Big Idea

The Big Idea: Trent Jamieson

With all things in life, balance is the key. This is also true for author Trent Jamieson’s newest novel, The Stone Road. Follow along with this Big Idea to see how he found balance between novels, and in his own life.


A week after I turned forty, the seventh cranial nerve on the right-hand side of my face was severely damaged by an infection, I literally woke up to a different face in the mirror. I couldn’t speak clearly, I couldn’t blink my right eye, the right side of my face drooped painfully: everything changed. 

I went back to work a couple of days later, and after the tenth person asked me what was wrong, and I mumbled my response for the tenth time (Bell’s Palsy is almost impossible to say when you have it) I sat in the storage cupboard behind the counter at the bookstore where I work and cried.

I’d written five novels in the previous couple of years, and I was exhausted. Everything had been rush, rush, rush, while holding down a day job, and teaching at night. My life was a wreck, and I’d lost the face that I’d known all my life. I needed to slow down. But it’s a risk to slow down. All my books had been fast-paced, rollercoaster rides, that rattled from scene to scene. I wasn’t sure if I knew how to write novels any other way. I wasn’t sure if I slowed down that I would even have a writing career left.

The answer was in my short fiction. Before I ever really thought about writing novels, I had been a short story writer. Bittersweet was my happy place. Slower, more reflective work the kind of material I leaned into. It was the sort of fantasy that I liked to read as well, the Earthsea Books in particular, but I had never been confident enough to bring it into my fiction.

I had been working on a novel based on a short story of mine called Day Boy. It was a dystopian fantasy about a wild kid that worked for a vampire in a small country town. It was a book of grim fathers and violent sons, and the choices we all must make between dark and light. It was epic in a quiet way, it was a heart breaking, and an angry voice shouting defiance. I decided to write it as an episodic novel, building slowly to a wild ending, a sort of violence as dislocating and sudden as losing your face to Bell’s Palsy.

Day Boy was the best book that I had ever written, and people liked it. It even won two Aurealis awards, and was short-listed for a few other prizes.

But I felt it needed another story to balance it. And that balance found itself in The Stone Road. It is a book of grandmothers and granddaughters and the boundaries that they must walk to protect their town. I imagined it in a weirder, wilder part of the Day Boy world, and I wanted it to address the violence at the heart of Day Boy

Like Day Boy, it had begun as a short story, but it went in directions that I had never expected. In Day Boy, the vampires protect people from the monsters that threaten their communities by fighting them, in The Stone Road, Jean and her grandmother must deal with monsters by outsmarting them. It’s a book about community, death and family secrets: a slow burning fire that blazes by the end. 

Both books reflected my bewilderment at life, at the abrupt change I found in the mirror, and both taught me a lot. That there is power in the quiet and the slow, and that resilience isn’t found quickly, and even when it’s found it’s fragile, but we move on. We have to.

It’s been a decade since I got Bells, my face never quite recovered, I have a crooked smile, my right eye waters when I eat, and sometimes the nerve will start ticking in my eyelid or locking up when I am nervous or tired. My body will never let me forget. I wrote these two, quiet books, about community, and fathers and sons, and grandmothers and granddaughters, and I became a father myself. My life is richer, different, but it’s still me. I write for the joy it gives me, no matter how hard writing often is. 

I look back at that sad broken person who started their forties, and I hardly recognise him, but together we took the path into the quiet, slower places, and we’ve done alright. You can tear yourself apart, but you can also put yourself back together again. Maybe that’s a little idea, I don’t know, but it feels big to me.

The Stone Road: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


An Imperfect Apple

While walking the dog earlier today we walked by the neighbor’s apple trees, on which apple are coming in nicely but are not yet ready to be eaten. One thing I note about all the apples is that, even in this still-early stage of growth they are, largely, wildly misshapen and would never make the cut for a supermarket produce section. It doesn’t mean they won’t taste good (previous apples from other years confirm they do), it just means that they are lumpy and gnarled and would be destined for applesauce or juice or some other end where their cosmetics don’t matter.

I will still eat them, happily, however, with my neighbor’s say-so. I reject artificial beauty standards for real fruit! Long live ugly apples! Until, uh, I get them in my belly, anyway.

This post is clearly written so I can have an excuse to post this picture of an apple. Lumpy or not, I think it looks pretty cool.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Will Wiles

Over time, little things can add up. This is the case for empires falling, governments collapsing, and sickness spreading. In Will Wiles’s Big Idea, he goes into detail about how being aware of these little things can lead to big changes. See what changes await in The Last Blade Priest.


Decay, that’s the thing. I wanted to talk about decay. Not physical decay, but the decay of cultures and institutions – an awful creeping fear that the familiar world is crumbling, and might have been crumbling for some time. It was 2016 and I didn’t much like the way the world was going – in the UK, at least, the existing order was fracturing, a rupture that felt quite sudden, but also the result of fault lines that had been growing and rumbling for years. The outlook seemed ominous, but within it were intriguing glints of possibility.

At the time I was reading John Julius Norwich’s immense, wonderful history of Byzantium, and I was struck by how long decline can take, and how it can be interspersed with periods of relative quiet and even recovery in between flashes of irrecoverable disaster. The scenery can appear quite normal, before it falls over with a bang. A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is asked how he went bankrupt, and he answers: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” 

You’d think, when an institution is entrusted with a vital responsibility, it would never lose sight of that trust. But it happens all the time, throughout history. Armies become more interested in bribes and kingmaking than defence of their state. Religions sink into luxury, or become hidebound and pedantic and incapable of change. The watchdogs of democracies drift into slumber.

These processes, the workings of decay, fascinated me as an undergraduate student of history, and they fascinate me today. The gears turn, and then – crash. Gradually, then suddenly. Sometimes, the occupants of these systems are unaware of the slow-turning disaster. Sometimes, they are aware, but powerless. Sometimes, it’s their efforts to change course that hasten the final crisis. 

Gloomy thoughts, you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong – but tremendous narrative. It’s fascinating for a reason, and it’s an underpinning of the Gothic. Decay is, after all, a process of life – the dead whale sinking to the lightless floor of the ocean makes that desert blossom with weird and wonderful creatures. Of course, it’s best enjoyed through the pages of a book, in an armchair in a stable and prosperous society, rather than witnessed in the fabric around us. But reflecting on these things can help us keep alert to the warning signs and the wicked problems.

So, an institution is entrusted with an awesome responsibility. At the heart of the world there is a Mountain, a Mountain completely unlike the mountains around it, with a dreadful ever-shifting countenance that repulses anyone who looks at it too long. Perhaps it’s not a mountain at all, but it is the size of a mountain and among mountains so it is called the Mountain.

The Mountain is the source of all magic in the world, and can grant godlike powers to any person willing to journey to it and strike a bargain with its monstrous protectors. And it has spawned a world religion based on human sacrifice to appease the avian necromancers that guard the Mountain, and a simple mission: ensure that no human ever gives themselves the power of a god. 

Simple. A typical fantasy set-up maybe, a hidden kingdom defending a magical resource of incalculable value. And my earliest outline had a fairly typical approach to the set-up: a questing party, from an upstart nation that doesn’t respect the old ways, aims to penetrate this mountain fastness. The sprawling monastery-fortress of the decadent priests and their monstrous demigods would naturally be the destination of that story, held for the end.

But the more I thought about that rotten religion and its factional battles in a demon-haunted fortress, the more time I wanted to spend there. Why store them up for the end, and then see them only from the outside? Why not spend a little more time with them? 

Moreover, what if some of the priests at the heart of this ancient religion weren’t entirely blind to their decayed state, and had some awareness that the world outside was changing? And, in fact, even the gods realised things had to change? Suddenly there were two stories to tell: the brash, infidel newcomers, and their quest to open up this secret religious kingdom; and the struggle within that religion between reform and tradition.

At the heart – excuse me – of this battle is the question of human sacrifice, an ancient necromantic rite to bind men to their gods, which the gods now say isn’t needed any more. For one of the young priests in training to deliver death to the gods, this comes as a great, secret, relief – but puts him in vastly more danger than he realises. 

This seemed like a great opportunity to get inside some of these questions of decay and renewal, and competing visions of progress in a world gripped by a gathering crisis – but also to have a lot of fun with a story of intrigue, murder, betrayal and human folly. And at the heart – sorry, again – would be the vital question of responsibility, and who gets to wield power, when those best placed to take it are not the ones you’d want using it. 

Also there are abominable snowmen. 

The Last Blade Priest: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

Athena Scalzi

An Attempt At Binging With Babish’s Ube Roll

Did that look super difficult or what?! I certainly thought it did, which is why I was hesitant about making this dessert. I knew I had to put aside my reluctance and just go for it. What was the worst that could happen?

So, I started by looking for the ingredients on Amazon, because I had a feeling the Dollar General in town wouldn’t have powdered ube. I wasn’t sure what kind to buy, so I watched through the video and paused when I saw his package of powdered ube, and just bought the exact same kind. Luckily, the one I bought actually came bundled with a McCormick brand tiny bottle of ube flavor, which I also needed. This bundle was thirteen dollars. I also had to buy violet food coloring, which was six dollars for a small bottle.

Other than those oddities, everything else needed is super standard ingredients that most people already have on hand. Except maybe the cake flour, but that’s not too terribly hard to acquire. I will say, though, that you need a full dozen eggs for this recipe, so if you’re like me and break yolks when trying to separate, or are just clumsy and drop one on the floor, buy an 18 pack of eggs instead of just a dozen. Leave room for mistakes.

Once I had acquired all the ingredients, I got to work and started by mixing the powdered ube with boiling water, resulting in this purple paste.

Then I combined the eggs, sugar, flour, rehydrated ube, ube flavoring, vegetable oil, and food coloring together in a stand mixer. Unsurprisingly, it came out purple.

This batter looked to be the same color as Babish’s end result roll, so I thought I was off to a strong start. I did find it odd how the batter was sort of frothy, though. I’ve never really seen a batter be foamy before, unless it has yeast in it, but this didn’t, so it was a little off-putting.

Babish says to put the batter on a quarter sheet pan (a 9×13 baking sheet), but I don’t have one of those, so I opted for this glass casserole dish that is also 9×13. I had a feeling this would alter the bake time, since it didn’t get to spread out quite as thinly.

The recipe says to let it bake for 10-15 minutes, but mine ended up baking for twenty before I decided it was about as done as it was gonna get.

It came out not quite right, to say the least.

Why was it so spongy? And sticky? And grossly colored?

I flipped it over onto a plate and started to peel off the parchment paper, but kept tearing the cake apart because it was so stuck to the paper. My dad ended up getting the paper off far more cleanly than I was, and here was the bottom-side of it.

Bruh. It looked like a sheet of seaweed. And it had so many weird lines in it?! I was disheartened. But I figured buttercream could save the day, so I started on that.

I’ve never actually made buttercream before, so I was shocked to learn about the inclusion of eggs in it. The recipe says to combine the ingredients (except the butter) in a bowl and put it over a pot of simmering water until the mixture reaches 160 degrees. Well, I still don’t have a thermometer, so I didn’t know how hot it was, but eventually I got bored of waiting and figured I’d risk the potential salmonella. So I put the mixture into the stand mixer and whipped the hell out of it until it looked like this.

After adding all four sticks of butter, it looked like this!

It honestly just looked like super fluffy butter, and I half expected it to just taste purely like butter since there was a whole four sticks in it, but it actually tasted so good I could hardly believe I made it. It was better than any icing I’d ever made before, or any icing I’d ever had, for that matter. It was dangerously delicious.

So, I got my ugly little cake ready to roll.

And rolled it did! Without cracking, I might add!

As you can see, it is significantly darker than it’s supposed to be, and also browner. And also has weird spots and marking all over it. This bitch was UGLY.

Also, I overstuffed it.

You can barely see the swirl of cake with how much buttercream I loaded into this bad boy.

So, it was definitely not perfect, appearance-wise. But how did it taste? I don’t really have a reference for how it’s supposed to taste, but it wasn’t half bad! The cake was a little too dense and chewy, but it sort of tasted coconut-y and was very mild flavor. It was mostly just overwhelmingly buttercream-y. But, not horrific for my first attempt, I’d say.

Charlie would say, too.

Have you tried making this before? Would you try a slice? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and have a great day!


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Zac Topping

“Better to bring a casserole to your neighbor’s house than a shotgun” is a Midwest saying that rings extra true in author Zac Topping’s new novel, Wake of War. Follow along in his Big Idea as he takes you through war-torn streets of the near-future — streets that are all too familiar.


Crumbling, bullet-pocked buildings. Bombed out streets. Dust and rubble and the sound of snapping gunfire. A place that people had once called home, now called a combat zone. Devastation, despair. The epicenter of societal collapse. A scene that could be from any number of war-torn cities in far-off countries we see cycling through the news every day. But what if it wasn’t in some distant place? What if it was right here at home where you couldn’t just change the channel and put it out of your mind? 

That was the question I sought to explore in the pages of Wake of War, a near-future military thriller in which the United States finds itself embroiled in a second civil war. What would a conflict like this look like here on American soil? What would it mean for the future of the nation? How would it change our way of life? And if we could just imagine what it would be like for those of us here in the States, could we maybe better understand what it is others are going through elsewhere around the world? Would we be so quick to call for violence if we truly understood what that meant?

A lot of questions, I know, but it’s safe to say that it’s a good time to be asking them. Over the last several years we’ve come closer to the brink than ever before. We’ve seen cities burn. Protests turn to riots. Armor-clad enforcers snatching people off the streets. Tempers are high, opinions are set, and the political landscape has become dangerously volatile. Tensions are high for a reason, though. There’s a lot that needs to be set straight here in the US. An abundance of archaic mindsets preventing forward progress. Some radical ideas that might possibly be overcorrection. All the necessary ingredients for conflict laid out before us. 

Now I don’t pretend to have the answers, not even close. I consider myself an average person of average intellect with an average understanding of what’s going on. But what I do have is some perspective as to where we may be headed. You see, I’ve been to war. I’ve walked those rubble-strewn streets, I’ve seen the devastation violent conflict brings. I’ve been a part of that. But it was in a country on the other side of the world. It wasn’t my home. They weren’t my streets, and there’s a disconnect there that makes things…hazy. So to make things undeniably clear, I brought the story home.

Wake of War isn’t about the politics that led the nation to war. It isn’t about generals moving pieces around the board, or leaders plotting and scheming grand plans for domination. It isn’t a twisted fantasy of the apocalypse. It’s a story about the people who are caught up in the fighting, the people who are trapped by the violence, and rendered helpless by the inescapable situation. It’s a boots-on-the-ground look at where we may be headed if we don’t figure out how to live and thrive together. Wake of War is a cautionary tale. Brutal, raw, uncomfortable. But if we don’t look away, and if we truly consider the consequences of a complete societal failure, maybe we can realize that’s not the outcome we want. And instead of fighting, instead of burning the country to the ground, we can work together to create a better future, for all of us.

Wake of War: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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


Hitting the Big Time, Musically

I was curious about getting my musical compositions onto streaming services, and I was recommended DistroKid to do this — for a flat annual fee they will get your music up onto just about every service that streams music. I went ahead and used my most recent musical track (now subtitled “The Vince Clarke Fan Club Convenes”) as a guinea pig to see how DistroKid did in delivering the piece to the waiting masses.

The answer: Pretty well. My piece hit Tidal in under an hour and was on Spotify and other major services less than 24 hours later. DistroKid also connected the piece to previously existing musician profiles on most of the major services, and gave me access to Spotify’s artist portal, so I could update my musician page there, which I was never able to do before. And then they even generated a cute little graphic (see above) that I could use to promote the piece.

They also had me price the track for the stores that still MP3s (Amazon, for example), so I set it to 69 cents (I know, I know: “Nice”). That said, I don’t actually recommend you purchase the track for actual money. Just stream it, and if you really want the mp3 of it, here it is for free. If I put together something I think is actually worth your money, musically speaking, I’ll let you all know.

The one drawback to DistroKid that I can see is that if you stop paying it the annual fee, then all the music you distribute through them apparently falls off the service (unless you pay an extra one time fee to keep it up, which one assumes you would have to do for each track uploaded). This isn’t a problem for me, since my current plan is less than $40 a year. But there’s nothing to say that can’t go up, perhaps dramatically, over the course of time. It’s something to be aware of.

Otherwise, I’m satisfied with how it works. I’m not likely to send every noodle-y musical composition I put together to the streaming services, but it’s nice to know that when I have something I would like to share there, I have a simple, efficient and relatively cheap way to do it.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Alex White

Sacrifices in stories generally tend to be noble ones. Characters are made to suffer but always for the greater good. Author Alex White shows us that sometimes things are just plain bad, and sacrifices are no fun. So how do the main characters in August Kitko & The Mechas From Space manage to find any joy in the lives they’ve been dealt?


I think there has always been a tendency to try and characterize a story by its dominant emotion—after all, that’s the root of the movie genre system (action, comedy, drama, romance, etc.). Oftentimes, when a character is struggling with an insurmountable, perhaps lethal force, we classify these tales as tragedies. It’s the mom dying of cancer, or the soldiers about to make their final, hopeless charge. Perhaps the characters can affect some sort of major change in their final hours, but they’re still considered sad stories, bittersweet at best.

“Rebellions are built on hope,” says the Star Wars character about to be incinerated by a nuclear blast.

Is hope the same as happiness? The promise of tomorrow certainly isn’t enough to cut it; there are too many people whose tomorrows are just as crappy as today. If you’re dying, are you entitled to feel optimistic? While the answer is, “Of course!” I don’t often see that resoundingly appear inside of genre fiction. It’s always hope for others, hope for a world that will survive you.

In August Kitko & The Mechas From Space, the two main characters have been chosen as Conduits by the invading giant robots known as Vanguards. To interface with these machines, August and his love interest, Ardent Violet, have a lot of tech forced into their bodies (our society is often traumatic to the queer form, but that’s a different Big Idea). They both experience deep depersonalization from the invasive and damaging nature of the modifications. Worse still, these changes will one day kill the characters—humans weren’t meant to be Conduits, and one day, it will burn them out and poison them. It won’t be pretty.

A lot of people in our world face something that will abridge their lives, whether it’s illness, stress or poor living conditions. My spouse has a progressive, degenerative disease that will one day kill her—maybe sooner, maybe later. That’s just on a personal level. On a global level, we have over a million dead from a preventable pandemic, and millions if not billions more about to be displaced by preventable climate change. What are we supposed to do when so much of life falls outside of our control? How do we find happiness in a tragic framework?

The characters inside my story are so much smaller than the forces that guide the plot that it’s almost laughable. Not one of them can punch out a giant robot, and they’re not genius pilots. They’re scarcely chosen ones, more like the cursed, and sometimes it felt a bit existentialist to write. Genre fiction is obsessed with telling us the smallest voices make the biggest difference, but what if that’s not your lived experience?

We idolize characters like Bilbo and Samwise because they’re tiny people that create the ripples that knock down the Great Evil. They personally deliver the killing blow, and that’s enjoyable and cathartic. My Salvagers trilogy fits that mold nicely, but reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Plenty of people in Lord of the Rings died to remove single drops from that ocean of troubles, their lives as spent and useless as match heads. Sure, some of the Hobbits went on an adventure! Other people had to leave their elderly to be put to the orc sword because they likely couldn’t travel, to say nothing of any orc born unworthy for battle. Surely protagonists exist in those populations, even if they can’t infiltrate Mordor and duel a giant spider.

There’s too much evil to fight all at once, so is it still valid to be a mote of good when you can affect very little? And if so, is it still okay to be happy inside of dark circumstances? We can’t simply flush away the lives people lived because the ends are at odds with our conception of heroism. These characters deserve to make choices that are meaningful to them, empowering within the scale of their own lives.

At the end of the day, Earth is just an infected drop of water spinning through space. The people here matter, even if they’re not the elites that poison our planet and thrust us into bloody conflict. The daily choices they make that affect only their immediate spheres are still valid, interesting entertainment. That’s what I’ve sought to capture with August Kitko & The Mechas From Space—two characters falling madly in love while the worlds burn.

August Kitko & The Mechas From Space: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

Athena Scalzi

Trying A Unique Treat: Misaky Tokyo

You ever seen a rock and been like, “man I wish I could eat that”? Just have the urge to take a chomp right out of a geode and all its crunchy goodness? I have had this problem my whole life, but even more so after handling so many pretty rock samples in geology class last semester. Thankfully, I found Misaky Tokyo, a candy company that makes edible crystals treats. These crystal candies are vegan and gluten-free, and each piece is handmade in the US.

When I was deciding which box to try back at the end of June, I decided to go with the Pride Box. Normally, I don’t like to buy pride stuff from companies because usually they’re just pandering and all that money goes to super rich CEOs, but I made an exception for this company, because it’s a minority, LGBTQIA+, women owned company, and 5% of profits from each Pride Box get donated. Plus, they were including two all new flavors in this box, so I didn’t want to miss out the chance to try those.

When my package arrived, it came wrapped in a rainbow ribbon.

I’m not sure if they wrap all boxes with ribbons or if this was a special Pride Box only decoration, but it was cute!

Upon opening, there was this label of all the gems and their flavors sitting on top.

There was also another small piece of paper under this one that said that even though the crystals were individually wrapped in plastic, it was a compostable plastic packaging. So that was neat.

After I unwrapped each one, I tried to take this artsy shot, but the three in the back are out of focus as a result. So I just took them out and lined them up regularly.

As you can see, the red one is spinel, and is strawberry cherry flavored. The orange heart-shaped one is an orange sapphire, and is blood orange passionfruit flavored. The hexagonal yellow one is amber, and is yuzu flavored. The green one is jade, and is matcha flavored, and is personally my favorite appearance-wise. The blue topaz and purple jasper were the two new flavors (I’m not positive, but pretty sure). One is lavender, and the other is purple sweet potato, orange, and cinnamon.

I decided just to go in order down the line and try them. So I picked up the red, bit into it, and was surprised when I bit through the crunchy outer layer and hit a gummy center.

Here I thought I had pure rock candy on my hands. The outside was wonderfully crystalline and crunchy, and I was not expecting such a Jell-O-esque inside. However, it was an amazing combination, and worked so perfectly. As for the flavor, it was super good. The strawberry cherry was everything I could’ve hoped for. Anytime I eat something cherry flavored, I worry about it tasting like cough syrup, but I can assure you this cherry flavored candy was delicious, no medicine taste in sight.

Moving on to the orange sapphire, this one had an even thicker layer of the gummy inside.

I actually loved the fact that there was even more Jell-O-y stuff inside than the last one, and the orange flavor was so classic and simple. Totes delicious.

I was excited for the yellow one, because it was yuzu flavored, and usually the only time I get to have yuzu flavored stuff is when I used to get snack boxes from Sakuraco (since it’s a Japanese citrus fruit).

The yellow one had a much slimmer layer of the gummy inside, but had extra crunchy pieces on top, so that was nice. It was a lot closer to the rock candy I had been expecting in the first place. It also tasted great! I was mostly just a lemony flavor, since lemons and yuzu are super similar.

Up next was the prettiest in the box, the jade.

I’m quite used to the flavor of matcha, but only from Starbucks iced matcha lattes, which have 28g of sugar. This was not as sweet. This was earthy, and slightly bitter. It’s like if you’ve only ever had milk chocolate your whole life, and then you bite into a bar of unsweetened baking chocolate. So, though being my favorite in the box appearance-wise, it was my least favorite flavor-wise.

Onto the blue topaz!

Just kidding, because somehow I forgot to photograph this one. Which is unfortunate because it was different than all the others! It wasn’t filled with jelly at all! It was pure, solid rock candy. And boy was it crunchy. And it was wonderfully lavendery. I quite enjoyed this one.

Finally, the purple one.

This one was probably the most underwhelming in terms of texture, because it was the least crunchy on the outside (if you don’t include the white crunchy pieces on top), but also had a thin gummy center. Going back to the orange one, it wasn’t the crunchiest on the outside, but it had an extra thick gummy center. Also, the blue one was super crunchy on the outside, with no filling on the inside. So for this one to be not very crunchy on the outside, and not very filled on the inside, makes it the most underwhelming in the box texturally. The flavor was really great though, if you like ube (Japanese sweet potato, commonly used in desserts).

All in all, this box of candy was supremely enjoyable, and I would totally buy them again, even though they were expensive. I would recommend these if you’re someone like me who seeks out delicious, bougie treats that make you feel fancy and taste amazing. My favorite pieces from this box were definitely the blue topaz and the spinel. I wish I could buy pieces individually, instead of getting the whole box. If I got another box, I would try the Wishing Star Box.

If you’ve tried this brand before, what did you think? Which flavor here sounds the best to you? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!



Some New Music From Me, For You

Because I was fiddling around with my musical instruments today, that’s why, and was feeling a bit synth-y and Vince Clarke-ish. I actually played every instrument on this track, save the drums, which were your basic EDM beat out of a drum machine. It doesn’t have a name other than “7/16/22” because apparently I used all my creativity on the track. Maybe I’ll give an actual name somewhere. No, I’m not giving up my day job. But I’m having fun, which is the important thing. Enjoy.

Also, if you like it, here’s an mp3 file of it.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Ryan Van Loan

In Ryan Van Loan’s third installment of The Fall of the Gods series, the author sheds light on an important fact: being smart doesn’t guarantee being wise. This makes a world of difference for the protagonist of The Memory in the Blood.


My Big Idea for The Memory in the Blood began with a fundamental character flaw: intelligence. 

I know, I know, (high) intelligence isn’t usually seen as a character flaw, but stick with me for a moment. You see, the main protagonist of my series, Sambuciña “Buc” Alhurra, is a whip smart streetrat who taught herself to read, proceeded to devour entire libraries’ worth of books, and invented the term ‘autodidact’. In leveraging her newfound literacy to become the first private investigator in her world, Buc discovered a potential pathway to upending her corrupt society and giving everyone a fair shake in her world. All she had to do was solve a mystery empires had failed to unlock, face down pirate queens, mages, and the undead, and institute a hostile takeover of the most powerful trading company in the world. Oh, and kill the Gods that pulled the strings of the aforementioned empires and trading companies. 

That’s all.

To get that far, though, Buc was determined to use anything and anyone. When wits wouldn’t serve, she turned to her blades or her trusty slingshot. She had a partner in crime-solving, Eld, but as I wrote about for the series debut The Sin in the Steel on John’s blog in 2020, Buc has never believed she needed anything or anyone. And it showed. Time and again Buc is five moves ahead of everyone, but she is also her own worst enemy. Believing herself superior to everyone else, she discounts her adversaries’ smarts. She runs roughshod over would-be allies, ignoring potential opportunities if it means giving up control.

And it makes perfect sense, because she grew up on the streets where trust was simply another sound for death. Which brings us back to that misnomer: intelligence. Buc rivals Sherlock in intelligence, but (depending on your Sherlockian version) she also has a similar flaw entwined with that wonderful mind: wisdom.

She lacks it. Bigly.

That was at the heart of my Big Idea. Through the first two books in The Fall of the Gods Series, we see Buc’s mind at work and we see her just snapping victory from the jaws of defeat–often in spite of, not because of, her intelligence. Buc doesn’t ken the difference between the two and at first it didn’t matter, but when you aim to reshape the world, smarts (and blades) will only take you so far. Coming into The Memory in the Blood Buc has achieved everything she set out to do save the last bit: kill the Gods.

She’s also lost just about everything she didn’t realize she held dear and in that loss, she realized something profound. The Buc of The Sin in the Steel is too close to the streets to trust anyone, the Buc of The Justice in Revenge is wrestling with her newfound power, but the Buc of today is weathered, beaten, but not defeated. Through those earlier trials she gained something that birth and proclivity did not provide: wisdom.

I had a lot of fun watching Buc grow across the series and I hope you did, too. In writing this book think I came to the same realization Buc did, early on in The Memory in the Blood, at about the same moment: wisdom means understanding that no matter how many cards you’ve got hidden up your sleeve–tucked beneath a blade or three, no matter how righteous your cause, no matter how hard you’ve worked for something…when the Gods are at the table, all bets are off. A portion of wisdom lies in that recognition, a greater portion comes in knowing that it doesn’t matter. 

Injustice must be fought to the last.

The Memory in the Blood: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|IndieBound|Powells|Bookshop 

Read an excerpt (spoiler warning). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: A. C. Wise

Are the bad guys inherently bad, or did they choose to be bad? Author A. C. Wise takes us into the mind of one of literature’s most famous villains in her new novel, Hooked, in order to shed some light on this question.

A. C. WISE: 

Part of me wants to be a little bit cheeky and quote the tagline of my favorite computer game of all time, Planescape:Torment, and say the big idea at the center of Hooked is “What can change the nature of a man?” That’s certainly part of it, but there are other questions that follow from that one as well: How easy is it to change the nature of a man? Does true change always come from within? At the end of the day, all these questions feed into one big question that James (aka Captain Hook) must answer for himself over the course of the novel: Who am I, and who do I want to be? 

Hooked is a companion novel to Wendy, Darling, which was published by Titan Books in June 2021. While the two can be read as standalone titles, they do inform each other, and they explore many similar themes as well. Wendy has a very strong sense of who she is, and much of her story is about holding onto her truth and fighting for the right to define herself rather than fitting herself into someone else’s definition of who she ought to be. James, on the other hand, is a bit more lost. 

Is he only a villain because Peter Pan cast him as one? Or is there something fundamentally wicked in him that Pan simply brought to the surface? Given the opportunity, can he become something other than a villain? And does he even want to, or is it easier to play the role Pan designed for him? After all, a vicious, sneering, larger-than-life pirate captain never has to be vulnerable or afraid if all there is to him is being the baddie in someone else’s story. However, if James allows himself to be introspective and question his own nature, he opens himself up to all the messiness that comes with being human, including loss and heartache. 

Both Wendy and James as characters have been shaped by their experiences in Neverland and their encounters with Peter Pan. They are both recovering from trauma, and each has different means of coping. Their strategies aren’t always perfect. Frequently they are messy and result in the people around them getting hurt, either intentionally or unintentionally. But in their way, they are both trying to seize control of their own identities and lives. 

To what degree does my past shape me? Can I make it part of who I am without letting it wholly dictate my future? These questions of identity echo across both books. Who am I? Who was I? Who will I choose to be? They are indeed big ideas and big questions and it was fun letting a character who has often been reduced to a one-dimensional foil to Peter Pan explore them in Hooked

Hooked: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

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

Athena Scalzi

Late to the Party: Stranger Things Season One

I’ve been meaning to hop on the Stranger Things band-wagon for a while now, but after seeing so many people praise the newest season, I decided it was finally time I join the crowd. I did watch season one back when it originally came out, but it’s been so long I didn’t really remember much. Definitely not enough to just continue straight on to season two, anyways.

I’m gonna go ahead and give the SPOILER WARNING now. You have officially been warned.

Stranger Things never really seemed like something I would be into. I don’t like horror, I’m not a big fan of the 80s, and I don’t really like creature features. So why did I love season one?

Well, let’s talk about why I don’t like horror first. I’ve never liked horror movies because they’ve always felt lacking to me. Lacking in plot, lacking in three-dimensional characters and character development, and overall just uninteresting gore-fests that rely on super dark shots and jump scares to make you scared.

Of course, there are exceptions, but I feel confident in saying that most horror is just, “you’re here to see people get chainsawed to death and not think too much”. They’re not complex, they’re just designed to make your heart race. And it works, I’m not saying it doesn’t, but it’s just largely boring.

Stranger Things has the advantage of being a show, rather than a movie, so it has much longer to establish and develop things like characters than a 90 minute movie does. In horror movies, you never care about the person that gets hacked to death by a guy in a mask because you were never given time to care about them. They’re just a character whose name you might not even remember by the end of the film. Stranger Things avoids this, not just because they have eight episodes to fully introduce the characters, but by making memorable characters that feel really real.

Characters in horror films are just people that the plot happens to. Stranger Things has characters that make the plot happen. This is one of the key differences, but it is certainly not the only one.

While Stranger Things has its fair share of jump scares, it’s not the only source of its horror. It doesn’t rely so heavily upon them, and uses other forms of horror to instill unsettled feelings in you. My personal favorite example of this is one of the many Christmas lights scenes between Joyce and Will, when she gets the idea to paint letters on the wall so he can more easily talk with her. When he lights up “R”, then “U”, and Joyce’s eyes go to “N” even before the camera zooms in on the now-lit red light above “N”, now that is terrifying.

Going back to the characters, I was originally going to say that Stranger Things made their characters likeable, but I ended up using memorable instead, because frankly, not all the characters are likeable. Some are unlikeable on purpose, like the bullies, or Papa, but some are just unlikeable because people are flawed creatures and aren’t likeable 100% of the time. Like Steve. Sure he has his moments where he can be endearing or not a total dick, but largely he’s a jerk and unlikeable (and yes, I know from the memes that he becomes better, but just for the time being is kind of an ass).

What’s interesting to me about Stranger Things is that they make their kid characters actually act their age. They’re immature, and rash, and have a hard time controlling and expressing their emotions. They mess up, make bad calls, and don’t always know what to do. They’re not heroes, they’re just kids doing the best they can in wild situations. I really like that they let kids be kids in this show.

As for the adult characters, my favorite character is probably Joyce. She is so strong, and persistent, and full of rage. She persevered more than anyone, and even in the face of everyone telling her she’s insane, she kept believing. She didn’t give in, never rolled over and called it quits. She didn’t care what others thought, she knew she was right, and would never lose hope, no matter the cost.

I also love how loveable they make Hopper. Drunk sheriffs in a rural town are not usually my type of character, but I make an exception for a guy who was a good dad, who drowns his grief from losing his child, who is willing to look too far for his own good into a local missing kid’s case, and who protects others.

Good, realistic characters whose purposes aren’t just to get their guts spilled. It makes all the difference.

As for the plot, I find the idea of the Upside Down very interesting, and am excited to (presumably) learn more about it in the following seasons. I’ve always been a fan of alternate dimension concepts, and seeing one so spooky is nightmare fuel. I also find the “gates” interesting in terms of appearance. I dislike how fleshy they look. It’s certainly disturbing, especially when Will is inside the wall.

All in all, Stranger Things has been great so far, I really enjoyed every episode and didn’t feel like it was slow or dragging at any point. The pacing is basically perfect. This week, I’m watching the second season, so stay tuned for a review of that! And have a great day!

(Also please don’t spoil anything for me in the comments.)


Big Idea

The Big Idea: Kimberly Unger

Sure, we’ve all wished to visit the imaginary or virtual worlds of fiction and dreams… but when it’s time to come home, will we always find the exit? This is a question Kimberly Unger is considering in her latest novel, The Extractionist.


I suspect most of us can agree that imaginary worlds have a way of being compelling. We’ve all been trapped in a book we couldn’t put down, drawn to return to a webcomic or sucked into binge-watching a TV show or having a whole-ass weekend vanish into a videogame.  In fact, this is such a familiar feeling that almost every pop-culture science-fiction world (and a few fantasy worlds) has a storyline where our protagonist, or the entire ensemble cast, gets pulled into a reality not their own.  

The thing that always fascinated me was the way different writers and writers rooms handled this experience.  Sometimes it was merely a question of hardware; there was noone on the outside to unplug the people or unlock the door and so the story becomes a matter of picking the lock from the inside.  In other cases (the one that seems to come to everyone’s mind when I bring this up is ST: TNG’s Hollow Pursuits) the reasons are much deeper, sometimes rooted in an individual’s personal experience or mental health.  Each one of these stories is a mystery, of sorts, where the main characters need to explore and question and assemble the clues until they can find a way out.  And they usually do.

With nearly every science-fictional universe (that has a way to tap into an alternate reality) experiencing this phenomenon of people getting “stuck”, I started noodling on the idea of just who is in charge of getting them out?  Does this fall under the purview of mental health work and require a special medical license?  Do you call the Geek Squad to drive down in their stylish VW Beetles to unplug your widowed grandpa when he decides he doesn’t want to leave his wedding videos? Do you hire a detective to unravel the mystery of why someone got stuck?

Now, my day-job is working with Virtual Reality (plus its kissing-cousins Xtended and Augmented Reality) and an ongoing game-design question is “how long” can we expect someone to wear a modern headset for any given session.  The answer to this, doesn’t revolve solely around comfort, or whether the band gets sweaty, or you start to get queasy over time.  It’s the rest of your life that factors in.  It’s your kids and your pets and your day-job and your dishes and your laundry and remembering to go get the post.  It’s all those little things that pull you out at the end of the day, that justify taking off the headset even if you are having a blast.

Because of this, I’ve always had a bit of a problem with the idea of a virtual world *so* engaging that you would never voluntarily leave it.  Even the fundamental necessity of needing to use the bathroom is going to limit the time you can stay immersed and from there we head straight over into body-horror via skull plugs and catheters.  At the same time, I felt it was important to maintain the element of choice, especially if the “just unplug the computer” option was a viable solution (as banal as it might be, unplugging the computer is usually a solid option when things run amok). 

So the solution I came up with for The Extractionist, the Big Idea, was a simple one.

What if the version of you banging about in Virtual space (the Swim) no longer neatly fits back into the version of you in the real world? Imagine if Neo’s realization that he was The One meant he couldn’t go back to his own body on the Nebuchadnezzar, or if Parzival’s confession of love to Artemis meant he couldn’t log back out again to escape IOI? That would be the kind of problem that needed an intervention.  Ideally a human intervention, someone who could understand the importance of saving those realizations, those moments of inspiration.

Instead, the machine throws an error and puts you into limbo until someone, some human, can come and sort it all out.  And that someone is an Extractionist.

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

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

Athena Scalzi

Trying Out A New Recipe: Blueberry Lemon Cream Cheese Bread

Well, that’s certainly a mouthful, isn’t it? Especially if I add “with cream cheese glaze” at the end. But that’s exactly what I made last night, glaze and all! I can’t quite remember how I found this recipe, but I’m pretty sure it was through Instagram, and I decided to give it a try (as if I don’t have a huge list of recipes on my to-try list already).

This recipe for Blueberry Lemon Cream Cheese Bread comes from Bake From Scratch. And boy oh boy, was this recipe a tough one.

My first issue came in acquiring the ingredients. I had all the basics, flour, sugar, eggs, the usual. What I didn’t have was vanilla paste and freeze dried blueberries. The vanilla paste was easy enough to find, but it was almost twenty dollars for a tiny jar. I know why vanilla is so expensive, but it still pains me to buy. I’ve never used vanilla paste before, or had a recipe that called for it, only vanilla extract, so this was an interesting change.

As for the freeze dried blueberries, I searched four grocery stores for them, and to no avail. I even asked an associate for help, and they told me where to find frozen blueberries. I repeated that I wanted freeze dried, not frozen, but they didn’t know what that was, so they asked someone else, who said they didn’t know what I was talking about, so they asked someone else, who told me where to find dried blueberries. At that point I let it go. It was clear they didn’t have it, so I just ordered a bag on Amazon for eight dollars.

It took a few days to get everything I needed for this dumb bread, but I was finally ready to get cookin’.

The first thing it says to do is mix the flour, sugar, yeast, and salt together, so I did. Then I put the milk and butter in a pot on the stove. The recipe says to heat it to 120 degrees, but I don’t have a thermometer, so I just kind of ball-parked what was warm enough, then poured it into the dry ingredients. Steam came out of the bowl, and I was worried I’d made it too hot and killed my yeast. But I continued on, and added one of the eggs and the vanilla paste.

Then it says to transfer to a bowl once that’s done mixing, and says the dough might be slight sticky. Um, slightly? Y’all, this was the STICKIEST dough I have ever worked with in my life. Trying to move it from the mixing bowl into another bowl was a nightmare. It stuck to everything. If you make this, DO NOT use your hands to try to transfer the dough, you will be wearing the dough as gloves with how sticky it is. It’s unbelievably clingy. Which is why it looks so uneven on the top, instead of a nice, smooth ball of dough.

It said to let it rise, so in the meantime I made the blueberry lemon cream cheese filling.

It didn’t really seem like it’d be enough filling, but I decided to follow the recipe to a T and hope for the best.

At this point, I was convinced I had killed the yeast in the beginning, because this definitely didn’t look like it doubled in size.

It was a little bigger, sure, but I don’t think it really rose to its full potential.

Next it says to divide the dough, but I was terrified to touch it again because of how much of a pain the stickiness had been earlier. However, I found out that letting it rise somehow made it less sticky, and more manageable to work with. So I divided the dough into what I felt was four even portions and shaped them into balls, and covered each one in plastic wrap.

The recipe said each ball should be about 200g, so I decided to see how close to perfect I actually got. The heaviest one was 220g, and the lightest was 190g. I could’ve evened it out more, but I decided that was close enough.

Then I preheated my oven to 370 degrees because I have learned (mostly from y’all telling me) that my oven gets too hot and that’s why I burn everything. So I always just set it five or ten degrees lower and sometimes reduce cook times a little as well.

Next comes the hard part. I took out one ball of dough, and laid it on the parchment paper lined baking sheet. I then had to form it into a flat layer to spread the filling on, which was ridiculously difficult. The dough, though significantly less sticky than before, was still really sticky, and kept sticking to everything I tried to use to flatten it out. I ended up using a rubber spatula to just kind of pull the edges further and further out until I had an almost thin circle.

Even harder than that was doing it AGAIN but this time on top of the first layer. I knew the ball of dough would just stick to that layer and not spread out, so I tried to be like a pizza chef and throw the dough in the air into a circle-esque shape before laying it on top of the first layer. That didn’t go too well, as I ended up tearing the center of the circle, so I balled it up and tried again, more gently this time. Eventually, I laid it on top and used the rubber spatula to try to pull the edges as far out as possible again.

I did that again with the next layer, and eventually got this messy stack:

At least the filling ended up being the perfect amount!

And finally, I topped it off with the last ball of dough.

It was a mess, but I didn’t care at this point. I just wanted to get this thing in the oven.

So, I cut it into sixteen “even” pieces with a pizza cutter, and my god did it look horrifying.

Jeez Louise, it was so damn ugly. But I wasn’t ready to give up on it. So I twisted those bad boys until I got this!

You know what? That doesn’t look half bad! And I’ll be darned, it looked even better after it rose again!

Still maybe a little odd, though.

Anyways, I made an egg wash and drenched that thing. I wanted it GOLDEN, baybee.

After putting it in the oven, I was hoping it would just come out edible at this point. I felt like I messed up every step of the way, so I was just praying it wasn’t terrible. 20 minutes later, I took this glorious piece out of the oven.

I couldn’t believe it turned out so well. It’s quite literally the prettiest thing I’ve ever made. I was so obsessed, I took like a dozen photos, and sent it to all my friends in celebration.

And then, here it comes, the cream cheese glaze:

Is it as lightly and carefully drizzled as in the recipe’s photo? No. Is it messy and uneven and imperfect? Yes. And I love it.

It said to let it cool completely, but I couldn’t wait, I tore a piece off and dug right in.

Would I make this again even though it was definitely one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made? Absolutely. Especially for a holiday party since it’s in a snowflake shape! Both my parents tried it and loved it, and I can assure you you will love it too! Though you might not love the process of actually making it.

Do you like the combo of lemon blueberry? Have you made anything from Bake From Scratch before? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!



Making the Call on the 2023 Worldcon

For various reasons, I was already leaning against physically attending the 2023 Worldcon in Chengdu, China, but now, a little over a year out and with other organizations querying me about appearances in the same timeframe, I should more firmly note that I won’t be on the ground at the 2023 Worldcon.

I will say that aside from any other reasons, at this point the two primary reasons for this decision are purely practical. One, air travel is currently a mess, and no matter what the airlines say about it, I’m not optimistic it’s going to be all that much better a year from now. That’s currently bad enough domestically, when flights are being cancelled en masse, and realistically one has to budget an entire extra day for travel (both Athena and I had overnight delays due to cancellations on our last flights). Dealing with international delays or cancellations from halfway around the world seems like a good way to lose a week.

Two, COVID is still actually a thing and the most recent variants of it have the transmissibility of measles. There’s little reason to believe either that we’ll have the virus contained by next year, or that strains a year from now will be more mild (I will still get boosters when available, to significantly reduce the chance that I’ll be hospitalized – or dead – if I am reinfected). Given all this, the idea of testing positive for the virus in China, with few personal resources or the ability to easily navigate the local medical options, and then trying to return home on rescheduled flights, does not thrill me.

It’s possible things will be better on both fronts a year from now, and these concerns are overstated. I hope I am wrong, in fact! Be that as it may, I have to make choices now about what I’m doing in a year. I’d rather be wrong, and at home, than right, and stuck (and possibly very ill) on the other side of the globe.

When the stars align in these and other areas, I would love to be able to visit China, and spend more than a few days to explore that vast and hugely interesting country. That visit, I’m sorry to say, won’t be in 2023. I hope the people who do choose to attend have a fantastic time, and that I’m seethingly jealous of the fun they are having in Chengdu.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Mia V. Moss

Futuristic stories often take their cues from the present, and this is certainly the case in Mia V. Moss’s new novel, Mai Tais For the Lost. Set in an alarmingly realistic future Earth, Moss’s story is part mystery, part sci-fi, and all underwater.


What if the world’s wealthiest individuals, gazing from the decks of their megayachts with cocktails in hand, watched the California coast burn from a safe distance and thought: how can I escape being consumed by the flame without sacrificing my #yachtlife vibes?

This is the question that spawned Mai Tais For the Lost, a noir murder mystery set on a future Earth where the wealthy have primarily opted for two paths: Mars or the ocean. The surface of the planet is largely uninhabitable, but people try their best anyway. Fire tornadoes, acidic monsoons, haboobs that last for days, are all part of a normal weather cycle where the names of the seasons have largely been replaced by skull and crossbones emojis.

Why would anyone try to live in such misery? Because they don’t have a lot of choice. As we in our present day continue to face climate catastrophe, as climate refugees—a term in use since 1985—grow in number year after year, we are also forced to watch the spectacle of billionaires making up currencies and inventing new pastimes for themselves like ‘space tourism.’ These people who hoard the majority of the world’s wealth have demonstrated time and again that when it comes to choosing between helping solve humanity’s problems and profiting from those same problems, they will chose profits every time.

In my mind I saw these billionaires standing on the decks of their megayachts, contemplating the fate of their fellow humans, and I saw them come to a decision: they could no longer live safely on the planet’s surface, so why not take the party underwater? In the undersea habitats they funded, they could sculpt whole nation-states of their own design, with their own currency and state-run media.

And if any member of their new workforce got out of line or started demanding things like ‘human rights’ or ‘fair wages?’ They could be deported straight up to the boiling hell-surface to any number of coastal shanty towns clinging to the edge of the sea. For the wealthy, it is a win/win scenario! Full governmental control and a captive workforce terrorized always by the looming threat of exile.

The concept first came to me some years ago when I saw an artist’s rendering of hyper-futuristic haute couture diving masks. I envisioned custom diving suits tailored to make the wearer look like fabulous glittering mermaids and the galas they might wear them to. I thought: this is exactly where the rich will be partying twenty years from now while the rest of us wander the wastelands on the surface, retweeting our indignation at their good time.

From there, things quickly got out of hand. I imagined a history where the Electric Blue Moon yacht was deliberately sunk next to its owner’s new habitat city of the same name. Alcohols were distilled at a lower ABV so the populace could keep up with an endless string of happy hours in this new paradise. Yacht rock remixed with disco became the prevailing vibe, and everywhere you looked, the descendants of those first self-serving billionaires were relentless on their quest to find shinier, more hedonistic ways to obliterate any sense of responsibility to the planet.

In these decadent confines, I set out to tell a story of a person born into one world and raised in the other. Someone who wants to believe they’re better than everyone else on the privileged side and smarter than everyone on the working class side, but ultimately knows that they have failed on both counts. Marrow has developed no way to grapple with the truth of her reality, and so she tamps down on her own inner world and spends her time prying into everyone else’s.

It seemed like the perfect setup for a detective story, and so, with the help of some high-fashion party animals and an android mermaid burlesque dancer, the Nightingale Electric Detective Agency was born.

Mai Tais For the Lost: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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


Sunset, 7/11/22

This feels in many ways like the platonic ideal of a sunset. It certainly was lovely to look at. I’m delighted to get to share it with you now.

— JS

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Rachel Swirsky

For a country with an at-best-precarious social net, the idea of a Universal Basic Income can be beguiling. But how would it work in hard reality? Rachel Swirsky has decided to take a swing at giving an answer to this in her new work, January Fifteenth. And if you think this would be easy to answer… think again.

(Disclosure: The book’s cover uses a quote of mine, speaking positively of the author’s writing.)


Sometimes, when we ask what looks like a single question, we’re actually asking dozens or hundreds or thousands.

What would it be like if the United States of America had Universal Basic Income?

Tens of thousands of questions.

What kind of Universal Basic Income? How would it come about? How would it be regulated? Dispersed? Who determines eligibility? Who determines amount? Are there restrictions for felons? Does it come along with other social services or replace those systems entirely? Is there a trial run? How long will it last? Can it be canceled? What institutional forces might try to influence the project or hijack it for themselves?

Beyond logistics–and there are so many logistics–lie the lives inflected by innumerable variations. How do you raise children who have their own universal basic income? How do these new assets affect people in institutional care? In prison? In the military with a foreign girlfriend overseas?

When I began writing January Fifteenth, I started with one question, and ended up with more tangled stories than I could write.


Universal Basic Income is a guaranteed, recurring governmental stipend that’s issued to every citizen, regardless of need or status. I’ve been referring to it loosely as a “national minimum salary paid by the government.”

It seems like a pretty cool idea.

Cool doesn’t always mean good, let alone feasible. Those are different questions. But at face value–the idea that every citizen should have access to a minimum wage that will fund their essential needs? I like that idea very much.

When I started writing this novella in 2017, my husband and I had just left California where he had been working his entire career. His job had great security on an excellent salary. Walking away seemed ridiculous, if not impossible. Unfortunately, the rewards came alongside some serious difficulties, and eventually my worsening health made staying impossible.

We knew that moving without a job offer in hand would be difficult, but we didn’t realize how rough things would get. It took my husband three years to find full-time work, and another two years after that (until, essentially, last month) to find a job in his specialty.

During my husband’s interminable job search, as I struggled to increase my freelance income, I found myself tantalized by the idea of UBI. We were lucky enough to have Obamacare to see us through between COBRA and my husband’s new job coverage, but there were still so many possible financial spike pits that kept our nerves jangling.

At the same time, it was very clear to me exactly what UBI couldn’t offer us in that position. If all we’d needed was money, we could have kept sitting pretty in California.

Money wasn’t sufficient, but it was necessary.

I think that’s the dream of UBI: what if everyone could have what’s necessary?

Hundreds of thousands of questions, representing hundreds of thousands of points of view. Ultimately, I had to pick four.


How can UBI help families in crisis? To me, the single mother escaping abuse has always been the archetypal reason for welfare–at least, ever since my twenty-years-older cousin applied for welfare so that she could leave her husband when he started hitting the kids. Like my cousin, the first narrator of the novella, Hannah, is a single mother of two escaping an abusive ex-partner, Abigail. UBI got her and the kids out of the house, but can anything stop Abigail from stalking them across the country?

Who does UBI leave behind? The second narrator, Janelle, is a freelance reporter raising her orphaned little sister. In her younger days, she wrote essays about how UBI alone couldn’t resolve the Black/White wealth gap. Nowadays, she’s stuck doing the same banal UBI fluff stories over and over because news aggregators won’t work with reporters who have controversial opinions. What is she supposed to tell her little sister when Nevaeh finds those old essays and wants to advocate for reparations?

What does it mean to waste money? Olivia, the third narrator, is a wealthy college student whose peers think of the day people pick up their UBI as “Waste Day.” Are they right? My aunt who used to be a slum lord would think so; she told me once that giving money to poor people was a waste because if they knew how to do something with money other than waste it, they wouldn’t be poor. On the other hand, my first reaction when I heard about UBI was to chafe at the idea of giving money to people regardless of need; wouldn’t that be a waste? Would people waste their UBI money? Would it matter if they do?

How could bad actors take advantage of UBI the way they take advantage of other social services? Sarah, the novella’s fourth narrator, is a pregnant teenager trapped in a fundamentalist polygynous cult. In the real world, such cults use welfare to “bleed the government beast” and fund their human rights abuses, including child marriage and claiming benefits for abandoned boys. UBI has helped keep Sarah captive, but can it also help her get out?


Politics favors simple answers for obvious reasons. Is UBI a good idea? Yes or no? Does it help people or not? Is the money worth it or isn’t it?

I don’t know the answers, but I suspect they aren’t simple.

As I wrote in the author’s note to the book, my best prediction is money can make life easier, but it can’t solve everything.

Also, I’m definitely wrong about something.

January Fifteenth: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s website. Follow Rachel on Facebook and Twitter.


It Seems Unfathomable I Have Gotten This Far Into the Summer Without Posting a Hibiscus Picture Here, and Yet I Have Not, There is No Excuse For It, I Am So Sorry

Here, this should remedy the situation. And there are two blooms, so clearly I’m catching up in bulk.

It’s been a lovely couple of days here. Hope they have been lovely for you as well.

— JS

Athena Scalzi

Walmart Parking Lot Extravaganza

I follow a boba tea shop on Facebook called Oh! Boba and they posted a couple days ago that they’d be serving boba tea at a “Community Extravaganza” event hosted in the parking lot of a local Walmart. I had never heard of this event before, but apparently it’s the second annual one! The event boasted 40+ vendors, food trucks, raffles, and more. So, I decided to check it out, if for nothing else, at least for the boba tea.

I definitely wouldn’t say there were over 40 vendors, and there was only one food truck, so it was perhaps a little underwhelming. But, it was more than the  town usually has, so it was at least something.

After perusing the two sides of covered booths, I decided the first thing I had to do was acquire some cotton candy.

This cotton candy is from Cloudy Days Cotton Candy. They had a few different flavors, but I just wanted the most basic, pink vanilla. It was four dollars for a cone, and it was pretty good! Who doesn’t love this iconic sugary pink fluff on a summer day?

About half of the vendors were people just selling Scentsy or Tupperware or other multi-level marketing brands, but a decent amount had handmade crafts, like soaps and candles.

The first thing I ended up buying was two bracelets from a shop that exclusively sold crystals. I’m not big into crystals myself, but I thought I’d get one or two and gift them to friends I know are more into them. One was ten dollars, and the other was eight.

I do find crystals pretty, and I like them aesthetically, but I’m not into them in the way a lot of my friends are regarding their energy and whatnot. I hope the ones I picked out for them have good energy, I just picked colors I thought they’d like. I forgot to grab a business card from this booth, or maybe they just didn’t have any, otherwise I would gladly link y’all to their page.

Moving on, I also thought another one of my friends would like this shiny bookmark!

I actually think it’s pretty cute, I just don’t read enough to require a bookmark, so I’m giving it to my bookish friend. This booth sold only bookmarks, and each one was ten dollars. If you’re interested, you can just look up the name on the business card on Facebook, but based on the other side of their business card it appears they don’t have a Twitter or Instagram I can link.

I came across another booth that sold crystals, except this one put the crystals inside of their candles and wax melts! Apparently they are “hidden gem candles”, though I’m not sure how you go about getting them out of the hot wax. Their business is called Lavender Amethyst Co., and their candles are made from soy wax and hand poured.

I smelled practically every candle they had out on display (there was no one else around so I wasn’t holding up a line or anything), and I was shocked at how spot on all of their candles smelled. They have one called “Cereal Killer” that legit smells exactly like a bowl of cereal. I quite liked everything, but settled on a super floral candle called “Plumeria” (which I didn’t realize until Googling right now that that is a type of flower), and a package of wax melts that are “White Tea & Ginger”. They were having a special where if you bought one candle and one wax melt it was twenty dollars. And they threw in a little free sample of wax melts that are “Honey Oat Milk Bath”.

Everything smells super good, and I’m excited to use them. Though I’m not sure what to do with the crystals that came on top of the wax melts.

The last thing I bought was some handmade soap from a booth with the name “Nitty Gritty Soap Suds LLC”. Again, I got no business card but it says you can like them on Facebook on the paper bag they gave me the soap in. I settled on their bestselling bar, Warm Cashmere. I also got two wooden bar soap holders, because that shit be sliding everywhere in the shower.

All together it was eighteen dollars, six for each item. The soap smells good, but is very strong, and has gold glitter in it. Who doesn’t love glitter?

Finally, to end my little outing, I got the boba I originally came for. Since they were just set up as a little booth, they had limited options, so I just got the Tiger Black Milk Tea. It was seven dollars, and so flippin’ yummy.

The perfect end to my Walmart parking lot adventure.

All in all, it was definitely interesting, and I hope they have even more vendors and whatnot next year!


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