Time vs Anxiety

Last night I tweeted this and thought I’d follow up:

My brother had a projection alarm clock many years ago, and I was always jealous of it. Cut to almost 15 years later (I’m a procrastinator, ok?), and I finally got around to getting one for myself.

I had a few worries, but they were unfounded:

  • I worried I wouldn’t be able to position it to display on the ceiling. (I didn’t want it on the wall.) I could!
  • I worried it would be hard to read. It’s not!
  • I worried it would be so bright it would be distracting for me or Steven. It isn’t!

So it’s pretty much everything I hoped it would be — and more!

As I said in the tweet, an unexpected benefit was that I’m less anxious at night. This is simply because I can very easily see what time it is. I do wear a sleeping mask, but I can push it out of the the way without moving much (or even sometimes just tilt back my head and peek out from under it). And the time is just THERE! Right in front of me!

I used to wake up in the middle of the night (several times a night) and wonder what time it was. Moving my arm in *just* the right way to trigger my FitBit to show me the time while also disentangling my arm from the blankets was a hassle-and-a-half. Steven’s bedside clock was too hard to see—I had to sit up to get a good view of it. (I didn’t have a bedside clock before this because I didn’t want to have to move to see it anyway—I sleep on my back.)

So sometimes I did the little song-and-dance I needed to do to see the time (which then woke me up enough that I couldn’t fall back to sleep easily). But much more often, I’d just continue to lie there and hope to fall back asleep…

That didn’t work either because I’d keep wondering what time it was and how much time I had left to sleep and was it so close to wake-up time that getting back to sleep would be a bad idea anyway and why can’t I stop thinking about this and just go back to sleep?

So anyway, that’s my latest one-weird-trick for slightly subduing my anxiety. Obviously, if always knowing what time it is *makes* you anxious, I don’t recommend this!

Also, it’s worth noting that the thing that’s been helping most with my anxiety is the doctor-prescribed medication I take. And I do not for a moment take for granted how lucky and privileged I am to be in a place (physically, mentally, financially) where I can access that.

So anyway, I guess the moral of the story is that help can be found in unexpected places, and it’s important to recognize and celebrate even the small wins!

Alarm Clocks Time Projection, New Clock Time on Ceiling Wall for Bedroom Decor, Digital Travel Clock with Colorful Backlight for Kids, Adjustable Brightness & Projector Focus, DC Adpator Included

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Goodbye, Grandma

First of all I want to thank all the lovely people who sent me cat pictures on Twitter the other day. I really needed it.

I lost my grandma this weekend, and due to multiple circumstances, I won’t be attending the celebration of life in Florida this weekend. I know it’s the right decision, and I think Grandma would agree, but being so far away from my family makes this extra hard.

I wish I had it in me to write the kind of blog post about her that she deserves, but I am exhausted both physically and emotionally. Again, I know she would understand and tell me to take care of myself.

So instead, I’ll just share this amazing pic that my sister found from one of Grandma’s college yearbooks. Check out Flossie Peterson playing basketball. If you can, I highly encourage you to zoom in on her and look at that sparkle in her eye. She never ever lost that sparkle. That’s the Grandma I’m going to remember.

Grandma.jpg

Shoe (Travel) Anxiety

**UPDATE** I didn’t get a chance to post this when I first drafted it (last week), so despite the opening sentence, I can affirm that I’m 100% Travel-Anxious at this time.

Ok, so I don’t actually have travel anxiety *yet*. Is there such a thing as travel-anxiety anxiety? Our big MN-WI vacation doesn’t start for another few days, but it’s been a few years since I’ve traveled for longer than about five days so the prospect of being away from home for two and a half weeks is daunting from a packing perspective.

Happily, we’ll be staying with friends and family for enough of the trip that we can do laundry partway through. But that’s not really why I struggle with packing. When I get dressed for the day, I do it largely based on whim and current emotional state. How am I supposed to know what my emotional state and whimsy will look like two weeks ahead of time??

This is how over-packing happens.

I did swing the other direction for a few trips. I was so dedicated to slimming down my suitcase that I didn’t pack *enough* to wear. And that happened on trips where I didn’t have the option of doing laundry. Oops. Thus my most recent trip swung back to overpackage. Oy.

And can we talk about shoes? This is the thing that stumps me every time. I don’t have a great pair of all-purpose shoes. So I end up packing the shoes that are super comfortable to walk in but are old and ugly and the shoes that are decent looking but only comfortable for moderate walking distances and the shoes that look nice (usually just in case) and maybe the boots because I might want them and they’re so cute and comfy and also the slip-ons because maybe I’ll want to be able to go outside and back in really quickly without having to deal with laces and such.

Shoes take up a dang lotta space.

The solution is probably to find a nice pair of all-purpose shoes. I welcome suggestions! (I have narrow feet, so I’ve always struggled to find shoes that fit.)

**UPDATE** I have decided on one pair of Converse (which I will wear to travel) and one pair of sandals. Here’s hoping that carries me through.

Converse Turquoise All Star Ox Glitter Trainers

I can’t resist a bit of shiny/sparkliness–I nabbed these shoes the moment I saw them. I also have a pair that’s silver, but they’re more worn so these are coming with me.

Spring Grasshoppers Chambray Velcro Sandals - light blue fabric

These are so comfy, and I’m sad Grasshoppers doesn’t make this kind of sandal anymore.

His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

His Majesty's Dragon: A Novel of Temeraire by Naomi Novik - a black dragon wrapped around a picture of a naval sailing ship hangs in front of a red and black background

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 39 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

The Deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of the battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain’s face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.

That’s the first paragraph of His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. In the midst of reading lots of current books for awards season, I decided I needed two things: a break and dragons. I enjoyed Novik’s novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, and I’d heard good things about her Temeraire series.

Those good things proved true.

The briefest description of this book could be “Napoleonic war with dragons” because that’s exactly what it is. It’s an alternate history in which dragons exist on Earth and have been bred and used in warfare for hundreds of years. I generally don’t care for alternate history, but I really really like dragons, so I decided to give this a shot. I’m glad I did because I quite like these dragons. There are many breeds of differing size and capabilities. Some breathe fire, others acid, and all of them are deadly in the art of aerial warfare.

The dragon at the centre of this book is named Temeraire, and he enters the story shortly after the battle described in the first paragraph. The British captain, Laurence, discovers the French frigate he captured was carrying a large dragon egg. That egg is now England’s. But there’s a big complication: it will hatch weeks before they can get back to land. This presents a problem, as the Aerial Corps is a very different branch of the armed forces. Dragon aviators are trained from youth; they’re a group apart, and as such, they’re looked down upon by pretty much everyone else (not only the military, but society at large). The officers must draw lots to see who will attempt to harness the dragonet. In the event, the dragon bonds with Laurence, which means he must leave the navy and everything and everyone he knows to train for a totally new type of military profession.

I enjoy a good fish-out-of-water story (and I’m not talking about Temeraire fishing for his supper until they can reach dry land). Laurence is an officer and a gentleman and his struggle to acclimate to the much-more-relaxed and informal and wrinkled world of the Aerial Corps makes for an entertaining and engrossing read. This is easily the part of the book I liked best (besides the dragons themselves, of course).

I appreciate the thought Novik gave to just how dragons would be integrated (or not integrated) into society and warfare—though it’s the society angle that gripped me most. It reminded me a lot of Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series in that the dragons and their crews provide a valuable service, but most of society looks askance at them. Also, dragons are able to speak immediately and bond with their riders upon hatching, though it’s not the same type of deep, telepathic bond as in McCaffery’s books—these dragons can (and do) take new riders when required. Another similarity: a certain type of dragon only bonds with women, which is a nifty way of working in some modern gender politics. Well-respected and easily-accepted female captains are just as awesome as the dragons are and, compared to the contemporary society, feel just about as fictional.

Speaking of contemporary society, the language in this book feels like a throw-back to that time. It is very formal and occasionally florid. I’m impressed by Novik’s ability to write in this voice while still keeping it accessible to a modern reader like me (someone who doesn’t always go in for period-style writing). Though I will admit the stiff formality of the language and phrasing did slow me down a little bit. It was a minor, added layer of difficulty that I mostly didn’t mind overcoming in order to get through the story.

The bigger obstacle for me was the fact that in the end, this is a war novel. I enjoyed the beginning of the book much more than the latter bits. I liked watching Laurence learn the ropes and deepen his friendship with Temeraire, but eventually they’ve been trained, and it’s time to go into battle. Even in visual media, battle sequences bore me, so while the battles were well-conceived and well-written, I found myself drifting as I read them. I’m not certain I’ll continue on with Throne of Jade (the next book in the series), because I suspect the subsequent books may be even more war-novelly than His Majesty’s Dragon. That said, I am glad I picked up this one and made the acquaintance of these lovely dragons.

Terminal Alliance by Jim C. Hines

Terminal Alliance (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse Book 1) by Jim C. Hines -- a woman in a space suit stands on a platform in space with a space-suited man and a shaggy worm-like alien. The woman holds a mop and a spray bottle. The man holds two spray bottles. Explosions appear in the background over a distant planet.

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 35 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

“Marion Adamopoulos.”

That’s the first sentence of Terminal Alliance (Book One of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse) by Jim C. Hines. I love apocalyptic books. Whether it’s a book about how the apocalypse happened or a post-apocalyptic book in which the characters learn hints about how and why the apocalypse happened in the first place—that’s always been a corner of genre reading that drew me like a moth to a radioactive flame.

Lately, however, with the world feeling like a trashfire that’s not terribly far from any one of several possible apocalypses, I’ve sorta cooled off on reading apocalyptic fiction. I still like the concept, but it makes me sad and scared enough that I just can’t quite do it these days.

Or so I thought.

Enter Terminal Alliance. The only reason I was willing to try a book with “Apocalypse” in the subtitle was because it was written by Jim C. Hines. His Magic Ex Libris series was one of the most entertaining things I’ve read in the last decade so I figured if anyone could make an apocalypse feel humourous and acceptable to me, it would be him.

Folks, I was correct.

I don’t want to scare you away if you’re not a fan of humourous sci-fi, because that’s usually a sub-genre I avoid. Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett were geniuses at what they did, it just wasn’t for me. Hines’ style walks the line between funny and heartfelt and exciting and quippy so deftly it’s like he wrote this book just for me. If you do happen to be a fan of comedic sci-fi, this will probably work for you. It’s certainly well worth trying.

So back to the first line of the book: “Marion Adamopoulos.” This is not just the first line of the book, but our point-of-view character. She’s the commander of the Shipboard Hygiene and Sanitation team on the EMCS Pufferfish, a spaceship that carries Earth Mercenary Corps soldiers to and fro as they help keep peace in the Krakau Alliance.

The Krakau are the race that figured out how to “cure” humanity. Oh yes, there was an apocalypse. It resulted in all humans turning “feral”—becoming mindless creatures that roam Earth trying to kill and eat most anything they come across. Civilization and human thought were a thing of the past until the Krakau started “waking” humans up with their cure.

Recently woken humans choose their own names from a list of historical figures. The original Marion Adamopoulos was the woman who accidentally created the virus that destroyed humanity. Huh.

“Our” Marion Adamopoulos is in charge of a small crew of sanitation experts who are the only humans on their ship to keep their higher brain functions when a bioweapon turns the rest of the ship feral and results in the death of almost all the alien crew members.

Marion and her rag-tag group of cleaners have to figure out how to survive their fellow humans; figure out what happened to them, who did it, and why; and also figure out how to control a space ship none of them are trained to pilot.

This requires some delightful galactic intrigue and politics, a diverse array of differing alien species with individual characteristics and motivations, and some closely guarded conspiracies. There are also great scenes in which the team get into tight spots and get out by using their knowledge of cleaning agents, plumbing, and proper ventilation. This isn’t a story where the cleaning crew suddenly learns how to be heroes in any conventional way. They still aren’t pilots. They still aren’t really fighters. They’re janitors, and they use those skills to get the job done.

Maybe my favourite thing about this book (and that’s saying something!) is that never once is the janitorial profession treated as a joke. There are some characters who certainly look down on it, but the book makes it clear there’s nothing embarrassing about performing a crucial job and doing it damn well. Marion is rightly proud of her skills, her team, and the service they provide.

Terminal Alliance is full of details that build out the world and also make me smile, like the aforementioned tradition that “awakened” humans read their planet’s history and choose their own name from those of historical figures:

For example, we have rough-and-tumble Wolfgang Mozart. She’ll threaten to eat your face as soon as look at you.

Or disabled veteran Marilyn Monroe. He lost an arm and much of the rest of his body as an infantry soldier. Prosthetics help him get around, but his balance will never be what it used to. This is another detail I love: Monroe’s disability is a fundamental part of his character, but it’s never treated as if he’s at the centre of “A Very Special Episode”. There’s no inspiration porn here. He’s simply a human being who requires assistive devices to get his job done. Enuff said.

The various alien species are well-realized too. This isn’t a universe full of bipedal creatures. Humans are seemingly rare in that respect, and a lot of thought went into what each species would need to survive on a spaceship or space station, given their respective physiological needs.

As is clear from the title and subtitle, this is book one of a series. Terminal Uprising, the sequel, is a fantastic follow-up that answers some questions and takes the characters somewhere they’d’ve never dreamed of going.

If, like me, you’re in need of something that’s rather lighthearted, with a decent amount of laughs and snark, but that also pulls in post-apocalyptic and space-opera sci-fi themes, look no further than Terminal Alliance (Book One of the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse) by Jim C. Hines.

Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough

Kelly McCullough - Spirits, Spells, and Snark - two young boys crouch with a firey hare and a wolf as they're menaced by crossbows. Behind them, a city skyline appears between two great gouts of fire that look almost like wings

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 34 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

“Are you sure this thing is magical?” Dave slowly turned the Crown of the North under the bright basement lights. The seven diamonds adorning the simple silver circlet barely flickered. “It doesn’t look it.”

That’s the first paragraph of Spirits, Spells, and Snark by Kelly McCullough. Last week I wrote about Magic, Madness, and Mischief, and how much I loved that book. I feel like I can keep this post short because Spirits, Spells, and Snark, the sequel, does everything the first book did, but continues to deepen and develop the characters and relationships, while widening the breadth of what we learn about magic and how it works.

We even get a few new characters with solid page time. The three that stood out to me were all women or girls—well, mostly—one of them is also *something else*, but I won’t spoil that. (It was a little thing I loved that provided some nice perspective on what it’s like to be a high school girl.)

Before I go on, I’d like to share something the author tweeted a while back.

I heartily endorse this sentiment. My struggle as a child was more with my own mental health than with that of my parents, but I still think these books would’ve provided me with comfort, support, and an acknowledgement of craptastic brain chemistry that I didn’t come to until much later in life.

As I said last week, these books take mental illness seriously and they treat it in a way that manages to be sensitive with a healthy dollop of pathos—while also treating it as something that can be dealt with and lived with and managed if you are careful and thoughtful and get the right help. Crucially, mental illness is not something you can just “magic away”. I felt like Spirits, Spells, and Snark tackled this even more directly than the first book did (due, in part, to the way the plot progresses from the first and into the second book), and this was all to the good.

I have so many more things that I love about this book—how best-friend-Dave deals with the world of magic, how Sparks the fire-hare-familiar deals with being bound to a tween boy, and how that tween boy, Kalvan, learns to navigate both the world of magic and the “real one”. But suffice it to say, if you read the first book and liked it, you’ll definitely want to continue with Spirits, Spells, and Snark.

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough

Magic, Madness, and Mischief by Kelly McCullough - a brunette, light-skinned boy holds a hare that's on fire and runs away from a cityscape between a wave of water with a castle and a woman in it and a great gout of flame

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 30 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Fire ran through all my dreams and I ran after it, the blackened ground crackling beneath my feet.

That’s the first sentence of Magic, Madness, and Mischief, by Kelly McCullough. Before I get into the book, let’s do the obligatory full disclosure: I had the pleasure of meeting Kelly a few years ago at a convention, and he is a truly lovely person with adorable cats and a great twitter feed, and I very much look forward to the next time I see him. However, I suspect all of that has very little to do with how much I enjoyed this middle-grade fantasy.

Wait! Before you tune out at the phrase “middle-grade”, let me assure you this is the kind of middle-grade book that is also appealing to many fantasy-loving adults like myself. I’ve certainly read some middle-grade fiction where the writing was so simplified and the plot was so dumbed-down that I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. This is not that.

On the contrary, I zipped through this book—twice, in fact—without wanting to put it down. The prose is simple enough to be accessible to a young audience, but it’s also snappy enough to hold the interest of an adult like me. And, importantly, the story is easy to follow while still being engrossing and tackling some heavy topics.

The term “madness” is placed in the title very deliberately. The main character, 13-year-old Kalvan Munroe, has to deal with the discovery that he’s a “child of fire” and has budding magical powers. But he also has to deal with a mother who suffers from severe mental illness. This topic is one that is close to my heart, and I feel it is handled sensitively and realistically.

This book does *not* do the thing I hate and chalk mental health issues up to magical interference or some nonsense like that. Mental illness is real, it’s serious, and magic can’t just cure it. And on top of dealing with all that, Kalvan still has to do the usual kid things like show up for school, do homework, take tests, hang out with his best friend Dave, and deal with a stepfather who is taciturn at the best of times and scary at the worst. None of that is easy when you’re trying to learn to control magic flame powers and are never more than 30 feet from a sarcastic, magical fire-hare.

Oh yes, I must mention Sparx, who is now one of my favourite sidekick-companion-familiar-type characters of all time. He is stuck with Kalvan, and Kalvan is stuck with him, and that leads to exactly the kind of delightful antics and banter I hoped for when Kalvan accidentally conjured Sparx. Their relationship deepens throughout the book, and it just gets better and better.

One thing that sets Magic, Madness, and Mischief apart from some of the other middle-grade and young-adult fiction I’ve read is its very distinctive sense of place. It is set in and around a slightly fictionalized version of St. Paul, Minnesota. As a transplanted Midwesterner, I’m always a bit of a sucker for books set in the flyover states, so I’ll admit my bias there. But I haven’t visited the Twin Cities often enough to really know the geography, so it’s not like I was wooed by recognizing a bunch of landmarks—other than the Mississippi River. (I’m familiar with *its* work—or, “her” work, as the case may be.)

McCullough conjures a very grounded setting with enough description to make me feel like I understand what’s happening where, but not so much that I get bored with lengthy explanations. While I’m definitely a fan of fantasy novels set in fantasy realms, there’s a special frisson that comes with magic when it’s overlayed upon a familiar, earthbound environment. And here it’s not a spooky countryside or an intimidating metropolis; it’s a Midwestern city that most people would find pretty ordinary. (Don’t get me wrong, I like St. Paul, but it’s not like it has much of a thrilling reputation far and wide.)

If you’re a regular listener to Recently Read or the book-club episodes of The Incomparable, you may know that I’m a bit of a connoisseur of fictional magic systems. Magic, Madness, and Mischief doesn’t really build out the magic system enough to totally engage that part of my nerd-brain, but I get the feeling this is on purpose. Kalvan is just barely scratching the surface of this new-to-him world of magic, so we as readers are also not fully versed by the end of the book. It’s clear that magic is elemental—fire, earth, water, air—but we don’t get a lot of detail about how each works or how they interact. That said, there are plenty of hints that McCullough knows exactly how this all fits together and that we’ll eventually learn more just as Kalvan does.

And that brings me to the last bit of full disclosure: the reason I’ve read this book twice is because the sequel is already out, and I wanted to dive back into this magical version of St. Paul to re-live the magic of this book before starting the next. I’ve already burned my way through Spirits, Spells, and Snark (pun intended), and loved every moment of it. Consider that a teaser for next week’s post.