Wednesday, July 12, 2023

My Goodreads Reading Challenges, part 1: 2020

 A few years ago, the end of 2018 to be precise, I thought I would have an easier time reading and finishing many of the many, many books in my To Be Read pile. The reason was, I was no longer a full-time employee anywhere, but freelance, and given my lazy approach to finding work I thought this would mean more time to knit, more time to read, more time to Do Things that were not directly employment related. For example, I finished writing a second novel, and kept working on my third and fourth! And started cleaning out our crowded apartment of superfluous things. And pampering my plants.

As for more time to read? Once upon a time I read short stories voraciously, subscribed to all the SFF mags and bought collections and anthologies. But my tastes shifted over the years, and I began craving longer and longer stories practically to the exclusion of true short stories. The quality of available reading material had nothing to do with it. Just personal taste.

Things didn’t happen quite the way I imagined. During 2018, when I still commuted an hour each day by bus, and often spent lunch time at my desk, and we flew on lengthy trips several times, I read a lot of books. Seventy two! Same as 2017! And back in 2016 I read 77, perhaps an all-time personal best. I’ll write about those books some other time. (And yes, I’m using Goodreads to track all that.)

In 2019, I made the same modest goal of reading 50 books that I had for years past. And read 55! I blamed it on shorter bus rides, not traveling by air as much, and having generally more stuff to do.

Then…pandemic. Surely, even the distraction of having Spouse home all day working from home could not prevent me from continuing to tackle my book-reading goals head on. Surely I’d get lots of knitting done, lots of reading done. I once again set a goal of 50 books, which seemed eminently doable.

But I read only 39 full books in 2020. Many were but novellas, or even shorter. Graphic novels, with not much dialogue. I know now, that between pandemic and politics I wasn’t alone in struggling to concentrate enough to get through some very anxious periods. I thoroughly enjoyed what I read. But I worried about my aging brain, and set the same goal of 50 books for 2021. Which I missed. By a lot.

(I will report that thankfully neither I nor Spouse actually contracted Covid that year. Nor since, so far.)

2020 books included:

The Death of the Necromancer, by Martha Wells
Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy, and Network Effect, by Martha Wells
The City in the Middle of the Night, by Charlie Jane Anders
Paladin’s Grace, and A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, by T. Kingfisher
Life of David Hockney, by Catherine Cusset
Stormsong, and Midnight Bargain by CL Polk
Gideon the Ninth, and Harrow the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow
Beneath the Rising, by Premee Mohamed
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djeli Clark
Color, by Victoria Finlay
The Raven Tower, by Ann Leckie
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller
The Empire of Gold, by SA Chakraborty
The Vinyl Detective: Low Action, by Andrew Cartmel
Rag and Bone, and Slippery Creatures, by KJ Charles
Storm of Locusts, by Rebecca Roanhorse
The House of Sundering Flames, and Of Dragons Feasts and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard
Solutions and Other Problems, by Allie Brosh
A Pocketful of Lodestones, by Elizabeth Crowens
The Morning of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels
Daemon Voices, by Philip Pullman
The Physicians of Vilnoc, by Lois McMaster Bujold
Girl Genius: Queens and Pirates, by Phil & Kaja Foglio

(I am omitting several things I read mostly for research purposes for my own writing.)


Variations on a Tuna

Saw an interesting idea for lunch in a recent NYT Food newsletter, and tried it today. SUCCESS. We both loved it! 
Mix canned tuna (1 can for 2 people) with a little soy sauce, a little sesame oil, as much mayo as you like (I am using Kewpie these days), mix with chopped cucumber (I used 1 small seedless for 2 people) and chopped scallion. Put over hot rice. Add a few shakes of furikake (flaked nori and sesame seeds).

Not so much a recipe as a procedure, as all is to taste. Other ideas included were chopped radish, avocado and tomato. I'll definitely try those!

Previously, my fanciest tuna salad lunches were scallions, dill, olives, capers and mayo and olive oil, sometimes sliced grape tomatoes. Diced celery is good too, but I usually only buy celery in fall and winter. Other times too lazy, just use mayo, capers and lemon pepper or Italian herb blend. I'm going to try chili-lime spice blend too! 

You can use whatever canned tuna you like, of course, solid or light. We eat canned tuna once a week or so, alternating types. 

My tuna salad notions came about after many years of my being convinced I didn't like canned tuna, while my Spouse claims he practically lived on tuna sandwiches for years while a bachelor. I gradually came to appreciate it, now I even crave it sometimes. 

I started out ages ago making a "Tuscan Tuna Salad" we ate in pita pockets or over beds of lettuce. 

  • Sauté in olive oil: sliced scallions, diced fennel, red bell pepper, 1 can small white beans until warmed. 
  • Mixed with tuna, diced cucumber, chopped parsley and dill. 
  • Chopped olives are optional. I like them. 
  • Simple olive oil and lemon juice dressing. Lots of fresh ground pepper. Salt. 
  • Again, not a real recipe, more a procedure. Spouse can't eat raw onion, for example, so I use scallions instead, but you could use diced red or sweet raw onion. 
Quantities vary. I literally never measure chopped or sliced veggies in any recipe. I go by what would serve the 2 of us, depending on whether we want leftovers or not. Tuscan Tuna Salad could absolutely become leftovers for lunch, so eyeball it. Quarter a fennel bulb for 2 servings, half for 4. Peppers come in all sizes, so maybe half a cup for 2 servings or 4. An entire small Persian cucumber for 2, or a few inches of a larger greenhouse cucumber. 

Then I started making several tuna-based toppings for pasta. My first version was: 

  • Sauté shallot, garlic in olive oil; 
  • Add petite diced canned tomatoes, basil pesto, chopped black olives, capers, flaked canned tuna, crushed red pepper and lots of black pepper. 
  • Use whatever pasta you like. Curly pasta holds the topping really well. 

My delicious version of Pasta Puttanesca is really easy for a pantry dinner when I'm tired. Again, for 2 people:

  • Sauté small chopped onion or large shallot in olive oil, with lots of garlic. 
  • Add a generous heap of anchovies, 1 can of drained diced tomatoes and at least a heaping tablespoon of basil pesto. Cook down a bit. Stir a lot. 
  • At the last minute, add the can of tuna, a handful of chopped olives and a few spoonfuls of capers. 
  • Shake on some hot red pepper flakes, and plenty of grated Parmesan. 
  • Serve with red wine! 

OF COURSE Salad Nicoise is still the king of tuna salad meals. I try not to make a huge production of it, as good tomatoes and green beans and baby potatoes are in the Greenmarket just when I don't want to heat up the house by cooking. So I cheat! 

  • Cut the baby red potatoes in half. Boil. When they have boiled 5 minutes, add the green beans to the same pot. They will come out done at the same time. Drizzle with dressing while still warm. Let cool a bit. 
  • Hard-boil eggs preferably some other time if it's hot in the kitchen. Peel and slice in half or quarters or whatever you like. 
  • Meanwhile, prepare vinaigrette dressing (olive oil, lemon juice or red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard). I sometimes add some mayo. Lots of ground pepper. 
  • Prepare the lettuce. Mix it with a bit of dressing. Slice tomatoes. 
  • Break up the tuna you're using (the jarred filets are best but canned is fine). I like to pre-combine it with plenty of small olives and plenty of capers and plenty of drained anchovies. Fewer bowls to wash! Mix with a bit of dressing. 
  • Serve however you like. I fill our bowls with lettuce, then we pick the rest. 

I have a David Rosengarten recipe for "Lemony Tuna and White Bean Antipasto Salad" that I still haven't tried, but it's pretty simple. Tuna, canned cannellini, olives, sliced celery, capers, parsley, roasted red pepper, all combined with a lemon juice & olive oil vinaigrette plus lemon zest. Maybe next week! 

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Blue Ruin

 I'm continuing to experiment with gins that are new to me.

My Tanqueray and Tanqueray 10 bottles are long gone, as is the Hendrick's. Love all those. Trying new ones! (Hendrick's makes the best mixer tho, for tonic or lemonade.)

Partway through a bottle of Nolents Silver; I absolutely love it. Flowers, roses, berries, violets. My favorite mixer: 1 part Nolents, 1 part cranberry juice, a splash of sour mix, and plenty of seltzer, over ice (think of a gin Cosmo). Excellent as a Collins with a bit of lemonade. Or just plain with seltzer and ice. This is not a tonic-friendly gin. Tonic water overwhelms the botanical nuances.
Just opened a bottle of Brockman's. Reviews mention berries, citrus and hibiscus. The scent is wonderfully fruity, the ingredients include blueberries and blackberries! Plain with a splash of water to open it up, the taste is quite dry, more lemony. The trad juniper is low in the mix, in my opinion, which is OK. I'll smash a few blueberries into my next serving...just like the maker recommends...

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Irish Seafood Chowder, a bit overdue

 We went to the World SF Convention in Dublin in 2019, little knowing it would be our last trip abroad...well, since then. Because freaking pandemic. 

Dublin was a new city for us, a new country, and we had an excellent time. The convention had some Issues, but the convention center is conveniently located just steps from the Samuel Beckett Bridge and one of the tram lines, and it's really easy to get to other desirable locations from there. So we did. 

Our hotel was also conveniently located. A stop for the other tram line was literally right under our window--so hitting the road every morning was simplicity itself. 

There were terrific gastro pubs nearby as well. We love a pub, and were not disappointed. Atmosphere in the nearest ones was maybe a bit touristy--hardly surprising, given the neighborhood--but the food was excellent. Do people actually complain about the food in Ireland the way they complain about the food in England? If so, they're not going to the right places. 

Dinner: chips (fried potatoes), a rare steak, some veggies

Look at that feast. Steak, chips, was so ridiculously good! And I absolutely adore a good Irish breakfast. Our hotel featured a nice breakfast buffet and oh did I ever take advantage of all the white pudding and black pudding and Irish bacon and brown bread. Oh did I ever. 

Breakfast: Irish brown bread, black pudding, white pudding, Irish bacon, eggs

(I guess it helps if you like black pudding...which is just a firm blood sausage made with pork and oats. I like every variant of blood sausage I've ever had, including German blutwurst and Dominican morcilla. White pudding is the same thing without the blood. Also extremely tasty.)

Our favorite culinary discovery was Seafood Chowder. A chunkier, more satisfying version of comforting and familiar New England Clam Chowder, this ubiquitous soup really is a meal in a bowl, with a couple slices of delicious Irish brown bread. This one featured salmon, and peas.

Salmon seafood chowder, brown bread on the side

And in Temple Bar, I perused the cookbook created by the chef at a restaurant we lucked upon, and discovered the recipe for the delicious concoction we ordered for lunch.

Simplicity itself. Onions, potatoes, carrots, peas, herbs, butter, cream, white wine, fish. SO GOOD. 

So when we returned home, I decided to put my own versions of this soup into regular rotation. I already was making a summertime corn-tomato-fish chowder, so changing it up a bit was easy-peasy. 

This version has onion, celery, carrot, broccoli, peas and firm fish--bluefish in this case. Softened the veggies in a little butter first, added cream and milk, simmered, added the fish last and broke it up when it was cooked through. Similar results for shrimp, scallops, etc. Pretty much any fish will work if it doesn't get mushy when simmered in broth. 

Bluefish and veggie chowder, my own concoction

Vegetarian creamy chowder

As usual, I decided to make vegetarian versions besides fishy ones. Inspired by the tasty Cream of Broccoli soup served by our local diner, I added lots of broccoli to a chowder chunky with onion, carrot, potato, corn and frozen peas. Cauliflower is also an excellent addition. 

The vegetarian version has become a regular favorite of ours, as I nearly always have suitable veggies in the fridge, and cream and milk. Though I'm thinking of trying a cream soup trick Julia Child wrote about: you cook a suitable amount of white rice and puree it, having thinned it out a bit with broth. A vegetarian broth would work well, suitable to the flavors of the soup. The craze for cauliflower-in-everything is waning, but pureed cooked cauliflower would be good here too, added to the rice. 

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Welcome to My World: The Magpie Prince Tales

Books help soothe us, inspire us, inform us, distract us, thrill us, terrify us, amuse us. Etcetera. I love to read all sorts of stories. Turns out I like to write all sorts, too, all within what I'm calling The Magpie Cycle, or Tales of the Magpie Prince. 

SEVEN FOR A SECRET, the first novel I finished a couple of years ago, is not soothing. It's a story about trauma, hubris, psychological abuse, misuse of authority, the urge to violence, and the terrible burden of trying to love one's family no matter what. The characters are nearly all demon-bred witches with varied magical powers, none of which keeps them from making terrible mistakes. There is bloodshed. Children suffer PTSD. It's set in 1955, in postwar northern England, and things that happened during WWII are still fresh in people's minds. The story is narrated by Gerry, the child most affected by events in the books, describing events from the perspective of an older man looking back.  

I don't think I realized quite how nasty all that was, when writing it, but it felt right, given the set of characters I'd created. They are likeable and also dangerous. Some of them have done terrible things but it's brushed off by those who love them, owing to social expectations. It's okay if this person has done terrible things...the results were worth it! They did it for the best reasons! And children take that in, and some of them learn to also accept it, and others do not and never will. 

This is the descriptive for the sales sites:

Gerry Llewellyn's mother is teaching him death magic, and his grandmother thinks he might help their family take over the world. He's eight. 

Waning magic in their land, and a legendary curse, meant British demon-bred witches were unable to enter the Otherworld, source of their strongest magic, for 200 years. Gerry and his father are the first seventh-born witches in all that time, a signal the curse may soon end, heralding a new era of greater power for them. But even his family can't agree whether this is a good thing. They have peaceful lives, blending in with the rest of humanity, doing much as they please in the more tolerant postwar years of the 1950s. Are vague promises of fabulous divine gifts worth upending that?

Already scarred by family secrets and politics, precocious Gerry hates being treated as a miracle child. And now Gerry's eldest brother is getting married, so the Llewellyn children have lots to do besides dealing with their emotionally damaged parents, death demon siblings, and a sundry lot of fractious relatives.

They are all about to learn that seventh sons are special all right, but it's their mothers you really need to watch out for...

THE RAGE OF CALIBAN is, I think, more amusing and inspirational.

I won't include spoilers, but will explain a bit. The book takes place ten years after SECRET, and includes many of the same characters. SECRET is set in 1955, CALIBAN in 1966. Lots and lots of things have happened to those characters since then, both good and bad. Gerry, the narrator of SECRET, is mentioned as “Morgan’s baby brother” but not by name, and does not actually appear. That was deliberate, as Gerry tends to take over a room. His brother, sisters and father are major characters, however, and his Manchester aunts and uncles, and even his grandmother. 

CALIBAN's main character, Phoebe Starwood, marries Gerry's older brother Morgan in 1964. She alludes to the wedding having been a bit of a disaster because of Gerry, but they remain happily coupled and now have an adorable and very loud infant daughter. 

I’m working on what may end up being three VERY long stories that happen between SECRET and CALIBAN. All are told from Gerry’s POV, and document his adventures between 1960, when he turns thirteen, and 1965, when the massive mess he’s made of his life really catches up with him. LUCKY THIRTEEN, GIRLFRIENDS AND BOYFRIENDS AND OTHER BAD HABITS, and HELLHOUND ON MY TRAIL will show up…eventually. Most of the story is written, but not properly stitched together. I'm writing as fast as I can. 

Phoebe and Morgan’s wedding takes place in GIRLFRIENDS. Other characters in CALIBAN, including Lizzie and Daphne, show up in HELLHOUND. Saying anything else would be spoilers…

I'm also working on a related book that takes place at the same time as CALIBAN, with other characters we see in Gerry's stories and who are mentioned in CALIBAN. I'm tentatively calling it THE STINK OF MAGIC. 

My explanation for my (extremely fictional) demon-bred witches is that long ago, demigods (offspring of humans and godlike beings, see many ancient mythologies) kept mating with mortal humans gifted with a certain amount of fortitude. Some of those offspring went and did great deeds in the mortal realm—both good and bad—while others withdrew to the Otherworld of wherever they lived, and marinated in magical power and became what many mythologies think of as demons. A lot of magically gifted people ran into all sorts of trouble, and over the centuries their numbers rose and fell and rose. They learned to escape persecution, they developed new cultures within their families and clans, and now and then mated with demons to bring fresh magic powers into their blood lines. Non-human magical beings also exist, but are largely unseen by non-witches. I have a lot of fun with this idea.

I do also have a LOT of fun designing my book covers. Art school had to be good for something. 

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Rage of Caliban: NEW BOOK FROM ME!

The world is burning down. Other people have terrible, true stories to tell. I am astonished I have the nerve to write fiction and try to finish it and hope other people will like it. 

 I bloody well did it. I finished a second novel. I have self-published it as an ebook on all major platforms available. I am very bad at marketing and self-promo, but I'll do my best. 

Available: Kindle AmazonBarnes & Noble Nook, KoboApple iBooksScribd and some library apps. 

"Never, never ever make a witch annoyed with you. Just…don’t.

Painter Phoebe Starwood-Llewellyn is struggling to create an art career despite specializing in portraiture, which simply wasn't fashionable among mid-sixties English art critics. A young woman, and a mother, she is also a witch, part of an ever-growing tribe of people with demon ancestry and inherited magical powers.

Phoebe doesn't consider herself particularly skilled in magic, but a wealthy art collector tempts her with a lucrative if morally questionable challenge requiring spells her fellow witches think impossible. She becomes determined to see if she is up to creating a version of one of the most famous pictures in English fiction: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

As you may already know, there’s never any telling what a witch might do."

No spoilers for my own book, duh, but I'll say there's LGBTQ characters, an adorable and very loud infant, adult smooching (no graphic sex, which simply didn't belong), and stuff about painting, art critics and art collectors (hey, I was an art major). Phoebe was a lot of fun to write. She is quite level-headed for an artist, probably has a touch of ADHD, and just enough self-confidence in her talent to make a serious art career. The question was, did she have enough confidence in her magical abilities to meet a mad challenge? 

THE RAGE OF CALIBAN is, I think, more amusing and feel-good than my first novel, SEVEN FOR A SECRET, which is kinda violent and filled with traumatized kids.

I'll discuss the relationship between SEVEN FOR A SECRET and CALIBAN in greater detail in another blog post. Suffice to say this book contains many of the same characters, but ten years older, taking place in 1966. CALIBAN also alludes to things that happened in SECRET, and to things that are still unpublished in the greater cycle of Magpie Prince Tales, the story of Gerry Llewellyn and his large family. Phoebe was a relatively minor character, aside from marrying Gerry's older brother Morgan, but I always knew she was an artist. 

I truly appreciate who read this and liked it, and those who helped make it better, and 

SEVEN FOR A SECRET is also available from all major ebook sources:
Kindle Amazon, Barnes & Noble Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd and some library apps. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Reading is Hard

 I used to read something like 50-60 books a year. 

I never thought I would burn out on reading. Or just find it difficult 

I have burned out on knitting, a couple of times, for varying lengths of time...once for nearly two years, more recently for about a year. Odd, how that coincided with my reading burnout. But I'm not alone, in that people who have taken the pandemic seriously have often found it hard to concentrate on things that were once enjoyable pastimes. Many of my friends have complained they can't focus on reading fiction anymore, or finish simple knitting projects, or paint, or...whatever they do. My plant growing friends seem to be an exception: the plants need care, and abandoning them seems cruel. Um, likewise. My orchids are doing pretty well. New shelf arrangements, new light fixtures, new plants via online order. 

The knitting is still going v e  r   y    s   l   o  w  l  y  these days but my once-a-month knitting group helps a bit, I actually made progress on a new piece the other day. And I'm nearly done with a super-super simple garter stitch shawl I only work on during long phone calls. 

But finding myself unable to dig into books properly, and read for several hours on end like I used to, is a whole other world. I began hitting a few roadblocks several years ago, even before pandemic times. I started to fall asleep while reading. Didn't matter what book, what subject, how fascinating...after about 20 minutes, zzzzz. Self hypnosis? Annoying as hell, whatever the reason. I get plenty of sleep! I don't work in an office, I sleep late if I need to! 

I used to read a great deal while commuting to/from work, on city buses that often got stuck in traffic. Yay, more time to read! Tore through a lot of paperbacks that way, then started to read ebooks on the move instead, with the Kindle app on my phone. If I wasn't knitting knitting knitting on a longer trip, I was reading reading reading.

Then something happened. Was it writing my own stories that absorbed all my reading desires? Was it just a shift in mindset? I still WANT to read. But starting a book...stopping after a few pages...not returning to it for days...that just wasn't ME. And the sleepiness thing often curtailed my stubborn attempts to dig into a new book. 

I came up with strategies. Read shorter books! Read novellas! Fortunately several favorite authors (Ursula Vernon aka T. Kingfisher, Premee Mohamed, CL Polk, KJ Charles, Martha Wells) are also prolific authors of shorter works. Other faves came out with new books I absolutely had to read (Becky Chambers, SA Chakraborty). I caught up with several rock musician memoirs, finally started tearing through the Johannes Cabal books (Jonathan L. Howard), finally read The City We Became (NK Jemisin), Piranesi (Susanna Clarke), Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller) and some older novels, as well as some pretty interesting non-fiction. I tore through both of Tamsyn Muir's Locked Tomb novels as soon as they were released, so there's that, too, and hope the third will be equally easy to devour. 

So I'm feeling a bit better now about my reading pace. It's MARCH dammit and I only just finished four books so far this year! Two of which I started LAST year! 

The two big things on my reading plate: The Tyrant Baru Cormorant (Seth Dickinson) and Perhaps the Stars (Ada Palmer). Tyrant is third in an incredible trilogy, a masterpiece of worldbuilding and character development, and I TORE through the first two books. This one is still sitting moribund in my Kindle queue. I haven't been confident enough to attempt it. But I will. 

The Palmer book is fourth in a series. I hardly ever buy hardcover fiction, but I made an exception for these books. The long wait between each one was no obstacle, for the first three. But now...I opened the new book and my heart dropped. I'd FORGOTTEN everything. I couldn't remember the salient details of what happened in the third book, or the others. I read five pages in a total fog, and realized to my dismay I'd have to go back and at least partially re-read the third book. That's fine, as I loved it. A lot happened in it. But oh, the delay in gratification...