The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty

Master storyteller Mur Lafferty is back, and in her new novel Station Eternity, she confronts the question of what would really happen if the one thing that always happened around you, was the one thing you wish would never happen…

MUR LAFFERTY:

I am of Generation X, and grew up with Murder She Wrote, watching Jessica Fletcher solving mysteries in her Angela-Lansburiest way. And even though we loved watching those mysteries, one joke became common: Jessica Fletcher was clearly the most successful serial killer in history. Why else would she conveniently “be around” to solve murders that frequently happen around her? 

As I got into more and more murder series, every story had the same thing: an amateur sleuth would happen across a murder and then solve it. Sometimes in a “sexy, exciting” way, like Miss Fisher, or sometimes in a “gentle, wholesome, eat your strawberry-scones” way, like Father Brown or Miss Marple. Midsomer Murders was the exception as those folks were homicide detectives, but their cozy English county had a per capita murder rate 248 times higher than England and Wales

The amateur sleuth is a trope, but it’s accompanied by another trope: no one ever mentions how it’s weird that murders always happen around our sleuths? They don’t even have to wander far from home before encountering a body–but if they do go on vacation, people die then too. I hadn’t found anyone that addressed this obvious thing.

It also bugged me how the protagonists in these stories are well liked among friends, if not local law enforcement. I always thought if Jessica Fletcher came visiting, people should run screaming. 

But if that happened, it would suck. Life would be really lonely. And so Mallory Viridian was born. 

In classic amateur sleuth style, Mallory is conveniently around for murders, and almost always solves them. Unfortunately, because of this, she is not a popular person. She can’t keep a job, so she makes a living novelizing her cases. She has no friends. Most of her family is dead. She stays away from her neighbors. Forget about a love life. And she’s terribly lonely. 

But hey, I’m a science fiction writer, so I like to solve problems with outrageous spacey stuff. I was inspired by these mystery stories but also Babylon 5*, and I wanted a space station with a lot of aliens who don’t think much of humans and weren’t too keen on them visiting en masse. 

But they’ll take an ambassador. And someone who asked for sanctuary. And someone with a really weird, murdery problem. So Station Eternity, a sentient space station, allows three humans aboard to live among species like alien hive minds and rock folks with surprising abilities. Among her new community, Mallory hopes whatever makes murders happen around her applies only to humans. 

When writing, the hardest thing I had to puzzle out was the actual murder magnet curse/ability. If I directly addressed the “murders happen around this person” effect, I needed to address why it happens. It took a lot of editing, and of course I’m not going to spoil it here, but I hope I stuck the landing. 

What I loved about this project was exploring the fish out of water story. Having only three humans on a station presents problems; even small issues like finding a hairdresser or dentist, or realizing that even with auditory tech to translate language, our humans can’t read alien script or body language. It’s challenging to create aliens that both are alien and also characters that readers can relate to, but a fun challenge. 

Station Eternity is my nerdy love letter to these classic cozies, using aliens and space to understand their most persistent, unspoken, trope. I hope folks find it fun and appropriately murder-filled.

* J Michael Strazynski wrote for Murder She Wrote and created Babylon 5. If anyone can get a copy of Station Eternity into his hands, I’d be much obliged. 


Station Eternity: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

Trying Out A New Recipe: Pumpkin Spice Coffee Cake

I am someone who is a big fan of seasonal flavors. I like eggnog in the winter, floral flavors in the spring, fresh watermelon and tomatoes in the summer, and of course, pumpkin spice and warm apple-y flavors in the fall. So this Pumpkin Spice Coffee Cake by Handle the Heat seemed like the perfect thing to make. Plus, everything I’ve made from her has been banger, so I was excited to try this recipe.

Here is everything you need:

Ingredients laid out on a counter. There's Crisco vegetable oil, two brown eggs, Domino light brown sugar, Daisy sour cream, pecan pieces, granulated sugar, all-purpose flour, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, baking soda, and baking powder.

Athena ScalziJust kidding! My forgetful self completely left the butter and can of pumpkin puree out of the picture. Even though it’s PUMPKIN spice coffee cake. So, just pretend there’s a 3tbsp knob of butter in the photo and a big can of pumpkin puree, okay? Thanks.

For this recipe, I actually didn’t need to buy anything! I literally had everything on hand, which was surprising because I usually don’t have pecans, and sour cream is a pretty inconsistent item in my household, too. I had bought the pecans for a salad I made a while back, but it’s definitely the first time in a while I’ve had something like that on hand. As for the pumpkin puree, I specifically bought several cans as soon as I saw it come into stores so I could make seasonal stuff for the next couple weeks. This was my last can, though, so I’ll need to restock soon.

Moving on, the first thing I needed to do was make the streusel. All this required was melting the butter in a bowl and add the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and pecans to it. I just used a fork to mix it together and got this:

A glass bowl of the brown sugar and pecan streusel mixture.

Simple enough!

After that came the dry ingredients, which I just threw together in a bowl:

A white mixing bowl containing flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, brown sugar, and white sugar.

I actually found this recipe’s dry ingredients interesting, because it had me add the brown sugar and white sugar to the mixture. In most recipes, sugar gets added to the butter, eggs, vanilla, and other wet ingredients. It’s very rare for sugar to be included in the dry ingredients bowl, in my experience.

As for the wet ingredients, it was just the pumpkin puree, oil, sour cream, and eggs:

A white mixing bowl with a bright orange liquid-y mixture in it. There's also an off white rubber spatula sitting in the bowl with the mixture.

Another interesting thing about this recipe was that it had me add the wet ingredients to the dry. Usually it’s the other way around, but this one even had me make a well in the middle of the dry ingredients specifically to pour the wet ingredients into. I’m not sure it really matters which way you do it.

Anyways, it came together perfectly and I poured it into a parchment paper lined 8×8 metal pan:

A square baking pan containing the orange coffee cake mixture.

After pouring it all in at once, I realized I was supposed to have poured half in, then added half the streusel, and then add in the other half of the batter, followed by the rest of the streusel. Since I poured it all in at once, I just decided to put all of the streusel on top! Easy enough fix, I figured.

And wouldn’t you know it, it covered the top perfectly!

The orange coffee cake mixture now covered up by a generous layer of the pecan streusel.

I put it in the oven at 350 for 35 minutes. My house started to smell totally amazing, and finally I took this beauty out of the oven:

The fully baked pumpkin spice coffee cake, sitting on the stove.

Well, I guess you can’t really see what it looks like since it’s mostly just streusel.

While it was cooling, I made the maple glaze, which was literally just powdered sugar and maple syrup. I used Domino powdered sugar and Crown maple syrup, and whisked it together in a small bowl:

A small glass bowl with a light beige icing mixture in it. There's a small whisk sitting in the bowl with the glaze.

Definitely not that impressive looking, but once I put it on the freshly cut coffee cake, it looked damn good.

Three squares of the coffee cake with maple glaze drizzled on top, sitting on a black plate.

This coffee cake was literally fan-flipping-tastic. I really had to sit there and contemplate if this coffee cake was the single greatest thing I had ever made. And honestly, it might be. It was warm, perfectly spiced, wonderfully sweet, incredibly moist from the sour cream. This gets said a lot, and I mean a lot, but it tasted like fall.

Five squares of glazed coffee cake arranged in a single layer on a black plate. Behind them sits a cookie jar and a dark red crochet pumpkin.

I really cannot recommend this recipe enough, it was surprisingly easy, and the results are just amazing.

Both my parents tried the cake and said it was super good, and my friend I gave it to asked if I had bought it from an actual bakery.

This cake is an easy way to impress your friends, family, coworkers, even strangers will be blown away by this delicious coffee cake. I made another batch like two days later. I will probably make several more over the course of the next couple months. The recipe says I can just double it in a 13×9 and add like five minutes to the cook time, so I might try that next time.

Do you like pumpkin spice? Are you a fan of coffee cake? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Minor Housekeeping Note Re: AMP

Which is: I’ve turned it off because the AMP theme I was using wasn’t playing nice with desktop views, and I don’t really want to switch over to a new AMP theme because the primary theme I use works fine with phones/tablets and there is no longer any Google penalty for not using AMP. So, out the window it goes.

If you’re reading this site on your mobile device you might notice it looking different (and more like the desktop version); if you’re reading exclusively on the desktop (or getting RSS or email delivery) you probably won’t notice anything different at all. And of course if you have no idea what AMP is in the first place then you don’t need to worry about it, please continue in your blessed state.

— JS

Small Business Saturday: Twenty One Barrels

Athena ScalziHello, everyone, and welcome to another Small Business Saturday! It’s been a hot minute since I’ve done one of these, but I am extra excited for today’s featured business because it’s actually local to me. So local in fact that it’s literally across the street from my house!

I remember two years ago when I first heard that the new neighbors were turning the property into a winery. I was delighted, despite the fact that I didn’t drink wine at the time. It was just cool to me that there was going to be something interesting on our plain ol’ country road. It turned out it wasn’t just a winery, it was a cidery, too! I had never heard of a cidery before, but I thought it was nice that they had more options than just wine.

Over the next two years, my wine-tasting journey ensued, and now I’m so happy to be able to share with you all the amazing business across the street, Twenty One Barrels.

Twenty One Barrels was built, quite literally from the ground up, by Danielle and Shaun, a young married couple from Troy. They opened their doors in October 2020, and Darke County has been all the better for it.

As per usual, I’m going to include the disclaimer that all of my Small Business Saturday posts are over businesses that I have bought things from and liked enough to tell you all about them. I never receive money or free products in return for posting over these businesses. My only purpose with these is to support small businesses. Now that that’s cleared up, let’s continue.

I was never really a fan of wine, so I only ever bought bottles from them as gifts for friends. It took a while for me to actually try their products for myself, but when I did, I felt like my entire view on wine changed completely. Whether you like dry or sweet, they have something for everyone. Their menu is actually set up in order of dry to sweet, which is really helpful when deciding what to try.

The winery's menu. It is divided into three sections. On the left is the list of wines, in order of dryness to sweetness. On the right is the list of hard ciders. In the middle is the flights, as well as limited time only items. Underneath the menu sits their twelve tap handles, as well as plenty of wine glasses and cider glasses.

Not to mention they have different flights you can try! My favorite is the sweet flight, which has my two favorite wines, Harris Creek Red, and Harris Creek White. I’ve also tried Autumn Breeze, Diamond, Two Berries, and Catawba (if you couldn’t tell, I’m a sweet wine kind of gal). While all of those are great, you simply must try Autumn Breeze if you’re a fan of fall. It’s actually a blend of their Roundhouse Red with cider and mulled spices. With its warm spiced flavor, it’ll make you feel nice and cozy inside.

As for the ciders, I’ve tried more that are currently off the menu than on the menu, but out of the ones that are currently on there, the Maple Berry is the bomb dot com. My favorite flavor I’ve tried, though, was one of their holiday flavors from last year, Frosted Cranberry. Funnily enough, both the Maple Berry and Frosted Cranberry are pink in color. I like my drink to be aesthetically pleasing, as well as delicious.

Not only do they have fantastic wine and cider, Twenty One Barrels also has different local food trucks come out every weekend, as well as live music performances. If that wasn’t enough, they also have plenty of fun events like Sip and Shop markets, chili cook-offs, karaoke, and even goat yoga! You can find their calendar of events, as well as info about which food trucks will be there, on their events page.

Best of all, you can get their wines shipped to you! (Make sure to check out if your state is one of the few that they don’t ship to, some states have weird laws about that kind of stuff.)

They also have a Cider Club, which comes with tons of benefits! It’s basically a quarterly subscription that gets you four 4-packs of new cider flavors, access to their ever-changing members only tap flavor, invites to members only events (where glasses of wine and cider are discounted), and more! I actually just picked up my order a couple days ago:

Sixteen cans sitting in front of a black bag. Each can has a Twenty One Barrels label on it.

This season, the flavors are Spiced Pear, Pineapple Upside Down, Paw Paw, and Apricot Guava. So far I’ve only tried the Spiced Pear, which was very light and refreshing, and the Pineapple Upside Down, which was sweet and flavorful! Definitely a new favorite.

Twenty One Barrels is also constantly raising money for local charities, like the Darke County Humane Society and Darke County United Way!

All in all, they are an awesome business, run by awesome people, with awesome products, and I cannot recommend them enough. I never thought a winery could mean so much to me, but Twenty One Barrels is truly something special, and I feel so lucky not only to have such a wonderful small business in my little town, but to have such great neighbors right across the street.

Danielle was kind enough to let me do a quick interview for this post!

My first question was if owning a winery was a lifelong dream, or if it was a more recent thing, to which she informed me that it was more recent, specifically when Shaun and she started dating. They often went on dates to wineries and enjoyed exploring and trying different wines, which led them to envisioning opening a winery together. They actually started with making wine in the basement of their home in Troy before purchasing their 20-acre property in Bradford and constructing vineyards and a tasting room. Though those wines from the basement were mostly given as gifts to family and friends, they ended up winning local amateur wine competitions!

This led to me asking why they had chosen Bradford as their location, and if they had seen themselves ending up in Darke County. It turned out that they had originally wanted a property in Miami County, but every time something suitable would be on the market, it would get snatched up immediately. Then, the property in Bradford went up for sale, and it ended up being the perfect place. Danielle said that upon touring it, it was really somewhere she could envision the winery. There was something about going up the gravel drive, over the wooden bridge, past the weeping willows to the 1800s farmhouse that evoked a certain feeling in her, and it was a feeling she wanted to create in everyone that walked into their winery. They wanted it to be a welcoming environment, somewhere inviting and cozy and that felt good to be in.

Of course, I had to ask if she likes wine or cider better, to which she replied cider the majority of the time, but wine seasonally or with a steak dinner.

Out of the flavors of cider and types of wine they sell, I was curious as to which was her favorite. The Blushing Berry is her winner for wine, as it’s not too sweet, not too dry, and goes well with lots of different dishes. Though she did give an honorable mention to their 1933 wine. As for the cider, the Blood Orange was her number one choice, as its something that can be enjoyed year round, and the flavor isn’t too over the top.

And finally, I asked what the best part of owning the winery has been. Put simply, it’s the people. Danielle says they’ve met so many people since setting up shop, made new friends, and forged so many connections. They’ve been elated with the support they’ve received, and the welcoming attitude everyone has had towards them. When they first opened, they were afraid no one would show up. But the people came, and they haven’t stopped coming. The community continues to support them and make them love what they do.

So there you have it, folks! If you are in need of good wine and good times, look no further than Twenty One Barrels.

What flavor would you be interested in trying? Do you prefer red or white wine? Have you ever done goat yoga before?! Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

All Shot Up

I have two arms, so today I got two vaccines: On the left, this year’s edition of the flu shot, and on the right, the latest bivalent COVID booster. The latter is ever-so-slightly precipitate, as I caught COVID in June and therefore only barely inside the window for getting the booster, but inasmuch as I am traveling to New York, Kentucky, California and Nova Scotia during the month of October, I figure I owe it to myself and others to be as fully protected from both giving and getting flu and COVID as possible (and if I do get it, keeping it from messing with me too much). Simple — I made the online appointment for a local CVS in the morning, got both shots in the afternoon — quick, and no fuss. And just like that, I am all caught up. Please do the same, when you have a moment. Thanks.

— JS

The Big Idea: Rob Wilkins

Rob Wilkins was close enough to beloved author Terry Pratchett that the two of them shared the same Twitter account. From that vantage point Wilkins was able to see Pratchett as a friend, as a writer and as a human being – one who had a thing for hats, magical, metaphorical, and material. All of this comes together in today’s Big Idea for Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes.

ROB WILKINS:

Terry Pratchett had a magic hat. In fact, he had a collection of them, assiduously acquired over many years from the stores of some of the world’s leading milliners, from London to New York, and from Sydney to Burford, in England’s Cotswolds, where a shop called Elm offers a good selection. In my fifteen years as his personal assistant, I shopped for hats with Terry a lot because he considered it one of life’s reliable axioms: ‘Any day with a new hat in it is a very good day indeed.’

And if it was a magic hat, then even better.

True, his collection included hats that were not magic. For instance, there was the John Rocha-designed mortar board lavishly decked with black feathers, a sensationally gothic headpiece presented to Terry in 2010 on his accession to the post of Honorary Professor at Trinity College, Dublin.

‘Is there any type of hat associated with this position?’ Terry had asked when Trinity first rang him in his office to sound him out about the role. The College indicated that there could well be a hat, thereby clinching Terry’s acceptance.

And then there was the battered old hat in which he would venture out into the grounds of his Wiltshire manor house when the rain was coming down in stair rods but the tortoises still needed feeding. And no doubt somewhere at the back of a cupboard – because Terry threw very little away – there was the peaked leather cap he wore when he worked in the press office of the Central Electricity Generating Board in Bristol. It was a garment which, in tandem with his beard, inspired his co-workers to call him ‘Lenin’ – though only when he was out of earshot.

And then there was the top hat he bought in Manhattan on a whim, and the bowler I bought him for Christmas. There were, as I say, many hats.

But none of those were magic. The magic hats were the black, broad-brimmed Louisianas for which Terry was famous. People would insist on referring to them as ‘fedoras’, but Terry would sigh and, with varying degrees of patience, correct them: it was not a fedora, it was a Louisiana. Such distinctions mattered to the true hat aficionado.

Then came the slightly awkward day when the staff at Lock & Co. in St James’s Street in London explained to Terry that the style of hat he had been favouring was a fedora, and not a Louisiana at all. And Terry had to take their word for it, because those Lock & Co. people really knew hats: they supplied Winston Churchill with his Homburg and Charlie Chaplin with his bowler, and even Admiral Nelson with the tricorn he wore when he came to a sticky end on the deck of HMS Victory. And since 1988, they had been supplying Terry Pratchett with his Louisiana which was in fact a fedora.

Ah well. Terry still favoured it. And it was still magic.

And this was the magic: he only had to put it on his head and he became Terry Pratchett, the author. That hat gave him, with almost absurd ease, an image. In his earliest days on the road, he would team the hat with a black Levi’s jacket – Levi’s made such a thing in those days – black Hugo Boss jeans and a black leather satchel, but it was the fedora that was the key. It instantly turned him into Terry Pratchett, the public figure that he was increasingly required to be.

And, by extension, when he got home he could take off the hat and be all the other Terry Pratchetts that he was, including, incidentally, Terry Pratchett the writer, which, by the way, is a different thing from being ‘an author’ – or ‘a nauthor’, in Terry’s self-mocking coinage. As he discovered when success came his way, the duties contingent upon being ‘a nauthor’ – the tours, the readings, the book-signings, the press interviews – frequently threatened to prevent you from doing the thing that had turned you into ‘a nauthor’ in the first place, i.e. writing books. The hat was a useful way to enforce the distinction. Hat on: nauthor. Hat off: writer. Terry referred to it as ‘an anti-disguise’.

All of which means that when I came to put together Terry’s authorized biography, a task which fell to me after his death at the cruelly early age of sixty-six from a rare variant of Alzheimer’s disease, I knew one thing with absolute clarity from the very outset: that if this book ever made it into print, it would have on its jacket a photograph of Terry Pratchett without a hat on.

That single gesture, it seemed to me, would send the clearest signal about the book that I was in a unique position to write, if I could manage it. Because, yes, of course I would want to write about Terry Pratchett the author, the public figure whom people knew. But I would also want, and even more urgently, to write about the Terry Pratchett who would be less familiar to people: the Terry Pratchett I saw every day, at his desk, without his hat on – Terry Pratchett the writer.

The publishers took a little persuading, because having a hatless Terry Pratchett on the jacket of a book is a little like opening a McDonalds and not using the arches logo on the store-front. We went back and forth on this, amid some frank exchanges of view and with some wide eyes occurring in the marketing department. But I stuck to my guns and I managed somehow to prevail. And that’s why on the jacket of the UK edition of Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes, Terry is entirely hatless.

So that was the jacket sorted, exactly as I had imagined it. After that, all I had to do was write a book to go inside it.

Terry Pratchett: A Life with Footnotes: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Follow Terry and Rob’s account on Twitter.

How To Annoy Your Dog

Keep her securely in the house while these three creatures are wandering about the yard.

Yes, she wanted to make friends with them, very much. However, it was reasonably certain these three would be fine not spending any time with her. Charlie is sulking about it. She will get over it, I’m sure.

— JS

A Fancy Mustard Review

I went to a local market in Troy for Kewpie mayo, but they were sold out, so I sadly wandered the store looking for something else to buy. I came across these three flavors of mustard:

Three glass jars of mustard. They all have a Terrapin Ridge Farms label. The three flavors are raspberry wasabi mustard, pecan honey mustard, and peach honey mustard.

Athena ScalziI’d never heard of this brand before, but these mustards looked pretty quality, so I decided to grab all three flavors and give them a try.

Interestingly, all three of them were priced differently. One was $7.50, another was $8.00, and the last one was $8.50. I’m not sure why they were different to begin with, or why the difference was so small.

I enlisted the help of my parents, along with a bag of pretzels, to get the job done.

We started with the raspberry wasabi mustard:

A top down view of the inside of the raspberry wasabi mustard jar. It is filled with yellow mustard that has flecks of red and seeds throughout.

Before tasting it, I gave it a whiff, and it totally cleared my sinuses. I was worried it would taste as strong as it smells, but that wasn’t the case. It was bold without being too much, and my dad agreed the wasabi flavor was definitely present, but not overpowering. It had a kick, but wasn’t necessarily hot. I and my parents agreed we didn’t really detect any raspberry, but it was still pretty good. My dad said he would definitely put it on a sandwich, and gave it an 8/10. My mom said it was pretty solid, and gave it an 8/10, as well. I thought it was good, but I’m not the biggest fan of wasabi, so I gave it a 7/10.

Next up was the one I was most excited for, the pecan honey mustard:

A top down view of the inside of the pecan honey mustard jar. It's filled with thick brown mustard.

Unlike the previous flavor, which was mustard forward, this one was honey forward. It was sweet, thick, sticky, and totally yummy. Both of my parents said they wouldn’t put it on a sandwich, which makes sense since the label calls it a “glaze, cheese topper, and pretzel dip”. It was  perfect for the pretzels we had, but my dad and I got creative and spread a dollop onto a slice of provolone (it was the only cheese we had), and it was totally bangin’. My mom said this one just wasn’t her style, though, and gave it a 5/10. She didn’t care for it but didn’t hate it. My dad liked it more than she did, and gave it an 8.5/10. I totally loved it, and could honestly smash the whole thing if I wasn’t careful, and gave it a 9.5/10.

Last on the list was the peach honey mustard:

A top down view of the peach honey mustard jar. Its contents are an orangish, looser looking mustard, with some chunks throughout.

The first thing I noticed about this one was that it was a much looser consistency than the previous mustard, and slightly more so than the first mustard. Both my mom and dad made a point of mentioning how peach-forward this one was. My dad said it had an almost alcoholic sharpness, and that it doesn’t work on its own, but perhaps would be good as a glaze for something like chicken or a salad dressing. He settled on a score of 5.5/10. My mom said she’d like it on a sandwich, and gave it a 7/10. As for me, it reminded me of an overly mushy peach that you think “man, I need to eat that before it goes bad” and then as soon as you start eating it, you realize it’s already kind of not good anymore. So it’s a 6/10 from me. Not horrible, but definitely my least favorite.

After totaling up the averages, the first two got an overall score of 7.6/10, while the last one got a 6.1/10.

I was curious about what other flavors this brand had of mustards, and after visiting their website, I discovered they have more than mustards! They have jams, salad dressings, dips, and more! If I could try any of their other mustards, I’d try the smokey bacon maple mustard, the champagne garlic honey mustard, and the creamy garlic mustard.

All in all, I’m glad I tried out this brand, it was a fun little taste test with my parents.

Which one sounds the best to you? Have you tried this brand’s products before? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

The Big Idea: Laura Kat Young

Laura Kat Young was determined to write a story that she wanted to read, even if at first it was difficult to find a place for it amongst the shelves. Read on to see how The Butcher came to be.

LAURA KAT YOUNG:

An Eye for an Eye

A horrible crime had just shocked the nation, and my friend and I sat in the square of an idyllic British town discussing what the courts were doing with the assailant. Like the many around us who held in their hands newspapers, phones, glossy magazines highlighting the case, we were hypnotized by the leniency shown towards the criminal. I asked my friend: what if it had been your loved one? What justice could be served to make it, well, even? My friend went down a rabbit hole. I followed, nodding yes, and at each and every turn. It was fun to think of ways to make the bad people pay–isn’t that what a hero does in the end, after all? Or is that an anti-hero? Perhaps my characters are a bit of both–I’ll let the reader be the judge. 

No Way Out

Toni Morrison, one of my favorite authors of all time, said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I want stories of terrible societies, speculative and dystopian worlds and inescapable situations. In The Giver, there was the next town. In Lord of the Flies, they were rescued before everyone killed each other. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Canada is their safe haven. But what if there wasn’t an out? What if there was nowhere to go? Or what if you did escape, but you had to go back?

On Women

It was also important to me to write a book in which there was a strong female lead whose storyline was not contingent upon seeking out a romantic relationship. Growing up I read books in which women had two choices: get married and have kids or die alone. I wanted to give my lead a story that I don’t frequently see on the page (still): that a woman’s livelihood is connected not to who desires her but what she desires for herself. All books should live up to the Bechdel test.

The Tenets

The idea of radical self-love and forgiveness is an important theme in my work. Sometimes people do terrible things, but what does it say about us if we cannot forgive them? And if a person should misstep, how can they work to forgive themselves? The systems in which we are trapped contribute to our own oppression. We should all work towards dismantling them, towards fighting those that seek to subjugate us. As a high school teacher, I focus heavily on said systems, exploring the dysconsciousness and subsequent perceptions and attitudes that bind us to the very thing we should be trying to escape. 

Finding a Home

The Butcher had a difficult time finding a home. Too gruesome, not gruesome enough; where would this title sit in a bookstore? I kept at it, though, and entered Twitter pitch contests and went to agent panels at conferences. I was chosen for #Pitchwars, a mentoring program that matches published authors, editors, or industry interns with an unpublished writer. I did a deep revision, landed an agent (after many, many queries), and on the eve of the pandemic, Friday, March 13, 2020, my novel went on submission. 

A Final Word

I think that if I can impart any wisdom, it’s that it’s never too late. I’m a forty-five year old woman who doesn’t hold an MFA. I have two lovely children and teach high school English full-time. It’s possible. But even if this book had never found a home, the fact is that I wrote one. Sometimes we can be the hero of our own story.


The Butcher: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

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

The Opening of Oh! Boba

Athena ScalziThis past weekend, I went to the ribbon cutting ceremony of a new boba tea shop. The area in which I live is not particularly well known for its boba places, so this was quite exciting as someone who loves the stuff. Prior to this place opening in Troy about thirty minutes from me, the closest place was an hour away in Dayton. I can’t express how nice it is to not have to drive all the way to Dayton just for a drink.

Their opening was highly anticipated, especially because they opened up right in the center square of downtown, which is pretty much the best location a business owner in Troy could hope for. So I made it a point to go to their ribbon cutting ceremony, and it was quite nice!

A crowd of people standing outside the storefront of Oh! Boba. They are pulling the ribbon tightly so it may be cut with the giant scissors.

As you can see, everyone wanted to catch the special theatrical moment on camera. I know I did, as I have only ever seen ribbon cutting with giant scissors in movies and TV. Where do you even buy scissors like that?

The whole town’s committee and mayor was there, congratulating the owners and workers on their opening.

After they cut the ribbon, everyone lined up, and the line went all the way out to the parking lot! It was huge (and I was pretty damn close the end), but the wait was totally worth it.

Also, the windows out front had the cutest displays!

A window display of several different boba teas sitting on clear shelves. There's also other products they sell, like their bubble waffles, accompanying the bobas on the display shelves.

Another window display, this one is full of plushies that are boba teas. There's several extra large ones and the some smaller ones.

(One of the plushies (the odd one out) is a Squishmallow named Jakarria, and I have her, too.)

Once I got inside the actual building, I was instructed to pick a Ping Pong ball out of a box. If the ball had a number on it, you won a prize! There was a one hundred dollar gift card to the shop, several Oh! Boba cups, a bunch of super cute glass strawberry cups, as well as some adorable boba pins. I got a pin, but the little girl in front of me managed to get the one hundred dollar gift card! She was so excited.

I ordered a tiger milk tea with tapioca pearl boba, and my friend got strawberry milk tea with blueberry popping boba.

Two boba teas next to each other on a wooden counter. One is beige with black boba at the bottom, the other is pink with a slightly bluer black boba at the bottom.

For their opening weekend they were having a special flavor, birthday cake, which I was going to try but decided against at the last minute. They said they will be bringing it back next year for their anniversary, though, so maybe I’ll try it then.

Besides the tea, I also got their Biscoff Crunch bubble waffle!

Me holding a cup with the bubble waffle in it, the Oh! Boba storefront and sign in the background. The bubble waffle has Biscoff cookies and whipped cream on it.

It comes with Biscoff cookies, whipped cream, sprinkles, and Biscoff crumbles. It was so tasty! Kind of complicated to eat, though. Especially because it overflows out of the cup. But it was yummy, so it’s okay.

The milk tea and the waffle were both six dollars each. If you’re not a big fan of milk tea or waffles but still want to check the place out, they have sparkling drinks, too! I tried out their After the Rain one, which was blue curacao flavor. It was so refreshing!

A clear plastic cup filled with translucent dark blue liquid with lemon slices in it.

They even have some sugar free options.

All in all, this place totally rocks, and I will definitely be frequenting it. I highly recommend checking it out if you’re in the area. They’re open everyday of the week from 11am to 8pm, which is super convenient. I’m really happy this place exists, and I can’t wait to continue supporting it.

Do you like milk tea? Would you try a bubble waffle? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

Smudge Confronts Modern Technology and Is Less Than 100% Thrilled

The technology in question: A small drone, which Krissy’s work has given her so that she can cut down on the number of roofs she has to climb on in her role as a claims adjuster. She need to get some practice with it, but it’s an overly blustery day, so she decided to fire it up inside the house. Smudge was, shall we say, less than thrilled about the buzzy, beepy thing that had invaded his home during his naptime. Fortunately the interruption was brief and Smudge was able to return to his Very Important Nap. Life at the Scalzi Compound: Never boring, even when nap-filled.

— JS

Bleep Bleep

John Scalzi

Did you know (and its attendant corollary, do you care) that you can take the AI Drummer tracks in Logic Pro X, transmute them into common MIDI, put entirely different sounds on them, and then load them up with effects and filters until they’re entirely unrecognizable? Which, uhhhh, is what I did here, for a track that would not entirely be out of place at a club, although whether an actual DJ would play it is another matter entirely. Once again, I don’t claim to be a good musician, just one who is keeping himself amused as he learns new things about his music software. Also, I named this track “Bleep Bleep” because it leans rather heavily into bleepery. If you listen to it, you’ll know what I mean.

Incidentally, you should know it’s perfectly fine if my bleepage (and other musical stylings) interests you not at all. It’s amateur stuff! It’s not gonna be classic. And if nothing else you’ll be in good company; my Spotify artist stats tell me that in seven years of having music up on the service (the new music from this summer plus my Music For Headphones album, which I put on the service in 2015) my stuff has garnered a grand total of about 4500 streams. Which, fair! This is not even a side gig; it’s the hobbiest of hobbies. I’m having fun with it, but that’s not the same as saying what I’m making is going to grab anyone other than me.

It’s fine if it doesn’t; for this, I’m my own best audience, and when I listen to the stuff I’m making, I’m mostly hearing all the things I need to improve upon. All of this is practice. For what? Making slightly better composed and produced music in the future, I suppose. Which will still probably not be listened to by anyone but me and a few other folks, Which, again: totally fine. Love your hobbies, even if you’re not good at them. Being good at them isn’t necessarily the goal. Being engaged with them and getting joy from them is.

(Also, that art is what came out of Midjourney after I put in the prompt “John Scalzi with a French hat and baguette.” It’s not a particularly good likeness, either of me or of a baguette. AI art still has some work to do.)

— JS

Trying Out A New Recipe: Half Baked Harvest’s Chocolate Chip Espresso Oatmeal Cookies

Athena ScalziI made cookies! And if you couldn’t guess from the title, they were oatmeal cookies. With chocolate chips. And espresso powder. And other stuff, but for some reason only those ingredients are included in the title.

Anyways, as I’ve mentioned before, Half Baked Harvest is one of my favorite food bloggers, so I was excited to try this cookie recipe, despite not being a huge fan of oatmeal cookies.

I actually had all the ingredients for these cookies on hand:

Ingredients laid out on a counter. There's Domino brand light brown sugar, Kerrygold brand salted butter, Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate bar, two brown eggs, vanilla extract, King Arthur brand espresso powder, baking soda, flour, Quaker old fashioned oats, and Crown brand maple syrup.

So my first mistake can be found in this ingredients photo. There’s maple syrup in the photo, but there is no maple syrup in the cookies. There is maple syrup in the optional vanilla glaze you can make to go with the cookies, but I forgot to make the glaze entirely so at no point did I use the maple syrup pictured here. So just pretend like it’s not there, okay? Great.

Moving on, the first thing I did was brown the butter. One thing I love about Half Baked Harvest’s recipes is that she always calls for browned butter. If you aren’t familiar, brown butter is just where you take regular butter and heat it up in a skillet to the point that the milk solids begin to brown.

A blue skillet on the stove, the contents of which is melted butter. The milk solids have separated from the liquid butter, making the butter have a layer of white on top.

As you can see here, once you melt the butter, the milk solids separate from the liquid. The white stuff is the part that browns. Eventually, you’ll end up with what I like to call liquid gold:

A glass Pyrex bowl of melted brown butter.

Here’s what it looks like right off the stove!

And here’s all the solid, browned goodness that makes browned butter so damn good:

The browned milk solids from the brown butter sitting in the bottom of the glass bowl.

So what’s the point of browning butter? Is it really necessary? Not really, you definitely don’t have to go through the extra effort, but it adds so much more depth and rich flavor to whatever you’re baking! I promise you can really taste the difference. The best butter brand I’ve found for browning is Kerrygold. It browns unlike any other butter. I highly recommend using that brand if you know you’re going to be browning butter for a recipe!

Anyways, I put all the browned butter in a mixing bowl, and added the brown sugar, eggs, vanilla extract, and espresso powder. One thing I found interesting about this recipe was how much espresso powder is in it. Every time I’ve seen espresso powder in a recipe, it’s usually only about a teaspoon, and usually it’s listed as optional. This recipe, however, called for 2-4 tablespoons of the stuff. The amount between 2 and 4 tablespoons feels like a lot to me, so I went with 3 just to keep it in the middle.

It made my batter DARK:

A white mixing bowl filled with dark brown liquid.

I thought surely the flour, oats, and baking soda would lighten it up, and it did a little:

A white mixing bowl filled with dark brown cookie dough. Lots of oats can be seen in the dough.

For the final step, I added one 4oz bar of semi-sweet chocolate, and half a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips, both Ghirardelli brand.

A white mixing bowl filled with the final form of cookie dough. Oats and tons of chocolate chunks can be seen throughout the dough.

Honestly, this dough was super easy and quick to throw together. It took longer to brown the butter than it did to measure out the ingredients and mix the dough together. There was nothing too difficult about this dough, no chilling, no whipping eggs for long periods of time. It was all in one bowl, and all super standard ingredients, and no stand mixer or even hand mixer required!

This dough is actually pretty wet for a cookie dough, so I wouldn’t recommend working with it with your bare hands. I used a cookie dough scooper and just scooped out some onto a baking sheet. (The recipe says to use parchment paper on my baking sheets, but I always use parchment paper anyways because my baking sheets are busty crusty dusty musty rusty.)

Twelve dark brown, oaty, chocolatey chunky cookie dough dollops spread apart evenly om a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

At this point in time, they looked a lot like no-bake cookies to me.

I threw them in the oven for eight minutes, rotated them, and let them go for another three minutes. And this is what I ended up with:

A beautiful photo of perfectly baked chocolate chunk oatmeal cookies, displayed nicely with flowers all around them.

Just kidding! That’s what they’re supposed to look like (photo from Half Baked Harvest). This is what mine actually looked like:

The twelve cookies, now fully baked. They are dark brown, wonkily shaped, and look extra oaty.

Not quite twins, are they? And if they are twins, mine look like the evil twin the parents hide in the attic, like that Simpsons episode of Treehouse of Horror.

I’m not sure what went wrong here, so I looked to the comments on her recipe. Apparently tons of people had the same problem, and complained about them coming out way darker than hers. If I had to guess, I’d say the wild amount of espresso powder was the culprit. I was willing to bet it that the tablespoon measurement was actually a typo, but saw no mention of it being a typo from her in the comments, so maybe it isn’t. They are espresso cookies, after all.

Ugly or not, I still tried to get a glamour shot or two of them:

Me holding up one of the cookies. It's dark brown, full of oats, and the chocolate chips are melty, as they are still warm from the oven.

A small black plate sitting on the counter. It has two of the cookies on it, and I'm holding half of a cookie so you can see the inside. There's a glass bottle of milk next to the plate.

Enough about the looks, how about the taste?! Well, they’re pretty decent. I mean, they have chocolate in them so they can’t really be bad, but they’re not super stellar either. Though I am biased because of the oats, so if you actually like oatmeal cookies you’d probably enjoy these. Not the worst thing I’ve ever made, at the very least. I ended up with 24 of these bad boys, so if you want to make this, but don’t want so many to come from it, I’d recommend halving the recipe.

Do you like oatmeal cookies? Do you often brown your butter for baked goods? Would you give these cookies a try? Let me know in the comments and have a great day!

(Also, someone asked me in my last post what the M in AMS stands for. I think this is the second time I’ve been asked, actually! It’s Marie.)

-AMS

The Big Idea: William C. Tracy

Always have a backup plan. And if that doesn’t work, have another back up plan… and another after that. Let’s just say Plan A didn’t work out for the characters in William C. Tracy’s new novel, Of Mycelium and Men. Follow along in his Big Idea as he tells you of their Plan B, and Plan C.

WILLIAM C. TRACY:

The generational fleet planned to make landfall after eighty years, but eleven planets and four centuries later, they still had not found a home. Finally, they landed on Lida, but something already lives there, and it’s big.

Agetha and her husband have spent their whole lives in the fleet’s zero-G. Now all is turmoil as the fleet lands, discovering they are surrounded by a single fungal biomass spanning the entire planet. To build a new home, the fleet must confront a dangerous organism, and Agetha must decide if she can raise a family in this inhospitable landscape.

Jane Brighton holds tenuous command over the colony and its administrators. She and the other gene-modded leaders emerged from their four-hundred-year suspended animation to find a crew much different from the one that departed Old Earth. Jane must direct the colony’s fragile growth and defend it against being overrun by the fast-growing biomass.

But there is something none of the colonists know. The massive organism that spans the planet is not simply a fungal mass, nor even a chimerical combination of species that once roamed the planet. The biomass has desires and goals, and one is to know these strange beings carving out a home in its midst.

Dealing with age and cryosleep, or “Get off my starship!”

I’ve had parts of this book (and parts of what will be the second and third books) tumbling around in my brain for probably ten years, but I didn’t have a chance to write it until now. One of the biggest questions I wanted to dive into was how to deal with people who remembered Earth and helped set up a new colony, as opposed to the people on a generational ship whose families had lived through the intervening time—changing and growing.

To make things more conflict laden, I also decided to impose a fairly strict hierarchy, assigning those in cryosleep as a sort of temporal autocracy, arising from rests of hundreds of years to make proclamations for the masses. This would make them into legendary figures for the generational descendants of the original crew.

To crank it up another notch, the fleet found their original target was a lump of slag (oops), the second had no atmosphere (oh well), the third and fourth were no good, and so on until the fleet had traveled about five times as far as they were supposed to. By this time, the Admins are nearly myths, having been sleeping for most of the journey.

Oh yes, and did I mention that the Admins and their supersoldiers have been gene-modded to live for three or four hundred years—while awake? In contrast, the ones who lived through the journey were not modified, and only live about as long as we do. 

Everything changes once they find a planet. Now the Admins are awake and guiding the fleet once more, and those who had been acting as stewards find themselves…displaced. At the same time, the colony is under extreme threat. The planet they finally land on turns out to be entirely covered by one rather aggressive fungal biomass, which expresses itself through fungus, plant, and animal-type entities. Tension builds in the colony between the Admins, and those who had directed the fleet and made decisions while traveling. Though they’ve devoted their lives to making sure over twenty thousand people keep living, breathing, reproducing, and growing in knowledge, they are now treated as second-class citizens.

The colony is planned to take ten years to build, but the biomass throws a wrench into that plan as well. The generational crew will literally spend their lives creating the first colony and battling the biomass, and only their children will really be able to enjoy it. Meanwhile, the Admins will live to (hopefully) see the spread of the colony to other cities.

I’ve always been fond of writing about gray moral areas. In this case, people must pull together to complete the colony, or they will be overrun by the biomass. The ones who say they are best able to plan for the future colony (supposedly) are the Admins, who will live to see it come to fruition. Other viewpoints might be useful, but everyone is so busy surviving there’s not a lot of time to foment rebellion against these autocrats. The original fleet crew is far larger in number than Admin or their supersoldiers, but that also means they’re the only ones able to build the colony in time. So, what’s the right answer here? Autocratic rule with the fleet treated as stepping-stones for their children? Risk the safety of everyone in order to replace those at the top with better candidates?

My usual answer when writing through conundrums like this is, “it’s complicated.” I have viewpoints in the book from several of the fleet crew, one supersoldier, and one of the Admins to try to understand the whole picture as it builds. But there’s another very important viewpoint I’ve included: that of the biomass. As a final piece of complexity, the biomass is sentient, but in a very different way than you or I. In fact, so different that no one in the colony makes that connection (in this book). Some of the external pressures on the colonists are misinterpreted until it’s a bit too late to do anything about it. As I said, this will be a trilogy eventually, with the second book coming out early next year, and the third one later on in 2023. This last conflict will become a much bigger player in the next books, but I wanted to lay the seeds of it here, in hopes to provide you with an enjoyable, crunchy, character-driven tale.

I hope you like it!


Of Mycelium And Men: Amazon

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

Even More New Music: “9/22/22 (The Last of the Summer Skies)”

Yes, I know, I’m on a bit of a tear with the music this week. My excuse for it this time is that I got a new virtual synth (this one) and I wanted to see what I could do with it. All the sounds in this composition are from this particular synth (including the drums), and the composition is actually really simple: The same four chord sequence with different voicings (and one MIDI drum beat). Not complicated but I think it sounds interesting. Enjoy.

— JS

Why I’m (Probably) Not Going To Be Able To Give You Useful Advice Regarding Writer’s Block

John Scalzi

I’ve had a couple of folks I don’t know well (or at all) recently ask me if I could give them advice about getting over writer’s block. The answer is “probably not,” and here’s why:

1. I have no idea what the root of your block is, and also, the chances are reasonably good that you may not understand it either, even if you think you do (people are like that). I am not a trained therapist who can dig around in your brain to figure this stuff out, and you’re not paying me to do that anyway;

2. Even if I did have an idea of the cause of your blockage, since (again) I don’t actually know you, I have no idea of how well you take advice, even if you are asking for it, or whether once you are offered advice if your next step will be to try to execute on it, or to offer another reason why that advice won’t work for you;

3. I rarely experience writer’s block myself to any significant degree. I’ve had stretches where the writing is difficult, but that’s usually to do with me hacking my way through the thicket of story; I’m writing, just not particularly linearly. Recently I’ve had to deal with the sequelae of COVID turning my brain’s plotting engine into goo, but again, it’s not that I’m not writing. It’s that I’m rewriting more right now than I usually do. So, not blockage, just a lot of meandering. Without a huge amount of personal experience with writer’s block, I can’t really give advice that is too useful on how to get through it.

These days, most of the advice I give about writing is really quite simple: Put your ass in a chair and write on as regular a schedule as you can to let your brain develop “muscle memory.” That should help you power through episodes of mental resistance, whether that’s a writing block, or lack of direction, or deficit of inspiration or whatever. I give this particular advice because a) it works for me, b) I have to remind myself of it all the fucking time, because I am so easily distractible, especially these days.

Whether that is useful for your own particular blockage, is, of course, a matter for you to decide. I could offer other tips and tricks (“Write in a different place!” “Do writing sprints!” “Eat more leafy greens!”) but generally speaking I don’t do any of those things, so I can’t speak to their efficacy (I mean, I do try to eat more leafy greens, but not specifically to get over a writing block). As I get older I’ve learned that offering definitive advice without regard to the actual person involved is often the opposite of useful. This is why, these days, I’m far more likely to say “this is been what’s worked for me” rather more than “this is what you should do” when people come advice-seeking. Not always — I can still be garrulous and fatuous and certain in my opinions when the mood strikes — but more often now than when I was younger.

So: ass in chair, write as regularly as you can, and build up that “muscle memory,” which again is good writing advice generally. If that doesn’t work, then… well, actually, a bit of therapy/and or medical diagnosis (if you can swing it, sorry Americans that our health care sucks so badly) probably isn’t a bad idea, because maybe there’s more there going on that may not be specifically about writing but affects your writing too, and I’m a big believer in improving one’s mental health in general.

But that’s kind of where I beg off giving further writing block advice to strangers. I don’t know you, sorry, and I can’t know everyone, especially when I’m on a book deadline. But I wish you luck, and an end to your block, and happy writing afterward.

— JS

The Big Idea: R. B. Lemberg

It can be hard to find the right words to express yourself. For author and linguist R. B. Lemberg, it might help that they have several languages to choose from. Come along in their Big Idea as they tell you about how language can be ever-changing, adaptable, or even restricting, and how this plays into their newest novel, The Unbalancing.

R. B. LEMBERG:

Lately, I’ve seen many calls to abolish pronouns. Today, for example, I saw a tweet that read, “No one has pronouns. You are either he or she.” (he and she are pronouns; so are things like this and that). As a linguist, I am always amazed at certain people’s eagerness to cancel whole parts of speech in order to further certain political agendas. As a linguist, I am also always interested in this idea — what happens if we do start canceling parts of speech? This has been a topic of my recent viral Twitter thread, and also a theme in a new Birdverse novella on submission. 

As a linguist, I can also say that gender expressions in languages around the world are diverse and varied. Some languages do not express gender at all, and/or do not express gender through pronouns, or not just through pronouns. Hungarian, a language with no grammatical gender, is spoken in Hungary, a country with restrictive anti-LGBTQIA+ policies. Hungary is also home to many queer and trans people.

Having the means of expression beyond the binary does not result in more rights.

Conversely, canceling parts of speech does not undo the existence of people. 

I am a person whose first language(s) did not include nonbinary options when I was growing up. As a member of the last Soviet generation, I grew up with no LGBTQIA+ representation outside of slurs. It did not make me straight or cis, although it did make me closeted way too long; I’m glad all that is behind me.  The lack of language and representation did not undo my existence. It did hurt me, and people like me. My closeted silence did nothing good in the world. My voice, I hope, goes farther.

As a queer and nonbinary migrant – and as a linguist – I am astounded every day by the power of language to change, to adapt, to create and maintain community. Linguistic history of the world is a history of change, diversity, and variation. Language changes because it is spoken by people who want to express things which are important for them to express. When language stops changing, it is no longer alive.

The Unbalancing is the first novel in my long-standing Birdverse fantasy world. Since the very first Birdverse story in Beneath Ceaseless Skies back in 2011, Birdverse has been a place which centered queer and trans people. LGBTQIA+ people in Birdverse do not always have it easy. Some countries and cultures are more accepting and welcoming than others, and people who travel or migrate between different places might be shocked by the differences in language and culture that make space for people like them – or take it away. 

In The Unbalancing, I wanted to imagine queer utopia. The archipelago is a place of refuge for people who do not fit in their home countries. The society of the islands is welcoming and carefree, celebrating the many expressions of gender and sexuality. One of the key features of archipelago culture is its recognition of women, men, and ichidar. Ichidi (plural ichidar) is a word which roughly corresponds to our nonbinary gender. But nonbinary gender is not monolithic – neither in our world, nor in Birdverse. The islanders recognize “the five ichidi variations”, which are represented by words and animal symbols accompanied by lyrical sayings for each variation.

One of the powerful elders in The Unbalancing, the shipwright Dorod, is rugár, an ichidi variation symbolized by the bear. The saying of rugár is “I am both bears,” corresponding roughly to the bigender identity in our world. Some of the variations in this world have no clear our-world equivalents, others do. As a nonbinary author, I revel in this worldbuilding. Our literature is the literature of imagination. SFF as a field has long embraced social worldbuilding of all kinds. I am here for this, and I hope my readers will be too.

Imagining the archipelago where The Unbalancing is set has been bittersweet for me, since I have long set up through other stories and poems that this utopia does not survive in its original form. But the islander culture survives, and this survival continues to shape Birdverse and my writing. The Unbalancing is, in many ways, a book about failure, about the triumphs and faultlines of community. It is a love letter to people looking for worlds and words that fit. We yearn for language to include us because we yearn for our truths, and for belonging.

In a scene in the book, Erígra Lilún, the protagonist, tells their lover about a conversation they had earlier with the shipwright Dorod. “Dorod told me this before we began — that our culture must survive… Who we are is important, is precious, is rare. Each one of us is the whole of our people, carrying all our love and our failures and our histories in our bones, and unless we all perish, nobody and nothing can take that away.” 

It is my truth, and I hold on to it. Language exists because people do. Gender-variant people have always existed. In the current political climate, it’s easy to feel besieged or hopeless – but even if every part of speech is cancelled, we will continue to be born. 

I hope that you will give The Unbalancing a try. All are welcome on the archipelago.


The Unbalancing: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

In Which My High School Gives Me An Award

I believe I mentioned just recently that Webb, my high school, is the sort of place that takes its annual reunion celebration seriously, and one of the things it does during the reunion weekend is to offer up three alumni awards, for Outstanding Achievement, for Distinguished Services, and to note a rising star amongst the younger alumni. This year is my 35th high school reunion, so I am definitely not a young alumnus, nor have I been so useful as to have been recognized for distinguished service. I have, however, been made the recipient of the 2022 Alumni Outstanding Achievement Award, on the basis of my career as a writer and author. I am delighted and honored and honestly a little dazed that I was thought of for this.

There is some small irony in receiving this award because just before I was informed that I would be honored with it, I had informed friends that I probably wouldn’t be coming to reunion this year, on account that I was behind on finishing Starter Villain, and rather than traveling to California I would hide in my office and grind it out. Then the folks at Webb went “surprise!” and I was all, “Ugh FINE OKAY I will come to reunion I hope you’re happy.” Secretly, however, I am pleased that they roped me into coming, as I really did want to see friends. Don’t tell my editor I am going, I told him I was staying home. It’ll be our little secret.

(Be assured that if I haven’t finished the novel before I travel, that I will be writing on the plane, and in the hotel room, and, probably, backstage just before walking up to get the award. Deadlines are real, y’all.)

It’s my understanding that, while other recipients of this award have written books among the other things they have done, I am the first to get the award for a career as a writer and author. If this is accurate, I think that’s pretty cool (if it’s not accurate, it’s still cool, mind you). Webb is where I decided I wanted to be a writer. To have the school honor me for it feels like coming full circle in a way that’s difficult to fully express. Again: I am delighted. And also — uncharacteristically for me, I know — humbled. Webb friends, I will see you at reunion soon.

— JS

See You in Hell, Cursive Writing

John Scalzi

The former president of Harvard has written an elegy for cursive writing in The Atlantic, noting that Kids These Days weren’t taught it (it slipped off national curriculum standards in the 2010s), don’t read it easily if at all, and wonders what this means for their ability to access the past, as many documents are handwritten, and many of those are in cursive. Future generations will see cursive as a curiosity at best and an almost foreign language at most.

Which, eh. I’m not too worried about it. For the people who want to know it, it’s not actually that difficult to pick up; they taught it to second graders, after all, a group of humans not well-known either for their intellectual prowess or their magnificent hand-eye coordination. That plus the fact that computers are pretty good these days at recognizing handwriting of various levels of atrocious, and turning it into readable type, suggests to me that the past will not be all that impenetrable to future scholars, and others who have interest in history. Scholarship should survive just fine.

Anyway, the writing was on the wall (so to speak) for cursive a long time ago. I’m 53, was taught cursive in school, and have not used the skill for anything useful or important in literally decades. I started seriously writing right around the time first Macintoshes came into existence, so my entire creative/professional writing career, and mental discipline for writing, is centered on the computer as my writing tool. At no point, save for an occasional poem or song lyric, have I written creatively by hand. On the occasions that I do write by hand, for example when I’m signing books, it’s in standard, not cursive, script, consistent with my preference since I was a kid, and marginally more legibly for me and others in any event. Once I was not ordered to write in cursive (coinciding with the end of my elementary schooling), I didn’t, and anyone who gets handwritten notes from me should be grateful.

(Which is not to say that I didn’t occasionally hand write things; in high school I developed my own personal script that I would use to make notes or comments. People who see it now suggest it looks vaguely like Tolkien script, which I suppose it does, but it wasn’t intentional, since it predates me ever seeing the Tolkien script. I’m pretty sure since I’ve been fourteen I’ve written more things in my secret script than in cursive.)

I do know people who write in cursive for fun — friend and fellow writer Mary Robinette Kowal loves to send handwritten notes to people, and I can attest these notes are delightful to receive — but I suspect most people from Gen X downward conduct the majority of their written communication electronically, or at the very least, typed. I don’t personally notice a lessening of personal feeling or intimacy because these are the formats current generations prefer. They will indeed present a challenge for future archivists, in the sense that electronic media are ephemeral and bit rot is a real thing; I’d guess that will be an equal or greater task for these archivists than reading cursive.

So, yeah. I won’t be lamenting too much the end of cursive as a living script. It was never really a part of my life outside of elementary school and was of limited utility even then. I’ll stick to keyboards and computers, and limit handwriting to signing books and the occasional check (speaking of things becoming rapidly obsolete). This has worked for me so far. I suspect it will continue to.

— JS

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