Archive for May, 2016

FF: Fair Trade Reading

May 27, 2016

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kwahe'e Sprawls

Kwahe’e Sprawls

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Attack on Titan by Hashima Isayama.  Manga.  Volumes 11-17.  A rare story in that the more I read, the more I like it.  This has developed far beyond the gross-out horror war story it seemed at the start.

A Box of Pandoras by Steve Brewer.  Light, comic mystery set in New Mexico.  Good use of setting.  New Mexico really IS this weird.

In Progress:

Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James.  Audiobook.  Into part three and the body count is rising.  Not sure how I feel about that…  Especially in a mystery in an isolated setting, this seems a very stupid thing for a killer to do.

Gate of Ivrel by C.J. Cherryh.  The article by Betsy Wollheim celebrating C.J. Cherryh being named this year’s SFWA Grand Master made me realize I’d always meant to read this novel.  Just started.


I had a great visit with my mom last weekend, so I didn’t read as much as I usually would.  A fair trade indeed.


TT: Brew Me Up, Scotty!

May 26, 2016

JANE: Last time, I promised you a story about instant coffee.  My mom went to England to visit my sister, who was studying abroad for a year.  They went out and enjoyed various tourist options, then stopped for lunch.

You Figure It Out!

You Figure It Out!

When the waitress asked for her drink order, my mom said, “Do you have coffee?”

“Yes, ma’am, we do.”

 “Brewed coffee, not instant?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Then I’d like some, please.  Black.”  Coffee arrived.  Mom took a sip, set the cup down.  “This is instant.”

Waitress, eyes wide and startled. “Ma’am, you’re the first person ever to notice!”

ALAN: Lightly roast a single coffee bean so that the wonderful smell goes everywhere. Then serve instant coffee. It fools the punters every time…

Actually I quite like instant coffee.  (I drink Moccona.) However, I regard it as a completely different drink from real coffee. Given the choice, of course, I’d always go for properly prepared real coffee. How do you make yours? I keep it very simple.  In my opinion, coffee does not require elaborate mechanisms to brew it. I make filter coffee – the coffee sits in a filter paper and water drips through it into a pot.

JANE: I do the same thing.  I’ve even been known to horrify purists by re-heating coffee in the microwave.  I have had “cold pressed” coffee and find it wussy.

My friend Hilary works in a coffee bar.  She was telling me about Siphon coffee, which is made in a weird-looking hourglass contraption (sometimes called a vacuum pot).  Water is heated in the bottom, until the pressure buildup causes the water to flow up into the top through a filter. Once the water has reached to the proper temperature, you gently stir coffee into the water, let sit, then stir again and pull off of the heat source.  The coffee will then go down through the filter and you’ll end up with a clean cup of coffee in the bottom half.

One of these days, I need to meet her over at Michael Thomas Coffee and try this, just so I can say I have.

Of course, when I was a kid, the standard way of making coffee was in an electric percolator.  The white with blue design pot was a standard feature in most kitchens.   Occasionally, I see an old one at an “antique” store and consider trying it out.

ALAN: I had a percolator. After I left university and went out into the wide world, pretty much all I owned was a few clothes, a coffee percolator and a big floor cushion. I still have the cushion – these days it does duty as a dog bed. In retrospect, I think percolators concentrate the drink a bit too much and the taste tends towards the bitter end of the spectrum.

JANE: Interesting.  You almost make me want to try it again, just to compare.  I wonder if the concentration offered by a percolator is one reason that those weaker blends we mentioned last week – Maxwell House, Folgers, etc. – used to taste better.

Back when I was in grad school, I was too poor to afford a proper coffee pot.  Somehow I acquired a stove-top percolator (it may have been left in the apartment by the previous tenants) and started using that.  When the little glass knob that fit in the lid broke, I was too poor (yes, I really was) to afford a replacement.  However, a friend had been over and brought a coffee drink in a small bottle.  The threads on this matched those on the percolator lid, so I used that as a replacement.

For a while, when I’d make coffee, it would go up from the pot, into the bottle, swirl down, and up again.  Very Cthuluesque.

ALAN: Wow! A coffee percolator and a lava lamp all in one. How wonderfully surreal!

JANE: Oh!  You just made me laugh.  I never thought of it that way, but that was precisely the effect.

I didn’t keep doing this forever.  A friend’s mother came by – for Thanksgiving, I think – and was horrified by my jury rigged lifestyle.  Next time my friend came, he had a new knob for the coffee pot and a set of nutcrackers.

ALAN: Nut crackers?

JANE: Yeah.  I’d been making do with a hammer.

ALAN: Have you ever tried to crack a macadamia nut?

JANE: No, I don’t think so…  Here, I’ve only seen them sold already shelled.

ALAN: They have the toughest shells in the world. Hit a macadamia nut with a hammer and there’s a good chance that the hammer will shatter. Perhaps that’s why the shelled nuts are so expensive in the shops. The cost of the dynamite they need to actually get the nuts out of the shells must be quite exorbitant…

JANE: That’s amazing.  I had wondered why macadamia nuts were so pricy and I bet you’ve – wait for it – hit the macadamia nut squarely on the shell.

Y’know, one advantage with collaborating with someone on the other side of the globe is that I don’t need to worry you’ll throw something at me for making a really bad joke.

ALAN: Oh I’ve thrown something at you. But Jake caught it in midair, shook it until it was dead and then ate it. So you got lucky.

JANE: Thank you, Jake!

But getting back to coffee…  You were talking about “coffee culture.”  Certainly it has developed here in the U.S.  There’s an entire show held each year at our convention center built around nothing but coffee and chocolate.  I haven’t been yet, but someday I will…  I’ll just plan not to sleep the next day.

ALAN: That sounds like something I’d enjoy, as long as it doesn’t get too complicated. I don’t know about you, but I find the range of coffee drinks on the average coffee bar menu to be quite bewildering. I’m clearly not alone in this feeling. There’s a New Zealand singing group called When The Cat’s Been Spayed (don’t ask, I don’t know) who sing a song called The Coffee Bar Blues which goes (in part):

Cappuccino, cafe negre, cafe latte, and more
With chocolate, and cinnamon, and froth to the floor
Long black, short black, two flat whites
I got the low-light coffee-bar blues

Do you have that huge range of choice at your end of the world?

JANE: We do indeed.  Since my mom comes from an Italian-American background, I was already familiar with some of them – including various espresso drinks and putting cinnamon in coffee or lemon peel in espresso –   before Starbucks made them trendy.  But a lot of the names remain a mystery to me.

When Jim bought a new vehicle a few years ago, the salesman gave us tickets for free drinks at a local coffee and dessert place called Flying Star.  We went in and then had to ask the barista to explain to us what the heck some of the choices actually tasted like.

That said, I quite enjoyed mine, although I found myself thinking of it more as a coffee-flavored dessert, rather than a cup of coffee.

ALAN: I don’t have much of a sweet tooth so I tend to avoid those kinds of things. Robin rather likes them though.

JANE: All this talk about ice cream vans and coffee vans has made me philosophical.  Let me mull until next time.

Cookie Cutter Stories

May 25, 2016

This weekend, as I was cutting out and baking sugar cookies for a Sunday afternoon cookie decorating party, the phrase “cookie cutter plot and characters” flashed into my head.  As you probably know, when the phrase “cookie cutter” is applied to anything (except for the tools used for making cut-out cookies, of course), it denotes something that is mass produced, standardized, or formulaic.

Variations on a Theme

Variations on a Theme

As I rolled out sugar cookie dough and chose from my eclectic assortment of cookie cutters (among those not featured in the picture were a stegosaurus, frog, rabbit, cottage, cowboy boot, pick-up truck, and squirrel), I found myself thinking how inappropriate it would be to assume that, by the end of that day’s decorating party, we would have a lot of nearly identical cookies.  One reason I really like having friends over to decorate cookies is seeing the wide variety of interpretations of a single form that occur.

With that in mind, I decided to make duplicates of some of the cookies, just to see what happened under the influence of different decorators’ sense of style.

While there’s a lot to be said for originality, one of the things that makes genre fiction “genre” is that there are shared elements.  This leaves any form of genre fiction (even “literary fiction” which I have heard persuasively described as just another genre) open to accusations of cookie-cutterdom.

Romance is probably the genre that comes in for this criticism most often.  I recently read an article in the SFWA Bulletin explaining all the different elements that make for a successful romance novel, rather than a novel in which romance is an element.  I found myself thinking that, while this could be helpful for writers who wanted to break into the ever-growing paranormal romance market, it would almost certainly guarantee a bunch of really bad stories written by authors who over-optimistically believed that all there was to writing successful romance novels was picking out an assortment of these elements and mechanically constructing a story around them.

The fact is, any writer who wants to work within a genre faces the dual challenges of using the elements that characterize the genre while, at the same time, giving these elements a fresh twist or interpretation.

Fairy tales and legends can be seen as among the older forms of Fantasy fiction.   Therefore, it would be fair to think that, after hundreds of years, there is nothing new to be done with them.  Judging by recently published novels and short stories – both for children and adults – the reverse is true.  A relevant retelling using these stories – whether very directly as in Shannon Hales’ “Ever After High” novels or more indirectly, such as the recent Nebula award winning novel Uprooted by Naomi Novik – can do very well indeed.

Equally, despite the numerous people who sneer at them, there are still good stories to be told about quests, dragons, space exploration, and even unicorns and princesses.  Murder mysteries still abound, despite the fact that readers know that 1) there will be a body (or more than one body); 2) a detective (amateur or professional or both), and 3) a solution.

If “originality” is the only thing that makes a story good, then historical fiction shouldn’t exist at all.  After all, how much more “cookie cutter” can you get than retelling an event that any reader can learn about by reading a short encyclopedia or Wikipedia article?  Yet historical fiction – up to and including historical mysteries and alternate history fiction – remain vastly popular.

The big difference between dull cookie cutter genre fiction and the sort of fresh, exciting writing that has readers making a beeline toward their favorite section of the bookstore is the passion that the writer brings to his or her story.  And, to be brutally honest, the worst thing would-be professional writers can do is copy what they see as the “hot thing” of the moment, since what will make them stand out from the pack is not their ability to imitate, but their ability to do something that makes them stand out.

Yet, ironically, imitation of what a writer loves when that writer is a reader is one of the best training exercises for becoming a future writer of original fiction.  I’ve talked to many writers who admit that their earliest exercises in writing fiction involved melding elements from their favorite novels, television shows, and/or movies.

Confusing, isn’t it?

I think lazy writing is one reason why the longer a genre is around, the more frequently parodies surface.  “The butler did it” was a big surprise when it first occurred in a murder mystery because, before that point, trusted servants had been considered background elements, as more or less living, breathing pieces of furniture.  Expanding the story to include servants or other trusted retainers as three-dimensional people with motives and emotions began as an interesting expansion of the murder mystery but quickly stagnated to a cliché.

So, let’s be fair both to cookie cutters and to genre fiction.  It isn’t the form that’s at fault.  It’s what the creator does with it.  Or so I see it…  What are your thoughts?

FF: Mystery, History, and Horror

May 20, 2016

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

Kel Reads on Red

Kel Reads on Red

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Black as He’s Painted by Ngaio Marsh.  Audiobook.  Some powerful descriptive language.  A resolution that still leaves me wondering about a key point.

Attack on Titan by Hashima Isayama.  Manga.  Volumes 5-10.  Very dark, but with some interesting revelations.

A Point of Law by John Maddox Roberts.  SPQR X.  Decius is back in Rome.  Pirates are easier to deal with than his fellow Romans.  I enjoyed the intrigue.

In Progress:

A Box of Pandoras by Steve Brewer.  Light, comic mystery set in New Mexico.  My favorite line to this point: “In New Mexico, everywhere is a three-hour drive.  You get used to it.”  For those of you who live in the East, this is because of distance, not traffic congestion.

Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James.  Audiobook.  A new author for me.  Just started.


Finally catching up on Archeology and Smithsonian magazines.

TT: Mobile Treats Transformed

May 19, 2016

JANE: I had fun revealing the mysteries of the Good Humor Man to you, then you ended with a teaser.

You said that something has taken the place of the ice cream van in your landscape. So what is it?

Coffee Culture (Southwestern U.S. Version)

Coffee Culture (Southwestern U.S. Version)

ALAN: Mobile coffee vans. They don’t prowl the streets like the ice cream vans used to. But wherever groups of people gather together, sooner or later a van selling coffee will turn up. There’s one where I leave my car when I take Jake for a walk in the park, and when we had some free jazz concerts on the village green at the start of the year, there was one there as well.

JANE: I’ve seen some of these and, as a highly devoted coffee drinker, I approve.

And when I say “highly devoted,” I mean it.  My first memories of drinking coffee are of sipping off the top of my parents’ mugs when I’d carry them their morning coffee.  I was probably in single digits.  My mom ground her own beans long before doing so was trendy, and I’d occasionally eat beans as well.

ALAN: I once knew a cat who liked to eat chocolate covered coffee beans. After two of them, you had to pull him down off the ceiling!

JANE: I’ve had chocolate-covered coffee beans.  They don’t put me on the ceiling, though.  And my dental hygienist highly disapproves of what they do to my molars.

When I was in high school, my best friend, Anna, went to Jamaica to visit her dad.  She brought me back a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans.  I kept them in my locker as a snack.  Made the entire row smell wonderful.

How do you drink your coffee?  As you may suspect, I drink mine black.

ALAN: I drink mine black as well, and so does Robin. (I knew we were going to get married the first time I saw her drinking coffee.)

JANE: Ah…  A romantic thought.  However, Jim (with whom I’ve shared space for twenty years now) pollutes his coffee with cream and sweetener.  It doesn’t taste bad that way, more like a dessert, though, than coffee.

ALAN: There’s quite a coffee culture here in New Zealand. It ranges from high end, very snobbish cafes to the lowest common denominator of Starbucks. There’s a tendency to sneer at Starbucks, but I quite like it as long as I stick to just coffee. I’m a bit suspicious of the weirder things on their menu, but I think the straightforward coffee is rather good.

The vocabulary is remarkably odd though. Why do I have to ask for a Venti Americano when all I want is a black coffee in a big mug? If I ask for a black coffee in a big mug I just get blank looks…

JANE: Eh…  I’ve got to disagree with you about Starbucks Coffee.  Their default roast tastes burnt to me and I’ve heard that they deliberately over-roast the beans so that some coffee taste can permeate the elaborate “coffee drinks” that make them their money.

The only time I’ve put cream in my coffee was when I met Joan Saberhagen at a Starbucks because the location was convenient.  I got a cuppa and found I couldn’t drink it without ameliorating it.

ALAN: Other people have also told me that they find Starbucks coffee to be a bit burnt, but I can’t taste whatever it that they are objecting to. Perhaps I have an unsophisticated palate.

JANE: Or maybe you just like the slightly burned flavor, the way some people like a “peaty” scotch rather than a smooth.

ALAN: Good point. I like “peaty” scotch as well. Perhaps the two tastes are related.

JANE: Now, I’ll admit, I prefer a medium/dark roast – a good Sumatran, for example – to the very dark roasts like Italian or French. However, I find the “Maxwell House” or “Folger” coffees, which are the standards of many American kitchens, weak and without proper “mouth feel.”  A good coffee should have body, not just caffeine.

ALAN: Oh, definitely. I’m not familiar with “Folger”, but “Maxwell House” is available here (though only as freeze dried instant coffee) and I find it quite insipid. If their real coffee has a similar flavour, I doubt that I’d like it much.

JANE: Instant coffee!  Oh…  That’s a completely different topic.  Remind me to bring it up later.

So, in addition to Starbucks, what sort of coffee do you like?

ALAN: At the moment we are drinking Hawthorne’s Coffee because the beans are grown locally in the Hawke’s Bay. But the best coffee I have ever drunk in my life was on the Pacific island of Vanuatu. The island is an ex-French colony and so bread and coffee are very important to the local culture and both are taken extremely seriously. They grow their own coffee beans on the island. The coffee they make is utterly wonderful – full bodied, smooth and full of flavour.

JANE: That sounds decadent…  I bet they do good pastries, too.  I’m swooning.  Have you ever been to a coffee plantation?  Do they have tastings like at wineries?

ALAN: No, I’ve never been to a coffee plantation, so I don’t know if they do tastings – but it sounds like a wonderful idea to attract the tourists. You could certainly put me down for it.

JANE: Or you me.  Maybe if I ever come to New Zealand again, we can explore the option.  That would be fun.  Hobbiton and coffee plantations…

ALAN: That sounds like a plan! Meanwhile, I’ve just started a pot of coffee going, so we’ll have to continue this discussion next time.

Mission Accomplished (Almost)

May 18, 2016

This weekend, Jim and I finally got most of the garden in.  Most of what we plant is seeds because in this dry, hot climate we find that the plants do better if they have a chance to establish from seed.

Look Carefully for the Giraffe

Look Carefully for the Giraffe

*This is probably a metaphor for writing, but I’m not sure exactly how to work it out. *

We purchased seedlings from a local nursery for peppers and eggplant and, this year, most of our tomatoes.  For some reason, the tomatoes we started from seed didn’t do well this year.  Unlike last year, when we planted twenty-one seeds and ended up with twenty-one plants –  most of which grew up to monster bushes that produced lots of fruit – this year we planted twenty-one seeds and ended up with only three surviving plants.

*There is a reason I would not want to be a farmer.  Farming makes writing for a living seem almost like a sane and predictable career choice.  Kindly note, I said “almost.”*

Now the fun begins.  I’ll start my morning by opening the blinds in the bedroom and looking out.  First a quick count to see if the seven tomato plants I can see from there made the night.  Next, have any of the beans sprouted?  We plant the climbers to grow up a net right outside our window.  By midsummer, if all goes well, we’ll have a natural curtain of green livened with lavender (liana) and red (scarlet runner) bean flowers.  Oh, and lizards.  They like to climb the bean vines.  And hummingbirds come by to sample bean nectar.  The cats love it.  So do we.

But that’s later.  Right now, the game is spotting what’s coming up.  The squash bed is a bit further away, but zucchini seedlings have fairly large leaves, so sometimes I can see what’s come up from a fair distance.  Carrots and radishes, however, require a closer inspection, as does basil, chard, cucumbers, and various herbs.

*I suspect this is also a metaphor for writing.  Probably something to do with coming up with ideas that aren’t obvious.  Hmm…*

We didn’t quite finish planting this weekend.  Many of our perennial flowers are already doing very well.  The lilies are shooting up, and we should have blossoms in a couple of weeks.  The window boxes have been spruced up with snapdragons and dianthus that we purchased leafed out and budding.  We’ll plant a chaotic assortment of zinnias and portulacas in other planters,  as well as among the hollyhocks, so we have color when the hollyhocks are done with their first round of flowers.  We’ll also plant more zinnias along the sidewalk leading to the front door.  By the end of the summer, getting up that path will involve skirting flowers.

*Probably another metaphor, although whether for writing or for life in general, I can’t say.*

So, we planted most of the garden this weekend.  Of course, that’s just the beginning.  Persistence and patience will be needed if we’re to see fruit and flowers, rather than just dust and dry stems.

*And this is truth and also a metaphor.  Funny how that works, isn’t it?*

FF: Comfort Books

May 13, 2016

I’ve had a rather horrible cold for the last week or so.  Along with lots of homemade chicken soup and orange juice, I’ve been treating with liberal doses of stories I know I like.

Ogapoge Sets Sail

Ogapoge Sets Sail

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Light Thickens, Death at the Bar, Scales of Justice, all by Ngaoi Marsh.  Audiobooks.  As mentioned above, “comfort reading” while sick and recovering.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rumdell.  Emphasis on setting and style over character and plot.

The Princess and the Pirates by John Maddox Roberts.  SPQR IX.  The “princess” is sixteen year-old Cleopatra.  The pirates are off the newly acquired Roman territory of Cyprus – acquired from Egypt.

In Progress:

Black as He’s Painted by Ngaio Marsh.  Audiobook.

Attack on Titan by Hashima Isayama.  Manga.  Volumes 5 and following.

A Point of Law by John Maddox Roberts.  SPQR X.  Decius is back in Rome.  Pirates are easier to deal with than his fellow Romans.


Taking a break from the “Great Courses” mythology stuff until my head’s a bit clearer.

TT: What’s Good Humor?

May 12, 2016

ALAN: The other day I was reading a novel which used the phrase “Good Humor Man”.  I have no idea what that means and the context wasn’t helpful. So can you unravel the puzzle for me?

Strawberry Shortcake

Strawberry Shortcake

JANE:  Good Humor was an ice cream brand.  They had trucks that went around selling ice cream and other frozen treats. As I recall, they had a specific song they played, but maybe it was array of songs or bells?? Anyhow, definitely one of the sounds of summer when I was a kid was the slightly tinny, tinkly sound of the Good Humor truck.

Our neighborhood was rather isolated, so it wasn’t as if the truck came through daily or even weekly.  Instead, it was rather like Gandalf arriving in Hobbiton, unpredictable and wonderful – especially if we had pocket money or could pry some out of Mom on short notice, which was not a certain thing by any means.

I remember hearing the music, running for Mom, begging loose change, running back, fearful the traveling treats would have moved on. Then the debate as to what to get…

ALAN: Ah! I remember those – but we just called them Ice Cream Vans (how dull of us). Generally the music they played was Greensleeves, though I do recall hearing other tunes as well. It was always a thrill when one came up our street. If I went out to buy an ice cream, I had to make sure to buy one for my dog as well. He loved ice cream and he would sulk if he didn’t get his share.

We did have some brand-specific vans – they were always called Mr Whippy Vans, because that’s what they sold. I never much liked Mr Whippy. In my view it wasn’t proper ice cream. It was very runny and the Mr Whippy man just put a cornet under a tap, turned the tap on, and ice cream flowed into the cornet.

Proper ice cream isn’t supposed to be runny…

JANE: Wow!  You just opened up a whole bunch of things…

It sounds as if what Mr Whippy sold was what we call “soft serve” ice cream.  This was very different from what the Good Humor Man offered.  His special treats were the solid, creamy ice cream, but molded into bars (rather than scooped out of a tub).  The bar was often coated in chocolate or a soft, crumbly, cake-like coating.

One of the great things about the Good Humor Man was that he had ice cream treats no one else did, such as Chocolate Eclair and Strawberry Shortcake.  These were marvelous and wonderful, multilayered things.  They were also the most expensive.

Later, I believe, they developed some that had an actual bit of solid chocolate in the middle.  I recall these fondly, although I don’t think I’ve had one since I was sixteen or seventeen.

ALAN: Gosh, it all sounds very luxurious (and a bit exotic). We didn’t have anything like that.

JANE: You mention “Mr. Whippy” putting his ice cream in a “cornet.”  I think that’s what we call a “cone.”  But the Good Humor man didn’t do anything like that.  You’d go up to the truck, review the delicacies depicted on the brightly-colored, illustrated menu (a good idea, since smaller kids can’t read), and then make your selection.  He would then reach into the appropriate freeze and check if he still had any.  Suspense!  Would he?  Would you need to make a new selection?

ALAN: Our orders were all individually made, though there wasn’t a huge range of choice. A favourite was a “99” which was a scoop of ice cream (or maybe two if you were feeling rich) in a cornet with a Cadbury Chocolate Flake stuck it.

JANE: Yum!

I checked Good Humor on-line and discovered to my delight that the founder of the company apparently originated the idea of frozen treats on a stick.  You can read more about it here.

ALAN: We call the frozen things on sticks ice lollies. Our vans did have some of them in the freezer. They weren’t at all luxurious though – just frozen fruit juice on a stick. They did eventually get a bit more elaborate. I vividly remember when mivvis first appeared – a mivvi had an ice cream centre with a fruit ice outer coating. They were available in orange, strawberry and raspberry flavours. My favorite was raspberry.

JANE: Ah…  Again we have a culture twist here.  Frozen juice (or frozen sugar water with flavoring) on a stick is a popsicle.

Your “mivvis” sound close to what we’d call a “creamsicle.”  Orange is most common, with raspberry next.  I think there was also strawberry but, as these were never my favorites, I don’t recall.

Time for your SF quiz!  Which author coined a term for bodies preserved by freezing (with the intention of later being animated) that played off the word “popsicle”?  You get a bonus if you also give his term.

ALAN: Ah! I know this – Larry Niven’s “corpsicles”. The joke never worked very well on our side of the pond since we don’t have popsicles…

 JANE: I’m trying to make up a term for frozen corpse that plays off “ice lolly” and I just can’t do it…

I didn’t read the whole article on Good Humor, so I don’t know if the Good Humor Man still makes his rounds.

I certainly don’t see Good Humor trucks here in New Mexico, so I don’t know if Good Humor has stopped sponsoring such trucks.  The practice does seem to have continued, but the trucks seem to be more “gypsy” operations.  And, of course, now that I have more than enough pocket money, running to get an ice cream treat doesn’t have the same allure.  I very well could have missed some.

 ALAN: Certainly they’ve long disappeared from our streets. During the (short) English summer, they were one of the highlights of my life. The vans had the advertising slogan “Stop Me and Buy One” painted on them (though I don’t recall ever seeing anybody flag a van down) and that slogan became so much a part of the language that “Buy Me and Stop One” was often to be found as a graffito on condom vending machines.

JANE: Oh… That’s perfect!  I shall restrain myself from making off-color jokes.

Still, this discussion has made me rather nostalgic.  I do recall at one time seeing Good Humor treats in the grocery freezer cases.  Maybe I’ll check…  But do I want to risk contaminating the memory?

ALAN: No you don’t – fond memories are precious things.

The ice cream vans of my childhood may have started to disappear, but I’ve noticed that something else has taken over that particular ecological niche. Shall we investigate that next time?

JANE: Absolutely…  I wonder what you have in mind?

Why We Need Book Friends

May 11, 2016

Recently, I finished Shannon Hale’s The Princess Academy.  This is a book that – despite it having been a Newbery Honor book – I never would have read without a recommendation from my friend, Julie Bartel.

Book Bunnies

Book Bunnies

For me the title, with its evocation of the cult of Disney Princesses, was a complete and utter turn-off.  Having seen Ms. Hale associated with the commercial tie-in “Ever After High” novels and the apparently utterly cute “Princess in Black” lower middle grade books, her name would not have been a recommendation either.

And, boy, oh, boy, oh, boy would I have been missing out.  As those of you who read my Friday Fragments may have noticed, I’ve been reading a lot of Shannon Hale’s works lately – up to and including several of the “Ever After High” books.  I have already given my young niece The Princess in Black for Christmas.  I’m seriously considering Book of a Thousand Days as a gift for another niece.

When I think about it, some of my favorite books are not ones I found myself but are books that were recommended to me by someone else.  I read The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater because two friends (Sally and Yvonne) separately mentioned loving it.  When I mentioned The Raven Boys to Julie and she started raving about it, I immediately got the book.  I am now nervously awaiting the final book in the four-book “cycle” – The Raven King.  I’ve loved the other three but, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere how a book or series ends is crucial to whether I continue to rave or whether I end up hating the story.

So what makes a good book friend?

First, I think you need to have discussed books enough to have a sense of each other’s likes and dislikes.

Years ago, I spent time with a woman with whom my taste in books rarely overlapped.  We both read SF/F, so we kept trying to find common ground.  One day we began discussing a book we’d both read and liked.  I could tell that she was as pleased as I was that we both seemed to have liked this one.  However, when we got to specifics, it turned out that the scene I’d like the most was the one she hated.  The ending, which I had really disliked, was something she thought was brilliant.

Funny…  Even when we liked books by the same author, the book I’d like best would be her least favorite and vice versa!

Second, a good book buddy doesn’t necessarily only read exactly what you would be reading anyhow.  When Jim and I started dating, he introduced me to Patrick O’Brien’s “Aubry and Maturin” sea sagas.  I never would have picked these up on my own, but I tried one and, for weeks thereafter, I would borrow two volumes from Jim each week.  Chatting about what Steven and Jack were up to became a regular element in our courtship.  We read the final books in the series together.

Jim also introduced me to Robert Parker’s “Spenser” novels.  Again, these were books I doubt I ever would have read without him.  I can’t say I liked them as much as I did the O’Briens, but that was all right.  I found a lot to enjoy, and our discussions of the elements that grated for me were a lot of fun for us both.

My good friend, Paul Dellinger, is enough older than me that his reading tastes were shaped by older SF.  Years ago, I went to him and asked for a list of authors and specific titles he had liked so I could expand my horizons.   In this way, I read a lot of books I would have otherwise not known to pull out of the herd.

When Roger Zelazny and I started corresponding, he began sending me books, sometimes by the box load.  Often he’d scribble a note in the front of a volume, telling me why he’d liked a particular book or why it was important to the field or, sometimes, that it was by a friend of his.  Eventually, I started telling him about books I’d liked, and he’d try them.  One of the last books Roger read – and enjoyed sincerely – was one of my recommendations: David Weber’s Path of the Fury.

Alan Robson’s “wot i red on my hols” column has opened my eyes to authors I would not have otherwise encountered, as have our frequent book chats on the Thursday Tangents.  More often than folks realize, I take note of books mentioned in the Comments on my blogs.  I may not get to them right away, but I do notice.  Titles I read because of Comments on my blog include Uprooted by Naomi Novik and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater.

Third, if you’re going to be a good book friend, you need to be willing to gently and politely push the other person’s limits.  That’s what Julie did with me with Shannon Hale’s work.  David Weber insisted I read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, even after I told him I’d tried it and couldn’t get beyond the opening.  “So skip the opening.  You’ll love this book!”  He was right.

When Jim and I started seeing each other, Jim not only hadn’t read any middle grade or YA novels since he moved out of his teens, he actively avoided them figuring they’d be too “young” for him.  I kept offering him new YA books I loved.  Finally, he gave one a try.  When he realized that modern YA novels were where the sort of novels he’d always loved were now being published, he expanded his reading choices.  From there, he began to read middle grade novels as well.

Fourth, a key element in both finding and being a good book friend is remembering that no one’s tastes overlap precisely.  I’m pretty grumpy about books that require the main character to turn off his or her brain or the plot will stall.  My friend Sally knows this, so when she recommended Libba Bray’s “Diviners” novels, she said, “I’ll warn you that Evie, the main character, can be really, really annoying, but there’s a lot of other good stuff if you can deal with that.”

Equally, I remind myself that while I really love books with quirky characters (for example Marjorie Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke), Sally may be turned off, so I provide her a “possibly too quirky” warning when talking about a book I like.

Sadly, two areas that used to be good places to get recommendations outside of one’s immediate circle of friends have recently become less sure.  One of these are “best of” anthologies.  Some of these are, indeed, edited by people who go out of their way to read widely in the area in which they are claiming to be choosing the “best.”  The best of fantasy and horror series that Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling used to edit was a good example of this sort of collection.

However, recently I was shocked to see a market list (that is a list of places where writers can submit their work) that included several listings that were, basically, places where authors could send their work to be considered for a “best of” anthology of some sort.  To me, this isn’t “best of,” this is “Best of what we read.  Oh, a lot of that was what we were sent by people looking to promote themselves.”

Of late, awards have also become problematic.  No.  I’m not going to discuss the Sad Puppies controversy, except to say that it has drawn light to the serious problem of how easy it is to “game” certain awards.  For example, SFWA is constantly trying to find ways to limit “vote trading” or “campaigning” for Nebulas.  These days, I’m more likely to consider an award as a recommendation for a book if I know that the award was given by a panel or jury consisting of people who are knowledgeable about an area rather than by general membership of an organization.

So, who are your book friends?  Do you belong to a formal book group of any sort?  Do you use on-line reviewing sites like Goodreads or Amazon?  How about book blogs?

FF: Thoughts on Action

May 6, 2016

Too often books are dismissed as “slow,” because the action has little to do with physical danger.  Sad, because danger to the “soul” or “self” is really far more dramatic than any number of near misses by bullet or sword.

Kwahe'e Reads Titan

Kwahe’e Reads Titan

For those of you just discovering this feature, the Friday Fragments lists what I’ve read over the past week.  Most of the time I don’t include details of either short fiction (unless part of a book-length collection) or magazine articles.

The Fragments are not meant to be a recommendation list.  If you’re interested in a not-at-all-inclusive recommendation list, you can look on my website under Neat Stuff.

Once again, this is not a book review column.  It’s just a list with, maybe, a bit of description or a few opinions tossed in.

Recently Completed:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.  Audiobook.  Would a modern reader sit still for the philosophizing?  I’m not sure but, if not, it’s a pity.  Without it, the book is just creep show.  With it, there’s both greater creepiness and deeper redemption.

Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith.  They’re twins.  They’re not close as brothers.  When William “Whiskey” is hit by a car, Charlie finally confronts the reality of their relationship – rather than the version of it that he’s held on to for many years.  I liked very much.

Attack on Titan by Hashima Isayama.  Manga.  Volumes 2-4.

In Progress:

Light Thickens by Ngaoi Marsh.  Audiobook.  Have read before, but decided to read again.

Rooftoppers by Katherine Rumdell.  Quirky.

The Great Mythologies of the World volume one in the Great Courses series.  Audio.  Finished Greek and Roman.  Only one disk on Celtic??  And the “lecturer” couldn’t consistently pronounce Cuchulain???  I realize there are variations, but this really made me wonder about her “expertise,” or if she was just reading someone else’s script.  Now on to Norse.


Tried several books that ended up not holding my attention.