinion that both of the pairs refer to the same thing, and that they can be used as synonyms. This is an absolute misconception. They cannot be used interchangeably because they do not belong to the same classification. When the classification is not the same, how can the usage be?

By “classification,” they mean that “due to” acts as an adjective, while “because of” acts as an adverb.

Interesting! And possibly why I suddenly paused, but I’m not sure. Let me try this out:

“Due to that dragon, we find sheep difficult to raise here.” Okay, is “due to” an adjective? I would not say it is modifying the noun, but it certainly applies to the noun.

“Because of that dragon …” looks exactly the same to me. But perhaps that is actually not technically correct? The linked post would say, I think, that this sentence should be re-written more like this, “We find sheep difficult to raise here because of that dragon.” The idea is that “because” applies to finding the sheep difficult to raise, not to the dragon. Hmm. I’m finding this distinction a little difficult to grasp.

The post suggests this:

One trick you can use is to substitute “due to” with “caused by.” If the substitution does not work, then you probably shouldn’t use “due to” there.

I’m happy to find a nice little trick when a rule does not really work for me. I’m also perfectly okay with suggesting to students that they use “caused by” instead of “due to,” for a different reason: many English instructors illustrate the concept of “too wordy” with the phrase “due to the fact that.” Since this tends to mean that instructors dislike any phrase containing “due to,” it’s probably tactically wise to avoid the latter phrase.

However, I will just note that every single English book that says “due to the fact that” is too wordy suggests replacing that phrase with because.

If any of you would like to dust off your grammarian hat and clarify all this, be my guest.

One little trick that DOES work for me is:

That does not have a comma in front. If you want to put a comma there, use which.

Of course, using this particular rule means you’d better have a general feel for where commas go. But that’s how I do that one. I never think about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. That’s too hard to remember. Comma = which, and there you go.

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Post-Thanksgiving Update

So, I didn’t quite finish Tarashana. Two reasons: the weather was pretty nice, and, as always, the draft is stretching out with more words than I expected and therefore is taking a little more time than I really thought it would. (Even though I TOTALLY ALLOWED FOR THAT. Regardless of how much I allow for that sort of expansion, it’s never enough.)

I didn’t write 80 pages over the four-day weekend, but I did write 72, so that wasn’t so far off. The manuscript is up to 198,000 words, which is, yes, fairly ridiculous. It’s going to wind up just a bit longer than the first Tuyo draft. Which is fine, but still, kind of a ridiculous length. But there we are. I will trim it back before anyone sees it, but at least one person is going to get a longish version with a request to, among other things, note if and when something is too slow or boring or whatever.

What I did over the weekend: wrote the climactic scene, mainly. This is not a big battle scene. You might say it’s a more intimate battle scene. A little rough on various characters. You might say that Ryo and Aras had a pretty brutal Thanksgiving. But, I trust this is not too much of a spoiler, they are recovering now. More or less.

I had written three chapters past that point, so I connected up the climax to those post-battle recovery chapters. That’s a big accomplishment. I’ve been looking forward very much to getting through this part.

What’s left: The denouement. Two important denouement scenes plus transitions. I trust I can get this section to flow from one of the important scenes to the other in some not-too-jarring way, even though they’re not intrinsically related to each other. Except that both are important to Ryo.

I would very much like to finish this before NEXT Monday, so that I have time to fiddle around with Tenai and get that trilogy in shape to send out to readers and put covers in motion and all that, before Christmas break starts. I would prefer to open up the month of Christmas Break so I can work on something different during that time. We’ll see.


I do not like pumpkin pie, but I do like to do something pumpkin-pie-adjacent for Thanksgiving. This year, I made a pumpkin cheesecake that turned out really well. I added marshmallows for extra Thanksgiving cred, since we weren’t making those yams with marshmallows, something I remember fondly from when I was a kid. Just in case any of you might like to try this, here is the recipe:

No Bake Pumpkin Marshmallow Cheesecake

3 8-oz pkg cream cheese

1 1/2 C pumpkin puree

1 1/4 to 1 3/4 C powdered sugar, depending on whether you add the marshmallows

1 tsp pumpkin pie spice, which I didn’t have, so I used cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, mace, and cloves, all of which I did have. I didn’t bother looking up the proportions typical for pumpkin pie spice. I just used a quarter teaspoon of each of those, except heavy on the nutmeg and ginger and light on the cloves.

1 tsp vanilla

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1/4 c water

3/4 C cream, whipped

Half a bag of miniature marshmallows, or so

Graham cracker crust or vanilla wafer crust or whatever; actually, I made this without a crust of any kind. That’s why I added the gelatin, which was not included in the original recipe. I needed this cheesecake to stand up firmly because I wasn’t going to have a crust that would help support it. But use a crust if you wish, and if you do, then if you prefer to leave out the gelatin, fine. Just whip the cream extra stiff and probably that will work fine.


Soften the cream cheese — I just microwave it briefly — and beat it with the pumpkin and powdered sugar. If you aren’t going to add marshmallows, use the larger amount of sugar. If you are, then perhaps the smaller amount, but it would probably be fine either way. You can start with a smaller amount, taste the batter, and adjust, of course.

Beat in the spices and vanilla.

Stir the gelatin into the water and microwave on low power just to melt the gelatin. Stir to make sure the gelatin is dissolved. Add that to the cheesecake batter and beat in.

Beat the cream until stiff.

Cream always whips just fine, except for mine this past Thanksgiving, which WOULD NOT WHIP. That was a new one on me. Fortunately, since it is a 40-minute round trip to the grocery store, my mother had a different carton of cream. HER cream whipped just fine, thus establishing that the problem was with my cream, not my mixer. I was utterly boggled by this experience and would really like to know what the stuff in my carton WAS. It wasn’t cream. I think it was ordinary milk? One person on Facebook said she had that happen to her this spring. Has anyone else ever opened a carton of cream and found out it wasn’t cream, but milk? Or maybe half and half?

Anyway, my mother’s cream whipped, which was a relief.

One way or another, get the cream whipped until it is stiff and fold it gently into the pumpkin cheesecake batter until thoroughly combined. You could substitute 6 oz of Cool Whip, if you can stand Cool Whip, which I do not like, but at least I imagine Cool Whip is always whipped when you buy it and therefore does not involve the risk of staring at frothy milk that is not turning into cream.

Fold in all but a handful of the marshmallows.

Spread the cheesecake batter over your crust, if you are using a crust, or into an 8-inch springform pan, or whatever size springform pan you have, or a pie pan, or whatever. One of the joys of no-back cheesecakes is it just does not matter what kind of container you put this in. Divide it up between little glass dessert dishes if you prefer and that will also work just fine. Whatever you do with it, sprinkle with the remaining marshmallows.

Chill overnight. Remove the rim of the springform pan, if that’s what you used, and serve.

Very nice for those of us who prefer a less pumpkiny dessert that is still in the pumpkin pie family. One hundred percent of spaniels surveyed also agreed this was tasty.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

I think we would all prefer a calmer, less stressful year for 2021, but still, most of us hopefully have a lot to be thankful for. I certainly do.


She is doing so much better at this point than I expected a month ago. Look how alert she is in this picture! She can go up stairs now. If she gets started right, she can leap up two steps at a time, just like a young dog! I prefer that she let me carry her down, but she sometimes thinks she can manage. She can keep up with the other dogs again on walks, so she really does not need special walks of her own any longer.

2. TUYO, NIKOLES, and (almost) TARASHANA. I am very pleased with how this series is going so far!

3. COPPER MOUNTAIN and the new covers for all the Black Dog books. The story collections should all have their new covers before Christmas. Also, I will have a cover for the fifth novel waiting for me to actually write the book. What a project! But nearly there, whew.

4. Although sales and KU reads are not yet where I want them — I would certainly not want to support myself and the horde of spaniels solely from writing just yet — the improvement since the beginning of the year is really good and I hope foreshadows still better things to come. Royalties from Amazon in October were nearly 14x higher than this past January. I have been working really hard since May to do things to boost sales. I still have soooo much to learn about all these marketing things, but I’m cautiously pleased with the results of my efforts so far. Sales and especially KU reads are still up since the Black Dog sale, too. I hope that lasts for some time!

5. My parents are still healthy, or at least, as healthy as they were pre-Covid. They’ve been very isolated, but since they’re highly introverted, they’re doing fine. Covid cases are up in this county, more so proportionately than in most big cities because we had so few cases until basically now. But, fingers crossed, we ought to have a vaccine pretty soon.

That’s my top five personal things to be grateful for this year. If you’re particularly grateful for something that happened this year, by all means share that in the comments! It would be nice to hear about good things that happened for people this year.

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