Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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In praise of childhood favorites that have lost their magic

At Book Riot, a nice post from Laura Sackton: In praise of childhood favorites that have lost their magic

I recently reread A Wrinkle in Time, one of the most beloved books from my childhood. I’d just given the graphic novel version to my five-year-old nephew, who loved it, and with the recent movie, the book has been on my mind. I decided to listen to it on audio, one of my favorite ways to reread books.

The audiobook is excellent. I enjoyed falling back into a world that I loved so much as a kid. I wasn’t disappointed by it, I didn’t dislike it, and I didn’t find it troubling or problematic like some other childhood favorites I’ve revisited. It was perfectly good. But it didn’t make me feel much. The magic was gone…. at first, this made me sad. I craved that feeling of immersion I’d had when I was a kid. I wanted A Winkle in Time to be what it had always been for me. …

Maybe these books don’t lose their magic because they’re not good enough, but because their magic is specific to the experience of childhood. Maybe there’s something in these books that speaks to the open curiosity of children, to the feeling of being a small human in a big world, or a young person with a brain still discovering itself. Maybe the very best books from our childhoods—the ones that shaped us, the ones that made us fall in love with reading and taught us how strong we were and showed us the dizzying array of possibilities in the universe—simply have a magic that adults can’t understand.

A wonderful point. Children’s books are meant for children (or should be). It’s not necessary for adults to love them (though they may).

I still find some of my childhood books touching and lovely — A Little Princess, say, and Little Women. I haven’t tried one of the wonderful E Nesbit stories, such as The Phoenix and the Carpet, for a very long time, so I’m not sure how that would work for me these days. I will add that I no longer care very much for A Wrinkle in Time, though I might eventually see the movie. I think every now and then of re-reading the Narnia chronicles. I wonder how those would strike me now?

This reminds me of a hilarious recent thread on Twitter, by Ursula Vernon, re-reading and commenting on Swiss Family Robinson — which I loved as a kid (so did she). Not the sort of book that is likely to stand up to a re-read, I gather. I had completely forgotten some of the details that catch Vernon’s sardonic eye. You really must click through and read that thread — especially if you remember Swiss Family Robinson.

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A fascinating article that is not likely to be helpful in fantasy worldbuilding …

Here’s an article that would probably be of much more practical use if you were writing a mystery or police procedural rather than a secondary-world fantasy: Cadaver Dogs – The Nose Knows

Twenty-three-years ago, Susan had a goal to train her black Lab puppy Tasha as an avalanche dog to save lives. But reality intervened. Susan recalls, “I didn’t plan to make a career out of finding the dead but that’s how it happened. Missions may start as rescues but most often wind up recoveries. At that point, I just wanted to bring missing family members back home.”

In 2001, Susan and Stacie met at a cadaver dog boot camp led by legendary trainer Andy Rebmann. There, dogs learned to find remains on the ground, hanging aboveground, buried, and hidden in objects. They practiced with samples as small as a tablespoon because, in real-life situations, remains can be scattered and tiny: bone fragments, teeth, blood, and adipocere (the post-mortem waxy tissue formed by anaerobic bacteria).

Really interesting. If I were going to include a search-and-rescue team, cadaver search or otherwise, I’d probably pick up a copy of Susan Purvis’ memoir Go Find, mentioned at the end of the linked article.

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I’m sure you all know that the most utterly classic sin —

It’s practically axiomatic that the greatest sin anybody can possibly commit on a farm is to fail to close the gate. Right? I’ve known that all my life. I think I was born knowing that!

Well, on Saturday evening, I got home, let the dogs out, prepared their supper, let the dogs in, called the laggards (“All good dogs can come have supper!”) and … the youngsters did not come in.

Of course sometimes they are busy digging holes or whatever so I called again. Then I went and looked. No dogs out in the main part of the yard. Then I went and looked around the corner. No dogs at the back of the house … but Leda standing by the wide open gate, looking up at me. (“Did you say something about supper?”) It turns out a guy had come over to do stuff in the yard, and he had failed to latch the gate.

This left Conner and Kimmie missing.

So I called Leda in and shut the gate and grabbed the phone and called my mother and gasped something like “Gate open! Puppies gone!” and dropped the phone and grabbed two leashes and ran for the door and ducked around to the side of the house with that gate and peered into the woods …

… all in one breathless rush, exactly as expressed above …

And saw two white tails waving about 100 meters away.

So I recovered something resembling wits and called the youngsters in a cheerful tone. Conner came bouncing toward me and Kimmie stayed exactly where she was (which turned out to be investigating a scattering of bones and feathers; I have never been happier to see the evidence of a hawk kill). I put Conner on leash and went and got Kimmie and came back to the house in time to tell my mother — who had run over in her robe and slippers — that everything was all right.

Then I posted vehement comments on Twitter and Facebook. Then I tried to recover my nerves, which took some time and required chocolate and much petting the dogs.

Then I spent some time deciding upon the appropriate wording of a sign to post inside each gate. Something like this:

But more … expressive. Perhaps something more like this:

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Josh Wimmer blogs the Hugos

Well, sometimes we are late to a party and sometimes we are REALLY late, but somehow I just stumbled across these blog entries from … ready for this? … 2009 and onward.

Seems that nine years ago Josh Wimmer started reading all the Hugo winners in order and writing a review of each in turn for io9.

Here on this page, the first eighteen:

The Demolished Man
They’d Rather Be Right
Double Star
Big Time
A Case of Conscience
Starship Troopers
A Canticle for Leibowitz
Stranger in a Strange Land
The Man in the High Castle
Way Station
The Wanderer
This Immortal
Dune
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Lord of Light
Stand on Zanzibar
The Left Hand of Darkness
Ringworld

I’ve read the first couple of reviews and dipped into a couple of others, and I must say, I finding Wimmer pretty sympatico so far. Plus he includes catchy phrases like “Stranger in a Strange Land is the Catcher in the Rye of SF” and “Ringworld is a lot like “Lost,” but there’s a crucial difference.” Don’t those headers make you want to read the relevant review?

Then here’s the page that covers these:

To Your Scattered Bodies Go
The Gods Themselves
Rendevouz with Rama
The Dispossessed
The Forever War
Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang
Gateway
Dreamsnake
Fountains of Paradise
The Snow Queen
Downbelow Station (“Here’s how you write a novel”)
Foundation’s Edge, plus Wimmer dwells on the Foundation series a good deal, which is too bad imo since I never got into the series at all.
Startide Rising

That takes us up to 1984 and seems to mark the end of these reviews.

I have very little urge to start at the beginning and read all the Hugo winners in order, but on the other hand it’s quite interesting to be reminded about them; to read these reviews and think about how the genre has changed from 1953 on up through the 1980s and onward. I’ve actually read … let me see … 20 of these, but I must admit some left very little impression. I remember practically nothing about Canticle, for example. But quite a lot of them I read multiple times, liked a lot, and wouldn’t mind revisiting. Every time I’ve walked past Ringworld lately, I’ve thought of taking it off the shelf and re-reading it. (It’s turned face out on the shelf so I can admire the Michael Whelan cover, so you can see why it catches my eye.)

Anyway, interesting set of reviews, which you may also find worth checking out.

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There are so many ways to fail

A quite beautiful essay at The Millions, by Emily Strelow: Us Animals: Writing the Natural World Back into the Human

There are so many ways for a nest to fail. So many ways for a sentence to fail. In my years as a field biologist I watched how the natural world dealt with the inevitability of failure—in life, mating, reproduction, predation. Unaware, I began to translate what I observed directly into my writing style….The survival rate for songbird offspring is only about 30 percent. … While doing nest monitoring on the Gila River, our crew monitored some 50-plus Southwestern willow flycatcher nests. … Over and over in the course of just one field season we watched this struggling population build, lose offspring, rebuild, and try all over again. I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, but this kind of constant reminder of life’s fragility crept its way into my perspective and prose.

Not an analogy I would have thought to draw. However, I have certainly been captured by Strelow’s essay because of the repeated nesting failures of the flycatchers that nest on the lights over my deck. Too much cold, stormy weather will kill the babies in some years; all of young nestlings died last year during an unrelenting three-day storm of violent winds and cold rains. In other years, the babies fledge into my yard, where they run the gamut of many spaniels and one (admittedly elderly) cat. This generally ends badly, though I try hard to keep an eye out for the fledglings.

The natural world is filled with dangers for fledglings. One year a turtle got one of the babies and ate its legs. I had to kill the poor thing myself to spare it further suffering. I’ve never felt quite the same about box turtles since.

I watched a pair of wrens lose three nests in one year to raccoons. I like wrens a lot. They built their nest somewhere else the next year, fortunately.

I don’t think I would like to monitor 50 nests a year. The failure rate would be hard on the heart.

I began to write stories about loss—and then survival—with the particular lens of a biologist. The people in my novel began to share traits with some of the animals I observed. My characters knew how to pick up the pieces and march on into the future. They didn’t make a big deal of it when their whole life fell apart, but moved on because they had to.

In The Dark Hand of Magic, Barbara Hambly has a secondary character lose his daughters — they are killed, to be plain — and later he says, “I’ll get over it, I know. I mean, people do.” This struck me hard at the time. I mean, people do. It’s the doubtful phrase of someone who has seen enough death to know that people do go on, even if he can’t quite imagine how.

Sharon Shinn captures the same type of moment in Fortune and Fate. “I don’t know if I can live with that,” one character says. And another answers, “But you already have.” It’s a powerful moment.

It’s shocking sometimes, to pause and consider what life was like for most people throughout most of history. Children die; loved ones die; whole villages are devastated by natural disaster or the Mongol horde. And then the survivors go on.

I don’t like quite that much tragedy in my fiction, usually.

Strelow post isn’t actually about death. It’s about how we are influenced by our environment, and by our biology. She finishes:

As Barbara Kingsolver said in Animal Dreams, “We’re animals. We’re born like every other mammal and we live our whole lives around disguised animal thoughts.” When I finally wrote my novel, I took this idea to heart. I wrapped the scientist, the mother, the writer, all together. I bundled her up and packed her through the desert, through a grassland, and down a swollen stream in order to try and understand in some small way what living as a human animal is all about.

I was interested enough to look up her novel, which it turns out is called — perhaps this is not surprising — The Wild Birds. Here is what Amazon says about it:


Cast adrift in 1870s San Francisco after the death of her mother, a girl named Olive disguises herself as a boy and works as a lighthouse keeper’s assistant on the Farallon Islands to escape the dangers of a world unkind to young women. In 1941, nomad Victor scours the Sierras searching for refuge from a home to which he never belonged. And in the present day, precocious fifteen year-old Lily struggles, despite her willfulness, to find a place for herself amongst the small town attitudes of Burning Hills, Oregon. Living alone with her hardscrabble mother Alice compounds the problem―though their unique relationship to the natural world ties them together, Alice keeps an awful secret from her daughter, one that threatens to ignite the tension growing between them.

Emily Strelow’s mesmerizing debut stitches together a sprawling saga of the feral Northwest across farmlands and deserts and generations: an American mosaic alive with birdsong and gunsmoke, held together by a silver box of eggshells―a long-ago gift from a mother to her daughter. Written with grace, grit, and an acute knowledge of how the past insists upon itself, The Wild Birds is a radiant and human story about the shelters we find and make along our crooked paths home.

Literary fiction, obviously. It has nine reviews so far, all five star, but I am not super-confident I would like it. All those awful secrets and growing tension! Well, I think I will get a sample just to see.

INCIDENTALLY, Shadow Twin has only 6 reviews so far. If you left one of them, thanks! If not, well …

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A taxonomy of fairies

So, I’m just getting caught up, more or less, with the Women in Fantasy posts at Fantasy Book Cafe, and I want to draw this one to your attention: An Incomplete Taxonomy of Fairies, with examples.

It caught my eye because anything combining “taxonomy” with fantasy tropes is just going to. Also, it sort of goes with the previous post, which tucked fairies into a natural history museum.

Here is how Jeanette Ng starts her post:

Mystical, mysterious and magnificent, everyone thinks they know fairies.

The word itself conjures up vivid images and subtle variations in spelling[1] can mean a world of difference. And so just as many (but not all) readers felt that there was something fundamentally un-vampire about sparkling in sunlight, any new incarnation of fairies needs one foot in the old…

Jeannette Ng covers Fairies as Other, Fairies as Just People, Fairies as Predators, Fairies as Abstractions, and Fairies as Mirrors. This categorization is interesting and perhaps useful and if you have a moment, you should click through and check it out. I particularly liked this footnote: “[1] I hazard to say that the rule of thumb is that the more e’s you have the more malevolent they are. So a “fairy” is a sparkly pixie of childhood whimsy and the more faux archaic spelling of “faerie” and “fey” are the dark adult creatures.”

“Fey” really is a vastly more adult looking word than “fairy,” isn’t it?

Okay, so, in no order:

1. Most horrifying fairies ever: The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín. This is not a book I see referred to often enough. It’s horrifying but quite readable even for me, and I don’t have that high a tolerance for horror. By a startling coincidence, I see the sequel (The Invasion) just came out last month. I had forgotten to look for it. Well, good to be reminded; now it’s very much on my radar.

2. Most delightful moment with a predatory fairy: Remember in The Fall of Ile-Rien, when a Redcap or some other kind of predatory fairy finds Tremaine by herself? He says, “You look tasty, little girl.” And she levels a gun at his face and replies, “So do you.” Such a classic Tremaine moment. I may have laughed out loud.

3. Best fairy folk in an urban fantasy: Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks. Who out there didn’t fall in love with the Pouka?

4. Best fairy folk in a high fantasy: CJC’s Arafel’s Saga. CJ Cherryh defined the Fair Folk for me in this duology.

5. Favorite Tam Lin: Hard to say. I liked Roses and Rot by Kat Howard quite a bit, though I don’t seem to have reviewed it. I should re-read it and then review it.

6. Favorite fairy dogs: I’m going to cheat and go for the not-entirely-fairy-like Wild Hunt in DWJ’s Dogsbody.

7. Favorite fairy curse: So many. I don’t know. Marillier’s Daughter of the Forest? Maybe Merrie Haskell’s The Princess Curse?

8. Most wonderful fairy name: The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair, in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrill. Also a contender for most horrifying fairy ever, although in a completely different way. The Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair is an example of a perfectly selfish, perfectly sociopathic, perfectly soulless Fairy.

9. Best story that takes place mostly within fairy society, with human people just around the edges: Knife by RJ Anderson. This also counts for “favorite curse,” but it’s the fairies themselves who are cursed, not the humans. Lots of wonderful twists to standard tropes in this one.

10. …..Your Choice Here……….

I just tossed these off the top of my head, so I’m sure I’m forgetting half my own favorites. What’s your favorite fairy/fairie/fey from fantasy?

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Hidden Elves

This is very cool: Hidden Elves at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Back in the 1970s, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science hired artist Kent Pendleton to paint the backdrops for many of the museum’s wildlife dioramas. Little did it know that Pendleton’s penchant for hiding tiny mythical creatures in these paintings would add a whole new dimension to the museum experience….It all began with eight elves—or gnomes, or leprechauns, depending who you ask—hidden in Pendleton’s wildlife dioramas. An elf hiding in the lowland river. An elf riding a dinosaur along a cretaceous creekbed. Another elf sat on a rock in the Great Smoky Mountains. And others, hard to spot but definitely there, in various backdrops throughout the museum.

Kent Pendleton is my kind of guy! What a delightful trick, and surely the museum didn’t mind. After all, this would surely entice patrons to linger over the exhibits, even if they pay as much attention to the backdrop paintings as the exhibits themselves.

When these eagle-eyed volunteers began to spot the museum’s incongruous and thoroughly unscientific inhabitants, the whole thing began to snowball. The staff decided to go along with the game, adding more elves and gnomes to the museum….

Wonderful!

Here is one of the pictures — but you should certainly click through and enjoy the others. Unless you’re in Denver. Then you should probably plan an in-person trip. I sure would; I love museums of nature and science.

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Perfect critiques

Today on The Passive Voice blog, two sentences of criticism that are too wonderful not to share.

The first is from the post “Women intellectuals and the withering quip.” It’s a line from a book review of Henry James, by a British writer, Rebecca West, who said:

“He splits hairs until there are no longer any hairs to split, and the mental gesture becomes merely the making of agitated passes over a complete and disconcerting baldness.”

That is indeed withering. Wow.

The second is a quote from The Passive Guy himself, regarding a legal complaint filed by an art collector. The Passive Guy extensively quotes this complaint. Then he comments:

“In PG’s staggeringly humble opinion, counsel for the upset purchaser has burst through florid and grandiloquent and is fully into rubicund territory with his complaint drafting style.

We will probably never know what happens behind closed doors, but PG would love to hear the judge’s response to the complaint during the first conference with counsel for plaintiff and defendants. PG can never recall seeing the word, “ouroboros” in a court document. PG wonders why counsel held back and did not utilize the even more obscure spelling of uroborus (which, he seems to recall reflects more accurately the pronunciation of the word).”

Hah!

Now I want to use the word “oroboros” in casual conversation today. Not sure I’m going to be able to pull that off.

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Terror is not the same thing as panic, and other quibbles

Okay, so, today I am going to lodge a complaint. Several complaints.

Modern writers need to figure out that “panic” and “terror” are not synonyms, and copy editors need to suggest when the former term, which is used all the time, should be replaced by the latter.

Terror is extreme fear.

Panic is extreme fear expressed in wild, mindless action.

It is just weird to say that your protagonist “froze in panic.” Freezing in place is not a consequence of panic, but of terror.

Also, “disinterested” is not the same as “uninterested.”

Also, “flaunt” is not remotely the same as “flout.”

Also, for heaven’s sake, stop using “literally” to mean “figuratively.” We need a word that means “literally” and there will be no need to invent another word to take on this meaning if we can just keep “literally” from being turned into its opposite.

Probably that one’s a losing battle.

Well, moving on. When an author writes, “this, far less that,” the second item should be the more extreme case. For some reason a lot of people write things like, “He’s not going to murder me, far less shout at me,” instead of the other way around.

The same is true for the similar phrase “let alone.” An author should not write, “She’s not into extreme hiking, let alone a casual stroll through the woods.”

You can string these types of phrases together, as in: “I can’t afford a skateboard, let alone a bicycle, much less a decent car and far less that fancy pink Cadillac.” When you do this, the items have to go in order of increasing unlikelihood.

I mention all this in full awareness that I personally have to squint at the screen and think about the sentence before deciding whether I meant “advise” or “advice.” Sometimes I accidentally type “breath” when I meant “breathe.” Once I had “cypress” in a story for an awfully long time before I realized I meant “Cyprus.” It’s not like I always demonstrate perfect word choices.

But panic is still not the same thing as terror.

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Have you ever gone on to the “sequel” of a classic?

Here at Book Riot: 8 PRIDE AND PREJUDICE SEQUELS FOR THE DISCERNING JANE AUSTEN FAN

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader who finishes reading Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice is in want of more to read. We already prepared one list of what to read when you want more Pride & Prejudice… and we still want more! What was married life like for Lizzie and Darcy? Whatever became of Mary and Kitty Bennett?….

Then we have a list of eight recent Pride and Prejudice “sequels.” Here is the one that actually sort of appeals to me:

LETTERS FROM PEMBERLEY: THE FIRST YEAR BY JANE DAWKINS
…Writing to her sister, Jane, Liz confides her uncertainty and anxieties, and describes the everyday of her new life. Her first year at Pemberley is sometimes bewildering, but Lizzy’s spirited sense of humor and satirical eye never desert her. Incorporating Jane Austen’s own words and characters from her other works, the book is a literary patchwork quilt piecing together the story of Lizzie’s first eventful year as Mrs. Darcy.

I wouldn’t have thought any of them would intrigue me at all, because in general I am not inclined to look up “sequels” to classics. For example, I love “Les Miserables” as a play, and after falling in love with it on the stage, I read the entire unabridged brick of a thing and actually enjoyed that too, even the looooong digressions about the sewers of Paris or whatever.

Then I found out about this:

The tale of Cosette continues in this sweeping, exhilarating epic that interweaves its own galaxy of characters and narrative with real events and historical figures. So says Goodreads. I find the whole idea of this book somewhat repellant. I suppose the word I’m looking for is pretentious. I didn’t know anything about Laura Kalpakian, but my instant reaction was: Who does she think she is? And, yes, I have something of the same response to the idea of sequels to Pride and Prejudice.

I think I’m more interested in stories that try to capture some of Austen’s flavor without actually trying to be a sequel qua sequel. I don’t feel that Liz’s letters would be really hers, since Austen didn’t write them; and I don’t think I could set that feeling aside and enjoy them even if they’re well-written and totally in keeping with Austen’s character.

Maybe I’m being too close-minded, though. How do you all feel about “sequels” written by someone other than the original author?

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