Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent Reading: The Fall of Ile-Rien

Isn’t it something to find a new favorite author? With the added plus that she has a dozen books or more out already, so I can just immerse myself in her writing. How fun is that, right?

After reading The Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy, I have declared that March is Martha Wells Month and I’m going to read through her entire backlist. I may of course have to cheat and extend Martha Wells Month into April, but hey! It is my month and I can do that if I want.

The Fall of Ile-Rien:

Okay the first thing to know is: If you’re starting THE WIZARD HUNTERS and you’re not sure you like it? Read at least three or four chapters before you decide.

The Characters:

We have a third-person divided pov structure, Tremaine in a world with the flavor of, say, mid-1800s England; and Ilias in a very different world that doesn’t map terribly well onto any real historical era I can think of but is much less technologically advanced. It’s important that you wait for the two plotlines to converge before you decide whether you like the characters or the story, because I just about guarantee you will once the plotlines come together. Which they do very early on, so there’s actually not much patience required. And after that, the books really take off!

Tremaine is my favorite character EVER! She is right up there with my other favorite-ever characters, like Miles Vorkosigan and Vlad Taltos and Eugenides. She is prickly, sarcastic, ruthlessly practical, sometimes insecure, occasionally suicidal, and doesn’t have a romantic bone in her body. You know that discussion a week or two ago about books with female protagonists but without a lot of romance? This is that book. I mean, there is romance — but it starts late in the series and it is never, but never, a gushy obsessive romance.

I mean, Tremaine used to write plays? And at one point, she thinks to herself that when she used to write in a romantic relationship, the audience wouldn’t be sure if the two characters were supposed to be in love or not. And by then you can just imagine the way Tremaine would write romance, and it makes you laugh.

There’re lots of secondary characters from Tremaine’s world — of the ones we see from the start, Gerard is possibly my favorite of them because I have a thing for dedicated do-the-job types. I love Florian, too, though. I kept rather hoping Ander would get shot or fall off a cliff or at least see the error of his ways and start taking Tremaine seriously, but, sigh, I guess there really are jackasses like that in the world and he does provide a certain something. Like, a contrast to Ilias, for one thing.

Because Ilias! Tremaine is my fave, but Ilias is also great. He’s like the Muscle-Bound Barbarian Warrior, only for grownups: complex and believable, fascinating backstory, highly competent but plausibly so. I love his relationship with his friend and foster-brother, Giliead. And I love the way their society is so different from Tremaine’s and how those differences echo through the whole story.

You are probably getting the idea that there are a lot of characters. This is true, and more as time goes on, but Wells handles them all extremely well, and gives them all time off as appropriate rather than trying to clutter up every scene with the whole bunch of ’em, and so it’s easy to keep track of everyone. Particularly since everyone is distinctive. Mostly Wells sticks with Tremaine and Ilias as the pov protagonists; as we go on through the trilogy we do get little sections from other points of view, but this is beautifully handled and never obtrusive or annoying; there’s none of that dilution of pov you get in some modern epic fantasy until you can’t tell who the blazes the main character is supposed to be.

The world:

Oh, it’s so much fun! I’m actually not always in the mood for a gaslamp fantasy setting, so gating from Tremaine’s world into Ilias’ and back mixed the settings up and kept everything feeling exciting. Those gates! New corners to peek around just everywhere, and this is Martha Wells, right? So you know the scenery is going to be grand-scale and stunning. Ruined cities everywhere, and all of them different. But the ruined cities aren’t the only thing on a grand scale: check out the Revenna. One of my favorite lines from the first book was something like: “So, we’re going to make our secret escape on the biggest ship in the world.” (And they do.) I thought the ship was modeled on maybe the Queen E, and I was almost right — Wells has an author’s note that says she actually based the ship on the Queen Mary.

I love Tremaine’s world — like a gaslamp fantasy, right? But with fey that seriously affected things until cold iron became more common. My favorite exchange in the third book, one of the few times we actually see a fey, it says to Tremaine: “You look tasty, little girl.” And she levels a gun at it and says, “So do you.” (The fey is in fact more intimidated by Tremaine than the other way around.)

I love Ilias’ world more. We get to see a good bit of it, but Ilias’ home town is my favorite. The customs are so different and the interaction between the characters is really enhanced by this. I don’t want to be too specific. Just take it as read that every scene is beautifully set, okay?

The plot:

The overarching plot is complex, but it hangs together just fine. It’s an invasion story — as suggested by the title of the trilogy, right? — and of course the plot is concerned with taking back Ile-Rien from its conquerers. The conquerers are . . . really interesting. Almost anything I say about them would be too much, so silence seems the best policy here.

The first book is really pretty well self contained, which is handy if you want to give the trilogy a try without committing to all three books, but the second definitely feeds right into the third. The romance could not be more removed from the simplistic insta-romances we see everywhere today and that for me are such a turn-off. Wells handles her romance with subtlety and humor and lets her people be complicated and conflicted. But not in an annoying way! Not that kind of conflicted!

There was some political idiocy in the third book, which was painful to read. I mean, don’t we get enough political indiocy in the real world? Thankfully the scenes where we have to endure moronic self-serving politicians working hard to seize defeat from the jaws of victory are quite brief. And I hope you don’t mind if I just say that the worst of the lot gets what’s coming to him. Too bad we can’t deflect nasty curses onto deserving politicians in the real world!

Anyway, I would like to find out sometime whether Wells knew the basic structure of the plot from the beginning. I think it’s likely she didn’t — from comments she made during a panel at WorldCon last year — but The Fall of Ile-Rien reads like she did. It’s a nice coherent plot, all the complicated problems on three different worlds arising from one basic source. The tiny little deus ex moments here and there are actually fitting and believable.

Overall:

This is a great trilogy. It was the first really good story I’ve read on my Kindle, so now I know: yes, I like the experience of reading on a Kindle just fine. It’s comfortable to hold with one hand for long periods, and I’m glad they designed it to be held with either hand, because I didn’t realize this before, but I prefer to hold a book in my left hand.

THE DEATH OF THE NECROMANCER (which was a Nebula nominee) is set in Tremaine’s world, about thirty years before the events in the trilogy. I’m reading that one now. I’m glad I read The Fall of Ile-Rien first; I appreciate Nicolas more having met him first in the trilogy. ELEMENT OF FIRE is also set in this world, and of course that will be next.

Also, I only just noticed, but Martha Wells has various short stories, including four set in the Ile-Rien worlds, up on her website.

Enjoy!

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Comic Con —

Well, that rather unseasonable snowstorm cut Comic Con short for me, at least. I didn’t go up today (Sunday), even though I hated to miss my panel. I mean, I actually looked up all this stuff people have said about writing compelling stories and thought about the topic and decided what *I* think is important and came up with examples of authors who I think do it just right and took notes on why their narratives work particularly well . . . and can you tell I am the sort of person who errs on the overpreparedness side? Anyway, I’ll suggest a similar topic to the Archon people and hopefully have a chance to use all this then.

So, snow aside — and let me just say, it’s very pretty even down here, where we’re supposed to get less than half as much as they get in St L, but WHOA is the snow blowing around madly out there. Even the girls don’t want to spend much time outside, though they generally love snow.

ANYWAY, as I was saying, today’s snow aside, I really did have a great time at the Con yesterday! Even though I am not really all that interested in Superman t-shirts or whatever. Did you know there is a company that makes bathrobes like the TARDIS? Really. Check it out:

I didn’t think to take a picture while at the con, so I got this picture here. But it is exactly the same robe, and hey, if you would like to buy it, or no doubt many many other really snazzy robes, you can click through from here and get one, so I trust they won’t mind I borrowed their picture.

I did take a couple pictures, though. These modern phones really are amazing, GPS for getting there and home again, cameras while you’re there, text messaging to keep track of people you’re hanging out when it’s much too loud for phone calls, and you can even look up the programming for the Con on your phone if you’re too lazy to find out where to get a program.

Anyway, here’s my second favorite costume of the many I saw:

I had to ask someone what this was. I gather it is a Predator. Love the costume, that’s for sure! I hear the movie Predator vs Alien is better than one might expect — I ought to rent it sometime.

And check out this one:

This guy, I recognized. I’m sure you’ve seen “Pirates of the Caribbean”? Well, let me tell you, this guy here? He had ALL the mannarisms and the voice and everything. I could have SWORN he was the actual actor from the movie! He was just amazing. I bet you can imagine how long it took this guy to get through the entrance hall? Like, an hour, because just about everyone wanted their picture taken with him, and no wonder.

It was worth going to the Con just to see the costumes, honestly, though even when I was eighteen I hope I would have had better sense than to wear, well, never mind, I’m sure you can imagine.

Also, I did get to hang out with Sharon Shinn and that certainly made the trip worthwhile. We talked books and authors and contracts and all that good stuff. She used to work downtown, it turns out, so I met her at her house and admired her giraffe collection and then drove from there to the convention, with her to make sure I took the right exits and found a good parking location. And the Left Bank Books staff arranged a very attractive display for us all. Theirs was the only table with actual books, so I expect they would very likely have sold out except, you know, snow. I doubt attendence was great today except for people staying at the hotels.

So, next year, if there’s a Comic Con in March, I’m in! We only get snow in March about 1 year in 4, so hopefully next year at this time it will actually be spring at this point, or at least not the dead of winter.

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So is a ComicCon like a normal SF Con?

Or is “normal” an iffy word for these things anyway?

I know Comic Cons are supposed to draw really huge numbers, but the one this weekend in St Louis will be the first I’ve ever attended. Stan Lee is supposed to be there, I expect he’ll be a huge, huge draw. I think there are supposed to be upwards of 40,000 people registered to attend?

I’m going because an Indie bookstore, Left Bank Books, is setting up a booth and arranging for local authors to be there for signings and panels. I normally hate signings, but Left Bank seems to think there will be enough interest from Comic Con attendees to make it worthwhile. I’ll be there on both Saturday and Sunday for signings. And I will definitely enjoy the panel — I’m on one at 11:00 AM Sunday, on compelling writing.

I’m also sure it’ll be fun because I know some of the other people who will be there. Sharon Shinn and I plan to meet and drive to the convention center together, that’ll be fun, it’s been a long time since I really got to talk to her. I love her books — you might have noticed — and I’m sure it’d be okay with her if I just mention that there will be a sequel to TROUBLED WATERS coming out this fall. I’m really pleased about that because TROUBLED WATERS became an instant comfort-read for me when it came out.

And I’m acquainted with Mark Tiedemann and Angie Fox, because they both frequently attend Archon, the St Louis SF convention. Laurell Hamilton will also be there; I’m sure she’ll be the most popular author attending — at least via a Left Bank Books invite — I’ve never met her, though. I used to like her Anita Blake series, but I admit I quit reading that series about twelve books ago.

Anyway — looks a fun, busy, and extremely crowded weekend. 40,000 attendees! I am definitely nervous about the parking situation.

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Updates!

First off, I have to admit, I’ve been pullllled into my Kindle and I’m having a hard time emerging. Not by the SHIVER trilogy — I am amazed that is by Maggie Stiefvater: really? I guess this YA paranormal romance trilogy is her debut effort, like, the one that got published before she learned to do it right? No offense to anybody who is in love with that trilogy; I don’t think I was in the mood for Obsessive Teen Romance. But the worldbuilding and stuff doesn’t make sense. I can hardly believe I’m complaining about the worldbuilding in a Stiefvater story, but there you go.

No, it’s not SHIVER. The series I’ve been pulled into is the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy by Martha Wells. Love it! More about it later, when I have finished the third book. I’m about 20% of the way through the second book now. I am SO glad I discovered Wells. Fabulous author.

Obviously my own work is on hold. I don’t feel bad about that, April is going to be crazy-busy with gardening stuff, so don’t want to get too sucked in to writing just at the moment. I did write 36 pp over spring break, bringing the total up to 98 pp, or 31,000 words. That would mean I was about a quarter to a third done if I weren’t likely to overwrite by 100 pages, which I’ve done twice, so it could certainly happen. On the other hand, I didn’t have that problem with BLACK DOG, so maybe that’s a good sign for its sequel.

I’m halfway through Chapter Four, and I actually do know what’s going to happen in the second half of the chapter, so it will be pretty easy to pick up again when I get to it. I rather think that may not be till early June, though you never know. I’ll be aiming to get it finished and through a first revision and off to my agent by the time classes start in mid-August.

Aaand — I can hardly stop without the most important update!

I turned the whelping box upside down yesterday! Now it is a den. The baby does spend a lot of time tucked away in her nice warm dark den, but as you see, she also comes out to see the wider world — and collapses into a restorative sleep after toddling around for about ten minutes. She is making definite play gestures toward her mom and her toys. Next week she will be hitting the UltraCute stage and starting to play with the other dogs. My Adora, who has had puppies of her own, can be trusted to play gently with a puppy — the teenagers will take more supervision!

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Seeing patterns —

Kate Elliott has an interesting post up today, on readers spotting patterns in a writer’s work — often patterns that are really there, but that the writer herself hasn’t recognized.

Kate says: “Reader A may pick up on a clever allusion that I intended while Reader B may draw a comparison or see thematic content that never once occurred to me as I was writing.”

This is so true! Except I don’t know how often I intend clever allusions. Sometimes, yes. But a lot of the time, clever things just appear, and I don’t notice them until a reader points them out to me. Then I’m like, “Oh, yes, I did that on purpose, knew it all the time,” but really, if I knew it, it was only with the back part of my brain.

Like in LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, after Kes first goes off with Kairaithin? She never goes home again. That first decision point carried consequences that were too big and overwhelming for anything to ever let her take it back. But did I notice that when I was writing the book? Nope, not until my brother, who read the rough draft, commented about it. And after he pointed it out, I may very sure not to mess it up with any later revision, too.

Anyway, later, Kate adds, “If a reader reads along the career of a writer then certain patterns, certain ways of approaching the creative vision, certain familiar themes or narrative quirks or a particular way of using voice may emerge as characteristic of that writer’s work. Certain subjects or questions or concerns or fixations or narrative structures or prose styles may come up in more than one project.” And then she comments about the idea that writers may put the same protagonist in more than one story.

And thinking about it, I can certainly think of very obvious examples of that kind of thing. Like, I quit reading Piers Anthony because all his protogonists were exactly the samer person, and once I noticed that it really bothered me. Or did anybody else ever read a lot of Jack Chalker and notice his fixation on mind control and magical brainwashing? And on forcibly changing people’s bodies, too, not just their minds. It actually gets pretty disturbing if you read, say, the Nathan Brazil series and then the Flux and Anchor series in succession.

I’m curious about the same question that Kate poses, too: Any patterns jump out at you when you think of any writer’s whole body of work?

Anyway, I haven’t read anything by Kate Elliott since the Jaran series, where frankly I thought the earlier books were great and then to me it seemed like the plot kind of got too baroque and spun off too many subplots and I either quit reading before the series really concluded, or else it never did actually conclude as such, I don’t remember. But I’ve heard lots of great things about the COLD MAGIC series, which I’m looking forward to reading once the third book is out.

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The writing process can be weird

Through a miscommunication with the intelligent part of my brain, I seem to have the same important secondary character, Keziah, appearing in two scenes that are happening simultaneously.

Sigh.

The way this happened is, see, I thought there was going to be another chapter in between these two scenes. So there would be book-time to get the character from one scene to the other. But now I think, no. I think now those two scenes are happening simultaneously. And magic is all very well, but nobody gets to be in two places at the same time, because we sure don’t have THAT kind of magic in this universe. So, FINE. Now I have to decide in which scene the character can be most easily replaced by a different character.

And by “most easily” I REALLY mean “most effectively” because easiness is not actually the point. Quality of the story is the point. Though luckily I think the best chapter in which to replace this character is also the easier one to do it in.

Which character shall I sub in to replace Keziah? I have about three choices, assuming I use a continuing character from the first book, which I definitely will because there are enough secondary characters in the BLACK DOG world already, let me tell you. I’m thinking Ethan. Probably. Maybe.

Also, I think this would be a good time to gently remove another secondary character from the back half of chapter two and also from chapter three. I just don’t think that guy is going to have anything to do in the rest of the story, so I think I better leave him behind. Which is disappointing. I like that character! And I will lose a great line of dialogue! I think maybe I will save the version where he sticks around in case I suddenly think of an important role he could play later on.

Removing characters that seem promising but don’t play an important role: this is a thing. I always seem to be introducing neat characters with a vague feeling that I will do something with them, and then, no. And then of course sometimes you can leave them alone, but sometimes you need to get rid of them entirely and replace them with something like “the guard” or “the waitress” or whatever — some unnamed role. The FIND command is super, super useful for making sure later on that I have removed those characters completely.

Okay, so, the project for today is defined.

I’m thinking that I will not get any more pages written as such this weekend. But this kind of sudden important revision counts as progress, and hey, whatever, I am totally in fine shape as far as the deadline goes — I mean, I expect to beat the deadline by about six months — so that’s no problem.

If I get this whole revision done today, I think I will reward myself by reading Maggie Stiefvater’s SHIVER trilogy tomorrow.

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Boy’s Books vs Girl’s Books

This post recently got me thinking about the issue of “books for boys” and “books for girls”, and the different things we can mean by phrases like that, and whether such phrases are inherently pernicious or not.

I mean, is there such a thing as a “boy’s book” or a “girl’s book”, and even if there is, is this a useful distinction or one that tends to reinforce negative stereotypes?

Let’s take it as a given that we don’t want to discourage boys from reading books in which the protagonist is a girl. Actually – and I know others’ experience may differ – but I can’t personally remember ever noticing a boy (or a grown man, for that matter) refusing to read a book because it had a female protagonist or because it was written by a woman. But I’m not a librarian or a bookseller, so my sample size isn’t very large. Seems extremely strange to me, though. Let’s just say that though my imagination is pretty good, I definitely can’t wrap my mind around the notion of anybody in my family caring about the gender of the protagonist, or the author – even though everyone in my family prefers a different kind of genre novel.

But the question of whether that kind of bias exists and if so how prevalent it might be, that’s a different question. Here’s the question I’m interested in at the moment: Are there “boy’s books” and “girl’s books”? And is this distinction useful? If a woman asks you to recommend a “SFF novel for boys” for her son, what would you tell her? That there’s no such thing as a “boy’s book” and the kid ought to understand that girls can be great protagonists, too? Is such an argument, even if gently put, actually the least bit helpful? Is it even true?

The fact is, I think there is such a thing as “boy’s books” and “girl’s books” – or, more precisely, I think there are “boy’s-and-girl’s books” and “girl’s books.” And I think those are actually useful categories when:

a) you are trying to get boys to read in general; or

b) you are trying to encourage boys to read books with complex, realistic girl protagonists; or

c) you are trying to recommend books for any particular kid of your acquaintance and he wants a “boy’s book.”

But the gender of the protagonist is definitely not what puts a book into one category or the other.

There’s no point declaring that boys should like all the same books that girls like, if in general they just don’t. Sure, you can declare that sexism is deeply embedded in society, or that society encourages boys and men to disregard books written by or about girls or women, and all this may well be true, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t also real differences between the sexes.

Parents out there have probably noticed that boys generally prefer toys that involve propulsion and moving parts – toy trucks, for example, and toy guns – whereas girls may like those toys, but they also tend toward play that involves dolls and stuffed animals. And sure, socialization and all that, yes, let’s take that as a given, shall we?

But here’s where my background in animal behavior comes in. Because did you know that infants as young as three months already show clear gender differences in toy preferences? Already at that age, male infants prefer to gaze at toy trucks, whereas female babies prefer to gaze at dolls. At that age, babies do not yet even know whether they are boys or girls; they don’t know what the toys are for; they cannot be guided to play with one kind of toy over the other because they are not yet anywhere close to being physically able to play with those toys. But the difference in interests is still there.

It gets even more interesting than that, because young vervet and rhesus monkeys show the exact same gender biases in their preferences for human toys. Young male monkeys strongly prefer wheeled toys, whereas young female monkeys show much less of a preference, playing about equally with wheeled toys and plush toys. See the references at the end if you’re interested in this sort of thing; these articles are all available online, and really they are very interesting.

But the point is, obviously young monkeys have not been socialized by contemporary human society to prefer one type of toy over another! Instead, it seems quite clear that toys favored by male monkeys — and, we may reasonably assume, boys — provide a different kind of rewarding experience than those preferred by female monkeys (and girls). And both boys and girls are then attracted to the sort of toys that provide the right kind of experience – or even look like they might provide the right kind of experience, before they even touch the toys.

And if boys generally prefer one kind of play over another, then I don’t think it’s a surprise if many boys generally prefer one kind of book over another, too – intrinsically. Or that boys strongly reject “girl’s books” whereas girls may like both “boy’s-and-girl’s-books” and “girl’s books” – this is exactly what we would expect. It is not very helpful to declare that boys should be interested in girl’s books, because boys are not going to change just to suit anybody’s idea of how gender is a purely social construct. Because that just isn’t true. But boys certainly can learn that books with girl protagonists can be great stories, as long as you offer them books they have a genuine chance of loving.

What makes a book a “boy’s book” – or, more precisely, a “boy’s-and-girl’s-book” – is that it emphasizes action, adventure, and movement. The gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with anything. But sometimes boys probably think it does, because of the kinds of books they have encountered in the past, or the way books are marketed, or the comments their peers and parents make. That’s the bit that is pernicious.

If you want to encourage a boy who likes reading but isn’t sure about “girly books” to read books with female protagonists, you might be well advised to skip the prom-dress-girl-paranormals that emphasize romance and relationships, even if they are very good books of their type, and go straight for adventure stories that are more likely to appeal to boys who like action. There are plenty of choices out there besides The Hunger Games. How about Divergent by Roth, say? Or The Scorpio Races by Stiefvater, if the kid is okay with a slower-paced but amazing book? Or Partials by Dan Wells? Or if your kid is allergic to even a shred of romance, then maybe Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede? And on and on – it is not going to be a short list.

Once boys who like adventure stories discover that fabulous adventure stories can feature girl protagonists, I don’t think you’ll find many boys insisting that they won’t read girl’s books. And that’s a blow against bias and embedded sexism right there, regardless of what aspects of gender are socially constructed and which are intrinsic.

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Alexander GM, and M Hines. 2002. Sex differences in response to children’s toys in nonhuman primates (Cercopithecus aethiops sabaeus). Evol.Human Behav. 23:467–469.

Alexander, GM, T Wilcox and R Woods. 2009. Sex differences in infants’ visual interest in toys. Arch Sex Behav 8(3):427-33.

Hassett JM, ER Siebert, K Wallen. 2008. Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children. Horm. Behav. 51:359–364.

Hines, M and GM Alexander. 2008. Commentary: Monkeys, girls, boys, and toys: A confirmation comment on “Sex differences in toy preferences: Striking parallels between monkeys and humans”. Horm Behav. 54(3): 478-481.

Williams, CL and KE Pleil. 2008. Toy story: Why do monkey and human males prefer trucks? Comment on “Sex differences in rhesus monkey toy preferences parallel those of children” by Hassatt, Siebert, and Wallen. Horm. Behav 54(3): 355-358.

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So, this Kickstarter thing is kind of fun —

I’d meant to look at the Kickstarter website for some time, but only remembered to actually check it out because of this twitter announcement that Judith Tarr was doing a Kickstarter fundraiser for a new space opera.

I like Tarr’s historical fantasy, especially LORD OF THE TWO LANDS, so I thought, well, why not, and backed the project. Which made its goal in about 48 hours. Pretty snazzy. Interesting to look over the “publishing” entries at Kickstarter; so many look painfully amateurish and then you get Tarr. And her book funds instantly. A fascinating look at (a possible) future of (some) publishing, isnt’ it?

And not just books. Because then I saw this announcement, also on twitter, for a Veronica Mars movie. I watch so little tv and so few movies, it’s not even funny (I’m always reading books instead, okay?). But as it happens I did watch and really liked the first season of Veronica Mars. So . . . why not? And poof, that project funded instantly, too, which is pretty impressive because I guess it had maybe the highest funding goal of any Kickstarter project ever? Two million, anyway, which is not pocket change.

It’s oddly satisfying to back a project and see it fund. I can see I’ll be back to look at Kickstarter again, even without being prompted by Twitter. Though that three-d pen that “writes in the air” . . . not sure I believe in it.

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