Books read, March 2021

Reading comic books makes it feel like I have read All the Things this month!

Lost in the Taiga, Vasily Peskov, trans. Marian Schwartz. Nonfiction about the Lykov family, who spent about fifty years living completely isolated in the Russian wilderness (having fled religious persecution in the 1930s). On the one hand this book was a little frustrating, because I wanted it to dig deeper into the psychological aspects — things like internal conflicts (the family patriarch was apparently worried about the prospect of his older son being in charge after his death) and the culture shock of coming into contact with the outside world. On the other hand, that would have required Peskov to study the family rather than just being their friend, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing that he chose the latter. It becomes apparent toward the end just how much effort he put into the friendship, including organizing the donations that funded all his trips to the taiga and the supplies he brought with him, the airlift for Agafia Lykov when she got sick, etc. I haven’t yet looked to see what became of Agafia in the long run, after the rest of her family had died; this book leaves off with her still choosing to live alone in the wilderness, but the life she has at that point is no longer self-sufficient, and it’s unclear how she’ll fare when circumstances mean she can’t get support from the outside. Given that it’s been nearly thirty years since then, I have to imagine the answer is “she died out there” — but if so, it’s a death she very much chose for herself, on her own terms.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora, ed. Zelda Knight and Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald. The tone of this ranges all over the place, from horror to a kind of magical-science-fictional story that felt sort of Zelaznian. Not all of the pieces worked for me, but that’s to be expected in something with this kind of range, and it’s a good showcase for its topic.

The Last Smile in Sunder City, Luke Arnold. Secondary world urban fantasy of the noir detective variety — but with a very interesting setting premise: up until recently, there was a source of magic that supported a world full of different kinds of supernatural creatures. Then Humans, the one non-magical species, wrecked it for everybody else. The immediate mystery wound up being less interesting to me than the longer-term story of people coping (or not) in this new environment, but the latter is engaging, the narrative voice is vivid, and I really like that while the Human protagonist Fetch Phillips is clearly carrying around a big ol’ whack of pain, the story is Very Very Clear that his pain is nothing next to that of all the people who lost the magic that made them what they are.

Digger, Volume 3, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 4, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 5, Ursula Vernon.
Digger, Volume 6, Ursula Vernon. When I picked up Volume 4, I had a moment where I thought, “Oh no! I am already halfway through Digger — soon there will be no more of it for me to read!” Which didn’t stop me from inhaling Volumes 4-6 in a single evening. Everybody who told me this is good was right, and while there is no more Digger for me to read, the good news is that I have the books on my shelf and can revisit them whenever I want. (It’s also online, of course, but I pefer curling up with a book.) It probably says something about the type of person I am that I was delighted by the funerary cannibalism, but that’s because I honestly can’t think of another instance of that in fiction — cannibalism where it’s a respectful rite of mourning, not a cheap way of depicting savagery.

Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 3, Wendy and Richard Pini.
Elfquest: The Final Quest, Volume 4, Wendy and Richard Pini. I didn’t realize, until I read the various afterwords on the final volume, that this really had been the planned ending for a very long time — that it was not, as I’d assumed, a story which went on for a while and eventually they decided to wrap it up. I think I should re-read the series as a whole, because this definitely suffered unfairly from me constantly trying to remember who some of the newer characters were. Some parts are deliberately not 100% resolved (because it being the end of one story doesn’t mean all other stories end with it); a few others felt to me like a resolution happened, but I didn’t feel it the way I wanted to. And fundamentally there’s the problem that I have never cared about all the Djun conflict that kept recurring in the later volumes, and which forms the big climax here. But on the other hand, it brings in some really cool stuff (the Rootless Ones!), and I don’t regret reading through to the end.

Life Along the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield. Nonfiction in one of my favorite genres, which is a look at daily life in some place and time. This one’s unusual because it covers a big swath of the Silk Road over a period of 250 years; since that’s obviously a huge topic, it breaks it up by having each chapter follow a particular individual in a particular place and time (some of them fictional, others based on real figures supplemented by general evidence). Four of the ten are women, too, which I appreciated. Given ten characters and a not very large book, it’s all still pretty brief, but it does a great job of looking at Eurasia from a point in the middle instead of one side or another, which is a thing I could use more of.

Elfquest: Stargazer’s Hunt, Volume 1, Wendy and Richard Pini and Sonny Strait. Speaking of not all the stories being resolved! The Pinis are still narratively involved at this point, but the art here is all done by Wendy’s long-time colorist Sonny Strait. I’m glad to have this story (with the second half coming out next year, I think), because yeah, this is a corner of the narrative that needs its own resolution still.

The Gilded Ones, Namina Forna. I wasn’t super-engaged at the start of this novel, because I’ve read enough YA fantasies of this type that I thought I could see where it was going. Then it didn’t do what I expected, and I got interested. I think parts of it could be stronger (the entire conduct of the war seems not well thought-out), and I honestly recommend not even looking at the map because nothing about the geography depicted there makes sense vis-a-vis what the text says — but I liked it overall. And it also seems to be a stand-alone, which I was not expecting and was glad to see.

Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, Carlos Hernandez. Another from the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, but this one gets much further away than most from the general mission statement of “world mythology” — Sal’s ability to poke holes through into other universes and bring things through for a while is talked about in terms of calamity physics, not Cuban folklore. (I seem to have a preference for the books from this imprint that don’t follow the Riordan model of “protagonist discovers they are the child of a god.”) I really enjoyed it! Sal and Gabi are both great characters, mature for their age without seeming like they’re teenagers or adults in kids’ bodies, and the whole mood of this one is very good-hearted.

One Kickstarter ends; another begins!

As I post this, there are just twenty-three hours to go on the Kickstarter for Shapers of Worlds II, including a short story from yours truly. It’s reached its funding goal, but there are still plenty of prizes left, including signed copies of The Mask of Mirrors (all the ARCs of The Liar’s Knot have been claimed) and some ready-to-hang acrylic prints of my black-and-white photos:

black and white photos for the Shapers of Worlds II Kickstarter

And though I’m not personally involved with it, I’d like to bring The Deadlands to your attention: a Kickstarter for a new magazine, helmed by E. Catherine Tobler, the former editor of the much-missed Shimmer. (I also happen to be friends with the poetry editor, Sonya Taaffe, and the art director, Cory Skerry.) I find it hilarious that one of the backer rewards you can choose is a fake obituary detailing the peculiar manner in which you died . . . anyway, this one is running for a while, but some of the limited rewards have already sold out, so back now rather than later!

The Advent of Scent, Week 15

* Port-au-Prince
Described as “buttered rum flavored with almond, bay, clove and sassafras.” In the bottle, it’s sweet almond with clove and herbal touches. The sassafras comes through on application; it’s basically alcoholic root beer. The once it starts to dry, it suddenly becomes CLOVE, with the sassafrass undertones coming back through later on. It’s different and interesting enough to keep for now.

* Elf
This is one of BPAL’s RPG series. Described as “pale golden musk, honeycomb, amber, parma violet, hawthorne bark, aspen leaf, forest lily, life everlasting, white moss, and a hint of wild berry.” I quite liked how this one smelled in the bottle — bright, clean, sort of green, but sweetly so. I think the floral that comes through on application is the violet (haven’t smelled enough violet perfumes to be sure), but in the end it just goes to sort of musky amber. I found the beginning more interesting than the end.

* Darkness
Described as “blackest opium and narcissus deepened by myrrh.” My sister and I decided that this perfume declares you are Going to the Opera: Verdi at first, but she granted that I might be seeing Puccini after it dried down a bit. It’s heavy and sweet without being sugary, lifted a bit by the floral note; there’s a moment while it’s drying that gets harshly resinous, but that goes away and it returns to how it started. Not really my thing.

(The next batch of perfumes are a mix of ones I ordered and some freebies. Haus of Gloi had a spring collection that looked interesting, and I realized I was close enough to having tried Imaginary Authors’ entire catalogue that I might as well finish it out.)

* Saint Julep (Imaginary Authors)
Described as “sweet mint, tangerine, southern magnolia, bourbon, grisalva, and sugarcube.” Very magnolia at the outset, with maybe a hint of mint; the tangerine appears briefly as it dries; but then it just goes sort of . . . green, which I think is the grisalva. Green may be my favorite color, but that doesn’t mean I really want to smell of it.

* Imp (Haus of Gloi)
Described as “peculiar passion fruit mingling with sun cured apricots, perfectly pink grapefruit juice and innocent whispers of wet mimosa blooms.” This one is SUPA FROOTY! Gets a little tarter on application, and then picks up a floral lift, but it stays generally fruity overall. Yoon, I suspect you might want this one, if you don’t have it already . . .

* Telegrama (Imaginary Authors)
Described as “talc, lavender absolute, black pepper, teak, amyris, vanilla powder, and fresh linens.” Based on the example of this and A Whiff of Waffle Cone, amyris seems to just steamroll any perfume it’s in that I try on, at least the way Imaginary Authors uses it. It’s kind of rich and warming, but not in a way that I really like.

* Every Storm a Serenade (Imaginary Authors)
Described as “Danish spruce, eucalyptus, vetiver, calone, ambergris, and Baltic sea mist.” The internet tells me calone is a compound developed to give stuff the scent of watermelon; well, it works! The whole way through, this one is basically watermelon with an undertone of evergreen. Again, not my thing.

* Capy (Haus of Gloi)
Described as “tart lemon, crushed lavender, white tea, and green moss.” The bottle scent is very refreshing! My sister tried this one as well; on me on me it was more lemon and lavender, going to tea, while with her it went more to tea and lavender, and then to soap.

The Advent of Scent, Week 14

A day late, but not a dollar short!

* Jack
Described as “true Halloween pumpkin, spiced with nutmeg, glowing peach and murky clove.” Okay, based on previous perfumes, I had theorized that mallow was creating the really cloying, semi-creamy effect I got off a few bottles — but here it shows up again, with no mallow in sight. So I got no idea. Fortunately that faded quite quickly, leaving behind a warm, pumpkin scent with some hints of spice. Nothing wrong with it, just not my speed, especially not with how it starts.

* Black Forest
Described as “thick, viscous pine with ambergris, black musk, juniper and cypress.” I think I’m starting to get a sense of what ambergris smells like — kind of salty, though that’s not quite it; this is one of those places where vocabulary fails me. The evergreen doesn’t hold its own for very long against that, and then in the long run (as it so often does) the musk wins out. I might like this better as an incense than as a perfume.

* Dracul
Described as “black musk, tobacco, fir, balsam of peru, cumin, bitter clove, crushed mint, and orange blossom.” Orange blossom, we hardly knew ye; I smelled it in the bottle, but never again. Starts out what I dubbed “mintergreen,” with a hint of tobacco; turned into what my sister dubbed “the living room in your great aunt and uncle’s house.” Sort of musky spicy tobacco, and not in a good way, at least not for my taste.

* Dana O’Shee
Described as “milk, honey, and sweet grains.” Given my track record with dairy notes in perfumes, I wasn’t expecting anything good out of this — but I was pleasantly surprised! We dubbed this one “diet amaretto,” not derisively; it has the almond sweetness of that drink, but not nearly so heavy. There’s a slight milkiness later on, without being cloying, and then it finishes up as a light honey and musk. It reminds me somewhat of Bastet, and at some future point I’ll try them both for comparison.

* Harlot’s House
Described as “angel’s trumpet, violet, white sandalwood, oude, copaiba balsam, angelica, white tea, olibanum [which apparently is just a different name for frankincense], and oakmoss.” It started out almost citrus-y in its brightness, slightly floral once applied, with a green note coming through that might have been the angelica or balsam. As it dried it became sweet and green with a trailing edge of resin, but in the end, the resin was really all that was left, in a very meh fashion.

* Queen of Hearts
Described as “lily of the valley, calla lily, stephanotis, and a drop of cherry.” The cherry, though not super strong, seems to blunt the floral notes in this, bringing them down from that kind of grating edge they so often have for me. It’s briefly medicinal-smelling when it’s applied, but that fades rapidly, leaving a remarkably constant scent that doesn’t change too much over its life. I just don’t like it enough to want to keep it, is all.

* Xiuhtecuhtli
Described as “copal, plumeria and sweet orange and the smoke of South American incense and crushed jungle blooms.” As usual, the orange doesn’t last long, though it’s nicely sweet at the outset. Mostly this turns into a sweet, musky resin — but a different resin than the usual suspects of frankincense and myrrh. I used to burn copal incense when I was writing Mesoamerican stuff, and now I’m tempted to do that again to compare it against the perfume. Anyway, this one is different enough to keep around for now!

* Pele
Described as “muguet [which I believe is just lily of the valley by another name] and Hawaiian white ginger enveloped by warm, damp tropical blooms.” For once, the perfume actually smelled to me like the flower instead of floral; I could very much see using this scent in a soap, which is not the same thing as calling it soapy here. It gets a little more conventionally floral over time, but stays reasonable. Nothing wrong with it; just not something I’m likely to wear.

Six Months of Sitting

A few days ago I passed the six-month milestone for when I began meditating again.

That isn’t quite the same thing as six months of meditation. My streak is no longer unbroken: I have missed three days, two in February, one in March. But I’ve gotten far enough that those missed days don’t feel like I’ve broken something. (One place where not having the gamified achievements turns out to be good, even though those are usually effective for me — there’s no brass ring I just missed getting.) The principle I’ve tried to really absorb is “begin again”: whether it’s the attention wandering away from the breath, a missed day, or months on end without sitting down to meditate, the answer is simply, begin again. But I’m at a point now where it doesn’t even really feel like I’m beginning; I’m just continuing. A missed day is not the end of the world.

I don’t think I’m quite at the level where I can call it an ingrained habit, though. Not to the extent that I can with my Duolingo Japanese practice, where my streak is now over 500 days long, even though the last achievement carrot to bait me onward was back at the 365-day mark. I also have to admit my sessions lately have not been what you’d call great — though I did comment on Twitter a while back that there are two kinds of good meditation days, the ones where my mind is obedient and focused and the ones where it’s like a hyperactive puppy but dammit I try anyway. We’ve had a bit more of the hyperactive puppy in recent weeks, alas. I still sit down for ten minutes, though, and that counts for something.

What about the results? Well . . . honestly, of late things have not been great. Some of you might have seen me on Twitter the other day asking for cute animal pictures and the like, because I was having a very bad day stress-wise. Unpacking why and what I’ve been doing about it is a separate post, but I can’t say I’ve been any model of equanimity lately. Would I be in a worse state if I weren’t meditating? No way of knowing. Do I think it’s been good to have in my toolkit six months’ worth of practice focusing on my breathing, or the lesson of being aware of what’s going on inside my own head? . . . maybe. I certainly don’t think it has hurt.

Regardless, the takeaway is that I’m going to keep going. To nine months, to a year, to more — I hope. I know I can do this, and furthermore I can keep doing it even when I stumble. A missed day doesn’t have to turn into me not even trying. That alone, I think, is useful.

picking a series type and laying a foundation

Having made a general typology of series (with a lot of good comments on the DW version of that post in particular, unpacking the various gradations between what I called the Setting Series and the Cast Series — I’ll include those when I make a more polished version of these posts), I want to start chewing on “so how does one write one of these things, anyway?”

I mean, you can just start typing and not stop until you have lots of books. But I don’t recommend just charging in blindfolded like that. 😛

Obligatory Disclaimer: prescriptive writing advice is a mug’s game, since somebody will always come along with an example of people not doing it that way and ending up fine. This is me talking about what I suspect may be helpful, not what is required. It’s what I would say to somebody who feels adrift and needs some direction. And in that vein, I welcome comments about how other people view this process.