THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, by Alix E. Harrow

It’s not often that I feel compelled to review a book, but then it’s not often I read a book like THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY.

THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY, by Alix E. Harrow, came out in 2019, but I only stumbled upon it recently. It will most likely be my favorite book this year. It falls into one of my favorite genres of sf: portal fantasy. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, you’re almost definitely familiar with the type of story. In a portal fantasy an ordinary person is transported from one world to another via magic, perhaps through a secret door, a piece of furniture (like a wardrobe), or some other magical mechanism. Think the Narnia books, THE WIZARD OF OZ, PETER PAN …

As TEN THOUSAND DOORS opens, young January Scaller lives in a sprawling mansion with her guardian, a wealthy gentleman archaeologist.  January is sort of an orphan, and spends her days largely by herself, exploring the mansion’s collection of mysterious artifacts.  All that changes when January discovers a strange book that tells a story filled with secret doors, adventure, other worlds, long-lost lovers … and as she reads on, she begins to her connection to the story is very personal.  Adventure ensues.

I am a sucker for a book that features a book-in-a-book as a narrative device, and it’s expertly done here.  I won’t talk about that aspect any further, so as to not spoil it, but it’s a lot of fun.  Harrow’s writing is vivid and full of wit, and the story just completely reeled me in.  January goes on a Hero’s Journey, as one would expect from this type of book, but it’s done in a way that’s organic to the story.  She doesn’t just level up at the end of each chapter.  It’s earned, and certainly not easy.

Most of the main characters are BIPOC, and as the story is set in the early 20th century, Harrow doesn’t shy away from dealing with how, uh, challenging not being white in that era would be.  It never feels heavy-handed or clunky, though.  The characters’ non-whiteness doesn’t define who they are; it just makes them more richly drawn.

If I were to describe how reading TEN THOUSAND WORLDS made me feel, I would compare it to MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE and THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE. That’s not to say that the plot bears any resemblance to those books; they don’t, other than – and this is just now occurring to me – they too feature stories as a plot device. No, what I’m saying is that when I finished each of them, I sat back, happy, knowing I’d just read a hell of a book.

What if: COVID, But 20 Years Ago

I know everyone is tired of talking about the COVID life — god knows I am — but I thought this bit from Ian Leslie’s excellent newsletter, The Ruffian, offered a really interesting perspective. As bad as COVID has been, if it had struck twenty years ago, things would have been much, much worse.

Imagine if this virus had emerged two decades ago – perfectly plausible, and nothing in historical terms. Scientists would have not have had the wherewithal to crack the code of the virus or to share it globally and instantaneously. Office workers, in firms and in governments, would not have been able to meet over video, businesses would have not been able to reinvent themselves. Friends and family would have even less connection with the outside world than before. Food and other essential goods and indeed non-essential goods would have not have remained accessible to nearly so many people. Neighbours wouldn’t have been able to look after each other as easily. Governments, health services and businesses wouldn’t have been able to gather data or share information nearly so efficiently. A huge part of the reason we were able to adapt as we have is down to technologies that didn’t exist or were not in widespread use twenty or even ten years ago. It’s enough to make you believe in progress.

Double Poked

I am presently down, but not out, with a migraine that I’ve had most of the day, and that vicodin seems incapable of killing. It’s also made me super nauseated, though that’s largely abated. Right now I’m sprawled on the couch upstairs, in the dark, staring at my almost fully dimmed phone, which is about the limit of what my brain is able to handle. It sucks, but I take some solace in the fact that I rarely get these types of headaches anymore.

Anyhoo. Really just chiming in to say that, as of yesterday, it’s been two weeks since I got the second poke, and that means I am officially fully vaccinated. I know at this point that many people have similarly leveled-up, but I am so incredibly excited to begin the new new normal of post-COVID life, that I just couldn’t help but be a vaxhole about it.

Fun fact: Did you know that historically the correct technical word for feeling queasy wasn’t nauseous, but nauseated? Up until the middle of the 19th century, nauseous meant “to cause nausea” and nauseated meant “to feel nausea.” For example:

The nauseous smell of the rancid garbage made me feel nauseated, and thus I barfed.

Then, in the late 1800s/early 1900s, usage of nauseous to mean “experiencing nausea” became increasingly common (which caused somewhat of a fierce debate within etymological circles as some wordsmiths felt this conflation rendered the meaning of nauseous ambiguous). Now such usage has been largely accepted, except for some pedants, because, well, pedants gonna pedant. Merriam-Webster has an interesting page talking all of this in more detail, if that’s your thing.

Okay, staring at my screen to write this is making me nauseated again, so time to sign off.

Molly

I’ve tried to write this a couple of times now, but couldn’t get the words out right. So here goes.

This past weekend we said goodbye to Molly.

Molly — AKA Miss Molly, Mo, One Bow Mo, Mo Money Mo Problems — was many things: adorable, demanding, curious, occasionally aggravating, and, above all, darling. She was the sweetest, most loving and loveable pup a person could hope for. We miss her dearly, but take some comfort in knowing she’s no longer in pain.

Love you forever, Mo.

The Continuing Misadventures of Molly

Last night we drove down to the MedVet in Cincinnati to visit Molly, who has been a patient there since last Wednesday.  She is being treated for partial paralysis and severe pain in her back legs.  Because nothing about Molly could ever be characterized as “easy,” it took multiple tests and days to figure out what was wrong with her.  The diagnosis ended up being intervertebral disc disease (IVDD), which Molly has a history of, and which is common in dachshunds because of their long spines and short legs. 

They took us back to the ICU to see Molly.  I was honestly expecting the worst. Jess opened the door to her crate and Molly practically threw herself into Jess’s arms, she was so happy to see her.  This was a big and extremely welcome change from when we visited her Thursday and Sunday.  Then, she was lethargic and down, and just not herself.  Not the case this time.

I took over holding Molly, and after a few minutes she dozed off in my arms, and soon was snoring.  Eventually the staff came by to take Molly away for surgery, and Jess and I went outside to wait in the car.

While Molly was in surgery, we grabbed dinner from the KFC across the street.  Around 9pm, the surgeon called to tell us the procedure was a success and Molly was waking up and recovering well.  And just like that, for the first time in a week, I felt like I could breathe again.

Molly will come home with us tomorrow or Friday, once she’s a bit stronger.

Anyone who has known me for a while knows that I am not historically a “dog person.”  I may still not be a dog person, but I am most definitely this adorable, aggravating little lady’s person (and her brothers’ person, too [even Kirby]).

Boob Tube Habits

A thing I’ve noticed recently is how my relationship with TV has changed over the last year. I used to reliably be a two to three episodes of TV a day person. These are the 40-50 minute long episodes that most drama shows typically are, so call it roughly 1.5-2 hours of TV watching a night. Occasionally I’d watch four episodes on a Saturday or Sunday if I were really into a particular show. Never what one might think of as a binger.

Now I go days without turning on the TV. Sometimes weeks. And I don’t really miss it.

This isn’t meant to be some kind of humblebrag. I’m not turning into one of those people who sniffs in distaste as those who watch “the boob tube.” I still think watching a couple of episodes of TV a day is perfectly fine. I just don’t do it anymore.

On the flip side of this, when I do watch TV, I will now sometimes partake in the binge watching. Case in point: yesterday, when I watched seven episodes of the new season of COBRA KAI, and then five episodes of BRIDGERTON. According to Netflix, that means I watched 536 minutes of my stories, or almost nine hours. And you know what? It felt delightfully decadent.

There are a few factors, I think, influencing this behavioral change. One is that Jess has been working longer hours the last couple of months. Since she is my usual TV watching partner in crime, this means we generally watch less TV together. Another major factor is that the pandemic, lockdown, etc. did a number on my attention span, and one of the casualties of this has been my ability to watch TV on my own. My brain just won’t relax and consume the way it used to. I don’t know how many times this last year I’ve turned on an episode of something and just… lose interest, and shut it off. Part of this, I suspect, is due to depression, a third shiny and new factor I am learning to deal with. The fourth factor is more intentional on my part: I am trying to be more diligent about writing on a regular basis. It’s hard to do that if my routine after work is workout, eat dinner, and watch TV.

Less TV consumption on a daily basis has resulted in two outcomes that I am pretty happy about: more writing, as noted above, and more time spent reading. I read nearly twice as many books in 2020 as I did in 2019. It’s probably the most I’ve read since I was a much younger lad. Although, to be fair, a practically non-existent social calendar has also helped. For whatever reason, my inability to focus on TV has not transferred to reading, a fact I am profoundly grateful for.

It’ll be interesting to see if/how my TV watching evolve in 2021. I’m curious: how have your habits been altered by the events of 2020?

2021 or: 2020 Part Deux

I’m writing this on New Year’s Eve, but likely won’t finish and post it until tomorrow, the first day of 2021. We have roast beef tenderloin in the oven and I’m sipping on a Diet Mountain Dew in the hopes it will help me stay awake til midnight. In a few hours I’ll be playing virtual games with friends, and talking and laughing.

This is normally the part of the year-in-review post where I’d talk about just how much of a dumpster fire of a year 2020 was, but I’m not going to do that. I’m tired. I’m tired of worrying about my loved ones, and hoping they manage to stay safe and healthy until we reach the other side of the pandemic. I’m tired of not being able to see those loved ones in the ways that past me was able to, and which I am now deeply envious of. I’m tired of thinking and talking about COVID, pandemics, quarantine. I’m just tired.

So: instead of bemoaning and belaboring on about how terrible and hard 2020 was, I am going to focus on the good things that happened to me in 2020.

  • I wrote more words of fiction this year than I did last year (13,000 versus 9,000); I completed two short stories with a third that should be done by the time I go back to work next week; and — most excitingly — I sold my first short story, to be published in 2021 by SLATE. I’ll talk more about that whole awesome deal in a future post, but getting this news when I did was a really well-timed boost of serotonin.
  • I found a medication that has finally helped me wrassle my ulcerative colitis under control after seven or eight years of general unpleasantness.
  • I read 45 books this year, not including graphic novels and random short stories. This is the most I’ve read in a number of years. Shout out to not being able to leave the house due to quarantine and watching less TV for helping to make this happen. Favorite books were probably AGENCY by William Gibson and AFTERLAND by Lauren Beukes. My god, these two can write.
  • Last but certainly not least: I am extremely grateful to have a job that I like, that pays me well, and has allowed me to work from home since the beginning of quarantine. I have the best colleagues and I’ve not had to worry about employment this year. This has made 2020 so much easier that it could have been, and I recognize how privileged I am to have it.

So that is the year that was, for me. I titled this post “2020 Part Deux!” which was sort of a joke, but also wasn’t. I don’t think the first half of 2021 is going to look much different from 2020, and won’t until most of the country is able to get the vaccine. The good news is we have a competent president who believes in science and listens to experts taking office in 19 days. This makes me cautiously optimistic that with an actual national COVID strategy at the federal level, we might be able to resume something akin to “normal” in the second half of the year. Time will tell.

I hope 2021 treats you and yours kindly, or at least kindlier than 2020 did. Show up and support those around you where you’re able to, but make sure to take care of yourself first. Happy New Year.

Here’s to Us

So, a thing happened to Jess and me on Christmas day:

Engage!

If you can’t tell, the ring is a dachshund chasing it’s tail. And yes, it is an engagement ring. I went with it because a) I didn’t know Jess’s ring size and it’s challenging to creatively figure that out during a pandemic, and b) it’s adorable. We’ll get a more legit ring at some point, but for now: cute dachshund placeholder ring.

Ending 2020 with a fiancée is a pretty stellar way to close out the year. I am very happy, and can’t wait to see what the future holds for me and this marvelous, beautiful lady.

Recently Watched Movies: Christmas Edition

The holiday season, beginning with Thanksgiving and through the end of the year, is one of my favorite times of the year. Generally festive, lots of time off work, and the only time of the year I don’t mind the snow and cold weather. This year, because of The Fucking ‘Rona, the season feels a little different: a bit bleaker, a little less fun. (It’s fine; I’ll survive.) To counter that, we are going all-in on watching some of the more recent Christmas-themed movies that are streaming. Because by god I will steal the Christmas Cheer from these films or die trying. Below are my thoughts on a few of the ones we’ve watched so far. I’m not going to much talk about plots, because really ‒ what more do you need to know other than it’s a Christmas-themed rom-com?

HOLIDATE (Netflix) ‒ This movie was surprisingly raunchy, much more so than I would have expected from a Netflix Christmas movie. The raunch actually works, too, which is even better. There are a couple of awkwardly cheesy scenes, but nothing too embarrassing, and usually done with a clever bent to them (at least the one I can remember offhand). Highlights include a fun Antony and Cleopatra visual pun and a realistic depiction of why mixing alcohol and fireworks is the best decision ever. Also, the male lead looks and sounds like he’s auditioning to play a Hemsworth brother.

HAPPIEST SEASON (Hulu) ‒ Holy hell, did this film have a great cast ‒ Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Dan Levy, and Victor Garber (who played Sydney’s dad on ALIAS, and who my friend Bill refers to as “angry old Josh Bales”). This one was little more dramedy than comedy, but it worked for me. Kristen Stewart is fantastic, and Aubrey Plaza, who has more of a minor role, is eminently watchable, as she is in pretty much everything. I have one gripe, but it is spoiler-y in nature, so I’ll leave it in the comments.

Fun fact: HAPPIEST SEASON was written and directed by Clea DuVall, who played the homicidal invisible girl in one of the very early episodes of BUFFY.

DASH & LILY (Netflix) ‒ Technically a tv show, but it’s only eight 22-ish minute episodes, so it very much plays like a long movie. We were initially going to watch something probably much worse, when the blurb for this one ‒ specifically it being set in a bookstore ‒ caught Jess’s eye. We’re six episodes in so far and it’s been a lot of fun. The actors who play Dash and Lily are charming and, important for a story like this, have good chemistry. The story and pacing move just quickly enough, and, mercifully, the writing isn’t full of too many clichés. If this one doesn’t have a reasonably happy ending, I will surely yell.

What are some of the Christmas movies you’ve watched this year?

Gratitude

Thanksgiving looked a little different for me this year, like it did for so many people.  With the COVID numbers in Ohio completely losing their shit the last couple of weeks, we didn’t think we had a choice.  We went over to my folks’ house for dinner, which is normal, though we took our meal outside in the fresh air so as to stave off The Virus.  The temperature was in the 50s and sky was clear and there was only a slight wind, and it was actually quite pleasant.  Afterwards, we visited in the garage for a while, distanced, wearing our N95s. It wasn’t ideal, but it was fun, and I’m grateful that we were able to see everyone while still minimizing risk.  Hopefully the holidays next year will be something approaching normal.

Last night we watched the Taylor Swift FOLKLORE concert thing on Disney+ and hung out with some dogs, who were not at all demanding of our attention.

EXTREEEEEME CLOSE-UP

I hope you all also had a lovely-if-unusual-but-safe Thanksgiving.  Now it’s time to have pie for breakfast and watch new episode of THE MANDALORIAN.