Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Paul Michael Anderson

Assassination isn’t always personal, sometimes it’s just business. And sometimes the people carrying out the business are from a different dimension and are dressed like nightmarish monsters. It’s all part of the gig in author Paul Michael Anderson’s newest sci-fi/horror novel, Standalone.

PAUL MICHAEL ANDERSON:

At the kick-off of what I’ve been calling The Standalone Promo Tour™ to my wife, writer Adam Cesare featured my new book on his Project: Black T-Shirt YouTube channel. Describing my slasher novella, he said, “Now, it’s being marketed as a horror book, it’s being marketed to horror people, but I would call this, without a doubt, a science fiction book.”

You know that meme where, in one frame, the stick figure holds up a finger as if to go, “hey, wait a minute,” but in the next frame, the finger wilts as the person reconsiders saying anything? That was me.  I couldn’t fault Adam for saying that about Standalone in a video where he gives a glowing recommendation for it. Adam, who’s written a slasher or two of his own (including the just-released Clown in the Cornfield from Harper Teen, which you should go pick up post-haste, and am I allowed to recommend someone else’s book while trying to sell my own? I hope so!), knows the genre, and Standalone…yeah, it has more than slight science-fiction undertones.  

See, Standalone is about a group of people who, once a month, jump from the Center of the Multiverse into various versions of Earth and, disguised as that location’s urban legend (think, like, Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th), kill preselected groups of people with the purpose of maintaining the energy balance of all existence. However, something is now stalking them and it’s up to the sole survivor to figure out a solution before the Multiverse winks out.  

So, yes, it’s not a straight forward horror story. It’s also not a stereotypical science fiction story, either.  It’s a weird blend.  

But, thinking it over, I’m not particularly surprised by this, for two reasons. One, I had to think of some way of making mass murderers both evil and convincingly empathetic, as well as doing the same with the people hunting the murderers, and the only way my head could think to do that was through using blue-collar guys jumping multiple-dimensions, like Sliders and Ghostbusters by way of Scream.  

And, two, my head worked the problem out that way because of Harlan Ellison and Jack Ketchum.  

I have on the top shelf of one of my book cases a memorial, for lack of a better term, to both writers, collecting their hardcovers and paperbacks in one place, separate from my otherwise anally-organized books (genre, then last name, then chronological, and, yes, it’s exhausting). These two writers shaped the kind of writer I eventually became more than any other—more than Stephen King or William Gibson or Shirley Jackson or Octavia Butler.  

Jack Ketchum, the writer of such novels as Off Season, The Girl Next Door, Red, and (with director Lucky McKee) The Secret Life of Souls, was known for writing brutal, heart-wrenching horror of unflinching violence but also unwavering pathos. His work hurt the mind and the heart. And I don’t need to, on this website, go over Harlan Ellison’s accolades, do I? The infamous grump was at the forefront of science fiction’s new wave and, even afterwards, remained, reluctantly, its squawking Jiminy Cricket. 

Both writers affected me deeply, shaping not just the way a story could be told, but the motivations of the people within that story, and how hard the emotional truth can be not just to get to, but to put into words. It’s not unkind to say that these writers were polar opposites of each other in terms of content, mode, and execution. Ketchum, predominately a novelist, could never have come up with something as fantastic as “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” or “Shatterday”—but Ellison, who preferred to work in the short form, could never have written the heart-wrenching gray areas of Red or I’m Not Sam.

It’s in the middle of both writers and their respective oeuvre that I find myself more and more often, recently, none more so than with Standalone, which can be taken as something akin to a marriage between the two writers. I sometimes wish I was more out-and-out weird like, Harlan or Jeff VanderMeer or Kelly Link, or more hardboiled like Jack or Eddie Little or Jim Thompson, but the stories I tend to like to tell—and the stories that tend to resonate with readers—are those that shimmy between the two extremes.  It’s a tight-rope act, honestly. Will SF fans turn out for a horror story, and vice versa?  It’s cliché to say people should read widely, but the fact that we still have to tell others to do this lets you know how often people actually listen to that advice.

Standalone at the end of the day is about a single person who left behind their life and chose to commit extreme violence in a variety of realities, all in the hopes that it would somehow protect the people they left behind. Boiling away all the extra stuff—the multitude of genres, the punchy verbs I write to try and get your attention—Standalone is about that and nothing more.  

Hopefully, Harlan and Jack would’ve been happy with that. 

—-

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

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

 

Categories
Athena Scalzi

Dude, That’s My Jam: A Review of Four Fancy Jams

Here at the Scalzi Compound, we are big believers in jam. My mom and I just made homemade peach jam two nights ago, and my dad is a frequent buyer of “Frog Jam” at a local place, and it’s a general rule we don’t buy cheap jam in this household. Maybe it’s a little bougie, but we just really believe jam is one of those things worth paying a little more for, if and when you’re able.

So when I got an advertisement for Brin’s Jam & Marmalade and perused their website, I knew I had to get some. The advertisement (which I’m not entirely sure why I got in the first place…) was for banana jam, something I’ve never heard of, or even imagined was possible, which made me curious enough to click on their site. Other than their banana jam, I was also captivated by their cherry chai jam. If there’s one thing I love, it’s chai; so the idea of it being encapsulated in a jam form was definitely intriguing.

I consulted with my father about buying the jams and we decided to do a piece over it! So we bought the banana, cherry chai, strawberry lemongrass, and lemon saffron. We were originally only going to do the first three, but we decided we might as well get a fourth so we could get free shipping.

So I bought some fresh French country bread as well as sourdough from a local bakery that I used to work at, and my mom toasted some slices in a pan with butter, and we each tried the four jams. So without further ado, here’s our reviews of each of the jams!

Since the banana jam is what originally caught my attention, we’ll start with the reviews of that one. My dad said it tasted like bananas and honey, while my mom said it really just tasted like banana puree, and both of them liked it, my dad gave it a 7.5/10, while my mom settled on 6/10. Meanwhile, I absolutely loved it, it tastes like sweet banana bread. I could honestly eat it with a spoon, I thought it was so good that I gave it a 10/10. It exceeded my expectations. We all agreed it would be great on a peanut butter, banana, honey sandwich. It almost had an applesauce-like texture, definitely a more runny jam, but that makes it super duper easy to spread! Overall, the combined family score is 8/10.

Next up was the cherry chai! Upon opening it, it smelled like a candle, and you could almost mistake it for a jar of maraschino cherries with how chunky it is. In contrast to the smooth banana jam, the cherry chai was so packed full of cherry halves and pieces that you could pick out a whole cherry from it. While my mom was a big fan of the chunkiness, my dad said he would’ve liked a smoother consistency (however, when you spread it on bread, it does smooth out a bit).

The consensus on this one was also positive! My dad said it made him think of when you’re a kid and you smell a candle, and then you end up tasting the wax, this is what every kid wishes the wax had actually tasted like, instead of, well, wax. My mom said it tasted way better than she thought it would. Originally, she was skeptical of it and was pretty sure she wouldn’t enjoy it, but she ended up giving it an 8/10, while my dad gave it a 7.5/10 as well. As for me, I thought it was really pleasant, it tasted a little tart, but also tasted like a coffeehouse, soft aromatic spices and warmth underneath the fruitiness. It was an 8.5/10 for me, making the family score another 8/10.

Third on the list is the strawberry lemongrass. Unlike the previous two, this one was not quite as hard a hitter. It kind of smells like strawberry jam, but if the jam had body odor, which my dad said was an exactly correct description. As for taste, it was completely ordinary in my opinion, I didn’t even really taste any lemongrass, though my dad claims it was too lemongrassy (though he mentioned the aftertaste is better), and my mom agrees it’s really just a weak strawberry jam. My dad said that if we had no other jam in the house, he would use it for a sandwich, but it’s not great. My dad gave it a 5.5/10, while my mom only gave it a 5/10, and I gave it a 6/10, making the total family score a whopping 5.5/10.

And last (and certainly least, in my opinion) is the lemon saffron. To me, it smelled like paint thinner, while my dad said it was more of a household cleaner scent. When we ate it, I couldn’t help but make a face, it was awful. I almost couldn’t take another bite, it was so disgusting. Meanwhile, my parents said it would be good if we had it on something other than buttered bread, like it would go well on a charcuterie board with prosciutto or some kind of cheese, but I don’t think I’d like it even then.

My parents gave it a low score, my dad with a 5/10 and my mom with a 3/10, but said that its potential score — were it to be paired with the correct ingredients — would be a 7/10, or in my mom’s case, a 7.5. However, I give it a flat 2/10. It is consumable, but just barely, and I certainly will not partake again. The family score on this is inconclusive, due to the potential high scores it could have.

Overall, the jams were good! I’m sure some of Brin’s other flavors are enjoyable, as well, but I’m glad we got the ones we got. If you want to try one or two of them but aren’t ready to commit, they do offer five dollar mini versions, whereas the full size ones are ten. I definitely recommend the banana jam and the cherry chai (but especially the banana).

I’m off for the rest of the weekend. Have a great day!

-AMS

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Elaine Mongeon and Glen Zipper

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy, and a lot of the time, it’s easier just to do nothing. But when you decide to make a stand, are you willing to risk everything, even your life, for the cause? Authors Glen Zipper and Elaine Mongeon explore this idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good in their new novel, Devastation Class.

GLEN ZIPPER & ELAINE MONGEON:

The creative process, whatever form of expression it may take, can sometimes feel like it requires the deepest of Faustian bargains. Once you’re into it, you get to experience one of the most freeing, joyous, and exhilarating things life has to offer, but in order to get it you have to give enough of yourself to break through a six-foot thick brick wall and then climb Mount Everest. Barefoot. While juggling ferrets. And not nice ferrets. Surly ones.*

The wall can take many forms, but most of the bricks are usually self-doubt. Is my idea good enough? Am I good enough to make that idea a reality? And even if it is a good idea, and even if I am good enough to make my idea a reality, am I brave enough to share my idea with the world and risk the rejection of people not liking it? 

Everest (and the bare feet and the surly ferrets) are the metaphor for all those things big and small that stand in the way of making the commitment, day in and day out, to pulling that idea from your soul and bringing it into reality. The boss who says, “Umm, yeah… I’m gonna need you to come on in on Saturday.” Waiting for the inevitable fight when your partner says nothing is wrong, but one-hundred percent something is very wrong and seventy-five percent you’re going to be in a lot of trouble for it. The seemingly endless stream of bad news about the state of the world flooding into your eyeballs from social media (2020 please end now – thanks! Signed, Everyone). Or, most of all, the times where every one of your creative instincts seems wrong or just plain stupid.  

So how do you do it? Where can you accumulate enough speed and momentum to topple that wall, and where do you find the stamina to climb Everest, never stopping until you reach its pinnacle? For us, it’s all about that big idea. An idea that haunts us like a ghost if we dare entertain the thought of letting it be forgotten. An idea that operates like a rocket booster with an inexhaustible source of creative fuel. And an idea that helps us ask questions that deserve answers, even if we ultimately don’t find all (or any) of them. 

With Devastation Class that big idea was about being out of control, or, more specifically, how young women and men have to navigate a world with huge, increasingly existential stakes while older generations continually marginalize them or otherwise try to mute their voices.  The feeling of not being in control of your own destiny is, of course, familiar to any teenager, but the implications of their not being in control of their destinies are becoming exponentially more dire with each turn of the calendar page. 

Right now, today, those in power are making decisions that will affect generations to come. The pandemic. Climate change. Racial equality. Social justice. Why and how does it make sense that older generations, the ones with all the silver at their temples, get to make decisions about such critical issues that they are really just the temporary caretakers of? It is the generations standing behind them that are going to inherit and live with the consequences of these decisions. So shouldn’t Generation Z and soon Generation Alpha have a voice in where we are going and how we get there? And if their voice is not heard, what should they do to make sure that it is heard – even if that means challenging a norm, breaking a rule, or perhaps even breaking a law? When does the means justify the ends and when does it not? 

For us, one of our first memories of storytelling that asked some of these questions was the 1981 film Taps directed by Harold Becker – which also happens to be memorable for boasting a cast of then little-known young actors, such as Tom Cruise, Sean Penn, Timothy Hutton, and Giancarlo Esposito – all of whom would go on to enjoy much success. Taps, like Devastation Class, centers on a group of military cadets, but rather than being confronted with the life and death stakes of an alien invasion, they are confronted with the end of an institution that they love and believe in – namely a more than century-old military academy that represents an ideal that is inextricable from their identities. Instead of accepting the demise of the institution as well as the ideals it embodies to make way for the empty fate of yet another row of unnecessary condominiums, the cadets seize the campus, lock out the construction crews, and eventually have to fight the actual military to defend their position. 

If you haven’t seen Taps you should, so we’ll avoid wading into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say you will absolutely question whether what the cadets were trying to protect justified the extraordinary means they took to protect it. If they would have done nothing, if they would have just let it go, what would have happened? Sure, they may have felt disloyal to an ideal, and they might have felt shame for not trying to protect that ideal, but would life have gone on without any horrible practical consequence? Our guess is your answer will be “It probably would have.” 

The question we wanted to ask with Devastation Class was what happens when you reach the same crossroads as did the cadets in Taps, but, rather than it being a crossroads of the murky abstraction of loyalty to an ideal, it is a crossroads of true life and death? Even more specifically, what happens when you make a life-and-death choice you believe in your heart and gut is right, but making that choice also requires you to violate the most fundamental rules you are expected to obey? 

The main characters of Devastation Class, JD Marshall and Vivien Nixon, and their cadet comrades are faced with exactly this sort of situation when an alien invasion force, the Kastazi, threatens to destroy them and annihilate human civilization itself. If they do nothing, the cadets are almost positive they and everyone they love will perish. However, if they do take action there is still no guarantee they’ll survive, and, even if they do, they will instantly and forever become criminals and pariahs. 

How does someone make an impossible choice to sacrifice their future like that? Even if they feel like they have to make that choice, how do they overcome their fears and their learned, habituated instinct to “obey” those in power and their rules? And, most importantly, how do they deal with the domino effect of all the consequences of their choice – many of which they could never possibly have seen coming?

Today all you have to do is walk out your door to see choices like this being made in the real world. Whether it’s protesting for racial and social justice, or in any way espousing a just cause or view that is abhorrent to those in power, young women and men are making choices at their own risk and peril to do what they know in their hearts and guts is right. The critical question eventually becomes what do they do when the result they are trying to achieve requires taking action that could truly sacrifice their own well-being and future for the greater good of those who will continue to suffer if they don’t take action? 

Devastation Class, wrapped in the allegory of a mind-bendy YA space opera adventure, tries to ask some of these questions. While we don’t presume to offer any definitive answers other than perhaps some insight into our own POVs, the big idea wasn’t about finding any one answer. It was about asking the right questions and using the stakes imbued within those questions to drive our creative process.

And, let’s be honest… Big idea aside, our creative process was also motivated by wanting to blow stuff up in space. Like a lot of stuff. So we had that going for us. Which was nice.  

* No ferrets were harmed in the writing of this Big Idea. 

—-

Devastation Class: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Bookshop 

Read an excerpt. Visit their website. Follow the Devastation Class Instagram. Follow Elaine on Twitter and Instagram and Glen on Twitter and Instagram.

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Dan Hanks

There’s a line, made famous from the movies, that Dan Hanks is thinking about with his newest novel, Captain Moxley and the Ember of the Empire. The problem is… that line doesn’t go far enough.

DAN HANKS:

“It belongs in a museum.”

That’s the quote we all know and love, uttered as the bad guys try to steal the priceless artifact away from Indiana Jones. And when he says it, the audience is usually cheering him on. He’s the scientist with the archaeological smarts after all. He knows how much these artifacts could benefit the world, so he’s going to risk his life to give us the chance to see them. Pretty damn noble if you ask me.

Except.

That’s not really the whole story, is it? 

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire, was always meant to be a fast, fun, action-packed adventure in the Indiana Jones style. An entertaining beach read (or, I guess, ‘pandemic read’ now). However, it was also important to me to address some serious archaeological issues, in particular the colonial elements of these types of stories. I wanted to pull that aspect into the torch light and inspect it properly (while hoping it didn’t set off a trap). 

The big idea here is that the famous “it belongs in a museum” line is only half complete. In a world where archaeologists and museums are being nudged to move beyond their colonial past, it deserves a follow-up: 

Whose?

Museums are inherently collections of artifacts often obtained without permission. There’s no getting away from that uncomfortable fact, no matter how much we’ve been taught to overlook it in favour of the benefits they offer. 

Okay, yes, it’s tricky to get permission from the dead to show off their old coins, flints or ceramics. But a lot of material culture that goes on display is simply detritus and of arguably low personal significance to its past owners. (Burials and bodies are a whole other level of significance that would require a separate blog post/PhD to talk about.)

What I’m mainly concerned with here are artifacts of importance that quite clearly belong to other cultures or countries. Stolen items that continue to be displayed in usually Western collections, where the right to keep them might even be fiercely defended under some kind of weird, misplaced national pride. 

In order to tackle this much-needed conversation in my book, I felt it important to give the characters opposing viewpoints on it. To give them the knowledge to raise issues I know I’ve often thought about and have them argue the point.

Luckily, my background helped. 

I was literally old-schooled in Western archaeological thinking, studying the subject at university far too long ago, and almost venturing along the path to becoming a Doctor of Archaeology. I worked in the heritage sector in Australia, where issues of ownership and permissions were front and centre of all Indigenous archaeological projects. And, more recently, I’ve been listening intently to traditionally silenced voices on the subject – voices that must now be hoarse after talking for so long about the false romanticism of stealing artifacts from their native lands and displaying for outsiders to ogle over them. 

Of course, even with all this experience at my disposal, trying to inject it into a light-hearted, pacey action-adventure was challenging. Thankfully, readers always need a moment or two to catch their breath. It was in these quieter moments I was able to explore the topic more fully by making it a central conflict between our cynical, seen-it-all-and-killed-a-bad-man-to-get-the-T-shirt protagonist, Captain Samantha Moxley, and her younger, more blinkered archaeologist sister, Jess.

Readers will spot the theme elsewhere too. We also have an antagonist, Colonel Arif, who is a pretty awful human being, but who we sympathise with on some level because he’s right to be upset with westerners pinching things from his beloved Egypt. Meanwhile, the idea also helped bring the debate full circle at the end of the book, more closely tying the plot with the theme via a final revelation that poses a question the characters can’t answer… although maybe the reader can?

Thanks to my exploration of this big idea in Captain Moxley, I’ve come to more fully understand how possible it is to love something problematic, while also acknowledging its faults (as long as they’re not too faulty or beyond redemption). 

Some of my favourite places in the world are museums. And I will continue to champion their importance as places of learning where we can protect and study our past, learning more about ourselves and where we need to go next. BUT in certain cases they also bring with them a range of issues relating to the collections they hold. We might be grateful that they’ve saved priceless artifacts from harm previously, yet if there’s a chance to repatriate them now, why wouldn’t we? 

We can – and should – encourage them to do better. Which first means recognising the issues for ourselves. 

As for Indy… well, I’ll always love his stories. I didn’t quite follow in his footsteps and became an author instead (which is much less muddy, but with infinitely more curses). Yet being on the outside of the profession has meant I’ve been in a much better position to write a love letter to it, while tackling its less desirable elements. And I think that’s important. Because, in the end, it’s time for our thinking – and these stories – to move beyond the Western romanticism of travelling the world obtaining artifacts, and for us to realise maybe they don’t always belong in museums. 

At least, not ours. 

—-

Captain Moxley and the Embers of the Empire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Athena Scalzi

Trying New Places: Schmidt’s Sausage Haus und Restaurant

(photo is from before pandemic, don’t worry)

This past weekend I took a stroll down to German Village in Columbus, Ohio. My pals and I perused some shops, admired the architecture, saw two super cute cats, and best of all, ate at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus und Restaurant, which from here on out I will be calling Schmidt’s.

Perhaps you’re wondering why out of all the restaurants in Columbus, I chose to go to Schmidt’s. I’m glad you asked! It’s actually a very short tale. Back in the fall semester of 2018, I took German 101 at Miami University, and learned pretty basic German, as is to be suspected when you take a class called German 101. One of the chapters was entirely about food, cutlery, how to order at a restaurant, etc. So after learning about wurst and sauerkraut and apfelstrudel, I decided I simply had to try it. I’d never had German cuisine before, so I sought out a German restaurant, and per a Google search, I discovered Schmidt’s. Somehow, it took me two years to actually go and try it, but here we are! We made it. And boy howdy was it worth the wait!

I know that venturing out and eating at restaurants is a dangerous game in these “unprecedented times”. However, Schmidt’s has taken several precautions to promote a safe environment, such as hanging up clear shower curtain-like plastic sheets in between socially distanced tables, having people wait outside so as not to crowd the waiting area inside, and having you look at the menu on your phone by scanning a code instead of handing out physical menus. My friends and I wore our masks, of course.

After thoroughly scanning the menu, I decided I simply had to go with the sausage sampler platter. When in Rome, and all that. Four different sausages, hot sauerkraut, German potato salad, chunky applesauce AND a side of bread made up this amazing plate.

The sausages were, in a word, delicious. I’m not even a big pork fan, but these sausages were seriously good. There was one of the four that had a bit of a kick to it, and normally I hate spicy stuff, but it was actually quite tasty! My friends tried a bite of each of my sausages and all of us agreed it was some truly bangin’ sausage. The sauerkraut and potato salad were excellent as well, and the applesauce was surprisingly great, like probably the best applesauce I’ve ever had. It was sweet, cinnamony, and a little chunky, as the name “chunky applesauce” suggests. Even the bread was slappin’! All around, a fantastic platter that I would highly recommend.

My friend got the Haus Saurbraten, which is marinated beef over spätzel noodles with gingersnap gravy, and mashed potatoes and green beans for the side. I got to try some of it and it was definitely good, but the gingersnap gravy was the true star of the dish, it had such a unique flavor! My other friend got the loaded potato soup, and no surprise, it was delicious.

Can you really review a restaurant if you don’t have dessert, too? I mean, probably, but it doesn’t hurt to also have dessert. So, I got their famed 1/2 pound cream puff to split with my friends, as well as their German Chocolate Cake, because, duh, it’s German! They have a couple different flavors of cream puffs, and we ordered the black raspberry chocolate chip one. It was so yummy, the cream was fluffy and light, the pastry itself was perfectly airy and golden, all around it was awesome and we devoured it. The cake was pretty okay, the frosting was probably the best part of an otherwise very normal chocolate cake.

All in all, an awesome place to eat, I definitely recommend checking it out if you’re ever in Columbus! I’m very glad I got to go and I’m hoping to go again soon. I honestly might just end up ordering the exact same thing again because it was so good. Even if I don’t eat there again next time I’m in Columbus, I’ll be sure to stop by and get a cream puff to go, because wow.

If you’ve been there, tell me about your experience in the comments! And have a great day!

-AMS

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling

For her story Yellow Jessamine, author Caitlin Starling comes up with an interesting definition of the word “family.” She’s here to tell you why this particular definition works, in this particular case.

CAITLIN STARLING:

When I was first drafting Yellow Jessamine, I described it in meme-terms to a friend as:

“Sometimes a family is a murderous noblewoman playing at mercantile dominance and weekend gardening, her head of household staff who would scorch the earth to make her happy, a local law enforcement officer who hasn’t noticed the bodies piling up, and a traitorous soldier she blinded and locked in her spare bedroom.”

It’s a pretty thorough, if flippant, pitch for the book, and it went hand in hand with a fever dream of a cover idea that I had around the same time: our protagonist, Evelyn, draped in her mourning black and entangled with the naked bodies of her assistant, that judiciary officer, and her kidnapping victim. Grotesque intimacy, or the illusion thereof – that’s what I was trying to get at.

Yellow Jessamine is, first and foremost, a story about isolation – but unlike my first book, The Luminous Dead, that isolation is set off by a sizeable (for me, anyway) supporting cast. Evelyn is not alone because she’s stuck in a cave; she’s alone because she refuses to accept any offering of emotional support from anybody around her. 

Yes, locked-up soldier included, oddly enough.

Evelyn was, in some ways, very easy to write. Her defenses, while exaggerated, are familiar to me. It’s easier to handle grief if you refuse to let yourself care; it’s easier to work and isolate than to reach out and risk being judged, hurt, abandoned. It’s easier to avoid attachment than to handle the weight of others’ love and nurture a relationship. But detachment has consequences. Patience is not endless; push somebody away enough times, and they will probably leave for good. And when the storm comes, it can be impossible to weather it alone.

There are so many instances in Yellow Jessamine where things could have gone differently, where somebody reaches out and offers Evelyn a different path. Sometimes she notices and rejects it out of fear; other times, it’s left to the reader to see the opportunity Evelyn has entirely missed. Violetta, Evelyn’s assistant, not only enjoys her job, but is in love with her taciturn, mercurial mistress. Linden Pollard, local judiciary officer with a heart of gold, actively attempts to insert himself into Evelyn’s life in order to protect her, much to her horror. Both are willing to jump to her defense, to give her the benefit of the doubt, even to break laws and risk their lives to help her. 

And that soldier comes to Evelyn’s door for a reason.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the world that Evelyn thinks she lives in has changed, markedly, since she was a child. The rules are different now; the threats she has built her walls up against have changed form. Avenues that were closed off to her back then have now opened. She has power, power to improve her life and the lives of those around her.

But deep down, she’s still a little girl: ashamed, abandoned, defensive because without that prickly exterior, she would have suffered even more dearly. 

Writers like to talk about taking a certain amount of glee in tormenting our characters (and, perhaps, our readers), but I often found myself wanting to fix things for Evelyn. To take away those opportunities for connection instead of letting her miss them, or to allow her to be happy. To write about how terrible things had been done to her, and to erase or obscure the terrible actions Evelyn later took, influenced but not excused by her past. 

Except that wasn’t the book I wanted to write. I wanted to write a book where our protagonist was confronted with the outcome of her decisions; I didn’t want to punish her, necessarily, but I didn’t want her to be able to avoid those consequences, either. Instead, by methodically laying bare how her anxieties and mistrust and inflexibility have shaped her life and the lives of those closest to her, I hoped to give her, by the end, the dignity of understanding herself.

Evelyn is not incapable of affection; she is only incapable of acknowledging it. In another book, she might have at last found not only real companionship and support, but also a way out of the predicament her actions have led to. 

But this is still a tragedy, a horror story. Salvation is close at hand, and Evelyn will grasp it until it’s too late.

—-

YELLOW JESSAMINE: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Categories
Big Idea

The Big Idea: Chris Panatier

In a near-future irradiated America, blood still runs red, but its value has changed. In The Phlebotomist, author Chris Panatier takes us through a post-war world where human’s tendencies towards altruism, prejudice, and control all pivot on the tip of a butterfly needle. Read on as he explains more about its conception and evolution.

CHRIS PANATIER:

It was January 24th, 2018, and I was going to bed angry. The U.S. Government was in the midst of passing a colossal tax cut for the rich to the tune of some seventeen trillion dollars, while doing almost nothing for the lower and middle classes. Lying there on the pillow, I only grew more exasperated, to the point where I actually growled, “What a bunch of f—— REDACTED.” 

Only one of those was a curse word, but to unredact the rest would be to spoil. Nevertheless, it was in that moment of rage that the central premise for my debut novel, The Phlebotomist, kindled.

Good news: it’s not a story about tax cuts. But it is very much about power, and the lengths to which people will go to obtain and hold it. It’s happening as we speak, with the President of the United States sabotaging the Post Office to suppress the mail-in vote. 

In the near-future world of The Phlebotomist, post-war radiation sickness has led to a government-mandated blood draw. Every forty-five days, each person sixteen and up is required to give a pint at their local donor station. This is the Harvest. People can also sell extra for cash, which everyone does because automation took all the jobs. It’s all overseen by a government blood contractor called Patriot.

Not all blood is valued the same. Price is dictated by each type’s compatibility for prospective recipients. The more compatible your blood is, the more money you have. Those with less compatible types, the low bloods, have very little and live in poverty. By the time we arrive in the story, society has long been segregated by blood type.

Segregation takes many forms and occurs for all sorts of reasons, some de jure and some de facto. There can be one, or a combination, of racial, socioeconomic, ethnographic, religious, etc., justifications or reasons for it. The Phlebotomist posits another – blood type – and builds an economy on top of it. The way that patriotism can be harnessed and commandeered to do that which is antithetical to patriotic ideals is the big idea. 

Our main character, phlebotomist Willa, is forced to confront how it all came to be; How things got to the point where the government was harvesting the blood of its own people. In her world, the downward slide into authoritarianism started with a national tragedy, a nuclear bomb:

It had changed the world so drastically and all at once, that what came
after – a new way of living in the name of national defense – was expected,
embraced even. Changes came, always in the name of the Greater Good.
Changes in everyday life, like the subtle expansion of surveillance and police
powers. Like the restrictions of rights, after few had questioned it and even
fewer opposed. Incremental steps that, looking back, had amounted to gradual surrender by the people of what little freedom they’d had left. Willa wasn’t formally educated, but she was a student of her own six decades, and from that she’d identified a pattern: tragedy begat patriotism, patriotism begat opportunism, opportunism begat poverty.

We saw something like this play out right here in the U.S. with the ironically titled Patriot Act, that became a tool of the government to monitor and surveil its citizens with little or no probable cause or repercussions. Of interest to readers, the Act gave the government the authority to obtain library records and other information about citizens’ reading habits. I doubt we will ever know the full extent of how much we gave away; i.e., what the government watched and recorded. But it was the country’s rush to embrace and exhibit patriotism in the wake of what had happened to us on 9/11, that allowed the Patriot Act to go through with such little opposition. It was passed in 2001 with a four-year term. It lasted all the way until June of 2020. Once governments gets power, they are loathed to relinquish it.

The setup for The Phlebotomist is an example of how patriotism and altruism in the wake of tragedy can be redirected by those in power to leverage liberty in order to enrich themselves in both authority and treasure. 

Now might be a good time to say that The Phlebotomist is not a political screed, but actually a fun and humorous adventure with a diverse cast of characters! No, seriously. And while the story is, at its heart, a new take on the REDACTED trope, I hope that some of these themes will have readers watching their leaders with a critical eye; especially when the flag-wavers come seeking the voluntary surrender of rights under the banner of patriotism.

—-

THE PHLEBOTOMIST: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

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Athena Scalzi

Behold, a Poem From My Youth

Someday (hopefully) I will be a famous author, but in the meantime I thought it would be entertaining to show you all a poem I wrote when I was sixteen, because someday these will be lost relics of my youth! Before you read it, just know it’s not actually about anyone or anything I experienced first hand at the age of sixteen. Also, at the time I wrote this I was under the impression all poems I wrote had to rhyme. Seems kind of silly now but I still kind of prefer rhyming poems.

And finally, I’m not sharing this because I think it’s good. I know it’s pretty bad, but I wanted to share it anyways because I think it’s important to look at how you used to write, and compare it to how you write now. It’s important to look at the past and be like, hey this isn’t really that good, but at least I know I’ve improved since then!

Anyway, without further ado, here’s the poem:

God, I can’t take this pain,

What do I even have to gain?

I can’t see through your lies,

From the tears blurring my eyes.

I’m sick of all this hurting inside,

And think of all the times I’ve cried.

You say you love me more than anything,

And want to give me a diamond ring.

But I don’t think I can take it anymore,

My heart is just too broken and sore.

All those nights I would’ve rather died,

All those times I’ve sadly sighed.

But, god, I love you, I love you, my dear,

But darling, love, I have this fear.

One day you’ll leave me for someone new,

And then, oh god, what would I do?

There’s a difference between forgiving and forgetting,

And you’ll mess up again, I’m betting.

Do what you want, though, I can deal,

I’ll just have to ignore what I feel.

You can lie and cheat and break my heart,

But I still don’t want to be apart.

Your words burn like fire against my skin,

But when I see you I always grin.

Darling, I love you, I just want you to know,

So please, my love, don’t let me go.

-AMS

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Athena Scalzi

Here Is Quite Possibly the Coolest AMV You Will Ever See

To start off with, for those of you who don’t know, an AMV is an animated music video. Basically, you take art or clips from animated shows or anime, and put it to music. I used to watch a lot of AMVs when I was a teenager, and over the years of watching them I realized that making a good one is extremely difficult. Most are pretty alright, but to make a truly good one is an art. The amount of editing and time it takes is astounding, so putting together something like that is a real talent.

Today I’m going to share with you the best AMV I’ve ever seen, and it’s actually of an anime I’ve never seen, Neon Genesis: Evangelion. Because I’ve never seen the anime, I really have no idea what’s going on in the video, but DAMN is it cool. The visuals? Stunning. The editing? Flawless. The music choice? Incredible. This is a work of art. It’s honestly kind of mesmerizing. I recommend watching it on a bigger screen, like if your TV has YouTube or even a computer, but it’ll look cool even if it’s just on your phone. And definitely watch it in 1080 if you can! Oh, and fair warning, it’s a smidge gory.

I’ve seen some pretty good AMVs in my day but this one really takes the cake. If you know of any good ones feel free to mention them in the comments! And have a great day!

-AMS

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Athena Scalzi

Your Unabashed Support of Trump Will Embarrass Your Bloodline for Generations

Where I live, Trump flags and signs are extremely common, to the point where it’s almost weird to see a Biden sign. The other day, however, I saw a new kind of Trump flag I’ve never seen before, but I saw two in the same day and thought it was so incredibly bizarre I just had to share.

Here’s that flag, which you can buy for $50:

And it really got me thinking about how wildly fanatic some people are, which we’ve known for a while now, but I mean it really is wild how people just casually fly flags or have merch like this for a presidential candidate. Yes, I know about yard signs and bumper stickers and t-shirts. But there is the usual level of partisan cheerleading, and then there’s this. What a truly bizarre thing to do, in my opinion.

Anyways, it also led me to think about how years from now, maybe twenty, fifty, even a hundred years in the future, people will look back at photos of crowds of people wearing MAGA hats and the pictures of people flying Trump 2020 flags, and regard them with the same embarrassment and disdain we feel for segregationists when we look back at the 1960s, or the way we feel about flat Earthers. People in my generation talk about how horrified they are to think their grandpappy was in the KKK; it’s something you don’t bring up because it’s shameful, and I’m sure that’s how people will view Trump supporters in the future.

Not that they don’t do it now, obviously. There are plenty of people who are disappointed and angry with their own family members for voting for Trump, or people who disagree with their grandparents’ outdated views. However, there is also a truly unbelievable amount of people my age and even younger that fully support Trump in this unabashed way that we usually only think Boomers are capable of.

Those are the people I’m talking about whose grandkids will look at them with embarrassment. I’m not talking about the people my age who already see their grandparents that way, but the generations to come, the kids that don’t exist yet that will look back into our window of history and think, “How did this happen? Who supported this monster? How was this possible?” We look back at the 1960s and think, “Who the hell was against MLK? Who could’ve possibly been against equal rights?” And yet, we see rampant anti-BLM people every single day.

I’m sure that some day in the near future, those goddamn red baseball hats will be viewed the same way we view Klansman hoods, and the Iron Cross. Supporting Trump today is embarrassing, but it will continue to be a stain on your bloodline for years to come.

Anyways, remember to vote! And have a great day!

-AMS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Tim Akers

There’s the book you’re meant to write, and then there’s the book you write because it just seems like it would be more fun. Guess which book Knight Watch is! Author Tim Akers is here to explain how it came to be.

TIM AKERS:

Knight Watch wasn’t the book I was supposed to be writing. I had just finished a massive epic fantasy trilogy and the expectation was that I would continue with something in line with that. Brand identity, and all that nonsense. So I produced a pitch document for my agent, and he passed it around the office, and after a little discussion we agreed on a slightly less massive and yet still epic fantasy novel that I had been kicking around in my drafts folder for the last four years.

That book is still in drafts. Someday I’ll finish it. Honest. Just not… today. Because about halfway through the first draft, Knight Watch fell into my head. Not fully formed, and certainly not in the form that will appear in bookstores today, but the beautiful, glimmering core of the novel just appeared in my head at four in the morning. I lay in bed staring at the ceiling and thinking about it and when my wife finally woke up (seriously, woman, I have a book to tell you about, WAKE UP) I spilled the whole thing to her and she said “That sounds nice” and then rolled over and went back to sleep. And with this bold endorsement of my genius, I started to secretly write the book.

So what was that brilliant idea? Well, basically, it’s Men in Black but at the Ren Faire. That wasn’t how I thought of it at first, but people kept asking me about the book and I would produce all these complicated explanations and their eyes would glaze over, so I came up with the purest form of the idea. You’ve seen Men in Black? Yes? Well, that, but at the Ren Faire. Result.

As for the complicated explanation? We all have things that make us incredibly happy. For me, that’s some combination of my time in college when my friends and I made our own version of the Society for Creative Anachronism, late nights spent playing D&D (where I met my wife), and memories of my father reading PG Wodehouse to me when I was a child. So I threw all those things into a book. In a lot of ways, this book is the closest expression of my inner life I can imagine. It has knights, snark, Crossfit worshipping dragons, a bookstore in a mall (which might be stretching a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief), a secret society that takes its brand identity very seriously, a fantasy novelist who works entirely in adjectives and detailed maps, and precisely one million dogs. What could be better?

The real trick in writing this book was that I didn’t want bad things to happen. Every time I got to a new section I would think “Well, if I was reading this, what would I want to happen here?” That’s how we got one million dogs. That’s how I ended up with a character whose best friend is a cartoon dragon in the real world, but in the Unreal world it becomes a violent, psychopathic dragon who tries to burn his castle down at every opportunity. And as any good writer will tell you, that’s a terrible way to write a book. There needs to be tension, and setbacks, and revelations that change the direction of the narrative, and… look, I’m not going to walk you through Syd Field’s Paradigm. The point is that bad things have to happen to people the reader likes, and when the writer is the Prime Reader, that kind of sucks. But you don’t get into the business of being a writer to be happy, you fool.

Or maybe you do. Because there was something about writing this book that was such a relief. It wasn’t the book I was supposed to write, but it was the book I had to write. It was the book I wanted to write more than anything, and the process of creating the world, meeting the characters… heck, just the act of writing it has been one of the most fun experiences in my *mumblemumble* long writing career. And maybe that was the real quest reward all along.

—-

Knight Watch: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Anderson Books

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

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Alice James

How can someone without a heartbeat find true love? Take a walk between life and death with author Alice James’ latest novel, Grave Secrets, and find out what zombies have that living men just don’t.

ALICE JAMES:

What’s in the brain of a brain eater?

Why on earth did I write Grave Secrets? I had been focusing on my children’s fiction, my financial writing, my magazine work… The bills were getting paid. I had finally landed a gig as a travel writer. The trouble was that these milestones might look all very well on a CV – but I just have this thing about zombies. 

It’s hard to express, even though expressing myself is the thing I’m meant to be good at, but let me try. I’m the one who moved into a chapel with gravestones in the garden. I’m the person who’s filled it with skulls – ceramic, glass, real – scattered where most people put seashells and vases. (I’m also the ex-Goth with the spider obsession and all the Sisters of Mercy posters who is still kind of wondering when Andrew Eldritch will ask me out, but that’s a tale for another day.) I feel this odd draw to the dead. In a graveyard, I feel moved by the stones and what lies beneath them. Their occupants feel bewilderingly real to me, close, almost tangibly so. 

I wonder where it came from? I see it at work on my library shelves. Nothing makes a book more enthralling to me than the feeling that the casual darkness of the world that we see hides an even darker otherness, and that if you tug aside the fragile veil of reality, the numinousness of that unfathomable realm will begin to ooze inside… 

And nothing achieves that better than a healthy – or unhealthy – dose of the undead.

It’s the idea that shuffling off this mortal coil could maybe have a reverse gear that does it for me. You know, the concept that the final curtain could be raised again for an uncanny encore that’s neither truly alive nor dead. That’s the core of the underlying horror in Dracula – that if you try to cheat death, you are cheated in return. You get back this amoral creature who can only survive by draining the living to sustain what should be resting peacefully six feet under. 

The thing is that vampires have been slightly sanitized since Bram Stoker penned his masterpiece. They are sexy, cool, sparkling (wasn’t me!) and wear a lot of black leather. Now, there’s nothing wrong with vampires in black leather (James Marsters in his duster coat is high on my inappropriate fantasy list, as is Alyson Hannigan in That Corset Scene). But – with the exception of the exceptional Rob Thomas – no one’s got round to rehabilitating zombies very much. 

And that’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to write from the perspective of the zombie. I wanted to explore what it might be like to leave death behind and be raised from your grave, hungry for brainzzz and wondering why you aren’t in a comfy coffin any longer. But to do that, your zombie apocalypse can’t be truly mindless. They must have an inner monologue with a broader vocabulary than: “Grr. Argh.” So I created Bredon, the most courteous, loyal and charmingly attired famished revenant ever to be summoned to a graveyard near you. I was going to write (wait for it) a short story about zombies.

I know, but that’s all that I planned. It was going to take a week. I had it all mapped out. There was a short story competition I had been eyeing up and it would be just the thing. But the words kept coming, the narrative was flowing, the short story deadline passed unnoticed, the heads were getting ripped off, Toni was falling in love, the shambling hoards were marching across my screen… So I just kept writing. 

I mean, I had to! No man is an island, be he dead or alive, so I had to populate an entire landscape for my reanimated corpse to stride across. There needed to be plot – a whodunit and a romance as it turned out – and some metaphysics about what goes on when the souls of the living hang around rather longer than their use-by date. As it turned out, there also had to be some shagging scenes, because my attention span is short. But most importantly of all, let’s not forget that this is a book about zombies. And I know the rules…so there had to be a fair amount of gore. I won’t add spoilers by counting up how many heads get ripped off, or hearts torn out, but rest assured there are plenty. I mean, we might be into double figures, and the book is only three hundred pages long. 

So there we are, the big idea. And it kind of worked. I love the book even though I never planned to write a book. I love the romance, even though I really never intended to write chick lit. I adore the cosy crime plot twists despite them sneaking in almost unbidden because they just worked out like that. And I treasure my zombie, the one element of the story that was always going to be written. I’m also stoked that it’s been published, because that was never, ever in the plan, even the director’s extended cut. 

I didn’t answer my own question, though, as to why I am so beguiled by the undead. But I have a lot of sequels to work on, so maybe I will work that one out too. 

—-

GRAVE SECRETS: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

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Athena Scalzi

My Brain Is Empty So Here’s Some Flower Pictures

Howdy! I hope everyone had a nice weekend, and if you didn’t, I hope the next one is better. I don’t really have a lot going on in my head right now, so I thought I’d share some photos of mine for those of you who don’t have Instagram or don’t follow me (which, no hard feelings if you don’t). So here’s just a couple I think are pretty!

I took this at Stillwater Preserve, down the road from my house.

This one is actually over a year old! I took this at Cedar Point when I went with my friend last summer. Kind of funny I went to Cedar Point and the only picture I took was of leaves…

And here is the Atlantic Ocean! More specifically, Topsail Island in North Carolina.

I took this one over a year ago as well, while on a walk with my friend in the woods outside of Oxford.

It had just stopped raining when I took this one. I think raindrops on flower petals is just one of the most beautiful sights to behold.

Well anyways there’s your daily dose of nature pictures, if you hadn’t already gotten it today! Have a great day!

-AMS

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Athena Scalzi

My Top Five Love Death + Robots Episodes

Love Death + Robots came out eighteen months ago on Netflix, so if you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. If you don’t know, it’s an eighteen episode anthology of science fiction and fantasy animated shorts. I was so excited for it that I watched it the night it came out, and have seen it several times since. Right away, I developed favorites, and those were the ones I rewatched the most. After it came out, I saw a bunch of people make lists ranking all eighteen of them in order of best to worst, but I figure I’d just tell you guys my top five for now. Slight spoilers ahead!

First up is Sonnie’s Edge. Not only is it the first episode on the list on Netflix, but it’s first in my ranking. In my opinion, they started off the anthology right with this one. It knocks your socks off right from the beginning, from the amazing visuals and insanely realistic art style, to the truly intriguing soundtrack, you’ll be entranced right from the get-go. I adore this one for so many reasons, interesting characters, pleasant on the eyes, and of course, the super cool monster fight scene. And that ending! Killer. I also like that it’s British for some reason.

Next on my list is The Secret War. Unlike Sonnie’s Edge, this one is actually the last one on the list of the eighteen. Though it is last, it is certainly not least. This one is horrifying, gory, full of cool fight scenes, and tells a super interesting story. The animation is superb too! That’s something that many of the episodes have in common, though.

Third on my list is Sucker of Souls. This one is spooky, fun, hilarious, and I love the drawing style! It has an interesting lore and I enjoy the characters. And I like the ending because it shows not everything has a happy ending, which I appreciate. This one feels like it takes itself less seriously than the others.

Next up is Beyond the Aquila Rift. I like this one a lot because of the mystery aspect of it, where something is off the whole time but you’re not sure what, and then you get that big shock at the end. It’s pretty quality. And why does everyone think that Greta (or whatever that alien thing pretending to be Greta is) is a bad guy?! Obviously it’s a kind creature trying to give the people that ended up there peace of mind in their final days before death. Why does everyone think it’s a monster?

Finally, one that’s a bit different from the rest and one I have never seen widely liked that much, Blindspot. I love this one for the wild bunch of characters, the fun style of animation, and the adorable main character newbie that you can’t help but root for. A cyborg heist gang? Who doesn’t love that? This one doesn’t get enough credit in my opinion!

Honorable mentions! Though these two aren’t in my top five, I thoroughly enjoy Good Hunting and Shape Shifters. In fact, there’s really only a couple of them that I don’t like, otherwise mostly of them are really great!

Oh, additionally, I decided not to put any of my father’s on this list, just because I don’t want to seem biased, not because I don’t like his.

Tell me about your favorites in the comments! I’d love to hear your thoughts, and I hope you have a great day!

-AMS

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Athena Scalzi

Showcasing My Collection: Enamel Pins, Volume One

Hello, everyone! I hope you’re all having a great Thursday, or whatever day it happens to be when you read this. Today I wanted to share with you something very important to me; my pin collection! However, since I have about eighty pins, I’m just showing you a couple of my favorites today, and save the rest for other days.

I don’t collect many things, but the things I do collect, I take very seriously. My enamel pins are some of favorite possessions, and I truly adore them. I don’t wear them on anything, though. I used to have them on my backpack for college when my collection was much smaller. Additional note before we begin, all these pins are enamel, I don’t really do button/safety pin type pins, just for aesthetic purposes.

This one is one of my most recent additions! I had wanted to buy something from this wonderful artist for a long time, and this pin was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back. I’m so glad I ended up getting it (I also got a tote bag that’s super cute). It’s just a clover, but I think it’s so dang pretty. You can find the artist’s shop where I bought this pin here! Also you can follow them on Twitter!

This pin was actually one of the first in my collection, and remains as one of my favorites. I got this one at Gem City Catfe, a coffee shop in Dayton where you can drink coffee, play with cats, and even adopt one! It was such a fun experience, and I hope to do it again sometime soon. They have so many cute cats to interact with, and such a nice setting inside. If you’re from the area, I recommend it!

When I was seventeen I played this dating sim on my phone called Mystic Messenger, and if you’ve ever played it you know what I mean when I say it’s absolutely bonkers. Just wild as fuck, honestly. But one thing I got out of it was the knowledge that there is a Korean snack called Honey Butter Chips, and they are so fucking good. I absolutely adore this chip, and when I saw this pin, I just had to get it (though I can’t remember where I got it and that’s a bummer). If you’ve never graced your tastebuds with Honey Butter Chips, I suggest you buy them immediately.

Another very recent addition to my collection! I’ve liked Studio Ghibli for a while now, and don’t really have any merch of it, which I thought was a bummer. So I decided to get this absolutely adorable No Face pin, since he’s like the coolest character from Spirited Away, and one of the most widely recognized Studio Ghibli symbols. You can check out the artist’s shop where I got it here, and their Twitter!

Last, but certainly not least, is this gorgeous Lunar Moth pin my mom got me for two Christmases ago. This is one of the largest in my collection; in fact it’s so big it has two sharp things in the back to make sure it stays stuck into whatever you put it on. It’s so pretty, I was so happy to get it as a gift. You can find this artist’s shop here, but I don’t think this particular pin is available anymore! And here is their Twitter.

So, there’s just a glimpse at my pin collection! I hope you enjoyed.

-AMS

 

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Liz Williams

Author Liz Williams has spent more than a little amount of time pouring herself into her contemporary fairytale, Comet Weather — more time, in fact, than she ever imagined she might. In today’s Big Idea, join her as she describes what went into crafting this female-led, Somerset-based series, and why it was worth the wait.

LIZ WILLIAMS:

I wrote Comet Weather over the course of a decade – embarrassingly, since I usually write a novel in a year, and sometimes two novels. It was my ‘fun’ project: my publishing career had slowed significantly, so I decided to just write for fun. I made a bucket list of everything I’d like to see in a novel (comets, rocking horses, church bells, pirates, old houses, weathercocks) and put them into it. I was aiming to create the atmosphere of the books I loved when I was a young reader: Garner, Boston, Masefield, Cooper, Goudge. But I wanted to write that sort of book for adults: a novel that had the same dream-like quality, a touch of time travel, but also a feeling of reassurance, and one which drew heavily on British folklore. There were a few factors, however, which were consciously a little different.

Firstly, I think a lot of British Celtic mythology has been done to death. This kills me, since I am of Welsh and Scots extraction and I identify as a Celt. Also, the mythology around Arthur and Glastonbury – where I actually live – has been mined to the point of literary exhaustion, too. I wanted to move away from well trodden territory, so although I set most of the novel in Somerset, there’s no mention of Avalon or Merlin. I tried to draw on aspects of the folkloric culture that have not been so heavily explored, such as the Behenian stars.

Mooncote, the house in the novel, is haunted by the spirits of the fixed stars, the celestial bodies that were most influential in Arabic and later in English astrology – Spica, Arcturus, Aldebaran and their sisters. I drew on the stories around the white chalk figures of neighbouring Wiltshire and Dorset, and the lych paths, the old ways on which corpses are borne to the churchyard, and the spectral lore of Dartmoor. In the sequel, Blackthorn Winter, I’ll also be visiting Elizabethan demonology, grimoire magic, and late nineteenth century occultism.

It became clear as I was writing the book, and thinking about the rest of the quartet, that I wanted to set these novels specifically in southern England. This is a fascinating part of the country, and not hugely explored in fantasy. I wanted to do for the south of England – white horse country, the Jurassic coast, Cornwall and the great city at the heart of the south east, which is of course London – what writers like Alan Garner have done for Cheshire. Although I don’t have Garner’s intimate ancestral understanding of dialect, I come from Gloucester and most of my life has been lived in the southern counties: Sussex for many years, and now the West Country. My own ancestors are named in the Civil War (the English one) and I know exactly where, and from whom, my ancestry comes. This is a privilege, but it is one of which I intend to make full use.

And I also wanted to make this a very female-centric novel – by no means my first endeavour in these waters, since I’ve written a number of books which barely feature men at all. The men in this novel are supporting characters: the stories belong to the four sisters who are the book’s protagonists, and the men are along for the ride. Their role is to support the women, and romance, while present, is not a central theme.

I wanted to write a book in which women were unapologetic about being in the world, which all four sisters are in different ways, and in which they weren’t traumatised. I’ve written a lot of novels in which women have suffered some awful things, but this isn’t one of them. Bad things might happen, but the Fallows bounce back. They take the magic of their world for granted, but they’re not particularly ‘feisty’: the super-tough weapons-carrying urban fantasy heroine doesn’t make much of an appearance here, because I think she’s become a stereotype. I don’t walk down the street carrying a crossbow or a sword myself, though I might have a whack at a home-invading entity with a random golf club, as Stella does in the novel.

Some years ago a dinner guest remarked to my (male) partner: “You’re not much troubled by self doubt, are you?” Without making the characters too full of themselves, I wanted them to have a degree of self confidence, too. They’re OK with who they are; Luna, the youngest, is still gaining that confidence but learning from older women. Over the past couple of decades we’ve been getting into genre territory in which female characters are only respected if their behaviour follows enculturated expectations of male behaviour….yeah, no. There are lots of ways of being.

Writing the book was, as I mention above, a slow process: this was my escape pod from a number of factors, including the financial crash, trying to save a business, and my father’s final illness and death. Thus there were long gaps in between writing chunks of the book: I saved them up, rather as readers save up books that they love and try not to finish them too quickly (readers have reported doing this with Comet Weather, a huge compliment to its author). So this was a writing process which I actively enjoyed, and although I roughed out an outline, it changed over the decade and the plot was primarily pantsed.

And on a final technical writing point, in writing four protagonists, I had to key in to their voices: Stella’s is the closest to my own voice, although she’s a lot younger, and people who know me have picked up on that, probably because we both swear so much. Their voices are English, and contemporary: if you like the deeply organic growth of the language as it is spoken by modern Brits, you might like this. But the house, Mooncote, is also a character: my long term love of books about houses (Green Knowe, or Moonacre Manor, which Mooncote is named after) comes to the fore here, too.

—-

COMET WEATHER: Amazon|Newcon Press

Visit the author on Facebook.

 

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Athena Scalzi

Athena Recommends: Fall Guys

Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout is a game I’ve quickly become obsessed with. Released earlier this month, Fall Guys is the newest and bestest version of a Battle Royale game. It is also the cutest and most colorful game I’ve seen in a while, and I am definitely one for aesthetically pleasing visuals. I mean, the little dudes you play as are just adorable Jell-O-like blobs with eyes in cute costumes! Who doesn’t love that.

Basically the goal is to run and jump your way to the finish line of an obstacle course and to qualify for the next race, which means finishing before a certain number of people. Other than the obstacle courses, though, there are also team games, which are extremely efficient at eliminating a lot of people in one go. There’s even a “logic” game (though it’s not very difficult, all things considered). My personal favorite of these is the obstacle courses, because I’m not much of a team player, and if your team loses it doesn’t matter how well you did individually, you still get the boot.

Though extremely fun and entertaining, this game is also pretty rage inducing (or maybe I just inherited gamer rage from my father). I’d say the most irritating thing is other people’s ability to fuck you up. If they bump into you, grab you, push you even a smidge to the right, it could be game over for you, all because someone knocked you off the edge or pushed you into a ball rolling downhill towards you. So while I’ve had to seriously suppress the desire to throw my controller, I’ve also had a ton of fun playing.

Also there are different colors and costumes you can unlock! I know if you download it on the PS4 you get a free costume; I’m not sure about Steam, though. The more you level up, the more neat stuff you unlock. Personally, I’m not much of a costume person, I’m more for the patterns on the skin.

Anyways, this is honestly just a fun little time-waster that kids and adults alike can enjoy. It’s free on the PS4 if you have PS Plus, otherwise it’s only twenty smackaroos, which isn’t so bad!

If you have played it, or end up trying it, I’d love to hear if you enjoy it as much as I do! Or if you’re as ridiculously addicted as I am…

And as always, have a great day!

-AMS

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Athena Scalzi

I Miss Travelling, So Here’s My Attempt at Travel Writing

When I was seventeen, I watched Yuri On Ice; a sports anime about a figure skater from Japan. In this anime, the main character’s parents own an onsen resort, or basically a hot springs/bath house kinda place. You may also have seen one of these in Spirited Away, but just in case you have no idea what I’m talking about, hot spring resorts (or onsens) are just like spas centered on a big ol’ hot tub with pretty scenery.

Upon watching the characters have an awesome time in the onsens, I thought, “wow, I gotta try this for myself”. And thus began my quest to find a hot springs resort in the US of A. As luck would have it, I found one. Literally one. Maybe I didn’t look hard enough, or maybe there really is only one in the US, but whatever the reason, I stumbled upon a place called Ten Thousand Waves, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Or rather, right outside Santa Fe.

Finally, after like thirty minutes of Googling, I had found the resort of my dreams! Little did I know it would be three years before I went. I thought about it often and wished to go for so long, it felt like something I would never actually end up doing. I thought it would just be one of those things that stays on your bucket list for your entire life.

Incidentally, my 21st birthday finally rolled around this past December, and my parents asked me what I wanted to do for it. And I could think of nothing I wanted more for my 21st than to finally visit Ten Thousand Waves. So, my mom and I did just that! Right after the new year began, we set off to New Mexico for my birthday trip. Man, I miss travelling.

To my surprise, my mom bought us first class tickets, which I was totally stoked for. On the drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, I was astounded by the layout of the land. The scenery was so vastly different from my corner of Ohio. Red desert and mountains as far as the eye could see, stretches of highway with no buildings or towns for miles upon miles. I consider myself decently well traveled, but before this trip I had never been to any desert state, besides California. But basically the entire West is uncharted territory for me.

After the twilight shrouded drive, we arrived. Hidden in the snowy mountains (or maybe it was only snowy because it was January) was the place I had dreamt about for years.

Ten Thousand Waves has fourteen rooms. Two “Zen” rooms, eight “Townsman” rooms, and four “Emperor” rooms. These names basically mean, good, better, and best. The whole place is set up like a little village, with all the individual rooms being completely separate from each other and basically being like little one room houses. They each even have their own names. My mom and I stayed in a Townsman room called Hangetsu.

What you don’t see in the picture is the little kitchen area to the right, and the bathroom with the double headed shower, and the wood stove fireplace in the corner to the left. It was pretty nifty. And on the end of the bed there, are robes and slippers to wear around the spa! Also, there were chocolate Buddhas. The fridge in the room had their homemade granola in it, along with organic milk and almond milk, as well.

But enough about the room! Not only is there an amazing spa I have yet to talk about, but there’s also the single greatest restaurant I’ve ever been to! While the Houses of the Moon (the rooms) are located towards the base of the hill, further up is the restaurant, and the spa across the way. Here’s a map!

Like I said, it’s like a little village. Everything in the top right corner is part of the spa, those are the names of the onsens. All the way to the left is the restaurant, and everything towards the bottom is the Houses of the Moon.

As I was saying previously, the restaurant, Izanami, has the most wonderful food. Everything I ate was incredible, there was not a single dish where I thought, “yeah this is alright.” I mean it was literally amazing how delicious everything was. From the yuzu panna cotta with blackberry gelée and white chocolate coconut sauce, to the smoked pork ribs with sweet chile glaze and peanut parsley sauce, everything was truly delectable. Especially the wagyu short ribs. I couldn’t believe how good they were, it was truly an experience.

But enough about the food, let’s get to the meat of it! The spa itself. Where to begin? With the steaming hot onsens and freezing cold ice baths, or with the to-die-for massages (which I got two of, because, hey, it was my birthday trip!). There are eight baths total, including a women’s-only tub in which clothing is optional. Here is the biggest and most popular one, the Grand Bath:

If you happen to be someone who is actually lodging with the spa rather than just visiting during the day, you get an extra window of time to be in the tub when the public isn’t allowed. My mom and I took advantage of this and the few times that we went during this time frame, we were totally alone. It was strange to me there were no other lodging members who wanted to take a dip before the public arrived, but I was totally okay with it.

Like I mentioned, I got two massages, one standard one, and one hot oil exfoliation yada yada specialty one. I’ve had many a massage in my day and I must admit the standard 50 minute one I had knocked my socks off. I figured it’d be good, considering it’s a spa and all, but it was like, astoundingly good. First, they have you change into a robe, and they give you fancy fruit-infused water, then they take you down a path that leads away from the rest of the spa, and you pass by a bunch of little buildings, each one is a private massage room. Finally, you reach yours, and the ascension to relaxation begins.

For the second massage, one of the specialty things they did was rub hot oil all through my hair and scalp, and afterwards suggested that I get in the sauna. Of course, how could I say no? I love saunas. Though, I should’ve maybe thought a little bit more about the fact there was oil in my hair. Oil that heated up in the sauna and burned my ears and shoulders because I’m a dummy. All in all a great massage though!

We stayed for four nights and it was just such an amazing experience that I would a hundred and ten percent recommend to anyone and everyone. It is a trip that I will cherish for the rest of my life, not just because of the unique experience I got to have at the amazing and wonderful spa resort, or because of the sights of Santa Fe I got to see, but because I got to spend it with my mom, and honestly I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There was no one I would’ve rather gone with than her, because in all honesty, she’s my best friend.

And she bought us first class tickets for the ride home, too! Woohoo!

-AMS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Derek Künsken

Moving is hard. Moving to Venus is harder. Author Derek Künsken shows us just how difficult acclimating to strange new lands can be, and what it means to be a family in a place so far from home in his Big Idea, The House of Styx.

DEREK KÜNSKEN:

I often start my stories from a sense of place. I’m a sense of wonder junkie so the weirder the place, the better it is for me as a launch point. Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, the place comes with a feeling around which the story and characters can accrete. For my new novel The House of Styx I did have a feeling although it wasn’t necessarily a positive one. 

You see, Venus is hot enough on the surface to melt lead. Or roast a chicken quickly. Actually, scratch that. The pressure (ninety atmospheres) and the weird properties of super-critical carbon dioxide might dissolve the chicken. I’m not sure. I didn’t research that part because I didn’t include any chickens in the novel. The sequel will have more chickens than a Muppet movie though, so no worries. 

My point is that Venus is hella inhospitable. Even when you get above the crushing pressure and baking heat, it’s still raining sulfuric acid. Any colonists who move there will not touch the surface without a submarine or bathyscaphe, won’t touch the clouds without an environmental suit, and won’t look at their new world with their bare eyes. If that were me, I might feel that my new environment hated me, and the feeling might become stronger with every leaky valve that exposed me to sulfuric acid burns. The idea of being so severed from the environment unsettles me and feels like the big idea around which everything else in the novel coalesced.

Of course we don’t come from Venus; we would have to immigrate there. We already know that immigrating anywhere is a traumatizing, dislocating experience where people feel the submersive, profound strangeness of being in another place, the lack of belonging and isolation. I don’t play a psychologist on TV, but I did accidentally become an immigration professional two decades ago and I think that Venus gave me a science fictional way to explore the experience of settling somewhere new.

Our environment sets a series of expectations in us as we grow up. The familiar is good, comforting, welcoming. I wonder if that kind of patterning goes deeper. In our species DNA and neurology, are green growing things hardwired in as good? If so, how messed up would we be growing up in the clouds of Venus? Or in a moon base? Or in an asteroid?

Immigration to somewhere new brings with it a suite of messed up choices, not only because immigrants have to make those choices in new contexts and with costs that they’re just learning. Immigrants aren’t just making choices for themselves, but for their descendants. Their children and grandchildren will be born somewhere else, with all the known and unseen advantages and disadvantages. I explored my Québécois roots in The House of Styx and wondered how similar the experiences were of French colonists trying to make a life in 17th century Acadie after a one-way trip across the Atlantic and my colonists in the clouds of Venus. 

At first, communities are small and there’s an enormous reliance on family. Family of course is a push-pull sort of force in life. Having family means loving or hating difficult people, staying with them and protecting them as you hope they’ll protect you. Families have the kid who can jump high and the kid who can’t. Families do their best to blunt the worst excesses of stupid teenager carelessness and teach people to love where they can. Families are hard. They sometimes help us to find our way in the world. Sometimes they drive us into the right niches in an unpleasantly ironic way. All of this is part of the big idea of course; when your environment is at war with you, you really need family, good or bad. 

I enjoyed visiting Venus as a sense of wonder junkie. I dug the pressure, the acid, the strange geology and alien weather and at its heart, the novel is a Godfather story, a family saga whose flawed people could be the only authentic cast. But the big idea at its heart is the terrible and wonderful dislocation of people and environment. For some, the alienation from the world is a curse and for some it’s a blessing, but in no way can our habitat ever change so drastically as colonizing new worlds without bringing into sharper focus what it means to be human.

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THE HOUSE OF STYX: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

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Athena Scalzi

Spread Your Anger Like Soft Butter Over Warm Bread

2020 has been undoubtedly and completely fucked. Don’t get me wrong, things before 2020 were fucked, too, but it just seems so much more prominent this year. Everything is bad all the time and nothing ever seems to get better. There are so many issues to be angry about. There are so many topics that deserve your attention. And yet, it’s exhausting to care about so many things, especially when it feels like you can do nothing about what’s happening.

I understand that people just naturally care about a certain handful of issues, or one specific issue, more than all the rest. Like, maybe you care a lot about the BLM movement, but not so much about the rain-forest being destroyed. Maybe you care a lot about homelessness, but not so much about mask/face-covering laws and whatnot. It’s okay to put the focus of your attention towards the things you care about, I totally get that.

For someone that lives in Flint, maybe the issue they care about the most is getting clean water to their community. If you live in California, maybe your focus is on wildfires. It is totally valid to be more concerned about your community than one across the country — even if, ideally, you should care about both. It doesn’t have to be an equal amount of focus you put towards the issues, but you should at least care a smidge about the other.

Let’s say there are multiple buildings on fire at the same time. It’s possible that one fire is much larger than the others and should be focused on a little more, or maybe the contents inside the building are somewhat more important that the others’, but the other fires should not be ignored entirely. This is basically a metaphor to the fact the world is constantly on fire (sometimes literally), and there’s a lot to focus on.

So now that it’s been established it is okay to care a little more about certain topics than others, it’s important to address something I’ve been seeing a lot lately, which is people posting things like “this topic is more important than all the other issues in the world right now” or “this is the only topic that matters to me and if you don’t agree then you’re wrong.” This is mostly in regards to BLM vs human trafficking vs Corona. All major issues. All deserving of attention. And like I said, it’s okay to care about one more than the other two, or care about two of them over the remaining one. But I don’t understand why people are claiming that the one thing they care about is the only issue that should be cared about, or that anyone who disagrees is fundamentally wrong.

Why would you tell people the issue they care about doesn’t matter? Why would you invalidate someone’s concerns about the world you both live in? Just because they pick a different fight than you, doesn’t mean their fight isn’t important. We need people to fight all kinds of fights, to protest all sorts of different issues, to donate to a variety of charities. There are so many issues in the world, and I understand the feeling that your chosen fight feels like the most important battle. But not everyone can fight it. There are other issues that need to be focused on simultaneously, apart from yours.

To claim your issue is the only one that matters is selfish, and ignorant. You are choosing to be blind to the strife and suffering of others. You are pretending their problems don’t exist. When you say human trafficking is the only current issue that matters, you are essentially diminishing the entire black community, and everything they fight for. When you say that the post office dilemma is the most important thing happening right now, you’re completely forgetting about all the people in cages at the border. And so on.

(On the other hand, none of these issues really matter in the long run if global warming keeps getting worse and we all burn alive. See? There’s A LOT to be angry about!)

It’s exhausting to be continuously angry at the world. There’s so much wrong and everything feels hopeless constantly. It’s tiring. I know it is. Which is why it’s important to care about yourself, and your well-being. Absorbing so much of the shit show that is the world can be difficult, and take a toll on your mental health. It’s important to focus on yourself sometimes, rather than the giant, colossal, unyielding issues the world has to offer. So please, amidst all this protesting, donating, raising awareness, and other forms of activism, make sure to take care of yourself in the process.

-AMS

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