The sleeper must awaken: meditations on climbing and new experiences

Taking a break from climbing

My friend Jess — she of the occasional book club — long ago invited me to go climbing with her, and I finally did.

… that sentence is much simpler than the actual event warrants. This was in fact the third date we’d set, reaching back almost a year. One of those times was canceled because she injured herself falling off her bike, but at least one other time I canceled because I was too anxious to follow through.

I wasn’t scared of injury. Indoor climbing is pretty safe, as some cursory research told me. There are injuries related to strain or overuse, like any sport, and various scrapes and bumps, but almost no one is hurt from falling. There’s always a soft pad (in bouldering), or a harness (in other types), to catch you.

But I have regrettably reached the point where new experiences — even something as simple as learning a new board game — are anxiety-provoking. I wasn’t afraid of falling, but I was afraid at looking or feeling like an idiot.

… no, not even that, precisely. It’s more like a foundless sort of anticipatory anxiety. It’s believing that whatever the change is, it’s going to be more uncomfortable than the status quo. It’s similar to what I feel before I go to any larp event, or when I decide to listen to more mindless radio rather than an audiobook.

It’s a kind of comfortable inertia.

I mean, let’s face it. Most days, I get up, I go to work, I come home and do something time-wasting. Coming out of work, taking a right turn to go east on the Mass Pike — towards Boston, towards civilization — feels so wrong that I have countless times accidentally gone west, towards home, instead.

You might have bet I’d chicken out again on the Wednesday in question. The odds certainly looked against me that morning. Matt was still recovering from a larp weekend, so he wasn’t awake to make breakfast and put the trash together, like he usually does. On top of that, there were 3-4 inches of snow on the ground when I woke up. I had to bag up the trash myself, get out the door, clean off the car, and deposit the trash at the end of the long driveway — all without caffeine or food in me. I got as far as the center of town before I realized I’d forgotten to leave the trash, and had to double back. Work wasn’t especially troublesome that day, but I was crabby, and so every little frustration seemed doubled.

But, I was determined: no matter how shitty I felt, I was going to climb.

At the appointed time, I left work, turned right to go towards Boston, and found myself in Cambridge with Jess. A short walk — and an explanation of the different types of climbing — later, I walked into Brooklyn Boulders Somerville (BKBS).

The first thing I noticed: there was a line out the door.

I dunno about you, but I’ve never been to a gym or athletic club where there was a line to get in.

Jess assured me it was busy every night, though it was a little bit busier tonight, as they were running their Out to Climb event, a night aimed at bringing in LGBT climbers. (And how awesome is that??)

Anyway, I signed a waiver, rented shoes and a harness, and Jess got me in as a guest on her membership. I got a very brief tour of the facilities (co-working spaces! yoga classes! a full weight room!), and didn’t have the heart to tell the very kind gentleman that I didn’t live anywhere near Somerville and was unlikely to ever buy a membership, even if I did fall in love with climbing. I then got a quick “how to fall” lesson, and then Jess and I were ready to climb.

A thing to know about Jess: she loves to climb, but she loves to teach even more. Teaching me to climb really made her super happy, and that made me happy, too. In particular, she said, she loves to teach women to climb, as it’s a very male-dominated sport. Also, even well-intentioned male teachers don’t necessarily know how to relate to someone with a different body than theirs. And things like center of gravity, height, and the size of hands and feet make a big, big difference in climbing.

(Climbing in general may be a male-dominated sport, but you wouldn’t know it to look around BKBS!)

The type of climbing I tried is called top rope climbing, which means that your harness attaches to a rope which is double-looped over an anchor at the top of the wall. The rope then comes back down into a belay device held by a partner on the ground. As you climb, some combination of your partner and the belay device take in the slack. The friction from the double wrapping at the top, plus the belaying, mean that if you lose your grip on the wall — which you will — you never descend more than a few inches. Pendulum physics woohoo!

The disadvantage of top rope is that it means your partner can’t climb at the same time as you. From what I saw, top rope climbers usually work in pairs, taking turns belaying each other, but since I’m not belay-certified, Jess had to belay me for the whole session. She told me not to feel bad about that. She’d climbed already that week, and in this case, her pleasure with teaching eclipsed having to stay on the ground.

So we picked out the only easy route that was available, a 5.5, which is the lowest they have at BKBS. Jess tied the rope into the harness, showing me how to safety-check it, and going over some of the common signals I’d need to communicate with my belayer. I got about halfway up the wall — maybe about 10-15 feet up? — before my shaking arms and legs told me I had to stop. From what Jess told me, that’s not half bad! (But maybe she says that to all the people she teaches).

While I took a break, we walked around the gym watching other people climb. We watched an especially brave woman lead climbing the Tongue — a ~60-foot wall which angles outward at the top, so that you are climbing nearly horizontally for the last ~15 feet. (I think this is a picture of it? All I have to say is, wow. I get sweaty palms just thinking about that).

Jess also showed me different types of handholds, and made suggestions about how to position my weight on slanted handholds. We talked too about “reading the route,” i.e. placing your hands and feet in the way the designers of the route intended, making it easier on yourself.

When there was another 5.5 route free, we tried it… and was less successful. I didn’t get more than a few feet off the ground, and scraped some skin off my hand in the process. Interesting that the same rating of route was so much more difficult. It was just really hard to perform the movements necessary to get where I needed to go — I had to raise my legs too far above my center of gravity, and reach beyond my height.

I had another shot at route #1, and didn’t get as far as my first try, but by that time I was pooped. (And desperately in need of dinner).

I was also exhilarated — this new climbing culture was so fascinating to me. Here I was surrounded by the fanatically fit, who seemed to be having a great time. We ran into a pair of women who were top-roping while wearing party hats, and that pretty much embodied the whole spirit of the place.

On the way out the door, we noticed a sandwich board with this quote chalked on it:

“A person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside, allowing him to grow. Without change something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.”

Obligatory nerd pedantry: It was attributed to Frank Herbert in the book Dune, but I think it’s actually from the movie version. Some version of it was in the book, I seem to recall, but not precisely in that formulation.

Seeing that quote was like a jolt of lightning. It perfectly expressed the sentiment I had felt prior to coming — that comfortable inertia — and how the experience had awakened and refreshed me.

I connected it immediately with another quote — the “soft animal of your body” that Mary Oliver speaks of. That creature to whom comforts are often attributed. There’s nothing wrong with that sleeping creature — Mary Oliver exhorts us to let it “love what it loves” — but there is no potential for change there, either.

Anyway. All of this is to remind myself how important it is to branch out, to put out new leaves, to not let myself fossilize.

Also to say: I can’t stop thinking about climbing and I’m already making plans to go again.

in Blog | 1,529 Words

Links & Accomplishments, 1/1/2017 to 1/14/2017

No links, because I’m boring and back-dating this post.

Writing
– Worked on Lioness edits x 3
– Wrote a blog post: The Incredulous Tsunami (Review of The Incredible Tide, by Alexander Key)

Reading
– Read Sam J. Miller’s “Bodies Stacked Like Firewood” (Uncanny #14)
– Read Nnedi Okorafor & Wanuri Kahiu’s “Rusties” (Clarkesworld, October 2016)
– Read The Incredible Tide, by Alexander Key
– Read “Bellum Intestinum,” T. E. Mallory (Medium)

Other Media
– Listened to Writing Excuses 11.48-11.50, plus 11.Bonus-04
– Listened to Happier with Gretchen Rubin episode 98
– Watched the RiffTrax of The Amazing Mr. X

LARP
– Attended 5G crossover event 2

Health
– 1.75mi run/walk
– 1.4mi walk x 2 (Weds 1/4 and Thurs 1/12)
– Had a dentist’s appointment

The Incredulous Tsunami (Review of The Incredible Tide, by Alexander Key)

My history with this book is long, drawn-out, and expensive. Given all that, I feel the need to write a proper review, so I at least have something to show for my time and effort.

The history

Sometime between 2000 and 2002, my college pal Dillon screened the anime series Future Boy Conan (1978) for Vassar’s geek club, the NSO. The 26-episode series was Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut — before Studio Ghibli was even a thing — and it displays prominently the environmental themes Miyazaki will return to in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke.

Personally, I quite loved it. And yet, some fifteen years later, my memories are primarily emotional. I resonated strongly with the deep loneliness that Conan feels, and with the sense of a world lost under the rising oceans.

Also it had a pig called Umasou (Looks Delicious). So there’s that.

Dillon informed us that it was based on The Incredible Tide (1970), by Alexander Key (who I venture many Americans of my age primarily associate with Escape to Witch Mountain, of which I retain even dimmer memories). He also told us that the book was wildly out of print, and hard to acquire.

Well, of course that only made me want to read it even more.

The “hard to acquire” bit was relevant. This was before the era where ’80s and ’90s kids found their childhood re-released in ebook form. The nostalgia factor was driving prices of this volume up to absurdity in the early 2000s, mostly through Amazon resellers — if you could even find it at all. I was told at one point it had only ever been released as a library edition, further fueling its scarcity.

However, in 2004 I attended the World Science Fiction Convention when it was in Boston, and among many other things, they had a ginormous dealer’s room. Here, at the booth of Somewhere in Time Books, from St. James, NY, I traded $200 for an ultra-rare copy of The Incredible Tide.

Which proceeded to sit on my shelf for over twelve years.

Fast forward to 2017

However! An opportunity presented itself this weekend, when I found myself dog-sick with (what I suspect was probably) norovirus. I wasn’t puking, but I was nauseous and feverish, and my skin hurt. Reading in bed was pretty much all I was capable of. And a book aimed at children/teenagers seemed about all I could handle.

I suppose you should examine this review in that light — I read most of The Incredible Tide while being very ill, and it might have colored my perception. But I emerged from the weekend without hating the Rifftrax Time Chasers coloring book I was working on, or Kevin Hearne’s Hounded, or Tad Williams’ The Dragonbone Chair (both of which I attempted to read, to varying degrees of success), so I really do think it was the book.

Because the book is… well, if the adjective “phoned in” was used in the 1970s, one might say Alexander Key phoned this book in.

Possibly via satellite phone while vacationing on a Caribbean island. Potentially while drunk on pina coladas.

What I’m saying is, the craftsmanship is just sloppy throughout. That’s overall my biggest complaint. Each of the factors I’m about to list, by itself, wouldn’t sink the book; but this general carelessness, on the whole, makes this book less than successful.

Anyway, first things first:

Plot Summary

Conan is a young boy who was abandoned on a little spit of rock when an “incredible tide” covered the world. Somehow he figures out how to survive on that rocky islet, and lives there for five years, until he’s found at the age of seventeen by the “New Order,” a group that is trying to remake the world — with technology!


Not these guys.

That makes them, by this book’s logic, the villains of the piece. In particular here we meet Dr. Manski, who becomes marginally relevant later.

At the same time, we also meet Lanna, far away in High Harbor, a community that was established by “Teacher,” a.k.a Briac Roa, when the world was going to shit. For some reason we are never told, Teacher then got captured by the New Order? But he apparently can stay in psychic contact with his daughter Mazal, whose husband Shann leads High Harbor. (Lanna is their daughter).

But there’s political unrest in High Harbor, as the New Order is trying to take over (via its agent Dyce), and a group of feral teenagers, led by a guy named Orlo, are trying to ally with them.

Pretty much, as far as I can tell, Lanna exists only to tell us this side of the story. And to have a crush on Conan. Her only other defining feature is her awful fear of vast expanses of ocean, which is totally understandable under the circumstances!

Meanwhile, Conan is “rescued” and brought to Industria, the New Order capital. They want to enslave him before he can become a citizen, and are resentful that he doesn’t seem grateful about this. He is imprisoned when he resists being branded by the New Order While imprisoned he discovers that Teacher/Briac Roa is also under the thumb of the New Order, posing as crackpot shipwright (two words I never thought I’d put together) Patch. “Patch” rescues Conan by requesting him as labor for his shipyard, and fills Conan in on his escape plan.

Their escape plan, however, goes awry. Whilst in the middle of robbing a workshop for supplies to escape, Teacher realizes that Industria is going to fall into the sea and decides that informing them of this is The Right Thing to Do ™, Right Now. He sends Conan off on the fragile boat they’ve built, while he risks his life to tell the people who have imprisoned him that he is this Briac Roa they’ve all been looking for, and hey, your city is in danger. This goes over about as well as you might imagine. He survives only because Conan comes back to rescue him.

Together they try to make their way to High Harbor, but are pursued by the New Order. A storm lands them on… the very same island Conan was stuck on for five years! The storm does away with his New Order pursuers, conveniently, except for Dr. Manski, who they just kind of run into on this giant ocean. She argues with Teacher about the existence of God while they wander around in the mists that make this post-apocalyptic sea mostly unnavigable. Finally they are able to make it back to High Harbor thanks to Lanna sending Tikki — the tern that kept watch over Conan through his time on the island — back to find him, conveniently overcoming her terror of the ocean all at one go.

The book ends with the tsunami Teacher has been predicting, which decides to show up just in time to wash away the New Order agent on High Harbor. It would have washed away Orlo, too, except that Conan decides that rescuing him is The Right Thing to Do ™. He is knocked over by the wave, but the people of High Harbor help him to his feet.

The end.

No, really, that’s where it ends. Mid-paragraph, it seems, as if the author just got sick of writing the story. What was the promise of the story, and was it fulfilled by this ending? Who knows…

Element by Element

Writing

The basic writing is bland, but not terrible. I’d call it workmanlike. No beautiful turns of phrase here, but we do get a sense, in the early chapters, of the lay of Conan’s island. It didn’t leave me with that nostalgic yearning for a world lost that Future Boy Conan did, though, but I’m willing to forgive that.

But soon enough we meet people for Conan to interact with. And augh, the dialogue. To say it is a wooden is an insult to hard-working wood. Modern reading preferences favor verisimilitude in speech in fiction; SFF, true, can get away with less. But by whatever standard, no humans anywhere talk like this. The conversations are like summaries of talking points, with many exclamation points. To give you an example, there’s this argument between Dr. Manski and Conan:

“Oh, stop talking like an idiot! Don’t you realize it took both sides to do the damage?”
“I don’t believe it!”
“But it did! Now someone has to put the pieces back together.”
“Only it has to be done your way — and with branded prisoners! You’d even take over High Harbor if you could, and rob everybody of his rights! Why you’re the dirtiest bunch that ever–”
“Shut up!” she ordered icily. “No one has any rights, not even I. Only the state has rights — the New Order. It’s only the state that–”
“State, my eye! Of all the stupid ideas!”
“You’re the stupid one! Stupid and ignorant. Of course we’ll take over High Harbor — and soon! We’ll be doing them a favor. They’re entirely incapable of looking after themselves. If you could only see–”
“I can see how warped and twisted you are! And greedy!”

Some of this might be a function of the characters, who are… well, let’s get to that.

Characterization

… is the biggest weakness of this book. Mostly, I didn’t like any of the characters, and I didn’t care what happened to them. It made reading even this little 153-page volume a real chore.

At the core of it, it’s that they are ciphers, with no internal life; more stand-ins for an ideology than real people with hopes and dreams. Most of the narration is just an action-by-action recitation of what they’re doing; occasionally we get a “this made Conan mad,” but no sense of the context, or how we’re supposed to feel about it. It becomes hard to follow, as a result — a bland landscape without value judgments. An example:

Instantly he began scrambling forward, climbing over the disorder of equipment and groping for the coil of line and the piece of broken concrete that, because of the scarcity of metal, had to serve as an anchor. He found the concrete finally, started to heave it over the bow, but thought better of it and began lowering it carefully. It was well that he did so, for he paid out nearly the entire coil before the line went slack, and when he reached the end he found that it had not been made fast to the cleat on the foredeck.

(Don’t ask me how many times my poor, sick mind had to re-read this paragraph).

Teacher at least SEEMS like he might have internality. He’s literally the world’s smartest man, a shipwright, a seismologist — and, more tellingly, the one “good” character who attempts to understand the New Order point of view. But the author doesn’t want to show us more than just a tease of who he is. Does he think the young minds that are his audience can’t handle the complexities of opposing points of view? I don’t know.

God help you if you are a female character, though. Lanna, Mazal, Dr. Manski all seem to exist to further Conan and Teacher’s plots.

The moments where Conan and Teacher choose to endanger themselves in order to help people they hate is clearly supposed to be characterization. But… it feels pasted on. We can’t predict it from their actions elsewhere. And it ends up feeling as preachy as many things in this book are; like the author is bashing us over the head with THE MESSAGE.

Speaking of which…

THE THEME

As I said, Future Boy Conan has environmental themes. The Incredible Tide has an agenda.

It starts before the book even does, with this dedication: “To a people unknown, of a land long lost — for surely what is written here has happened before. It depends upon us alone whether it is a reflection or a prophecy.”

Well, all right, then.

A few chapters in, I joked to my husband that “so far this book has been Alexander Key’s diatribe against synthetic fabrics,” and it wasn’t far from the truth. Witness these choices tidbits:

Page 29: … he was given clothes to cover his nakedness. They were old and patched, and made of a shoddy synthetic material that felt unpleasant against his skin…

Page 30: “And don’t call the food synthetic. It is the best food ever made, and the most scientific.”

Page 48: But the New Order’s cloth would help. It was sleazy, of course. It was about the worst stuff she’d ever seen. Yet it was better than no cloth at all.

Page 56: It was a pair of sandwiches made of synthetic materials, obviously the product of machines. He thrust the unpalatable things in a corner and reached eagerly for the water bag.

Of course, never is it mentioned that, hey, maybe this is the work of a society attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world where wood and metals are rare. Nope, it’s clearly because the New Order are the villains, and therefore anything they do is bad. We should all be pitching in together and “making a game” of survivalism (this is literally how Lanna says High Harbor survives the rough times) and weaving our own wool-linen blend cloth, apparently. (Again, a thing Lanna literally does).

We don’t have much doubt as to the author’s intentions, do we? Throughout, he’s sending a message — synthetic bad. Natural good.

And by “sending” I mean “double ham-fistedly pounding you about the head and shoulders with.”

Did I mention the stuff about the Voice? Apparently if you are a protagonist, or protagonist-adjacent, you hear a voice that tells you the right thing to do at any given time. It helped Conan survive on his island, and it also tells you to do things like continue sailing blindly into the abyss, or to love your neighbor, or whatnot. This is so clearly a god-analogue that even Dr. Manski can sense it, and spends much of the penultimate chapter of the book arguing with Teacher about it.

Even if you’re religious, this is like a four year old’s understanding of God, and feels appallingly simplistic in a book that is ostensibly aimed at much older children.

And now repeat that sentence, replacing “God” with “environmental issues,” and that’s my executive summary of this element of the book.

(Idiot) Plot

The plot is the original idiot plot — driven entirely by convenience and people making really stupid choices. Some examples:

Conan apparently could have avoided capture by the New Order by fleeing to the eastern islet of his archipelago. He didn’t.

Conan could have apparently just punched out the door of his New Order prison, because it’s made of plastic. (And as we all know, plastic is an evil — and thus inherently flawed — synthetic). But he doesn’t, until he’s nearly dying of thirst, at which point Teacher convinces him not to, because… they are being watched?

Industria has been in danger from earthquakes and tsunamis since it was founded — and Teacher, theoretically, knows that — but he decides, at the moment when he and Conan are about to make their triumphant escape, to inform the authorities of this?

(In retrospect, it occurs to me that he might have seen signs that there was a recent tectonic shift, which might make the threat more imminent. But from the reader’s perspective, all we know is that Conan has a sense of dread, Teacher stops and examines a crack on the floor, and then, suddenly, they call the whole thing off. My primary reaction was largely, “huh?”, which is probably not the response the author wanted to this dramatic reveal. Again this may be largely a function of Teacher being, like every character, a cipher).

Teacher is blind. Not that this is ever relevant, because he is apparently strong in the Force, and can sense things regardless, up to and including the position of a compass needle. (No lie, he’s framed as being able to sense the world via some semi-magical, sensory-compensation-gone-wild kind of thing). It ends up feeling like Key just sorta forgot he was blind throughout half the book, so made up an explanation that he thought sounded good. (It didn’t).

How the heck does Conan ever end up on the island by himself? It’s implied that he was escaping with Teacher and Lanna before the apocalypse, and that Lanna had enough time to gift him with Tikki, but that’s about it. Why isn’t he at High Harbor with the rest of them? Did they have to drop him as ballast or something?

If Lanna is a gifted psychic communicator, why hasn’t she communicated with Conan during the FIVE YEARS they were separated? Eventually she uses that ability, together with Tikki, to bring him back to High Harbor — which only begs the question of why she didn’t do this earlier. You might be forgiven for thinking it’s her agoraphobia — the view of the vast ocean she sees whenever she ascends to the watchtower on High Harbor sickens her. But she doesn’t need to be there to communicate, as is made clear later in the book. At that point, it’s literally explained to us as, “she tried it once as a kid, and it decided it didn’t seem like something she should be able to do, so she never tried again.” Which seems merely engineered to give us the central plot complication.

The other thing I have to say about the plot is — what is it? Everybody just seems to be reacting to events around them. There’s no through-line, no drive forward, which in most modern fiction comes from the main character’s wants and needs. Conan never seems to want or need much beyond what is in front of him. As an example, he’s only escaping Industria and heading for High Harbor because it’s what Teacher wanted. We have a general idea it’s a thing he wants, too, because we know NEW ORDER BAD, but it doesn’t feel real or complex.


Still not these guys.

This is what I meant when I asked, “what is the promise of the book, and does the ending fulfill it?” I don’t know, because I literally don’t know what the plot of the book is. The end feels abrupt because we don’t know if we’ve arrived — because it’s never clear what the destination should be.

Again it ends up feeling more like ideology than story. It makes a little sense if Teacher and Conan are ciphers for Hope, Youth, Age, Wisdom, Harmony, etc, and High Harbor is some sort of Promised Land, but if these are real characters? It all falls apart.

And personally, I was hoping for characters, and a story.

Random Creepiness

I could have done with Orlo’s clearly (to an adult mind) rapey intentions towards Lanna. Witness:

“An’ do you know what Orlo an’ the commissioner plan to do?”
“What, Jimsy?”
“Take over your house. Doc an’ his wife, they gotta move. But Orlo says he’ll make you stay. That’s how he figgers on getting even for what you done.”

Wtf? I mean, YA these days tangles with some tough topics, but this childish explanation of what is basically SEXUAL ASSAULT just feels so off-the-cuff and unnecessary.

(I also would like to point out: if we’re supposed to accept High Harbor as this standard of community living in harmony with nature, then how the hell are we supposed to reckon the feral teenagers it has apparently produced?)


“Do you want feral teenagers? Because that’s how you get feral teenagers.”

Also strange and hard to explain is how everyone seems to fetishize Conan’s body, like he’s sooooo healthy and toned by living alone on an island and doing physical labor for five years. Multiple examples like this exist in the book:

Page 10: He sighed and stood up, rubbing his calloused hands over his very lean and very hard body.

Page: 29: “I’d hate to see such a fine young body thrown away. Such beautiful muscles! In all my life I’ve never seen their equal.” She felt his arms. “Like steel! The New Order needs your strength.”

Page 33: “But he’s amazing! Such health! Come here, young fellow,” the commissioner ordered, “and let’s have a look at you!”

What Age Range is this Even For?

The breakdown of middle grade/YA is a very modern one, so in general I’m okay with it being vague in books that pre-date that distinction. I recently re-read one of John Bellairs’ Johnny Dixon books, and was able to say, “hey, this is clearly middle grade, even if no one would have called it that at the time.” In many ways that’s a good comparison — they were shelved in the same place in my elementary school library, and the authors were rough contemporaries.

There is no such tell here. If you go by the age of the protagonist, The Incredible Tide is YA. But the reading level is… let’s generously say, it’s below middle grade. It’s certainly not as complex as some of the beautiful MG we have today (take the first Harry Potter novel as an example, or my pal Django Wexler’s The Forbidden Library). It reads as even more simplified than the John Bellairs.

And of course there’s the weird skirting of much more adult topics, which I don’t know how to categorize. One of my favorite YA novels (Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone) opens with a frank discussion of penises. Contrast this with MG, where there seems to be a strict “no kissing” rule — a minor crush is about as much you can show. Again, this book is not consistent with either standard.

The overall effect, then, is that Key is talking down — and quite condescendingly — to his audience. Which is like no-no number one of writing for a young audience.

In Conclusion

In general I felt like this was a manuscript, not a book. It falls prey to common pitfalls of inexperienced writers — mostly around giving us characters to empathize with, and not forcing a point of view down the reader’s throat. (And yet, this is his TWELFTH novel). I’m not sure why an editor didn’t catch any of this, but it does not, ultimately, feel like a book that could be published today.

But who am I kidding. Really, this book failed because it didn’t have a porcine character named Looks Delicious.

And with that, I can confidently say I wrapped this review up more satisfactorily than the book itself did.

If, after reading this review, you feel the incomprehensible need to read the book, fear not! The ebook is free with Kindle Unlimited ($5.38 otherwise). Makes me even more bitter about how much I spent…

2016 Retrospective/2017 Resolutions

This is a year that sucked for a lot of people. In many ways, for me, too, the world is a darker, scarier place than it was a year ago.

And yet, I had some personal successes this year, and I wanted to document them.

Last Year’s Resolutions

Looking back to this post (and man, was I in a dark place when I wrote that), these are the things I wished for the year:

I want to finish Lioness (it’s at 91k words), edit it, and begin querying agents.

✨ ✨ ✨ I FINISHED LIONESS!!! ✨ ✨ ✨

Although, to be fair, it’s really a partial success by the standards set in my resolution — I’ve only just begun editing, and thus no queries yet, either.

I need to get more in touch with my squishy meat body. I didn’t do too badly with this. As I’ve written about with the Less Lise Progress Report, I’ve been working significantly on modifying my diet and exercise since April of last year. In the process I lost ~25 lbs of said squishy meat body. I took up running (although I’ve fallen out of the habit due to the season), and generally feel fitter than I have in a long time.

In further meat-body news, I found out in August that my vitamin D levels were very low — at a time when they should be normal/high — and started taking D3 supplements. I’m feeling this is helping somewhat with the seasonal depression, along with semi-daily applications of my sunlamp.

I want to get a tattoo. Still haven’t done this. I think I’m delaying because on some level I don’t want to do it, so I need to backburner this and examine why.

Considering I spent much of last year plagued by depression, this is not terrible?

Other Cool Stuff Wot I Did in 2016

  • Wrote about 29k words on Lioness
  • Wrote an ESO fanfic, “A Study in Ebony”
  • Submitted my short stories “Remember to Die” and “Powder of Sympathy” five times, and got two personal rejections (down from 2015, I know)
  • Read 28 new books
  • Visited England and attended Imaginary Consequences
  • Walked to the town library
  • Visited Old Sturbridge Village and the Mystic Aquarium for the first time
  • Wrote one new poem, “I, Shalott”
  • Finished my “read three history books (any time period)” goal
  • Acquired new bedding for the master bedroom — it no longer looks and feels like a college dorm room bed, hooray!
  • Finished Code School’s Angular courses (and now have no desire to ever use Angular)
  • Made a presentation about JS frameworks and Angular to my team at work
  • Hosted my semi-annual Strawberrypalooza/July 4th party
  • Played in four new-to-me theater-style LARPs
  • Traveled to the Chicago area to play in Cafe Casablanca
  • Wrapped up my NPC gigs in Shadows of Amun and Cottington Woods
  • Began NPCing for Madrigal 3
  • Signed on as logistics staff for Tales from the Cotting House
  • Made an orc shaman costume for Mad3
  • Was a bridesmaid in Mel and Will’s wedding
  • Got both my templar and nightblade to V16 in ESO before they removed vet ranks. And then promptly stopped playing.
  • Started playing WoW again instead; and got my lock and my shaman to 110 (the latter helped out by a level 100 boost)
  • Attended the Stratford Festival with my mom
  • Traveled to Durham, North Carolina to visit Matt’s dad while he was in the hospital

And probably more stuff I’m forgetting!

What I Want to Do in 2017

I facetiously wrote the following on Facebook:

While this is good and important and makes my life better, it’s probably not going to change me in any way. So let’s have some real goals.

I want to complete edits on Lioness and query agents. Lise, note to self: that last bit is also part of the goal. I admit to many moments in the past year where my thought process was, “eh, I’m still on track, I have all year to finish Lioness!”, forgetting that I had specified, yanno. More beyond that.

(I have begun edits, btw, and as usual, they suck. I’m actually writing a post about why they suck, but that will have to wait for another time).

I want to hone my short story skills. After I edit Lioness, I am going to need a new writing project to work on. While I have other novel ideas I could tackle, I’m thinking short fiction would be better at filling the gaps (sometimes looooooong gaps) in the query and submission process.

Short fiction is also something I enjoy reading, but lack experience at writing. It arguably provides a better try-fail cycle for writing than novels, as there’s a smaller turnaround time between writing and the feedback of submission. Shorts are less so these days the way to “break in” as an SFF writer, but they still have some value in that regard, too — it’s certainly much more likely for a magazine to buy a short story for 6 cents a word than for a publisher to invest several thousand dollars (+/- an order of magnitude) for a novel advance.

All those are good reasons, but that’s still not really a concrete goal, is it? So let’s break it down.

  • Write 4 new short stories this year (and edit them, and submit them ’til hell won’t have them, etc)
  • Participate in one of the Codex flash fiction challenges
  • Read 50 new-to-me short stories

Other things I want to do this year that I don’t have terribly concrete goals around them

Continue to stay in touch with my fleshy meat body. I plan to continue my low-carb diet, personal chef (i.e. my husband) willing. I’m getting back to running as of this week, and I hope to continue running (or other exercise) 3 or more times a week. I’ll continue to take vitamin D and use my sunlamp to keep away seasonal depression.

See more of my mom. As some of you know, my mother was diagnosed this year with a rare and potentially fatal lung disease. If nothing else, it limits her mobility, as she has to be on oxygen. I’m not sure what “more” is, per se — a lot will depend on her — but I’m budgeting vacation time this year to be able to visit her.

Read more books. I didn’t meet last year’s Goodreads challenge, which I set at 35 books. I’m going to try for 25 this year, since I’m also going to be trying for more short fiction.

All right, that’s more than enough to keep me busy. I’ll let you know how I do in a year or so!

in Blog | 1,095 Words

Perfectly Cromulent Reads of 2016

Multiple people have complained to me that I seem to only read books that I hate.

This is untrue — but it’s also an understandable mistake. I read lots of books*, but I mostly only have things to say about them if they’re a) mind-blowingly good (see Uprooted, The Goblin Emperor), or b) truly awful (to my tastes) in some way (mostly I just rant about these in friends-only spaces).

*okay, relatively speaking

Just to assure you that I do read stuff that I like, here are the other books I’ve read this year — ones about which I had nothing dramatic to say. I’ll say a few more words about each, but in general they were completely satisfying literary products, and no slight is intended by their inclusion here.

The Girl in the Garden, by Kamala Nair. Recommended to me by EB. I found it entertaining, but not as profoundly awesome as EB did. An Indian-American woman recounts a tale of a fantastical childhood summer visiting her family’s home in Kerala. At first glance, it seems like the genre is magic realism, but the only magic turns out to be that of a family keeping secrets too long and too deeply…

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie. Having won the “triple crown” of SFF (the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards), I had high expectations for this book. They were not entirely met, but it was still an enjoyable read. The main character, Breq, is a ship’s AI that was severed from her ship years ago, for Reasons. She’s trying to find reasons to live and get revenge on the Empire that made her what she is.

One of the things that gets a lot of buzz in this book is the pronouns: Breq was programmed by a culture that doesn’t recognize gendered pronouns in language, and she can’t read gender by the myriad cultural clues most humans recognize instinctively. The upshot is that she refers to everyone as “she.”

It’s an interesting effect, but I didn’t think it was the most clever thing about the book. The core mystery that Breq is trying to solve is kind of brain-bending ontological one, and I found it simultaneously frustrating and yet clever. Either by intention or by style, Leckie doesn’t explain anything, so you are kind of thrown into the abyss trying to figure out why so–and-so ordered such-and-such to do the Thing.

I also read some of the third book, Ancillary Mercy, as part of the Hugo voter packet. Man, that was hard to follow without having read the second book.

Overall, the way I tend to describe this series is “meditative” — it’s going somewhere, but it’s taking its time getting there.

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear. Karen is a prostitute at an upscale brothel in steampunk-y 19th century Seattle/Portland. She finds out the ladies of her house are in danger from a serial killer, and gets embroiled in the political plot of the region in order to keep her chosen family out of danger. This book has voice by the gallon. It has a Singer sewing machine mecha. It has girls in love. It has loads of characters of color. It is very, very entertaining, but at the end of the day it didn’t affect me emotionally as much as I would like.

Of Noble Family, by Mary Robinette Kowal. The final book of the Glamourist Histories, where Jane and Vincent go to Antigua to try to manage Vincent’s deceased father’s plantation. Very dramatic and enjoyable. I thought the racial issues implicit in the setting were addressed head-on, and yet deftly and honestly handled. As always, we the reader are aware of all the ways in which Jane is privileged, and when she does boneheaded things with that privilege, it’s always clear how we should feel about that. Sometimes she uses it to do some truly awesome things, too, and I appreciated that as well.

Let me say, too, that as someone who has no desire to have children, MRK does a BRILLIANT job of making me care about the Vincents’ wanting to have children. This is what’s cool about good writing — it really is a form of mind-control.

Overall, I was definitely sad to say goodbye to Jane and Vincent, and kept feeling like there should be more adventures with them just around the corner. They are one of my favorite fictional couples, because they simulate SO beautifully what it is like to be a happily married couple that still has issues. Also, they have same anniversary as Matt and me, so I feel some personal investment 🙂

And yet on the same note, this was probably not my favorite one of the series — Valour and Vanity hit a high point with Lord Byron and gondola chases.

Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan. This is a memoir by a NY Post reporter who was afflicted by a rare type of encephalitis, and was imprisoned in her own mind for months while doctors tried to figure it out. I borrowed from the public library on a night when I really needed a treat, and knew it had to be something I’d want to read right away, and not let it sit on a table for weeks. I thought this book would fit the bill, and I was not wrong — it was fascinating and yet terrifying. I think medical memoirs hit the same thrill-seeking part of my brain as true crime, and thus are becoming the same guilty pleasure…

Honeymoon in Purdah, Alison Wearing. A Canadian woman decides to visit Iran in the 1990s, under the guise of being on her honeymoon. Funny story to how I picked this book up — I was at a Mennonite thrift store near Stratford, Ontario, waiting for my mom to finish shopping. I started reading this and found it hard to put down, so I bought it and read it before I even left Canada. It is truly fascinating, although occasionally the author’s incredible privilege — and strange, not-always-successful poetic language — got on my nerves.

The Truth About Stories: a Native Narrative, by Thomas King. I picked this one up in the Stratford Festival gift shop — it’s a series of essays (based off lectures) by King about the power of narrative, and in particular how it’s used for meaning-making in Native American/First Peoples communities. He illustrates it with stories from his own life as a Native American, traveling and lecturing across the U.S. and Canada. One of the things I found most interesting was the author’s concern, when he was a young man, with looking “Indian enough” to fit people’s narrative of what an Indian should look like. It’s not something I’d thought a lot about in terms of how people experience their identity.

Also, I love this quote so much I pinned it to the top of my Twitter feed: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

Young Men in Spats, by P.G. Wodehouse. A collection of stories — some about the Drones Club, some Mr. Mulliner — about clueless Wodehousian young men getting in trouble. I’d read (almost?) none of these before, and it seemed just the sort of silly frippery to get me through my cat Brianna being sick. It was indeed a perfectly cheering, perfectly acceptable piece of Wodehouse to read. (And Brianna turned out to be fine).

Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, by Gretchen Rubin. She of the Happiness Project blog writes about habits, giving us, as she so often does, several frameworks towards understanding how to form habits more reliably. Most of them are framed in terms of distinctions: owl vs. lark, underbuyer vs. overbuyer, etc.

One in particular which has helped me understand myself is the abstainer vs. moderator distinction. This describes how you react to reducing your intake of something like food, i.e. do you find it easier to cut a food out of your life entirely, or to have a little bit now and then? I’ve discovered I’m an abstainer, so I thrive better on “you can never have french fries” than I do “you can have french fries once a week.” With the latter, I find I spend too much mental energy trying to calculate whether or not I can actually have fries. (Also, never having French fries doesn’t apply to what I — after Gretchen — call “planned exceptions,” which is a premeditated cheat).

Overall, I like it, like I like all of Gretchen’s stuff, because it feels genuinely human and kind in its outlook. So much self-help/advice is about guilting people into behaving a certain way; hers are more about figuring out what makes you tick and trying to work with that. (And the fact that I tend to refer to her as “Gretchen” should be taken as a sign of how warmly I regard her).

Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey. I talked about this briefly in my “outleveling GRRM” post, so I’ll refer you to that. But mostly? I wanted to love this book more than I did. It gets talked up as being quite smutty, and while it does have quite a few graphic sex scenes, it’s mostly a ginormous novel of political intrigue in which BDSM occasionally plays a part. If you don’t dig that, it can actually be quite boring. I do like it, but it still felt rambling and directionless at parts.

Plus, like any novel written in the first-person, it lives or dies by voice. And Phèdre, the main character, has a voice that’s… polarizing. I feel like you either love it or you hate it. If you hate it, you won’t get very far in this book! I found it tolerable, with occasional quirks that drove me nuts. “There’s little to tell about such and such thing… but let me tell it anyway.”

I doubt I’ll read anything else in the series, as I was perfectly happy to leave Phèdre et al at the end of the book.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. Another nonfiction book, this one about using one’s instincts to escape incredibly dangerous situations. Yet another “I started reading it in a bookstore and had to finish it” book. I will say, by the end I got quite bored of it; it boils down to “you have good protective instincts and you should totally listen to them.” But you can’t really teach instinct, so there’s a certain intangibility to the advice. Although, he does take various signifiers in dangerous situations apart and tell us why they are subtle clues that our prehistoric hindbrain gloms onto before we have time to intellectually process them, which is interesting.

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal. Her first post-Glamourist Histories book! I was sold from the minute I read the blurb on her website. Mary is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors.

This book promised me “WWI mediums serve as a super-secret espionage corps of the British army,” and it delivered. Ginger, the main character, is serving as one of these mediums when she stumbles into a plot to infiltrate and destroy the Spirit Corps. She’s even more invested when the danger becomes personal.

I liked many things about this book, and I enjoyed listening to the episode of Writing Excuses where they took it apart. (One I could finally listen to without spoilers! Hooray!) I have strong emotional memories of certain scenes in the book, like one of the final ones. But overall, I didn’t feel as invested as I would have liked, and I’m not sure why. It hit some high notes, but not enough, I guess.

The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington. Sleep is awesome and you shouldn’t do what the author did, where you become so sleep-deprived that you pass out and break your cheekbone on a coffee table. But no, honestly, this validated what I already knew: that sleep is not optional, and we suffer from sleep deprivation more than we imagine, both physically and mentally. I am literally a different, more terrible person when I’m sleep deprived, which has made me a bit of a sleep zealot. This is also why I say: if you think you have sleep apnea, get checked, yo.

Grunt, by Mary Roach. More nonfiction. I’ve actually never read any of Roach’s more famous books, but I enjoyed this one, which touches on bits of military science that don’t involve shooting people — things like sweat and birdstrike and zippers. Also, the first chapter takes Roach to the Natick Army Labs, which is down the street from where I work, so that’s pretty cool, I guess.

If I have one big complaint, it’s that the book never delves as deeply into a single topic as I would like. I feel like we’ve just started learning about performance fabrics when she wisks you away to talk about how the bottom of tanks are shaped. Also the segues between topics sometimes feel a little forced.

The Magpie Lord and A Case of Possession, by K.J. Charles. Really… these novels are fantasy m/m erotica. If you don’t want to read about boys fucking, nothing I’m going to say is going to convince you to read these. (And even if you do, it’s a little bit representative of the “gay men as written by straight women” genre, so bear that in mind).

And yet… the craft on display in these novels is superb. The main character, Lucien Vaudrey, the eponymous magpie lord, is a disgraced 19th-century nobleman who’s spent his whole life in Shanghai to keep his scandal far, far away from home. His father and older brother are killed mysteriously, and thus he returns to take the title he never expected to hold. He soon finds that whatever is trying to kill his father and brother is after him too — with magic. Into his life comes Stephen, a magician/detective who’s helping him to unravel the crime. And whom Lucien Totally Does Not Schtup Before the End of the Book. Because, again, this is smut.

The second book continues in this vein, with a series of killings related to old Shanghai acquaintances of Lucien’s. And more smut. There’s a third book, too, but I’ve reached my limit of “money I’m willing to spend on boysmut” for the year, so it’ll have to wait a bit.

One of the things I like about these books is how… refreshingly anti-colonialist they are. Steampunk/neo-Victorian stuff has a tendency to romanticize British imperialism, and I feel like this veered successfully away from that. Having a main character (albeit white) who lived most of his life in China — and clearly views it as a more civilized land — provides a sane, outsider point of view, while having him be back in Britain means we don’t risk fetishizing the “mysterious east” or some such. At least, that was my take on it — I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about this aspect of the story.

Basically I call these books “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, with smut.” Lois McMaster Bujold wrote a really good review of them on Goodreads, so if you don’t trust me, trust a multi-Hugo-Award-winning author.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King. A perfectly acceptable book of advice about editing your own words. It approaches the text on several different levels, from structural to word-level. I’m not sure if it taught me anything that I didn’t already know, to be honest? Not much of it has stuck with me.

Writing Fight Scenes, by Marie Brennan. Mostly I recall being surprised that Brennan contradicts one of the rules I’d already heard for writing action scenes — use short sentences. She disagrees with this, although I think her advice boils down to “make it feel fast and immediate through a variety of tools, not just shorter sentences.” Although I’ve been told I have good action narration, so the necessity for this book may be limited.

How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships, by Leil Lowndes. At first glance, this is a kitschy book with a kitschy title. In fact, I found this so cutesy in parts that I had to take occasional breaks. And yet… it’s largely smart advice. (Yes, I seem to be on a kick of “making up for social skills I somehow skipped in Girl classes”). All the stuff about phone usage is dated, of course, and the ebook has some very odd formatting issues, but all in all a valuable read, and I think about the tips I learned often.

Books I’m currently reading which I may finish before the end of the year:

Maplecroft, Cherie Priest. Despite my kvetching over certain plot details on Facebook, it’s not a terrible novel by any means. I feel like Priest’s writing has a lot of the same weaknesses mine does (pale characterization, overexplaining), which may be why I notice it more. But you know, I’ll still probably give this book two or three out of five stars, depending on the ending.

The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser. An ambitious book, this one — it’s a history of (primarily British) women in the 17th century. Very relevant to Lioness, it turns out!

Also, I was traveling to Dorset when I was reading about the Parliamentarian siege of Corfe Castle (in that county), and the defiant Royalist countess who wouldn’t give it up. I found myself wanting to visit the castle, only to find out it was razed. Alas. But! Someone at Consequences who was from Bournemouth told me it’s not completely gone — it was large enough they couldn’t complete raze it — so I’d kind of like to go see it some time I’m nearby.

One annoying feature of the book is that, in referencing personages that Fraser has mentioned before, she won’t often give you page numbers. So you need to refer to the index to find out which countess married whom and did what, and why we should now care about her.

Also I am even more convinced now that we would know startlingly less about the 17th century if it weren’t for the Verneys being packrats and Samuel Pepys writing about all his amorous affairs in a terrible mix of French, Spanish, and Latin — because it’s rare to find a book about this era that doesn’t source Pepys’ journal or the Verney collection of letters.

Anyway, this is a useful and fascinating book, but it’s also dense, and slow-going.

… wow, I think totally by accident I read mostly books by female authors or authors of color this year. That’s pretty rad.

That Loser Lise Wrote Another Novel: the (in)Frequently Asked Questions + Excerpt

This is largely the same post I made on Facebook on Monday — all I’ve added is the excerpt at the end, and a bunch of links. Feel free to skip it if you’ve read it there. I know at the moment the world is focused on bigger matters than little ol’ me and my writing, but I wanted to have this preserved somewhere less ephemeral and easier to reference than FB.

As I wrote elsewhere, I recently finished the novel project I’d been working on for ~3 years. Like the last time I finished a major writing project, I thought I’d make a few notes for people who might be interested in helping me out with the difficult next steps.

So, what’s the title of this novel?

A Lioness Embarked

So what is this one About ™?

A Lioness Embarked is a fantasy re-imagining of The Three Musketeers from the point of view of the antagonists, liberally sprinkled with queer characters, polyamory, frockery, and bad innuendos. In order to repay a life debt, diplomat (read: spy) Yfre must unravel a conspiracy to assassinate the Empress she hates.

It’s fantasy, obviously. Adult fantasy, specifically, and fantasy of manners more specifically still. Indeed, if you go to the Wikipedia page and look at the list of authors, it looks a lot like a list of my favorites 🙂

My alpha readers have compared it to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside stuff, which is flattering, and has caused me to ABSOLUTELY NEVER MENTION CHOCOLATE, because the similarities really are too great. Ironic, since I didn’t even read Swordspoint until I’d already started Lioness. There are some incidental similarities to the Kushiel series, too, just because we both picked a fantasy version of medieval France as our setting.

Other than that, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take a great deal of inspiration from Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, although it’s grimmer in its outlook. (Definitely not grimdark, though).

How many words is it?
Around 120k, after cleaning out a repeated scene in the final chapter.

This is, for anyone keeping track at home, just about on the line of becoming a hard sell in SFF. (Books more than 120k are harder to sell, harder to edit, harder to publish, and harder to print). I can probably cut it down significantly, however, in editing.

Seriously, are you still writing fantasy?

Yes, Mom and Dad 🙂 Not that I really need to defend my choice to write genre fiction, considering that SFF stories make up something like 80% of films and TV these days, and being a geek is the new cool, but yes, I do proudly write fantasy. I write it because we all think we would be secret badasses if you gave us (in this case) an education in diplomacy, poisoned hairpins, seduction skills, and the ability to pick locks. I write it because when wonder has gone out of the world, I like to find it on the page; if I can’t find what I want, then I have to create it.

But I also write it because SFF has the unique ability to sufficiently remove us from the real world to provide a 10,000 foot view of issues we are mired in. As Anne Rice said in her totally unnecessary introduction to the movie version of Interview with a Vampire, it’s not a story about vampires. It’s a story about you and me.

(Lioness is also, literally, not a story about vampires. Just making that clear).

And what the heck do you plan to do now that you’ve finished it?

Well, first, celebrate. I’m trying to figure out how. Buying a lot of writing books appeals–I enjoy reading books about writing, and they have the potential to be helpful in some way, but I usually don’t allow myself to buy them, because that way lies procrastination and too much process. Ultimately they are not putting words down on paper, and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking they are the same as being productive.

But when you’ve just written 120k words, I think you can indulge yourself.

I kind of want to have hot dogs from Elvis’ Hot Dogs in Leominster and ice cream from Cherry Hill Ice Cream in Lunenburg, but a) they would both be breaking my diet, b) making an unhelpful connection between writing and food, and c) Cherry Hill is also closed for the winter.

LISE REALLY KNOWS HOW TO LIVE IT UP, AMIRITE?

(Note, after the fact: yeah, I mostly just ended up buying a lot of books, not all writing-related. Not a bad indulgence).

Okay, but really, what are you going to do with this novel?

Edit the ever-living fuck out of it. I think the first draft is relatively clean in terms of internal consistency, but there is a lot of characterization stuff I need to clean up, and the plotting is all over the place.

I’m probably going to use the editing method espoused by Rachel Aaron in her 2k to 10k book, because it appealed to me when I read it, and seems wildly better than the methods I used for Gods and Fathers. (Which were… none, really). I have a few editing books I might explore to see if they suggest anything that feels more in line with how I work.

I PLAN to have a PLAN.

So are you going to publish it?

I am going to attempt the very traditional route of finding an agent who then sells the book to a publisher. I know, a wild and crazy thing to do in these days of self publishing, but honestly? I want more people than my friends to read this book. I would also like to make non-zero amounts of dollars from it. And really the odds are much better in these regards if you go the trad publishing route.

So I’ll continue to bang my head against the gates to the ivory towers of publishing. Maybe I’ll self-pub it if I can’t find a way in, but more likely I’ll do what I did with Gods and Fathers, and trunk it as not-good-enough when I can’t even get an agent to request a partial.

ISN’T WRITING FUCKING AMAZING?

Can I read it?

With a few exceptions, I prefer that people don’t read it unless they are prepared to offer constructive feedback. I desperately need lots of eyes on this to make it the best novel it can be, and while it warms my heart for you to look at it and go “I love it!!!” it doesn’t actually make the novel better.

That said, if your question is actually, “Can I be a beta reader?” why yes, you can. In an ideal world I’d have alpha readers, who see it in its current state, and beta readers, who take a look after I do edits — but let’s be real, I’ll take what I can get. The latter is a much more pleasant job, I would imagine. And I do have some alpha readers, in the form my writing group (i.e. Dave* and Laurence).

I am also desperately in need of sensitivity readers. As I said, there are numerous characters of an LGBT persuasion, including one trans man, and you’ll have probably noticed I am none of these things. It is not a story about being gay or bi or trans — that is not my story to tell — but this is a world in which those kinds of characters exist, and I’d like people who have real experiences with such things to comment upon it and tell if I’ve fucked it up.

Really, it’s your preference what role you’d like to take on. I’m happy to send it to you in any format you like, at any point in its development, as long as I get some sort of feedback on it. Since I use Scrivener I can even send it to you as an epub, so you can read it on your e-reader or mobile device, if that’s easier.

Comment below, or email/PM me, if you wish to be involved. All I can offer in return is an exchange of critiques and/or your name in the acknowledgements and/or a free copy of the book, if this ever gets published.

Can I see a sample of your work so that I know your writing is better than a kindergartener writing with crayon on a paper bag?

Sure. There’s a brief excerpt from the first chapter below. (I don’t want to post more, because posting to a blog does, yes, count as publication, and most publishers only buy first rights).

Do you like peas?

Yes, yes I do.

Without further ado, I present: the excerpt.

Continue reading

Links & Accomplishments, 10/30/2016 to 11/5/2016

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As I write this, I have just finished A Lioness Embarked, the novel project I’ve been working on, in some form or another, for the past three years. It doesn’t go on this list, because today is Sunday, but for completeness’ sake, I mention it, because that’s where my head is. I’ll write more about that later this week, including asking for beta readers.

Links

Staying Alive: Mary Oliver on How Books Saved Her Life and Why the Passion for Work Is the Greatest Antidote to Pain. I am a great fan of the poet Mary Oliver, even if she has a reputation these days for being too sentimental. In any case, I love this quote: “I did not think of language as the means to self-description. I thought of it as the door — a thousand opening doors! — past myself. I thought of it as the means to notice, to contemplate, to praise, and, thus, to come into power.”

Accomplishments

Writing
– Wrote 4,609 words on Lioness
– Attended writing group
– Wrote two blog posts: Civil war in 1844 – Review of Dragonwyck (1946) and I Returned to Azeroth and All I Was This Soul-Reaping Scythe

Media
– Listened to Writing Excuses 11.39-11.40
– Got Silbuns to 110. Woohoo! (actually happened last week, but I forgot)

Social
– Was a bridesmaid in Mel and Will’s wedding (congrats!)

Health
– repeated Zombies Run Week 2, workout 1
– did Zombies Run Week 3, workout 2
– Took 1.4mi walk

in Blog | 240 Words

Civil war in 1844 – Review of Dragonwyck (1946)

dragonwyck_film_poster

Matt and I recently watched Dragonwyck (1946), one of the harder-to-track-down Vincent Price films. (We had to buy it in a “FOX Classic Horror” movie bundle with a couple of other ones). It’s also vastly different from pretty much any other Price film I’ve watched — it’s gothic romance, with all the trappings of haunted houses, brooding heroes, doomed families, and sense of being displaced in time.

Miranda Wells (Gene Tierney) is the daughter of a farmer in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1844. She’s a dreamy-headed girl who her parents think unmarriageable. Then a letter arrives from a distant sorta-relative named Nicholas Van Ryn (Vincent Price) — the patroon of Dragonwyck, a manor on the Hudson. She’s invited to Dragonwyck to be a governess to his daughter. Over some objection from her parents (who are about as unlikeable as can be), Miranda jumps at the chance to have anything to do with castles and lords.

Of course, everything unravels from there. The manor is haunted, naturally — by the ghost of the wife of the first patroon, who felt trapped and miserable there. Her haunting is a mellow sort — ghostly harpsichord playing that only those with Van Ryn blood can hear. The servants fear this, but the Van Ryns mostly disdain it.

Also there are those creeeeeeepy vibes Nicholas is sending Miranda’s way, making a point of saying they’re not really cousins (Miranda’s mother and Nicholas have the same grandfather; you do the math), and also some posh variety of “hey there, beautiful” (“the breeze must feel wonderful indeed with a face as beautiful as yours against it,” which sounds only marginally less ridiculous in Price’s mouth). He also comes to her rescue when she finds herself embroiled in a social mess at a ball he hosts.

Of course all of this is with his wife Johanna (Vivienne Osborne) standing right there.

Then the stuff with the tenant farmers starts up — they refuse to pay their rents, requesting the right to buy their land. After all, it is 1844 and they are living in the United States. This starts to bring out the crazy/evil in Nicholas; now he becomes obsessed with the fact that he doesn’t have a male heir and what will become of Dragonwyck, ohnoes. It doesn’t help that at this point Miranda strikes up a friendship with a local doctor and anti-renter, Jeff Turner (Glenn Lagan).

Given all this, and the genre, is it any surprise than Van Ryn decides to off his wife?

…is that a spoiler? The movie is 70 years old, in addition to this being a common gothic trope.

On the same night that that Johanna is dispatched (by poison: oleander), Nicholas, being sketchy as fuck in the delightful way only Vincent Price can be, commences the serious wooing of Miranda.

Next thing we know Miranda is going back to her family and acting very weird and skittish. When Nicholas shows up again, we figure out why–he’s going to ask her father for permission to marry. Reluctantly, he gives it.

Of course, this solves nothing. Nicholas is already becoming dictatorial by the time Miranda announces she’s pregnant. The baby is a boy, hooray! (And ooh boy, the weirdly detached way that 1940s movies depict pregnancy…) But he’s sickly, and dies right after being baptized.

This is all more of a pretext for Nicholas to descend further into madness, drug addiction, and yet more attempted poisoning. Miranda is only able to escape with the help of Dr. Turner, who arrives at a critical moment with a gun and a mob of angry farmers.

The final climactic scene of the movie is Nicholas being shot to death — right atop the seat where he used to take the feudal tithes at the annual kermis. Oh, while wearing a fabulous dressing gown. Because Vincent Price, of course. His dying words? “That’s right. Take off your hats in the presence of the patroon.”

As symbolic as this is, apparently the book ends with a steamboat chase scene, and I am kind of sad that wasn’t replicated here. I blame wartime austerity. (While the movie came out post-WWII, it was clearly made during it — the print we had has a “buy war bonds!” message on the opening credits scroll).

So that’s the plot synopsis. But what did I think?

It actually reminded me a lot of Crimson Peak — more than just being a gothic. The whole “female character prone to flights of fancy falls in love with a brooding gothic hero in a terrifying manor and is eventually ‘rescued’ by a down-to-earth doctor” brought a lot of the same feelings up.

(Which may have led to me saying, “I guess Vincent Price was the Tom Hiddleston of his day.” And like Hiddles in Crimson Peak, a 35-year-old Vincent Price in Victorian clothing is very fine to look at).

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Mrowr.

I actually find the historical background really, really interesting for this, for all that the movie barely touches on it. (The book, by Anya Seton, may do more — the movie felt like it was rushing through the Cliff Notes version). It’s set in 1844 in upstate NY*, which will twig any Rasputina fan’s sensibilities, if you’ve heard the song “Calico Indians,” about the anti-rent wars of the 1840s.

* (upstate NY by the most common meaning, which is “New York that is not New York City” — in particular the Catskills and the capital district. I admit, I object to this title, too; I was born in Plattsburgh, NY, which is basically southern Canada. But whatcha gonna do?)

Really the whole system of patroonships that led to the anti-rent wars is super interesting. The Dutch, arriving in the 17th century, set up what were basically feudal landholdings for people who pledged to settle a certain number of colonists to the Dutch West India Company. These became the “patroons,” from the Dutch word for “patron.”

While feudal landholdings were still a done thing in the 17th century (how else would Charles II have appeased his many mistresses?), they were not really present in any place and time in U.S. history… except the patroonships. These unlikely feudal holdings persisted until the family lines literally died off in the 19th century. (When the English took over from the Dutch, they just converted them to manors legally, but left them otherwise untouched).

“The Last Patroon” was Stephen Van Rensselaer, patroon of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck (shades of Dragonwyck, hm?) which gave us most of Albany and Rensselaer counties — also the dude what founded RPI.** His heirs, trying to collect the rent from the tenant farmers after his death in 1839, is what sparked the anti-rent wars.***

** If you’re familiar with New York’s capital district, you’ll also recall there’s a bridge near Troy called Patroon Island Bridge)

*** I’m not even touching on some of the wackiness of the anti-rent wars that the Rasputina song mentions, which Wikipedia summarizes as “Riders disguised as Indians and wearing calico gowns ranged through the countryside, terrorizing the agents of the landlords.”

And it’s in this fascinating Dutch diaspora, frozen in time, that Dragonwyck is set. (Another thing that reminds me of Crimson Peak — or is it gothic in general? — is that sense of being displaced in time). It’s embodied in how the ladies at the ball talk — speaking of the Hudson as if it’s the only river; assuming her name is “Van Wells.” We see it, too, in the kermis — a sort of festival that has its roots in Dutch culture — that takes up a good chunk of the story, and is where Miranda meets Jeff Turner.

Random “actors in this film who were way better known later in their careers” notes: At one point in the movie I was like, “I swear that voice is Harry Morgan’s!” (on Klaas Bleecker, one of the anti-renters). Indeed, Harry Morgan (who you probably know as Colonel Potter from M*A*S*H) is in this movie as “Henry Morgan.” Jessica Tandy also appears as Miranda’s maid Peggy O’Malley, complete with an awful “Oirish” accent.

All in all, it’s an engaging picture. If I have any complaints, it’s that I wished for more character development than we saw over the course of the story. Price is awesome as Van Ryn, of course, but in comparison all the other characters seem a bit wooden. I also just wanted MORE to the story — as I said, it felt like an abridged summary of the book. I think I may have to acquire a copy of Seton’s novel.

If you’re a Price fan, or you have an interest in the gothic genre, or weird U.S. history, you should definitely track down a copy of this unique American gothic.

in Blog | 1,461 Words

I Returned to Azeroth and All I Was This Soul-Reaping Scythe

As I alluded to elseweb, ESO became unfun.

To be precise, with the rollout of the Dark Brotherhood expansion the combat design team basically decided to double down on the “party roles? who needs ’em!” design strategy. While some people may think “wow, cool, they’re trying to break up the holy trinity of tank/heals/dps, how innovative,” the upshot in actual play was that being a build that was focused on anything BUT DPS pretty much sucked, because every fight was a dps race. I was grumbly because I never got to heal, Matt was VERY GRUMBLY because tanks were basically irrelevant, and rather than continue to piss uphill, he decided to disengage. I continued to play for a while, but ultimately it’s not as much fun without him. (Though I do miss my awesome ESO guildies).

We both puttered around with non-MMO games for a while. I built and played around a bit with my Giant Modded Skyrim game, and spent a bunch of time with Sunless Sea. Matt sampled Beyond Earth and Stellaris.

But at the end of the day, we like playing together and with a team, and MMOs are really the only games that allow us to do that.

This past month, Legion, the newest expansion to World of Warcraft, came out. I’d been hearing a lot of good things from my friends who still play. In particular, my pal who works at Blizzard, Skye, made the comment that they had done some really innovative things and that now was a better time to come back than ever.

As some of you will recall, I played WoW in YESTERYEAR — basically from release in 2004 until Wrath of the Lich King, in 2009. I’ve, at times, had some horrid experiences; I left in 2009 because of harassment in a raiding guild I was in.

I’ve also had a lot of fun and good memories — usually my real-life friends are involved in those stories.

At one point I was sure I’d never play again, largely because I wasn’t convinced I could control how much I played. It was no exaggeration to say I was addicted at one point in time.

Of course, in the intervening years I’ve played SWTOR and ESO, two other MMOs which have many of the same addictive aspects, and managed to maintain the veneer of a responsible adult 🙂 I even went back to WoW for a period of time during Mists of Pandaria (2013?), for about a month or so, before getting bored again leveling through Cataclysm content. Combined, this led me to believe I could play responsibly again. So when I suggested, “maybe we should go back to WoW,” I wasn’t half-joking.

When I started playing, I opted to transfer my old main, gnome warlock Silbuns, from Aegwynn (a PvP server, where we had moved during our 2013 stint) to Duskwood, following Mel and Will, who are probably some of my most hardcore WoW fanatic friends. Matt followed suit, copying over Marrais, his old paladin.

When last we left them, Sil and Marrais were level 82 and stuck in Deepholm, one of the Cataclysm zones. I needed to pick up from there, and learn to play an Affliction lock again.

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I probably looked something like this

My god, the game has changed. I mean, I thought it had changed when I played briefly in Pandaria. Transmog, pet battles, new races, the new starting zones… those were all new to me at the time. I didn’t even play long enough to get used to them! Now there are garrisons, even faster flying mounts, a new class, yet another stat retooling, and TWO DALARANS to worry about.

(I mean, one Dalaran was already excessive, unless you really liked mages and sharp cheese).

So I started small. Very small, with a level 1 dwarf shaman (dwarves can be shamans now! hooray!) named Terbodhna (thanks, random name generator!) Matt made a dwarf monk to go with. Together we tooled around the Eastern Kingdoms together — right now we’re in the mid-40s and in EPL.

But eventually I had to go back to Silbuns. I started by taking everything off his ability bars and just putting it back on again, basically in the order I would have received those abilities if I were leveling him from 1 as an Affliction lock. When I played in 2013, I still found there to be too many abilities, even given how they had been limited by talent specialization. It seems like they’ve simplified it even further since then. Now I have a hard time even filling my main ability bar with abilities I’ll use frequently.

I played Afflic pretty much up until I hit max level, but decided recently to switch to Destruction, since it seems like Destro is a better spec for endgame content. (And man, is switching specs SO EASY these days — you can pretty much do it anywhere, any time, free of charge). I now can say I’ve got the hang of both specs, although I still fat-finger things occasionally. (Er, or more than occasionally).

Anyway! Here are my ten second reviews of all the expacs I’ve seen along the way (and a slightly longer take on Legion):

Cataclysm (levels 80-85). I only saw Mt. Hyjal and Deepholm before I hit 90 and decided to move on. But overall, I was not impressed. (The stuff Cata did for the lower levels, like the new starting zones, and changed geography? Much more interesting, I think).

The guiding design principle of Cata seemed to be, “Hey, everyone has flying mounts now, let’s make everything THREE DIMENSIONAL.” And… that just breaks my brain. I was constantly lost. Matt, who had done this content days before with his since-deleted draenei pally, was rushing ahead, and I had no idea where to go and what to do and I kept forgetting to pick shit up and now I have to fly over here to floating ship oh no Matt’s veered off to mine for fish, what do ahhhhh. So yes, my dominant impression of Cata is BEING LOST.

Mists of Pandaria (levels 85-90). Mostly just Jade Forest, Valley of the Four Winds, and a teeny bit of Krasarang Wilds. For all that I rolled my eyes at the pandaren starting zone when I played briefly in 2013 (more poop quests, augh), I actually liked the 85-89 zones a lot better. There was just a lot of the… lightheartedness I associate with vanilla WoW, without it falling into being juvenile. I loved the terrible agricultural puns. I loved the ridiculous quests that have you doing things like painting turnips orange, collecting disgusting pond water, and rolling lazy pandaren across a field. Overall it was enjoyable and I was sad to leave.

Warlords of Draenor (levels 90-100). I very much enjoyed the extended adventure that brings you to past-era Draenor, i.e. the setting for Warcraft 1 and 2. I also liked the cinematic aspect of that first extended quest, where you see the legends of Warcraft lore with their names flashing up on the screen.

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My reaction upon seeing Khadgar was, “I was lied to! He has no whiskers at all!”

I like many of the mechanics they added with WoD. I like the “bonus objectives” on the map, that present side quests without cluttering up your quest log. I like the addition of star markers on your map for rare spawns. I like that the difficulty of the rare spawn monsters is actually, you know. Somewhat challenging. (Or at least it was when I was 90-99 — less so at 110, of course).

Most importantly, I loooooooved building, improving, and upgrading a garrison. Even though my travels don’t often take me to Draenor any more, I still check in with it, sending my followers out on missions, collecting resources, picking herbs and mining, and doing seasonal dailies. It appeals a ton to the sim/4X gamer in me.

I really only saw Shadowmoon Valley, Gorgrond, and Talador before it was time to move on to Legion content, but I’m trying to finish up the other zones and get the Draenor Pathfinder achievement to unlock flying in Draenor.

Legion (levels 100-110): I LOVE SO MANY THINGS ABOUT LEGION. They made some smart design decisions here, really iterating on their improvements from WoD.

For example, instead of a garrison, in Legion you have your order hall. This acts a little like a garrison, but isn’t nearly so isolated or self-sufficient. In WoD, you were kind of incentivized to spend 18 months holed up there, and that soured a lot of people on the expansion, I guess?

So, consider order halls the enhanced version of garrisons. You can upgrade them, recruit followers and send them on missions, and improve your artifact there (more on artifacts in a moment), but by no means do you spend all your time there. When you leave your order hall, too, you are in the heart of (new) Dalaran, which is a pretty happening place (and has portals to everywhere else you could possibly want to go).

I really like the stories that go along with the orders, too. Basically each class has a reason why this group of them is working together. For the warlocks, their order is called the Black Harvest, and the warlock campaign starts when you are recruited for this daaaaangerous demonic summoning ritual. It of course goes poorly, and you have to save the day.

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And then somewhere in there a demonic Dobby shows up.

But the best thing about the warlock order hall is this:

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Yep. A big comfy bed, right in the middle of a blasted extradimensional hellscape. Nooope, nobody’s having sex with demons here. Ignore the succubi standing by.

Artifacts are another great thing added by Legion — basically, when you start your class campaign, you get a mission to retrieve a legendary-quality weapon unique to your talent spec. It grants a special power you can use so long as you are wielding it. You can also “upgrade” your weapon with artifact power token you find in your travels around the Broken Isles — which end up mostly being upgrades to your abilities.

Did you miss the talent trees from pre-Cata WoW? Well, now they’re back, only for artifacts.

Since I was affliction-specced when I started Legion, my first artifact was Ulthalesh the Deadwind Harvester, which looks like a typical Grim Reaper-style scythe. It “reaps souls” from every mob you kill, storing up to 12 of them. You then use its special ability to gain a damage buff.

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You know what the most badass thing about Ulthalesh was, though? When you kill an enemy, their ghost sticks around until you consume the soul. The first time this effect happened, I was literally at my garrison picking flowers when a podling popped up. I killed it, like you do, and then couldn’t figure out why a spectral podling was haunting me.

(It can be somewhat annoying, though — i.e. “why is there a giant ghostly dragon keeping me from tracing this rune on the floor?” with a certain quest in Azsuna)

Now that I am Destro specced I have the Sceptor of Sargeras, which has some cool lore behind it (Sargeras being the Big Bad Demon behind Legion), but isn’t nearly so badass as Ulthalesh. Its power is to open a dimensional rift through which demonic energies will assault your target. It does look pretty neat, but is not as viscerally satisfying as BEING HAUNTED BY THE ONES YOU’VE KILLED.

Either way, being a warlock is metal as hell.

And see, that’s the thing. When I first heard about artifacts, I had a moment of, “oh, psh, handing out legendaries to everybody. Everyone’s going to be walking around with them like they’re the sole savior of the world, and it’ll be lame.” But see, it’s not. I know every other warlock has an artifact, and I don’t even care, because I still have a MOTHERFUCKING SCYTHE THAT REAPS SOULS.

(And, thankfully, there are alternate appearances for the artifacts — and you can still transmog it — so at a glance over my order hall, it doesn’t look like every warlock is carrying the same weapon).

In brief, the artifacts are really good at making players feel like their characters are badass — even if they never step foot in a raid. And really, that’s all you want when you run a game aimed at fantasy-loving nerds and based on a monthly subscription, isn’t it?

And the actual leveling content for Legion? Is pretty damn good, too. I especially liked the quests in Azsuna and Suramar, because I do love me some doomed sad elves (the shal’dorei/nightfallen). That said, getting around in those zones is sometimes absolutely miserable; I really did not need to start Suramar with an extended phasing sequence where I couldn’t have my pet pally (i.e. Matt) along, and I’m convinced no one would miss the Oceanus Cove sub-zone of Azsuna if you completely removed it from the game.

I liked Stormheim, too, for many reasons — posh murlock archaelogists, the quest-giver we call Not!Odin, the two goblins pulling a racket on you, and the grappling mini-game among them.

Highmountain and Val’sharah kind of left me cold, though each had their entertaining moments.

Probably the best thing about leveling, though, is the fact that the Broken Isles zones level to you — so you can do the zones in any order you please. More precisely, rather than the content being leveled to your group leader (as it is in ESO), it is leveled to you, individually, regardless of the item level of your gear. How the combat stats work out when you’re a level 104 and your pocket pally is four levels ahead of you, I leave as an exercise to the reader. But it does seem to generally work.

I even did my first dungeons since WotLK — normal Halls of Valor, Violet Hold (like the WotLK version, only with undead instead of dragons!), and Black Rook Hold. I didn’t suck? I think?

When it all gets to be too much? I do pet battles — a mini-game which is about as complex as a 8-bit RPG. Or seasonal stuff (Brewfest and Hallow’s End, so far), which basically haven’t changed since 2009. Or I work on crafting. (I’m a tailor/jewelcrafter, which is a very poor combination).

The advantage of WoW being a very mature game is that there are about a billion minigames you can be doing at any given time.

The things I miss the most from ESO?

I miss being able to travel quickly anywhere in the world by porting to a friend or guildie. It can still take a long time to get some places in WoW if you don’t happen to have the right combination of hearthstones ready. I find it amusing and occasionally infuriating how much easier it is to get from new Dalaran to old Dalaran than it is to get from Stormwind to Ironforge.

I miss dynamic combat. Funny, considering I started this post by bitching about ESO’s combat design. I mean more on a tactical level. I still occasionally find myself double-tapping a movement key to dodge, and let me tell you, it doesn’t work in WoW 🙂 I can’t block, or interrupt, or do any of that stuff without a specific ability to do so. And I miss that.

I miss having infinite bank space for crafting mats! And yes, that was added to ESO right before I left. The reagents bank is a nice addition to WoW since I last played, but it isn’t enough.

And man, do I miss having guild memberships being account-bound, because I hate having to add all my alts individually 🙁

But hey, occasionally someone in guild is playing Skyrim Special Edition on PS4 while chatting in guild chat, and I can be an ES nerd here, too 😉

Oh, speaking of guilds, I am in a guild called Knights of the Night, which is peopled in large part with folks from the RPI LARP crowd — as well as many people I don’t actually know. They are mostly busy with raids and mythic+ dungeons and whatnot, which I hope to someday do, too, but it’s nice to have another way to keep in touch with these folks who I don’t always see.

I could probably natter more, but that’s about the State of Lise Playing WoW Again. Most importantly for me, I seem to be okay putting it aside for periods of time and doing meaningful stuff like TRYING TO FIND THE END OF THIS NOVEL I’M WRITING. (Still no luck).

Executive summary: there’s a lot of new, fun stuff in the game, which is impressive for a game which is now 12 years old. It’s still confusing for me sometimes, but that confusion is also part of its depth.

in Blog | 2,813 Words

Links & Accomplishments, 10/23/2016 to 10/29/2016

Links

Photographer captures stunning photos of maine coons like you’ve never seen them before. Ignore the breathless title; the photos are gorgeous. Thanks to Vik for bringing this to my attention. (I had some glamour shots of Bri! But believe it or not, she chewed them to pieces).

Accomplishments

Writing
– Wrote 2700 words on Lioness

Media
– Listened to Stuff You Missed in History Class, “Vincent Price: A Talk With His Daughter Victoria Price”
– Listened to Stuff You Missed in History Class, “Interview: Anne Byrn’s ‘American Cake’
– Listened to Stuff You Missed in History Class, “Le Theatre du Grand Guignol”
– Listened to Happier, episode 86
– Watched The Bat (1959)

HealthSocial
– Attended RiffTrax Live: Carnival of Souls with Brian and Adina

LARP
– Submitted 5G Silverfire 4 info skill
– Signed up for Kingsword at Intercon Q