4/09/2014

Lost Creatures: A Short Story

(I generally don't put my fiction on my blog here. But this isn't my usual science fiction or fantasy. It's over ten years old, and has never been a suitable fit for literary-fiction or other markets. But I think it's a nice little story, so I'm putting it out here as an experiment to see if it has any audience. If you like it, let me know. Better yet, let other people know.)


LOST CREATURES
by Bruce Arthurs

He had been called Handsome Devil. That had been when he had a home, and owners who had fed and brushed him regularly, had played the fetch game with him on an almost daily basis. Then they had left in their car one day, and had never come back. Strangers in black clothing had entered the home after several days, bearing boxes into which they had solemnly packed his owners' belongings, sometimes breaking out in tears. Handsome Devil had hid from them, uncertain what their presence meant. One had opened a window, and failed to close it completely when the strangers left at the end of the day. Handsome Devil had squeezed out the narrow aperture, jumped to the ground, and gone to look for his owners. 
He had been full-bodied and sleek of coat, then. Now he was thin, and his coat was dry and spiky; both ears were ragged from combat, and one leg still ached from the damage when a boy had deliberately ridden his bicycle into Handsome Devil. He had learned that the world beyond his home was a dangerous place, and that many of the people who lived there were not kind, and were best avoided.
Hunger was his constant companion. He caught the occasional bird or lizard, scrounged in trash cans, would sometimes chance stealing food from a dish left outside for a cat or dog who still had their owners. He drank from gutters and puddles. His owners were a fading memory, and survival was his predominant thought.
There were places where finding food was more likely, brightly lit glass-front buildings where people would stop for snacks, drinks, cigarettes and sundries. Handsome Devil could usually find a bit of hot dog, or at least a piece of the bun, dropped on the ground or thrown towards the garbage cans. Sometimes pigeons or sparrows would gather for the crumbs found there, and he would be able to stalk and ambush them for his own needs.
He was in the underbrush near such a place, eyes and attention fixed and tense upon a sparrow pecking at crumbs, when the man approached. The man walked with a heavy step, his head down, his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his worn jeans.
The sparrow looked up at the figure approaching across the asphalt. Handsome Devil began his move, rising and taking several quick panther-steps forward from under the bush, then stopping in frustration as the sparrow rose upwards in a fluster of wings.
The man stopped short as well. Cat and man stared at each other, one wary, the other surprised.
"Christ, puss," the man finally said. "You look like I feel."
The man slowly lowered himself into a crouch and extended a hand towards Handsome Devil; he made come-hither motions, strumming his thumb across his fingers. Handsome Devil stayed frozen in position, ready to flee but not sure this was the safest moment to do so.
The man ceased the come-hither motions. "Nah," he said softly, "you don't trust me. Or anybody else, I reckon. It's a hard world, isn't it, puss? A hard, crappy world."
He reached up slowly and pulled a cord from beneath his shirt. The cord went around his neck; a colored plastic disk was strung on the cord. The man held up the disk and looked at it.
"Ninety days sober, last week. I thought I was pulling things back together. And then..." He paused. "...this morning she told me she wanted the divorce anyway. She's going to take the kids and go to her parents back East."
He yanked at the disk, snapping the string. He rose back to his full height and stared at the storefront ahead of him. "To hell with it," he whispered. "To Hell." The man flung his arm to one side and cast the disk away.
The disk tumbled through the air. Sudden memory blossomed in Handsome Devil's mind as his eyes automatically tracked the colored object.
Fetch it, Handsome Devil, his owners would say, and toss the plastic bottlecap across the tiled kitchen floor.
He burst into a run across the asphalt. The disk struck and bounced, struck again, spinning and tumbling, and then Handsome Devil was on top of it, pinning it, capturing it, rising with it clenched in his mouth and turning proudly to display his catch.
And the man was disappearing into the building, the glass door starting to swing shut behind him.
The door almost closed on Handsome Devil's tail as he scooted through the shrinking opening and into the cooled air of the store.
The man was standing at the counter, staring past the clerk and at the rows of bottles containing amber and clear liquids. He raised a hand, started to point. "Give me one of----"
And stopped, and looked down towards his feet, where Handsome Devil was rubbing back and forth against his pant legs and purring around the disk still held between his jaws.
The clerk looked over. "How'd he get in here?"
The man leaned down and slipped a hand under Handsome Devil's stomach. He lifted him up, took the disk from Handsome Devil, and laid him against his shoulder. The man stared at the disk as he absently stroked the cat's head and shoulders.
Handsome Devil purred louder.
"If he's yours, you can't bring him in here," the clerk said.
The man turned his eyes toward the clerk. "Do you...?" he began. "Do you have any cat food here?"


-end-

The Brave Free Books -- April 2014

Yeah, it's been awhile since I did an installment of "The Brave Free Books", reviews of various books and e-books I've read for free (from promotions, giveaways, sweepstakes wins, and/or the Nook Free Fridays offerings).

In the self-published line, I'm very impressed by the work of a British chap named Luke Smitherd. His novel TheStone Man and novella The Man On Table Ten are both very compelling stories. They might be described as "Science-Fiction/Horror"; both use mysterious aliens manifesting in the normal world. The aliens don't explain themselves (with the strong implication that humans are too insignificant to bother giving explanations), they're close to omnipotent in what they can do, and we can't stop them. In those respects Smitherd's aliens are closer to Lovecraft's Elder Gods than traditional SF aliens. Smitherd draws you into the minds of his characters slowly, layering details and emotions, until you fully believe in them. Most "horror" stories, of whatever genre, slide off me; these stories actually made me anxious, both for the individual characters and for the suddenly-endangered worlds they lived in.  (Current Kindle prices: The Stone Man, 2.99; The Man At Table Ten, Free)

A less impressive self-published work was Strawman Made Steel, by Brett Adams. I picked this up during a free promotion by the author, because the opening scene was a compelling beat-the-clock scenario where the just-poisoned protagonist has to figure out which of two poisons he's been given, because taking the wrong antidote will kill him immediately. The rest of the book didn't live up to that scene, unfortunately. The protagonist can travel, via mirrors, between our normal world and a future where electricity vanished suddenly and the world has had to convert back to steam and kerosene and gas. An interesting premise, but I couldn't believe that the world, and the future New York City, would not only recover from such an overwhelming cataclysm in less than a century, but grow. The premise needed a lot more propping up and development. I also didn't see the need for the protagonist, a hard-boiled private detective, to be hopping back and forth between worlds. The central conceit of the world, the sudden disappearance of electricity, is never examined or solved. Pretty much a standard noir mystery, with gangsters and the spoiled rich and nightclubs, etc., with some fantastical trappings added on. Disappointing.  (Current Kindle Price: 2.99)

Death Blimps of Doom! by James Ivan Greco is a prequel short story to his "Reprobates of the Wasteland" novel Take The All-Mart!  The "Reprobates" series is about a couple of wasted wastrels in a satirical post-apocalypse setting.  (Chinese troops occupy a trashed California; the All-Mart has become self-expanding in runaway-nanotech style and now covers a large portion of North America; etc.)  Trip and Rudy may be the inheritors of all the bad genes from Charlie Sheen, Hunter Thompson, Cheech-and-Chong, and Leopold-and-Loeb; they make Harry Flashman look like a paragon of moral virtue and rectitude, leaving wreckage both literal and metaphorical in their wake.  It's funny, but in a kind of feel-dirty-afterwards way. As a short story, I think this sort of thing works, but I'm reluctant to engage in a full-length novel about these characters, and haven't gone on to read Greco's novel about Trip and Rudy's further adventures.  (Current Kindle price: Free)

Wool - Part One, a novellette in the Silo series, by Hugh Howey.  Oh, so this is what all the fuss has been about the last few years.  Howey was an early self-publisher, and has achieved spectacular success and income from the Silo series and other works.  "Wool" was the story that started it all.  Why did "Wool" succeed, where so many other self-publishers had only limited or negligible results?  Canny marketing and promotion was one reason, but I think the primary reason is that "Wool" is a pretty damn good story.  The post-climate-collapse, dystopian underground society is well thought out, the characters are fully fleshed, there's an underlying mystery to this future setting, all of which draw the reader through to this story's conclusion and make one want to read further works in Howey's world.  The lesson is: Write a good story first.  The rest -- marketing, promotion, etc., whether in traditional publishing or self-publishing -- are secondary.  A reader might be hooked once by marketing, promotion, a striking cover (although "Wool" succeeded despite a, umm, less-than-impressive cover), but being more than a one-shot writer requires being the very best writer you can be.  (Current Kindle price: Free)

Augur is a short story collection by Freya Robertson.  While I was reading the collection, I kept having a vague feeling of dissatisfaction, but wasn't sure why.  The stories were decently written, decently plotted, decently inventive.  But I kept scratching my head as to why I wasn't enjoying them as much as I would have expected.  Until I got to one of the last entries, "Bearcub", about a young boy competing to be chosen for a knight's training, and found myself significantly more "into" the story than I had with earlier entries in the collection.  I thought about this, and went back and reread some passages from the earlier stories.  I think what the mystery was is that Freya Robertson's use of language, overall, tends to a shorter vocabulary, simpler sentences, and uncomplicated character development.  That her natural writing voice seems to be better suited to a middle-school or YA audience; the stories that left me feeling most dissatisfied were those with adult protagonists.  "Bearcub", with its young protagonist, read much more naturally for me; the writing style seemed much more suited to that particular story and character.  (Robertson's novel Heartwood catches up with Bearcub in his early-adult life; the sample chapters included at the end of Augur read pretty well, and it's being promoted as a YA book.) (Current Kindle price: 3.99)

Unnatural History by Jonathan Green is the first novel in the Pax Brittania alternate-history series from Abaddon Books. The cover and blurbs for this made it sound like it would be a fun romp.  (Dinosaurs on the rampage in a Steampunk London!  What's not to love?) Ehh, not so much.  The hero of the series, one Ulysses Quicksilver, appears meant to be an amalgram of Alan Quatermain, Doc Savage, and other heroes from pulp and adventure fiction.  But there's no real depth or development to him, and he came across as very flat and uninvolving.  (As a lead character in a series, it may simply be that he's not permitted to change or grown from episode to episode.)  Another disappointment, and I don't feel any inclination to read more in the Pax Brittania setting.  (Current Kindle Price: Free)

The above were all e-books.  This next was a hardcover I won in a Goodreads giveaway.

I read Jo Baker's Longbourn, a retelling/expansion of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, focusing on the household servants as the primary characters. Much about the wide gulf between the working class and the privileged/wealthy, and the lives of unending drudgery and work most people lived. In some ways it was like reading a well-written science fiction novel, because the society of early 19th-Century Britain is almost like an alien planet. Some of the antiquated terms used were ones I was unfamiliar with, and sometimes context wasn't quite enough to fully grasp the meaning; first time in a long time that I kept a notebook handy to jot an occasional word down to look up later. Baker depicts a very grim society to live in, but I came to... "enjoy" is not the right word... appreciate her depiction of the lower classes struggling to find love and a hope for the future in their harsh lives.  (Hardcover/retail 25.95; Amazon HC 15.11, Kindle version 10.99)

And that's it for this installment of Brave Free Books.

4/06/2014

A Gallery of Godzilla


There's a "Poster Posse" group of artists who do occasional riffs on alternative posters for various movies. Their latest subject is the forthcoming reboot for Godzilla.  I like this traditionalist version, by Daniel Nash, best:



3/27/2014

Hugos and Rockets and The Chain of Connection

The official Hugo Awards site describes the design of the award as having been "based upon the hood ornament from a 1950s American automobile."  They don't give a specific make or model, but I'll wager that the inspiration came from the Oldsmobile 88, aka the "Rocket 88".  There were variant versions of the hood ornament from year to year before the first Hugos were given in 1953, but the version used in advertising that preceded Oldsmobile's public introduction of the 88 line a few years before that makes, I think, a pretty irrefutable argument.



Look familiar?

I came across this image, and others on the vintage site linked above, because I was making notes for a future story where I wanted a young woman traveling in an old car, and I wanted a car whose name would both trigger a science-fictiony association and be "a man's car".  The Rocket 88 fit the bill pretty well; it was one of the first cars with a V-8 engine and other power embellishments, and is now regarded as an early outlier for the "muscle cars" from other makers that started coming on market in the mid-1950's.  But I did a double-take when I did an image search and saw some pictures of the 1950 "fastback" model of the Olds 88.




Because I recognized that distinctive sloping trunk lid.  And I remembered that my grandfather had owned a car with that same trunk lid.  I'd always remembered that it had been an older Oldsmobile, but I'd never remembered the particular model.   And, after I got older and became aware of the Hugo awards, I'd remembered that a car with a Hugo-like ornament on its hood had been around while I was growing up, but I hadn't remembered it as being Grandpa's Oldsmobile.

My grandfather died when I was in sixth grade, I think in late 1963, and I had never remembered him as anything other than as a frail old man and, in his last several months, a dying old man.  So it was a bit of a shock to realize that Grandpa might have been driving a muscle-car all those years.  My grandfather as a bad-ass?  As a tough guy?  Hard to picture.  Even in older family photos, he was thin and non-intimidating, not the type of person you'd expect to see in a fight, not the type of person you'd want on your side in a fight.

Or maybe you would.  Because there was one family story I heard from my mother decades after Grandpa had died, only once, and only in very brief form.  Probably because it was, at heart, a pretty ugly and very discomforting story.  But it showed that when someone tried to harm his children, my grandfather -- and a length of wooden broom handle -- was capable of cold-blooded and deliberate violence.

(I was actually planning on using this family story, with a number of changes and expansions, as the basis for the next story on my "to-write" list.)

So maybe my grandfather really was, or had been, a bad-ass tough guy.  And maybe, on those times when I rode in Grandpa's car to the store or other relatives' homes, I was riding with a Hugo on the hood!  Probably the closest I ever got to a Hugo.

(Although I was told, back in the 1970's when fandom was a lot smaller and I was a much more active fanzine publisher and letterhack, that I'd once come within a few nominations of being on a Hugo ballot for Best Fan Writer one year.  But "within a few nominations" probably doesn't count for much, then or now.)


3/14/2014

Bee Swarm


The ash tree in our front yard got colonized by a bee swarm yesterday afternoon.  I don't particularly freak out about bees or even bee swarms, but the assemblage was hanging almost over the public sidewalk and I thought the rest of the neighborhood might object.  I was also a little worried that some of the young neighborhood kids might decide to do the Rock Test on the swarm.  (Rock Test, as I recall it from my own misspent youth: "There's something unusual over there.  Let's throw a rock at it and see what happens.")

I was hoping the swarm would decide to move on after a night's rest, but no such luck.  So I had a bee service come out to remove it earlier today.  Sorry, bees.

3/05/2014

Brass Brassieres: The Cliche That Will Not Die


So, back in the early days of science fiction, pulp magazines tended to feature garish covers with bug-eyed monsters, phallic spaceships, and -- especially on a magazine called STARTLING STORIES -- skimpily dressed spacewomen whose most striking feature tended to be the brass metal brassieres they wore. Yes, metal. As in cold, hard metal.

Like this:
And this:

And this:
 

And especially this:
No bonus extra sexual subtext
on THIS cover.
Move along, pervert.

That particular trope, memorable as it was (and it was used by critics as an example of science-fiction's essential juvenile/puerile nature for decades), faded away after awhile.  It sometimes appeared on "women warrior" covers for fantasy novels, though that seems to have dropped in frequency as well.  A few notable exceptions include the "Slave Girl Leia" costume from RETURN OF THE JEDI (but then, the whole Star Wars Trilogy -- There can be only one! There was only one! -- was a callback/homage to the old SF pulps), and, in a slightly different design, the ludicrous chain mail bikini worn by Marvel Comics' version of Red Sonja.  (There are also the occasional form-fitting spacesuits or power-armor, but at least they're not bare skin in space!)

So we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the "brass brassiere" cliche has, for the most part, vanished into the dustbin of history.  Right?

Well, not quite.  The BBC television series Da Vinci's Demons (shown on the Starz cable channel in the US) recently put out some publicity stills for the show's second season:


It's official: Brass brassieres are back!

From what I've read about Da Vinci's Demons, the show's first season played a bit fast and loose with historical timelines regarding what happened when, or with the lifespans of various historical characters. (One character depicted as being alive to interact with Da Vinci died, in real life, about thirteen years earlier.)  But they weren't egregiously anhistorical.

For the second season, it sounds like the show's writers are now turning more towards the Holy-Shit-These-Are-GREAT-Drugs! scriptwriting model made popular by ABC's Sleepy Hollow, wherein the historical record is turned inside-out, dressed up in a tutu, and painted in day-glo colors.  (See: Zombie George Washington.) Da Vinci will discover the Americas and have a run-in with the Incan Empire.  Yes, really. One assumes from the photo above that the brass-brassiered beauties are supposed to be the legendary Amazons, or that Da Vinci stumbled onto an Incan fashion-model photo shoot, or, oh fuck, I have no fucking idea what the fuck is going on in that photo, just that it makes me go "GHAAA! MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP!"


3/02/2014

Wonderella On The Writer's Life

I try to follow a Twitter-avoidance policy (because timesink), but Wonderella is one of the few exceptions:


3/01/2014

Book Review: A Bloodsmoor Romance, by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates has been turning out novels and short stories on a prolific basis for decades, frequently enough that she's been criticized for writing too quickly, while at the same time being highly regarded in literary circles.  Somehow, except for a few short stories, I'd never read any of her work until recently.

A Bloodsmoor Romance was first published in 1982 and is part of the "Gothic Quintet" (concluded in the recent The Accursed).  Judging from some of the reviews I've read, it has a reputation as a "black sheep" among Oates' work, with irregular and inconsistent plotting and narrative.

I can see where those opinions are coming from.  But I can also see, I think, what Oates was trying to accomplish with the book, not always successfully.  There were moments when I absolutely loved what I was reading, and also moments when I was definitely going "WTF?"  So my reaction is as mixed and inconsistent as the actual book is.  ABR is kind of a mess, but it's a "hot mess".

From The Urban Dictionary:
'Hot messes' are appealing for a variety of reasons, most notably because they're generally unexpected, capricious, & agonizingly provocative. Additionally, numerous contingent factors make duplication rare and continual repetition virtually impossible. 
No one set of guidelines can perpetually determine what distinguishes a "hot mess" from an above-average train wreck. Regardless of the circumstances, you know it when you see it; because they are typically conspicuous, and obviously they are always awesome.
Basics: In late 19th-century America (1879-1899), the Zinn sisters (Constance Philippa, Malvinia, Octavia, Samantha, and the adopted orphan Deidre) are the children of a gifted but irresponsible inventor who fortunately married into a wealthy Pennsylvania family, the Kiddemasters.  Though the backstories of John Quincy Zinn and Prudence Kiddemaster are told in flashbacks, the five sisters' stories are the main narrative. The initiating incident of the book is when Deidre, the youngest sister, is abducted by an unidentified balloonist in a sinister black balloon.

The stories of the five sisters are told by an unnamed female person of the same period and mores.  The Victorian repression and denial of sexuality is paramount in the narrator's voice, augmented by a cloying American fundamentalism.  Since much of the book deals with the sisters' actions in contradiction with those social codes and mores, there is much expression of disapproval from the narrator, couched in florid Victorian prose.

But, by God, it's great use of overblown prose.  Particularly in the early parts of the book, the rhythm and pace of the narrative is almost like poetry.  There were sections I wanted to read out loud.  I would have loved to hear this book done as an audiobook.

Also, there are parts of this book that are just plain goddamned funny.  "Goofball" isn't a term one usually finds applied to Oates, but for this one particular book she seems to have let her inner-goofball out at points.

[Spoilers below]

2/28/2014

Ed Harris, Radio Fantasist

Along with other podcasts, I've been a regular listener to the BBC Radio Drama of the Week.  Sometimes these are modern-day slice-of-life stories about ordinary people, and sometimes they illuminate odd little corners of history (usually British history, for some odd reason).  But they also feature content of a science-fictional or fantastic nature on a surprisingly frequent basis.  And I've noticed the name "Ed Harris" listed as the author of a goodly number of those SF/F type radio plays.  So I decided to try and find out a bit more about him.

Here in America, when one hears the name "Ed Harris", one tends to think of this guy:

Ed Harris, actor
Helluva good actor, but not the guy we're looking for.  The "Ed Harris" writing for the BBC (and elsewhere) is this guy:

Ed Harris, playwright
So it turns out he's only been writing (as in, having his work produced) since 2005, the young snot, and has already become pretty notable in the rarified atmosphere of radio drama and stage plays.  (Radio drama is pretty close to extinct in the US, but it's still a viable medium in Great Britain and elsewhere.)  Several of his plays, Mongrel Island and The Cow Play, are available in book form.

Here's an interesting interview with him on medium.com: "Wanting To Write Is A Ridiculous Idea"  I like the "voice" he uses when discussing writing (I'm reminded a bit of Neil Gaiman), and he says some eminently quotable things:
     Inexperienced writers often put their hand to their forehead and exclaim “Oh my god how indulgent am I? – Why should other people be interested in me?”
     And the truth is, other people aren’t.
     They couldn’t give less of a shit about you and your wry observations or pithy philosophical quips. But, if you’re any kind of writer, you are interested in them. And they, if they read, are also interested in them. In each other. 
Here's a link to the BBC Radio Drama page.  And here's one to the Drama of the Week Podcast page, where the weekly offering can be downloaded onto your own player.  (The drawback to the DOW podcasts is that they're only made available for a week, Fridays-Thursdays, although some of them eventually show up available for purchase on iTunes.)  This week's offering is another Ed Harris work, "Pixie Juice", available until March 6th, 2014.

2/26/2014

Bastet: 2003-2014

I had our black cat, Bastet, put to sleep a few days ago.  She was diagnosed about a year and a half ago with lymphoma.  This caused fluid to accumulate around her lungs, squeezing and restricting them.  Treatment with diuretics and anti-inflammatories slowed that accumulation, but it was still necessary to take her in every few months and get some of that excess fluid drained from around her lungs.  Prognosis at first diagnosis was that she might live another year to two years.

She'd been showing signs of labored breathing and restricted lung capacity again, so I took her in for another draining last week.  This time, though, she didn't show the signs of improvement as with earlier drainings.  In earlier treatments, once the excess fluid was withdrawn, her lungs were able to stretch back to fairly normal capacity.

That didn't happen this time.  X-rays showed her lungs weren't re-expanding, but staying cramped and restricted.  She'd reached the limits of her ability to recover from the effects of the disease.

It wasn't unexpected, but it was still sad to let her go.  She was a pretty sweet cat.  Never much for laps, but sometimes at night, when Hilde or I were laying on our backs, she'd climb on our chests (usually Hilde's) and nestle there for a while.

Bastet as kitten, 2003

Bastet grown, around 2010


We still have four cats in the household, tho' only Tyr and Sethra are "ours".  (Cassie is Tabbi's cat, while Aliera laid claim to James and Paul after she and Sethra were added to the household following our friend Anne's death in 2009.)  If we end up adopting another cat, it might well be another black cat, just because there's still a stupid stigma about black cats with a lot of people, making it harder to find people willing to adopt them..



2/18/2014

Life of Washington

Slightly late, for Presidents Day:



What?  This never happened?  Well, damn it, it should have!

Found at mercyhurstuniverstitylibraries.


2/10/2014

Dash It All

Amazon recently offered some of George Orwell's books as Kindle Daily Deals.  The Kindle edition of DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON bears a number of negative reviews, not because of Orwell or what he wrote, but because of excessive typos and because the Kindle edition's text was apparently taken from the old 1972 Harcourt edition, wherein naughty words were dashed out to protect the sensibilities of the fragile public.  Reviewer Brian Scearce provided an excerpt from a chapter dealing with, oh dear, naughty words:

“For example, ——. The Londoners do not now use, or very seldom use, this word in its original meaning; it is on their lips from morning till night, but it is a mere expletive and means nothing. Similarly with ——, which is rapidly losing its original sense. One can think of similar instances in French—for example, ——, which is now a quite meaningless expletive. The word——, also, is still used occasionally in Paris, but the people who use it, or most of them, have no idea of what it once meant.”

One is tempted to exclaim "WTF?"  Or, in Harcourtspeak, "---?"

Arpaio Does It Again

On Saturday, a local training exercise for law enforcement personnel, on how to respond to an active school shooter situation was held at an empty school.  The exercise was put together by our well-known and/or infamous Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arapio, with an assist by  former action movie star Steven Seagal.  Story and video here.

I'm not going to object to LEOs being taught how to respond to this type of situation, or even to the use of washed-up celebrities to get more media coverage.  It's just that, when I saw the video on local news, I couldn't help noticing, well....

Most school shooting situations involve actual students as the shooter.  Most of those student-shooter situations involve only one weapon, usually a handgun.  Heavily-armed shooters  and adult outsiders coming into a school, as in the Newtown shootings, are relatively rare. 

Oh, and one other thing: If you Google an image search for "school shooting mugshots", what you end up with is an overwhelming field of white faces, with only occasional appearances by black, brown, or other ethnicities.

So what type of person gets cast as the shooter in Arpaio's training exercise?  That's right: A Big Black Scary Guy.  Who appeared to be about 30-40.  And who carried multiple weapons and an ammo bag.

Of course that's who Arapio cast.  He just can't help himself.  It's been his pattern for decades.  If there's a chance to make a dogwhistle about black or brown people, he takes it.

And the saddest part?  He keeps getting reelected, and reelected, and reelected.





Doing Better

Saw doctor Wednesday, had a tentative diagnosis of pneumonia, prescribed antibiotics and told to stay off work until Monday.  Recovery in progress.  Still short-winded and rather lacking in endurance, but I can get some light stuff done.  Managed to catch up with laundry yesterday.  Later today (Sunday) I have to get to the grocery store; a trip was already overdue when I got sick a week ago, and we've run out of even more items since then.  The grocery trip should let me know how difficult going back to work will be.  (It's not a strenuous job, it's just pretty continuous.)  Workplace requires FMLA paperwork to authorize a return to work if someone's off more than three days, so I'll probably have to have a follow-up appointment with the doctor.

Everyone else in the house has come down with the crud, too, to greater or lesser extents.  While speculation as to who infected who may be entertaining, I've decided that "I Blame Society" is the best response.

Considering how many people in the household got sick so quickly, I found myself wondering if it wouldn't be suitable to hire someone with a horse and wagon to drive up and down the street outside, shouting "Bring out your dead!  Bring out your dead!"  (I must be getting better; my sense of humor is getting sicker.) (i.e., normal)

Later:  Grocery trip went fine, came home a little tired but not badly.  I should be okay going back to work in the next few days.

2/04/2014

Creeping Crud

After a couple of completely miserable days, I've improved to the point of semi-miserable.  I came down with the respiratory crap everyone else has been having lately.  Judging by other  people's experience, I'll continue to have fatigue, headache, congestion and occasional coughing for several weeks before it clears completely, but at least I can do more than lay in bed like I've mostly done since Sunday morning.

Update, Tuesday afternoon: Spoke too soon.  Several hours this morning with the worst chills and shakes I've ever had.  Time to see the doctor.


1/27/2014

Stroke Awareness

 
 
 
I'm posting this infographic about stroke symptoms because the issue arose in my own life this last week.  One of the other security guards had a stroke at work last week (not during one of my shifts, for which I'm grateful) and has been in hospital since then.  Treatment and application of the new "stroke-buster" drugs have brought about considerable improvement, but he'll be in rehab for a considerable while yet.
 

Pretty alarming.  Even more alarming because the guy is only 42.   (My own son turns 40 this year.  Whoa-a-a....)

If you ever start having these symptoms, don't try to "tough it out" or ignore what's happening.  The more quickly the "stroke-busters" are administered, the more damage they can prevent.  Quick treatment can make the difference between returning to normal life, ending up in a wheelchair, or death.

1/23/2014

Slow Words: A Not-So-Sweet Non-Romance


 

C.S. (Susanne) Lakin has written a number of novels from her heart; none of them have been particularly successful or renumerative.  She got tired of, especially, that latter part.  So she researched what genres and subgenres sold especially well among self-published books, and found that "Sweet Historical Western Romance" had a reliable buying audience even without labor-intensive or expensive marketing and promotion.  ("Sweet" is a euphemism for "No Sex" in this context.)  She'd never read or written in that genre before.  She found books by one of the most popular authors in that subgenre, "deconstructed" one of those novels, and used what she learned to write her own, COLORADO PROMISE (published as by "Charlene Whitman").  That book has been making fairly steady earnings since its publication.

Lakin went on to write an article about that experience, and the article was published recently on Joel Friedlander's The Book Designer blog.   Another version of that article appeared on writer Barbara Rogan's blog.  Both got a lot of appreciative comments.

A-a-a-nd... some not so appreciative comments.  Including several from Debra Holland, the author of WILD MONTANA SKY, the novel Lakin deconstructed.   Apparently, there was some degree of contact between Lakin and Holland before Lakin began writing her own SHR novel.  Exactly how much seems a little uncertain, and it also seems a little uncertain how clear Lakin was about the process she was using to try and emulate Holland's success.

Holland's first comment, on the Book Designer blog, was very -- very -- politely phrased, but with a clear undercurrent of some annoyance.  A later comment, on Rogan's blog, was rather more forceful about Holland feeling, umm, under-informed about exactly what Lakin had planned to do.  Lakin chimed in with her own replies, also growing increasingly testy.  Various commenters, both defending and criticizing Lakin, have added to the discussion.

As Internet arguments go, so far it's actually been pretty mild.  If I was trying to make a video version, it would be filled with eyerolls, significant glances and glares, haughty chins, impertinent sniffs and long sighs, ending with simultaneous flounces by everyone involved.  More like something out of a Georgette Heyer novel, rather than, say, John Ringo.

(The John Ringo version would have bullets, blood, and things that go *BOOM*.)

A few points in response to the whole situation:

I wish Lakin wouldn't use the term "deconstruction" for the process she used to study the SHR genre and Holland's particular novel.  "Deconstruction" has an established meaning in academic Literary Theory.  For a bumper-sticker version, Deconstruction tries to find the meaning behind the meaning in literature (or, more exactly, the contradictions in meaning) (or, ultimately, the impossibility of a clearly defined meaning).  A fairly plain-English explanation of the theory can be found on this webpage from Bedford St. Martin's.  A more jargon-ridden definition can be found here on Wikipedia.  (Deconstruction Theorists tend to use dense, complex, jargon-heavy writing when writing about deconstruction itself.  Critics sometimes speculate this is to disguise the fact that Deconstruction Theory has no clothes.)

What Lakin seems to have done with WILD MONTANA SKY is what I'd call a "breakdown" of Holland's novel into its essential structure.   This is not the same as copying or plagiarizing, but it seems to be more than "influenced by" or "in the style of".  As an example, both books open with the first chapter from the female protagonist's view, and the second chapter from the male protagonist's.  In both books, the female protagonist is an Easterner for whom unexpected circumstances compel a move out West, where she's a fish-out-of-water.  And, as the genre requires, both books are set in a historical period in the Western United States and involve a romance.   So the books are similar in overall plot and character progression, but not identical.

(I'm basing these comparisons on the "Look Inside!" excerpts available on Amazon.)

Larkin's actual process in breaking down Holland's book is a little vague at this point.  I'll have a bit more to say about that further below.

But "deconstruct" is definitely not the term she should use for that process.  It conflicts, badly, with a long-established meaning.  (Also, the word "deconstruction" raises, in a lot of people's minds, the image of Artsy-Fartsy Hoity-Toity Ivy-Tower Academic Snobs; it's not a "positive" word by any means.)  It makes my fingers go *twitch* and try to reach for a red pencil when Lakin misuses the word like that.

A number of other words might possibly be used to better effect.  How about "evaluate", or "study", or "modeling", or "analyze"?  (I think that last one may be particularly appropriate.)  Or, if you want to go a little more metaphorical, you might describe such an analysis as "How To X-Ray A Book -- Discovering The Anatomy Of A Novel".

Studying other people's books as education and/or guidance in writing your own is a long-standing tradition.  There was some well-known writer -- Roger Zelazny, perhaps? -- who, when starting his writing career, re-typed some of Theodore Sturgeon's stories to gain a better understanding of the choices Sturgeon made in plot and character and words.

"Formulas" and "Master Plots" have also been around a long time.  Lester Dent, who wrote many of the Doc Savage pulp-magazine stories under the Kenneth Robeson housename, used his own Secret Master Plot to turn out reliably-written adventure stories.  David Eddings had a checklist of elements to include in his fantasy novels.  When I was trying to sell movie scripts back in the 1990's, there were screenwriting how-to books that advocated, variously, a 3-part, 7-part, 12-part, and 21-part structure to screenplays.  So there's nothing intrinsically wrong with Lakin taking apart Holland's book and trying to write something similar or even with the same underlying anatomy.

But there are two aspects of this contretemps that leave me a little uneasy:

I think Lakin probably didn't give herself enough time to consider all the aspects of her project.  In particular, she didn't give enough thought to Debra Holland's end of the experiment.  Holland seems to have had only a vague idea of what Lakin intended to do with WILD MONTANA SKY.  One of the specific complaints that came up was that Lakin had asked Holland for the name and contact info of the cover artist for Holland's books; when the artist was contacted, Lakin reportedly claimed to be a friend of Holland's and told the artist Holland would be just fine with it if Lakin's bookcover resembled Holland's covers.  (Images below)  Other people have been uncomfortable that in Lakin's original articles, mention of Holland's name and book-title were left out.

It's a matter of courtesy, and openness, and professionalism.  If you're going to model the structure of your book on that of a specific book by a specific author, it behooves you to show that author more than a widow's-mite of respect.  I think Lakin was deficient on this point.  It's pretty clear that Holland certainly feels she was treated unprofessionally and with a lack of respect.

(The easy lesson here may be that, if you're going to model your work on another writer's example, pick a dead writer.)

Lakin is one of those writers who push heavily for writing quickly and publishing lots.  (She has a blog for writing advice, and critiques manuscripts in addition to her own fiction.)  Some writers do well with that sort of regimen.  (I'm not one of them, as my Slow Words Manifesto makes clear.)  I think in this case that attitude, that rush to publish, may have come back to bite her in the butt.  She'd have been better served to have sat back, taken a deep breath, and taken more time to think about her experiment and its possible ramifications and consequences.

The other thing I'm uneasy about is that Lakin's experiment comes across as, well, kinda cynical and mercenary.  And not just because, hey, she wanted to write something that would sell better than the fantasy books she'd put her heart into and actually, you know, bring in a respectable income.  Even if said something was in a niche genre of which she was, at first, almost completely ignorant.

But what makes me most uneasy, what comes across as even more cynical and mercenary, is that Lakin has said, based on the success of her experiment, she's going to be publishing a "how-to" book, explaining to others how they too can find a suitably well-selling subgenre, "deconstruct" (*twitch*) a novel from that niche, and use it as the basis for their own work.

And she's going to base this how-to book on... one sample?  On the sales success of one book?   That's... bad science.   One sample isn't even a statistic; it's just a datum.  A successful experiment is one that's repeatable.  Lakin should repeat her experiment with several books, or half a dozen, before she writes such a how-to book.  As currently conceived, the testing of Lakin's experiment will be done by the people who buy her how-to book.   That's worse science, and bad how-to writing.

I'll be a bit blunt here: Ms. Lakin, if you really publish such a one-sample how-to book, I will feel embarassed for you.

And if Lakin does publish such a how-to book, I certainly hope she'll take the time and thought to put in a chapter dealing with the issues of openness and professionalism that have come up since her articles were published.





























1/09/2014

Chasing Down "Chasing The Sun"

I've been seeing commercials for watchwigs.com, promoting an online series of scripted dramas, concentrating on women's stories.  But what really stuck in my memory was the striking music backing the montage of snippets from the shows.  Some Googling finally found the song used in the commercial, Louise Dowd & Richard Salmon's "Chasing The Sun".  Several versions are posted on YouTube, but the one below seems the best:


 
 
Very nice.  I'll have to check out some of Louise Dowd's other music available online.

While trying to identify the song, I also got a better idea what the watchwigs commercial was about.  WIGS is a YouTube channel with a number of shows presented as five-to-ten-minute video serials, some standalone short films, and documentaries.  They're using "name" actors like Jennifer Beals, and the production values look very good.  I'll hazard that WIGS* (slogan: "Where It Gets Interesting".  I can't help the snarky thought that "Where Our Acronyms Suck" might also be suitable.) is one of numerous attempts to find an audience for scripted drama online, with a fair amount of money and talent put into the project. 

1/08/2014

Weird Food -- You Got Capsicum In My Coffee Creamer!



I will occasionally see something weird at the grocery store that I can't resist picking up andtaking home to try out.  International Delight puts out a line of flavored coffee creamers, in the usual flavors (Hazelnut, etc.) and some less than usual ones.  But those have all been on the "sweet" spectrum of flavors.

This new flavor, Vanilla Heat, is the first I've seen that uses a flavor generally reserved for the savory spectrum: This is vanilla-flavored with the addition of a chili-pepper flavor.

It's... pretty weird.  I like sweet, and I like savory.  But I generally don't like them together.  A couple of exceptions: Picadillo, a Spanish ground beef dish flavored with capers and/or green olives, vinegar and (yep, really) raisins.  And I've liked some of the salty-sweet snack crackers and chips from various producers.

As a coffee creamer, though, vanilla-and-chili doesn't really work that well.  The whole point of a coffee creamer, in my experience, is to mellow out the bitterness and occasional "burnt" flavor of coffee, especially the dark-roast varieties.  So the basic creamer calms down some of the flavors going into your mouth, and the added "sweet" flavors also help cover up those less pleasant aspects of drinking coffee.  (No, I don't do black coffee.  Ever.)

The chili flavor in Vanilla Heat works against that calming aspect of the creamer.  It excites and stimulates your taste buds, and not in a way I expect or enjoy.  It also leaves a mild "burn" in your mouth and/or throat.  I don't mind that type of burning sensation when I'm eating Mexican food or other spicy dishes, but it's not what I look for in my coffee.  (I tend to use enough sugar and creamer in my coffee in general that it comes closer to dessert than beverage, in some people's view.)  So overall, I have to say that Vanilla Heat fell solidly into the "Try It Once" category for me.

It reminds me of an old product called Cajun Cola, the story of which was profiled in a very interesting article in a 1990 issue of Inc magazine.  It was a "spicy cola" with a chili kick, and it sold very well... at first.  What the producer of the cola failed to realize was that a spicy cola was essentially a novelty item, and that most people would try it once or a few times and then go back to their standard cola drinks.  After a while, less than a year, sales tanked, and Cajun Cola died and went to the Museum of Failed Products.

International Delight's website lists Vanilla Heat as one of their "Seasonal" offerings.  From other reviews online, it seems to have gone on the market back in September.  I can't help wondering if it's being offered this last holiday season was an example of test marketing.  (Phoenix's diverse population makes it a popular city for companies to test-market new products.)  Personally, I'll be just as happy if they try out a different flavor next holiday season.

1/05/2014

Why I Live In Arizona

 
 
Because the picture on the left
is what the weather is like in Arizona right now,
while the picture on the right shows the kind of weather
Midwestern and Northeastern states are having.
 
(The image, from Flickr Commons, actually comes from
 an old visit-sunny-Florida campaign.  But it'll pass for Arizona.)
 
 
 
 
I have never, ever, enjoyed being out in icy or snowy weather.  ("But the snow's so pretty!"  So is flowing lava, but I don't want to play in it.) 
 
I'm a traditionalist: I want my water to be liquid.  The only time I've lived someplace that had snow in the winter was during my Army service, when I spent two and a half years assigned to Fort Lee, in southern Virginia.  That area would get a thin layer of snow and occasional icy roads for about one month out of the year.  I would barely leave the barracks for that month.  (The unit I company-clerked for had its admin offices on the first floor of the barracks building, and an attached mess hall, so just about the only time I ever had to actually go outside was to deliver the unit's daily Morning Report to Battalion HQ across the street.)
 
There are two types of people:  Those who want to live on Tatooine, and those who want to live on Hoth.  I'm a Tatooine man.
 
(There used to be three types of people, but... well, we don't like to talk about Alderan.)
 
 
 
 
 

1/02/2014

Remembering Al's

(This originally appeared as a comment on a Jo Walton post at tor.com.)


Back in my teens, when I was first really getting into science fiction, the go-to used bookstore in Phoenix, AZ, was Al's Used Books. Al's was in a shabby building in a bad part of town with bad parking. But it was a big storefront; where the average used-book bookstore held maybe 10,000 or so books, Al's held 300,000. The space inside, except for narrow aisles, was completely filled with bookcases, tables, and floor-to-high-ceiling shelves on the walls. There were scattered fluorescent lights on the ceiling, but most illumination came from the big windows at the front of the store. The floors were bare concrete, no tile or carpet. If you'd asked for a cup of coffee there, they would have called the police to report the lunatic that had wandered into the store.

If you were looking for a specific title, Al's wasn't where you wanted to go. The proprietors sorted books by genre and that was it; books to be shelved were shoved into the closest available space in that genre section. When you went book-hunting at Al's, you hunted.

But for someone still fairly new to SF, looking thru those shelves and shelves and shelves of science-fiction paperbacks (hardcovers were a fairly small minority of the available selection) was kind of wonderful. Because you could go into Al's with two or three titles in mind to look for, and by the time you staggered up to the cash register several hours later you'd have made a couple of dozen serendipitous discoveries you hadn't known you wanted.

(This was in the late 60's/early 70's, long enough ago that you could eventually see almost every paperback since the start of paperback publishing a few decades earlier pass thru Al's. If not on one trip, then possibly on the next few trips there.)

I eventually got out of the (inconvenient) habit of going to Al's, shifting to newer and newer books as I got older. But I still held fond memories of the many books I'd discovered there. So it was still a shock when, sometime in the 80's, I happened to be back in that bad neighborhood on other business... and saw the storefront where Al's had been was now selling used appliances instead of used books. (Part of that shock was because I wasn't the only local SF fan who'd been a regular customer of Al's, and I would kind of have expected to hear of Al's closing a lot earlier.)

Not Al's, but this looks a lot like
the shopping-at-Al's experience.

1/01/2014

My Year In 2013

And why not add my own gobbet of spit to the year's-end tsunami of "Best of" lists and retrospectives for 2013?

2013, the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly:

Start with the Bad:  The biggie for the year was recovering, such as it was, from the bad arm break and shoulder injury from December 2012.  I wrote a series of posts throughout the year (see all the "The Arm" posts here) detailing the various ups and downs on that front.  At year's end, I still have trouble and pain from that shoulder; if I don't remember to take a couple of hefty aspirin/Tylenol tablets several times a day, I notice.  Oh, how I notice.  (A small pillbox is now an obligatory part of my pants-pocket inventory, along with wallet and car keys.) 

Range of motion and strength for the arm are still significantly compromised.   I figure I can still do about 80% of what I used to without more than mild discomfort, then about another 10% involving stronger reaching and grabbing and lifting that I can do but have to work thru discomfort/pain to do so.  And then the last 10% beyond that, which the arm just plain Don't Do Dat Shit No More.

It is what it is.  I deal with it.  But sometimes I deal with it by feeling broken and fragile and old.

Which leads into the Ugly:  In 2013 I got yet another year older.   This happens every damn year.  What is up with that shit?  In a sensible universe, you'd be able to skip that whole aging schtick once in a while.  Somewhere, there's got to be a button you can click for a drop-down menu that includes "Stop Aging" or even "Get Younger" options.  I'm getting a little tired of looking in the mirror to see some grumpy-looking old guy with a receding hairline and advancing wrinklage looking back.

But, hey, let's end this post with something a little more upbeat, the Good:  2013 was the year when I started writing and marketing fiction again on a moderately regular basis, after falling out of the practice back around 2006.  Ironically, it was in large part because of the broken arm and subsequently being off work for months that I started up again.  I've found myself enjoying the process again, enough that I've tried to continue writing even since going back to work at the end of July.

Concurrent with starting to write fiction again, I seemed to enjoy reading more this last year.  I've delved into the explosion of self/indie-published books that have come out the past few years.  That experience has been mixed.  I've found a few gems, some pretty decent books, but also a large proportion of books that should have been worked over and rewritten more before publishing, and *sigh* a few that just made me cringe.

(The self-published work I enjoyed most this past year was THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE by Sam Torode, a picaresque bildungsroman set in 1930's Hobo America with a slight supernatural element.  My own review here.)

Among works from traditional publishers, I found myself reading ebook versions, or listening to audiobooks, more than printed hardcovers or paperbacks.  Primarily this is because I have my smartphone within easy reach on my belt almost every waking moment; with several reading apps installed on the phone, I have access to a choice of books -- there are about 50-60 books downloaded to the phone at the moment, plus I can borrow library ebooks and audiobooks via the Overdrive app --  without having to carry around an additional bulkier object to read during free moments.  Convenience trumps physicality.

My favorite traditionally-published books this year was an older one from 2001, Pat Murphy's ADVENTURES IN TIME AND SPACE WITH MAX MERRIWELL.  It was fun to read.  This 2010 review by Tansy Rayner Roberts says pretty much everything I'd say in a review of my own.

And so ends 2013.

 
 

(I've mentioned it before, but Tatsuya Ishida's SINFEST
is one of my favorite webcomics, including the traditional year's-end sequence
\when Death goes on the hunt for Father Time.
Big archive, large cast of characters, long backstories,
and multiple plotlines, but worth the effort to get into.)

12/28/2013

Santa Explained

Over at the BBC, The Infinite Monkey Cage guys explain how Santa can deliver to so many homes in so little time.  Don't miss the comments, which raise some interesting issues.  (What happens to reindeer poop when it's travelling at near-FTL speeds?)

Audio version available here.

12/25/2013

The 14th Doctor...

...should definitely be female.




Our housemate Tabbi likes to dress up on occasion.

I think this could be described as "Doctor Who Chique'".  (Tabbi's a big Who fan.)  I'd define that as, not necessarily duplicating the actual wardrobe from the tv series, but its flavor.  A varied mix of out of period clothing and/or clashing styles (bow-tie plus sneakers) that nonetheless works and looks good.  (Weird-good, sometimes, but good.)

Slow Words: Looking For Ebooks

(An earlier version of this post appeared as a comment on SF SIGNAL, where the question "How do you find good self-published ebooks?" was asked.)

I use my smartphone for reading ebooks, with apps for Nook and Kindle. I also use Overdrive to borrow ebooks from my local library. The smartphone screen is close enough to a paperback size that I don’t have trouble reading off it; other people find it difficult.

This is a habit I’ve only picked up in the last couple of years, but I find myself reading a lot more ebooks than hardcopy books nowadays.

Finding good self-published books: Sometimes a struggle. Easiest way is to keep an eye on experienced writers who are, more and more, bringing out their rights-reverted backlist as ebooks. (Walter Jon Williams, one of my favorite writers, has brought out most of his backlist as ebooks, including the non-sf nautical adventure novels from the start of his career.) You can catch up on a lot of older books this way, and the numbers are increasing.

Sorting thru new self-published works is a lot harder.

Ratings on Amazon and Goodreads are generally useless. Even the most awful books get mostly four or five stars. I think the psychology behind this is that giving three stars or less makes you a meanie, and people don’t want to be seen as a meanie.

Actual Amazon/Goodreads reviews are a little better, but not by much. Too many of the reviews fall into the same four-or-five-stars mental trap, and give gushing approval for writing that clearly doesn’t deserve it. I find it actually better to read the three-star reviews, when there are any; they tend to give a much more realistic idea what one can expect to find in a book.

There are a number of ongoing attempts to establish websites devoted to legitimate and intelligent reviews of self-published books, but none of them seem to have really gained a reputation or foothold yet.

My occasional column here, “The Brave Free Books”, reviews mostly-ebooks that I’ve gotten for free from author’s promotions, drawings, or other sources. I tend to follow a “toughlove” model of reviewing, so some books get high marks (Sam Torode's novel THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE, for one example), while others… don’t (but get a lengthy explanation why their work was sub-par). Also, I’m a meanie.

Amazon’s “Look Inside”, and similar features elsewhere, is your biggest friend in the search for good self-published books. Being able to read a sample has saved me time and disappointment on multiple occasions.

Other things to look at are the covers and marketing blurbs. If a blurb is poorly written or boring, the book probably will be too. (This recent post dealt with the writing of blurbs, and why some failed and others succeeded in piquing my interest.)

A decently designed cover is a promising sign. If a writer is willing to take the time and effort to make the packaging presentable and professional, it may mean they also took the time and effort to make the book’s content worthwhile as well. (This doesn’t always prove true. One of the fantasy books I reviewed had a spectacularly good cover, but I was only able to read three chapters before giving up on the effort.)

Looking for good self-published works is a lot like looking thru a slushpile. Both follow a similar bell curve: On one end, there’s a fairly small (but memorable) amount of the extremely awful my-god-what-were-they-thinking flat out BAD books. Then there’s a big climb up a hill of Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time books, with clear problems in structure, plotting, characterization etc, books that needed a rethink or rewrite before they should have been published. Then the other half of that big hill, the As-Good-As books, works that are “competent”, that are “okay”, but that don’t have a distinctive voice, don’t do anything new or fresh, that are essentially imitative, and that in the end can best be categorized as “meh”. And finally the other small end of that bell curve, where the books are satisfying, well-crafted, and memorable.

It would be nice if sorting the wheat from the chaff involved less effort on my part, or if there were trustworthy sources to do a lot of that pre-sorting for me.  But the self-publishing world is still pretty much in its Wild West, Gold Rush hullabaloo days, so all the above is pretty much how I'm stuck doing it for now.   I expect changes in coming years, but I'm sure not going to place any bets on what form they'll take.

12/24/2013

Christmas Baking: Gingersnaps



I've been making these gingersnaps around Christmas for several years, since Molly Birnbaum published the recipe on her blog My Madeleine.  I like gingersnaps in general, and these are the best version I've found.  The inclusion of whole-wheat flour in addition to white flour gives an extra richness to the flavor and texture.


Gingersnaps
Adapted from Kim Boyce(and Amy Scattergood)’s Good to the Grain

Wet ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses (not blackstrap)
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1 egg

Dry ingredients:
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon clove
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

To finish:
1/2 cup sugar

Mix together the melted butter, sugars, molasses, ginger, and egg.  Sift the dry ingredients into the same bowl.  Stir to form a batter.  Wrap the dough in plastic and chill for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, positioning two racks to the upper and lower third.  Grease two baking sheets.  Pour the final 1/2 cup of sugar into a bowl.

Pluck pieces of dough around one tablespoon in size, toss in the bowl of sugar, and then roll into balls.  Toss each ball back into the sugar for a second time, rolling them around until, as Boyce says, “they are sparkly white.”  Place each on the baking sheets, leaving at least 2 inches between them all. 

Bake for 10 – 15 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the cookies are dark in color and even all the way across.  When out of the oven, immediately transfer to a cooling rack with a metal spatula. These cookies can be stored in an airtight container for up to three days.  (That is, if they last that long.)



(Hint: The fresh ginger I had was fibrous enough it didn't want to grate well.  I minced it instead, then put the minced ginger and melted butter in the blender and pureed long enough to chop the ginger even more finely.)