Apr 25

Worldbuilding Wednesday 4/26/18: Pern

BRREEeeeeeee! I’m never wearing clothes — or seatbelts — again!


Anne McCaffrey wrote a long-running series of books about the backward planet of Pern and its giant, telepathic dragons used to combat “thread” – an invasive space spore that filtered down from an adjacent orbiting body — by burning from the air with their fiery breath. Pern had a pseudo-Medieval culture and the dragons a hive one in which one golden Queen dragon lays all the eggs, which the young men of the weyrs – cavelike mountain holdings where the dragons and caretakers are quartered – vie to impress (or “Impress”) so they can be their riders.

Though the first book, Dragonflight, was exciting enough, there was enough that bugged me about the series that I stopped reading at The White Dragon, the last book in the original trilogy. Mainly that, only men got to ride the dragons. If you were a female and wanted some glory, you had to impress the single Queen dragon, and if you failed you were fated to be a  drudge, slut, or “woman of the lower caverns” whatever the hell that was. (Yes, I know in later books girls were allowed in to impress baby Greens; but the fighting wings were still overwhelmingly male. I also never read the Harper books which probably went into more depth on the culture.) Pretty much the only way a woman could have any power, respect, or agency in the books was to impress a Queen dragon… not very fair, and not very likely, considering how rare Queen eggs were and how much politicking went into who was chosen to be present at the hatching. And even then, once a woman became a Queen rider and Weyrwoman, her power remained tied up with her sexuality. Eventually the books devolved into one big soap opera, rather dragon opera, with a lot of talk, talk, talk, talkity talk talk about weyr politics and who was mating with who and who should be mating with who, with romance novel tropes that were truly atrocious.

On the positive side, the books gave us a distinct naming system for the dragons, their riders, and their women. Dragon’s names always end in th, and can be one or two, or three syllables. Men shorten their names when they become riders, dropping the first vowel and adding an apostrophe. And women’s names were simple, feminine, and easy to pronounce in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon way.

Names of Pern

























































































































Apr 24

Albert Nobbs [Reading Challenge 2018]

Cover of Albert Nobbs by George MooreAlbert Nobbs

by George Moore
Waitingstar Publishing, New York, 2011


[Challenge # 38: A book made into a major motion picture]

Finished Albert Nobbs, a book that kept me guessing until the end.

I’ve wanted to read it for a while, since I’ve always liked books with gender bending, or obscurely gendered, protagonists. I did not come blind to the book; I chose it I knew it was about a woman who disguises herself as a male butler. But how, and why, and what happens after that, was what kept me turning the pages. Though a novelette, I read it slowly, and may read it yet again, just to digest the richness of the language and the archaic style of writing.

(This review contains spoilers, so if you hadn’t read it, and are wanting to be surprised, like me, don’t go any further.)

This book carries a reputation as being sympathetic towards characters who are breaking away from the gender norm. In reading about the author, George Moore, after I finished, he was indeed sympathetic towards gay and lesbian characters and endowed them with sympathy and humanity, something that was not common in the age in which he wrote. The mentions are low key, as in Albert Nobbs, but clearly there; however, they are just as clearly overlooked by readers wishing to see a more mainstream narrative.

Writer George Moore, by Edward Manet

Sketch of George Moore, by painter Edouard Manet


Albert Nobbs begins by not being about Albert Nobbs at all. Instead, it starts with two blokes having a chat in Dublin about how the city has changed, and one of them casually mentions the strange butler who used to terrorize him as a child by his (her) unworldly appearance:


… his squeaky voice remains in my ears. He seemed to be always laughing at me, showing long, yellow teeth, and used to be afraid to open the sitting-room door, for I’d be sure to find him waiting on the landing, his napkin thrown over his right shoulder. I think I was afraid he’d pick me up and kiss me. As the whole of my story is about him, perhaps I’d better describe him more fully, and to do that I will tell you that he was a tall, scraggy fellow. With big hips sticking out, and a long, thin, throat. It was his throat that frightened me as much as anything about him, unless it was his nose, which was a great high one, or his melancholy eyes, which were pale blue and very small, deep in the head.

The narrator then tells the story of the butler’s life, acting as a stand-in for the author who might have told the story to the reader directly, but by using that framing device removes himself from the more controversial twists and turns therein. So the narrative is twice removed, but, somehow it works, and the framing device that seemed clunky also allowed the writer to express his own ideas about class and gender.

Albert’s adventure starts when, having been established as an exemplary employee who lives in her employer’s hotel to save money, she is requested to share her bedroom and bed with a contractor doing some painting for the hotel’s owner who can’t find any other accommodation for the night. (I’m sure this was a common occurrence in the Victorian age the story takes place in, and perhaps something of a plot cliché of that time too.) Albert fears being exposed as a woman, yet tries to make the best of it as she shares her bed. And of course she is exposed as a female… and, as it turns out, the painter she thought was a man is, in fact, a female in disguise just as she is!

This chance meeting and the painter’s story (which is a story in a story in a story) of leaving an unhappy marriage and disguising herself as a man to earn a trade, even marrying an accepting woman to join economic forces and gain a middle class life, gives Albert ideas. She discovers she need not labor alone and incognito, always fearful of being found out, but can find a trusted confidante, gain respectability, and live a normal life… all hinging on finding another woman who agrees with her plan, as her true gender cannot be kept a secret even in a marriage of convenience.

The story turns humorous as Albert mulls over possible candidates, before deciding on a maid who works in the hotel who she thinks has the proper temperament. She begins her courtship, but can never quite be fully trustful of Helen, the young woman who believes Albert a man, yet not enough not like a man.  Helen has a casual boyfriend in Joe, a waiter who also works at the hotel, and the difference between him and Albert makes her suspicious. She knows Albert has more money and respectability and offers advancement for her life – Albert carefully save and buys her courtship gifts to prove just that – yet the dissonance is there. Thus the two never quite connect, and things go haywire, and the disillusionment and heartbreak begin.

It’s all psychologically on the nose, and in spite of the framing of the story, and the Edwardian language, and the odd way it is written (long, long, paragraphs, no quotation marks) I was drawn into it completely. The language was oddball in parts, yet lyrical. It would have been perfect read out loud.

When the tragedy plays itself out, the framing device muffles rather than amplifies it, driving the lessons home without additional emotional wear and tear on the reader.

The story can be read as a cry for gay acceptance, and also a manifesto for a dreamer. But my take on it is that it’s more a mild parody of the Protestant middle class than an allegory of queerness. Hard work and having savings, Albert believes, are necessary for a middle class Victorian Dublin, which includes a townhouse, piano, nice carpets and lace curtains. It’s also necessary for men and women to marry and join forces in this endeavor, so therefore, it makes sense for one partner or the other to switch genders to gain it.

Touching, sly, and heartbreaking. I give it five stars.

Apr 23

Daring and Delicacy

Follow you heart, or use your mind? To balance both requires daring and delicacy.

Apr 18

Antiques Swap [Reading Challenge 2018]

Antiques Swap, by Barbara ALlenAntiques Swap

by Barbara Allen
Kensington Books, New York  2016


[Challenge # 48: A mystery]

I never was much of a mystery reader. I did enjoy a good Nancy Drew back in the day, but post-grade school, I’ve been pretty meh on the genre. I’m not sure why. My mother was an avid fan, particularly enjoying Agatha Christie and the Brother Cadfael series. Another relative, the wife of my eldest cousin, a lady whom I respect immensely, has been trying to get me to read cozies for ages. Cozies, for those not in the know, are contemporary casual mysteries that are genial and personal in tone and often run in a series focusing on a particular business. Thus, there are coffee shop owners who solve mysteries, proprietors of bed and breakfasts, caterers, bakers, etc. Often these books include recipes or advice. I picked Antiques Swap, part of the Trash n’ Treasures series,  for this challenge solely because of the cute little Shih Tzu dog featured on the covers, which promised fun.

The series, now running ten books, is about a mother-daughter team of antique shop owners in a small, historic town in Iowa, and it grows and expands with every release as they age, which is cool. The previous adventures are touched back on in each book, which is nice for a reader just picking up the series. Antiques Swap opens as the pair are waiting to receive word on a reality-show pilot they’ve just shot – if a network buys, they’ll hit the big time. But trouble happens when the wife of a local millionaire is brutally bludgeoned to death after the daughter of the team visits her to buy some old beer signs for her shop. The obvious suspect is cleared, but then there’s another murder, and it turns out the millionaire kept tight with some cronies who had a wife-swapping bridge club going on. (Each chapter is named after a Bridge move, which is fun.) Local personalities, including the police, are introduced and/or touched on, and again the daughter becomes involved despite her misgivings. It’s all told in first person and that adds to the readability, the eccentric, ex-actress mother even getting a chapter or two. It was all rather madcap.

It was a quick, entertaining read, but it was a little too casual I guess; the intellectual content was minimal. By that I mean there wasn’t enough for my mind to chew on, whether it was in the writing, the plot, the background, the era, or the general zeitgeist of it really. I didn’t force me to think. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did; it’s just when I read a book, I want to take away from it more than I put into it, if you know what I mean.

Still not a mystery fan, but I’m warming up to the idea.


Apr 18

Worldbuilding Wednesday 4/18/18: Superheroes

Thor looks disgruntled here (or maybe pleased? It’s hard to tell) but many other superheroes would be happy to take a break from their regular rounds of protecting the innocent. Maybe even some of these randomly generated ones.

(Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes remains the best introduction I’ve read to the history of the genre.)



Vector Mage

Moxie Shadow

Scarlet Dragon

Colonel Delta

Red Quasar

Miss Gravity


Emerald Star

Spiral Zero


Ms. Whip

Black Viper

Mr. Apocalypse

Crimson Chrome

Green Pulsar


Millenium Mark

Blue Scorpion


Dark Liege



Pulsar Man

Blue Devil



Captain Shadow

Crimson Mystic


Lady Fox

Moxie Magician

Velocity Ace

Mr. Mammoth

Lady Galactic


Apr 16


comic book heartI know it’s only a cheap comic, but isn’t it creepy?

Apr 11

Worldbuilding Wednesday 4/11/18: Cursed Magic Items

The mimic, an insidious Dungeons and Dragons monster that disguises itself as a treasure chest.


Sometimes a dungeon master, or an author or game writer, wants to toy with their characters. Not in a life-ending way, but just to vex them a little. The following items do just that.

Cursed Magic Items

Spoon of Canine Mucous: Any food this item touches turns into dog drool.

Iol-Del’s Unlucky Siphon: This flexible tube appears to be designed for siphoning water or other liquid out of a container, but when suction power is applied with the user’s mouth, any liquid inside is transformed into raw sewage.

Karelga’s Mocking Ink: Whatever the user writes with this will come out sarcastic in tone.

Footbath of the Toad: Appears to be a normal footbath, but when used it creates warts on the bather’s feet.

Taulan’s Obnoxious Knapsack: Whatever is put into it falls out at random moments.

Thong of Psittacine Doom: Looks like a pair of silk thong panties, but when worn, it feels like a parrot’s beak is biting deeply into your butt.

The Many-Eyed Panther Marbles of Bornbutter: Each glass marble looks like a cat’s eye which paralyzes any who look upon it with fear.

Axe of Ponderous Defense: This cursed magic weapon causes the wielder to fight half as slowly as they normally would.

Scroll of Ready Pregnancy: When the spell on this scroll is read by the owner, they will become pregnant the next time they have sex, even if they are not female.

Gnomish Teeth Balm: Looks like a tin of tooth-cleaning paste, but when used, it turns the victim’s teeth as yellow and crooked as those of a gnome.

Glyph of Cat Multiplication: When this magic glyph is written above the door of a household containing a cat, the abode will start to attract more cats, double the number each day, until the felines take over and the owner has to move out.

Tincture of Partial Snoring: Looks like a magical remedy to cure snoring, but works only every other minute the patient is asleep.

Myradria’s Fetid Sandals: These shoes appear to have a beneficial magic, but when worn they make the wearer’s feet smell very strongly of foot odor. They are not removable by normal means. Wearers suffer a -5 to Charisma checks.

Darlan’s Napkin of Barbarous Mastication: This magical napkin, when used to wipe the owner’s mouth, will cause them to chew very loudly and impolitely whatever food they are eating. The owner, however, believes they are eating normally.

Brazier of Centipede Chaos: When a fire is lit in this brazier, hundreds of centipedes come crawling out instead of flames.

Apr 09

Something’s Fishy

Pun, trifle,Lovecraftian horror, or fine art? You decide.


(The Water, 1563-64, by Giuseppe Arcimbaldo)

Apr 07

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas [Reading Challenge 2018]

City of Fortune:
How Venice Ruled the Seas

by Roger Crowley
Random House Trade Paperbacks, New York 2013


[Challenge # 3: A book taking place mostly or
all on the water

I was a little concerned that City of Fortune, which was a history of the city of Venice between the 11th and 16th centuries, would not fully meet the criteria for this category. It was, after all, a civil history. But to my delight, it did.

The book’s focus was on the Stato di Mar, the “State of the Sea” that the Venetians used to control their empire, which was one of trade. Like many Italian cities of the Medieval period, Venice was a city-state, but its extended holdings were not on land but on sea… in ports, harbors and islands, and the trading communities of far-flung cities like Brussels, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Their knowledge of the sea and shipbuilding skills made this possible, and their often dangerous commerce with the Muslim and Greek Orthodox worlds enriched the city’s culture and design. For a while it was the richest city in Italy.

The Stato di Mar lasted only until the beginning of the 16th century, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the Portuguese discovery of trade routes to India which allowed them to hijack the spice trade. The author writes covers his material well and at times I thought I was reading a thrilling adventure novel. It was all fascinating stuff, and the maps included were a big help… except Negroponte, an important Venetian holding, was not labeled. I made it through five-sixths of the book without knowing where it was because the text did not tell me, and it was annoying. (It’s off the east coast of upper Greece.)

I still rate the book five stars, and I’ll keep it for reference, because the political analysis of that time will come in very useful when plotting my own stories.

Apr 05

A Medieval Feast

Medieval Feast with boar's head


Next were borne round dishes of carp, pilchards, and lobsters, and there after store enew of meats: a fat kid roasted whole and garnished peas on a spacious silver charger, kid pasties, plates of meat’s tongues and sweetbreads, sucking rabbits in jellies, hedgehogs baked in their skins, hogs’ haslets, carbonadoes, chitterlings, and dormouse pies.


Reading E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros, with its archaic descriptions of food, got me thinking about how sumptuous meals, feasts, and festivals contribute to a well-made fantasy world. If your society is based on a European Medieval one, as is common (and no harm in that) it would be very, very different from what people in power eat now. True, the Medieval feast was also about impressing guests with the host’s power and prestige, but there were differences. Rare, esoteric (and often none too tasty) foods were singled out for distinction. Heady spices were used liberally — ginger, pepper, cloves, cumin, cinnamon — this was a time when cities literally rose and fell on the spice trade.  The spices were used not just in baking but in almost every dish, including meat, fish, and vegetables, not to disguise rot as is often thought, but to demonstrate wealth.

For presentation, dishes were ornamented with non-food items, colored with dye, or fashioned into looking like something else than what they were — such as bread-ball eggs in a vegetable nest, each bread containing a roast squab. Medieval folk loved puns. Often dishes were named for popular, religious, or mythic characters, relating to them in some way. All in all it was a culinary thrill ride for the lucky guest.

The feasts did not break out into salad, main, and dessert courses like we have today. Instead, each course contained a varied amount of dishes and were often grouped around a theme.

Using the power of random generation, I’ve created a feast menu here to give inspiration. There are some non-European ingredients in this hypothetical world.


Appetizer-type foods

Lamb pate served with dates and crackers

Salty Pike marinated in a white wine dressing

Sweet duck egg pancakes with cherry sauce

Fresh salad of cold, sweet greens, spinach, and minced pumpkin

Roasted dormice stuffed with crumbled bacon and raisins

Whole grain bread and creamy cheese, served with fig preserves

Soups and pottages

Duck pottage sprinkled with bacon

Lamb and carrot soup

Main dishes and meats

Herb-crusted partridge served over sliced, boiled pigeon eggs

Baked loaf made of deboned squab, served in a trencher* of boiled buckwheat

A whole pheasant rubbed with paprika, roasted in a fire pit, presented in its feathers

Whole bull’s penis poached in ale

Lamb in aspic

Ribs rubbed with molasses, baked in buttermilk

Whole eel poached in cream

Roast turkey stuffed with scallops, diced artichokes, and oysters

Lobster flavored with red wine and turmeric, simmered with parsnips

Minced partridge spooned over poached duck eggs

Pickled salmon served with roasted barley

Vegetables and sides

Whole eggplant stuffed with preserved wild buffalo

Fiddleheads and barley, toasted and served in cream

Honey-glazed sheep’s lungs

Roasted pomegranate husks filled with minced trout

Fresh toasted peas cooked in a sweet simmering sauce

Summer squash stuffed with almonds and other chopped nuts

Hominy simmered in duck stock

Solteties (Subtleties)

Solteties were large, elaborate dishes made from sugar, marizpan or dough, crafted to appear as something else — ships in full sail, mythological characters, animals, architecture, etc. They were often presented in a course of their own. The nursery rhyme “four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie” refers to one sort, the birds escaping as the crust was opened. Another kind were combinations of two or more types of roast meat. Solteties were often served at royal banquets.

Woodsman’s Sins: a huge pie filled with live squirrels.

Dwarve’s Surprise: a confection of dough baked in the shape of a dragon filled with crumbled bacon-stuffed ducklings, smoked mutton, calves’ brains, and pickled zucchini.

Virgin’s Belly: A whole goose roasted inside a whole lamb.


Poached Pear with yogurt

Raspberries with a creamy honey-fennel dressing

Apple sorbet to cleanse the palate


Scaddyberry: a scarlet, filling liquor made from fermented tomato

Smackgreen orange: a local beer

Blackberry nectar: a sweet ale from the south


* Trenchers were slaves of hard bread that were sometimes used in place of plates, depending on the era and locale. After the meal, they were eaten or given to the poor, in Christian fashion.

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