Books and Tea

Books. Tea. Cats. Scribbling.

A promotional image for Augur Magazine, showing a young person with bird wings walking on water.

Augur Magazine Kickstarter, Years 3-4

A promotional image for Augur Magazine, showing a young person with bird wings walking on water.
A promotional still for Augur Magazine’s Kickstarter campaign for years 3 and 4.

If you’ve paid attention to the Hugo and Nebula awards in the past, you’ve probably noticed people talking about whether a science fiction magazine is a “pro-paying” market. If you stay in the spec-fic community long enough, you learn that this refers to whether a magazine pays what are considered “pro rates” by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

And what’s that all-important pro rate? Eight cents per word.

You want to know something else? Until December 2019 — only 2 months ago! — not a single Canadian literary magazine qualified as a SFWA pro-paying market. Sure, there are plenty of Can-Lit mags, but none of them both paid that market rate and focused on spec-fic.

Until Augur Magazine showed up.

Augur started a few years ago with a mandate to publish spec-fic, slipstream, and magical realist fiction by Canadian and indigenous authors, as well as poetry and art. It’s done that in spades over 6 issues. What’s more, it’s steadily increased its rates – starting from 2 cents a word to reaching that all-important SFWA pro-rate threshold last year.

It did this with the help and support of awesome spec-fic readers who like dreamy, hard-to-categorize fiction. And that’s where YOU come in. Because Augur just launched its newest Kickstarter campaign to fund 2 more years’ worth of magazines, and it needs your help to reach its goal of going beyond the SFWA pro rates and paying 11 cents per word.

It’s already halfway there only 3 days in, which is amazing, and proof that its founder and managing editors clearly have their fingers on the pulse of Canadian spec-fic. So why not take a look and support a group of people who are pretty cool? The closer we all get to meeting their fundraising target, the closer we get to their stretch goals, which sound pretty sweet:

  • Publishing more poetry every year
  • Paying more to graphic artist contributors
  • Creating a print edition of the first 2 years of the magazine
  • Publishing reprints

I’m going to support their Kickstarter now that I have the chance. So I just wanted to signal-boost for a worthy cause. The Augur Magazine Kickstarter ends at the end of February, so let’s make the most of it while we can.

My tea collection in January 2020.

State of the Tea Cabinet (and My Life) 2020

What the Hell Happened in 2019?

Hey, happy 2020! Things have been pretty quiet around here. I had plans for reading and writing and blogging in 2019, but they fell off a cliff. For a good reason, though! In fact, for possibly one of the most exciting reasons imaginable — Mr. BooksandTea and I bought our first home last year, after living with my mother for the past decade and slowly saving money for a down payment!

Our New Home

We closed on a condo in the GTA in June, and have been living there for the past 6 months. It turns out moving was a big cognitive drain on me; while I was reading books in 2019, I read fewer than I planned to and just couldn’t muster the energy to write about them. On top of that, my day job was truly hectic last year, especially when we were moving. Hell, unpacking stuff in our new place and washing old dishes was actually how I relaxed over the summer. Moving stuff around meant I could turn my brain off!

On the plus side, the cats we adopted in 2018, Ash and Sabrina, like our new digs very much:

Ash and Sabrina, lazily enjoying the sunshine on the couch. It’s their couch, we just sit on it.

Books I Read in 2019, and Blogging Plans

My goal was to read 40 books in 2019. I ended up reading 33. My most significant reading project was finishing the entire The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham. I’m pretty proud of this, as I normally take a much longer time to plow through a series of books – finishing one in a span of less than 5 months is quite the feat. (Dear Vorkosigan Saga, I haven’t forgotten about you, don’t worry!)

Plus, the Dagger and Coin books are thick. I even read the final 2 books back-to-back. That’s a testament to how fluid they are, I guess. I respect Abraham’s work ethic in putting out huge tomes like these like clockwork every year, and also his decision to not insert any hint of sexual violence towards his female point-of-view characters. GRRM could learn a lot from him, I think!

I also read The Outskirter’s Secret and The Lost Steersman by Rosemary Kirstein, both of which are sequels to The Steerswoman. I hope to read The Language of Power later this year, at which point I will have caught up on the series. Kirstein has indicated that the fifth volume should be out later this year, and that she’s also made significant progress on book 6. I look forward to reading both whenever they come out, as they will be worth the wait.

I don’t know if I’ll go for longer-form book reviews this year like the ones I wrote in years past. One author whose blogging style I really like is Carrie Vaughn; she writes lots of posts, but they’re short and somewhat impressionistic. I’m hoping to adopt a similar posting schedule to hers —frequent updates, short but in-depth thoughts about what I’m reading/watching, and occasional digressions into non-book aspects of life.

Tea Shelf Shenanigans

Things are significantly more under control in my tea cabinet now than they were 2 years ago. My lucky break was that, soon after my last tea post, my workplace moved into a brand-new open-space office. I restocked the empty kitchen cabinets with teas that I no longer wanted. I also gave teas I no longer wanted to friends, and tossed a few that I didn’t think were worth keeping around any longer.

Tea I Currently Have

So what’s the damage? Right now, my tea cabinet looks like this:

Top shelf: Pots, cups, pitchers, and other accessories. Second shelf: Green and white tea. Third shelf: Black, herbal, and rooibos tea. Bottom shelf: Gaiwans, pu’erh, and thermoses.

Total number of teas in my cabinet: 68 (This is down from 166 teas in 2018 and 156 in 2016)

Total weight of all teas: 2297.3 grams (and 129 individual bags). That’s just over 5 pounds — still a staggering amount, but I had more than twice as much in 2018!

Here’s a more detailed breakdown:

Tea TypeNo. of VarietiesWeight in Grams
Herbal11340.2 (plus 45 bags)
Green — Unflavoured6358.3
Green — Flavoured10588
Black — Unflavoured372.4
Black — Flavoured561.9
Yerba Mate175

How My Tea Habits Have Changed

The big difference between my tea cabinet now versus how it was in 2018 or 2016 is that I’ve cut down on black tea. I’ve also cut out oolongs altogether. As good as they taste, I don’t want to risk my digestive health, since both of those types can be triggers for my IBS.

In other words, I’ve gone back to my basic-ass-bitch ways from when I first started on my tea journey, and am sticking mostly with fruity greens. They’re tasty, abundant, and don’t mess my stomach up.

My goal in 2020 is to cut my collection down to 50 teas total, either through finishing off what I’ve got or giving it away to others. In particular, I need to get more diligent about drinking down my pu’erh: I bought a huuuuuge amount of it back in late 2015, and I’ve been slowly picking away at it ever since.

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The cover of "The Winged Histories", showing a dark-skinned woman riding a large bird.Title: The Winged Histories
Author: Sofia Samatar
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 5 out of 5 total
How I got this book: eBook purchased from Weightless Books

What does history mean? Whose stories get written down and treated as the truth? Most importantly, how do we know what the truth actually is? Is a usurper to the throne doing so out of a desire for power, or to topple a corrupt regime? And what if the reason for waging a war is neither of those things?

Questions about power and the purpose of stories were central to Sofia Samatar’s debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, which won the World Fantasy Award. I read it way back in 2014 and swooned over it. Almost everything about Olondria displayed deliberation and care — the prose, the worldbuilding, the themes, and the characterization.

I was expecting something similar in The Winged Histories, Samatar’s follow-up novel set in the same world. It shares certain elements with its predecessor, like its gorgeous, crystalline prose, as well as its focus on the power of narrative as a political force. However, it blindsided me with this particular truth: The Winged Histories is not a story about war and the crumbling of empire — it’s a story about love. And this truth is fully revealed only during the precisely-calibrated pages of the final few chapters.

But let me back up. Enough with this talk of love and empire and truth. What this book actually about?

The Winged Histories is split into four sections, each with a different first-person narrator telling the reader their perspective on the collapse of the Olondrian empire due to war, colonial expansion, and religious upheaval.

Tavis is a soldier, the niece of the current king of Olondria, and the granddaughter of a traitor. Hoping to restore independence to her ancestral homeland of Kestenya and atone for her grandfather’s sins, she and her cousin Andasya, the heir to the throne, instigate a war for Kestenya’s independence. In her attempts to do so, she travels to Kestenya to spend time with the nomadic herders there, and falls in love with Seren, a gifted singer.

Tialon is the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, and now the high priestess after her father Ivrom’s death. Ivrom was an ambitious man who managed to make great strides in supplanting Olondria’s ancient fertility-based religion with a new, austere one heavily influenced by his own thinking. His growing power over the king spurred Prince Andasya to free Kestenya from his influence and to usurp the throne. Tialon is held captive in the palace during the aftermath of Andasya’s successful coup, and reckons with how her father forced her to live a small, caged, miserable life.

Seren is a poet and nomad who reflects on the role her lover, Tavis, played in Kestenya’s war for independence. She thinks about the ironies of gendered roles within Kestenyi culture. Women like her are singers, but their songs focus on the vendettas and deaths of Kestenyi men.

Finally, there is Siski. Initially introduced as Tavis’s docile sister who pretends to be a social butterfly at court, she uses a veneer of innocence and superficiality to conceal the truth: Andasya didn’t wage war and overthrow his father to gain power or restore a faltering religion. He did it for reasons that are best left to the reader to discover.

When Siski learns the terrible secret that Andasya carries, she runs from him in fear, oblivious that doing so makes the rest of her family — and onlookers like the Priest of the Stone — assume an entirely different (and more salacious) reason for her actions. And this wrong interpretation is one that the reader is encouraged to believe until nearly the end of the book, until Siski’s perspective shows the secret history the rest of the world doesn’t see.

This lesson about mistaken assumptions is one that is core to the ethos of The Winged Histories. Like its predecessor, this book is tricky and evaded my expectations. In Olondria, I was expecting fantasy battles and political intrigue, but instead got a moving story about the power of words and what it means to create a legacy. In Histories, I was expecting similar deconstruction of the value of literature, but instead I got a series of tightly-controlled memoirs where war happens just beyond the scope of the text.  At the heart of it all, I found an achingly beautiful and sad story about young lovers and the slow, tortured crumbling of an ambitious family.

Samatar’s prose is spare and elegant, and one that rewards reading between the lines. It often forsakes being prose entirely and instead turns to poetry, such as when Seren sings the songs of her homeland. At other times, the reader is exposed to excerpts from historical works written about Olondria, or to letters written by secondary characters.

The ultimate effect is that the reader knows more about the fall of Olondria, and about how Andasya’s actions ruin his family, than the family members do themselves. And thus, the reader is in on the most important secrets of this world in a way that the characters aren’t.

Aurora Awards 2019 Eligibility Post

Nominations are now open for this year’s Aurora Awards, and this is a quick post to let readers know that Books and Tea is eligible for the Best Fan Writing and Publication category.

In 2018, I ran a short series of interviews with Canadian spec-fic authors about their recently published works — many of which were debuts. For Aurora voters who are new to the site, here’s a rundown of relevant posts I published in 2018, in chronological order:

I hope you like what you read and that you’ll consider nominating Books and Tea for Best Fan Writing.

The nomination period for the Aurora Awards closes May 18. Canadian citizens and permanent residents can submit eligible works, submit nominations, and vote for the Auroras by purchasing a membership with the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association. Visit the CSFFA site to learn more about becoming a member.

I’m Still Squeeing over “Into the Spider-Verse”

A promotional image from "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse" featuring Miles Morales, Gwen Stacey, and Peter Porker, all in costume.

I saw Into the Spider-Verse a full 2 months ago and I’m still thinking about it. I’ve squeed about it to friends, and have gone into long intellectual tangents about it. I’ve downloaded the soundtrack off of Spotify (and am listening to it while finishing off this post). I’ve been rooting for it hard ever since I found out it was nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Film.

And it won last night. And I’m over the moon about it! Having seen 2 of the other nominees for the category, the difference is stark — neither of the 2 Disney movies approached Spider-Verse in terms of plot, emotional/narrative depth, or visual inventiveness.

It’s that last element — visual inventiveness — that’s been taking up most of my thoughts about what makes Spider-Verse so good, and so unique. And it’s this: Into the Spider-Verse may, like most movies based on comic books, be about supeheroes. But it’s not a superhero movie. It’s a comic book movie, first and foremost. And while that may seem like it’s splitting hairs, I think that’s a really important distinction.

While superhero movies generally use comic books and graphic novels as their source material, their primary goal is to reproduce or adapt the narrative of that source material: origin stories, major conflicts, redemption arcs, etc. These movies often take visual/narrative cues from the source material, like costumes, scenery, and even panel compositions. But their primary goal is to use the original comic books as a springboard for telling a particular story, and their plots may diverge wildly from the official comic book canon. For example, in the original comics, Thanos wants to kill half of all life in the universe not because he swallowed Malthusian theory hook, line, and sinker, but because he has the hots for Hel and figures that killing half of all living beings will finally make her reciprocate his feelings.

In contrast, I think comic book movies do something different: they attempt to replicate the aesthetic experience and potential of comic books themselves. If they can get the narrative right, that’s gravy — but the real goal is to make you feel like you’re watching a living, breathing comic book.

Some movies like this already exist; the ones that pop immediately to mind for me are Dick Tracy, Watchmen, and Sin City. But even so, Spider-Verse manages to crack open the potential of comic books on a screen in a way that few movies have dared.

I mean, look at this scene. LOOK AT IT.

Spider-Verse plays with camera angles and framing in a way that would be hard to accomplish in a live-action movie. It tells multiple origin stories in a way that’s as fresh and entertaining the last time as it is the first. It even uses word bubbles as more than just one-off visual gags — though it has plenty of those too, like the little onomatopoeic “thwips” that show up when Peter and Miles use their web shooters. The Lego Batman movie made a big joke about using onomatopoeia during fight scenes, but Spider-Verse just takes their existence as a matter of course by using them throughout the film, like a chef judiciously seasoning a dish.

Most importantly, it manages to play with several different drawing styles in the same frame in a way that looks cohesive and coherent. You  have the realistic-looking characters of Peter Parker, Miles Morales, and Gwen Stacy sharing the frame with Spiderman Noir (who looks like his drawing was inspired by classic noir films, and he has the gangster-film-era accent and slang to match), Peni Parker (an anime girl who pilots a wee little mech with the help of her  pet psychic spider), and Peter Porker (aka: Spider-Ham, who is basically what would happen if you crossed Spiderman with a Looney Toons character).

The amazing thing is that the screen looks like a cohesive, harmonious whole when all six characters are on-screen together, even as these disparate drawing styles are given equal weight and importance. This cohesiveness is especially noticeable when contrasted with the character design for the Kingpin, who doesn’t look like a man so much as a hulking, circular tower of flesh with black, diamond-hard eyes. Despite Peter Porker literally being a Looney Toons pig, his character design is imbued with more flexibility and humanity than the villain.

Then there’s the climax, where Miles fights the Kingpin in an attempt to close the hole in reality that the Kingpin has opened. It’s part action sequence, part acid-trip fever dream, with swirling, psychedelic colours and jagged angles and lines. Probably the closest film analogue I can think of is the stargate sequence at the end  of 2001 — it’s that trippy.

In the lead-up to its release in December, I was aware of the film, but only because Mr. BooksandTea wanted to see it, and because io9 was hyping it up.

Then I saw it, and I was amazed — where on earth did this thing come from, and how come I was only hearing about it through various people raving on Twitter? Where was the massive media push that this movie deserved?

I’m still kind of shocked that it was such a sleeper hit. But maybe fewer people will be sleeping on it now because of its award win.

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