Wait, a whole LP? Yes, that’s right, while you weren’t looking, I’ve been fiddling about on a specific musical project that ended up being 40 minutes long, which is to say, the length of a traditional LP. It even breaks well into two sides, with Side One being a shade over 23 minutes and Side Two a shade under 17. Did I plan it this way? Ha! No. But when it turned out that way I wasn’t displeased. It’s my longest musical work to date.
And also, formally, my most ambitious. It’s a single long work, with four parts, each with two movements. Each part is comprised of a single musical phrase that consists solely of the “E” note, played across four octaves, with that phrase being stretched and compressed, depending. The first movement has four instruments playing the phrase at different lengths; the second movement reverses the phrase, and shuffles which instrument is playing which phrase length. Each part has its own tempo, instrumentation and effects, including reverbs and arpeggiations, and has a tone and feel distinct from the others.
Why do this? Well, the short answer is that recently I was thinking of the late avant-garde composer Glenn Branca, who sprang not from traditional “classical” environs but out of the “no wave” musical movement of the late 70 and early 80s. Branca’s compositions were often confrontational and experimental, sometimes microtonal or atonal, heavy on treated electric guitars and other instruments not generally associated with symphonies and movements, a real mess and a lot of fun. And on at least one occasion, he’d have his musicians play a single chord, loudly, and explore the tonal landscape that would happen in the sonic crossfire of reverberations.
I am not, to be clear, Glenn Branca. The inspiration I am taking from him here is conceptual rather than directly musical. But I was curious about what would happen when one explores repetition, recurrence and revision, using a same bit of music, applied to the current musical technology.
I was also interested in the idea — and here I make an obvious nod to Brian Eno — of music that is designed as part of a larger experience. Eno’s thing is “ambient” music, to be listened to incidentally, a liminal soundtrack for public spaces (like, famously, airports). For this project I’m not thinking “ambient” per se, since I want you to notice the music more overtly than that. Perhaps “concurrent” would be a better way to put it; played as part of a museum installation, say, to set a specific mood or tone, each part easily repeatable to play continuously as people move through the area. Adding to the experience, and giving an emotional context for it.
Conceptually, then, you could say this album is a looping soundtrack for a cultural event that doesn’t yet exist. There’s a reason the cover art is of an entrance to the Louvre.
(Yes, I know, could I be any more pretentious. Look, concept albums are inherently pretentious. You accept it or you don’t do it. Clearly, I went with it.)
With that as preamble, here’s the album. As of this writing it’s on YouTube and YouTube Music, TIDAL and Amazon Music; Spotify and Apple Music are still processing it (Update: It’s on those two services now, too).
Eternal, Part One (15:25): The original version, with the slowest tempo (68 beats per minute), and the most heterogeneous instrumentation. I’ve noticed that depending on the speakers you put this through, you might hear instruments that aren’t there as the instruments that are there interact with each other sonically. Which is pretty interesting.
Eternal, Part Two (7:43): For this one, all the instruments are the same: a lightly treated piano. Each piano is performing the same arpeggiation, but each arpeggiation is being played at a different speed, from 1/8th of a bar to a single bar. This is played at twice the tempo (136 bpm) of Part One. Of all the parts, this one is probably the “single,” i.e., if you’re going to listen to just one of these, this would probably be it. It’s the prettiest.
Eternal, Part Three (5:40): The fastest (~180bpm), loudest, noisiest and most overtly electronic of the parts, and the only one with a drum track, which skitters over the whole thing like an angry spider. This is also the one where the difference between the two movements of piece is, in my opinion, the most noticeable. This part is the most abrasive one, without a doubt, and is also probably my favorite of the four.
Eternal, Part Four (10:30): The most “moderate” of the pieces in terms of tempo (99 bpm), but possibly the spookiest in terms of instrumentation, with strings that are plucked, buzzed, droned and morphed. This is the part most likely to be heard in an A24 horror film.
Eternal was a bit of a surprise project for me, coming more out of experimentation and exploration than a desire to make something for others to hear. But once I had it, I thought, hey, maybe people might like this. I hope you do. As summer ends here in the US, this is a fine way to take us into a new season.
Songwriter and musician Julie Miller is one of the great secret weapons of the musical genre known as “Americana,” which for those who don’t know, is kind of like if country music and shoegaze had a baby. I became acquainted with her when Emmylou Harris covered a song of hers for her Wrecking Ball album (this one), which eventually led me to Miller’s own 1999 album Broken Things, which is, flatly, tremendous, starting with the first song, “Ride the Wind to Me,” a twangy, plaintive paean to love lost and possibly found again.
My version of this song is not twangy, nor plaintive; I was curious how it would sound with an 80s, gothy, Gene Loves Jezebel sort of vibe, and now I know, and, if you listen to it, so will you. I think it works, although of course it’s held back by my own production shortcomings. But this is why I do these covers; to teach myself how to get better at it. I hope you enjoy it nevertheless.
Also, for compare and contrast, and there is a lot of contrast, the original, below.
ANDRONE | ən-drōn |
- a remote piloted bipedal machine made to mimic the functionality of the human body.
Imagine we were at war, millions of casualties, protesters on the White House lawn, and a wartime debt of trillions, but in this war no one, neither civilian nor military, knows who the fuck we are fighting.
Do you mind if I curse?
In the novel it’s called the “Enigma Campaign” or “World War Who.” Ten years before the opening of the novel, every major military instillation worldwide was attacked by something, but we don’t know what. What we do know is that it’s none of the usual suspects. It’s neither aliens nor AI, no foreign country or ourselves. This antagonistic force, in a word, is (spoiler). And as the attacks become more frequent, more brazen, it will unwittingly destroy both us and itself in the process.
That spoiler is the big idea, and the protagonist of the story was created with specific attributes that thematically and structurally reflect that idea.
Sergeant Paxton Arés is an androne pilot from Oakland, California, and a soon-to-be father. He leaves his grandfather, girlfriend and unborn child to report for duty at Nellis Base in Nevada. Paxton is a bit of jarhead, not the type to speak up or get promoted. He operates one of the lower-tier andrones, a Spartan series, out in some foreign desert from a cockpit a thousand miles away. Every day he waits for an enemy that never shows up.
But Paxton quickly discovers that something is off about the base. As he scratches away at the facade on the surface, he discovers what they are actually at war with and that changes everything—from what he though was humanly possible to his own loyalties with the military.
“The strongest and oldest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” —HP Lovecraft.
I didn’t know the answer to the central question in Androne, “who are we fighting?” I started writing without it. But that idea, a war without an enemy, was the center of gravity, a blackhole for me, the characters, the plotting, everything revolved around it. And for Androne to work, the answer to that question couldn’t be aliens or AI or ghosts or monsters or anything I had read before, that would have been a letdown. It had to be something different to leave an impact on the reader and myself. I haven’t read a novel that has used (spoiler) as an antagonistic devise before, though there are no new ideas. And it’s probably be out there somewhere in the unknown.
Androne is a debut novel. And everything here is unknown. Working with editors, publishers, and new terminology like ARC, never heard that before (Advanced Reader Copy, btw). I traveled into the “literary” unknown, so it’s only fitting that Paxton and his companions journey into the “literal” unknown.
And do you mind if I pun?
Niels Arden Oplev, director of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, described Androne as “a high-end videogame on steroids with a destiny of Shakespearean magnitude.”
And I’ll leave it at that.
For the longest time it seemed impossible we would actually get to this point, but now we’re actually here: All the major renovations we were making to the church are now complete. The very last thing to have done were the bookshelves in the balcony, which span the walls on both wings; we had a local cabinetmaker do them and they are terrific. Here’s a panorama of the bookshelves on the south wing of the balcony:
Those bookshelves are being filled up little by little, since every time we visit the church we bring a box of books from the basement. It will take a little bit of time with that process, but at this point, now that every major renovation thing is done, we’re not in a huge rush.
The renovations were not only to the church; you may recall that we bought the house immediately north of the church, which was in a state of disrepair, brought it down and cleared out the debris. We’ve had some landscaping done in the front to make it look nice from the street, and behind the new firebushes and crabapple trees are what we’re currently calling the “north lawn,” and then a gravel parking lot in the back because the church previously did not have off-street parking. We have plans for the lawn portion but we have to wait a bit; apparently when you take down a house and scoop out the foundations it takes about a year for everything to settle out. Again, we can wait.
Once the renovations were officially done, we had a cleaning crew come in and remove nearly two years of renovation dust, and we took away any remaining detritus from the rebuild. What comes next is furnishing; specifically, my office (Krissy’s is already set up) and the balconies. The plan at the moment is to get it comfortable and cozy, but not, I think, to go all out and try to decorate every nook and cranny right now; we’re presumably going to have years to bring in art and bits and bobs. It’ll be enough to get it to a place where we’re ready to welcome friends and visitors.
When we say we’re done, two things should be understood: First, that there are some minor things that can still stand to be updated (like the church sign outside, which needs a refresh) and some things that we’re not going to get to for a long time if at all (like making the pipe organ functional again). The renovations were to make the church structurally secure and updated; some things that were not directly relevant to that are projects for later. Second, the realization that with a building like this — or any building, really — “done” is a relative term. There’s renovation, and then there is maintenance. We’ll be in the “maintenance” phase of owning this building for as long as we have it, and we plan to have it for a while.
For the record, it never does get old, walking into the church and going, holy buckets, we own this thing. For so long we’ve been on the schedule of contractors and service people and craftsmen, going down a checklist of things that needed to be done before we could start using the place the way wanted and intended to. Finally we’re at the place where the schedule we have for the building is the one we set for ourselves. We still have a few things to do, to get it ready. When we do, we’re going to invite folks in friends to let them see what we’ve done with the place and how we mean to keep it part of the community, even as we use it for our own intended ends. We’re looking forward to that.
Today I Sneezed For Ten Minutes Straight and It Appears to Have Caused Me Some Minor Brain Damage So Here’s a Picture of Smudge High On Catnip While I Recover
We’ve all been there, Smudge. Maybe not because of catnip, but otherwise, yes.
Also, I am fine, honest, I just can’t focus worth a damn. I’m calling the day a wash. Hope yours was all right.
You may remember a post of mine from two months ago over the Best of Hans Zimmer Candlelight Concert I went to in Cincinnati. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to go to another Candlelight Concert. Not even a week after seeing the first one, I got myself a ticket to one in August, and patiently waited.
In my previous post over them, I mentioned that they do tribute performances to popular artists such as Taylor Swift, Adele, Queen, even Bach and Vivaldi. However, this particular show I attended was a bit of a deviation from their standard performances, and I was a little surprised it was even offered. It’s called “Favorite Anime Themes”, and the show featured sixteen iconic anime opening/soundtrack songs, plus a Studio Ghibli medley.
(I’ve gone ahead and put the full list of songs in the comments for y’all to check out.)
The concert was held in The Transept in the Over-the-Rhine area of Cincinnati. Funny enough, it’s only about half a mile from the previous concert’s venue, the Woodward Theater.
The Transept is a gothic-church-turned-event-venue, and it was definitely an impressive establishment.
I was one of the first people there, and managed to get a picture of the inside without anyone in the shot:
And a close up of the stage since I had front row seats:
Like the previous Candlelight Concert I went to, it was a string quartet performance, though this was a different group than last time. This group is called Listeso String Quartet:
(You’re allowed to take photos and videos during the last song of the set.)
This group did an amazing job. Every piece was absolutely spectacular. It filled my heart with joy to hear theme songs from shows I watched years ago performed so beautifully on some of my favorite instruments. I could’ve listened to them all night. I never knew I needed a string quartet performance of anime openings until I got it, and now I want so much more of it.
One of the most interesting parts of going to this concert was seeing all of the different people that attended. I definitely had a particular idea of what kind of people would be there, but I was surprised at the range of demographics in the audience.
On the other hand, unsurprisingly, there were plenty of sightings of things like Totoro purses, anime t-shirts, and even two tweens in cosplay.
I was also surprised at how many people there were. There was probably about a hundred chairs total, all filled, and then a standing balcony which was also crowded with people. It was a great turnout!
The hour passed quickly, and afterwards I walked about two blocks through a lovely public park and arrived at Losanti Steakhouse. I had gone to Losanti after the first Candlelight Concert I went to, and it was so good I just had to revisit it.
Losanti is an Italian steakhouse (I didn’t even know you could combine those two things?) that is modern, intimate, classy, all those good things! I absolutely love the vibe in here, and all the staff and servers are so nice and helpful.
Since I’d been here before, I wanted to make sure I didn’t get anything I had gotten the last time.
The last time around, I had the Queen Bee, the Sage Gimlet, and the Lillet Rose, pictured here:
The Queen Bee was very honey forward, sweet, and herbaceous. The Sage Gimlet tasted like a refined ginger ale, and was refreshing and light. The Lillet Rose was sweet and fruity. They were all great, no wrong choices here.
I also had the crab cake starter, a filet mignon (medium rare), and this super yummy looking truffle mac and cheese:
Needless to say, everything was awesome, and the filet mignon was probably the best I’ve ever had.
So, this time around, I started with the Honeysuckle:
This was sweet, tasted just like honey, smooth, and had a pretty flower! I don’t know about y’all, but I seriously love honey, so this and the Queen Bee are really great choices.
I wasn’t sure what to get for my starter, so the bartender suggested the oysters. They had east and west coast oysters, so I picked west coast, and apparently they were from Washington. I got half a dozen, and they came with their housemade cocktail sauce, housemade ponzu, and housemade hot sauce.
These oysters were so fresh and ultra-buttery-melt-in-your-mouth goodness. I had the first one just with lemon, two with the ponzu sauce, and three with the cocktail sauce. No hot sauce for me, because I’m weak.
I also got a salad. The bartender recommended the Kale Caeser, which was pretty different from other Caesers I’ve had before.
This one had celery and roasted tomatoes, and most noticeably different is obviously the kale as the base. Kale isn’t usually my first choice of leafy green, but this salad was so good! Plus, it was a giant portion.
I also got the Cincy Fizz:
This drink was quite interesting. It was very port forward, so if you like port wine this is definitely a good choice for you. It’s definitely a bit strong for my usual taste, and the foam from the egg white was really interesting texturally speaking. Overall, not my favorite drink, but fun to try.
I decided to try a pasta this time, instead of a cut of meat. I opted for the Orecchiette, with lamb sausage and saffron cream:
I don’t eat lamb all that often, but it was a welcome protein in this creamy pasta. The tomatoes offered a slight acidity to cut through the richness of the saffron cream, and the parmesan and fresh cracked black pepper on top brought it all together.
Again, another generous portion size, and I wanted to save some room for dessert, so I got this boxed up, as well as my salad, and took a look at the dessert menu.
I was torn between the salted caramel gelato and the butter cake, but since the butter cake came with salted caramel gelato, I got that. I expected a slice but got this actual round cake:
This was actually ginormous, and also like the greatest cake I’ve ever eaten?! This thing was off the charts. It’s probably hard to tell in the picture, but the entire cake had this really thin like crystalline sugar layer all over the outside, and it was served nice and warm which made the delicious, creamy gelato all melty and oh my god I actually died and went to heaven upon eating this cake.
One fun thing about this place is that when they bring you the check, they bring it in an old book that you can write in.
I’ve been to quite a few eateries in OTR but Losanti takes the (butter) cake. I highly recommended checking this place out. Not only is the food excellent, but the service is stellar and the atmosphere is perfect.
Which cocktail sounds the best to you? Have you seen any of the anime on the list? What are some places you like in Cincinnati? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!
Because I am the sort of nerd who keeps track of these things, I will note that today marks the 20th anniversary of the first time I ever attended a science fiction convention. On August 28, 2003, having sold Old Man’s War to Tor at the beginning of that year, I decided it was time to meet my future audience and headed to Toronto, Canada to attend that year’s Worldcon, Torcon 3. I went to the airport to board a plane, forgot Toronto was in a different country and I would need a passport to travel, raced home for documents and then drove to Toronto, speeding all the way, to arrive just in time for my very first panel ever (“Day Jobs for Writers”). I was the last panelist to arrive so of course they made me be the moderator. And thus, I was unceremoniously tossed into the deep end of the science fiction convention pool, almost literally before I had caught my breath.
I understand that, here in 2023, it might seem implausible to some that I, Hugo winner and noted mega science fiction nerd John Scalzi, would have attended my very first science fiction convention at the relatively advanced age of (checks math) 34. But, remember, and in some cases, know for the first time, that up until I sold Old Man’s War to Tor, the writing sphere I had mostly existed in had been journalism. Yes, I had been reading and enjoying science fiction all my life, among other genres, but my writing focus was elsewhere. Socially I had never been tied into science fiction or what we would generally now understand as “nerd culture.” Yes, I was a nerd — I was a writer, the Venn diagram there has substantial overlap — but being a nerd wasn’t central to my identity, either personally or professionally.
What was my professional identity? Well, in 2003, I was mostly writing freelance journalism and corporate marketing, and occasional non-fiction books, and I was actually pretty happy about that state of affairs. I had sort of fallen backwards into getting a contract for Old Man’s War, and my assumption, even after getting a contract with Tor for that book and another book to be named later (it became The Android’s Dream), was that novel writing and science fiction would be an occasional side gig at best. I mean, that two-book deal was for $13,000, and I would get that money spread out over several years. On the basis of that, 2003 me did not see a whole lot of potential for novels being anything more than a glorified hobby.
Nevertheless, if I was going to write for the science fiction audience, I thought it would be useful to see who the core of that science fiction audience was. I knew Worldcons existed (that’s where they gave out the Hugos), and in 2003, media cons were not what they are now, or at the very least, there was still enough differentiation between comic book conventions and science fiction conventions that I didn’t see the point of going to the former rather than the latter. Worldcons seemed to me to be at the heart of my potential fandom. Off I went.
I have told the story of my immediate reaction to the Worldcon many times: I got there, did my panel, wandered around and then called my wife (on a payphone! 2003 was a different world!) and informed her I was at the Convention of Misfit Toys. I still stand by that initial impression — there’s nothing wrong with being a misfit toy, y’all — but I acknowledge here in the future that in that particular scenario, the actual misfit toy was me. I was coming from outside into a community and culture that had existed for actual decades (Torcon 3 was the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, after all), and one I had almost no context for, and knew almost no one in.
I mentioned as much to my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden when I saw him in the Royal York Hotel lobby after I had called my wife; he was, literally, the only person I knew at the whole convention. His response to this was to seemingly randomly grab one of the people passing by, say “Cory Doctorow, this is John Scalzi. John Scalzi, this is Cory Doctorow. Cory, John is your con buddy for the rest of Worldcon,” and then leave. Cory sized me up for a second, said, “come on, then,” and then suddenly my problem of not knowing anyone at Torcon 3 was solved.
I should note that Cory did not necessarily have to be stuck with me for the whole convention. He could have just as easily and reasonably ditched me after an hour or so and gone on with his plans for the day. But he didn’t; he let me pad along with him and as a result I met people and began to form friendships that carry on to this day, mine with Cory not the least at all. And it gave me a sense of how a “big name” writer should be to newbies, that I have tried to emulate since. In 2003, Cory was already a Campbell (now Astounding) Award winner and his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom had come out to much acclaim. He was a Pretty Big Deal, and he treated me — whose novel wouldn’t come out for another 18 months — like a peer. I appreciated it then, still do today, and try to pay forward the kindness he showed me with other writers when I can.
Twenty years on I don’t remember many of the details of the convention itself. I vaguely remember opening ceremonies, I remember how clearly happy Rob Sawyer looked to be given the Best Novel award that year, and I remember watching a new pal on a panel get deeply annoyed with another panelist. What I mostly remember, however, are the people I met and became friends with: Sitting in the bar with Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld, with Walter John Williams over there in the corner; having lunch with Nick Sagan who, like me, was new to all of this and comparing notes; chatting with Lesley Livingston at her booth because she was a sci-fi TV celeb in Toronto; listening to Charlie Stross after my reading, who advised me to slow down and actually, you know, breathe; getting an author autograph — my very first ever! — from Geoffrey Landis; having a long and amusing conversation with Robert Silverberg without actually knowing who he was; getting shushed with Lucienne Diver because our conversation was distracting a hotel room from an amusing Connie Willis story; and meeting Allan Steele and noting to him that he was the first person I ever sent fan mail to. These among many others are memories not lost in time, like tears in rain, but still there in my head, and happily so.
(There is one memory which I think is especially kind of fun, which is me sitting with Cory and Charlie in a coffee shop and me saying to my new friends “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if, like, one day we were all Hugo nominees together?” and them very kindly agreeing with the excitable new guy whose first novel wasn’t even out yet that, yes, that would be nice. Six years later, again in Canada, and guess what, there we all were on the Best Novel ballot together! We all lost to Neil Gaiman, sure! But that’s not the point.)
Torcon 3 was the only science fiction convention I went to in 2003; likewise the next Worldcon, in Boston, was the only one I went to in 2004. Then Old Man’s War came out, and I started going to more conventions, and then, eventually, I started going to many, often as a Guest of Honor, which is cool, but sometimes just to show up and see friends and colleagues, which is also cool. I go to so many now that it’s really easy to lose track, and the convention scene is much different now – and a much bigger deal – than it was twenty years ago. That’s mostly good, although I do miss some of the intimacy of the smaller universe that conventions were back in the day.
I won’t be at Worldcon this year; it’s in China, which is a jaunt, and it was moved to October when I’m busy here in the US, doing appearances at other conventions and festivals to promote Starter Villain, my upcoming novel. But I’m happy to say I’m on the Hugo slate this year (rather unexpectedly, from my point of view), and I’ll be at the next Worldcon, in Glasgow, next year. Worldcon is still important to me, and I like to attend when I can.
I’m hoping that the new writers and fans who are experiencing the Worldcon for the first time in 2023 will get to have the same experience that I had at my first: the dizzying disorientation followed by an introduction to a new community, and the beginning of friendships and professional acquaintances that can last decades. Everyone gets their first convention once. I hope if Worldcon is their first, like it was for me, that it’s a good one.
Welcome to the Convention of Misfit Toys, y’all. It’s good to have you here.
(Photo Credit: Debbie Ridpath Ohi)
I was down in the basement music studio today, upgrading software, and I figured as long as I was down there I might as well cover a song, this one by Crowded House. It’s a very pretty song, pretty enough to (almost) mask that it is also a fundamentally sad song. I love it and wanted to try my hand at it. I don’t think Neil Finn has anything to worry about musically, but I enjoyed having a pass at it. I hope you like it too.
And here’s the original for a compare and contrast.
I Was Gonna Post About Trump and His Mug Shot, But Then I Got Busy and Also OMD Came Out With a New Video, So Here Is That Instead
I mean, I will probably talk about Trump again soon! But today has turned out to be a day I need to do things in — I know, so unfair, right? — and also this new OMD single is very OMD, and as someone who grew up with the band, I think of this as a good thing, so, yeah, here, have this instead and I will get back to the rest later. Honestly, you’re getting the better end of the bargain here.
This summer the folks at Science Friday made The Kaiju Preservation Society their book club read, and in addition to talking about the book with each other, they had me come over for an hour-long chat about the book, writing, science and life in general. Here’s the whole interview for your delight. Note the live action part starts at about 3:43 in the run time, and I show up at about 6:50. Enjoy!
Shape-shifting creatures… in small-town North Carolina? There’s a reason they’re there, and as A.J. Hartley explains in this Big Idea for Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, there’s no better place for them to be.
Japanese folkore and mythology is packed with shape-shifting monsters. Seriously. Everywhere you look there’s something pretending to be something else. Some of them are funny (monsters disguised as umbrellas, anyone?). Some are terrifying. Some of them are just plain weird, acting according to a logic only they understand. But all of them reinforce a basic idea about the universe: that nothing is exactly as it appears.
It’s a familiar notion, of course, though it seems to have developed a deeper and more unsettling brand of truth as we wrestle with the implications of, on the one hand, quantum mechanics, and—on the other—a greater awareness of how race, gender and other matters create a disconnect between our we appear to others and how we see ourselves.
About those shape-shifters. My new novel, Hideki Smith, Demon Queller, is set in North Carolina but it’s informed by mystical beings from old Japan (generally called yōkai ) because the book’s protagonists are partly of Japanese heritage. I say partly because the title character (who goes by Caleb) has—like my own son—a Japanese-American mother and a Caucasian father. He and his sister have been raised to assimilate into a small town in which there are no other families like theirs, and they figure the best way to get through the pitfalls of high school is to fit in as best they can.
Except, of course, that they don’t look like they belong in their small mountain town, and changing that isn’t something they control. And their lives get more complicated when monsters start appearing in the woods, monsters whose origins are clearly—if mysteriously—connected to Caleb and Emily’s long-suppressed Japanese ancestry.
These aren’t just monsters of the scary teeth and claws variety, however. They are beings whose appearance can change, giving them a much wider selection of weapons. Many of the yōkai of Japanese legend are supernatural forms of common animals. There are racoon-dogs (tanuki) that can pretend to be teapots or sake barrels but can also appear as people. Sometimes they are tired, old folk who beg you to carry them or perform other tasks, for no reason other than their own amusement.
Tanuki are primarily tricksters, and not always competent ones at that, so they often give themselves away: hilarity, as the book jackets say, ensues. Mujina (a kind of badger) are more inclined to scare whoever they meet, appearing as ordinary people whose faces then vanish. In many versions of the story, the victim runs away, half mad with fear, and tells their tale of terror to the first cop, barman, or restauranteur they meet, only for their confidante to reply, “Was it like this?” Whereupon their face vanishes and the hapless victim blacks out in horror.
Once, when I lived in Japan, I saw a kabuki production in which a young family, lost in the mountains, came upon a tiny Buddhist temple where an elderly nun invited them to spend the night. In one of the most startling visuals I have ever seen on stage, the nun leaned behind the translucent paper screen to pick up a lantern, casting a shadow which revealed her true nature as a bakeneko: a massive and monstrous cat. She then performed a bloody attack on the family, and finally ascended into the heavens above the stage, fully transformed, not so much a cat as into a something somewhere between cat and human, covered in fur (and brandishing the afore mentioned teeth and claws), but clothed in a dazzling kimono.
It was breathtaking and unnerving, because the cat creature wasn’t just dangerous, it was uncanny, the kind of thing that makes your flesh creep because it contradicts what you think you know about the world and your place in it.
The supreme Japanese shape shifter is the fox or kitsune, a being so expert at human transformation that it can do what Caleb and Emily can’t; it can blend in. Kitsune can conceal their true nature so completely that they can marry humans, have kids, and live undetected among people for years at a time. These foxes might only be discovered if someone is particularly attentive to what he or she (often she) gets up to when the fox believes itself to be alone. Occasionally they give themselves away when angry, particularly if their spouse breaks an oath made years before. Sometimes they just get bored of human life and revert to their true form, vanishing into the forest and leaving their families baffled and grieving.
It’s a powerful idea, that sense that nothing and no one is what they appear to be, that even the things we think we know best might be something else entirely, something strange or lethal. After all, none of us is precisely what others take us to be. Inside our heads we are so much stranger and more complex, less easily knowable, than other people think, though somehow—preposterously—we still trust our superficial readings of others.
For my purposes, the sudden appearance of these shape-shifting beings in Portersville, North Carolina, provides more than (I hope) thrills and mystery; they embody a running metaphor for people wrestling with their sense of who they are, were, and might be, while surrounded by other people who assume they know exactly what their appearance means. Nothing is what it seems, least of all us.
Literally ten minutes ago the UPS truck rolled up with my author hardcover copies of Starter Villain. As is tradition, I gave the first copy to Krissy, and the second copy is mine (the third usually goes to my mother-in-law. The fourth usually goes to the Bradford library). I have to say it looks great and I’m delighted to have it here at home. You all will still have to wait another four weeks. Sorry.
This does, however, give me time to remind you that I will be on tour with the book, so go ahead and get that on your schedule, and otherwise, if print is your favorite reading medium, preorder the book from your favorite local bookseller so you know you’ll have your copy on September 19th. They will be happy to take your preorder, I assure you!
Also, in case you’re wondering, it never gets old to see your book in print. This is the thirty-something-odd time. It’s just as great as the first. Hey! I wrote a book!
Author Caye Marsh was treading in unfamiliar territory when she became a mother, and the feelings that came with it ended up being the seed for her newest novel. Follow along in her Big Idea to see how being a mother assisted in forging the path for Peace In The Sky.
Sometime in the small hours of the morning I got up to nurse my first child. The house was dark and silent, the baby in my arms was mostly still a stranger to me. And the whole business of being a parent was entirely new territory.
I was sleep-deprived, sore, often weepy and sad. But I was quickly forming a profound and deep connection like I had never, ever known. It was more compelling than duty, more inseverable than any family ties, greater even than love itself.
And it made me wonder – would I know my child anywhere? What would it take to break this bond?
My muddled brain began spinning me a story in the those shifting, hazy hours of the night when I was stumbling around half-conscious, nursing or changing diapers. During those hours in which time had no meaning, it felt easy to inhabit a time far in the future. It felt easy to imagine the confusion and brain fog of a character who couldn’t quite remember herself or recall her former purpose, for whom the present was the only meaningful time. It was the only sort of character who made sense to me.
After I finally got some sleep, and started to find the rhythm of nursing and schedules and naps, I began to make a real story out of those distracted musings. I wrote about a woman in an addled state who meets a child she does not recognize. But when the child calls her Mama, she experiences all those feelings that I’d had while I nursed my newborn — that intense, imperative desire to protect, to provide, to nurture and cherish. It was my way of working through those feelings in the abstract while I lay under their spell in my reality.
I wrote about a character who has forgotten who she once was and has to remake herself in an altered and challenging world. Her only certainty is the urgent, all-consuming need to get her daughter to safety. Nothing else matters to her, and she actively resists claims anyone else makes on her time or energies. And that felt a lot like parenthood to me.
The book is about more than just that, of course. It’s about an Earth growing into a new equilibrium after being unbalanced for so long. It’s about different peoples struggling in the confines of their separate cultures and environments, and the ways in which they interact both for better and for worse. And it’s about a woman hiding from her own truth, and therefore so much more clear-eyed about the truths of others.
But at the heart of the story is a mother who is learning what it feels like to be a mother.
I spent the weekend away with friends and then today I did two interviews, one for print and one for radio, and now I’m surfacing to see what’s going on in the world. Want to come along with me? Sure you do!
Trump Has to Shell Out $200,000 For Bail in Georgia: Actually, as I understand it, he really only has to put down 10% of that in cash, which is probably good for him, seeing that his lawyer bills are pushing him in the direction of “broke” these days, which delights me, he deserves every bit of that. Apparently among the terms of the bail is that he can’t make threats, “direct or indirect,” against anyone who is a co-defendant or witness for the trial, which means that soon the Fulton County Jail is going to come into some money, since Trump is (heh) constitutionally unable to not channel his existential panic through either his tongue or his thumbs. It may be the easiest bail money revocation ever, honestly.
Trump still has to surrender to authorities by this Friday, and it’ll be interesting to see if they’re going to make him do a mug shot. They said they would — he’s just like any other citizen! — but we’ll see.
Elon Musk Admits the Former Twitter May Fail: This is after a weekend where apparently someone poured Fresca into the one remaining operating server, severing connections to links and photos posted before 2014, and of course Musk announced the end of blocking on the service, which prompted enough of an exodus to other services that Bluesky found its own server overheating, as everyone who had been banking an invite there suddenly tried to port themselves over. Musk’s phrasing of the possible imminent failure of his $44 billion trash fire was unusually passive and fatalistic, suggesting that he doesn’t want to take responsibility for his part in it, and/or that he was stoned to the gills as wrote it.
Either way, it’s not exactly the most positive spin Musk could have put on the current situation, which is, remember, entirely of his own doing and every little bit of it is his fault.
Hurriquake! California doesn’t disappoint; not content merely to have its first hurricane/tropical storm in 84 years, the Golden State also unleashed a 5.3 earthquake during the downpour, with dozens of smaller aftershocks thereafter. The silver lining on this particular rain cloud is that so far there don’t appear to be any deaths, and while the storm that broke rainfall records across the state created floods and mudslides, which are not good and can be a danger, it could have been much worse, damage-wise. Take your breaks where you can.
Climate change being what it is, it’s a reasonably safe bet it won’t be another 84 years before another tropical storm hits the area.
Mortgage Rates, Oy: They’re up to 7.48%, which is the highest they’ve been since the turn of the century, and by the way, there’s a phrase that makes me feel old. It’s also by some measures the least affordable time to be buying a house in four decades, so if you were thinking of buying recently, maaaaaybe hold off a bit if you can. Apparently overall house prices are down a bit in the last couple of months, but any savings you get from that would be erased by the interest rates. So if you are in the market for a house right now, sympathies.
Let’s end on a cat: Which will also serve as a reminder that the Scamperbeasts are now on Instagram if you would like to follow them there:
Hello, my lovely readers! It’s Friday, and I wish to bestow upon you a song that you can spend all weekend jamming out to. I know I certainly have it on repeat, at least.
Here’s Conan Gray’s new single, “Never Ending Song”:
Don’t worry, it’s not actually a never ending song, in fact it’s only about two and a half minutes.
Let me know what you think of the song, and have a great weekend!
Things Get Ugly has been years in the making, containing my best crime stories from the eighties on. Not every crime story I’ve written is included, and even some of my best ones were left out due to lack of room. Fifty years of writing leaves a lot of short stories out there.
I’m pretty proud of these stories, and that may sound somewhat prideful, but I like to think No Brag, Just Fact. The reader can decide.
These aren’t the sort of stories you want to read in one sitting. That might be too much. One a day isn’t a bad way to go, but if you’re a gulper, then have at it. They touch on, shall we say, sensitive subjects, and sometimes they cut deep into sensitive subjects, and those subjects bleed.
People die, both good and bad. People do terrible things. That’s just life. Things tend to get ugly.
Several of the stories are based on real events that I was a part of or witnessed. I’ve experienced many a weird thing. Reality can be a violet, ugly mess at times. “Mr. Bear” is not based on anything real. Bears cannot fly on planes nor talk.
I don’t offer trigger warnings, but I can say here is one sort of warning I will offer. I wrote the stories. And if you’re familiar with my work, that should be enough.
“Yes, yes, you traveled to Washington and New York for the last week, and you got to see people and have adventures. That’s very nice. But now you’re back, and, what is that? A pile of work you’ve been ignoring while you’ve been on the road? Well, guess what you get to do now, pal?”
Spice. She is tough but fair. And not wrong. Lots of work to catch up on. I should get to it.
Collaboration is key. Whether it’s writing a book together, backing a Kickstarter together, or changing the world together, people need each other to make things the best version they can be. Follow along with authors Alyc and Marie, who joined together as M. A. Carrick to bring you the newest novel in their Rook and Rose Trilogy, Labyrinth’s Heart.
M. A. CARRICK
All our patterns are real.
The Rook and Rose trilogy features a deck of cards (live on Kickstarter as we speak!) that gets used for divination. We’ve mentioned the pattern deck in our previous Big Idea pieces for The Mask of Mirrors and The Liar’s Knot, because our book titles are drawn from card names . . . but that’s not just a tactic for settling on titles. It’s a nod toward the centrality of pattern in this series as a whole.
It wasn’t originally meant to be that central, though. We knew we wanted Ren, our con artist protagonist, to have a deck of cards she used for divination, and we settled on “pattern” as the name because it echoes the association of threads and weaving with fate. That choice had unforeseen consequences: not only did Vraszenian culture become Textile Motifs Ahoy about 0.18 seconds after we named the deck, but when we sat down to refine the differences between our three magical traditions (imbuing, numinatria, and pattern), our word choice shaped our thinking. Pattern gets used for divination, via the cards, but its core is something deeper.
Pattern is the connections between things.
Or, to borrow a line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.”
That’s the heart of our story. Not a lone heroine changing the world single-handed, but a tapestry of characters bound together by their relationships, both good and bad. Our books are 600-page bricks because we need the room to show those connections, how a tug on a thread here causes the fabric to wrinkle there. And how when change happens, it’s not because one person performed a singular act; it’s because enough threads wove into enough of a net to drag the world in a new direction.
Which sounds very distant and philosophical, but in practice it’s all about the character moments, because those are what we live for (as both writers and readers). There’s violence in our novels — in Labyrinth’s Heart, even war — but what ultimately defeats one of the villains is the severance of connections that have until that point been protecting them. Meanwhile, another person gets saved by the remaking of a connection that’s broken. That’s the damnation or salvation of a lot of our characters: they live or die, find a home or get exiled, achieve their goals or go up in a ball of metaphorical flame, as a consequence of their relationships with the people around them. Not by chance or their own choices alone, but by the bonds they’ve made, or renounced, or failed to form in the first place.
Kind of like our collaboration. We can point to some individual concepts and plot beats and lines where that was definitely Alyc’s doing, or Marie’s . . . but the series as a whole exists because of our friendship, because of the years in which our creative bond has grown and strengthened until it can bear this kind of fruit. Neither of us could have written this trilogy solo — not in the form it has, with all that depth and richness of detail.
When we say “all our patterns are real,” we’re usually talking about the divination that appears in the story. Marie has a deck of blank cards marked up with Sharpie; any time someone in the books lays a pattern, she shuffled and dealt those cards, and whatever we got, we wrote into the text. (Except when our con artist heroine is working with a stacked deck, of course.) But on that deeper level, where pattern isn’t just cards but the connections between things — between people — it’s still true. We came into this series with a set of characters and their relationships, and we built our world and our plot to make those relationships go. They’re the beating heart of the story; pattern is the reflection of that heart.
And did we mention it’s on Kickstarter? We’ve dreamt for years of replacing that Sharpie-marked deck with properly illustrated cards; now, to commemorate the release of Labyrinth’s Heart, we’re trying to make our dream a reality. But the success of a Kickstarter, like the success of a series, isn’t the work of a single person; it involves editors, artists, readers, backers, a whole mass of threads weaving together into a beautiful fabric.
That’s magic, right there.