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Reading now: Magic Rises by Ilona Andrews. Because what deadline?

My favorite line so far is the bit about the Carpathian hobbit and second breakfast. Hah!

I was initially really disappointed in what seemed to be a quest story thrown in as filler — the sort of thing that could be called Further Adventures of Kate and Curren but doesn’t serve to advance the overarching plot that threads through the whole series.

But no! This story ties right back into that overall plot. Really enjoying it so far! Now must go read the rest of the book now before I can get back to work on my own current WIP. It’s all good, though: My deadline is actually very generous, so I am reading (almost) without guilt.

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Recent Reading: Cover (Story) Girl by Chris Mariano

So I picked up this novella because the background of the story was interesting and because the setting — the island of Boracay, sounded like it would be interesting and different and definitely well-suited to a romance. And because, as you will see if you follow the link, it’s only .99c on Kindle, so why not, right?

Suddenly I'm dreaming of tropical islands

Wikipedia informs me that Boracay is “… a small island in the Philippines located approximately 315 km (196 mi) south of Manila and 2 km off the northwest tip of Panay Island in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines.” Good old Wikipedia, because I’d never heard of it.

The protagonist, Gio, works there and lives nearby, and though he’s proud of the island and enjoys showing it off to tourists, it is his home, a place he also takes for granted. I enjoyed this take on a tropical paradise vacation spot, more so than if the protagonist had been a vacationer.

I really liked Gio as the protagonist, I have a definite weakness for responsible guys who take care of their families, and let me just add here that it was nice to read a romance where the protagonist was the guy rather than the girl. This one had to be written that way, though, because the girl, Min Hee, tells Gio all kinds of whoppers about why she’s on the island — she’s on the run from her family, she has amnesia, she had a brain tumor and is enjoying her last days in this world — so of course the story can’t be told from her point of view or it’d give everything away.

I think the basic truth about who Min Hee really is is pretty clear to the reader, though Gio misses the clues. But the exact reason Min Hee came to Boracay is harder to guess — I didn’t — and Gio’s reaction to finding out is both understandable and, um, perhaps not well considered. Of course things work out in the end, though!

This novella was actually written for a class run by Mina Esguerra. It’s charming and fun and nicely written. Here’s my favorite passage:

“The watercolor she was doing captured the beach as if seen through a dream, all soft sea-foam and powder, the colors disappearing into the white edges of the paper. The sea itself danced with different shades — white near the shore moving to pale green, then growing bolder into the deep blue of the horizon. Boracay was usually seen in the loud and bright colors of summer. But under Min Hee’s brush, it looked like a filtered paradise, something old and fragile and familiar.”

Beautiful, eh? Art is an important thread right through the story.

This novella also left me with a deep desire for calamansi muffins. Which I can actually make, because I have a calamansi plant in a pot on my deck. All I need is a recipe, which I bet I can find through the magic of google. Calamansi — calamondins — are the easiest citrus to grow in a pot, so if you happen to want to try them, no reason you can’t.

Update: I did find a recipe. It turns out that if you google “calamansi muffins boracay” you can find a recipe that attempts to recreate the exact muffins you get if you’re lucky enough to be able to go on vacation in the tropics. I used this recipe, only following some of the comments, I used half brown sugar and a tiny bit more milk than suggested. Even so, these muffins turned out very light, much more like cupcakes than muffins. For me, the 1/4 c. calamansi juice was perfect, enough to give the cupcakes a distinctive citrus taste, but not too tart. I have plenty more calamansi juice, so I may try these again with white whole wheat next.

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The assembly of a molecule

Can be fun to read about. I kid you not. It may be a science post, but DEREK LOWE wrote it, so it is a vivid and fun-to-read science post, even though it is about chemistry.

. . . and that’s just what high-level total synthesis is like: you have to be prepared to spend months and months beating on reactions in every tiny, picky variation that you can imagine might help.

Let me speak metaphorically, for those outside the field or who have never had the experience. Total synthesis of a complex natural product is like. . .it’s like assembling a huge balloon sculpture, all twists and turns, knots and bulges, only half of the balloons are rubber and half of them are made of blown glass. And you can’t just reach in and grab the thing, either, and they don’t give you any pliers or glue. What you get is a huge pile of miscellaneous stuff – bamboo poles, cricket bats, spiral-wound copper tubing, balsa-wood dowels, and several barrels of even more mixed-up junk: croquet balls, doughnuts, wadded-up aluminum foil, wobbly Frisbees, and so on.

The balloon sculpture is your molecule. The piles of junk are the available chemical methods you use to assemble it. . .

If you find this kind of thing interesting, then by all means read the whole thing, right?

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Recent Listening: HERO by Perry Moore

Good heavens, why didn’t anybody warn me that this is an Issue story?

Actually, I’m sure everyone did; that’s what I get for not reading reviews carefully before buying a book, but I was avoiding spoilers. Wow, did I get caught. In its way, HERO is just as preachy as one of those awful seventeenth-century stories for children — you know, like

“James Janeway’s A token for children: Being an exact account of the conversion, holy and exemplary lives and joyful deaths of several young children. Published in 1671, Janeway’s morbidly titled work, which underwent several editions and remains available today, enjoyed vast nineteenth-century popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. As the title suggests, all the children invariably die at tender ages after converting heathen Turks or rebuking wayward parents and frivolous siblings.”

Which I didn’t know about that particular example specifically; I got that here. But we’ve all heard of the exemplary-life morally-uplifting stories for children, right?

And you thought those were confined to the seventeenth century? Hah.

I know that HERO has gotten lots of rave reviews, but you know why that is? Because (I surmise) the Gay Pride message is one that reviewers like and want to support, and therefore they want to like and support HERO and convince themselves it’s a great book. But for me, this story is way too heavy-handed on the preaching. Just in case the reader is in any danger of missing the point, not that that is even vaguely possible, the preface by Stan Lee points it out explicitly for you. I should have known right then that the Message was going to rule the story. Does it ever.

Even if I didn’t mind the preachiness — and if the writing was good enough, I could forget the Message and enjoy the story — but the eye-rolling levels of self-absorbed stupidity displayed by the protagonist (Tom), well, it’s just painful. You know, when a guy gets himself into a horribly embarrassing situation, to me that is not funny, it is just embarrassing. And when a guy gets himself into horribly embarrassing situations over and over because he is a self-absorbed idiot, that’s worse. I am sure some reviewers also have a much, much higher tolerance for this kind of protagonist than I do, which would be another reason they might rate this one so much more highly than I do. I never used to watch sitcoms, either, because I just detest the embarrassing type of humor.

Who should read this book: if you want an inclusive title for your school library, then sure, why not, I guess. But the painfully ineffectual protagonist is surely going to be a turn-off for anyone who prefers main characters who are competent and intelligent.

Quality of the writing: just fair. In my opinion, and here I am perhaps biased because I was so disgusted by the protagonist’s inability to cope, but to me the writing itself is pretty boring and flat. Though I rather liked Ruth. Until she was given her own Message to deliver, and then I was pretty much like: Oh you have to be kidding me, enough with the Messages already!

Plausibility of various plot elements: poor. Talk about eye rolling. I don’t know how many times I said “OH COME ON YOU CAN’T BE SERIOUS” out loud while driving. It would be much easier to provide examples if I’d been reading a paper copy, but it’s hard to make notes while driving. But for example the incredibly pat mis-identification of Snake as the big bad guy was hard to swallow, and then the overwhelming stupidity of Tom’s big reveal he-was-with-me-that-night, I could hardly bear it; how could Tom possibly not just say, “No, sorry, you’ve got the wrong guy, he and I went out for coffee that night,” and shrug like it was no big deal?

Update: After thinking about it . . . the plausibility issues get worse and worse. Every single battle scene is totally unbelievable. The holding the building up bodily? We all know the building would crumble around you and leave you holding up a small stack of bricks, right? The idea that a falling building would kill “thousands” of people? How exactly is one falling building going to do that? The motivation of the big bad guy? Insanely ridiculous. Societal attitudes toward homosexuality? And toward a hero who causes a lot of unavoidable damage saving the world? Totally, absolutely unbelievable.

The Message: Laid on with a trowel, I can’t even tell you.

Who does it better: I’m stepping out of YA here, but the SHADOW UNIT series by Emma Bull et al? I have been working my way through those for a while, so they leap immediately to mind because they are way, way better. On a scale of one to ten for message delivery, I’d give HERO a two and SHADOW UNIT a ten. The latter has much snappier dialogue, far more compelling edge-of-the seat plotting, vastly better characterization, and gay characters who are competent, interesting, complex, and well-rounded. Also, societal attitudes toward homosexuality are both more believable and presented more sympathetically in the SHADOW UNIT series than in HERO.

But, though I immediately thought of an adult series, there have just got to be YA stories that do it better than HERO. Brian Katcher’s contemporary YA ALMOST PERFECT comes immediately to mind, but of course it is contemporary. Anybody else got an example in the SFF genres?

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Recent listening: To Say Nothing of the Dog

I finished listening to Connie Willis’ TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG on the way to Indy. Wow, that was one long book. I wouldn’t say it seemed unnecessarily long or anything, but yeah, definitely a doorstopper.

Did anybody read BLACKOUT / ALL CLEAR? Because it’s really startling how different that story is from TO SAY NOTHING. The latter is very definitely a comedy; of course the former is not a comedy at all, but a suspense / war novel. With time travel, of course. Plus, TO SAY NOTHING actually worked well as an audiobook because there is only one real plotline and only one protagonist, so it’s easy to keep track of even if you take long breaks between listening sessions. That would definitely not have been the case for B / AC, which had an awful lot going on.

If you’ve read B / AC, then you’re aware that it just doesn’t matter how screwed up everything seems to be, everything will actually unfold exactly as it should and the historical continuum will be fine. But I think that’s supposed to be quite clear to the reader in TO SAY NOTHING, much more so than in B / AC, where I think the reader is supposed to be worried — though in fact I assumed things would work out in both books. As of course they do, hope you don’t mind the spoiler.

Okay, if you love Wodehouse, you will almost certainly enjoy TO SAY NOTHING. It’s really well put together, complete with couples that get engaged when they clearly shouldn’t, and couples that are rather slow off the mark when they are plainly meant for each other, and crazy family members, and Highly Competent Butlers holding everything together.

There are indeed a lot of explicit references to THREE MEN IN A BOAT by Jerome, also to murder mysteries — especially Agatha Christie (I missed those) and Dorothy Sayers (those I got). So you might indeed want to do some preliminary reading. Especially because the Lord Peter Whimsy books are really good — at least the ones after Lord Peter meets Harriet Vane.

Okay, and if you have read To SAY NOTHING,I would like to know when you figured out who Mr C is? I figured it out about halfway through, but then I’m dead sure the reader is supposed to find it obvious about three-quarters of the way through. I also saw the thing with the kittens coming a mile away, but I admit I did not figure out where the Bishop’s Birdstump was until the big reveal.

The descriptions of the Bishop’s Birdstump are priceless, btw. We never step back and have it actually described, that wouldn’t work nearly as well. It’s just revealed in dialogue, as in: “Are those . . . camels?” “Seahorses, I think, with Neptune. The camels are over on this side, next to Aphrodite rising from the sea on a clamshell.”

I made that up, I don’t remember what all is on the Bishop’s Birdstump.

So, yeah, read this one for the Bishop’s Birdstump. And yes, I did like the dog.

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Brief update

Yep, home again, this time thankfully without the extra hour and a half in traffic jams. Three new rally titles, so the weekend was a success for me even though Kenya never placed first in her class. Well, that Orchard Hill girl was a tough one to beat. Second place was good, too.

One reason I let myself not bother writing this past weekend was that I’m not working from now till school starts again August 19th. Of course the weather is beautiful and there is no end to gardening tasks, but I certainly ought to be able to get a lot of work done on the BLACK DOG sequel, too. Even though there is another dog show this coming weekend and also my sister-in-law is graduating on the 15th and I want to go to that. She will be Doctor Astrid Neumeier, a newly minted but gifted chiropractor! Go, Astrid!

I don’t have internet access from home, though — leaves! On the trees! Totally block cell phone signals! So I will take my laptop with me when I go to town, but if you see a decline in posting frequency for the next twenty days or so, that will be why. Just FYI.

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When a book just doesn’t work for me, sometimes I can actually figure out why

Yeah, still at the show, but though I don’t feel up to REAL writing, I do feel up to writing blog posts. So . . .

So, Greg Stolze’s SWITCHFLIPPED, which did work for me as you may recall from a recent post, got me thinking about why some books don’t.

I occasionally find myself reading along and thinking: Why is this so boring? Why am I not engaged with these characters? We have all this conflict, all this drama, one crisis piled on top of another, and I just don’t care. Why does this happen? I’m sure that sometimes happens to you, too.

Problems with tension or with emotional disengagement from the characters are often, it seems to me, actually problems with plotting.

Does the story’s primary conflict somehow seem to involve everyone but the putative main character? Is there a series of problems, but they don’t arise from or connect to a single main conflict? Is there no identifiable main character at all, just a large cast of secondary characters, each with his or her own problems?

These are problems with plotting. I say this as a reader who prefers character-driven stories to plot-driven stories: Big problems with the plot produce big problems with reader engagement, even if the reader is primarily reading for character. A tight plot is going to produce a more satisfying experience for almost any reader, even if the reader isn’t able to put a finger on why one book succeeds and another fails.

Let’s take the problem where there is a whole series of main characters – or characters, anyway, none of whom are really main characters – who are all going along with their own separate plotlines in a story whose overall plot barely links them together. Wow, look at that, I’ve just described modern epic fantasy!

But I’ve also described SWITCHFLIPPED. Of course the plotlines are in fact connected, but the connections are not clear for a long time and one important plotline does not get resolved during the course of this story (which is why the book needs a sequel!). Nevertheless, SWITCHFLIPPED is fun to read. This is because:

a) Stolze is good at getting the reader to invest emotionally in multiple characters, and

b) All the plot threads do tie together eventually and most (if not all) important plot elements do resolve as the story progresses.

But I can think of other stories where scattered plotlines pretty much kill the book, because you (or at least, I) just don’t care about some or most of the main characters and/or because the separate threads of the plot are too separate.

I have an example in mind.

Elizabeth Moon’s recent return to the Paksenarrion series (the Paladin’s Legacy series) doesn’t work very well for me, even though I loved her first trilogy set in this world, and the reason is that:

a) I don’t care about Arcolin. Why didn’t Moon choose a more interesting character to carry that part of the plot, if she had to show it at all? Like Stammel, maybe? Or hey, that new guy, the half-blind captain, Arneson? He’s got this great backstory and tons of potential, though we hardly see him. Yes, Arcolin’s in charge, but the guy in charge doesn’t have to be the point-of-view character and sometimes shouldn’t be, particularly because people lower down the hierarchy may have more opportunities for conflict and tension.

b) I don’t care about Kieri. Wow, how tough for him, figuring out how to be king. And I despise the elf queen. What a total idiot she is. I’m sick of her, and of people like Kieri making excuses for her.

c) I don’t care about Prince Mikeli. He barely has a personality.

d) I like Dorrin, though.

e) And the thief, Arvid! He’s a great character! About the only time I was really engaged by the second book was his chapter. Alas, he only had one section, because Moon spent tons of time with everybody else.

f) Plus, plausibility? I totally don’t believe you can have two countries separated only by a river, not even an ocean for God’s sake, that know absolutely nothing about each other’s societies. Yeah, right, tell me another, okay? A serious failure of plausibility is a different kind of failure of plotting, and this is unfortunately a stellar example.

Interestingly, if you look at Moon’s other books, HUNTING PARTY is fabulous and has just one main pov character and, if I remember correctly, one important secondary character gets some pov time late in the book. The first few books of that series are very good, and then as the pov characters multiply and the plot(s) scatter all across creation, the books become (for me, at least) notably dull. I recall reading one or another of them (it was one of the Esmay Suiza ones) and thinking halfway through that the book simply didn’t have any main character at all, just a lot of secondary characters. It was the first book I ever read where I really noticed this happening and actually understood why I had lost interest. In that sense, it was an important book for me.

And I will just add that Elizabeth Moon’s TRADING IN DANGER series is also fine. It’s another series where the books mostly stick to one pov character – and when, later in the series, the pov scatters, it doesn’t scatter too widely. I can think of three important pov characters in the entire five-book series, and they all work for me. Plus the overall thrust of the plot is consistent: some unknown enemy is trying to wipe out your family! That’s a big, clear, understandable problem. A big, clear, understandable problem is important, and often seems lacking in modern epic fantasy.

If modern epic fantasy stands out for scattered pov and diffuse plotting, what genre in modern fiction stands out for consistently tight plotting? Go on, think about it. I’ll wait. [Twiddles thumbs.] [Whistles.]

Why, yes, that’s right, Young Adult! Which is not actually a genre, so I sort of cheated in how I phrased the above question, I know. But whether you’re talking YA contemporary, or YA fantasy, or YA historical – it’s all characterized by tight plotting. I’m sure there are some YA stories that fail. But if you want to look at tight plotting, YA is the place to go to find it. In my opinion – and I’m not trying to claim that I’ve read even a representative cross-section of the genre fiction published in the last five years – but the average YA fantasy being published today is just better than the average modern adult fantasy. And the most important reason it is better is that YA editors make their authors tighten up their plots and adult fantasy editors don’t think it matters that much, or (if they’re editing epic fantasy) don’t seem to think it matters at all.

And I say this as a reader who often enjoys a slower, more leisurely pace. Because I’m not conflating tight plotting with pace at all. I’m declaring that a tight plot is one where:

a) There is only one main conflict in the story, and it revolves around one or a small number of clearly identifiable protagonists, who drive the action,

b) The smaller conflicts in the story all echo, support, or arise from the main conflict,

c) The tension steps upward through the story, reaches a clearly identifiable climax, and resolves.

Now, you can stretch a point. In a book with two protagonists, they may both have their very own main conflict. But if they do,

d) Though it doesn’t have to be this way, you will often find that the individual dilemmas driving each of two main characters are actually in opposition with one another, thus creating a huge overall conflict – I’m thinking here of THE SCORPIO RACES by Stiefvater, but there are many good examples.

e) And, to the extent you’re going to have multiple pov characters and/or a diffuse plot, you have just got to have exceptional skill with characterization, voice, and dialogue — which are all really aspects of the same thing — in order to make that work. Which Stolze does, and Moon — in the Paladin’s Legacy series at least — just doesn’t. (I know, right? I really do love a lot of Moon’s work, and THE SPEED OF DARK is absolutely incredible, yet for this new series of hers, sorry, but characterization, voice and dialogue are all flat. Sorry! It’s true!)

So if you are reading a book and think: This is dull, this is boring, I just don’t care about any of these characters – well, that may look like a problem with conflict or tension, or like a problem with characterization. But I suspect that whatever immediate problem has caused you to lose interest, the ultimate problem is that there are too many pov characters, that you don’t find most of them engaging, and maybe that the plot is diffuse and fails to create a sense of building tension.

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Looong days, I swear they have more than 24 hours in them

So yesterday? The five hour drive to Indianapolis that I expected to take six hours because I usually stop two or three times to let the dogs stretch their legs?

Almost eight hours. Half of Hwy 70 was one long stop-and-go traffic jam. Most of the time I like my stick shift fine, but traffic jams that last HOURS are not those times.

I spent about an hour on the phone with my friend Deb; we were stuck about two miles apart, we eventually figured out. We’d each planned on having three hours or so before Puppy Sweeps started. Deb had the actual show ring materials in her SUV, so I’m not sure how they would have started the show without her, but traffic in Indy, once we finally got that far, was fine and we arrived with twenty minutes to spare.

But, just, wow. Never been in a traffic jam like that.

So, Honey in sweeps, youngest puppy by a mile, didn’t place but that’s okay, she is such a baby yet. She showed very nicely and had fun, which was all I wanted. Then I had to practice Rally obedience with the three older girls. I didn’t get done with that until after 10:00 PM. Plus I had to sound chipper and enthusiastic with them. “Chipper and enthusiastic” was pretty far from how I felt by then, let me tell you.

Rally started at seven this morning. Which in St L time is 6:00 AM. But then I woke up at 3:30 AM anyway and couldn’t go back to sleep, so that turned out to be fine. Time for a long long walk at dawn plus five minutes of practice for each girl. I didn’t really expect them all to qualify, especially Kenya, who I only entered because I thought showing in performance might boost her confidence level in the breed ring. Plus we’ve had trouble with the stand, trouble with the jump, only Giedre really gets the concept of the “stand while I walk around you in a circle and DON’T MOVE” exercise.

But Folly turned out to do her stand just fine. She didn’t do the jump, have to go practice that this evening, that cost her ten points, and I made a mistake with a sign that cost us ten more points, but we still qualified, though with a low low low score of 76. That may be my lowest score ever. She looked great, very fast straight sits and everything, she’ll do a lot better when she learns that jumps in the ring are just the same as jumps at home. Kenya didn’t do the jump either, no surprise there, but she did okay on everything else, earned an 85. Giedre did fine and got first place with a 95.

Then in the breed ring, lot of competition for Honey in the Junior Puppy class, nothing there, but again, by far the youngest puppy. Folly got second place in the Novice class, and I was very pleased when Kenya got second in her Special Limit Blenheim class because those were some very well known breeders in there with us, really top people who do a lot of winning. My Kenya did great to get second behind the Orchard Hill girl.

Then I took everyone out again, came back to the room, and collapsed for two hours. The girls wanted to wrestle at first but finally joined me in a serious nap.

Long day, seriously. I’ll go practice obedience LATER.

Writing status: on hold. Too tired.

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If you watched this, how about reading that?

I’m kinda wishing I could see “Pacific Rim”, which I hear is intrinsically silly but also catchy and fun.

But I can’t, because the theater in town isn’t showing it. I mean, I’m sure I could drive to St Louis and see it there, but honestly, an hour and a half each way to see a movie? It’s almost quicker to wait for the DVD to come out.

But this post by Thea from The Book Smugglers caught my eye. Maybe I should read READY PLAYER ONE while I wait to see if the local theater will show “Pacific Rim” in the next couple of weeks?

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