Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Stand and Deliver, by Andre Norton

Here’s a topical post by Judith Tarr at tor.com: Delivering the Goods in Andre Norton’s Stand and Deliver

Here is the promising beginning of the post:

This is the best thing I could have read during one of the most fraught weeks in quite a few people’s lifetimes. It’s deft, it’s fast-paced, it’s unabashedly escapist. Above all, it’s fun. I stayed up unconscionably late reading it, and I regret nothing.

So you see: topical. for those of us who would prefer Stories In Which Nothing Terrible Happens just now, this is probably another one like that. I’ve never read it — I’ve never read any historical by Andre Norton. I didn’t know she’d ever written anything but science fiction and fantasy.

It’s got everything. Highwaymen. Smugglers on the coast. Bow Street Runners and undercover agents. A wonderfully Baskervillian hound named Satan and his dastardly master. Traveling circuses—plural—including a rousing battle between two rival circuses …

There’s even an echo of the alien race in my favorite of all the Free Trader novels, Moon of Three Rings, in the traveling diorama with its unworldly artist father and his rigorously unemotional daughter. Their dark caravan with its weirdly mismatched pair of animals and its enormous and censorious black cat is like a Regency version of the Thassa of Yiktor. I kept wondering if someone would let slip a bit of actual moon magic, but Norton restrained herself in that respect.

Sounds like fun! Here’s a link to Stand and Deliver. It’s the sequel to another story called Yankee Privateer.

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Book recommendations for when you can’t even

Okay! I started Records of a Spaceborn Few and boom!, first thing that happens is a terrible, terrible accident that kills 46,000 people.

You know what I am not in the mood for right now? That.

In case some, most, or possibly even all of you feel the same way, let’s take a look at some Books Where Terrible Things Do Not Happen.

I will also point out this post by Jo Walton at tor.com: Books in Which No Bad Things Happen

That’s what I’m talking about! Thanks, Jo!

Let me see what Jo Walton suggests … Ah! Cotillion by Georgette Heyer. Excellent choice. A few others, and then she finishes the post this way:

And now, my one actual real solid in-genre example of a book where nothing bad happens!

Phyllis Ann Karr’s At Amberleaf Fair is about a far future where people have evolved to be nicer, and there’s a fair, and a woodcarver who can make toys come to life, and there is sex and love and nothing bad happens and everything is all right. It’s gentle and delightful and I genuinely really like this odd sweet little book, and unless I’m forgetting something I don’t think anything bad happens at all.

Yes, thank you, that sounds perfect.

A commenter at that post recommends the one that probably leaps to mind for many of us here: MCA Hogarth’s Dreamhealer’s series. This is obviously a great choice, but since I just read it a few months ago, well, now what?

We have all shared “comfort reads” here from time to time, such as this post or this one or this one here or this one.

Whole genres do exist where problems are minimal and happy endings assured, particularly romances (obviously), but also cozy mysteries, which as I have argued elsewhere are fundamentally mysteries that are also romances. We have also seen posts here about cozy SF, a category which some of you helped flesh out.

For me, stories that fall into this category AND are new to me this year:

  1. MCA Hogarth’s Dreamhealers series
  2. From All False Doctrine by Alice Degan
  3. Elizabeth Peters’ mysteries
  4. What else?

If you have read a nice, calm novel this year, one in which nothing particularly bad happens, with low stakes and minimal tension, by all means drop it in the comments!

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The vicissitudes of time

At Crime Reads: HOW TO GRACEFULLY SUBJECT YOUR DETECTIVES TO THE VICISSITUDES OF TIME

Someone recently pointed out to me a moment in a Nero Wolfe novel where Nero and Archie are solving a mystery for the now-adult son of one of their former clients. Here’s the son, all grown up, while Nero and Archie haven’t aged a bit. Funny! And perfectly appropriate, for that type of detective novel. But that’s why this post caught my eye. Indeed, the post begins with a mention of detective series where the characters remain untouched by time, including Nero Wolfe:

Much the same happened with Nero Wolfe, who irrefutably established the benefits of overconsumption and complete physical inactivity by remaining in the pink of health for fifty years while refusing to stir from his brownstone on West 35th. Rex Stout knew what Christie knew: readers want constancy in a series.

You’ve all read some of the Nero Wolfe novels, yes? Because anyone who enjoys the English language used with style, plus clever detective stories, ought to try this series. Sherlock Holmes never appealed to me, for some reason, but this series did and I’ve read most of the books several times. They’re quick and fun and light and easy to enjoy, and now and then there’s a really memorable sentence. I have always remembered something Nero once said to Archie … let me see …

“Archie.” He was gruff. “No man can hold himself accountable for the results of his psychological defects, especially those he shares with all his fellow men, such as lack of omniscience. It is a vulgar fallacy that what you don’t know can’t hurt you; but it is true that what you don’t know can’t convict you.”
― Rex Stout, Prisoner’s Base

So convenient that other people have gone to the trouble to create lists of memorable quotes from Nero Wolfe mysteries, so that I could easily find the exact quote I wanted.

However, the author of this post is discussing something else: a series where he wrote several books, time passed, and he then picked up the series and brought the protagonist forward in time and into the present day.

The background of the series was the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, with the old terror gangs mutating into organized crime groups in the chaotic new geopolitical landscape. The third book came out just before 9/11, a watershed event that marked the end of an era. In an important sense, Pascual’s world ended on 9/11.

Adam [Adam Dunn, a publisher] stressed that he was interested in Pascual twenty years on, personally as well as in the context of his environment. What had he been doing for twenty years and how would he, middle aged now and long out of the game, cope with this brave new world?

Interesting challenge. The author, Dominic Martell, describes other detective series where the protagonist does age and change and move through time. Lots of examples. Martell eventually handled it this way:

I had Pascual retire to the Catalan hinterland and raise a son with the woman he winds up with at the end of the third book. And I traced out the connections and circumstances that would make him, twenty years on, a valuable property for an agency intent on skulduggery and requiring a front man of unstable identity who can’t refuse the offer he is made.

That’s a nice couple of decades to give his protagonist. Glad it wasn’t too grim. I imagine that whatever challenges Pascual faces in the newest book, he’ll probably surmount them. Oh, I notice that the new book, KILL CHAIN, is on sale for $1.99 on Amazon at the moment. Well, that’s tempting. I sometimes like a political thriller. I’m not in the mood for one right this minute, but no doubt eventually.

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Recent Reading: Witch by Barbara Michaels (Elizabeth Peters)

I didn’t realize that the author was actually Peters until I opened the book and there that was. Not that this was a problem, I just hadn’t realized it. I then thought, kinda a nice touch, selecting a different last name that is also a plural male first name. A clever little clue for her readers, if anyone suspected Michaels was Peters but didn’t know for sure. Actually, turns out this author’s real name was Barbara Louise Mertz.

Anyway, I read this book because, all else being equal, I sort of like a light horror or dark fantasy novel around Halloween, just as I am somewhat inclined to read something Christmas-themed in late December. Then a couple of you recommended WITCH, so I thought there you go, good choice.

I liked this book fine, but almost at once I suspected it had been written a good long time ago. Yep. Copyright is 1973. This comes through rather clearly, just as the reader can tell many of Mary Stewart’s Gothic romances were written an earlier age. Mertz/Peters/Michaels started writing in the sixties. The story in WITCH is just structured in a way that would be highly unusual for any story, including Gothic romance, today. Specifically, in a pinch, the female protagonist needs the help of a brave male love interest to get her out of her predicament, even though this requires her to be stupid at key moments so that the guy can take over.

So, things to know about this novel: 

1. The structure of the story is indeed kinda dated. That didn’t bother me. I am perfectly capable of adjusting my expectations for story structure according to the basic time period in which it was written.

2. It’s low stress, for a light horror novel in the Gothic tradition. Not for a second did I worry about the ending. The style of the story made it crystal clear that the author was following romance tropes, including the happily-ever-after, not horror tropes where anything might happen. So, for example, take the protagonist’s teenage daughter. In horror, who knows what would have happened to her. But in this case, not a problem. I could enjoy the atmosphere and the writing without any concern for the daughter’s eventual fate. That is much more what I prefer.

3. The quality of the writing is excellent. Here’s the beginning:

According to the directions Ellen had received from the real estate agent, the house was in a clearing in the woods. Gently perspiring in the hot office, Ellen had thought wistfully of cool forest glades. April in Virginia is unpredictable; this particular day might have been borrowed form July, and the small-town office was not air-conditioned.

An hour later, after bumping down rutted lanes so narrow that tree branches pushed in through the car windows, Ellen was inclined to consider “clearing” a wild exaggeration. She started perspiring again as soon as she turned off the highway. No breeze could penetrate the tangled growth of these untamed forests; moisture weighted the air.

At any rate, this must be the house, though it more resembled a pile of worn logs overgrown by honeysuckle and other vines. There was a window, shining with an unexpected suggestion of cleanliness; presumably there was also a door somewhere under the tangle of rambler roses in front.

Very nice. This is a good example of using the opening paragraphs to establish setting and tone. Not much going on yet with the protagonist. I tend to like plenty of setting in the opening paragraphs, and I found this an inviting introduction to the story.

4. Ellen herself is a perfectly decent protagonist. Most of the other characters are simple – in fact, Ellen is in some ways drawn in simple, broad strokes as well. She’s kind and perhaps a touch interfering. She has a temper and a sometimes unfortunate sense of humor. I liked her, even though she is also somewhat dense at times. However, the man who sells Ellen the house is my favorite character by a lot and I wish we’d seen far (far) more of him. He actually came across as more interesting than any other character in the entire book, including Ellen.

I quite liked the cat, Ishtar. I was not so keen on the two Dobermans, which were firmly cast in the Devil Dog mode – which is true to the time period, as in the seventies, Dobermans were one of the breeds suffering a fad hatred. Fortunately, the society-wide suspicion and hatred of Dobermans has long since faded away – I say fortunately because this is one of my very favorite breeds and I therefore don’t much like seeing them used as this kind of Magically Obedient Evil Dog plot device. Ishtar was way more like a real cat than the dogs were like real dogs.

5) Lord above, woman, how could it not have been obvious who the real villain was?

This is perhaps not quite fair. Unlike me, Ellen did not know she was in a Gothic horror-romance sort of story and therefore perhaps did not have an advantage in picking out the obvious bad guy.

On the other hand, there were lots of clues.

Who would like this book?

If you’re a Mary Stewart fan, by all means give this one a try. While I wouldn’t put this one on the same level as Nine Coaches Waiting, it’s definitely in the same tradition and shares many of the same pluses and minuses as Stewart’s book’s.

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Sale!

Amazon quite conveniently sent me a notice about a sale for a book in which I must have shown interest — perhaps I got a sample or something —

I know some of you have read this and recommend it, but I had not quite got around to picking up a copy. It’s $1.99 today as a Kindle ebook, so if you, like me, hadn’t picked it up previously, now would be a good time.

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Nice story of the day

I’m keeping an eye out for positive stories right now, and this one certainly qualifies:

Sri Lankan Navy, Villagers Save 120 Whales After Mass Beaching

Short-finned pilot whales. Pilot whales are quite susceptible to whatever problem causes mass beaching incidents.

The navy and coast guard teams worked with local police and volunteer lifeguards using watercraft throughout the night and early morning to pull the whales safely back to the sea.

Good for everyone involved. It’s not always possible to save so many whales after an incident like this, even if people try pretty hard. This time it worked out much better.

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Mari Ness on Mulan

Mari Ness does the best reviews of fairy tales and adjacent stories. Here’s her post at tor.com about Mulan.

“Mulan shi,” the original ballad, is extremely short—only a few hundred lines—and Mulan’s story within the ballad is even shorter than that, since the last few lines are about rabbits. As the ballad begins, Mulan is weaving, worried because her father is about to be drafted into the military. Since she has no brothers, Mulan purchases military equipment and joins the army in her father’s place. Ten years later, after the death of their general, the army returns home, and Mulan is honored by the emperor.

In a great touch, all she wants from the ceremony is a camel, so she can ride it home. 

I’m dying to see the last few lines about rabbits! And, if you feel the same way, here is a pdf version of the ballad, in Mandarin and then a direct translation that looks like it’s word-for-word; then, last, a smoother, more readable English translation. I will quote the two lines about rabbits:

The male rabbit hops from the beginning, the female rabbit’s eyes are misty.

Both rabbits are running along the ground; how can you tell whether I am male or female?

That last line seems relevant to the story, but that first rabbit line is mysterious. A footnote suggests that this line is supposed to describe how to distinguish between male and female rabbits, which seems plausible.

As you’d expect, Mari Ness goes into considerable detail about the history and many versions of this story.

As a heroine who could be, as needed, Chinese or half Chinese, whose story could end happily, or sadly, or with a romantic marriage, or with celibacy, Mulan was not only popular, but could be used in a number of ways

Good article — click through if you have a minute.

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A cynical view of titles and covers

Interestingly titled article at Kill Zone Blog: My Cynical View of Titles and Covers

I imagine the author of this post, John Gilstrap, is going to argue that the title and cover have zero purpose other than to sell the book. I expect that is basically true, though having a cover you like to look at is a plus. I turn physical books with nice covers front-out on my shelves so that I can appreciate the cover whenever I pass the shelves. But sure, let’s see what Gilstrap has to say:

Okay, to summarize, people decide to buy a book in four steps:

a) Know to look for it (which is the kicker, as Gilstrap observes). Then

b) Instant attraction; eg, the cover

c) Plot description

d) First pages, and finally the reader decides whether or not to buy the book.

Sure, the above steps seem perfectly reasonable. Personally, I care less about the plot description, as a rule, and much more about the first pages. In fact, my essential decision to buy a book goes like this:

a) Know to look for it, generally because someone here recommends it, but occasionally because I see a reference to it somewhere else. It’s actually relatively rare these days that I look at a book unless it’s by an author I already know OR someone here recommends it. Because my TBR pile is so enormous, I’m relatively unlikely to visit the blogs of people who review books. I used to do that a lot more and in the unlikely event that I ran low on stuff to read, I’d go back to those blogs to find out about books I might like. Every now and then, someone will say exactly the right thing on Twitter to get me to click over to Amazon and take a good look at the book.

b) —

c) —

d) First pages.

Given a recommendation from someone whose taste matches mine pretty well, neither the cover nor the plot description matters a whit. This is true even though I enjoy a nice cover as much as the next person. Sometimes the plot description does matter. That is the case if I see something on Twitter that brings a book to my notice. More often, unless something about the plot description REALLY turns me off, I’m happy to try a sample. Once the sample is on my Kindle, I’ll try it eventually. Thus, first pages are by far the most important thing after I first hear about the book.

Back to Gilstrap’s cynical view of covers and titles …

The covers and titles needn’t have much to do with the actual plot of the book. They work together to accomplish their jobs in a glance, and then they are forgotten. They work in tandem to convince a potential reader to take a chance, and if you, as the writer, do your job to entertain, no one will notice. 

Yes, I think that is true. Particularly for ebooks, where the cover is not something you see very often or (on my Kindle) in color. I agree that it just does not matter all that much if the cover is faithful to the verbal descriptions within the book, partly because every reader is going to have their own internal image of the characters and figures and scenery and everything.

Having said that … it’s kind of nice when the cover (and, I guess, title) match the story to some reasonable degree. Not crucial. But nice.

Gilstrap adds:

The second book in my Jonathan Grave series is Hostage Zero. It’s the title that broke the series out, and the phrase means nothing. None of the hostages are numbered, and none of them launch a plague, as in “patient zero”. It just sounded cool, and that’s why we went with it.

I do think that’s a bit cynical, and a bit funny too. I don’t think it would have occurred to me to call a book “Hostage Zero” unless the story somehow used the phrase in a way reminiscent of “Patient Zero.” But yes, it’s a good-sounding title. I can see why people might click on the book and read the back cover copy.

The comments on the post are interesting. I notice one commenter agrees with me that almost nothing matters but a recommendation from the right source.

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It is, however, a beautiful day

Fall is one of my favorite seasons. We didn’t get enough rain to REALLY color up the entire woods, but we did get quite a lot of nice color. Here, in case you would like something beautiful to look at for a moment, are some of the pictures I’ve taken over the past couple of weeks, mostly while out with Pippa, who gets a lot of special individual walks.

Japanese maple. Yes, the Ilex glabra shrubs behind this maple do go all the way up to the eaves. I can’t bear to cut them down.
I planted a Persian perrotia, which stubbornly refuses to color up the way they are supposed to. This is the second one I planted, when I gave up on the first. THIS is how they are supposed to look in the fall. At the moment, just six feet tall or so, but someday this will be a small tree.
Dad and I agree this is probably a sassafras, but it’s hard to tell for sure because the leaves are way up there. Mostly sassafras don’t color up all at once the way this tree did.
My Amur cork tree, which is still a baby, but it was about eight inches tall when I planted it, so it’s coming along. This is the best fall color it’s ever shown.
Pippa, shown here with her friend Conner next to her, is doing so much better! She does not really need separate walks anymore; she just likes them. Though her vision is not great, that has improved so much she is almost back to where she was prior to her seizure. She, like all dogs, now once again greets every new day with joy.

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Industrial-scale human sacrifice

Today, I am tired and somewhat out of sorts.

Let’s have a post that reflects my mood:

Feeding the gods: Hundreds of skulls reveal massive scale of human sacrifice in Aztec capital

Death, however, was just the start of the victim’s role in the sacrificial ritual, key to the spiritual world of the Mexica people in the 14th to the 16th centuries.

Priests carried the body to another ritual space, where they laid it face-up. Armed with years of practice, detailed anatomical knowledge, and obsidian blades sharper than today’s surgical steel, they made an incision in the thin space between two vertebrae in the neck, expertly decapitating the body. Using their sharp blades, the priests deftly cut away the skin and muscles of the face, reducing it to a skull. Then, they carved large holes in both sides of the skull and slipped it onto a thick wooden post that held other skulls prepared in precisely the same way. The skulls were bound for Tenochtitlan’s tzompantli, an enormous rack of skulls built in front of the Templo Mayor—a pyramid with two temples on top. One was dedicated to the war god, Huitzilopochtli, and the other to the rain god, Tlaloc. …

Barrera Rodríguez and INAH archaeologist and field supervisor Lorena Vázquez Vallín knew from colonial maps of Tenochtitlan that the tzompantli, if it existed, could be somewhere near their dig. But they weren’t sure that’s what they were seeing until they found the postholes for the skull rack. The wooden posts themselves had long since decayed, and the skulls once displayed on them had shattered—or been purposely crushed by the conquistadors. Still, the size and spacing of the holes allowed them to estimate the tzompantli’s size: an imposing rectangular structure, 35 meters long and 12 to 14 meters wide, slightly larger than a basketball court, and likely 4 to 5 meters high.

Much, much more information, much of it even more disturbing, at the link.

I’ll post something more cheerful later.

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