Suddenly summer

And the garden is abruptly in full swing. You know how it is, if you’re lucky: those first tomatoes dropping warm and velvety into your hand, the prick as you forget about the spines on an eggplant, the taste of a green bean right out there in the garden. I always find myself moving toward vegetarian cooking at this time of year, just trying to keep up!

I’m trying to think of everything I’ve made in the past week or so. There was the potato-pea-carrot curry in coconut milk, that was good. You know how you can make potato pancakes? You can make veggie pancakes, too, with shredded potatoes, zucchini, carrots, green onions, and (if you’re me) a generous spoonful of hot chili paste with mustard seeds. Those were good. I have a lot of Thai chilies, so I need to find the recipe for that chili paste again.

Green beans are excellent just cooked crisp-tender and drizzled with sesame oil and sprinkled with sea salt. I only use sea salt for very plain preparations; in other words, not that often. But it makes a real difference for something like this.

Let’s see.

Jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped with bacon, and baked. Those are great. I haven’t made them yet, but I have a lot of jalapenos I need to use, so maybe tomorrow. Cauliflower soup with artichokes and bacon. I didn’t grow the cauliflower, cauliflower is a pain. I got it from a guy at the farmer’s market, who was selling these beautiful heads. I didn’t grow the artichokes, either. Or, for that matter, the bacon.

On the other hand, I did grow the lovely pink eggplant I used to make eggplant with spicy tomato sauce. Also the tomatoes. This year I’m growing almost no kinds of tomatoes but Principe Borghese and Old Brooks. Those varieties are extraordinarily resistant to cracking and catfacing, which is a quality I put right behind flavor and way ahead of color or shape.

I have exactly one zucchini plant. It’s doing a little better than seems strictly required. The whole-wheat zucchini chocolate chip bread I made was good, but you know what turned out to be actually fabulous? The zucchini coconut muffins. These are, not to put too fine a point on it, the best zucchini quick bread I’ve ever made.

If you, too, love coconut, and if you either grow zucchini or expect a friend or neighbor to force zucchini upon you, then you might want to try this recipe.

Zucchini-Coconut Muffins

2 eggs
1/3 C honey
½ C vegetable oil
1/3 C brown sugar
½ tsp coconut extract
1 C all-purpose flour
1 C white whole wheat flour
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
8 oz grated zucchini (about one small-medium; if it takes a third of one zucchini, then you know you let the zucchini get way too big before you picked it). There is no need to squeeze the zucchini dry after grating it; you actually want the moisture in the batter.
4 oz shredded sweetened coconut

Combine the eggs, honey, oil, brown sugar and coconut extract in a large bowl. Beat or whisk to combine. Combine the flour, white whole wheat flour, ginger, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a smaller bowl. Add to the sugar mixture and stir until partly combined. Add the zucchini and coconut and stir until pretty well combined; the batter will be a bit lumpy, especially with the zucchini in it.

Spray a 12-cup muffin pan with cooking spray. Spoon the batter into the muffin cups. Don’t worry if they are pretty full. The muffins rise some, but not so much that they will be a problem.

Bake at 350 degrees for 24-32 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in a muffin comes out clean and the tops are a shade of golden-brown that pleases you. Cool the whole pan on a rack for eight minutes, then gently lift out the muffins. I only had one muffin rip in half out of 24, so they’re not too hard to handle.

Okay, as a bonus, and because these zucchini muffins are very good but not the very best quickbread I’ve made this year:

King Arthur’s Flour’s Broonie

This recipe is from the King Arthur’s Flour WHOLE GRAIN BAKING. I made it almost like the recipe says, and it is just wonderful. It is like an oatmeal muffin crossed with gingerbread, and I don’t know if that sounds good to you, but trust me, it is great.

1 ½ C old-fashioned rolled oats
1 C barley flour — which I have handy, but if you don’t, you could probably substitute white whole wheat flour or whatever you have.
1 C all-purpose flour
½ C brown sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda – which the recipe didn’t call for, but with buttermilk, it seemed like a good idea.
1 ½ tsp ground ginger – I used a generous 2 tsp
½ tsp salt
½ C butter
3 eggs
1 C buttermilk
¼ C molasses
½ C diced crystallized ginger

Combine the dry ingredients in a food processor and pulse to combine. Add the butter, in pieces, and pulse to cut in. (The recipe suggests a pastry cutter, which is fine, and I have a very nice pastry cutter, but there’s no question that cutting butter into flour is much, much easier with a food processor.)

Whisk or beat together the eggs, buttermilk, and molasses. Pour in the flour-butter mixture and stir until evenly moistened. Stir in the crystallized ginger.

Pour into a greased loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 50-55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool eight minutes on a rack. Turn out of pan and cool completely. King Arthur’s Flour recommends that you cool this bread, wrap it well, and slice it the next day. Good for you if you have enough self-control to wait! I promise you, it is excellent sliced while still slightly warm.


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Building Worlds

There’s nothing like reading 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson to get you interested in worldbuilding. In the sense of nuts-and-bolts planetary physics, I mean, rather than in sociology. Looking all that stuff up about early Earth history for the previous post, that’s all planetary physics, too – how to thaw out a planet that’s frozen solid, what happens to the atmosphere when you suddenly touch off a couple hundred volcanoes all at once, whatever.

And it just so happens that while I was in the mood for planetary physics, I also read a book that I really have to let you all know about, in case you’re not totally bored with the subject after KSR’s 2312. I’m not sure how I heard about it, but I’m glad I had it on my TBR shelves! It’s a book called What if the Earth Had Two Moons? by Neil Comins.

The back-cover copy says “. . . . appealing to adult and young-adult readers alike . . .”, and I have to say, well, that’s true, but this book doesn’t have a for-kids vibe to me. I can definitely see bright kids loving it, but it’s for the erudite type of kid, you know? And definitely for adults as well. I did just skim over some of the explanations of Doppler shifts and so on, because I picked up all that stuff from Carl Sagan or PBS or something when I was a kid. But Comin’s explanations didn’t strike me as feeling “too basic” or anything. His explanations of everything are almost always clear and lucid, for the nonexpert of whatever age.

It was really interesting. I have no immediate plans to switch to SF from F, but if I did, I would totally use this book while designing worlds. Comins lays out ten scenarios:

a) What if the Earth had two moons? He had one of them formed by a huge collision with a Mars-sized body, which is almost certainly how Earth got its moon, and then he had the planet capture another moon later.

b) What if the Earth actually were a moon, orbiting a gas giant? Wouldn’t that be neat, btw? How’d you like to have Jupiter in your night sky, I mean up close where you could really see it? But Comins put his Earth into synchronous orbit, so it has one side that faces its planet and one side that faces away, which certainly does strange things to life on the planet. Moon. Whatever.

c) What if Earth’s moon orbited backward? And you may ask yourself, backward forward, isn’t that basically an arbitrary designation? But it turns out that if a moon orbits forward, like ours, it gets farther and farther from its planet; whereas a moon that orbited backward would spiral inward, hit Roche’s limit and break up.

d) What if the Earth’s crust were thicker? This one was more interesting than I thought it would be, because it turns out that a thick crust means that there would be few, if any, ordinary volcanoes and subduction zones and stuff like that. Instead, the heat inside the planet would escape by occasionally melting huge swaths of the planet’s crust. Very dramatic. And a bit alarming.

e) What if there were an Earth-sized planet on the other side of the sun (a counter-Earth)? It turns out it would move forward or backward until it entered a stable LaGrange point, incidentally, and then stay put at that location.

f) What if the Earth had formed somewhere else in the galaxy (that is, besides in-between the spiral arms)?

g) What if the sun were less massive?

h) What if the Earth orbited a binary star?

i) What if another galaxy collided with the Milky Way? Which it turns out is going to happen, since apparently the Andromeda galaxy is heading our way.

Anyway, all this was really interesting and fun to think about. Lots of great stuff about how stars form, how planets form, different ways to get moons, all kinds of things. I’ll definitely be picking up a copy of one of Comin’s other books, What if the Moon Didn’t Exist??

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Two very brief updates —

If you’ve been wondering, or even if you haven’t:

1. I’ve written just over 30,000 words since the middle of June, doubling the length of my WIP, which is now (I hope) half done. Assuming I go to 120,000 and then cut it back a bit. So, progress, yay!

2. I’ve listened to six hours of Connie Willis’ TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG, which is entertaining, but somehow not super engaging (for me). I think if you’re a Wodehouse fan — I’m not, particularly, except on an intellectual level — you would love this book. It is much (much) easier to keep track of than BLACK OUT / ALL CLEAR, because there’s just one protagonist and just one main storyline, so as far as that goes it’s fine to listen to an hour or two at a time.

It really is a good idea to read THREE MEN AND A DOG by J. Jerome first, btw.

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On the subject of wrongheadedness —

So, I pointed out in my previous post that Liz Bourke was being snappish about papers dealing with the historicity of matriarchy, or whatever. I wouldn’t dare join in an argument about history — though I think Liz is right to roll her eyes on that one — but, remember the Gaia hypothesis?

A little while ago, with regard to Nancy Kress’ novella “Before the Fall During the Fall After the Fall,” I said something to the effect that Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis was an example of sophomoric philosophy rather than actual science. I didn’t expand on that at the time, because that wasn’t the point of the post, but this past weekend I took the time to dig out various textbooks and stuff so I could look up details (I’ve never been good with dates, alas). So now I do feel like expanding on that comment.

Now, the actual reason the Gaia thing is so idiotic is that a) it proposes that the entire Earth acts like a single living organism, particularly with regard to maintaining homeostasis (relatively constant environmental conditions), and b) the Gaia “hypothesis” always (always) goes along with a declaration that Human Activity Is Upsetting The Balance of Life and Gaia Hates Us. This is, of course, the exact notion that explicitly underlies Kress’ novella.

Now, never mind that a planet does not in fact have any way to maintain homeostasis and certainly does not behave in any way like a living organism. I mean, how could it? Treating a big ball of metals and mineral as though it was alive is just about exactly like taking your pet rock out for walkies. But never mind. Let’s ask a different question, okay?

Have people EVER managed to do ANYTHING that a planet would EVEN NOTICE, if it were some kind of super-organism?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at Deep Time.

Now, I have some tolerance for people who don’t know the Earth’s history and who think, for example, that the overall planetary climate was stable until people started messing around with the Industrial Revolution. Because, granted, you do get that impression from PBS and other media outlets. But a guy who claims to be a real ecologist, like James Lovelock, ought to know about stuff that happened long before humans were a factor, way back in Deep Time.

Every school kid knows about the ice ages that started about 2.5 million years ago (and are actually still going, since we’re just in an interstadial at the moment — a temporary retreat of the glaciers). But did you know that all those moments when glaciers have advanced were just a chilly breeze compared to the Snowball Earth events that have several times frozen our planet nearly solid? The first of those occurred about 2.45 billion years ago, but the more recent series of Snowball Earth episodes took place only about 700 million years ago – not that long ago, if you can get your attention away from mere human history.

The well-known ice ages affected only continental surfaces and of course ice didn’t reach the tropics, but in the Snowball events, not only all land surfaces froze, but also all the oceans froze solid, to depths of maybe 1000 meters or so. Once you stick a lid across the oceans like that, they actually become chemically decoupled from the atmosphere. With no way for the metals and gasses produced by undersea volcanoes to escape into the atmosphere, all the liquid water beneath the ice becomes toxic. Meanwhile, all water on land would not only freeze, but sublime into the air, so every bit of land surface would be wind up not just frozen, but also bone-dry. With temperatures above the ice hovering around -40 degrees C and the water below the ice toxic, all life on Earth would have been wiped out except for particularly tough organisms, such as weird extremophile bacteria in hydrothermal vent systems and stuff like that. Those Snowball conditions, which occurred repeatedly, lasted probably for about 30 million years at a time. And breaking out of Snowball conditions involves massive outgassing of CO2 and true runaway greenhouse heating, the kind that produces new disasters of its own. Though it sure beats staying frozen.

How anybody who knows about the Snowball events can possibly think Gaia would notice any kind of climate shifts that have taken place during the modern era is beyond me. In fact, the ordinary Ice Ages are plenty to kind of make you wonder about that – not to mention the Medieval Optimum. People do seem to forget that our planet actually does have a history that goes back before we started building factories and keeping cows.

The repeated Snowball Earth events were extremely dramatic, no question, but freezing isn’t the only kind of disaster the Earth has suffered. Of the fifteen or so mass extinctions that have hit Earth’s organisms in the past 500 million years, all were due to other causes. At least five wiped out more than half of all extant species.

The extinction of the dinosaurs wasn’t the biggest-ever mass extinction by a long shot, but it’s the one everyone knows about, so let’s look at that. Everyone knows that one was caused by an asteroid, right, that smashed into the Earth 65 million years ago? But let’s stop for a moment and think about what that was actually like.

When that asteroid hit, the blast was about 10,000 times as powerful as if you took all the nukes in the world and set them off all at once. Tremendous earthquakes and tsunamis wrecked continental shorelines all over the place. Thousands of tons of rock were instantly blasted into the atmosphere. Some of the big chunks fell back down, heating up as they fell through the atmosphere. When they hit, they started fires all over the planet. Over half of the Earth’s forests burned. Think about that. Over half of all the forests on the whole planet.

The fine dust and all the smoke from the fires almost completely blocked sunlight from reaching any part of Earth’s surface for months. A global climate that had been fairly tropical (because, among other things, there was twice as much CO2 in the atmosphere at the time as there is now) suddenly became frigid. Before that, though, the impact caused heating of the atmosphere which made atmospheric oxygen combine with normally nonreactive nitrogen, forming nitric acid, which fell in a heavily concentrated acid rain all over the planet. By the time the acid rain was over, the top 300 meters of the oceans, where most marine life is concentrated, was acidified to the point that the seawater dissolved the shells of any animals with calcareous shells. Everyone talks about the dinosaurs, but actually roughly sixty percent of all the living organisms on Earth were wiped out, in the oceans as well as on land.

What I’m saying here is, although strip mines look ugly, and although the beautiful, stunning megafauna of the Pleistocene were almost certainly wiped out by stone-age people who didn’t know better; and although people today, who definitely do know better, are certainly morally culpable whenever they carelessly wipe out a huge swath of rainforest or an irreplaceable species, nothing people have ever done in all history even begins to approach the destruction the planet has suffered over and over in the past. And the human-driven extinction going on now doesn’t begin to compare to the big mass extinctions of the past.

So. That’s why the Gaia thing makes me roll my eyes. It’s not just the ridiculousness of treating a ball of rock as though its carbon cycle is an actual kind of homeostasis, it’s the even greater ridiculousness of thinking that a planet that’s undergone what ours has could even begin to notice anything people have ever done.

If you want to complain about the way people abuse the environment, fine, there’s lots to complain about. If you’re outraged at African elephants being killed for ivory, or whatever, I’ll join you in waving that banner. But I’d prefer that you please pick some grounds less asinine than the Gaia hypothesis, before you design your banner.

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Wow, those literary analyses can get technical.

As well as possibly a leeetle wrong-headed.

Check this out:

Furthermore, in her discussion of Cassandra and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s engagement with the Gravesian notion of prehistoric matriarchies being swept away by (much less pleasant, of course) patriarchal social order, Steinmeyer neglected to contextualise the historicity of the matriarchy hypothesis – that, inter alia, whether prehistory had matriarchal or patriarchal societies isn’t a question that can definitively be answered, that all claims about social order and social power in prehistory are contingent ones – and left one rather with the impression that she felt prehistoric matriarchy was a Real Thing with Real Evidence supporting it.

Wow, did you get that? The “Gravesian notion of prehistoric matriarchies” and all?

This is Liz Bourke pointing out, with some justice, some provoking paper presentations the recent SF Classics Conference in Liverpool. Good times, good times. Glad I wasn’t sitting through those papers.

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Two notes on numbers: Goodreads reviews and book prices

You know, noticing how some reviewers leave four-star ratings on Goodreads with really quite positive reviews, I’ve realized how, for me, being limited to five stars compresses ratings at both the high and the low end.

For me, a five-star rating on Goodreads would correspond to an 8, 9 or 10 on a ten-point scale – excellent to flawless. A four-star rating is a 7 – very good, but flawed in some fairly important way. A three-star rating would be a 5 or 6 – adequate to fairly good — and I wouldn’t be likely to review that book. A two-star rating would be a 4 – a definite meh, or the book really offended me somehow. INTO THE WOODS by Tana French comes to mind, for example. And a one-star rating would correspond to a 1, 2 or 3.

Plainly some reviewers think of the stars differently, which of course is perfectly fine. But while for me a 10 means a book is practically perfect (like THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE, for example), ‘practically perfect’ seems too much to load on the top number if the scale only goes up to five.

So, for example, SINNER for me would be four stars on Goodreads (if it was available to review, which right now it doesn’t seem to be). The point is, it’s very good. If I hadn’t felt a bit let down by the ending, it’d be a five. The quality of the writing and the great characterization are both definitely a five – really excellent. If you like superhero books at all, I strongly encourage you to give this one a try. And then if you want to argue with me about the ending, great!

But that’s why I leave mostly five-star and some four-star reviews — I like to comment on books I really enjoyed, and that comprises the whole top end of the scale.

Okay, the OTHER thing I’ve just noticed, because I just this minute bought RIDE WITH ME by Ruthie Knox , is that for me, there’s an important breakpoint in price when buying a book vs putting it on my wishlist.

That is the $3 mark. If a book is $3 or less, it might as well be free — I just click on Buy It Now and move on with my life. I mean, what the heck, three bucks? Why not? And somewhere an author is smiling, so it’s all good.

$4 or $5 make me pause for a second. If I read a great review by a blogger I trust — if the book is by a debut author and I’d like to give her a boost — if the book is by someone I know personally — if I’ve read great reviews but I’m not sure the reviewers’ taste matches mine — if the concept sounds exceptionally appealing — then I’ll probably click on Buy It Now. Unless I’ve just purchased other things and am feeling like maybe I should nod vaguely in the direction of restraint. Then maybe not.

For me, $6 and over means I have to be at least reasonably sure I’ll like the book. If it’s by an author I don’t know, then I’m likely to hit the Try A Sample button. And I do read samples fairly soon, usually, and several times I’ve bought the book after trying the sample.

$8 and up? Either I’m sure I’ll love the book, or I know the author personally, or both. Or else it just goes on my wishlist, and I’ll pick it up . . . sometime. Probably.

Interestingly, I’ll kick in more than this on a Kickstarter project even if I don’t know much about the book and am not sure I’ll like it. It turns out that wanting to see someone’s project succeed gives me a push toward committing more than I would if the book was already out there.

But all this makes me think that the low prices of so many Kindle books is in fact probably a net benefit to the writer. I can’t be the only person who’s pretty casual about dropping $3 bucks on a book, who would hesitate at $8.

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Recent Reading: An unexpected pleasure

So, starting Greg Stolze’s new novel SINNER when I decided to take an hour to relax before bedtime?

Yeah, not a good idea. In fact, pretty serious mistake.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t put this book down. But putting it down involved considerably more willpower than I expected, and I certainly didn’t make any attempt to go on with my own WIP until I reached the end. Luckily it was a fast read!

You may remember that I backed this novel on Kickstarter, just a few days ago? I didn’t kick in as much as I originally intended to, because by the time I looked at it – and I’m grateful to Ken Hite’s twitter comment for the pointer – the project had already funded, so my contribution was just a casual gesture of support for a book that looked like it might be pretty good. And, you know what? It may not be perfect, but it’s way better than just pretty good. Here’s how it starts:

I’d just pushed my way through the revolving door when I heard a snicker. My first instinct was to give someone a smack for the disrespect, but seeing as I was in the St. Louis city central police station, I decided to forbear. It wouldn’t exactly set the right tone.

“Hello,” I announced. “I’d like to turn myself in.”

“End of the line,” the functionary behind the glassed-in desk said. There was a short queue of people standing before her. I went to gently nudge aside the sweating man at the front and he said, “Back off, fruitbat!”

“I don’t think you understand.” I tried very hard to be patient, and to display my patience. “I’m Sinner. The supervillain? Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

“All I see,” he snorted, “Is a pansy in a purple suit acting the nutjob and tryin’a cut in line.”

“Everyone will be seen to in order,” the woman said, not looking up from her computer monitor, raising her voice authoritatively but with a tired note. She was sick of this, I’m sure, and who can blame her? No doubt she saw more than her share of cranks, weirdos and impostors.

“I can do this,” I explained and, running a finger through the inch-thick bulletproof plastic, swept a circular hole in it as easily as you’d pop a soap bubble. The hidden layers of plastic fluoresced purple, as matter always does when I disintegrate it.

The policewoman screamed. The sweat-hog dropped his forms on the floor and fled, shoving a woman aside on his way to the revolving door. Other people started shrieking and fleeing too, pressing back against the walls, lunging into the bathrooms, cramming themselves in the chambers of the rotating exit, which clearly wasn’t spinning anywhere near fast enough for them. Then there was a brief pause before patrolmen bubbled out of the back—not rushing, but emerging in a resolute, steady stream, guns drawn and aimed.

“You won’t need those,” I said. “I’ve come to surrender.”

“Yeah right,” one announced. “Keep your hands where I can see them!”

“They are where you can see them.”

“And keep ‘em there!” he barked, as if he’d adroitly defeated me in a battle of wits.

Okay, that’s a promising start, right?

Actually that’s not the REAL beginning, though. The actual first bit is a set of partial newspaper clippings: A Man Can Fly (April 1955, special edition of the Times). First Man on Mars is Russian (September 1984). Javalin Halts Nuke Disaster (April 1986, Tribune) – “Warned by the radiological senses of the All-Seeing I, American superheroine Javalin was able to mitigate a meltdown at the Russian nuclear plant in a city called Chernobyl . . .”

All through this book, Stolze weaves in newspaper clippings, some about superheroes and some about incidents having to do with space travel. His world, it turns out, is very like ours, except that superpowered people started showing up in the fifties and also that our ability to travel through the solar system has been a reality for roughly that long. These two factors eventually tie the book’s plot together into a coherent whole — we find out why superpowers started showing up, for example — but the story is mainly tightly focused on Hector Lear (‘Sinner’), who used to be a supervillain and has now decided to just quit with the villain thing and turn himself in. We find what led to this decision over the course of the story, of course.

Let me just say here that this kind of novel, which makes extensive use of asides and flashbacks to propel the present-moment first-person story, is pretty darn hard to pull off. Stolze does an excellent job: every newspaper article, every flashback and every digression is beautifully integrated into the overall story. Nothing about the way Sinner holds back important information feels like Stolze is cheating, largely because we can feel right away how utterly unwilling Sinner is to think about certain events. How did Javalin die? Is she really dead? How about Black Marvel? [And wow, what a villain he is, btw!] What the heck was Sinner’s role in whatever happened? And did he really turn himself in, really for real, or does he have some kind of long-term plan and this is just a tactic? We have many unanswered questions that Sinner could answer, but doesn’t – at least not till it’s appropriate in the story. As I said, this works quite well, which is a tribute to Stolze’s chops as a writer.

Sinner is a great protagonist, with a fluent first-person-smartass voice. But what’s even better is that Stolze seems to give just about every character, no matter how minor, the same careful attention. Supervillains, superheroes, other prisoners, prison guards, Hector’s sister, everyone. This is particularly impressive because lots of these characters get very little time on screen, but we get a solid sense of them just the same. I love the superhero Pilgrim, but then I love the public defender who defends Sinner just as much. There’s even a very (very) faint thread of romance through the story, one that actually adds a nice grace note to the end.

So is this book perfect? No. Stolze has a stylistic feel for certain commas that differs from my preferences – see the third-from-the-bottom line of the excerpt above; to me that should be “Yeah, right.” But that’s probably a recognized alternate comma usage, I guess, and even though it bugs me, it bugs me MUCH LESS than if he’d spelled “all right” as one word, which thankfully he did not. (The book I’m reading now does, and it drives me NUTS).

Much more importantly, to me the ending seems more than a bit rushed and maybe a little contrived. I’ll try to put this clearly without giving anything away: the way Sinner winds up in position to be contacted and picked up by the Egghead et al near the end? For some reason, Stolze didn’t show Sinner making the important decisions that led him into this position. Instead, we only saw glimpses of that part after the fact and from a third-person perspective. Since his decisions during those offstage events seem to contradict years’ worth of earlier decisions we actually did see, I couldn’t really believe in those events.

Even more important, the continuing lack of a first-person view of the very important events right at the end? Not only does that continue to make the action seem rushed, but the shift from a detailed first-person narrative to mere glimpses from a third-person perspective also forces the reader away from the protagonist. Imposing this distance from both the protagonist and the action seems an odd choice for Stolze to make. I would definitely have preferred that Stolze add another fifty pages in order to draw out some of these important scenes in more detail.

I will say, though, that the problem of distance was partly fixed by the brief epilogue, which once more brings the reader closer to the protagonist.

Okay, having said that, I do expect that I’ll probably buy a print edition of this book, partly because I turned out to be unable to get this book to load properly on my Kindle (I read it via Calibre on my laptop, which was okay, but definitely not as nice as reading something on my Kindle), but mostly because if I get the print copy, I’ll be able to loan this book around, which I want to do. I will also be looking for other work by Stolze, because SINNER was more than good enough for me to want to try something else of his. MASK OF THE OTHER sounds like it might be fun, though Cthulhu is not usually my thing.

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If you’re a beauty-and-the-beast fan —

There’s a brand-new title out this month that sounds really promising.

As it happens, I’m a real sucker for this particular fairy tale. Robin McKinley’s BEAUTY is probably the ultimate comfort read for me, and in fact I even like ROSE DAUGHTER, though not nearly as much as the original BEAUTY.

And the Disney version with the dancing plates? Yep, I like that, too.

And Dunkle’s THE HOLLOW KINGDOM? Even though I really had some issues with a society that depends on, let’s not kid ourselves, kidnapping and rape for its survival — even though this is a thing in this book — I still enjoyed the actual story quite a bit.

And Merrie Haskell’s THE PRINCESS CURSE, with its combination of the Twelve Dancing Princesses with the story of Beauty and the Beast? Yep, loved it. (As it happens, those may be two of my all-time favorite fairy tales.)

So this new novel by Stacey Jay definitely caught my eye.

In the domed city of Yuan, the blind Princess Isra, a Smooth Skin, is raised to be a human sacrifice whose death will ensure her city’s vitality. In the desert outside Yuan, Gem, a mutant beast, fights to save his people, the Monstrous, from starvation. Neither dreams that together, they could return balance to both their worlds.

Isra wants to help the city’s Banished people, second-class citizens despised for possessing Monstrous traits. But after she enlists the aid of her prisoner, Gem, who has been captured while trying to steal Yuan’s enchanted roses, she begins to care for him, and to question everything she has been brought up to believe.

As secrets are revealed and Isra’s sight, which vanished during her childhood, returned, Isra will have to choose between duty to her people and the beast she has come to love.

Doesn’t that sound promising? I know, I know, that sounds like every kind of cliche as far as the structure of the society goes. But even so, what a neat twist on the classic fairy tale!

Goodreads’ initial reviews look good. I think I’m adding this one to my wishlist.

And I think I’m likely to get this one in physical form. Because that cover? Nice.

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Elderflower experiments

So, by the way, if you get up extra early in the morning, it turns out that you have time to go out and pick elderflowers (from the bushes you planted several years ago but never remember until it’s too late). Then you can come in and make elderflower fritters, using the flowers plus the elderflower cordial you made earlier in the week.


The elderflower cordial is easy: you bring four cups of water and four cups of sugar to a boil, set it off the heat, and let it cool while you collect 25 or 30 heads of flowers, strip the flowers off the stems, and delicately remove the few insects that came with the flowers. (I suggest you strip the flowers off the stems outside, since flowers do scatter everywhere.) Then you pour the sugar syrup over the flowers, add the zest and juice of two lemons and a tsp of citric acid, cover, and let steep for two or three days.

This produced a nice honey-floral syrup.

To make the fritters, I used this recipe, rather than just dipping the flowers into a batter and frying them. 100% of spaniels surveyed agreed that these fritters were tasty plain, but I drizzled mine generously with the cordial.

I think there might be time before the flowers are spent to make the more standard flower fritters, more like this, but on the other hand I could just make regular pancakes and use the rest of the cordial up that way.

The dogs really do get underfoot in the kitchen, incidentally. Adora — the red dog in this picture — has a definite sweet tooth and is usually at some risk of getting stepped on, though sometimes she moves back to where she can watch me more safely yet not miss any cookie-distribution moments.

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Bujold and the numinous

Liz Bourke posts here , about the religious ‘feel’ of the Chalion books, and how the impact of the books depends on the reader’s perception of religion.

Numinous is a word sometimes misused. But the Chalion books have betimes been characterised as speculative theology, and it’s not a poor description in the least.

But that sense of divine presence only works if you have a background with divine possibility.

And so forth.

Plus, then Liz meanders on to discussing THE DAUGHTER STAR by Bigelow, which I haven’t read but is, I think, on my Kindle. Or maybe my wishlist. Somewhere on my radar, anyway.

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