Universal Yums: March 2023 Review

Athena ScalziWelcome, everyone, to another Universal Yums review! The last one I did was in November, and then I paused my membership because the holidays were coming up and I knew I was going to be too busy/too full of holiday goodies to be able to focus on snack boxes. But the pause-period is over, and I got to try March’s box, which was the Netherlands.

All the snacks from the box laid out on the table. There's an assortment of bags, packages, and a map of the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is actually somewhere I’m very interested in traveling to, so I was excited to see what type of snacks they have over there. And of course I had a tasting helper, whose ratings I will be including throughout! After perusing through our options, I decided to start with these Cheddar & Onion Crispies:

A yellow rectangular package with blue lettering. It shows a picture of a rectangular crisp on the front, with red onion rings around it.

I had expected them to look like the rectangles portrayed on the front of the box, but these crispies were all completely irregular sizes. Some were much wider rectangles than others that were just like slim little sticks.

A bunch of irregular shaped crispies laying in rows in a plastic container.

Aside from their sizing inconsistencies, they were super fragrant, definitely oniony! They were crispy, which was to be expected given the name, and reminded me a lot of a Cheez-It in both flavor and texture. Basically just a baked cheese flavored cracker that are really addicting for some reason. Solid 8/10 from me, and a 7.5/10 from my tasting partner.

Switching over to something sweet, we tried these Speculoos Spice Cookies:

A small red bag with gingerbread men on the front.

Look how cute! They’re just little guys!

A bunch of little gingerbread dudes chilling on the table. One is slightly dismembered.

These dudes were nice and crunchy, perfectly cinnamon-y, a super adorable little snack, and would be so good with some tea or coffee. I could’ve eaten 100 of these broskis. Honestly they tasted just like a Biscoff cookie, which is like my favorite kind of cookie, so I gave them a 10/10. My tasting buddy was less enthused, as he said they were just like any other gingerbread cookie and weren’t anything special. Still, he gave them an 8/10.

Swinging back into savory, we’ve got these Organic Sea Salt & Pepper Chips:

Potato chips spilling out of a black bag onto the table.

These were definitely more like kettle chips than regular potato chips, as they were extra crunchy. Personally, I love kettle chips so this wasn’t a problem for me. What was a problem for me, though, was how bland these were. I like a good salt and pepper chip, and in fact my favorite flavor of chips we sell at my work is black pepper. But these tasted like they were perhaps very lightly salted, with no pepper. Maybe it’s to do with every flavor in America being extreme, or maybe there really just wasn’t much on this batch. My helper said they reminded him of when you try to make healthier potato chips at home but they just end up not being even close to as good as store bought. All that being said, they weren’t bad or anything, just kind of bland, so they earned at 6/10 from me, and a 5/10 from him.

Coconut-lovers rejoice! We’ve got Milk Chocolate Coconut Cookies:

A white and green squarish package of chocolate covered coconut cookies.

A shot of the cookies, covered in chocolate and coconut. They're very long and laying in rows.

I was super excited to try these because I love cookies, chocolate, and coconut, so these seemed like they’d be a winner for me. And they totally were! The cookie part is really more like a crispy wafer, the chocolate is soft and sweet, and there’s a perfect amount of coconut to compliment the other elements. Plus, look how big they are, and how many come in the package! These were like an Almond Joy, but without the almonds, and also a cookie. But same vibe, at least. These earned a 9.5/10 from me, and a 9/10 from my snack helper.

By the same brand as the Cheddar & Onion Crispies, we have these Gouda Cheese Crispies:

A small white and blue package of Gouda crackers.

Unlike the other crispies, these ones had a much more subtle flavor. The most flavor you got from them was actually in the aftertaste, strangely enough. They have the same crispy texture as the other ones, but aren’t as good as the onion ones because they’re just really lacking. It’s unfortunate because Gouda is such an amazing cheese. These were a 7/10 from both of us.

A familiar face, Salted Caramel Popcorn:

A big orange bag of salted caramel popcorn.

Puffed balls of caramel covered popcorn spilling out of the bag onto the table.

Caramel corn has always been my favorite way to eat popcorn. This popcorn in particular was interesting, though, because it’s air popped, so it was much lighter than what I’m used to. It was very much like kettle corn, which is my second preferred type of popcorn, so honestly I got the best of both worlds here. I could totally smash this whole bag if I’m not careful. Solid 8/10 from me, and a 7/10 from my helper.

A much less familiar face, Candy Cars:

A super pink little bag of candy cars.

As interesting as these Cadillacs look, they did not taste all that great. There was strawberry, cherry, and black currant Cadillacs, and none of them were a winner. The strawberry was alright, the cherry was medicinal in flavor and tasted like old lady perfume, and the black currant was just generally strange. And all of them were hard and stale instead of soft and gummy. They were unpleasant and earned a 3/10 from both of us.

You know ’em, you love ’em, you’ve probably had them on an airplane, Stroopwafels!

A Stroopwafel sitting on the table.

I love Stroopwafels! They’re something I’ve had semi-regularly over the years, usually in airports, but I think they’re pretty good! Definitely a great addition to coffee, or just nice to have as a treat by itself. They’re sweet, caramel-y, and a nice size. 9/10 from both of us!

Finally, we have the two candies from the Yum Bag! Up first is this Cappuccino Praline:

A small chocolate wrapped in a gold foil wrapper.

The chocolate ball broken in half to reveal a slightly softer/creamier chocolate interior.

I really wanted to like these, because chocolate and coffee is such a good, classic combo, but these tasted like old coffee and honestly hurt my teeth with how sugary they are, which probably says more about the state of my teeth than anything else. I ended up giving these a 4/10 because they were pretty icky, but my snack partner gave them a 5/10.

Lastly (and also leastly), we have Salty Licorice Balls:

A small brown ball wrapped in clear plastic.

I got two syllables for this licorice ball: NAS-TY. I don’t think I have ever hated a “candy” as much as I did this gross little salt ball. This is coming from someone who doesn’t even mind black licorice! This literally just tasted like those salt wheels you give to hamsters. Salty and unpleasant and gross, and a total 1/10 from me. I’m not sure how or why, but my snack buddy gave them a 3/10 and said it wasn’t the worst thing ever, even though it clearly was!

Another snack box in the book! What looked the best to you? Have you ever been to the Netherlands? Would you dare to try the Salty Ball?! Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Big Idea: Tiffani Angus & Val Nolan

Have you always wanted to give speculative fiction writing a go, but felt like you could use a hand, or two, or five? Authors Tiffani Angus and Val Nolan are here to lend you all the hands you might need with their new guidebook, Spec Fic For Newbies.


A Short History of How Spec Fic for Newbies Happened:

Writing guides are too often stuffy rulebooks. Worse still, we find that they rarely contain what we were looking for when we started out: an unapologetic love of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror in all their brilliant, weird, super-meaningful glory! It was that love of genre fiction and a desire to write it better that led us to the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2009 where, over endless squid patties in the canteen (seriously!), we met and first began to hone our own voices.

In the decade that followed, we both finished PhDs, shared convention panels, and published short and long fiction, as well as academic work, but we never forgot how amazing it felt to find our SFF/H creative community and learn our craft from instructors who genuinely loved and understood the challenges of genre writing. It’s an energy we’ve tried to bring to our own teaching ever since.

Snap cut to the COVID-19 pandemic, when everything went online, including the UK’s annual Eastercon, during which Tiffani ran a workshop about writing Historical Fantasy that (spoiler!) became the structure of the sections of this book. Francesca T. Barbini, Luna Press’s Managing Editor, caught the workshop and offered Tiffani the opportunity to produce a SFF/H writing guide.

Tiffani’s first response was to rope in Val because together, with their focus on different subgenres, they could come up with something really fun, helpful, and super nerdy for newbies and even more established writers. And so Spec Fic for Newbies took shape as a guidebook for writers who maybe think, “I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a new genre,” or maybe realize “Uh-oh, this story is apocalyptic and maybe dystopian but I feel a bit stuck.” The idea was to distil our classroom teaching into something portable and accessible. Less a textbook than a treasure map. We’re kinda excited to find out what you’ll discover when you explore it!

Things That Are Cool About Spec Fic for Newbies:

  • It’s based on our combined twenty years (yikes!) of experience teaching creative writing, especially SFF/H writing: Maybe you never got to go to college or maybe you did but never had the opportunity to study SFF/H writing with a sympathetic instructor? This book is our effort to help you put that right. When you’ve spent as long teaching and offering feedback to novice writers as we have, you get a real sense of what students want (and a solid perspective on what universities aren’t providing when they try to jam centuries of SFF/H tradition and evolution into a single session!). The experience we accrued along the way drips off every page of Spec Fic for Newbies like sticky protoplasmic goop. The result is a celebration of writing about the androids, swordplay, and monsters we all love rather than the divorces and minimalist kitchen interiors that LitFic-y professors tell us that we’re supposed to write about. Because this isn’t a book about gatekeeping, it’s a book about blowing the gates wide open! 
  • We come at this project as published authors: We know what it’s like out there in the slush-piles: that writing is hard and it’s easy to get discouraged. So, part of our goal with this book is to offer support and encouragement, because even though we’re snarky as hell with each other, we’ve had the chance to grow thick skins, which we know takes time for a newbie. We were conscious of just how much we’d been helped by authors and teachers who’d come before us (Scalzi at Viable Paradise included!), and we wanted to pay that fellowship forward. Spec Fic for Newbies is us lowering the starship gangway to welcome you aboard.
  • It’s organized to make it easy to dip into and out of: The three main chapters (SF, Fantasy, Horror) are each divided into 10 subgenres or major tropes. Each section is organized along the same lines: a brief history of the subgenre looks at its origins and development, along with a quick précis (ooh, fancy!) of key authors and texts; a “spotter’s guide” to typical manifestations of the subgenre (types of Big Dumb Objects, for example); a look at what makes it cool; a list of things writers ought to watch out for; an occasional extra element spotlight (such as character motivation); and, finally, a pair of activities to get you started. Each section sort of looks like this blog post (you can’t blame us for doing that, we’re teachers! #ObjectLesson!).

Things to Watch Out for in Spec Fic for Newbies:

  • Check out our specific nerddoms leaking through! We love cheesy 1980s genre movies and sprawling multi-book fictional epics, current short fiction and genre classics. Val tends toward Science Fiction, especially Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, so he brings a love of characters at the heart of big interstellar tales to his discussion of Aliens, Utopias, and big honkin’ space lasers. Tiffani often writes fantasy with a historical flavour, loves a good paradox, and so brings a depth of knowledge to discussions of Time Travel, costume porn, and Steampunk. Honestly, we have so much to nerd out about that we’re already working on Volume 2: Subgenre Boogaloo!
  • Further reading: Spec Fic for Newbies doesn’t cosplay as the final word on its subject. Instead, we provide an extensive bibliography to point you deeper and deeper down the rabbitholes of each subgenre. 
  • Clowns: Just, you know, something to watch out for in general.


  • We’d love it if you’d buy or borrow the book and try out some of the activities we suggest. Hopefully you’ll dip your toes into subgenres you’ve never tried before and, tentacles crossed, you’ll discover some cool stories and characters along the way. We look forward to reading some of your results in genre magazines and websites in the near future!

Spec Fic For Newbies: Linktree

Visit the authors’ blogs (Tiffani and Val). Follow Tiffani and Val on Twitter.

Reader Participation Thread: Music That Made You Stop

I’m thinking a lot about music these days, in no small part because of my own fiddling with the form, so I’m curious: Can you think of a song that so affected you that the first time you heard it, you stopped everything else you were doing to listen to it all the way through?

Here’s mine:

John Scalzi

It’s the live version of “Bad” from the Wide Awake in America EP by U2, and I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard it: I was in my dorm room in high school, and this version came on the radio, from tiny station with the call letter KOLA, which I liked because it was so cheap it didn’t have DJs, just bumpers with the song title and artist, which meant I didn’t have to listen to inane morning DJ chatter, I could just listen to the music. The song came on as I was getting dressed for chapel service, and I ended up being late because I had to listen to the whole thing, and this live version is eight minutes long. Worth the demerit, in my opinion.

I had been aware of U2 before this song, of course, but I can say this is the song that made me a fan, and the one that sent me diving into their (then much smaller) discography. If it’s not still my favorite performance of theirs, it’s in the top five. There are other songs that have captured me on first listen since then, but this one a genuine moment in time for me.

And you? What song just plain stopped you in your tracks? Talk about it in the comments.

— JS

The Big Idea: J. L. Worrad

What is an urban legend without people to tell their tale, and spread fear into the hearts of others? Luckily, author J. L. Worrad is here with a new novel to keep the legend of his hometown monster alive. Read on to see how he utilizes this boogeyman in The Keep Within.


Have you ever heard of Black Annis? On the internet she’s something of a niche folk-monster. Nowhere near the level of Slenderman, granted, but certainly the recipient of much gruesome fan art and fiction. The hipster’s choice of bogeywoman. 

Black Annis hails from my home city of Leicester, England, and so I’m perversely fond of her as I am my local and ever-struggling soccer team. Everyone’s heard of Black Annis around Leicester and, secretly, they hope she hasn’t heard of them.

Of late there has been attempts to rehabilitate mythical witches, with authors reclaiming the likes of Circe or Morgan LaFaye as feminist symbols. Not Black Annis. Black Annis is just fucking creepy. Vast talons foul with human flesh, there grew in place of hands, says one Georgian ode to her, whilst her obscene waist/ warm skins of human victims close embraced. She drains the blood of victims, preferably children, and hangs their tanned hides from an ancient oak outside her cave. Leicester cottages had tiny windows, it is alleged, because people feared her getting in.

The Keep Within, my latest fantasy novel, shamelessly steals Black Annis. Set in the same world as previous novel Pennyblade, the decaying city of Becken is stalked by Red Marie (beautifully rendered on the book’s cover by Julia Lloyd), a creature of ancient fable. The poor live in terror of her. The rich could not care. 

This was a realisation that writing The Keep Within soon led me to: bogeymen are the peasant’s fear, never the noble’s, never the priest’s. Folk monsters represent the ever-ready talons of a precarious life: hunger, want, disease, landlords. But the legend of Black Annis takes the metaphor further. Annis lives in her self-carved cave, yes, but the cave is home to a tunnel that leads some two miles (Leicester’s folklore boasts several absurdly long tunnels) to the cellars of Leicester castle. How poetic is that? The commoner was shrewd indeed to imagine the very seat of power gave succour and respite to their worst nightmare.

The Keep Within is about power. Fear’s power, physical and fiscal power, the desire to have power over others and the desire to be controlled in turn, to be a cog in a machine. It’s perhaps the oddest and most awkward part of the human soul to have to consider. Power—and the allure of power—is also utterly and unforgivably absurd. Thus The Keep Within soon became a black comedy. Most humans, the vast majority in fact, have been serf and slave, sweating out their lives and hopes and true potential beneath another’s yoke. Just thinking about that breaks me out in a cold sweat, as it should any half decent person. Thus one must laugh in the face of Black Annis because it’s either that or weep.

Naturally it’s my protagonist who does much of the laughing. Sir Harrance ‘Harry’ Larksdale, proprietor of the Wreath Theatre and bastard brother of the king. A kind and hearty soul, a man with a foot in both the streets of Becken and the halls of the Keep, the brutish citadel that looms above the city. Larksdale is duality itself, an aristocrat and bawd; a lover of both men and women; the procurer of the king’s delights and the bane of his queen, with whom Larksdale shares a best forgotten past. Like Red Marie he roams freely through a regimented world. Unlike Red Marie he uses that gift, or tries to use it, for his idea of the good. 

The Keep Within was the hardest book I’ve ever worked on but the end result pleases me beyond measure. If nothing else I survived a long walk in the dark with Black Annis.

This time around.

The Keep Within: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Bookshop

Visit J.L. Worrad’s website. Follow him on Twitter.

New Music: City At Night

One of the synthesizer plugins I have has a preset called “Los Angeles 2019,” and if you’re nerd enough to get that this label is meant to evoke Blade Runner, then you’ll understand why I had to play with it. This is what came out. Dark, clattery and slightly spooky. Enjoy.

— JS

The Big Idea: Lavanya Lakshminarayan

Coming up with one main character can be hard enough, but author Lavanya Lakshminarayan came up with over twenty in her debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief. Read on to see how all these individual stories took form and shaped into one book.


I first met my arch-nemesis burnout when I worked in videogames. We took to each other like a house on fire. I was a woman game designer working in a predominantly male-dominated industry, hellbent on proving myself, and willing to put in the extra hours to do so. Burnout was my shadow, lurking in my flight path all the way to its inevitable conclusion—splattered against a glass ceiling, blood, feathers, and objective lack of glory.

Unyielding sixty-odd-hour work weeks with high pressure stakes never end well. Six years into my gaming career, I hit the end of the road when I found myself having a panic attack in a grocery store. I was overwhelmed by the fact that tomatoes were, in fact, 3D objects and not jpegs on the screen of a door-delivery app.

The experience prompted me to reassess my life. It also sparked the first story I wrote in my debut novel, The Ten Percent Thief. 

Titled ‘Analog/Virtual’, and set in a performance-obsessed world, a woman in her late-twenties grows reliant on running all her errands using apps, so she can maximize her productivity at work. But she underperforms at her job, is denied access to her tech as a consequence, and is forced to navigate a grocery store IRL. Her fear of real-world tomatoes echoes my own. And yet, the novel that emerged isn’t about her—or about me. We are a microcosm in our fragile worlds. 

The Ten Percent Thief spills over with my concerns about the future. It’s equal parts urgent warning and social satire, examining the impact of technocapitalism and the climate crisis in near-future Bangalore, now rebranded Apex City. It also happens to be a mosaic novel, made from the jagged threads of over twenty protagonists, all struggling to find meaning in a ruthless, relentless reality.

As the voice of my first character hammered its way through my keyboard, it dawned on me that there was no other way this novel could be. She wasn’t a hero; she was just a woman trying to survive. And she was never going to be free—she was too entrenched in the system of social hierarchies, values and philosophies that framed the city around her. She wanted to belong, no matter the cost. She got me thinking about others like her, trapped in in invisible city-cages, unable to see the bars. And others unlike her, outsiders trying to redefine what the city could be.

Apex City is governed by a corporation, and its citizens are mapped onto the Bell Curve. Productivity and the right social persona can catapult individuals to the top twenty percent of society. As the Virtual elite, there’s limitless access to privilege—everything from climate control solutions to olfactory simulations. Fail to perform, and risk falling to the bottom ten percent—routinely deported from the city and branded Analogs, with no access to running water, electricity, or their humanity.

Visions of everyday people going about their lives under the all-too-real burden of the Bell Curve popped into my head, faster than I could put pen to paper, a kaleidoscopic image of this new reality. Millions of shimmering threads wove together into a city reflecting the sum of its parts, yet disregarding the brightness of the individual skeins for the greater whole; a vision straining towards perfection, continually mending any rips and tears or knots gone wrong, through any means possible. I wanted to shine a light on those individual skeins—its people—and follow their paths through the weave. 

Over twenty different voices, their threads running in parallel, crossing over each other, cutting each other off, lending texture and color to each other, emerged on the page, one story at a time, knitting themselves into the narrative of a city. A city pushed to its breaking point and losing control. A city pummeled into submission by the climate crisis, struggling to prove its worth to its corporate overlords, its foundations crumbling beneath the burden of survival, trying to save itself. A city on the knife edge of something remarkable, teetering between evolution and annihilation. 

Rebel, conformist, puppet master, pawn… each person unspooling before my eyes was made and unmade by the city that empowered them, liberated them, inspired them, oppressed them, judged them, broke them. And they all had the choice to build the city or tear it down. My mind held an infinity mirror, my heart a song of hope for this dark future.

The Ten Percent Thief first made its debut in South Asia as Analog/ Virtual, titled after the story where it began. It resonated with readers, who saw themselves—and the cities they came from—in its pages. Apex City is a futuristic projection of my hometown, and it retains some of its history, but it’s also a city on fire that could be anywhere in the world. Some of its people are like me, but they could also be you. All of them are stuck in a moment. Some will burn out; some will burn the future to the ground. If they could only come together, they might be able to save themselves, and build a better future. And so could we.

The Ten Percent Thief: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells|Waterstones|Forbidden Planet

Follow the author on Twitter and Instagram.

And Now, Me Singing “Just Can’t Get Enough” at the 2023 JoCo Cruise Final Concert

John Scalzi

There’s a story here. Every year on the JoCo Cruise (the nerd extravaganza cruise I participate in annually, on which I act as head of its literary track, moderate panels, do readings and DJ a nerd prom), there’s a final concert on the last full day of the cruise. The musical performers for the year come out and sing songs, with a large segment of the show putting the spotlight on the songs of musicians and songwriters who have passed in since the last cruise. This year’s segment, for example, included songs by or made famous by Burt Bacharach, Olivia Newton John, David Crosby and Christine McVie.

Also, Depeche Mode. As fans are aware, last year Andy Fletcher, a founding member of that band, passed away suddenly at the age of 60. In the run-up to the cruise and in the initial planning of the final concert, I reminded Paul Sabourin (one of the quadumvirate who run the cruise) of his passing and suggested they put a Depeche Mode song into the tribute segment. I also mentioned that if they did put a song in and no one else wanted to tackle the vocals, I’d be willing to give it a shot.

This is a bit of a shot in the dark for me. There are many excellent musicians and singers on the cruise, starting with Jonathan Coulton, the cruise’s namesake, as well as his house band, and continuing on with the aforementioned Paul Sabourin, his musical partner Storm DiCostanzo (otherwise known as Paul and Storm), Aimee Mann, Jim Boggia (and his band), guests like the Rainbow Girls, Open Mike Eagle, Puddles Pity Party and Janet Varney, among others. They didn’t need me for the final concert, for sure, and I wasn’t really expecting that I would end up there singing.

Joke’s on me, because I was told that, okay, sure, I could sing a Depeche Mode song in the final concert.

Which both delighted and mildly terrified me. Delighted, because the final JoCo Concert is the big extravaganza concert of the cruise and me getting to sing a song in it, after ten years of being part of the JoCo Cruise, felt a little bit like Lucy being told by Ricky that yes, she could finally be part of the show (kids, that’s an I Love Lucy reference, have your grandparents explain it to you). Mildly terrified, because, well. See the musician lineup above. There are Oscar, Tony and Grammy nominees in there, along with people with top ten hits, gold and platinum albums, cult and/or popular fanbases and years of professional musical experience. I very much didn’t want to go out there and faceplant.

I’m happy to say I didn’t. We picked a song I could sing (“Just Can’t Get Enough” which also has the virtue of being one of Depeche Mode’s few happy songs), and I practiced it more or less constantly during the course of the cruise, accompanying myself on ukulele as I did so. Some of the musicians noted above performed the song with me (Coulton, Boggia, DiCostanzo, keyboardist Jon Spurney and drummer Christian Cassan) so I was surrounded by friends who actually knew what they were doing. I also decided that whatever I lacked in musical ability I would try to make up in sheer, ridiculous enthusiasm.

Finally there was the JoCo Cruise audience, which is, frankly, amazing. I always tell performers we’re trying to get for the boat that they will never have a more receptive audience than the one they will find on the JoCo Cruise. They are the complete opposite of snobs; they want to be entertained, and they want you to succeed in entertaining them. The second I stepped from behind the curtains to sing the song, I could feel their excitement and affection for me flowing onto the stage. That sort of support was huge, and made feel like I was supposed to be where I was.

The results are in the video above (shot by “Oscar Arr”). I show off my Crocs (which is a whole other JoCo Cruise subplot I’ll explain some other time, just be assured it was a thing), hop around like a caffeinated bunny (see relevant photo, taken by Steve Petrucelli), and mostly hit my notes. I’m pretty sure you can tell I’m having a grand time, and I think everyone else is too. “Just Can’t Get Enough” was the opening song of the tribute segment, so we needed to set the tone for everything else, and I think we managed that. I was thrilled.

Maybe more than thrilled. I’m having a pretty good 2023 so far; I’ve won a couple of neat awards, have some really nice film/TV things going on I can’t tell you anything about yet, and have some other big news that’s going to be announced soon. Honestly, 2023 is going great. So you now have some perspective when I tell you that getting to sing “Just Can’t Get Enough” at the JoCo Final Concert, up there with my friends, belting it out to other friends, just might the best thing that happens to me for the whole year. It just made me so damn happy.

And it made me happy to remember Andy Fletcher in such a celebratory way, with people that I like. I think he would like being remembered as joyously as this. With lots of bouncing, and bright green Crocs.

— JS

Smudge Watching Spice, Spice Watching Birds

You know Spring has sprung when the cats station themselves by the windows and chitter, apparently trying to convince the newly-active birds to come closer, for reasons. The birds, it must be said, are generally not convinced, and even if they were the cats still have a pane of glass between them and their feathered would-be friends. That’s best for everyone involved, I suspect.

— JS

The Big Idea: Leopoldo Gout

A beloved part of childhood celebrations has a darker past than most people realize — and for author Leopoldo Gout, this is only one secret that the past holds, which came to be part and parcel of how his novel Piñata came to be.


Piñatas can be seen as a symbol of hiding joy in plain sight. As kids we sang the piñata song and banged those colorful objects in anger and violence to access that joy. To have that rush of joy in that moment that the candy cascades and everyone jumps to grab it like a bizarre wrestling match. How can this object of pure adrenaline and joy have such a dark history?

That is the origin for the big idea behind Piñata. I literally peeled things about its history of where the piñata tradition comes from and how the rituals became what they are today. In this research the truth came far more horrifying than I could ever imagine…

Let me first frame a little about my personal journey. Years ago, I was around ten years old on a trip to Chiapas in the south of Mexico, to visit a banged up old hacienda where my father had been born. This broken-down old property in the mountains of Chiapas was being swallowed by the surrounding tropical forests of the area. They crept in from the property lines, inching forward to retake the land. But even on the crumbling walls there were the memories of rage left by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Bullets peppered the walls from the battles which tore Chiapas apart. This abandoned hacienda was near to some of the most ancient pyramids in Mexico. All these abandoned buildings dancing through a give and take with nature. Again, echoing this rage and love. When I started Piñata I went to these memories of Chiapas and where I grew up: Mexico City.

I was always aware of the history under the city built on top of the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan. As a kid I often went on visits to ancient ruins under the main square. I thought of the Aztec sculptures trying to break through the pavement of Mexico City to escape their tombs. The city of the underground crying to swallow that above, to free itself from a tortured history. Some of the buildings of modern-day Mexico City are now quite literally sinking back into the earth as the massive metropolis reacts to an ancient forgotten lake where it was built.

But that Chiapas trip was a truly stunning moment because who we had really gone to see in Tuxtla Gutierrez was my great-aunt, Hellen Gout. As a kid I thought she must be 115 years old. In her house, smelling like leather tacky with old honey and dusty bottles of rum, old Hellen showed us a document which changed my perception of myself and my family.

All my life, my father’s family talked about their “French ancestry,” but what great-aunt Hellen showed us was an illustrated genealogical history, our whole family tree with every ancestor drawn and painted. Following the line up from my father with his French ancestry, straight up from his place on the tree, we saw her: an indigenous Zapotec woman. It was incredible. To this day I refuse to take any of those DNA tests because I don’t want to have any chance that its wrong.

According to that document, I have Zapotec blood, the blood of one of the great architect and sculptor indigenous nations. There is a line between myself and all of those ruins and art I adored.

I was struck. My curiosity for pre-invasion Mexico grew as I visited every temple and museum I could and never stopped. The indigenous art of Mexico has always had a deep impact on my work in all mediums. My first novel, Ghost Radio, was directly inspired by that connection as my first attempt to call on those memories to tell a story. Those stories and ideas have matured and evolved through my other projects and into Piñata. I have countless more stories about my lifelong search for further connection with the original ways of Mexico.

 I was lucky enough that my late mother, Andrea Valeria, was an avid supporter and great friend to many indigenous artists and families. Every year they would come to our house, bringing with them intricate and beautiful masks they had carved. One of the greatest and most fascinating differences between our cultures that I gleaned from those days was the attribution of value. We might appraise the value of a mask by the intricacy of its design, how much labor it would have taken, the vibrance and skillful application of paint, or the simple beauty of them. They, however attributed value to each mask only by how “danced” they were, quite literally how much one had been worn during the act of dancing determined its value. It was a value determined by the amount of energy which had been poured into an object after its creation, how much life the empty eyes of the mask had seen.

These are just some glimpses into my upbringing which fostered a deep connection with and curiosity for ancient Mexico. These were some of the memories and feelings which drive the pistons in Piñata’s engine. The real crystalized big idea for which came when, during my research, I found that Catholic friars introduced piñatas to Mexico. The Aztecs had something mildly similar, but they had different purposes which is explained in the book. But, what these Spanish friars would do is paint them with images of indigenous gods, what they deemed idolatry, and fill them with food. Then the children, taken from their culture and hungry, would be forced to destroy the image of their gods if they were to get the food within. The image and idea were so extraordinarily horrific I didn’t sleep for days thinking about it. I wrote the beginning story right away and felt transported, like I had been a witness to such horror.

I use all my senses in my work, both as visual artist and writer, and my scent and sensory memory really drive the cathartic horror in Piñata as it focuses so heavily on the memory of the indigenous people of Mexico both past and present. I sought to express the rage inherent in that tortured history, to explore it like the ruins of that old Chiapas hacienda. At the same time though, while trying to dive into that historical anger, I had a young talented daughter growing before my eyes. I ended up in my daily life balancing that immense love and promise of the future with a rage I conjured from the past.

That clash led to the story that is Piñata. It focuses on a family but takes place in a country inextricably linked to a violent past and facing a violent present. It is personal and political, external and internal. It was my attempt to pull these binary oppositions into something cathartic for myself and hopefully for everyone who reads it. So my big idea that catapulted me into Piñata is inside that space between rage and love.

Piñata: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powells

Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

Trying Out A New Recipe: Iced Lemon Loaf

Athena ScalziI haven’t baked anything in a while, and it was starting to make me sad, so I said to myself, well why don’t I just bake something? So I did! I chose this lemon loaf for a couple different reasons, the first being that I scrolled past it on Instagram and thought it looked good in the moment. The second reason is that it’s from my favorite food blogger! And thirdly, I had all the ingredients.

So, here is Half Baked Harvest’s Iced Lemon Loaf.

Like I said, I happened to have all the ingredients already, which is kind of surprising because there’s one or two things on the list that I normally have to go specifically buy from the store.

Ingredients laid out on the counter. Powdered sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract, honey, butter, eggs, lemons, sour cream, and cream cheese.

It’s a fifty-fifty shot whether I have sour cream or not, the cream cheese is definitely a bit of a rarer ingredient for me to immediately have on hand. The lemons are the only other thing that are what I consider a specialty item for this recipe, but last week I bought a two pound bag for like four bucks so I had that covered. Actually, the recipe calls for Greek yogurt or sour cream, but I only had the latter so that’s what I ended up using. If you make this recipe with the yogurt, I’d be curious to see if it turns out differently.

The first step of the recipe was easy enough, just beat together the butter, honey, and some lemon zest. I was surprised by how much honey was needed for this recipe until I realized there was no granulated sugar in this recipe at all. The honey is the only sweetener for the batter, so it makes sense you’d need a lot.

For the next step, the recipe warned that the mixture would look curdled, but I only expected it to look that way after adding the sour cream. It ended up looking funky after adding just the eggs, though.

A white mixing bowl full of a yellow mixture. It looks weird and curdled.

Didn’t love the look of that, but the recipe said it was okay so I kept going, and after the sour cream it definitely looked nasty.

Two beaters covered in a curdled mixture. Gross.

After that, all that was left was the dry ingredients, which went right into the same bowl (hooray for fewer dishes!). Once combined, the batter ended up being a weirdly light consistency. It was more like a dough and less like a batter, which is a distinction I don’t think I’d have been able to make until recently. The more you bake, the more you learn about baking! Who would’ve guessed.

A white mixing bowl containing a pale yellow mixture.

Now that the loaf mixture was made, it was time to make the cream cheese mixture that goes into the loaf. It was literally only cream cheese and lemon zest, so I thought it’d be easy, but the cream cheese was evidently not soft enough and immediately all went inside my whisk.

A whisk full of cream cheese, caged inside the wires.

This shit is mad annoying. I got a rubber spatula and got the cream cheese out of the inside and knew what I had to do. I had to go ham on this cream cheese to get it softer, so I hulked out and tried beating the hell out of it. Alas, it was too strong for me, and just kept being a pain in the ass to handle. So I microwaved it for ten seconds. That made it change its tune, and finally it was spreadable.

The recipe says to layer the loaf mixture and cream cheese, starting by putting a third of the loaf mixture into the loaf pan. How the hell am I supposed to know how much a third of it is? It’s batter dude, you just want me to eyeball that shit? Well, I definitely tried to wing it, but a third of the batter didn’t even cover the bottom of the loaf pan! So I said fuck it and poured half the batter into the loaf pan, then used all of the cream cheese mixture instead of half.

A loaf pan with half the bread mixture and a layer of the cream cheese mixture on top.

Coincidentally, all of the cream cheese mixture ended up covering the first half of the batter perfectly. Then I covered that with the other half of the batter.

A loaf pan, now filled with all of the bread mixture.

The recipe says to bake it for 45 minutes, so I did just that. Once the 45 minutes had passed, it definitely looked done, but when I tested it with a knife, it was most certainly not done. I wanted to let it bake for another five minutes, but I was worried about burning the top because it was already so done on top. Then I remembered the recipe said that you can cover the top with foil to keep it from getting overdone. So I threw some foil on top and let it bake for another five minutes, and then it was actually done!

A baked loaf of bread! Golden brown and delicious looking.

Of course, I had to make this lemon loaf in my lemon loaf pan:

The loaf of bread, turned over to reveal it has a lemon design on top from the loaf pan.

While that cooled a bit, I whipped up the lemon icing. It was just some powdered sugar, honey, and lemon juice. I don’t know what my issue is lately with powdered sugar, but everything I’ve baked that requires some kind of powdered sugar glaze or icing just doesn’t taste good. Like, the powdered sugar aspect of it always tastes funny to me. It’s definitely not expired, and I figured Domino was a good brand to go with, so I’m not sure what it is lately that makes powdered sugar taste kind of bad to me? Like I honestly think everything I’ve made that calls for a glaze or icing would just be better without it.

Regardless, I still drizzled some onto a slice of the bread. However, the bread was still too warm and immediately melted the glaze.

A slice of the bread, a ribbon of cream cheese running through the middle.

In the end, it tasted okay! It’s not amazing, but not bad or anything. I was hoping it would be better than Starbuck’s version, but I wouldn’t say it is. Maybe it’s baker’s error, or maybe it would’ve been better if I used Greek yogurt. Honestly, I think it’d be better without the cream cheese. It’s weird texturally inside the bread.

All in all, I don’t regret making it but I doubt I’ll make it again any time soon.

Do you like lemon pastries? Do you think powdered sugar has a funny taste? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!


The Big Idea: Blair Austin

Philip K. Dick once asked if androids dreamed of electric sheep; author Blair Austin wonders about the dreaming habits of another entity entirely in the Big Idea for his first novel, Dioramas.


What if the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition (1906-11) fell asleep and began to dream?

Since I was young, I’ve struggled with the gap between what happens, what things are left behind and how memory reconfigures them. There is an irreconcilable space between what came before and what comes after. When I climb a mountain and pick my building out of the bird’s-eye view, for example, then climb down, go back home and look at the mountain, there appears to be no way to reconcile the two places. The vantage place, from home, is not the same place it was when you stood there looking down at the city. It feels like a mirage. Intellectually, it is the same, but you can’t quite believe it. Sight is like a memory you can’t accept or have failed to process. This is an abstract problem at the juncture of perception and reality that I feel in my bones as a wonder and a deep anxiety. I turned to dioramas, which, though they are quite simple, lie beyond the valley of language.

Dioramas themselves are pictures of reality, constructed scenes that appear more real than life itself. What has gone on, before, to make them so—all that work from the death of the animal, to the removal of its skin, the stamping out of paper leaves, the painting of backgrounds—happens out of sight. The museum diorama contains more than what appears. I felt I could marry these two things, the unseen and the seen, by making the imaginary dioramas in my novel, Dioramas, into blank symbols. A blank symbol is a symbol in a work of fiction (or in life itself) that is destabilized, capable of carrying multiple interpretations. A transparent surface on which different ideas/anxieties may be written, the diorama waits, passive, and we project onto it our notions of what it is and what has happened to make it that way.

The problem was, how to make the scenes that lecturer Wiggins is describing have flexibility so that the diorama might stand in for the Big Ideas we would project onto it. The only way I could figure to do this was to get out of the way and let the old man, thousands of years in the future—describe them.

While writing Dioramas, I began to wonder what would happen if the Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th Edition had fallen asleep and begun to dream. I wanted those wood paneled rooms, the tweed, the subject expertise of cloistered scholars, and I wanted the encyclopedia, through the medium of the diorama, to dream the endgame of its colonial project. Over time, I felt I could see a city rise four thousand years in the future, a city built on the ruins of our own cities. Wiggins’s fussy voice came out of this. Just as the scholars of the Britannica focus on the facts as they understood them, Wiggins, the narrator of Dioramas, describes the dioramas he sees. Wiggins, an expert himself, is lost in the fine details—microscopic sometimes—behind the glass. He sees them in the darkened room of his memory, too, and we see them through his eyes. 

All the while, he is trying to describe a feeling—an intuition too far down to find words for—and that he will stitch the shape of as he walks the museum halls but which he will never penetrate. He is doing this to get at the feeling of the unnameable—the thing behind the Big Idea. The big idea that would have to come from the reader by way of the book’s roadmap and that would change completely upon a second or a third reading. That was the hope, anyway. When you summited the mountain, closed the last page, what you remembered would not be what was there. You would stand and look back over the experience and not quite be able to say what the ground you’d been standing on had been. Because it had passed already and couldn’t be gotten at except by way of another read-through, which would necessarily change the whole experience once again. The feeling of that, the sense of what was gone from the world, including the moment of our own perception.

Many things can be said about this as an idea. The challenge was to write so that these things could be experienced while reading, experienced in language but also beyond language. So I felt, “literature is an experience beyond words.” Through the marriage of form and language, we feel it. Then it is gone. It has the dead-alive complexity of the diorama, resting there behind the glass to welcome anybody’s approach, till it is moved out, into the basement of the museum as in a dream, to be stored forever out of reach.

Dioramas: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop

Krissy and I Have a Band: Introducing OEMAA and “Parking Space”

OEMAA: "Parking Space"
John Scalzi

During the pandemic, lots of people took on projects to keep themselves busy; mine was building out a music room with an eye toward eventually writing and recording music. Along the way Krissy expressed an interest in bass guitar, so I got her one and told her that she and I would form a band one day. She mentioned that we might be limited by the fact that neither of us could play our instruments very well, to which I responded, well, that’s why punk music exists. We agreed that we would form a punk band, whose musical theme would be venting furiously about the minor annoyances that beset ones such as ourselves, which is to say, comfortable middle-aged folks.

Fast forward to 2023, and right now, and I’m happy to announce that Krissy and I do, in fact, have a punk band in which we bemoan the inconveniences of the hugely privileged. We call ourselves OEMAA (pronounced “wee-ma”), which is an acronym for Outrageously Entitled Middle-Aged Assholes, and our first song, “Parking Space,” is the sonic blast of aggrievement emanating from the soul of a man in an SUV who sees the parking space he’s been hovering over get snapped up by another equally entitled jerk in a Lexus. Hell hath no fury like a dude in an SUV, missing out on a parking opportunity. It’s two minutes flat of pure screaming rage, about something that wouldn’t be a problem if the dude would just walk an extra 20 yards to the store, from a slightly less convenient parking spot. There are a whole lot of F-bombs dropped. I’ll put the lyrics in the first comment.

(Also, to be clear for those who need it, OEMAA is about satirizing such entitlement, not sympathizing with it. That said, whomst among us has not been irritated by someone getting a parking space we’ve been eyeing, etc. Being annoyed with that is fine. Using it as an excuse to go full rage monster is not.)

Krissy is playing her bass here; I’m doing pretty much everything else, including vocals (we have plans for Krissy to do the vocals on a possible future track or two). It’s an extremely simple song (literally one note, played as an octave) and it’s two minutes long because I don’t see how it could, or should, be any longer. I will note that we were originally planning to call ourselves “Minor Annoyance,” but it turns out there’s already a band called that, because of course there is. OEMAA it is. “Parking Space” is debuting here but has already been submitted to the various streaming services, so it should be available there in the next couple of days.

(Update, 3/20: Now up on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube and YouTube Music, and Amazon Music, among others.)

Will we do more? That’s the (admittedly vague at this point) plan; lord knows there are more things outrageously entitled middle-aged assholes get furious about. It is, shall we say, a fecund field. And I’m certainly down with playing more rock and roll with Krissy, because she is awesome, and I dig that we now have a band together. How can you not like that?

— JS

Friday Night Music: MaryLeigh Roohan

I met MaryLeigh Roohan on the JoCo Cruise, and I was told she was a musician and then she and I geeked out over Emmylou Harris, so I endeavored to look her up when I got back on land and had a decent internet. And, wow, is she ever a musician; this song “The High Wire” is heartbreakingly lovely. Check it out.

— JS

A Big Day For the Church

John Scalzi

It might not look like much, but the picture you see here represents an important milestone in the renovation of The Old Church: That chimney has been capped and tuckpointed, and those white slats have sealed up an area where wind and water could get in, transferring both cold and moisture to the interior of church. With these capped and sealed, the exterior of the church is finally done, as well the interior improvements that required tearing things up, moving things out, or bringing new infrastructure in. The first major phase of improvement is finished.

What’s left? In the interior we need to replaster and repaint the walls, and in the balcony, we’ll need to have bookshelves installed. After those two things, it’s mostly interior decoration that needs to be done, but that’s about aesthetics rather than function. There will always be things that need to be done, mind you — you don’t purchase a nearly 90-year-old church building if you don’t think there will be upkeep — but (knocks on altar wood) the big stuff is over for now. The (more) fun part of the restoration is here.

— JS

Brandon Sanderson and the Scalzi Award

John Scalzi

In addition to writing a book or two that you may have heard about, Brandon Sanderson does a number of podcasts, and in this episode of one of them, he talks about many things, including something that is called “The Scalzi Award,” which he, and only he, has. What is the Scalzi Award, and how did he come by it? Brandon tells the tale at 19:20 (it goes on for a few moments), and then the actual award itself shows up at 28:30, followed by another story, which involves me flinging coins at him. It is all true.

It should be noted that Brandon has, uh, done okay for himself in the time between the Scalzi Award and today. Which, honestly, is no surprise to anyone who saw him as he came up in the field. Aside from telling good tales that please large crowds of readers, Brandon has a work ethic surpassed by no one else in the field. This is why he’s now his own cottage industry and by “cottage” I mean “a warehouse full of Brandon Sanderson material, at which he employs literally dozens.”

So, yeah, he’s doing just fine. And I love that for him.

— JS

The UK Cover of Starter Villain

Which is, as you all know, my upcoming novel, to be released this September (September 21 in the UK, to be exact). The UK cover is of a kind with the UK cover of The Kaiju Preservation Society, which I think is pretty nifty, as both books are set in contemporary time, even with their significant science fictional elements. They have things in common. And yes, the book namechecks a number of cinematic villains, you can probably guess one of them by the cover. A Scalzi book referencing pop culture should not be a surprise at this point.

Where’s the US/Canada cover for the book, you may ask? It’s coming. I think you’ll like it when you see it. In the meantime, you have this. It’s pretty nifty, if I do say so myself.

— JS

The Big Idea: Jane Hennigan

In her novel Moths, author Jane Hennigan does a table flip on the world we know to reveal some things that are truths in any world we might happen to live in.


Why did you make the men suffer so much?

Do you just hate men? Is that it? This is the sort of half-joking question I get from men I meet after they ask me what my book is about. Occasionally I get asked – what does your husband think of your book?

I do not hate most men. Nor do I want most men going around feeling constantly bad about themselves due to the fact that they are part of the patriarchy and not at that very moment checking their biases. The fact is, I’m married to a man – a really nice guy. Likewise, my two sons, my stepson, brother-in-law, nephews – all phenomenal people.

I’m a feminist, yes – but then so are many men. I want to reply that feminism is about bringing about equality – its ambition is not to torture men.

My focus on feminism, and in particular how it intersects with class, began when I attended university to study literature and philosophy. I was thirty-four and from a working-class background where claiming to be a feminist would be met with, at best, confusion or ridicule, at worst, hostility, so the course was an eye-opener. Later I became a lecturer for seven years at a further education college (community college in the US). I taught, among other things, feminism in literature. Much of the course looked to redress the bias towards white, rich, male authors which populates many undergraduate English syllabi. Instead, we read Alice Walker, Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison. 

The students were, in general, working-class women, ranging from their late twenties to early forties. Like me, having missed the opportunity to go to university the first time around due to children or work commitments – they were now taking advantage of the accelerated two-year degrees available at the college, cramming their studies into every spare minute. They’d come into class – exhausted, often straight from a job, or sometimes with a toddler in tow, clutching a copy of The Color Purple and a juice box. Then we’d discuss the themes of endemic violence, power, and why male hegemony mattered.

Initially, it didn’t matter to most of them. The idea that there was some mystical power structure that you couldn’t see, one that men had put there seemingly on purpose to keep women down – that it permeated our language and our institutions, our schools and churches, even our families, seemed ridiculous. Men just aren’t that clever! said one student, to much nodding. Add to this the third-wave ‘choice feminism’ platitude Women! you can be whoever you want to be— nobody’s stopping you—and the whole idea comes across as a bit wayward.

But those were potent books on the syllabus. The way Walker presents Sophia – her wit and strength crushed by institutionalised racism and sexism. How Atwood unpicks men’s microaggressions, and their toxicity towards women and then amplifies both in the dystopian Gilead. Angela Carter’s rewriting of the culturally engrained stories and fairytales which pass on patriarchal configurations of power. Not all the students bought into the idea of institutionalised bias, but some did. They saw their own struggles – implicit, understated, unnamed, reflected back from the pages of those texts. But also, importantly, they had men in their lives. What could they do? – up and leave their partners? Never speak to their misogynistic fathers again? Abandon their sons? They could do anything they wanted – but theoretical feminism is vastly different from navigating the world as it is right now – especially in a working-class environment.

Books that call out the patriarchy sometimes set the narrative at a ‘men are terrible’ stage – a primal feminist scream, understandable, vital even. The early timeline in Moths is exactly this – a brutal rendering of male violence against women, a look at how those men closest to women are statistically the most likely people to hurt them. But I also wanted a way of exploring other ideas – what would a modern matriarchy look like? How would women—vastly underrepresented in STEM fields—rebuild a country after its decimation, how would women, born into a world unencumbered by the male gaze, feel and act? And finally – how would women treat men, when the power dynamic had changed so drastically?

In the second timeline, women run the country and men, when they are considered at all, are valued for their docility and sex appeal. Women are the agents of the world and they treat men similarly to how men in the 1950s treated their secretaries. There is a measure of ironic tongue-in-cheek humour to this, but it’s also meant to defamiliarise the situation.

Flipping the script, replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, highlights the existing gender inequalities. Those lacking power struggle more. In Moths – that’s the men.

Moths: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow her on Twitter.

%d bloggers like this: