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Athena Scalzi

Sakuraco May Box Review

Athena ScalziI absolutely had to get this one in before the end of May, so welcome to another installment of me reviewing Sakuraco’s monthly snack boxes!

This month, they focused on the fact that it’s the end of Spring, and mentioned a really neat holiday called Children’s Day! Also with the end of Spring comes the last of the cherry blossoms, so this month’s theme was “mochi and sakura”, which I found kind of odd considering March’s theme was sakura, but I like sakura so I’m not mad about it. I did find it interesting that March was sakura, April was matcha, and June is citrus, but this one is “mochi AND sakura”, but it’s whatever.

Anyways, let’s just dive right in!

First up, we have the Fig Doryaki:

This soft, cake-like treat was really yummy! I personally am a huge fan of fig, and this snack was totally fig-tastic, not to mention the fig spread is mixed with red bean paste, which I’m also a big fan of! So, yeah, this was a very good start to the box. I’d give it an 8/10.

Following this, I tried the Rikishi Mochi Monaka:

I have really mixed feelings about this one, because the red bean paste inside was some of the best I’ve ever had, but the wafer was so unsatisfying and weirdly textured. I’m not sure what the logo thingy on the wafer is supposed to be, but I think it adds an interesting look to an otherwise pretty dull looking snack. For real though, the red bean paste was super duper good, I wish I could have just the paste without the wafer, but there’s really no way to separate them. I’d give it a 7/10.

Next up is Plum Mochi:

Okay, this lil’ pink blob absolutely slaps. This thing is a perfect pillow of deliciousness. Not only is the mochi the most wonderful soft texture, but it’s a super appealing color, too! I thought the sour plum jelly would be too tart, but it ended up being the perfect contrast to the extra sweet marshmallow fluff around it. It was a truly delicious combo, and this is for sure my favorite item in the box. Obviously, this is a 10/10. I am hoping that it is possible to buy a huge package of these, they’re so amazing.

After that, I tried the Sakura Mini Baumkuchen:

Honestly, this little cake was pretty good! The taste and texture were both very similar to pound cake, and who doesn’t like pound cake? The sakura flavor in it was rather subtle, but despite it being pretty faint, it was pleasant! It was a nice size, too, since it was a “mini” baumkuchen. I’d give this cake a 7/10.

Fifthly, I had the Sakura Sable Cookie:

I really wanted to like this cookie more than I did, just because the texture was super enjoyable for a cookie. It was like that perfect softness where it’s not too soft, but the taste was kind of off to me. It wasn’t, like, bad, but it was just a little odd. It tasted almost like it was supposed to taste good, but something was wrong with it and it made it taste off. I know that’s kind of a weird way to phrase it, but I really feel like maybe it wasn’t supposed to taste the way it did? I’m not sure. Anyways, I’d give it a 5/10.

Next, I went for the Mitarashi Mochi Monaka:

This was a truly unique snack, flavored unlike anything I’ve ever had before. The monaka wafers were nothing to write home about. Per usual with any of the “wafer” snacks, the wafers are weirdly textured and too dry to be good. The inside was the fascinating part, though. The description said that “Mitarashi sauce is a fresh, sweet and slightly spicy soy sauce”, and honestly I can totally see it. It had that undertone of soy sauce flavor, but milder and sweeter. I wouldn’t say it’s like, the best thing I’ve ever tasted, but it was interesting and good enough to earn it a 6.5/10.

Following that, I tried the Kanten Sakura Mochi:

These jelly-like cubes were super odd, but I wanted to like them because I adore the color and perfect bite-size-ness of them. They tasted like… grass? I’m not sure, but whatever it was wasn’t very good and it certainly didn’t taste like sakura. The texture was fine enough, but the flavor was totally lacking, so I’m going to have to give this a 3/10.

Next up, I gave the Sakura Cream Sandwich a try:

Let me just start out by saying that I totally loved these cute cookie sandwiches! The cookies are so adorable with their sakura trees on them, and super thin, making them extra crispy. The vanilla cream was really sweet, but it worked well with the sort of plain and mild flavor of the cookies. This cookie sandwich tasted very much like a “vanilla wafer” type of snack, the rectangular kind with the waffle pattern on the wafers that are layered like a lasagna. Overall, I’d give it an 8/10.

Coming into the final stretch of snacks, we have the Fukuruko Shiruko:

I loved the appearance of these so much, and I was really hoping to love the taste just as much, but this deceivingly adorable snack is actually super gross! This snack was the only one I’ve seen that requires like, preparation, or actually doing something other than opening the package and eating it straight out of the box. For this snack, you had to pour 100ml of hot water over the blowfish after poking a hole in the top of its head. The wafer fell apart and all the stuff on the inside came out and turned the water from regular water into red bean and mochi porridge. The instructions said to mix in the wafer to the porridge, which was just the most soggy mothertrucker you can imagine, as you can see from the photo. I could barely take ONE bite, it was so awful. The wafer was like if you had put a piece of Wonder Bread in a glass of water, and I almost gagged swallowing it. WET BREAD IS ALWAYS BAD. This was just so unpleasant on so many levels, it’s absolutely a 1/10 for me.

Tenthly, we have Hime Sakura Kuzumochi:

I could have sworn this was the exact same mochi that I disliked from the March box, but it’s actually a different one, despite looking and tasting practically identical. This little bowl of mochi was so hard for me to even try, I knew I was going to hate it. And I did! The texture was like gelatinous slime, the flavor was super unpleasant, and it’s really a shame because the package it’s so flippin’ adorable. This is a solid 2/10 for me. I felt bad because there’s so much of it, and I just chucked the rest, so it feels like a waste.

Finally, we have ANOTHER mochi, the Azuki Warabi Mochi:

This mochi has whole red beans throughout its jiggly self, so I thought I’d like it more than the previous mochi, because who doesn’t love red beans? While it did end up being slightly better than its predecessor, it was still super icky and I couldn’t take more than two bites. The thing that made this one better was it was more firm than the previous one, so it wasn’t quite so snot-like. It tasted kind of like grass, which seems to be a weirdly common thing with the snacks I’ve tried. Maybe it’s a me problem. This earned itself a 3/10. Definitely not good but not the worst thing ever.

To top things off, we have the home good included in the box, the Sakura Owan Bowl:

In the previous two boxes, the items that came in it were both ceramic, so I was a little disappointed with this little plastic bowl. It looks pretty nice in the photo, but it feels kinda cheapy to me. The sakura shape on the bottom is super cute, at least, but otherwise it’s just a very small plastic bowl. The description says it’s dishwasher safe, but not microwave safe, which is interesting.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the tea! This month was Sakura Sencha Tea. I did not try it because I feel it’s unfair to review something I know I have never liked, but here’s what it looks like if you’re curious:

It is a bitter green tea, and I do not like green tea, and I hate bitter things, so. It is good I did not try it!

Overall, this box was not my favorite, but it did have a couple really great snacks! I just don’t like mochi as much as I thought I did, I guess. I think it depends on the kind. So, yeah, this box was pretty okay! All three Spring boxes were good enough for me to sign up for the next three months, so get ready for the June review! And have a great day!

-AMS

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Memorial Day 2021

May it be a happy and contemplative one for you. Congratulations, we made it to summer.

— JS

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Here, My Deer

Or, when you think it’s the neighbor dog in the yard, but it’s not.

— JS

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I Was Gonna Write Something About Politics But Then Remembered It Was a Saturday, and Also I Kinda Didn’t Want To, So Here’s a Rain-Dappled Bearded Iris Instead

I think it’s the right decision, don’t you? Mind you, I did snark about politics in my Twitter feed this morning, so if you really need a hit, you can go there. In the meantime, however: raindrops on flowers. Hard to beat that.

— JS

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Athena Scalzi

Fancy Toast

If there’s one thing I love, it’s fancy toast. Or rather, I love any food that is simple that you can elevate to make into something bougie (or boujee). Because I’m a bougie bitch.

In today’s segment of “making something that actually turned out right” we have Half Baked Harvest’s “Whipped Ricotta Toast with Marinated Tomatoes and Lemon Thyme Honey”. As you may remember, Half Baked Harvest is like my favorite food blogger, so I was really excited to make this fancy toast.

Though it looks really nice, it was actually super easy! I wouldn’t say the ingredients list is extraordinarily long or anything, but at first glance it can kind of look like a lot. Good news is that most of it is easy stuff like olive oil, garlic, basil, the usual suspects. There’s nothing in this recipe that’s really odd or that you have to search super hard for in the grocery store, which I really appreciate about it.

Basically all you have to do is throw the tomatoes, oil, garlic, and herbs in a bowl, then whip the ricotta (which takes like one minute in a food processor or blender), toast the bread in a skillet, and voila! The recipe says to use olive oil to toast the bread, but I used butter, because nothing is better than bread and butter.

Another thing I changed about the recipe is for the toast for the tomato mixture, I used a loaf of Portuguese corn bread (not like Jiffy cornbread).

The recipe also says that you can put berries on the toast alongside the cherry tomato mixture, but I thought that sounded… not good. So I just made a completely separate toast for the berries! And you know what I think goes better with berries than ricotta? Mascarpone!

So, the berry toast consisted of mascarpone, strawberries from my garden (my garden being basically just a strawberry patch because it will take over any given space it can), raspberries, blueberries, and the honey mixture from the original recipe! I did use sourdough for the berry toast, though.

Overall, both toasts were very easy to whip up, and both were extremely delicious! I highly recommend this recipe, and also recommend experimenting with it like I did, because you can’t really go wrong with creamy cheeses and fresh produce on toast.

If you try out this recipe, let me know how it goes and if you choose to do savory, (the tomatoes) sweet (the berries), or combine the two like the original recipe suggested! What else should I put atop my fancy toast? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

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New Books and ARCs, 5/28/21

We’re heading into the traditional “start of summer” this weekend (at least in the US), and what better way to start a long, lazy season than with a double stack of new books and ARCs? What here is calling to be your favorite read of the summer? Tell us in the comments.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Actions, as they say, have consequences. For Shadows of Hyperion, author Ryk E. Spoor gives us evidence of how true this saying really is, both for authors in their work, and for the characters and universes they create.

RYK E. SPOOR:

One of the major background events in the Arenaverse series, going all the way back to the first book Grand Central Arena and becoming progressively more important in Spheres of Influence and Challenges of the Deeps, is the Hyperion Project. Historically, the Hyperion Project was the work of a particular hobbyist SFG (Sim Focus Group) in the effectively post-scarcity civilization of 24th-century Earth. Using the advanced technology of that time, the Hyperion Project created a space station filled with virtual environments designed to do one thing: raise genetically-engineered constructs to be, as closely as possible, duplicates of fictional and mythological heroes. When a few of their creations figured out their worlds were fakes, this set in motion a series of events that led to the catastrophic destruction of the station, and ultimately to the imposition of laws that specifically forbid the kinds of things the Hyperion “researchers” did. 

The few surviving “Hyperions” – the creations of these experiments – are, in various ways, superhuman, but only mildly so in most cases. Given that the technology in existence allows anyone to biomod or cybernetically enhance themselves, it’s not that great an advantage. But in the Arena it turns out that it is far more; in Challenges of the Deeps, Marc C. DuQuesne discovers that the Arena gives to the Hyperions the abilities they had in their original, fictional worlds, at least within the (very very large) capabilities of the Arena. 

And this implies other possible problems, as one of the Hyperion survivors – Maria-Susanna – is a known murderer and clinically insane, and there are indications that – somehow – at least one of the AIs that served as one of the Hyperion villains might have found a way to evade the restrictions of the Arena against artificial intellects.

The Hyperion Project’s importance, and the number of interconnections of the various characters and events to that fifty-year-old mistake, had reached the point where I realized that they had to be confronted – and, to whatever extent possible, resolved. Hyperion’s existence, and the Arena’s unexpected and unexplained decision to provide the surviving Hyperions with the fictional abilities they had in their virtual worlds, has personal, tactical, and strategic implications of almost incalculable magnitude, much of it touching on one fearsome question: could someone – human or alien – duplicate the Hyperion Project, and thus be able to effectively make superhumans on demand?

Too many members of alien factions had clues to the existence and nature of Hyperion to allow this question to be ignored; technically humanity had made the decision not to allow any more Hyperions… but that decision was made before the realization that the project had produced beings capable of feats previously only see in fantastic fiction – psionic powers, magical spells, control of electricity, and more. Even if – as Ariane, Simon, and DuQuesne assume – there is no actual “magic” involved, the Arena’s “sufficiently advanced technology” might as well be magic.

So in Shadows of Hyperion, I began to bring together all of the disparate plot threads that connected the destiny of Humanity and the citizens of the Arena to Hyperion. This included the renegade AI named Doctor Alexander Fairchild, the consequences of the battles against the ur-Shadeweaver Vindatri and the invading Molothos, the ongoing effects of Sun Wu Kung’s spectacular victory in Challenge against the Vengeance, and what the Vengeance had learned in their protest against that victory, and the implied yet never previously demonstrated threat of Maria-Susanna… the literal “Mary-Sue” of one of the Hyperion designers.

At first, I have to admit I wasn’t sure how I was going to tie all of these things together. There were already other, not necessarily directly related, events ongoing that I couldn’t ignore (most obviously, the fact that while Dajzail of the Molothos might have agreed to establish peace with Humanity, plenty of his species would feel very differently and would consider it imperative to remove Dajzail as Leader), and there was so much about Hyperion that had only been hinted at; how could I address even half of these problems in one book?

After a couple of false starts, I realized that ultimately it was going to be a book about choices and consequences, and that the remnants of Hyperion would be a backdrop to all of the events, because Hyperion encapsulated all forms of good and bad decisions and consequences in one concentrated form. It was a horrific project, but one that, as DuQuesne had noted in an ironic quote, was “terrible, but great”. It offered Humanity a vast trump card… that would raise potentially deadly questions if revealed, and whose truth showed the monstrous side of Humanity’s nature. 

Thus, I wanted all the major characters – human and otherwise – to confront the essential question of how far will you go? What advantage is worth compromising your integrity, betraying your ideals? And when you’ve broken your honor or your word and come face to face with the monster in the mirror, what do you do to make it right? Can you make it right, and if not right, what can you do to at least begin to make up for what you have done? Alternatively, faced by someone who has done the unthinkable but who may not be entirely lost, how do you deal with them? Can you, or should you, forgive? And if forgiveness is withheld, is tolerance still possible?

There is… a lot of stuff in Shadows of Hyperion, a lot of action, new characters, new locations. Yet in some ways I think this one is far more focused on the people of the Arena… partially because the event that really pulls everything together is a murder mystery, in the middle of the greater politics of the Arena. In the end, it comes down to motive, means, and opportunity… and consequences. The loss of a single citizen of the Arena will lead to alliances, betrayal, chaos, hundreds of deaths… and – just possibly – a better, brighter future, while the actions of a single villain will threaten all of the Arena… and change a race of monsters for the better.

And readers may finally begin to get a glimpse of what awaits at the end of the series, if they make the correct deductions about certain things they will see. Certain things that are, themselves, indicative of consequences for actions so far in the past that we cannot easily imagine it.


Shadows of Hyperion: Amazon|Ring of Fire Press

Read an excerpt. Follow the author on Twitter or Facebook.

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A Friday Morning Musical Interlude

“Lodestar,” from Sarah Harmer, one of my two favorite Canadian musicians whose first name is Sarah. Enjoy.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Christian Klaver

In today’s Big Idea, author Christian Klaver invites us to take a look into the magical world he created for his book-loving daughter. Come along as he explains the inspiration behind Shadows Over London.

CHRISTIAN KLAVER:

The Big Idea: We needed more Narnia.

Shadows Over London was born out of reading to my daughter before bedtime. Katie was five or six at that time, and destined to become a voracious reader. (She’s just this month finished her Masters in Library Science.) I was just getting divorced at the time and had Katie every weekend, but not during the week, so we did chapter one of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or “The Lucy Book,” as she dubbed it, the first night. Then chapter two the second, but then she had to wait five days to get chapters three and four.

She loved the first and second installments, but this had a very short duration for two reasons:  Reason #1: It was really only the first three books. Try explaining to a child that age that the “Lucy Books” didn’t have Lucy in them after book three! She wanted to know why and I had no answer that didn’t fall flat. Even the second book: Prince Caspian has a long stretch without the main characters. (Don’t even get me started about the alternate order for these! That just makes it worse, in terms of storytelling.) Reason #2: while we were still in books 1-3, of which we had copies at both her mother’s house and mine, she couldn’t resist and read by herself during the week, so we finished those first three that first month.

So, the first chapter of Shadows Over London, complete with serene, crunchy snow and a Faerie King waiting underneath moonbeams slanting through darkened trees, all came from trying to write something that felt as magical as Narnia did. The beginning has remained pretty much unchanged but I tinkered with what happened next for quite a few years. While this went on, Katie kept growing up and the nature and nuance of the book and ideas grew with it. Justice, the main character started getting older and older, more capable, while her Father developed a dark, shameful past rooted in the world of Faerie. The other characters – a mishmash of family, mostly – developed, most of them with secrets and agendas of their own. At the same time, Justice also developed a love and penchant for all things nautical, the main skill she’d need to organize a defence against the Faerie. (Justice the Pirate!)

The Faerie took some very dark and sinister turns as the book progressed, too, culminating with a Faerie invasion into England that succeeds. Mostly because I found myself captivated with the idea of Justice struggling to free a Faerie-occupied London. It was the idea of life after a Faerie invasion, with the denizens living in the shadow of the Faerie, that felt new and exciting. As both Justice and the world grew larger and more sinister, I put a lot more onto poor Justice’s shoulders: The Faerie invasion, saving England (and the rest of the world), a homicidal mother, murderous siblings, darker and darker secrets for Father, a fleet that needed organizing and the ultimate, rag-tag Faerie crew, to name a few.

It’s a lot, but I think she’s up for it.


Shadows Over London: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website.

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Athena Scalzi

A Review And A Celebration

When I was younger, I read books like I would keel over and die if I ever stopped. When I say I was an avid reader, I mean I was back to back reading series after series, novel after novel, cranking ’em out like nobody’s business.

And then, when I was sixteen, I got a job at a bookstore, and I didn’t read another book until I was twenty-one. I’m not including books I read for school, by the way, because I definitely had to read things like 1984, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, classics like that. But what I mean is I didn’t read for fun. I didn’t enjoy reading books for school, they weren’t what I liked and I had to do assignments over them, so I kind of resent them, even if they aren’t necessarily bad books.

I didn’t enjoy reading for a very long time. Even if I found a book that I thought I’d like, I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because high school and college kind of killed reading for me. And working at a bookstore killed my love for them. Where once I found joy, now I only think of work and straightening shelves. Not that it was a bad job, because it definitely wasn’t, but walking around a bookstore just stresses me out now.

It wasn’t until I went on a trip to New Mexico for my 21st birthday (January 2020), and my mom suggested I bring a book, that I ended up reading a novel again. We were in the airport, passing by the bookstore, when I decided I should take her advice and look for something to entertain me on the plane.

The egregiously limited selection had a few familiar titles, and one familiar author. Joe Hill. The book, The Fireman, was huge, and I thought it was a bit risky to try and jumpstart my reading career with something so hefty. But I ended up loving it, and managed to read half of it on the way there and the way back. Then, when I returned home, I put it down and didn’t finish the other half until three months later.

It took me just a couple days to get through half of it, months to convince myself to finish it, and then another couple days to finish it. And it wasn’t that I had to convince myself to finish it because it was bad or I didn’t like it, in fact quite the opposite. It was amazing, and when I did actually sit down and read it, I tore through it. But the convincing was more about bringing myself to do something I was sure I didn’t like anymore.

The idea that I was actually having a good time doing something I’d grown to resent was weird to me. So I started to think, maybe with The Fireman would come my renewed love of reading, and I could finally get back to the thing I loved most as a kid.

Alas, my streak of not reading continued after the exception that was The Fireman.

Until last week!

My friend sent me a Tik Tok of a girl recommending a book called The Unhoneymooners, and her review made me want to read it. So I decided, “Dammit! I’m gonna read this book!” So I ordered it (from the bookstore I used to work at), picked it up, and I READ IT!

And when I say I read it, I mean I devoured it. I flew through it, and I loved it, and I loved reading it! This feeling, it’s so familiar, and so nice. The feeling of having completed a book, the feeling of having read a good, enjoyable story, the feeling of experiencing the highs and the lows and having real emotions over these fictional characters. I remember why I found it so addicting in the past.

The Unhoneymooners was so good, and originally this post was just going to be me recommending it. But I felt that this recommendation needed context, and I wanted to share my struggles with reading with you all.

I really feel like I’m ready to get back into reading. It’s something I want to do, now that it’s no longer something I have to do. Ever since I left school, I haven’t been forced to read anything, and ever so slowly that long lost desire has come back to me.

Finding The Unhoneymooners was total chance, and it’s not my usual genre. It’s a romantic comedy type, a realistic fiction/romance, and I’m totally shocked I’ve never read one before, considering it’s like my favorite type of movie. Turns out, it’s a great kind of book, too!

The Unhoneymooners is about a woman named Olive whose twin sister, Ami, is getting married and has won a free 10-day honeymoon to Hawaii. However, the bride and groom fall ill, and the nonrefundable trip to paradise is gifted by Ami to Olive. Unfortunately for Olive, the groom gifted the trip to his brother (and Olive’s nemesis), Ethan. The two agree to call a truce in order to snag the free trip, and slowly but surely the inability to tolerate each other melts away underneath the Hawaiian sun.

It’s a classic enemies-to-lovers, and I’m nothing if not a sucker for romance. It was fun and light-hearted, flirty and frisky, and maybe a little cheesy, but enjoyable! Olive is a great main character, and super relatable, which is something I never found to be the case in practically all the YA I read.

Overall, it was a fun and easy read, totally gives off “reading by the poolside” vibes. I highly recommend it if you like romantic comedies, witty banter, and one or two clichés. This book gave me all the feels, and I hope it does the same for you if you decide to give it a chance.

If you’re interested, you can check it out here!

Have you read it? Are there other romantic comedy books you think I should check out? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

-AMS

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The Unmasking Proceeds Apace

Here in Bradford, the local IGA, the Dollar General and the Rich gas station have taken down their “mask required” signs, and the staff in each have likewise demasked. At the Dollar General, there is a new sign saying that vaccinated people could come in unmasked but than non-vaccinated people should still be masked up unless they had a medical reason to do otherwise. This is of course ironic, because Bradford is the sort of place where the vaccinated were the ones wearing the masks and the unvaccinated were the ones who were not. I don’t imagine the unvaccinated here will suddenly change their behavior in these latter days of the pandemic.

The dropping of these signs may or may not be precipitate — Ohio still has a general order for mask wearing for the unvaccinated through June 3rd — but it seems extremely unlikely that if it is, anyone will come to enforce it, or that anyone here much cares. In Darke County, where half of Bradford lay, the most recent number of daily infections was one; for Miami County, where the other half of the village is platted, it was three. Neither county has recorded a COVID-related death in at least three weeks. The pandemic is not completely over here — there are still people in the hospital recovering — but it has certainly wound down.

What we will see, I suppose, is whether the end of the masking creates a spike of cases, and what that “spike” will be — if it’s a couple more daily cases than otherwise, or something rather more substantial. Or if nothing happens! As of today, 26% of Darke County is fully vaccinated and another ten percent were infected, recovered and presumably now have antibodies; Miami County is slightly higher in vaccination percentages and about equal in recovered infected. These are not, shall we say, great percentages for vaccinations and antibodies. This is what you get for being in Trump country. I’d prefer if people here don’t get sick. But a pretty large percentage of people here who could get a shot, but haven’t, are making it easier for the virus to stick around.

What did I do when I went to, respectively, the IGA, the Dollar General and the gas station? In each case I had my mask with me when I got out of my car to go the the store, but inasmuch as I’m vaccinated and I’m neither legally required to wear the mask nor are the businesses asking me to, I entered these businesses without it on. This was in keeping with my previous position on the matter, and after about the first three seconds in each case, it was fine and I didn’t think about it much further while I was in the store.

I’ll still be keeping a mask in my car and will wear it when asked (as again previously mentioned). But here in town, the mask-wearing moment is definitively over. Let’s hope it lasts, both in town and elsewhere.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: David Ebenbach

Blast off as author David Ebenbach embarks on his Big Idea by stressing one concept that helped him write How to Mars — It involves characters, and ideas, and the relative importance of each.

DAVID EBENBACH: 

Can I admit that ideas make me nervous? Especially big ones?

This isn’t to say that my fiction avoids ideas—my current novel, How to Mars, explores some pretty hefty notions. 

On one level, it’s about a dubious one-way mission to Mars and the reality show that funds it. It’s also about the first off-Earth pregnancy, which happens in spite of a mission rule against sex. (If this sounds far-fetched, check out Mars One, the real-world project that inspired me.) 

On another level, How to Mars is about how we’re meant to live our lives in a universe that offers us very little in the way of consistent and sensible instruction, and about how none of us can escape our past even if we travel millions of miles, and about how human nature is human nature no matter what planet we’re on.

So there are plenty of ideas there. But I had to more or less sneak up on them. Especially the deeper ones, like the nature of human nature and how to live life and so on. I couldn’t start the novel with them—not if I wanted the project to succeed.

I should mention that I have, in my metaphorical closet, seven unpublished novels, dating all the way back to college. None of these books will ever see the light of day, and they shouldn’t. They’re not good. And for the most part they’re not good because I went into most of them with a big idea right from the beginning. Can a person appear sane but not be? What would it look like to allegorically retell the story of Exodus through a person’s experience of grief? What if the United States of America was personified as a character? Et cetera. These may or may not be interesting ideas, but, because I started with them (as opposed to an image or a character or a situation), my books fell apart under their own considerable weight. Any reader could tell that I was straining to MAKE A POINT. Rather than writing in order to get to know the world of my novel or the people who lived in it, I was writing from an intellectual place. I was pontificating instead of storytelling. Thinking instead of fictioning.

For me, the characters and the story have to come first. I have to focus on those elements and just trust that, as long as I don’t strain too hard and ruin things, the book will naturally be shaped by ideas that intrigue me. This is what I meant by sneaking up on ideas. 

For example, as I said above, I started writing How to Mars because of the Mars One Project, a crazy (and possibly fraudulent) plan to send people on a one-way trip to Mars, funded by a reality TV show, and with one rule: nobody was allowed to have sex on Mars. A project like this raises questions. Like, who would ever volunteer for that kind of a mission? Who would want to leave Earth forever? Well, apparently lots of folks—I watched many videos from applicants for the Mars One Project, and it looked like there was no shortage of people ready to skip out on this planet. It was the watching of those videos that launched my own book—not by giving me an idea but by suggesting characters. Above all, Josh and Jenny, the parents of the Martian baby-to-be, but several others, too. People who all had their own reasons to be on Mars, and reasons to not be on Earth. I got to know this cast of characters, page by page—and not intellectually but through their voices and desires and very tangible actions. The same way you get to know real people.

And the trust paid off, I think. Once I understood my characters, I could see that their collective story did raise some ideas that I cared about. All of these folks were pursuing something elusive or trying to leave something behind, and all of them were hoping that Mars would change everything about who they were. The broader phenomenon of human nature—the same on every planet, I think—was on display. Questions about the way to best live life naturally arose. 

Ideas: second, not first.


How To Mars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Smudge and Charlie, 5/25/21

Just in case you were wondering what was up with them.

There, now you’re all caught up.

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sammy H. K. Smith

There’s some heavy stuff going on in Sammy H.K. Smith’s Big Idea for her novel Anna, and while it’s a lot to take in, Smith explains how this particular journey is critical for her novel, and the characters within.

(Content warning for issues of sexual and mental abuse)

SAMMY H. K. SMITH:

It was another mandatory training day, and yet also the start of something more. 

…’Fight, flight, friend, freeze, flop. These are the five ‘F’s that are instigated by the amygdala side of the brain as a means to protect itself. Which do you think your lizard brain would choose to survive?’

Those words from a renowned sexualised trauma specialist piqued my interest and The Big Idea was born.

What if I concentrated on the journey of a sexual abuse survivor and how the abuse affects their every choice and future relationships as they work through the trauma? 

I had just started my dystopian novel at this point, and couldn’t pinpoint exactly what was needed. I had the idea, the storyline plotted out but something was missing.

Working within the field of domestic and sexual abuse, I don’t need to tell you that rape is not pretty. When the physical scars are long healed, the mental ones remain. 

That lecture brought it together and I knew then what I needed. I knew that I wanted to write a story that portrayed the effects of the crimes on a survivor in an honest and stark way, but it was something that needed handling with care. It’s not a glib plot point to be used as a way to explain away a character’s (potentially) unusual reactions; and often in SF&F we’ve seen the antagonist rape and abuse their victims – but what of those victims? Who tells their stories? 

My novel tells the story of one character who is physically, psychologically, and sexually abused and how she deals with the aftermath. Her PTSD forms and is laid out on the pages for us to experience, and hopefully understand and empathise with. 

I stress, I’ve not used any of my survivors’ stories to form the events in Anna because to do so would be a gross violation of their privacy and trust, but nearly every person I’ve worked with has expressed the same trail of thoughts ‘what did I do to deserve this?’ ‘I should have fought harder’ ‘I shouldn’t have made them angry’. 

By writing my protagonist from the first person point of view, I’ve brought the reader into her innermost thoughts and reactions, allowing a glimpse into the mindset of this strong young woman as she rebuilds and takes back control and bodily autonomy.

It’s not an easy read, and believe me it was awful and uncomfortable to write some of the scenes so starkly, but I make no apologies for that. I believe that if a writer uses sexual violence in their work then they have a moral duty to ‘own’ what they’re writing and make it authentic in its true, raw form, and show us how this offence affects the character. It’s not about titillation but honesty. It’s a grim and evil crime, with devastating consequences.

But it’s not without hope and strength. The journey to recovery can be long and difficult and sometimes the behaviour of a character can puzzle and frustrate us. My character shows us just how strong she can be even when dealing with everything she has suffered, and that you can face your fears – however long it might take.

I’m not the arbitrator of all experiences and reactions of abuse, but I hope to show one woman’s struggle with PTSD and the relationships she forms along the way. 

Dystopian and speculative literature gives a great base for exploring the ‘what-ifs’ and gave me the platform that allowed me to search into the darker side of human nature. What would happen if society collapsed and there was no-one to trust, to rely on, and no laws to protect the vulnerable? I set the novel in a near-future dystopia in the aftermath of several wars when society has fallen and morality considered a luxury. 

Anna is the story of one woman’s fight and journey through which thousands suffer daily.

Remember: I believe you. You are not alone. You are stronger than you know and this was not your fault.


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

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

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Meanwhile, Cows

I’m easing back into the habit of walking regularly in the early evening, and one of the things I enjoy as I go for my walks is passing by these neighbors. They are often curious about me, which makes sense as statistically speaking, where I live it’s far more likely to see a cow walking about than an actual human. This is, literally, a bucolic scene. It’s nice to have, and also a decent way to head into the night.

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Athena Scalzi

A Baked Good Of Mine Actually Turned Out!

One of my favorite food bloggers posted a recipe for cookies recently, and they looked so incredibly delicious I was persuaded to click on it. It was a recipe for ginger sandwich cookies. As someone who likes gingersnaps, I was intrigued. It was even more intriguing, though, to find out that these were soft ginger cookies (unlike gingersnaps, which if you haven’t had them, are much harder), and the filling is not just regular ol’ buttercream frosting, but marshmallow fluff buttercream.

Needless to say, I was totally sold on making these cookies.

(Image courtesy of I Am Baker)

Gathering the ingredients for them was surprisingly easy, as there’s not really many ingredients that stand out as one of those, “oh I definitely need to go to the store for that”. I had most of what’s listed already on hand. The only items I needed to buy were almond extract, a jar of marshmallow fluff, and butter, but that’s only because I was out, not because it’s an uncommon ingredient that I don’t usually have on hand.

As if the ingredients weren’t simple enough, throwing these together was a total breeze, which is something I really appreciate in a recipe. I hate when there are a ton of steps, and they’re all complicated, and there’s so much that I could mess up. These cookies were without a doubt some of the easiest I’ve ever made, despite how impressive they look!

I had absolutely no hitches with this recipe, nothing that I messed up on and had to fix. This is in part because instead of setting my oven to 350, I tried baking these cookies at 340 (if you missed my last culinary adventure, turns out my oven gets too hot and that’s why I kept overcooking everything). 340 ended up being the perfect number, and the cookies came out amazing.

After whipping up the frosting, I just spread some on the underside of the cookies and smushed another one on top, making the perfect little sandwiches. Let me tell you now, these are pretty damn rich. Between the super sweet marshmallowy frosting and the two sugar coated cookies, it’s a lot, but it’s absolutely delicious!

Usually when I make cookies, I get more or less than the yield that the recipe says. For these, it says it’ll make 12 sandwiches, and it was literally right on the money! I managed to perfectly get 24 evenly sized balls of dough (despite having snuck a bite of dough while mixing everything). The only problem (and I wouldn’t even actually call it a problem) is that I had SO much frosting left over. I generously applied frosting to each cookie sandwich, but still had a big bowl leftover.

So I just made another batch of cookies and used the frosting for those! If you make these, you could absolutely half the frosting recipe and have a perfect amount for one batch.

I was going to take pictures, but they were gone before I got around to it. However, they came out looking exactly like the photo in the post, so just know that the pictures shown are accurate representations of what you can expect to get when you make them.

Overall, I highly highly recommend making these cookies! You will not regret it, they are delicious, easy, and look so pretty! These are honestly some of the best things I’ve ever made, and I can guarantee they’ll be a hit with whoever you share them with.

Do you like ginger snaps? Do you like marshmallow fluff as much as me? Let me know if you try your hand at making these, and have a great day!

-AMS

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From the Archives: My Review of Cabin Boy

For reasons passing understanding, my 1994 film review of Cabin Boy has come up a number of times on the Internet recently (in no small part thanks to this Cabin Boy-related podcast). I thought the review was lost to the sands of time, but it turns out I had it in my archives all along, and so I am pleased to exhume it, in the interest of future Cabin Boy scholarship. Also, it may have the greatest lede graf of any of my reviews. Enjoy.

Cabin Boy

Yearn to experience botulism, but just can’t bring yourself to open a tin of spoiled meat? Try ‘Cabin Boy’ instead. This movie gives you all the hallucinatory, nonsequential and senseless perceptions that come as a byproduct of a severe bacterial infection, without the chance that you might actually, you know, die.

I enjoyed the heck out of myself watching this film. But this is only because I have an admitted weakness for irredeemably bad films and I had adequate warning about this film, which opened in Fresno several weeks after it opened everywhere else on the planet.

Professional man-child Chris Elliott stars as Nathanial Maywhether, who starts the film wearing a powdered wig and knee pants. Nathanial is about to graduate from the Stephenwood Finishing School for Young Men (where all of the students seem to be well on their way to middle age). Nathanial is an obnoxious fop, rude and well in need of an attitude adjustment.

Nathanial’s father has booked him passage home on a luxury liner, but on the way to the ship, Nathanial takes a wrong turn. He ends up on the deck of ‘The Filthy Whore,’ a creaky fishing vessel populated by scurvy scum. ‘All we know is fishing and stinking,’ one of them tells Nathanial. ‘Mostly the latter.’

Nathanial persuades Kenny, the brain-dead cabin boy (Andy Richter, better known as Conan O’Brien’s sidekick), to plot a course for Hawaii. But then a storm comes, and he and the crew find themselves in the middle of Hell’s Bucket, a dead spot in the Pacific (but in reality an intentionally obvious soundstage).

It is here that Nathanial has most of his adventures, meeting a half-man, half-shark named Chocki (Russ Tamblyn), a 50-foot appliance salesman (Mike Starr), and a blue-skinned, six-armed woman named Calli (Ann Magnuson), who ‘cleans his pipes,’ if you know what I mean.

None of this makes any sense at all. Even the set design makes no sense; ‘The Filthy Whore’ and its crew come straight out of a ‘B’ pirate flick, yet it has a microwave on board, and the crew talks about Chocki’s problems being both fish and man from a chromosomal point of view.

It’s the work of two men, Elliott and writer/director Adam Resnick, who vented their inner demons on the screen and somehow persuaded Disney of all folks to pay for it.

Way to go, fellas. I hope you had fun. No one’s ever going to let you near a camera again.

–JS

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Athena Scalzi

Sorting Through Ten Years Of Stuff

For pretty much most of my life, my room has been a mess. I’ve always considered myself someone who is a bit disorganized and a little messy, but it’s never really been noticeable because I’ve lived with my parents my whole life, and my mom always picked up after me before I’d even start to notice that I’d made a mess at all. Now that I’m not a child, and I treat my mom like a maid way less, I’ve noticed that maybe I don’t have all my eggs in my basket.

My room has never been, like, dirty. There’s no dishes piled up, no food rotting, and there certainly aren’t bugs and muddy shoes in the corners. It’s not filthy or anything. It’s always just been very full of stuff. Mostly clothes. In fact, more often than not, the thing preventing my bed (and floor) from being seen is stacks of clean, folded clothes that my mom has laundered for me and left for me to put away. But I never put them away, so they just end up hanging out.

For years, my room has been a point of stress for me. I don’t enjoy being in my room, I never hang out in my room, and I never showed friends that came over my room. Every time I looked at it, I would just feel overwhelming stress and anxiety. I wanted it clean. But how could I go about cleaning it? It seemed like so much work, and even thinking about it was too much effort.

The only thing I’ve used my room for for the past few years is getting dressed in it, and sometimes sleeping in it (I actually sleep on the couch a lot because I can’t be bothered to move everything off my bed so I can sleep on it).

So, needless to say, it was time for a change. But, like I said, the very idea of change was so incredibly overwhelming, I almost would’ve rather continued to suffer than even begin to attempt to clean it.

Basically, my issue is that I have too many clothes. My closet and two dressers were completely packed with clothes, and everything that was laying around my room was clothes that I just didn’t have space for. I physically could not put away my clothes, they had nowhere to go.

So, why not just get rid of some clothes? Certainly I don’t need that many when I really only wear like, the same five outfits over and over again, right? I seem to have a bit of hoarding tendencies, though. I can’t seem to let go of stuff. I want my stuff. I bought it because I like it, so why would I get rid of it? What if I get rid of it and then miss it? I can’t bear to let go of things, even if I didn’t remember I had it until I saw it.

I knew that cleaning my room would be hard for me, and push me out of comfort zone, but I truly felt it had to be done. I can’t continue living life with my own bedroom making me miserable everyday. So, I took to the closet. Without a doubt, the closet is the biggest issue. This is because for the past decade, everything I don’t need has been shoved in there. Everything I’ve decided to just put out of sight and get back to later, now bursting out into the rest of my room.

To prepare, I went to the store and bought the entire supply of extra large totes. They had six, which seemed like plenty, if not one or two too many. However, I ended up filling every single tote to the brim by emptying my entire closet. Pajamas I wore in fourth grade, board games and harmonicas from my childhood, friendship bracelets from summer camp, art supplies from every year of elementary school, con badges through the ages, so much fucking shit.

I filled two big trash bags with things I could actually bring myself to toss (like the boxes of crayons from third grade), and then put all the totes in the basement. Currently, my closet now stands empty for the first time in my life since we moved in in 2001.

It took a few hours, but I was on a grind and managed to get through the hardest part. Then, I took a break, and now it’s been two days since I’ve touched it. I have a very bad habit of starting something, taking a break, and then never returning to it. It’s a lifelong problem, and I knew that if I tried it with my room, I’d do the same thing, but I did it anyways. Now I have to re-motivate myself to get back to it.

I keep telling myself the hardest part is already over, so it should be easy to get back to working on it, but good lord I do not want to continue working on it. I just want it to be done. But it takes longer than a couple hours to undo years of disorganization and neglect.

My long term plan is to paint, put in new carpet, get a bed frame, and get new furniture. Why so much change, you may ask? Well, when I was eleven, my parents got the entire house painted and carpeted, and I got to pick whatever colors I wanted for my room. Up until then, I’d had white carpet and white walls, and I was eleven, so obviously I picked purple carpet and black and pink walls. Over a decade later, I am so beyond sick of it.

This time, I’m thinking of going for light blue walls with a light grey accent wall, light grey carpet, white baseboard, and white dressers. But we’ll see what I actually end up deciding on after I manage to finish cleaning my room.

Definitely a bit of a first world problem here, but it’s exhausting having so many material possessions, I don’t want this many! But it’s almost painful for me to not have stuff. I can’t get rid of it, though simultaneously I feel desperate to be rid of it, y’know?

Anyways, taking care of my room is something that is a long time coming. As difficult as it is, I wish I’d done it sooner. I’ve literally been unhappy with it for years. Like how do I do that to myself?! How do I let my own room be a problem in my life? No longer, I say!

I thought about taking before and after pictures, but I don’t think I could stand to let anyone see how bad it was. It was a depression den. I don’t want people to see that, you know? I want my room to look nice and neat and pretty, not be a visual representation of my declining mental health.

So, yeah, the end of this post is me vowing to myself and to y’all that as soon as I submit this post, I’m going to go work on my room! I have to get through it! It’s almost done. I can do this. Right? Right.

-AMS

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Excuse Me, Have You Been Judged By a Cat Today?

If the answer is “no,” then you’re in luck, Sugar is here to judge you. Harshly. You’re welcome.

I nearly forgot to update today but then remembered I didn’t update last Wednesday either, and that was because my daughter had an unexpected medical complication that ended up with her staying overnight in a hospital. I didn’t want any of you to worry that a midweek non-update heralded something similarly grim. Everything’s fine!

Well, except Sugar is very clearly disappointed in you. But really, that’s on you, isn’t it.

— JS

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Athena Scalzi

A Week Without Tonsils

So, I got my tonsils out last week. A procedure which many of you know went a little sideways, but everything turned out okay in the end! Anyways, now that it’s been several days of relaxing and healing, I’m here to report on how recovery is going.

Before we get into it, I am someone who believes that everyone has a type of pain that is more unbearable to them than any other kind. I know a lot of people who get terrible migraines, and they have mentioned they would rather deal with anything else other than headaches. For a lot of people, it’s likely that stomach aches are probably the worst kind of pain to them. For me, it’s a sore throat. There is nothing in this world more awful to me than a sore throat. Ear pain is a close second, though (I got swimmer’s ear a lot as a kid).

That’s the biggest reason I was hesitant to get my tonsils out. I would’ve preferred any other kind of surgery. Knee surgery, wrist surgery, a nose job, I don’t care what, I would’ve taken anything over throat surgery. I was totally terrified, but utterly unsurprised when my surgeon told me that this would be the worst sore throat I’d ever had in my life. It would be worse than strep, and it would probably be nothing like I’ve ever really felt before.

Well, she certainly wasn’t wrong. It’s been really rough. She told me it’d be a miserable recovery, and it’s been unpleasant at the very least. One of my favorite things to do in life is eat food! You know how much that’s been impacted by throat surgery? Eating hurts so much. Just existing hurts. But trying to eat or drink on top of that? Rough.

The weirdest part of this pain is that it’s so different from what I imagined. When I think of a sore throat, like from a cold, I think of, like, scratchiness. Uncomfortable irritation and being hoarse, I think. It’s hard to describe, but this isn’t scratchy. It’s like I’ve completely overused a muscle, and every time it constricts or moves it’s like trying to use something that’s broken, or using a muscle that’s been hyperextended and worn out.

It’s such a unique pain, and I hate every bit of it. I just want it to be over already. Like jeez, talk about annoying.

I got told to take Tylenol and Ibuprofen, but was also given Percocet in case the pain was too much. The first few days wasn’t so bad, I guess, but yesterday was the worst it’s ever been, so I took my first Percocet. This was the first time in my life I’d ever taken prescription pain medication or a narcotic or anything, and let me tell you, it was a wild ride.

Did it help with the pain? Yeah. Did it make everything else about my entire body feel weird as hell? Also yeah. I was burning up, sweating, my limbs felt funny, and my head felt even weirder. I was woozy and a little sick feeling. I ended up taking a nap for a couple hours. Admittedly, my throat felt a lot better, but I think I’ll just stick with extra strength Tylenol four times a day.

Besides the pain, it’s been really annoying to hear my voice the past week. I sound quite different currently. My voice is, like, too thick, or I sound congested? It sounds like there’s phlegm in my throat, but there’s no way I’m gonna try to clear my throat or start coughing if I can help it (don’t wanna cough up the scabs, after all). My voice is deeper, which isn’t exactly a bad thing since I’m pretty nasally normally, but it is weird to hear. And I haven’t been able to sing in the car! Tragic.

Anyways, I’ve been doing okay, switching between copious amounts of ice cream and copious amounts of Jell-O, but I wanted to thank you all for your kind words and consideration the past week. All your well wishes truly mean the world to me, and I appreciate all of your support in this rather rough time! Thanks for listening to me whine a bit more, it helps with the pain more than this damn Ibuprofen.

-AMS

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