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A good post on grimdark —

Over at The Book Smugglers, by Mark Charon Newton, author of various titles plus a new book coming out soon, DRAKENFELD: Beyond Violence.

This guest post is enough to make me add DRAKENFELD to my wishlist so I don’t lose track of it. A “pseudo-classical crime fiction set in a secondary world”? Sounds interesting, especially when Newton says:

“I wanted to respond to the changing sentiment in genre discussion that I was observing a couple of years back, the sentiment that violence equated to a good book. I thought to myself that we can do better than that. It was also a bit of a challenge to myself as a writer. Could I get that same rush of adrenaline without stooping to violent pyrotechnics – which, potentially, possibly, I may have been guilty of in the past?

So that’s how the character Lucan Drakenfeld was born.”

You all know how I feel about grimdark. Ugh. Especially when its fans claim it is “realistic.” As if. Plus, I definitely like the idea of a neo-classical setting for a crime story where the main character is “cerebral, polite, and lacks a fascination with heaving bosoms.”

But the other reason you should click through and read the post is because the video snippets embedded in the post are entertaining. Especially if you love the movie “Groundhog Day.”

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Oh, hey, Martha Wells —

Has an interview up at Rising Shadow.

It’s mostly about her new Star Wars novel — has anybody read that yet? It’s on my TBR pile, but I kind of expect it to sit there for about a year or until I suddenly have a mad urge to re-read everything by her and then run out of titles to re-read and find the Star Wars book sitting there. And the Star Gate tie-in novels, too.

I’m not very familiar (actually, at all familiar) with the Star Gate universe, and only moderately familiar with the Star Wars universe. But so what? I’m pretty sure I’ll like any tie-ins that Martha Wells wrote. My path may even be backwards to everyone else: maybe I’ll read Wells’ Star Gate books and then get interested and watch some of the show. Did any of you watch Star Gate? What did you think of it?

And who’s with me in writing off the later Star Wars movies and basically ignoring everything past the original three?

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Don’t you want to be able to assign books to your friends?

So, at Archon, it was amazing how often I’d say something like, “But there’s an excellent older female protagonist in Bujold’s PALADIN OF SOULS. In fact, Cordelia Naismith is also a great older woman protagonist.”

And then whomever I was talking to (Sharon Shinn, say) would admit that they hadn’t read much by Bujold although they did want to, someday, when they had time . . .

And I wanted SO MUCH to be able to just write out a top-ten list of books and make Sharon read them! Because she would love them! And who knows when she will ever find time to get through her whole current TBR pile to the books I WANT HER TO READ.

You ever feel that way? Because I feel that way all the time. So even though I have no authority to assign books to anyone, I’m going to indulge myself for a moment and pretend I can.

IF YOU LOVE ROMANCES, YOU MUST READ —
The Medair duology, by Andrea Höst
Archangel, by Sharon Shinn
Shards of Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold
The Beacon at Alexandria, by Gillian Bradshaw

Seriously! I’m not kidding! Doesn’t matter whether the setting is fantasy, SF, or historical — all of these are great stories and also great romances. Trust me: if you love romances, you will love these.

IF YOU LOVE STORIES THAT IMMERSE YOU IN THE PROTAGONIST’S DAY-TO-DAY LIFE —
The Touchstone Trilogy, by Andrea Höst
A Stranger to Command, by Sherwood Smith
Thursday’s Children, by Rumer Godden

It’s hard to write a book that has that day-to-day feel and also captures the reader’s attention. All of these do exactly that. There is a strong theme of learning something or developing your ability to do something in each of these books. Don’t tell me you don’t like SF or don’t like fantasy or don’t like historical settings. If you love the day-to-day feel of a story, you will love these.

Let’s see, what’s another category of books I keep wanting to make people read? Oh, here’s one:

IF YOU LOVE GREAT SPACE OPERA —
Tanya Huff’s VALOR series

Too many people who really enjoy space opera — adventure stories with space ships instead of swords, as my agent commented recently — anyway, if you already love the Vorkosigan books (and who doesn’t?), then don’t turn your back on military SF, which intergrades very thoroughly with space opera. The one military SF series I most want to make people read is the Valor series, which I just stumbled upon by accident. Lots more people ought to read it.

So, put down all those shiny new books that just got released in September and read the above titles immediately. I’ll expect a book report on all of them before Halloween. Twelve pages minimum, double-spaced.

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Cover reveal —

No, not for my BLACK DOG; I’ve only seen a (fantastic) image that the artist or cover designer is using as inspiration, so no sketches have yet come my way. Definitely not an actual cover!

But I noticed this on Twitter this morning and thought I’d share:

You may remember I mentioned this one? It’s the one where Merrie Haskell has exactly one character on stage for about a third of the book? This unusual structure actually gives the story a kick upward in intensity even though the actual narration is day-to-day.

This is the first book I ever read the rough draft of before the final version appears on shelves (other than mine, obviously), and I kind of seem to be feeling a bit proprietary or something about it. I’m certainly very interested in how the final version turns out compared to the polished-but-not-finalized version I saw.

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Archon 2013 — a busy weekend

Lots of panels! What’s trending in YA (I wish I knew, right?), how to maintain belief when you write SFF, building UF worlds rather than secondary worlds, etc.

One useful thing: I was reminded that not everyone knows the terms “secondary world” or, with contemporary UF settings, “open” vs “closed” worlds. Next time this stuff comes up, I’ll be sure to define terms right up front so the whole audience can definitely follow the conversation. Heck, I remember when *I* didn’t know those terms — not so very long ago, really. We had a nice conversation about how it can be easier for the writer if you have a world which just “opened” recently but used to be “closed.” Believability certainly comes into it either way: why is the world so similar to ours if there are vampires, whether people know about the vampires or not?

A small convention really does give most or all panels a conversational feel, which is nice, though of course bigger conventions have their charms, too. I was also happy because a lot more people attended readings this year than last. Sharon’s reading of her new book ROYAL AIRS definitely makes me want the book, because I really want to know what happens next. I don’t usually do readings, but Sharon said my BLACK DOG excerpt sounded fine and the audience said nice things about the bit I read. So that was good.

Also, in smaller conventions? Some of the venders that are there every year will recognize you! It was entertaining how a couple of venders visibly perked up when they saw me coming! (Yes, I bought stuff from them both — very cool copper-and-cloisonne earrings from one woman, and music cds from a guy). Plus, the only real book dealer there recognized me and pointed out his copies of HOUSE OF SHADOWS for me to sign, which was nice. I’m not shy about volunteering to sign books for dealers, but I didn’t see he had those copies until he pointed to them.

I was sorry, though, that Donato’s print of The Cartographer sold before I could buy it. I was pretty sure I was going to get it, but no. It’s a snazzy piece, which I hope he doesn’t mind if I borrow from his website:

I guess I could get a copy from his website, and in fact that is tempting.

I only bought three books, which may be a record — but I picked up quite a few lest month. One of those was INDA by Sherwood Smith, so I bought all three sequels even though I haven’t read INDA yet. I’m totally trusting my commenters here that I will love this series. Seems like a pretty safe bet since you all have excellent taste.

Then, since I didn’t happen to have anything scheduled on Sunday, I wound up staying home that day. Staying home was exhausting, since I spent a lot of the morning tearing a huge haystack of weeds out of my front garden. I’m going to be redoing that whole area next spring — the rugosa roses were great for several years, then gradually and mysteriously died, so the whole area looks terrible now. I’m going to try some small viburnums, some of the new ever-flowering sterile buddleias, maybe some tough miscanthus grasses, maybe crape myrtles — very tough plants that should (I hope) do well with minimal upkeep. I will tear my hair and gnash my teeth if those plants also slowly and mysteriously die. I will also suspect some horrible chemical or gas leak is under the ground somewhere, since the area seems fine as far as I can tell.

Tonight: staying home so I can carefully go over this one 30 pp. chunk of BLACK DOG according to my editor’s comments. She feels the pacing is slow through that section at the moment (she is right, too). Then I will be done with it and can send it back. Not bad, really — two multiple-paragraph chunks needed a bit of work, and then this one large section needs work, but everything else was just removing repeated words and small stuff like that.

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Recent Reading: SHADOWS by Robin McKinley

So I didn’t actually drop everything to read Robin McKinley’s SHADOWS the moment it arrived. But I did read it within the week. That’s rather rare for me, and rarer when I have to overcome serious guilt in order to read a book (But the PURE MAGIC revision! I should be doing the PURE MAGIC revision!).

I mean, usually I just have to overcome normal authorial guilt in order to read a new book (Uh, shouldn’t I be writing something? Maybe it’s about time to start working on a new project?) And that kind of guilt is a constant, so I’m used to beating it down with a stick so I can have a life.

But hey, how often does McKinley bring out a new title, right? So there you go. Plus Wednesday I had a broken evening, bad for working – I like long blocks of more or less uninterrupted time for actual work – but fine for reading. Plus, editorial comments for BLACK DOG hadn’t arrived yet, luckily (I got those yesterday.)

So, yeah, SHADOWS. Did you notice this one is dedicated to Diana Wynne Jones? I point this out because out of all of McKinley’s books, this is the one that to me reads the most like a DWJ story. If I didn’t know McKinley wrote it . . . if I didn’t pick up a handful of stylistic details that are common to McKinley’s work . . . I could totally believe this book had actually been written by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s not just that the prose reads like DWJ to me, though it does, but also the story itself also reads like a DWJ story. The close focus on family – on a broken family, now opening up to include a new stepfather. The creepy shadows hanging out around the stepfather. Oldworld and Newworld (and Farworld and so forth), with magic so much more common in Oldworld and so violently repressed in Newworld . . . yep, it all feels very DWJ.

I really enjoyed the family-and-friends dynamic in SHADOWS. I particularly loved the relationship between Maggie and her mom. Maggie tries so hard not to show how much her new stepfather creeps her out because she doesn’t want to hurt her mother; and her mother, though she badly wants her daughter to be friends with her new husband, tries so hard not to hurt Maggie by shoving the new relationship down her throat.

I loved the relationship between Maggie and Takahiro, too, and I loved how Takahiro was not the gorgeous-sensitive-uber-perfect boyfriend at all. And yet he is still a guy you can totally care about. (Casimir worried me at first, but I liked how that worked out in the end.) I really enjoyed the relationship between Maggie and her best friend, Jill – actually, it drove me briefly nuts that Maggie wasn’t telling Jill what was going on, but then she did, so that was all right after all.

Naturally I loved the stepfather, Val. I would have liked to hear more about his actual backstory. If McKinley wrote a sequel . . . not that that is likely . . . I would hope to find out a lot more about Val. Only Maggie’s brother, Ran, seemed one-dimensional and actually, I must admit, kind of superfluous to the story, which would not have been very much affected by his total absence. Again, if there were to be a sequel, I would expect Ran to take on more depth as a character. This book could totally use a sequel, btw, not that it doesn’t stand on its own because it does, but the world is in a kind of unstable place at the time the story closes.

And, yes, okay, naturally I loved the dogs! Thank heaven Robin McKinley really understands dogs – nobody with any sense is going to read this and decide they want a border collie just like Mongo, because McKinley really captures typical border collie nuttiness. I wondered at first why in the world she put a border collie in particular in this book, but then, you know, sheep, so that explained that.

I spent the whole book cheering Maggie’s perfectly correct comments about training (“If your dog doesn’t do what you want, it’s always your fault”) and appreciating my totally-non-crazy Cavaliers. I enjoyed the other dogs, too, and how McKinley captured the graciousness and dignity of the wolfhound and the good-humored arrogance of the staffie perfectly in so few words. And for the cat people out there, there’s a pretty neat cat, too (I’m a fan of both, naturally, and since my cat is Maine-Coon-ish, I especially appreciated the Maine Coon in this story). Though the critter that readers are going to actually dream about having as a companion is Hix, I expect. (Probably not the sheep.) (The sheep made me laugh.)

So – yes, this is definitely a title you should pick up if you’re a McKinley fan. Or a DWJ fan. Or a reader who appreciates the presence of accurately depicted dogs in a story. This is a fast, light read that I think almost anyone would enjoy, but it’s definitely a must for any teenage girls you know who are dog crazy — along, btw, with DWJ’s DOGSBODY.

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Great Cookbooks

So, you may have noticed that it’s not getting light so early in the morning anymore. That’s too bad! The one thing I dislike most about winter is the short days. But the dark mornings do give me time to do housework, since I can’t take the dogs out for their run until it gets light. That means I just finished dusting my kitchen.

This is a big job. It takes about three days, figuring forty-five minutes per day. The kitchen island is the worst, since I have a lot of cookbooks and about thirty of them are displayed on the kitchen island. All of those books have to be individually dusted and set aside before the island itself can be dusted, and then they all have to be put back. So it’s satisfying to have the whole kitchen dusted and perfect, but I don’t do it, like, every week or anything.

Now, this time, while taking all the books off the island and dusting them, I thought it would be nice to just point out a few of my favorites. Hopefully some of you like to cook, and some of you might like to hear about great cookbooks even if you don’t cook very much. I promise you, none of these books offers merely a collection of naked recipes. Cookbooks that offer nothing but recipes are so boring; at minimum, a cookbook should offer a brief, interesting description about each recipe, the sort of thing that makes you actually want to make the dish, right?

Okay, then! Ten really great cookbooks (and a few extra titles I just wanted to include), in no particular order:

1. One of my favorite books that offers the flavor (if you will) of a particular historical period is Shakespeare’s Kitchen: Renaissance Recipes for the Contemporary Cook by Francine Segan.

Segan offers many period recipes (“Take your Chickens, drawe them and wash them, then breake their bones, and lay them in a platter, then take foure handfuls of fine flower, and lay it on a faire boord, put thereto twelve yolks of Egs, a dish of butter, and a little Saffron; mingle them altogether, and make yout paste therewith. . . .”)

But fear not! Most of the space is taken up by much more do-able contemporary recipes, each with its little comment relating the recipe to the cooking of the era. Like, under Duck Breast with Gooseberries, Segan explains what kinds of fowl were actually eaten by people in Elizabethan England (cranes, really?) and adds that in the original recipe, the duck would have been boiled. Her own version offers the crisp skin we prefer today.

This is a beautiful book, with lots of color pictures of finished dishes and smaller black-and-white pictures of English landscapes, lots of little quotes from Shakespeare’s plays, and lots of snippets of information about the culinary culture of the period. It’s the kind of cookbook I like best – the kind that makes you want to read it from cover to cover, just like a novel. The kind that sets you dreaming of a different time and place. It would go perfectly with a good murder mystery or historical romance set in Elizabethan England.

I haven’t made too many recipes out of this book, but I have made the cover recipe – Almond Saffron Chicken in Bread (that is, a bread bowl). It was attractive and not at all difficult. I did not require diners to wear Elizabethan dress to the table, though that would be a fun idea.

2. Instead of traveling in time, how about a journey in space? For a cookbook that is also almost a travelogue, anything by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid is great. After a minute or so of paralyzed indecision, I picked one of theirs almost at random for this list: Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia. This is the one that traces a journey along the Mekong river, starting in southern China and eventually running winding up with Laos and Vietnam.

Like all their books, the photography is topnotch, and the little anecdotes about their travels add priceless interest to the recipes. This is as much a lovely coffee-table book as a working cookbook – but it is definitely a working cookbook. I’ve made quite a few recipes from this book – it’s this kind of book that makes me keep lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in the freezer, and of course everyone needs a recipe for sweet coconut rice.

3. In my opinion, the best cuisine in the world is Indian. Alford and Duguid have a book that focuses on Indian food (Mangoes and Curry Leaves), but there are so many fabulous Indian cookbooks out there. I love Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahne, but I must admit that the single Indian cookbook I reach for most often is Raghavan Iyer’s 660 Curries.

This is because, well, 660 recipes. Whatever ingredient you have in mind, Iyer’s book will probably offer at least half a dozen recipes that focus on that ingredient. Did you just visit an international grocery store and pick up fenugreek greens on a whim? Iyer has plenty of recipes that include fenugreek greens. Are your eggplants producing a LOT of fruit and you’re bored with fried eggplant and eggplant parmigiana? Never fear: Iyers offers dozens of ways to fix eggplant. You can make a different eggplant dish every week all summer. I always add a little note to the book when I try a dish, so I know whether I want to make it again and anything I want to change.

Indian cooking is very approachable, more so (in my opinion) than SE Asian or Chinese. I’m usually very pleased with any Indian dish I make. Sure, there can be lots of spices and flavorings, but once you lay in a supply of those, the actual preparations are often very simple. Granted, I love my Preethi spice grinder, but you can buy all kinds of curry powders and masalas ready-made. And, of course, if you want to emphasize vegetarian cooking, well, no cuisine makes better vegetarian food than Indian. If I were suggesting one Indian cookbook for someone just getting interested in the cuisine, I might suggest something by Madhur Jaffrey instead. But 660 Curries would be a good second title to pick up.

4. I don’t make Chinese food as often as Indian, but when I’m in the mood for Chinese, I usually start by picking up one of my books by Fushia Dunlop – Land of Plenty, say. Dunlop is one of the few (the only?) Western chef to train at the premier Chinese cooking school. I love her sections on ingredients and techniques, I love her anecdotes about cooking and eating in China, I love her notes about Chinese history.

When I was listening to the audiobook The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones I was really pleased to be able to look through Dunlop’s The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which echoed the history and food featured in Mones’ novel. I don’t always stop with Dunlop – her recipes can be a little too authentic for me; sometimes I want something more aimed at contemporary American tastes – but her books are my favorites for browsing through.

5. I do a lot of baking. I usually make my own yeast breads – rolls or sliced loaves keep just fine in the freezer, and I just thaw bread as I want it. I’m a little lactose intolerant, so I don’t usually have cold cereal for breakfast – instead, I make muffins or scones or pancakes. Muffins freeze just fine, btw, but I like fresh-baked scones, and did you know you can pat scone dough out into a circle, freeze it on the baking sheet, cut the frozen dough into wedges, wrap the wedges in plastic, and then store them frozen, unbaked? Then you can just bake them as you want them. They barely even take longer to bake when you start with frozen dough.

I would get totally bored always making the same kind of muffins or scones or whatever, and the single cookbook that adds the most interest to baking for me is the King Arthur Whole Grain Baking book. I love the way it explains the characteristics of different kinds of grains and flours and I love how different kinds of flour add interest to baked goods. And I love the tips sprinkled through the book – this is where I learned you can freeze scone dough in wedges. My favorite scone is from this book – Coconut Scones – I add the optional chocolate chips, of course! These are very good and very rich.

Now I want scones, but since it’s eight in the evening, I guess I will restrain myself.

I don’t usually use the cookie recipes in this book — I usually want much fancier kinds of cookies for Christmas baking, not simple cookies for ordinary lunches. And I almost never make pies – my mother is the go-to person for pies. But what I can say for sure is that I love the quick breads and the yeast breads, and that I reach first for this cookbook when I’m looking for something interesting to make for breakfast.

6 & 7. While on the subject of baking, if you want an extended education on yeast breads and a whole lot of professional recipes, you really should try The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. Or if cakes are your thing, I am so impressed by Rose’s Heavenly Cakes by Rose Levy Beranbaum. Either of those books will explain why baked goods behave the way they do, why different kinds of flour lead to different outcomes, and how to make seriously perfect baked goods. Plus, both of these are beautiful books, with the kind of presentation that will leave you eager to try the recipes. It’s these kinds of books which prevent me from even considering a permanent low-carb or low-gluten diet.

8. Okay, how about a different kind of focus? For someone like me, who has a small home orchard, it’s really important to be able to find a lot of recipes for peaches, say, or apricots, or plums, without having to search through a lot of recipe cards or books. Nigel Slater’s book Ripe is a great book to turn to when your orchard (or your farmer’s market) suddenly explodes with one or two particular kinds of produce.

It’s not all fruit, but it’s almost all tree crops – stone fruits (peaches, plums, apricots), pomme fruits (apples and pears), and nuts, including chestnuts. Also some fruits that few people grow but that do suddenly glut the market now and then and here and there, like figs. That was handy when my fig tree unexpectedly ripened a bunch of figs midsummer, which fig trees do not generally do in Missouri. Also a few smaller kinds of fruits, like gooseberries or blackberries. It’s all seasonal stuff, and the recipes are appealing and wide-ranging, though oriented more toward the British cook (“golden syrup” is not easily available here, for example). This is a handsome book that will make you swoon away with longing for summer.

9 & 10. And last, some cookbooks are really books of essays with recipes, and some of those are lots of fun to read. Two that probably aren’t that well known, but are my personal favorites, are Tom Harte’s Stirring Words and Al Sicherman’s Caramel Knowledge.

Tom Harte’s essays, usually including a bit of historical trivia and a nice turn of phrase, are all collected at the front of the book (the recipes cited in the essays are in the back). Aphrodisiacs, Baklava, Romantic Dinners (“They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I don’t know how true that is, but I do know that if my wife is going to whisper something soft and sweet in my ear, I’d just as soon she say ‘lemon meringue pie.’”) Sugarplums (“I must have read the poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ hundreds of times – even had to memorize it for a school play when I was in the first grade. And yet, despite all those readings, I never thought much about what sugarplums are, let alone why they were dancing.”) Harte’s recipes are inviting, reliably good, and decidedly biased towards desserts. I really liked the lemon bars with a layer of chocolate in them. I need to make those again.

Al Sicherman’s essays have the recipes integrated into each essay. They’re collected from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and if he ever had another book of collected essays published, I wish I knew about it, because these are the funniest cooking essays I’ve ever read. The one on how impossible it is to get popovers to fail is hilarious! Especially because of the reader who then sent Sicherman a box of hocky-puck-like popovers which had failed to pop. There’s a great cookoff between Sicherman and a colleague – she made three Viennese desserts and he made three French desserts, and in the end they had to agree to disagree about which country’s desserts are the best.

Sicherman is the kind of guy who would, during National Hot Dog Month, make a full menu in which every dish featured hot dogs. This was before Iron Chef started doing that kind of thing. Then there was the Food In A Cloud menu. And the rhyming recipes – that’ll make you laugh out loud. My all-time favorite is probably the British Mystery Dinner, though. I *think* I got all the references. The whole thing – recipes and all – is written in various murder mystery styles. “Depend upon it; people and potted shrimps are much the same everywhere. Even in this small village I have seen the damage caused by mischief and bad recipes. These potted shrimps, now. They remind me of the time young Dora Edwards got into difficulty over a necklace.”

Even if you don’t actually like cooking, Sicherman’s food is usually approachable and comfortable (sometimes it’s just weird) and you might find yourself willing to try some of his recipes. Anyway, what I’m saying is, you should pick up Caramel Knowledge, because it is a lot of fun to read whether or not you cook. And available from venders at Amazon for a very reasonable price! Such an advantage when it comes to out of print books.

So there you go! Ten of my favorites — some I cook out of a LOT and some just every now and then, but all are books I’m glad I have in my library.

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I wonder how many authors re-read their own books?

Is that narcissistic or what?

Actually, I come down on the “or what” side.

Nathan Bransford posed this question recently and it turns out that most comments declare they hate re-reading their own work, because then they see all the stuff they should have done differently.

Well, it’s true that I see some trivial thing I’d like to change on just about every page, but frankly I’m usually pretty pleased with any book that’s on the shelf. It’s actually surprising how often I hit a section and see something nice that I don’t remember writing.

This may be because most of the other commenters are thinking about re-reading a book immediately after it comes out, when, yes, you may very well still be dead bored with it. I mean, you wrote the thing, and then revised it, and got the comments back from your agent and revised it again, and then comments from your editor and revised it again, and then you go through the copy edits, and then you read the page proofs, and yes it takes a while to recover from the absolute deadly I-hate-this-and-never-want-to-see-it-again-ever reaction that is perfectly normal after all that.

But for me that wears off.

What I wonder is, do authors like me, who like to re-read parts or all of their own books, also have an advantage when it comes to picking up a partial ms and going back to it? Because I do that ALL THE TIME. I often really like the finished part of an incomplete ms, and re-reading that fragment makes me want to go on and complete the story.

It actually makes me uncomfortable not to have about four partials written at any given time — ms that are fifty or a hundred pages along, which I can pick up and go on with whenever I get to it. (I have only one true partial waiting at the moment and this is in fact making me uncomfortable.)

I wonder if any of this is true for authors who dislike or are uncomfortable going back to re-read their earlier, published work?

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When re-reading, which books do you skip ahead in?

So over the weekend, Charlotte of Charlotte’s library posted this review of The King Must Die by Mary Renault — a book I, like Charlotte, have read many times. But I really noticed this bit of her review:

…Crete rules the seas, and demands from Athens a tribute of young men and women, destined to be bull-dancers in the palace of Minos. Theseus casts his lot into tribute, and sets off for Crete… At this point the book becomes truly excellent, in my opinion. Theseus molds the other 13 in the tribute into a team in which distinctions of Minyan and Hellene are meaningless, and they become bull dancers of extraordinary renown…. I adore detailed fictional descriptions of characters mastering obscure crafts, and the bull dancing is no exception to this. (In my re-reading, I would often skip the early parts and cut right to this section…).

Because I always do the exact same thing with this book — skim the first part until Theseus and the other young people board the ship for Crete, and then start actually reading the story. And for the same reason, too: I also love detailed descriptions of characters mastering obscure crafts. (This is why I especially loved Sherwood Smith’s A Stranger To Command, too.)

But anyway, what I started thinking about was, which other books do I consistently skip the beginning of? And what, if anything, does this say about those books?

Like Gillian Bradshaw’s The Beacon at Alexandria. The first part of the story is perfectly all right, but when I re-read it, I start at the point when Charis arrives in Alexandria.

Or Cherryh’s Cyteen. I don’t know how many times I’ve read that book, but I always skip to the part where young Ari is about five and start from there.

Does this mean that Renault and Bradshaw and Cherryh should all have started those books later in the action? That Renault was wrong to include Theseus’ childhood and his journey through Greece, that Bradshaw didn’t need to include in detail the scenes detailing Charis’ being driven to leave her home, that Cherryh could have just skipped Justin’s early life and the murder of the original Arienne Emory?

I think . . . I think . . . I think that in every case, the beginning is necessary to set up the “real story.” Plus, in Renault’s case, she was kind of compelled to stick to the Theseus story, right? But . . . I would sure hate to think of writing a hundred pages or more just to get to the good part. Though you could argue that’s par for the course for Cherryh (there are exceptions, but I’d say that’s the rule for her).

It’s interesting to look at books where this doesn’t happen at all. Like, take McKinley’s The Blue Sword, which I just re-read — I have no idea how many times I’ve read it. A lot. But I enjoy it right from the first sentence. It’s not just that McKinley has a way with words or with setting the scene or with introducing an immediately appealing character. Bradshaw did all of that with Beacon. So what makes the difference?

I don’t have an answer for this one; just posing the question as something to mull over.

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Should authors read reviews of their own work?

You know, I see authors on Twitter now and then, or on blog posts or whatever, declaring that they don’t read reviews of their own work, or that they’ve quit reading reviews of their own work, and I think, basically, Who are these people and when were they replaced by pod people from Mars? Because, hello, who can possibly stick to a rule about not reading reviews?

That’s a different question from not responding to reviews, which, yeah, no, probably responding publicly to reviews is not a good idea. Or at least negative reviews. The number of times I have been even tempted to say No, look, you’re missing the point here, that’s not what I had in mind, is zero. I’m glad to say. Because wow does that kind of thing blow up in an author’s face.

Now, responding to positive reviews, that’s different. You can’t thank someone for loving your book — I mean, obviously they didn’t deliberately choose to love your book because they want to be nice to you, right? But you can say Wow, I’m glad you loved my book, thanks for taking the time to write a review.

But! Not reading reviews, whether or not you plan to respond? Who can do that?

And who would want to?

Because if you follow that kind of policy, you are going to miss reviews like this one, which just appeared yesterday, and I’m very happy that the reviewer sent me a link on Twitter, because it’s the kind I print off to show my Mom.

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