Ohio: You Can Vote Now

Early voting has begun in Ohio, so if you’re registered to vote in this November’s election, and you already know how you’re going to vote, why wait? I voted today (and was the 63rd person in my whole county to do so) because I still have quite a lot of travel to do between now and Election Day, and when it comes to voting my philosophy is never put off until tomorrow what you can vote on today. I could be eaten by a bear tomorrow! And if I am, my vote will still count. How cool is that.

Incidentally, here in Ohio, two issues are up for statewide ballot: Issue 1, which is the one that keeps busybodies out of other people’s uteruses, and Issue 2, which would generally legalizes marijuana use. I voted “yes” on both of these, Issue 1 because medical decisions should be between patient and doctor, not patient and doctor and a politician who thinks they have a special relationship with God, and Issue 2 because it’s stupid for marijuana to be illegal, for all sorts of reasons, and this is coming from someone who both does not partake in the stuff and who finds it frankly annoying as fuck. I am not looking forward to the general increase of stank that will result in the passage of Issue 2. But my irritation that Ohio will smell incrementally more like an unwashed armpit is a minor thing compared to the much larger societal harms that come from marijuana being illegal, so.

Obviously if you are voting in Ohio this election season, I urge you to vote as I did on these issues, and to study up on the local races and various levies that will be on the ballot as well. Please be an informed and active voter! Our state, and nation, thank you in advance.

The Big Idea: Hailey Piper

Sometimes, in the times with the most trial, a single thing can make the difference between despair and survival. In this Big Idea for A Light Most Hateful, author Hailey Piper shares what that one thing might be.

HAILEY PIPER:

What if, in the moment your life shattered to pieces and left you tumbling like you’d been thrown down a hillside, there was someone waiting to catch you?

The idea feels impossible sometimes. We’re living the curse, often misattributed as a Chinese expression but more likely a mistranslation or fabrication by British envoys, “May you live in interesting times.” There’s an invitation to mire in hurt and despair. The idea that someone unflinchingly has your back in the darkest of times might sound preposterous. But what the hell else is fiction for?

I grew up in a small town, and that plays into my book A Light Most Hateful, where Olivia has found herself in Chapel Hill, Pennsylvania three years after leaving Hartford, Connecticut as a teenage runaway. It’s clear her arrival was the most exciting thing to happen to this town in a while, and nothing much has happened since.

But an eeriness has taken up residence with Olivia on her Friday night shift at the drive-in, that sense of something lurking beneath the small town’s stillness. A pressure in the air ready to burst with storm, and it does, in the shape of a people-eating monster, the town residents falling under a violent trance, and more bizarre phenomena that follows as the night of terror rides on, straining the limits of reality and friendship.

Within that chaos, there’s potential to show devotion. Olivia’s best friend in Chapel Hill (and her secret crush), Sunflower Mason, is missing, maybe dead, maybe turned into another violent wanderer like the rest of town, but Olivia is determined to find her and escape together. She will not let this grim night split them apart if she can help it.

And then there’s the stranger, Christmas. They’re tall, broody, and they pretend they don’t care about anyone, but there’s a brightness in their eyes that suggests they care so damn much, as if the night’s lethality has forced them to either be a protector or be nothing.

Olivia has Sunflower’s back, Christmas might have Olivia’s back. Even as the residents of Chapel Hill threaten anyone who touches them and cracks begin to grow in reality itself, imagine knowing you aren’t alone, no matter what you face. Even Sunflower’s looking out for someone, albeit lost in her memories.

There’s a duality to a life-changing experience—wonder and horror, hardship and triumph—that lives in Olivia’s story. Potential for death, yes, but also the true nature brought out when the chips are down and the outlandish notion that someone can be their best self with everything else fails.

I’ve said elsewhere, but for me, horror is the most honest genre. Part of that is the breadth which horror explores different sides of people. And part of that is, you find out who people really are when they’re afraid. Sometimes, they surprise you in the worst ways. Or if you’re really lucky, they surprise you by showing the best sides of themselves.

Maybe now and then, living in interesting times is worth it for the people you meet.


A Light Most Hateful: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author socials: Website|Twitter|Instagram

And Now, a Brief Dandelion Break

Whew! I am at home for one whole day before I set off to New York City to participate in New York Comic Con. It’s not a lot of time, but it’s enough time to see family, pet the cats and get a moment to decompress before heading out and doing it all again. Even a little time is better than no time at all, and trust me, it’s very good for my mental state. I enjoy doing events. Also, I am still fundamentally an introvert, so even a single day at home, mostly to myself, is restorative.

What I’m saying is, if you get a moment to give yourself a break, go ahead and take it. You’ll feel better that you did.

Also: NYC, see you at New York Comic Con very very soon!

— JS

The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling

Some people prefer the company of “me, myself, and I”. Would that still be true if there were actual copies of yourself you could hang out with? Author Caitlin Starling brings us a new take on doppelgangers in her newest novel, The Last One to Leave the Room. Follow along in her Big Idea as she tells us how to truly face yourself.

CAITLIN STARLING:

Do you trust yourself?

Are you a good person? Do you know how you’d act in an emergency? How well do you know yourself: your limits, your desires, your fears? If you met yourself on the street, would you be excited–or terrified?

Doppelganger stories traditionally run like this: the menacing double is a distillation of the worst traits the protagonist has otherwise hidden from society, and there isn’t enough room for both to exist – either the original or the double has to die. Importantly, a doppelganger story requires contrast between the double and the original. There’s a wound to be explored through the protagonist’s struggle to be the last one standing, festering with shame or fear. 

But what if your protagonist is fully aware of their flaws? What if they feel no shame? The protagonist of Last to Leave the Room is, to put it bluntly, a bitch. Dr. Tamsin Rivers is ambitious, antagonistic, arrogant, amoral– and at the top of her game. She enters the scene fully in control, and she knows exactly what she’s capable of. A predatory doppelganger, aggressive from the start, was the least worrying option I could imagine. So I gave her the exact opposite:

Tamsin Rivers’s doppelganger, Prime, is nice.

So nice, in fact, that it shoots Tamsin’s up-until-now adaptive levels of paranoia straight into the stratosphere. Even before she starts losing her memory, even before she develops agoraphobia and retreats from the world at large, the greatest threat to her existence and her sanity is very simply a copy of herself that is likeable. That cares about other people. That, perhaps worst of all, is reliant on her. Tamsin doesn’t feel shame about her own nature, but she sure can feel shame about her double’s. Seeing herself made vulnerable is enough to start a cascade of incredibly bad decisions, of the sort that make for the best horror stories.

And even with all that shame, it’s hard not to grow complacent around somebody as naive as this funhouse reflection of Tamsin appears to be. Especially when you’ve got the arrogance Tamsin has. Conversely, it’s very easy to start thinking kindness is equal to passivity. And wouldn’t it be nice to have a copy of yourself to take care of tasks you don’t want to bother with? Especially as your world falls apart and turns against you, surely the only person you can ever truly trust is yourself.

Right?

There’s a gendered aspect to it, too. Tamsin embodies a very aggressive, brittle style of femininity. She wears exquisite outfits and full face make up, gets her hair and nails handled professionally on the regular, and she uses this polished exterior as both armor and weapon. She’s the epitome of Ice Queen. Prime, meanwhile, shares Tamsin’s appearance, but her wide-eyed innocence slots her into a more stereotypical soft girl-ness. She winds up taking over domestic tasks that Tamsin mostly ignores, cooking meals and making sure Tamsin is happy. And in that domestic role, it’s very easy for Tamsin to lose track of her potential threat. Even though Tamsin should know better, she slips into reductive assumptions that leave her wildly vulnerable to Prime’s manipulations. 

Last to Leave the Room, for all its scifi-thriller trappings, is at heart an intensely domestic book. If doppelganger plots revolve around mistaken identities and secrets being splayed out in the open, Last to Leave the Room shifts the point of view; it’s not society seeing Tamsin for who she really is, but Tamsin being faced with herself. Prime shifts from childlike and vulnerable, to wifely and caring, to something more familiar: ambitious and watchful. Safe. Recognizable. In fact, when Tamsin asks Prime to go out into the world on her behalf, nobody sees any difference at all, exactly as Tamsin hopes.

It’s a good thing she trusts herself. Right?


The Last to Leave the Room:  Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author’s socials: Website|Instagram|Bluesky

View From a Hotel Window 10/9/23: Wichita (Finally)

Those of you following my travel here will remember I was meant to be in Wichita roughly three weeks ago as part of my book tour, only to be thwarted by the fact that United Airlines couldn’t manage to keep its planes in good enough condition to fly, so I had to cancel and reschedule.

Yesterday I flew in via American, with no issues whatsoever, so I happy to say that tonight’s event at Watermarks Books & Cafe will go on as planned, at 6pm. If you are in or around the area of Wichita, Kansas, please come see me, I would hate to have gone through so much effort just to be alone. See you soon!

— JS

Saturday Music: “True Blue”

Now that I get to be at home for a whole weekend, I am back on my bullshit and covering another song, this one by boygenius, the “supergroup” of three notable solo artists (Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus), whose album The Record is probably my favorite of this entire year, with “True Blue” possibly my favorite song of the bunch. And as it’s largely sung by Dacus, the bottom of whose range coincides the with top of mine, I thought I would give it a try. I made two small alterations to the lyrics (making the subject of the song more age-appropriate to a 54-year-old man and changing “bitch” to “witch” because Dacus can say the word in a non-derogatory fashion, but it’s harder for me to), but otherwise it’s the same song.

I’m happy with it, if mildly annoyed that my vocal-syncing software needs updating to the latest Mac OS, so I had to cut and stick with two vocal tracks to try to get them to come together after a fashion. I was less successful than the syncing software would have been. Also, my falsetto still needs a bit of work. (Update, 10/11: Reposted to fix slightly out of sync vocals; falsetto still not great). Still, pretty pleased. If you listen to it, I hope you enjoy it. And here is the original for compare and contrast purposes. Per the usual, it’s better. But I’m not trying to be better than the original, I’m just trying to enjoy myself playing music.

— JS

Where Will John Scalzi Be in October?

Lots of places! Here’s a quick run down, so you might have a chance to catch me in one place or another:

Tomorrow (10/6): Bexley, Ohio: I’m in conversation with VE Schwab about her NYT Bestselling new book The Fragile Threads of Power. 7 PM! Here’s the link for tickets.

Monday (10/9): Wichita, Kansas: United Airlines stranded me in Denver and kept me from making this event during my actual tour, but I am trying again and will be at Watermark Books at 6pm. Come and see me! You can RSVP here.

Friday 10/13 and Saturday 10/14: I will be at New York Comic Con, being an panels and signing books. If you’re going, check the schedules for times and places!

October 19: I will be in Nashville, doing an event at Parnassus Books at 6:30pm as part of the Southern Festival of Books! Please come by! Here’s how you can get tickets.

October 22: I’ll be in Madison Wisconsin, doing an event at 1:30 as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival. Here are the details.

If you are in or near these towns I hope I get to see you.

— JS

The Big Idea: Delilah S. Dawson

Author Delilah S. Dawson has returned to the blog for a fifth Big Idea. Today she brings us Bloom, her newest romance-horror novel that mixes sweet with… bloody. Read on to see how this book came to be, with a little help from her daughter.

DELILAH S. DAWSON:

Did you know that you can substitute (properly rendered) human fat for lard when baking or use human blood in the place of eggs? Just replace each egg with 65g of blood—or 43g for an egg white. It’s true for pig blood, so I’m assuming it’s true for human blood, although I haven’t tried either substitution. Point being, the human body is chock full of useful substances, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to let anything go to waste.

That was the original story seed for Bloom—the mental image of a different kind of serial killer, a delicate girl breaking down a corpse into its component parts and using it to make something beautiful, something artistic. But I didn’t want it to be gritty like Fight Club or focused on men like Hannibal (and also Fight Club). I wanted it to be feminine and pretty and aesthetic. A sweeter, gentler, cottagecore sociopath, if you will.

My first attempt began in a Fantasy world where the main character, an ethereal girl with white hair in a long dress and apron, was tasked with preparing the local corpses, breaking them down so that honor was done to them and supplying the people of her countryside with fertilizer and lard and meat. I had a character and a world but no story, and no matter how gently I called to the Muse with homemade gluten free cupcakes, the story eluded me.

And then one day my teen daughter asked me the question that changed everything.

Why are all the hot serial killers dudes?

She’d gotten into Hannibal, and now she wanted more. My answer was that most of the hot serial killers we see on TV and in movies are male because most of the serial killers we hear about in real life are male, but that answer, although true, isn’t particularly helpful when you’re yearning for a very specific type of story that doesn’t yet exist.

“I’ll write it for you,” I told her, and then I did.

I kept the ethereal girl with white hair in her long dress and apron, but I plucked her out of the world of fantasy and instead dropped her at a farmers market in Athens, Georgia, where I went to college. And then I created the exact kind of emotionally scarred, book smart fool who would fall for her sprinkle-spackled cupcakes, gingham-beribboned jars, and sharp little kitten teeth, an insecure young professor of literature with a gift for words and a desperate need for more magic in her life.

Is it weird, writing a sapphic cannibal romance for your teen daughter? Probably, but it did allow me to emphasize consent in a new relationship and provide an object lesson for what happens when infatuation makes you ignore all the red flags in a potential partner.

It also allowed me to remind the world that I really, really hate tapenade.

As a writer, I have a whirlwind romance with each book, but I’ll admit I fell harder for Bloom than usual. Not only because it sprung from wanting to give a unique gift to someone I love, but also because Bloom merges so many of my favorite things: cupcakes, houseplants, pottery, charcuterie, honey with a chunk of comb, picking wild blackberries, typewriters, a slow burn horror, and especially that energetic swoop of hope I feel every time I wander among a row of mysterious sellers’ stalls, that feeling that anything could happen, that I might secretly be at the Goblin Market and discover some fantastic treasure.

And that cover—THAT COVER! It was inspired by a piece of art I created and then dropped on Instagram with a tag for my editor and publisher, hoping that they might be piqued. The book has gorgeous endpapers and chapter illustrations and its hidden face is the perfect shade of red. I bought a dress to match it for launch night because I love it that much. We writers don’t always get to choose our covers, but I would choose this one from a lineup any day.

I’ve written all kinds of books—and I think this is my fifth Big Idea, so you can read all about them without too much googling. I’ve written gritty books and sexy books and funny books and scary books and deep books, but this book is all about yearning and darkness. It’s for fans of Hannibal and You and the kind of horror that settles in next to you in a gingham dress and ribbons, sweetly offering you a cupcake that tastes just a bit richer than usual. But most of all, it’s for my daughter, the best baker I know.

Thing is, when she asked me why all the hot serial killers are dudes, I didn’t tell her the other reason…

Because maybe the hot women never get caught.


Bloom: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Author socials: Website|Instagram|Twitter

Starter Villain a New York Times Bestseller (Again)

This time on the Audio Fiction list. This one is a monthly list, which means Starter Villain got onto the chart despite having only eleven days to do it. I think that’s pretty damn cool, actually. So now the book is a New York Times best seller on three separate charts, which is a new record for me.

On top of that, the book also charted on the USA Today bestseller list for a second week, as well as the Audible.com fiction bestseller list. Both of these are also pretty great; this cat has got some legs on it. I’m thrilled.

Onward!

— JS

The Big Idea: Daniel Hope

If you spend your whole life thinking about death, are you even really living? Author Daniel Hope brings us some excellent existential questions like this in the Big Idea for his newest novel, The Inevitable. Follow along as he guides you through a robot’s, and in a sense a human’s, attempt to survive in a future world.

DANIEL HOPE:

Despite the fact that robots aren’t human, they are useful for telling very human stories. They offer a way to let us reflect on human experience from an outside perspective. While current examples of artificial intelligence, like Chat-GPT, aren’t actually very intelligent outside of a very narrow skillset, the robots of science fiction get close enough to human intelligence that the quirks of humanity are highlighted. 

When I was young, I sympathized with the robots I found in books and movies. Like them, I didn’t fully understand the humans around me, and I found that most of the time I was replicating the emotions and reactions of others rather than expressing what was going on inside my head. That’s why it seemed natural to make the protagonist of my book a robot. Even if neither of us understood the humans around us, we could at least explore together.

There are still plenty of differences between me and Tuck, though. He’s a very old robot, living in the far future, and I’m definitely not. But his primary concern in life will be familiar to most humans: Tuck is afraid to die.

The value of life is a major theme of The Inevitable. Tuck isn’t sure what it means to be alive or to die as a robot, so he’s also very preoccupied with what it means for humans to die. He’s haunted by the deaths he has caused, mostly unintentionally, and it affects the way he interacts with humans and the choices he makes for himself.

When we meet Tuck, he’s been surviving alone for over 100 years in a galaxy that doesn’t contain anyone like him. Not anymore, anyway. He’s very accustomed to looking out for himself and avoiding humans as much as possible. He travels from planet to planet trying to find the parts he needs to repair himself, but it’s not a sustainable pattern given the toll it’s taking on his body. He’s falling apart faster than he’s fixing himself, a predicament anyone over the age of 40 will recognize.

Which leads to another aspect of the value of life that the book explores. Even if you’re not dying, you might not be living. At least, not living well. 

The thing that a character like Tuck allows, which would be difficult to portray with a human, is a view of what life would be like for a human if they could live indefinitely. A robot could theoretically keep going forever because they’re repairable and their parts are replaceable. But what would happen if a person tried to take the Ship of Theseus approach to their body and their life? What seems like a blessing at first could quickly become a curse. 

Robots aren’t the only ones that can get caught in a feedback loop. Humans do it, too. So many of us spend each day pursuing what we’ve been told is absolutely necessary at the expense of really living. We work at terrible jobs because we need the money. We stay in toxic relationships because we feel like there’s no way out. We postpone a dream because other needs get in the way.

Over time, and reluctantly at first, Tuck finds a small family of his own, which begins to change his outlook on life. “Found family” is another major theme of the book, and robots are excellent at exploring this aspect of humanity because they don’t have a biological family.

Tuck’s little band of misfits are all bound by their own circumstances, just like Tuck. There’s another artificial intelligence even more vulnerable than Tuck, a very capable woman who is adept at survival but not at human connection, and a young soldier who doesn’t really want to be one. With their help, Tuck begins to explore the idea of self-determination. Though he has technically been free for a long time, he hasn’t been able to decide what he wants to do or be because he’s always on the run from humans who think he’s a relic, a collectible, or a walking pile of recyclable resources. When a wealthy and ruthless woman approaches Tuck with a very attractive offer, essentially granting him the ability to repair himself indefinitely and stop running away from everything, he can’t refuse. But he soon starts to realize that her offer comes at a great cost. The promise of freedom comes with shackles.

If you want more than reflection on the meaning of life, you’ll be pleased to discover that The Inevitable also has plenty of action to punctuate the themes. Tuck and his friends perform a series of dangerous missions for his wealthy benefactor, including battles, chases, and even a big heist, but all the while Tuck is trying to figure out what it means to both live and die, and whether a robot can do either of those things.

Even though you’ve never been involved in a firefight aboard a space cruiser (I assume), you’ll still find that the plight of this bedraggled robot is all too familiar because, at some level, we’re all just trying to survive.


The Inevitable: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Bookshop|Powell’s

Author socials: Website|Twitter|Instagram

The Unlamented Former Speaker

It’s not exactly a surprise that Kevin McCarthy is no longer Speaker of the House, probably most of all to McCarthy himself. As a condition of his ascendance into that position, which took fifteen rounds of rather embarrassing haggling, he had to agree that a motion to vacate the position (i.e., his ability to get fired from the job) could be initiated by a single representative — and then it was, by Matt Gaetz, who was, as I understand it, one of those who demanded that condition in the first place. You can’t hand a dagger to a known and enthusiastic stabber and say “you can cut me any time you like,” and then be surprised when he, in fact, stabs you at his convenience. Don’t give a stabber a knife, a firebug a box of matches, or a sloppy drunk the keys to your car, especially when you’re riding shotgun without a seatbelt. Gaetz is all three of these things, when it comes to the House of Representatives. And he was waiting for his moment.

That said, very little of value has been lost with McCarthy’s demotion. He was, flatly, a terrible Speaker of the House, someone who wanted the position more than he had the capability to work it; a spineless, self-hobbled wretch at the mercy of the worst elements of the House GOP — most notably Gaetz, but, to be sure, not only Gaetz — who had no ability to control his caucus or keep his word to anyone. Incapable and untrustworthy is no way to go through life.

After McCarthy’s unseating, several Republican and/or conservative commentators wondered why the Democrats didn’t hand him a lifeline, and the answer to that was: Why should they have? He’d burned them often and pointedly offered no concessions for their cooperation during the motion to vacate. Anyway, they weren’t the ones who had offered the motion to vacate, that had been from the GOP side. They were under no obligation to save McCarthy from the trap he set for himself, nine months ago.

Which apparently came as a surprise to a number of Republicans! Including Gaetz himself, who noted prior to the vote on the motion to vacate that he expected at least some of the Democrats would vote to save McCarthy’s speakership rather than risk the chaos that would follow. This is the problem with the recent conservative trick of offering things up for a vote without the intention or expectation of winning, and then not having a plan for when you do win. Trump’s 2016 presidential run, the Brexit vote in the UK, this bit of chicanery: They were supposed to be useful bits of messaging, not actual things that were meant to happen. But then they did, and those who offered them for voting was caught flat-footed. We see the mess that Brexit and a Trump presidency have gotten us. This new nonsense is smaller, to be sure, but the dynamic is the same. Modern conservatives can’t govern; they can only signal. That’s the only thing they know how to do any more.

If the GOP actually wanted a speakership that was useful — and to keep itself from looking like a bunch of political dimwits setting fires just to watch things burn — they would offer up whoever in their party could still be considered moderate, which is almost no one, and promise the Democrats that they would stuff the Hastert Rule (i.e., nothing offered to vote that can’t pass with just GOP votes) into a box, put the box in a shredder, light the shreds on fire and throw the ashes into the sea. The chances of the modern GOP doing that, especially when the runaway front-runner for the GOP presidential candidacy is a fraud and a rapist currently indicted on 91 federal and state charges who actively chose to interfere with a peaceful transition of power rather than admit he was a loser, and who holds absolute sway over the party, are pretty slim. So maybe don’t count on that.

As for McCarthy, he’s already said he won’t run for speaker again, and who can blame him? He’s done it and for his pains he’s got stab wounds from one of the worst people in politics (for now; there’s a chance that the marginally-more-sensible members of the House will now vote to expel Gaetz, ostensibly on ethics charges but mostly for being a chaos demon in their midst. We’ll see). Like former speaker John Boehner, McCarthy probably came to the conclusion that trying to wrangle the box of feral weasels that is the modern House GOP is not worth the perks that come with the gig, especially as it is evident that he had neither the skill or spine for the job. That’s fine, and more than that, it’s the most sensible thing McCarthy could do at this point. Be all, “fuck all y’all, I’m going for a bike ride” and take some time for himself before going back to being an unremarkable back-bencher from Bakersfield.

We will eventually get a new Speaker of the House out of the GOP, although at this point I don’t know who there would want the gig, given they would be as susceptible to the whims of Matt Gaetz, or some other nihilistic chud, as McCarthy was. The GOP’s problems remain the same: They can’t govern, don’t know how to govern, and too many of their members in the House honestly have no interest in governing. They don’t have enough numbers to control those among them who just like starting fires. So they are going to burn.

Unfortunately, the rest of us are stuck in the same house they’ve gleefully set on fire. This is where we are in 2023, and with this GOP.

— JS

I Read A Book This Year

I read one book in 2020, one book in 2021, one book in 2022, and so far in 2023, I have read one book. This makes me kind of sad. I’ve talked about it on here before, but I used to love reading when I was younger, and ever since I became an adult, I really just don’t do it at all. That’s not what I want for myself. I want to read books! Why does it have to be so difficult?

It’s so easy on paper (ha), but bringing myself to actually sit down and read is a tall order. I wish it wasn’t so hard, and I know the only way I’ll get better about it is if I try. I have to put in the effort to consistently make time to sit down and read, and work on actually making myself read a damn book. It’s some huge, unmanageable task in my head, but I know it wouldn’t be so bad if I just did it.

Funny enough, this goes for any hobby I’ve ever had. It’s why I don’t have any hobbies. Everything, even if it seems enjoyable (like reading), is just too difficult to do. Things that are supposed to be relaxing activities just seem like a mission or like a task that needs to be done and stresses me out. I have so much anxiety and guilt and stress built up around reading, no matter what it is I’m reading.

The only time I can seem to bring myself to read is on a plane, or on a cruise. Because I have no internet. That really is what it comes down to, it seems. I really am one of those people that chooses Tik Tok over reading, and then watches Tik Toks over books, watches the reviews and recommendations, then adds the books they suggest to some list, knowing full well I’ll always pick the screen over the paper. And reading books on my phone isn’t really an option, either, because I’ll just open a different app than iBooks. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

I’m so sad! I want to read! I’m missing out on so many good books! How do I fix this? Am I going to be like this forever? I keep thinking I’ll get better but it’s been almost a decade. I keep thinking, “start small, you don’t have to read a whole novel, try some short stories or a novella” and I still can’t do it. I can’t even read long posts on Facebook or the extra long posts they have on Twitter now. If it’s more than a paragraph, it’s not fucking happening. I’m amazed you all read my posts because I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to.

Someone please fix my brain.

-AMS

The Big Idea: Alden E. Stoner

Everyone has a story to tell. Thanks to the organization Nature Sacred, people have a chance to write their tales in discoverable journals at Sacred Places all over the country. Alden E. Stoner, CEO of Nature Sacred and contributor to Benchtalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature, is here today to tell us a bit about how these journals got started, and why they’re so important.

ALDEN E. STONER:

More than 25 years ago, we tucked a blank, weatherproof journal beneath a bench situated in our first Sacred Place, what we at Nature Sacred call contemplative green spaces intended to encourage peace and well-being. At the time, we had no idea if anyone would write anything in it. When we returned a couple of weeks later and peeked inside, we were astounded. The entries were moving, deeply personal, and insightful—it was as if we’d opened a portal to people’s hearts, witnessing all that is good in humanity.

From that point on, in every Sacred Place we helped create across the country, we placed a journal, believing that the unique natural environments of these spaces encouraged the open sharing we saw unfolding in the journals.

Countless individuals, young and old, from all walks of life, have passed through these Sacred Places. Many have paused on the bench, discovered the journal, and in turn, left a piece of themselves for others to find inside. They’ve offered hope and encouragement to fellow anonymous journalers. The journal authors speak about reading other people’s stories—one writer, initially hoping people would think and pray for him, started thinking and praying for others after reading the journal.

Over the years, as we archived entries that numbered in the thousands, occasionally sharing them on social media or in newsletters, we recognized that we were holding something truly special. Then two things happened: COVID and the approach of the 25th anniversary of our organization, Nature Sacred.  And the idea for publishing a curated selection of journal entries was born. We believed that these stories, showing the bonds we share and the good in people, could really lift spirits when we all could use a bit of encouragement.

Aiming to reach a broader audience, we decided to make the book available in three different formats: an e-book, a paperback, and a limited edition copy. The limited edition version is packaged to reflect the setting where the entries were captured. It is hand-bound, featuring a hand-made bench, like those found in Sacred Places, in relief on the cover. Inside, one quote per page is interspersed with sketches, also collected in the journals. The pages are of recycled paper, white rice paper, pressed with leaves, divides the book into thematic sections.

The paperback version is a digitally printed replica of the collector’s version.

Regardless of which version is chosen, when someone reads the entries, it’s impossible not to feel connected to these nameless writers, to their joy, their heartache — their whimsy and their show of compassion and love for strangers. 

In this era of growing political and social divisiveness, the world needs this reminder of our connectedness and of nature’s power to stir us — to connect with something greater than ourselves. This entry is a perfect example:

“I always feel better after sitting and reading this book. Sometimes I’m so scared; I feel like I’ll split in two. Then I remember that no matter what happens in life, there will always be sunshine and falling leaves and grass to sit in… I’m comforted. And so grateful.” — Sacred Place at the Children’s Peace Center, Baltimore, MD.


Benchtalk: Wisdoms Inspired in Nature: Amazon|Nature Sacred

Author Socials: Nature Sacred Website Profile|Instagram|Twitter

 

Ági Szabados Does Not Need To Apologize To Me

So, at the opening ceremonies of the Budapest International Book Festival this year, a couple of people gave prefatory remarks before I received the Budapest Grand Prize and participated in my own relatively brief question and answer period. One of them was actor Ervin Nagy; the other was Ági Szabados, who is a newscaster and bookseller who runs a nationwide book club in Hungary (think along the lines of the Oprah Book Club or the Reese Witherspoon book club). At the time of the event, I listened to her remarks (via a translator) and thought them perfectly uncontroversial; among other things she talked about the importance of reading, which is, rather obviously, something I agree with.

Apparently I was one of the few who found the remarks uncontroversial, because shortly thereafter Ms. Szabados was sharply criticized for her remarks in the press and online, and was accused, more or less, of making her speech about herself and not about me, who was the putative subject under discussion. This caused enough of an uproar in Hungary that Ms. Szabados felt obliged to offer an apology for her speech, and in particular noted that she hoped that I had not been offended.

With that as preamble, and with the further notation that no one in Hungary, and certainly not Ms. Szabados, has asked me to say anything about this or, indeed, even knows that I am about to say anything about this:

Folks, I was not offended at the time, nor am I offended now. And while I appreciate that Ms. Szabados has offered an apology generally, and also to me specifically, in my particular case, I don’t think an apology was needed. Again, I found nothing objectionable in her comments to the opening ceremony audience. I suppose she could have talked about me more, but then, I was there to talk about me, and did, for about 20 minutes at the opening ceremony, and then for over an hour at my own spotlight event two days later. I dare say that no one who attended the book festival came away lacking information on the topic of John Scalzi. I assure you, I am very good at talking about me. Ask literally anyone who has ever met me.

Ms. Szabados otherwise talked about reading, and the importance of taking the time to read, and, well, I have no problem with that. As I understand it, the name of her book club translates in English to “No Time To Read,” and the title of the book club rather puts a point on the matter: People are often of the opinion that they don’t have time. To the extent that Ms. Szabados encourages people to find the time to read, I appreciate her efforts. And the fact that she chose the Hungarian translation of Old Man’s War as her club’s September read, in advance of my arrival at the book festival, was of actual benefit to me: She introduced me and my work to a whole bunch of readers who might not otherwise have ever checked out my novel. This is not just supposition; several people at the festival who came to see me told me that her book club was how they found out about me. Some of them were clutching copies of other books of mine as they did so.

Which is to say that from my point of view, long before Ms. Szabados stepped onto the stage last Thursday, she had already done more to introduce me to new readers in Hungary, and to spur conversation about my work, than almost any other single person in in the country, short of my actual publisher, and the organizers of the book festival. So not only does she have nothing to apologize to me for, at the end of the day the emotion I most feel regarding Ms. Szabados is: gratitude. She did a very good thing for me, and the introduction she made at the opening ceremonies — where she talked about the book club that introduced me to many readers! — was only the smallest part of all of that.

Now, I realize that there’s probably more going on here. I am not privy to all the social undercurrents in Hungary that flow beneath this particular story. I can only comment on what I know and my own perspective on it as an outsider. Additionally, I don’t know Ms. Szabados in any meaningful way; we were introduced briefly prior to the opening ceremonies, and saw each other again a couple days later, where again we chatted briefly and took a picture before we both went to do our respective things. In the very brief time I had with her, she seemed lovely. I was glad to meet her.

So, please. People of Hungary, if you are angry or annoyed at Ms. Szabados on my behalf, thank you, but don’t be. Don’t take on a burden that I myself do not carry. I appreciate what Ms. Szabados did for me, at the festival and before it. No apology is necessary for any of it. Not to me, and, may I suggest, not to anyone else.

— JS

(Photo of Ms. Szabados taken from here)

On Blurb Hiatus Through the Rest of 2023

This is one of those little housekeeping notes I post to point people at later:

I am not accepting any additional requests for novel blurbs (or blurbs for other projects) through the end of 2023. I have a backlog of books I have been asked to blurb, and between now and the end of 2023 I have my own novel to finish and turn in, plus I still have travel and promotional commitments through mid-November. And then, you know, there are the holidays. I have no time.

Please hold all blurb requests until the new year, when (hopefully!) I have caught up on my current backlog of requests, have finished my own book, completed my travels, and have taken many, many naps.

Thank you!

— JS

Back Home! For Now!

After two weeks on the road, I have returned home and slept in my own bed and petted my own pets, and this makes me very happy. I am not done traveling — this month I have Bexley (a Columbus suburb), Wichita, New York, Detroit, Nashville and Madison to go to — but each of those trips is a few days at most and then I’m back in Ohio. I can manage that.

Today will be a day for catching up on emails and attending to some other things that needed to wait until I got back home, and otherwise doing a long exhale after so much travel at once. Home is where you get to exhale, folks.

— JS

Heading Home

I’m on my way home to the US, but it was a near thing; my flight out of Budapest left late and I had to run across most of Munich’s airport to catch my connection and barely made it before they closed the doors. If I had to run a minute longer than I did I might have given myself a heart attack; a reminder I really need to get back into shape.

Be that as it may I am now in the sky just past the British Isles and above the North Atlantic. With luck I’ll land in Ohio just before midnight and be home 90 minutes after that. Then: sleep for a day. Maybe two. It’ll be good to be home.

— JS

Hello From Budapest 9/29/23 + Hugo Voting Reminder

First and most importantly, I found the statue of Peter Falk here in Budapest. Note the height similarities.

Second, I spent the day being interviewed a whole bunch, for various Hungarian news outlets. It was a lot of fun and also very tiring after a good half dozen long interviews. Fortunately I also had a lovely dinner with my publishing house and writer Nicholas Binge, and now I’m back at the hotel and ready to collapse into sleep.

Third, a reminder to Worldcon members that we’re down the the last two days to vote on the Hugo Awards (and also a reminder that The Kaiju Preservation Society is a finalist this year in the category of Best Novel). If you haven’t voted yet, now is the time to do it.

Big day tomorrow, I give my guest of honor Q&A and then sign a whole bunch of books. See you there, Budapest!

— JS

My Experience At Plates & Pages

Never before have I been so excited to share a dining experience with you all.

Today I’m here to tell you about Plates & Pages, an extraordinary event put on by a restaurant in Cincinnati called Five on Vine. I had never heard of them before, but it’s the sister restaurant to Losanti Steakhouse, which I absolutely adore and wrote about a few weeks ago.

Five on Vine hosted a five course wine pairing dinner in collaboration with Household Books, a local bookstore that features used books, vinyl records, and vintage clothing. For this event, Household Books held a pop-up bookstore inside the restaurant.

The doors opened at six, and the first hour was allotted for guests to arrive, grab their glass of welcome Prosecco, and peruse the books that were hand-picked by the owner of the bookstore. There was classic literature, some rare books and first editions, some fiction, and best of all, vintage cookbooks.

A ten dollar credit towards a book was included in the cost of the event ticket, so of course I had to grab one. Or three.

First, I got The Art of French Baking by Ginette Mathiot:

A large white book with no cover image, just black lettering that reads,

I really like the no-nonsense minimalistic style of the cover.

Of course I had to grab this 1967 Betty Crocker’s Hostess Cookbook:

A large blue book with yellow lettering that reads

I mean, come on, it has over 400 guest-tested recipes!

And I knew this 1953 Open Sandwiches and Cold Lunches by Asta Bang and Edith Rode was too good to pass up:

An off white book with red lettering that reads

After grabbing my books, I went and sat at my assigned table. Since I had come alone, I had expected to be seated by myself and dine in solitude. Much to my surprise, I was seated at a table with five other people. I don’t mind socializing, and I like making friends, so I wasn’t too worried about the situation. Little did I realize how amazing the company would end up being, and how much richer my dining experience was for it.

The meal began at seven with an amuse-bouche. An endive leaf stuffed with red and gold beets and topped with a radish slice.

A small black plate featuring a single endive leaf stuffed with diced red and golden beets, adorned with a thin slice of radish on top.

I’m not the biggest fan of endive for the same reason I don’t really care for arugula. I find it to be too bitter and there are other greens that I prefer that are an easy substitute. That being said, this dish was simply delicious. I couldn’t figure out what about beets and endive made for such an incredible dish, and the details of the amuse-bouche weren’t on the menu, so I called the restaurant to see if they could give me more details. They were kind enough to let me speak with the chef, and he told me all the aspects that made this dish truly great.

The beets were made confit-style with garlic, thyme, and bay leaf, and the liquid from the confit was used to make the vinaigrette. Alongside the endive leaf was a blue cheese mousse with celery seed that added a nice richness. I mentioned to the chef that despite not liking endive, I loved this dish, and he said he soaked the endive in gin and sweet vermouth for a few minutes, which totally eliminated the bitterness.

As you can see, the amuse-bouche was beautifully crafted, and was only the beginning. Here’s what was in store:

A menu that lays out each course and has all the details for each dish. It lists five courses, as well as dessert, and each of their wine pairings.

For each course, they’d bring out the food and pour the wine, then the chef would explain each dish, and the wine expert would talk about each wine, and then the bookstore owner would read a quote from a book he’d selected to accompany the course.

First up was this scallop crudo paired with a pinot grigio from Italy:

A small white plate covered in a green sauce (watercress puree) that accompanies the scallop crudo. Atop the scallops is a sort of pineapple citrus chutney and cilantro.

As someone who loves scallops, I had no doubt this course would be good, but I must admit I was hesitant about the “crudo” aspect of it. I have never had raw scallops before. I don’t mind raw seafood, as I’ve eaten plenty of salmon and tuna in sushi, but I definitely have never thought to try scallops raw. I thought the texture would be displeasing, but both the texture and taste ended up being amazing. The brightness from both the watercress puree and the pineapple-citrus-cilantro mixture paired with the buttery scallops wonderfully, and the crispness of the pinot grigio was the perfect accompaniment to this light and delicious course.

I was especially surprised about liking the pinot grigio, because I have never cared for dry wines. I knew this event would have a lot of dry wines, and that didn’t bother me even though I’ve never liked them before, but something about this one in particular was really nice. It was refreshing, crisp, and not overly dry. This course really gave off “summer on the coast” vibes, and I was all about it.

Going off of this, the book pairing for this course was The Talented Mr. Ripley. It was said that this was because of the themes of simplicity and class, as well as the ability to really “feel the breeze”. It was quite eloquently put.

Next was this beautiful medley of summer vegetables:

A large white plate featuring a cylindrically shaped mixture of summer squash, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant, topped with a green leafy garnish and surrounded by a pesto-like sauce and a white anchovy aioli sort of sauce.

When they brought this dish out, it reminded me of the ratatouille from the movie Ratatouille. This particular mélange featured summer squash, tomato, eggplant, onion, and was topped with an olive tapenade. The sauces were wildly different from each other, one being sort of similar to a pesto, and the other being a thick, white anchovy sauce that was intensely flavorful and creamy. The chef said that this course was like a tribute to the end of summer, and indeed it was a perfect encapsulation of saying farewell to a season filled with so much fresh produce.

Were it deemed socially acceptable, I would’ve licked this plate clean.

As for the wine, we were given a Chablis. Much like the previous course, it seemed to pair exquisitely with the dish at hand. It was from France, and was actually the only French wine of the evening.

The quote for this course was from With Bold Knife & Fork: “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it… and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied… and it is all one.”

This quote really speaks to me as someone who loves to make baked goods for my loved ones, to share meals with the people I care about. My favorite way to spend time is eating good food with good company, so this quote has a bit of relatability to it.

Following this was a lovely butternut squash soup:

A white teacup filled with butternut squash soup that is topped with candied walnuts. A glass of red wine is in the background.

Butternut squash not only happens to be my favorite type of squash, but one of my favorite types of soup, as well. Especially when it’s as creamy and pleasantly sweet as this one was. The candied walnuts on top certainly assisted with that, while the smoked paprika added a nice warmth. I could’ve eaten a drum of this.

I found the details for the wine particularly interesting for this course. It was a Reyna Barbaresco, which we were told is the queen of Italian wine. The grapes were harvested later than normal, which reduced the acidity. Apparently the previous winter had been full of heavy rainfall and snow, making for a plentiful water reserve and balanced the ripening. The science behind everything was honestly really fascinating.

This next quote was a little more on the philosophical side of things. From Redwall: “Knowledge is a thing that one cannot have enough of. It is the fruit of wisdom, to be eaten carefully and digested fully, unlike that lunch you are bolting down, little friend.”

Onto course four, the seared trout:

A large white bowl containing a filet of seared trout atop a bed of lentils. A small caramelized onion sits next to the trout.

I actually quite like trout. I mean, I can’t think of a fish I’ve had that I don’t like, but trout is definitely a good one. What I did not expect from this trout, though, was sweetness. There was a slightly sweet glaze over the fish that when mixed with the citrus vinaigrette and orange on top made for a delectable bite. As for the lentils, here was another ingredient I generally steered clear of, yet found myself loving every bite of them this time around.

The wine description for the Crognolo Toscana, another Italian red, came with an interesting history lesson. Apparently the name of the estate, Setti Ponti, means seven bridges, and is in reference to the seven bridges over the Arno River that connects Arezzo and Florence. Turns out, one of these bridges is visible behind Mona Lisa!

As for the quote for this course, it comes from Ernest Hemingway: “There is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else.”

Again, as someone who believes there is love involved in making food for others, in sharing a meal with others, who romanticizes baking on rainy fall days and loves indulging in delicious foods, this quote seemed like it was made for me.

The owner of the bookstore took this time to show us this awesome first edition of The Sun Also Rises:

A small, laminated copy of The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

I believe he said it was from 1926, but correct me in the comments if I’m misremembering.

Moving on from the sea to the land, we have some duck:

Seared duck breast with a thick, dark sauce atop a big mound of phyllo dough stuffed with more duck!

Duck is one of those things that I’ve only had a handful of times before, and have always found to be perfectly adequate, but never something I would go out of my way to order. This duck completely changed my opinion on duck as a whole. It was the best duck I’ve ever had, and was so next level that I’m now afraid to try duck anywhere else ever because I doubt it will be as delicious as this dish was. Not only was the seared duck breast tender, flavorful, and accompanied by a deeply savory sauce, but the crispy phyllo dough was filled with more duck, quinoa, goat cheese, and dried cherries. I happen to really like all of those things!

The wine for this course was called Tortoniano Barolo, the third red from Italy. This one was super cool because its name comes from the tortonian era, which was nine million years ago. That’s how old the soil is that the vines are planted in. Tell me that isn’t so cool! All of the dry reds up to this point had not been really to my taste, and this one was especially dry and had me making a bit of a face upon trying it. Can’t say it was my favorite, but I can understand how it would pair well with something as intensely flavorful and savory as the duck.

Before I move on to the dessert, I want to talk a bit about the final quote. It comes from the late Anthony Bourdain, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from the get-go.”

Food is everything we are. Food is culture, food is community, food is connection. And that is exactly what I experienced at this event. The staff was so inviting and friendly, they made me feel more like a guest than a customer. The people I sat with were interesting, super cool, unique individuals that I enjoyed learning about and getting to know throughout almost four hours of dining together. The chef, the wine expert, and the bookseller were all such awesome, artistic people with a burning passion for their field that showed in every dish, every glass, and every quote. This event was planned and curated with a level of artistry and intentionality I have never experienced before, and I can only hope I get the chance to do it again.

With all that being said, the night ended on a sweet note:

A long, oval-ish white plate with berries, mounds of marshmallow fluff, and peanut brittle scattered across.

Mounds of toasted marshmallow fluff, macerated berries, peanut brittle, chocolate budino, what’s not to love? Admittedly, I was confused when I read “quenelle” of the chocolate budino (more or less a chocolate pudding), because the definition on Google for quenelle is a meat and fish mixture. Turns out, there’s a second definition that means a carefully shaped small amount of a soft food. That made a lot more sense. And now I know a new word. Yay learning!

Every bite of this dessert was pure decadence. Sweet, marshmallowy goodness alongside plump, juicy blueberries amidst silky chocolate. I’m drooling just remembering how heavenly this dessert was. It may very well have been the single greatest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.

The wine was a port. I expected no less given port’s depth of flavor and sweet richness that makes it the perfect pairing for any dessert. The small pour was just the right amount to really top off the sheer indulgence of this finisher.

After buying a bottle of the port and the pinot grigio to take home, and with my new books in tow, I headed out for the long drive home, satiated not just in being full from good food and wine, but in conversation, connection, laughter, and artistic expression.

What looks the best to you? Which wine would you have loved to try? Are you a fan of duck? Let me know in the comments, and have a great day!

(Be sure to follow Five on Vine and Household Books on Instagram!)

-AMS

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