My Experience At Plates & Pages

Never before have I been so excited to share a dining experience with you all.

Today I’m here to tell you about Plates & Pages, an extraordinary event put on by a restaurant in Cincinnati called Five on Vine. I had never heard of them before, but it’s the sister restaurant to Losanti Steakhouse, which I absolutely adore and wrote about a few weeks ago.

Five on Vine hosted a five course wine pairing dinner in collaboration with Household Books, a local bookstore that features used books, vinyl records, and vintage clothing. For this event, Household Books held a pop-up bookstore inside the restaurant.

The doors opened at six, and the first hour was allotted for guests to arrive, grab their glass of welcome Prosecco, and peruse the books that were hand-picked by the owner of the bookstore. There was classic literature, some rare books and first editions, some fiction, and best of all, vintage cookbooks.

A ten dollar credit towards a book was included in the cost of the event ticket, so of course I had to grab one. Or three.

First, I got The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot:

A large white book with no cover image, just black lettering that reads,

I really like the no-nonsense minimalistic style of the cover.

Of course I had to grab this 1967 Betty Crocker’s Hostess Cookbook:

A large blue book with yellow lettering that reads

I mean, come on, it has over 400 guest-tested recipes!

And I knew this 1953 Open Sandwiches and Cold Lunches by Asta Bang and Edith Rode was too good to pass up:

An off white book with red lettering that reads

After grabbing my books, I went and sat at my assigned table. Since I had come alone, I had expected to be seated by myself and dine in solitude. Much to my surprise, I was seated at a table with five other people. I don’t mind socializing, and I like making friends, so I wasn’t too worried about the situation. Little did I realize how amazing the company would end up being, and how much richer my dining experience was for it.

The meal began at seven with an amuse-bouche. An endive leaf stuffed with red and gold beets and topped with a radish slice.

A small black plate featuring a single endive leaf stuffed with diced red and golden beets, adorned with a thin slice of radish on top.

I’m not the biggest fan of endive for the same reason I don’t really care for arugula. I find it to be too bitter and there are other greens that I prefer that are an easy substitute. That being said, this dish was simply delicious. I couldn’t figure out what about beets and endive made for such an incredible dish, and the details of the amuse-bouche weren’t on the menu, so I called the restaurant to see if they could give me more details. They were kind enough to let me speak with the chef, and he told me all the aspects that made this dish truly great.

The beets were made confit-style with garlic, thyme, and bay leaf, and the liquid from the confit was used to make the vinaigrette. Alongside the endive leaf was a blue cheese mousse with celery seed that added a nice richness. I mentioned to the chef that despite not liking endive, I loved this dish, and he said he soaked the endive in gin and sweet vermouth for a few minutes, which totally eliminated the bitterness.

As you can see, the amuse-bouche was beautifully crafted, and was only the beginning. Here’s what was in store:

A menu that lays out each course and has all the details for each dish. It lists five courses, as well as dessert, and each of their wine pairings.

For each course, they’d bring out the food and pour the wine, then the chef would explain each dish, and the wine expert would talk about each wine, and then the bookstore owner would read a quote from a book he’d selected to accompany the course.

First up was this scallop crudo paired with a pinot grigio from Italy:

A small white plate covered in a green sauce (watercress puree) that accompanies the scallop crudo. Atop the scallops is a sort of pineapple citrus chutney and cilantro.

As someone who loves scallops, I had no doubt this course would be good, but I must admit I was hesitant about the “crudo” aspect of it. I have never had raw scallops before. I don’t mind raw seafood, as I’ve eaten plenty of salmon and tuna in sushi, but I definitely have never thought to try scallops raw. I thought the texture would be displeasing, but both the texture and taste ended up being amazing. The brightness from both the watercress puree and the pineapple-citrus-cilantro mixture paired with the buttery scallops wonderfully, and the crispness of the pinot grigio was the perfect accompaniment to this light and delicious course.

I was especially surprised about liking the pinot grigio, because I have never cared for dry wines. I knew this event would have a lot of dry wines, and that didn’t bother me even though I’ve never liked them before, but something about this one in particular was really nice. It was refreshing, crisp, and not overly dry. This course really gave off “summer on the coast” vibes, and I was all about it.

Going off of this, the book pairing for this course was The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was said that this was because of the themes of simplicity and class, as well as the ability to really “feel the breeze”. It was quite eloquently put.

Next was this beautiful medley of summer vegetables:

A large white plate featuring a cylindrically shaped mixture of summer squash, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant, topped with a green leafy garnish and surrounded by a pesto-like sauce and a white anchovy aioli sort of sauce.

When they brought this dish out, it reminded me of the ratatouille from the movie Ratatouille. This particular mélange featured summer squash, tomato, eggplant, onion, and was topped with an olive tapenade. The sauces were wildly different from each other, one being sort of similar to a pesto, and the other being a thick, white anchovy sauce that was intensely flavorful and creamy. The chef said that this course was like a tribute to the end of summer, and indeed it was a perfect encapsulation of saying farewell to a season filled with so much fresh produce.

Were it deemed socially acceptable, I would’ve licked this plate clean.

As for the wine, we were given a Chablis. Much like the previous course, it seemed to pair exquisitely with the dish at hand. It was from France, and was actually the only French wine of the evening.

The quote for this course was from With Bold Knife & Fork: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”

This quote really speaks to me as someone who loves to make baked goods for my loved ones, to share meals with the people I care about. My favorite way to spend time is eating good food with good company, so this quote has a bit of relatability to it.

Following this was a lovely butternut squash soup:

A white teacup filled with butternut squash soup that is topped with candied walnuts. A glass of red wine is in the background.

Butternut squash not only happens to be my favorite type of squash, but one of my favorite types of soup, as well. Especially when it’s as creamy and pleasantly sweet as this one was. The candied walnuts on top certainly assisted with that, while the smoked paprika added a nice warmth. I could’ve eaten a drum of this.

I found the details for the wine particularly interesting for this course. It was a Reyna Barbaresco, which we were told is the queen of Italian wine. The grapes were harvested later than normal, which reduced the acidity. Apparently the previous winter had been full of heavy rainfall and snow, making for a plentiful water reserve and balanced the ripening. The science behind everything was honestly really fascinating.

This next quote was a little more on the philosophical side of things. From Redwall: “Knowledge is a thing that one cannot have enough of. It is the fruit of wisdom, to be eaten carefully and digested fully, unlike that lunch you are bolting down, little friend.”

Onto course four, the seared trout:

A large white bowl containing a filet of seared trout atop a bed of lentils. A small caramelized onion sits next to the trout.

I actually quite like trout. I mean, I can’t think of a fish I’ve had that I don’t like, but trout is definitely a good one. What I did not expect from this trout, though, was sweetness. There was a slightly sweet glaze over the fish that when mixed with the citrus vinaigrette and orange on top made for a delectable bite. As for the lentils, here was another ingredient I generally steered clear of, yet found myself loving every bite of them this time around.

The wine description for the Crognolo Toscana, another Italian red, came with an interesting history lesson. Apparently the name of the estate, Setti Ponti, means seven bridges, and is in reference to the seven bridges over the Arno River that connects Arezzo and Florence. Turns out, one of these bridges is visible behind Mona Lisa!

As for the quote for this course, it comes from Ernest Hemingway: “There is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else.”

Again, as someone who believes there is love involved in making food for others, in sharing a meal with others, who romanticizes baking on rainy fall days and loves indulging in delicious foods, this quote seemed like it was made for me.

The owner of the bookstore took this time to show us this awesome first edition of The Sun Also Rises:

A small, laminated copy of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

I believe he said it was from 1926, but correct me in the comments if I’m misremembering.

Moving on from the sea to the land, we have some duck:

Seared duck breast with a thick, dark sauce atop a big mound of phyllo dough stuffed with more duck!

Duck is one of those things that I’ve only had a handful of times before, and have always found to be perfectly adequate, but never something I would go out of my way to order. This duck completely changed my opinion on duck as a whole. It was the best duck I’ve ever had, and was so next level that I’m now afraid to try duck anywhere else ever because I doubt it will be as delicious as this dish was. Not only was the seared duck breast tender, flavorful, and accompanied by a deeply savory sauce, but the crispy phyllo dough was filled with more duck, quinoa, goat cheese, and dried cherries. I happen to really like all of those things!

The wine for this course was called Tortoniano Barolo, the third red from Italy. This one was super cool because its name comes from the tortonian era, which was nine million years ago. That’s how old the soil is that the vines are planted in. Tell me that isn’t so cool! All of the dry reds up to this point had not been really to my taste, and this one was especially dry and had me making a bit of a face upon trying it. Can’t say it was my favorite, but I can understand how it would pair well with something as intensely flavorful and savory as the duck.

Before I move on to the dessert, I want to talk a bit about the final quote. It comes from the late Anthony Bourdain, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from the get-go.”

Food is everything we are. Food is culture, food is community, food is connection. And that is exactly what I experienced at this event. The staff was so inviting and friendly, they made me feel more like a guest than a customer. The people I sat with were interesting, super cool, unique individuals that I enjoyed learning about and getting to know throughout almost four hours of dining together. The chef, the wine expert, and the bookseller were all such awesome, artistic people with a burning passion for their field that showed in every dish, every glass, and every quote. This event was planned and curated with a level of artistry and intentionality I have never experienced before, and I can only hope I get the chance to do it again.

With all that being said, the night ended on a sweet note:

A long, oval-ish white plate with berries, mounds of marshmallow fluff, and peanut brittle scattered across.

Mounds of toasted marshmallow fluff, macerated berries, peanut brittle, chocolate budino, what’s not to love? Admittedly, I was confused when I read “quenelle” of the chocolate budino (more or less a chocolate pudding), because the definition on Google for quenelle is a meat and fish mixture. Turns out, there’s a second definition that means a carefully shaped small amount of a soft food. That made a lot more sense. And now I know a new word. Yay learning!

Every bite of this dessert was pure decadence. Sweet, marshmallowy goodness alongside plump, juicy blueberries amidst silky chocolate. I’m drooling just remembering how heavenly this dessert was. It may very well have been the single greatest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.

The wine was a port. I expected no less given port’s depth of flavor and sweet richness that makes it the perfect pairing for any dessert. The small pour was just the right amount to really top off the sheer indulgence of this finisher.

After buying a bottle of the port and the pinot grigio to take home, and with my new books in tow, I headed out for the long drive home, satiated not just in being full from good food and wine, but in conversation, connection, laughter, and artistic expression.

What looks the best to you? Which wine would you have loved to try? Are you a fan of duck? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

(Be sure to follow Five on Vine and Household Books on Instagram!)

-AMS

Hello From Budapest, 9/28/23

The photo is from the opening ceremonies of the Budapest International Book Festival, just before I went up on stage and was given the Budapest Grand Prize by the mayor of Budapest, who is very tall and not a little bit handsome, and who referenced my shoes in a later presentation (they’re my Bosch Doc Martens). I felt like a hobbit getting gifts from the elves. Also, hi, I am the first science fiction author ever to receive the Budapest Grand Prize, so I have that going for me, which is nice.

The rest of the opening ceremonies was excellent and included speeches by various folks including the Dutch Ambassador to Hungary (the Netherlands is the National Guest of Honor this year), and a couple of very cool musical performances. I was interviewed as the guest of honor, and then we all went to a meet and greet and schmoozed for a bit, which was fun. Tomorrow is my media day, which means lots and lots of interviews and chatting. This is always fun for me because I was a journalist for years, and it’s always wild and surreal to be on the other side of the microphone, as it were.

It’s been a good day, with very good people in it. Hope yours has been, too.

— JS

Starter Villain a NYT, USA Today, Indie and Audible Bestseller

And it’s actually a New York Times best seller twice, as it landed on both the Hardcover and Combine Print & EBook list (numbers 14 and 12, respectively). Plus it’s #30 on the USA Today list (that list covers all books being sold in bookstore, regardless of format, genre and release date), #15 on the Indie list (compiled from indie booksellers), and #2 on the Audible Fiction Audio list (Update, 9/28: And also #8 on the Amazon Bestseller’s list!). That’s a pretty great start for a book that features volcano lairs, lasers and cats who can type. I am, as you may imagine, delighted.

I’m typing this from Budapest, incidentally, where it is past midnight; I stayed up to hear if the book made the NYT list. Now I’m going to go thump in the bed, as tomorrow the Budapest International Book Festival starts its run, and I’m the Guest of Honor for it. Coming into the event with a new bestseller is kind of a nice way to begin things.

— JS

This Is A Post About Roller Skating

I might have lied a little bit. This post isn’t as much about roller skating as it is about the lack thereof.

At the beginning of the summer, I decided I needed a new hobby. One that involved physical activity and outdoor time. Because I don’t get enough of either of those things. Roller skating seemed like the perfect fit for something that was balanced between exercise and fun, and could be done anywhere at roughly any time.

So, I decided to buy a pair of roller skates. It was hard to decide between getting inline skates or the side-by-side ones. I didn’t know the differences or pros and cons, so I watched a few Tik Toks about each. Ultimately, the inline ones seemed like the better choice, and I bought a pair. After getting the skates, knee pads, elbow pads, a helmet, all the necessary equipment, it was a couple hundred dollars. But it was okay, because this was going to become my new thing.

Except, it didn’t.

The day my skates arrived in the mail was the same day the outside world became hazy, smoky, and an air quality warning was issued. It was advised by officials and experts not to go outside. So I didn’t. But then the Canadian wildfires just kept going, and going, and we kept being urged to stay inside. So inside I stayed.

After a while, the air became mostly breathable again, but then I was due to leave home and go to LA for three weeks. Obviously I couldn’t pack my skates, they were huge. Not to mention how much room a helmet would take up.

Weeks later when I returned home, I got a promotion at work, and became a little more busy throughout the week than I previously was.

And then there was never a “good time”. I always had something to do, somewhere to be, somebody to see. So many reasons as to why my skates were still in the box. I made a lot of excuses as to why learning to skate just didn’t fit into my daily life.

But, I’ve realized why I’m so quick to make excuses when it comes to the skates. I’m afraid to fall. I’m afraid to break my fucking ankle, or twist something, or hurt myself at all. Though I’m twenty-four, I’m not in the best shape, and I’ve found recently that if I hurt myself, it takes a lot longer to heal than it used to. Things don’t feel the same afterwards. It’s like I’m permanently damaged from minor incidents.

While I was in LA, I hurt my ankle dancing one night. It hurt for days, and didn’t feel fully right for weeks, if not months. I’m afraid that if I get hurt, whatever I damage will never be the same again.

My father has a finger he can’t really bend all the way. It’s from a high school volleyball incident. He’s in his fifties, and it’s still not right. Sometimes things just don’t heal well, and if I can avoid giving myself an injury to have to heal from, I will.

Anyways, the summer is over and I never once adorned the skates that were supposed to be my new, fun hobby that would get me out there, get me active. It never happened, and I’m sad for it.

I know I could start now, but am I going to? It seems unlikely. Between my fear of hurting myself, work, my hatred of sweating, my lack of patience to learn new things, and any other excuse I can think of in the moment, I’m probably just going to avoid having wheels strapped to my feet all together.

-AMS

View From the Sky, 9/26/23

Well, I’m off to Budapest now. This is the view from earlier today, heading from Ohio to Washington; now I’m on the plane heading to Europe. It’ll be most of a day in the sky and at airports before I make it to Budapest; I splashed out on Business Class to make sure my neck won’t be a pretzel when I arrive.

As I head to a whole other continent, I wanted to thank everyone who attended my tour events in the last week. It’s always so much fun to see everyone and share a day with you. Thank you all. When I come back from Europe I’ll be doing more events – including a make-up date in Wichita on October 9 – so I will see even more of you soon.

Until then, don’t wreck North America while I’m away, okay? Thank you in advance.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/25/23: CVG

And here we have another quality parking lot photo, both foreground, and especially, background.

Tonight at 7pm: Cincinnati, I’ll see you at the Joseph-Beth booksellers! And then, that’s it for this leg of the book tour. Do I go home from here? Dear me, no! I’m off to Budapest tomorrow, to be the Guest of Honor for the International Book Festival there. So no home for me. However, Krissy is coming to see me tonight, so at least I get to see my spouse, which makes me happier than you can imagine.

If you’re in Cincy, please come see me tonight!

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/23/23: Pittsburgh

Well, folks, if we’re talking parking lot views, it appears that we have hit the motherlode. This is an extremely impressive collection of loitering vehicles. I think it may even be a record, and in 15 years of touring, that’s saying something.

Reminder that today’s event is at 4pm and that the venue is now the Sixth Presbyterian Church (1688 Murray Ave). Tomorrow, I’m in Chapel Hill, for another afternoon event (also 4pm) at Flyleaf books. See you there, North Carolina!

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/22/23: DFW

Another airport hotel view, once again because I have to be up silly early to catch a flight — not the earliest I have to get up, that’s tomorrow — and being at an airport hotel is the easiest way to manage that. Also, after the horrendous travel day I had yesterday (I didn’t get to my hotel room until 1am), I was glad not to have to go anywhere far to get to a bed. Today has been a day of sleeping in, staying in bed (I am still in bed as I am writing this at 3pm central) and ordering room service. Don’t worry, I’m still doing to event tonight. But then: right back to bed, y’all.

TOMORROW: Pittsburgh for the first time as a tour stop! PLEASE NOTE: If you are coming to see me tomorrow, the venue has changed: It’s now at the Sixth Presbyterian Church (1688 Murray Ave), although at the same time, 4pm. Yes, I’ll be in a church. By now, this is a familiar thing for me. See you there!

— JS

Meet the Ohioana Award

It’s an award, given by the state of Ohio, to Ohio writers, in the shape of — yes! — Ohio. It is a very on theme award, I have to say. And I have one, for The Kaiju Preservation Society, which won this year’s Readers’ Choice Award (i.e., the one Ohioana Award that is voted on by readers, rather than being a juried award). I was thrilled. Alas, I could not be there in person at the ceremony yesterday, because I was meant to be in Wichita for a book event (but was in fact stranded in Denver because United forgot how to actually fly planes), but Athena accepted for me and was fabulous doing it.

For posterity, here are the remarks Athena gave at the ceremony, from me:

Dear staff and attendees of the Ohioana Book Awards:

First, thank you again for this humbling honor. I came to Ohio from elsewhere, but the first novel I ever sold was written here, as have been all my subsequent novels. Ohio has been very kind to me, my family, and my career. So it feels good to win this particular award. Thank you also to the staff at Tor Books and Audible, the staff and judges at Ohioana Library and Book Awards, and to everyone who voted for my little monster book.

Second, I am deeply honored to have been in this field of winners and finalists, across all categories. The authors and subjects show the deep diversity and creativity that exists in this state, and which should be acknowledged and celebrated by everyone in Ohio. As a state, we are at our best when we display the width and breadth of our many different experiences. We do so here tonight. 

Finally, I want to give a moment of appreciation to libraries, not only to the Ohioana library but to libraries in general. I would not be who I am nor where I am in the world without the libraries that gave me space and knowledge and shelter. We cannot and should not take lightly the role they play in our communities and public life; we should support and defend them. As a token of my support of libraries, I am donating my Ohioana Award prize money to my hometown library in Bradford, Ohio. May it be useful for their service to our community. 

Thank you again and congratulations to all tonight’s winners. 

— JS

Not a View From a Hotel Window, 9/21/23: Denver, Unfortunately

So I’m on the tarmac on SFO this morning, listening to the informational flight video as the plane is pulling away from the gate, when suddenly the informational video, and the lights, and the air conditioning, go out, followed by quiet but insistent beeping noises, followed by the pilot getting on the intercom and going “So, uhhhh.” The auxiliary power module was not working, and they were going to have to basically turn the airplane on and off again to see if they could get it going again. Which they did, for another five minutes before it went out again, and then we were towed back to the gate.

By the time all the plane shenanigans were done, I had missed my connecting flight into Wichita, and while there was another flight into that city, it wasn’t until 10:30pm, i.e., well after my 6pm event at Watermark Books.

So, for the first time in the more than 15 years that I have been doing book tours, we had to cancel an event. All because a fucking airline apparently doesn’t do basic maintenance on its fleet, and isn’t that reassuring. At the moment I’m in Denver, awaiting a flight into Dallas, since my event tomorrow is there, and we might as well try to get there now because who knows what the hell will happen next.

I’m deeply embarrassed to miss this event. It’s not my fault, but that doesn’t really matter for the folks who were hoping to see me tonight. The only thing I can say is that I am sorry, and that Tor and Watermark are working to reschedule the event for the next few weeks. Wichita, I will come to you! Soon. That’s a promise.

In the meantime, tomorrow: Dallas, Half-Price Books, 7pm. Please come. Thank you.

— JS

Trying Out A New Recipe: Half Baked Harvest’s Chewy Maple Brown Sugar Blondies

About a week ago, the temperature had dropped just enough for it to feel like a real fall day. Of course, now we are back up to the 80’s despite it being the end of September, but for one glorious day it was cool and breezy, and I knew I wanted to make something that encapsulated fall. At that very moment, I saw Half Baked Harvest post a recipe on Instagram for some Brown Butter Apple Blondies with Cinnamon Maple Glaze. I thought, well that sounds amazing! However, it requires real apples, so this recipe was just not in the cards at that moment in time.

Lo and behold, though, I saw a recipe for her Chewy Maple Brown Sugar Blondies instead, and opted for those. After all, it does have apple butter in it, so pretty similar at least, right?

First, the ingredients:

Ingredients laid out on the counter. Domino dark brown sugar, Kerrygold salted butter, apple butter, flour, maple syrup, vanilla extract, cinnamon, baking powder, an egg, Ghirardelli semi sweet chocolate chips, and Ghirardelli semi sweet chocolate bar.

I thought the ingredients were pretty standard for the most part. Of course, apple butter is more of a specialty ingredient that can be hard to come by. It is easier to find it in fall, though, much like cans of pumpkin. Aside from that, it’s mostly just sugar, butter, chocolate, maple syrup, cinnamon, all the best stuff!

The first thing I did was brown the butter. Which started off like this:

A blue pan containing melted butter that is bubbling and has some white foam on top.

And ended like this:

A glass PYREX container containing melted browned butter.

I believe I’ve mentioned it in a previous baking post, but brown butter is where you melt butter and let it basically cook until you’ve toasted the milk solids, which is what all this is on the bottom:

All the browned milk solids from the butter sitting at the bottom of the melted butter.

Brown butter is much richer and complex in flavor than regular butter, and using a good quality butter is really important if you’re looking to brown your butter. I pretty much only use Kerrygold, as I’m a bit of a loyalist, but there’s other good quality brands that will brown just as well.

Anyways, after I browned the butter, I mixed up the brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla, apple butter, and egg:

A white mixing bowl containing a caramel colored mixture. There is a rainbow silicone whisk sitting in the mixture.

I added the butter, all the dry ingredients, and the chocolate to get this yummy looking dough:

A white mixing bowl containing what appears to be normal chocolate chip cookie dough. Many chocolate chips and chocolate chunks are visible throughout the dough. A white rubber spatula sits in the dough.

I like to use chocolate chips and chocolate chunks (I just cut up the chocolate bar). I think it looks better, but that’s just me. With butter, I’m a loyalist to Kerrygold, and with chocolate, I’m a loyalist to Ghirardelli. Nothing gets the job done better than Ghirardelli semi sweet.

I pressed the dough down into a parchment lined 9×13:

The dough spread out into a parchment lined dish.

And baked it! The recipe says to let it bake for 18-22 minutes, and that you want it to be kind of underdone, but I ended up baking it for closer to 25 because I think it was a little too underdone originally.

Once it seemed okay, I pulled it out:

The dough, now baked, still in the parchment lined dish.

While I waited for it to cool, I made up the maple glaze that’s supposed to go on top. I was hesitant to make the glaze, as I’ve expressed before on here that I don’t care for how powdered sugar makes things taste, but I made it anyways and it actually turned out really well!

So I glazed these bad boys:

The blondies cut into fifteen squares and drizzled with the maple glaze.

After cutting them, I noticed that they still looked pretty damn underdone:

A few of the blondies stacked pyramid style to reveal the under baked centers.

Personally, I prefer under baked, and they were really tasty, so I figured it was fine.

As I said, they were quite yummy, however, I don’t feel like they tasted like fall. Despite the maple syrup, cinnamon, and apple butter in the recipe, they just tasted like chocolate chip cookie bars. And that’s more or less what they look like, too. I’m kind of upset they didn’t really taste mapley, even with the glaze. I wanted something cozy and warmly spiced, but they mostly were just chocolate-chip-cookie-esque. They were still good, though.

All in all, it was a pretty easy recipe, and a good way to spend my time. I don’t regret making them at all, but now I really want to try the actual apple blondie recipe I originally wanted to make to see how it compares.

Do you like blondies better than brownies? Do you prefer underdone baked goods? Would you try these? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/20/23: SFO

Turns out, you can stay at the airport when you’re at SFO. Which is what I did, because I have an early flight the next day. However, I did manage to get into the city, and had a good time, with the event and with seeing friends. It’s always nice when that happens.

Tomorrow, or rather, later today: Wichita, Kansas. Which is the first time that I will ever be in that fair city, so I am looking forward to that. I hope to see you guys at the event at 6:00 p.m. at Watermark books!

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/18/23: San Diego

Technically a marina is a parking lot! It’s lovely view, someone currently being ruined by the sound of someone running a chainsaw near by; it really drowns out the sounds of the sea lions at the marina. Humans are the actual worst.

TONIGHT: I’m at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore at 7pm. I’m looking forward to it, mostly because it will be the first time I’m back at Mysterious Galaxy since it changed owners and location. So it will be all new to me!

TOMORROW: I’m in San Francisco at the Bookbinder Museum (also, I think at 7pm). This event is SOLD OUT, so if you didn’t get tickets, hey, I’m sorry. I’ll try to come back to San Francisco soon.

— JS

Starter Villain is OUT + Starter Villain Theme Song by DESSA!

The waiting is over! Starter Villain, my latest novel, is out today in North America (Sept. 21 in the UK), and is available in print, ebook and audio. However you want it, you can get it! It’s available at your local bookstore, and I encourage you to get it there, but here are some additional sales links, just in case:

Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells|Apple Books|Google Play|Kobo

And for the audiobook, follow this link to Audible.

I’m happy to say Starter Villain is starting out with some great reviews, including two starred reviews from Booklist (“Scalzi’s latest will appeal to his legion of fans and draw in new ones”) and Library Journal (“Readers of humorous fantasy are sure to love Scalzi’s latest”), with raves from Entertainment Weekly (“Scalzi’s unique, hilarious, and oddly relatable story is the perfect fall read”), Publishers Weekly (“subverts classic supervillain tropes with equal measures of tongue-in-cheek humor and common sense”) and Polygon (“Following in the footsteps of sci-fi greats like Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams… John Scalzi is truly a must-read”), among others. I hope you will dig it as well. I had a ball writing it.

Remember that I am on tour for Starter Villain, which actually began last night in Scottsdale, and now has stops in San Diego, San Francisco, Wichita, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Chapel Hill, Cincinnati and Nashville. Please come see me! I’ll also be at New York City Comic Con, the Wisconsin Book Festival and the Texas Book Festival and on October 6th I have an event with VE Schwab in Bexley, Ohio. Oh, and I’m the Guest of Honor at the Budapest International Book Festival, if you happen to be in Hungary the last week of September. Come see me at those as well!

And now, for something really cool. As many of you know, I occasionally commission theme songs for my books from musicians I like. Previous songs have come from Jonathan Coulton (Redshirts), Ted Leo (The Dispatcher series), William Beckett (the Lock In series) and Paul and Storm (Fuzzy Nation). For Starter Villain, I asked the fabulous Dessa to do a song for the book, and, oh boy, did she deliver:

If you like the song — and you should, because it’s amazing you can get it from Dessa through her Bandcamp page. Dessa also has her own new album coming out on September 29, Bury the Lede, which you can also get at her Bandcamp page, or, you can get one of several deluxe LP/CD packages from her site. Support her, she’s awesome and she made an incredible song for my book.

There’s more to come with Starter Villain and other news to share when I can — but for now, it’s out, it’s in the world, and you can get it. The run-up to the release has been amazing, but honestly the best thing is to see it in the hands of readers, and to have them enjoy it. I hope you have as much fun reading Starter Villain as I had writing it. If you do, you’re going to love it.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/18/23: Scottsdale, AZ

Scottsdale has apparently not gotten the memo that it’s supposed to be a bit autumnal: It’s currently 100 degrees out right now, which I discovered is not an especially walkable heat when I walked most of a mile to get my COVID and flu boosters at a near(ish) pharmacy, and then walked back. I did remember to hydrate, however, which is why I am not currently an overheated lump on the side of the road.

Which would have been inconvenient, not just because I would be having heat stroke, but also because I’m meant to kick off the Starter Villain book tour tonight at 7pm at the Poisoned Pen bookstore here in Scottsdale. Fortunately I am back in my cool hotel room, decompressing, and everything should be going according to schedule. If you happen to be in the Scottsdale area this evening, won’t you come by? Let’s kick this book tour off right, what do you say.

TOMORROW: San Diego! Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore! 7pm! My only Southern California stop on this tour! Don’t miss out!

— JS

New (Sort Of) Music Release: MFH23EP

As I noted yesterday, today’s at-home music technology has the capability to take some old, muddy recordings and freshen them up a bit — make the music brighter and/or give it more dynamic range. With that in mind, I took five of the tracks from my Music For Headphones album, which were recorded some twenty years ago, and ran them through some up-to-date remastering software to see if they could be shined up a bit. I was happy with the results, so I went ahead and collected them into EP form: MFH23EP.

MFH23EP is now available on streaming services (as I type this, pretty much everywhere but Spotify, which typically takes a day longer than everywhere else to post music) and I’m posting the individual tracks below via YouTube for your listening pleasure. As noted, this is not new work, just remastered things I put together from samples a couple of decades ago. That said, if you’ve not heard these tracks before and liked my other music, you’ll probably like this just fine. The full Music For Headphones album also continues to be available on streaming and Bandcamp.

(Also, since people have asked if my other work will ever be made available via Bandcamp: Yes, probably, but that’s not something I’m going to do prior to my book tour, so don’t expect that before mid-October at the earliest.)

— JS

Saturday Music: Two Remasters

Because I’ve been nerding out about music lately, I now have a frankly ridiculous number of plug-ins for my Digital Audio Workstations, which do all sorts of cool things. One useful one is called Ozone, from Izotope, which listens to your current audio project and then does an automatic rebalancing of levels of every instrument and voice. Whether you like the automatic rebalancing is a matter of taste, of course, but you can tweak it from there, and from experience I can say it does a pretty decent job of de-muddy-fying tracks, particularly older tracks of mine which I made years and years ago and mostly sound a little dull, production-wise.

Which brings us to our two tracks today, which are almost 20-year-old remixes of songs from popular artists, using loops and stems which I then put my own bits onto, and which I’ve now remastered using modern tech. The first one is “Don’t Stop,” which takes the opening piano bit from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and then slathers a bunch of sampled electronica around it. Purists will be appalled.

The second one is my remix of the Depeche Mode song “I Feel Loved,” the stems of which were offered up for a remixing contest back in, oh, geez, 2002 or so. My remix did not win, I am sad to say, but it was still fun to do. I can say I collaborated with Depeche Mode! Kind of! Sort of!

Also, yes, I did a lot of sample-based fiddling about with music around the turn of the century and then, having put together an album’s worth of stuff, then stopped doing it for most of a couple of decades. This was coincident with, you know, my career as a novelist taking off. Priorities, I suppose. It’s nice to be getting back to it a little bit more (also, I will still keep writing novels, promise).

— JS

The Half-Price Books Union, and Also, Australia

I’ve been traveling the last couple of days, and am about to be traveling for two weeks straight after that, so I’ve posted my usual “hey, I’m traveling, don’t expect a reply” email auto responder. This means that if you were hoping to get an email response from me about something, bad news, friend, you’ll have to wait until October at least. Sorry (exceptions are made for Tor staff, my agent/manager/lawyer, and Krissy and Athena, the latter two being more likely to just call or text in either event).

Be that as it may, a couple of things popped into my email queue under the wire that had requests of a public nature, so I thought I would address them here quickly.

First, I got an email from a member of the Half-Price Books Union, basically saying, hey, you’re going to be at the chain’s flagship store in Dallas on your tour, can you fly the flag a little bit? It appears the company is being a smidge resistant to union activity, although as far as I can tell there’s no strike being called.

The chances are very good that in my tour-zombie state I might have it slip my mind in the moment, so I thought it better to note it here, now, while it is on the top of my mind. So, basically: I think it’s no surprise that I support unions in general, and given that actual union activity is a plot point in Starter Villain, it would be remiss for me not to say that obviously I support unionization, not only at Half-Price Books but also for any bookstore chain. If memory serves there was a recent one-day strike at Powell’s headquarters for similar reasons.

Booksellers rock and deserve fair wages and benefits and all of those good things, and — strangely! — the collective power that come from unions helps with that. So, yeah, the Half-Price Books Union has my support here. Easy call!

Second, my pal Liz in Australia asked if I could share a video in support of the Indigenous Voice to Parliament referendum that is underway in Australia. My immediate response to this request, being a citizen of the United States, was “bwuh?” to which Liz very helpfully sent along this explainer of what the referendum is on and entails. I found it useful to understanding things, and I can likewise recommend it to anyone (and especially Australians) who are wondering whether or not to support the referendum.

Having thus been somewhat enlightened, I am happy to now share the requested video, which features Australian music legend John Farnham’s song “You’re the Voice” in support of the referendum. My understanding is that the US equivalent would be Bruce Springsteen allowing one of his signature songs to be used to support a constitutional amendment, so there you have it.

And now, my email is officially asleep until October.

— JS

View From a Hotel Window, 9/15/23: Troy, MI

Ah, the parking lot view. Simple. Classic.

For those of you who ordered a signed copy of Starter Villain from Subterranean Press, today’s the day I sign them. All one thousand or so of them. It’s going to be a busy morning. And then I go back home, because I have an interview to do and I’d rather do it from my office than from the side of the road. Then I have a last weekend at home before all my tour travel madness begins. The life of an author is kinda wild.

Anyway, off to scribble.

— JS

The Big Idea: Matthew Sangster

Want to dig into the tropes and traditions of the fantasy genre? Matthew Sangster has come over from the University of Glasgow to give us An Introduction to Fantasy, and to retrace the steps that brought him to propose and then write the book.

MATTHEW SANGSTER:

People who love Fantasy know viscerally in their hearts what Fantasy does for them.  However, when the time comes to explain why Fantasy is important and inspiring, it’s sometimes tricky to put this into words. The big idea for this book was very simple: to try and explain why we should care about Fantasy. 

I wanted to write a book that drew on my experience as a literary critic to analyse what Fantasy does for its creators and audiences, but I also wanted to write a book that was faithful to Fantasy’s love of wonder and play, a book that was enjoyable to read, that welcomed people in as good fantasies do. To what extent I succeeded is another question, but that was certainly the idea.

In writing An Introduction to Fantasy, I wanted to broaden out what critics have tended to talk about when they talk about Fantasy. Most academic studies of Fantasy focus on novels specifically. I definitely wanted to write about novels: in the book I discuss, among other things, how Ursula K. Le Guin uses language to conjure Earthsea; how Guy Gavriel Kay and Steven Erikson make and unmake histories; how N.K. Jemisin builds her worlds; how Patricia A. McKillip quietly subverts the assumptions that underpin many Fantasy stories; and why Lin Carter was being unfair when he described Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara as a ‘cold-blooded, complete rip-off’. However, for me, modern novels are only part of the picture. To address this, I wanted to pay proper attention to three other aspects of Fantasy.

The first is Fantasy’s deep roots. Fantasy is a genre profoundly invested in the past, with a powerful interest in recovering and reworking older stories. Rather than looking at Fantasy as a genre that begins with The Lord of the Rings, it’s helpful to take a cue from Tolkien himself. Tolkien passionately promoted older fantastic literature, but in his writings, he also transformed it. Seeing a richly imagined medieval-inspired world through the more contemporary sensibilities of the hobbits is a big part of the magic of his works.

Many fantasies are deeply informed by ancient myths, medieval romances and traditional folk tales, but they reconfigure these older forms to allow them to speak new truths in the present. Fantasy stories often manifest the genre’s obsession with writing and unwriting history through plots that begin in the middle: a technique borrowed from classical epic. Characters’ quests commonly uncover the extent to which their situations have been determined by historical events, but they also provide means for rejecting the logics of the past. Fantasies are often fond of prophecies, but they enjoy them most when they turn out very differently than is initially expected.

The second thing I wanted to write about was how Fantasy manifests in forms other than prose. Fantasy has long lineages in poetry, art, sculpture and performance, and present-day Fantasy sprawls promiscuously across many forms of media. Therefore, as well as considering books, I discuss films, animation, TV series, drama, comics, visual art and games, writing about works including Arcane, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dungeons & Dragons, Elden Ring, Final Fantasy VII, Hadestown, Magic: The Gathering, Pan’s Labyrinth, Planescape: Torment, The Sandman and Spirited Away.

The final thing I wanted to capture is the extent to which Fantasy is constituted by its communities. It’s a genre that glories in drawing ideas from a shared commons and returning them transfigured. We might think of collaborative anthologies of reworked fairy tales, or fan fiction and modding communities, or the combination of preparation, improvisation, rule-following and rule-breaking in tabletop roleplaying games or the shows derived from them, such as Dimension 20 or Critical Role. Genre’s openness manifests in creators’ and fans’ love of talking about influences and processes, and in vibrant conversations in magazines, online forums, video essays, convention programmes and blogs (like the one for which I’m currently writing).

I’m not usually very good at beginning at the beginning, going on till I come to the end and then stopping. I tend to work better jumping around within a manuscript. However, for this book, I wrote the sections largely in the order that they appear. I started with an introduction discussing definitions of Fantasy and why we shouldn’t get too hung up on these, and then worked through the chapters one by one. 

The chapters fall roughly into pairs.  The first discusses how Fantasy uses language to evoke both impossible things and new possibilities, considering how it lets us think differently about the world by positing imaginary alternatives. In the second chapter, I confront one of the main accusations levelled at Fantasy: that it is guilty of mindless repetition. I argue that Fantasy rarely repeats mindlessly. Instead, it takes recognisable tropes and adjusts or recontextualises them to produce novel meanings, creating narratives that combine the pleasure of recognition and the shock of the new. 

The third chapter examines Fantasy’s root forms, looking at how modern fantasies rework techniques, tropes and ideas from myths, legends, epics, romances, wonder tales and religions. The fourth chapter looks at how Fantasy, scientific thinking and realism interact, arguing that fantasies make careful use of realist techniques while recognising their limitations and blind spots. The fifth chapter considers world-building, examining the powerful attraction of making new worlds and the techniques employed to create an illusion of fullness.  The final chapter discusses the collaborative nature of Fantasy culture, arguing that it provides a model where the value of a work lies in the connections it creates.

The book is a product of the time I wrote it, during 2021 and 2022. It reflects the things I was reading (and re-reading, and watching, and playing), as well as the conversations I was having with my colleagues and students at the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic and with my fellow curators on the upcoming British Library exhibition Fantasy: Realms of Imagination. If I was writing it now, I would probably have included books I’ve enjoyed since I finished – C.S.E. Cooney’s Saint Death’s Daughter, Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga, Laurie Marks’ Fire Logic. I’m also pretty sure there would be a fair bit about the live-action One Piece and Baldur’s Gate 3

For me, though, what the book leaves out isn’t really an issue. While it’s rather longer than I originally intended (the expected length grew by about 40,000 words between first pitch and final submission), it was never meant to be in any way comprehensive. The An in the title is very deliberate. I didn’t want to try and pin down a definitive vision of what Fantasy should be. 

Hopefully, the book will provide its readers with some new ideas and perspectives, but the thing that will make me happiest is if people can take ideas from it and do things with them that I never imagined or expected. For me, the best thing about genre is that it’s a continuing conversation.  The idea shouldn’t be to try and have the last word, but rather to make something that others can build from.


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