Voicing the Story: Audible Narrator Khristine Hvam

Khristine Hvam. Image courtesy of the artist.
Khristine Hvam. Image courtesy of the artist.

Audible.com narrator Khristine Hvam first contacted me with a question regarding my novel Updraft. “How do you pronounce Tobiat? What about Kirit?” she wanted to know. Then she asked about singing.

I’d never worked with a narrator before, much less an award-winning one like Khristine. But I did what I could to help, recording (VERY) rough versions of the songs and Laws in the bone city that she could work with.

What resulted is a series of sung Laws and myths that interlace the audiobook for Updraft—something I could never have achieved on my own. (Trust me!) I’m still stunned at the beauty of it.

Khristine’s not only an award-winning audiobook artist, she’s also a mom. GeekMom seemed like the perfect place to ask her questions about her work and life.

  1. How long have you been working with Audible.com? What drew you to them? (Optional: Do you listen to audiobooks or are you a paper-book person?)

My audiobook career with Audible began in 2008. I had heard about them little by little during my fledgling beginnings in the voice over world. To me audiobooks were a mystery. I had absolutely NO IDEA what it would mean to record one. All I knew was that I wanted a full-time career as a voice over actor and audiobooks sounded like just one more feather to add to my cap. I was already doing some animation, video game, and commercial work. As with most industries you really need to know someone, and lucky me I met two! I had been doing some Audio Dialogue Replacement (ADR) work and both directors I was working with had begun directing audiobooks at Audible. Both of them thought I might be good and helped secure me an audition. Things moved pretty fast from there. I soon discovered the art of audiobook voice over is NOTHING like anything I had experienced before. It truly is the marathon of voice work. But so incredibly rewarding, not to mention tons of fun. The folks at Audible were wonderfully welcoming to me and continue to be to this day. I’m proud and blessed to call some of them friends. The rest, as they say, is history.

I did listen to audiobooks prior to becoming a narrator. It was amazing to me how easily I fell into the story, and often found myself sitting idle in my driveway for an hour or so just to finish a chapter. I’m also a huge fan of sitting in my bed at night with a good book and losing myself in the pages. There are myriad ways of getting lost in a story and I’m up for all of them! Continue reading Voicing the Story: Audible Narrator Khristine Hvam

Laura Anne Gilman Geeks Out on Muppets, X-Files & Leverage

Welcome to our weekly Geek Speaks..Fiction series where authors talk about the geekdoms that inspired them.

Our guest today, Laura Anne Gilman is the author of nearly twenty books, including the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy.  Her next book project, SILVER ON THE ROAD, is the first in the Devil’s West series from Saga / Simon & Schuster.

I am a child of fandom. Be it the Muppets or Star Wars (my childhood favorites), or X-Files, (my first “adult” fandoms), I’ve been one of the quiet but dedicated fans, who may not wear my heart as cosplay, but was cheering those cosplayers along.

You will never hear me saying “oh, I don’t watch tv.” I think television has been one of the greatest storytelling devices of our lifetime, up there with the commercial printing press and digitally-adjustable font sizes. Is there crap out there? Absolutely. But theres also genius.

And when I look at my own work, I can see their influence, from the very earliest to the most current productions.

  1. The Muppets. There is nothing about the Muppets that I do not still geek over, from the opening number to the guest stars, to the way their scripts managed to remain true to the ‘reality’ of their lives without ever losing the madcap glee of being a muppet. It was my first real experience with an ensemble cast, seeing how disparate stories interweave and overlap, without ever getting tangled. I learned how to snark from Statler and Waldorf – the fine and surprisingly delicate art of cutting without drawing actual blood – and how to love characters that are utterly self-absorbed from Miss Piggy and Fozzie, each in their own delightful way. Farron, the east wind magician in SILVER ON THE ROAD, inherited those balances, and his interactions with Gabriel carry the same real “on the same team but not friends” vibe that the Muppet Show brought out, every single week.

Continue reading Laura Anne Gilman Geeks Out on Muppets, X-Files & Leverage

This Is SO Good: ‘Parable of the Sower’ In Concert

I’m spending a rainy morning re-reading Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. There’s a lot to do around the house and for work, but I don’t care. My ears are filled with words and song, and I want to revisit Butler’s masterful and wrenching post-apocalyptic vision, thanks to folk musician Toshi Reagon and the team of performers who are helping bring Butler’s work to a new audience.

Photo: Hachette (trade reprint, 2000). Buy the book at Amazon.

Published in 1993, Parable of the Sower was a 1994 Nebula Award nominee. Twenty-two years on, the story doesn’t just resonate and shock. It grabs hold and shakes, yelling “Wake up!”

In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, a young woman with hyperempathy who is the daughter of a visionary preacher, chronicles her journey through a destroyed L.A. and out into the world.

“The first time I read Parable, it was so terrifying,” folksinger Reagon told her audience at a recent concert. “I had to put it down.” Luckily, Reagon picked the book back up again.

Reagon and her mother, Dr. Bernice Johnson (Sweet Honey in the Rock & Freedom Singers co-founder), have written a glorious rock opera and set Parable of the Sower to music. Her musical interpretation of Parable of the Sower premiered at the 2015 Under the Radar festival and is currently making limited appearances as a work-in-progress. Parable of the Sower features outstanding performances by cast members Bertilla Baker, Helga Davis, Karma Mayet Johnson, Tamar-kali, Morley Kamen, Marcelle Davies Lashley, Josette Newsam-Marchak, Carl Hancock Rux, Shayna Small, and Jason C. Walker. The musicians are Robert Burke, Fred Cash, Juliette Jones, and Adam Widoff. (Source: http://toshireagon.com/trwp/projects.)

Program for Parable of the Sower, from The Annenberg Center performance 10/02/15. Image: Fran Wilde
Program for Parable of the Sower, from the Annenberg Center performance on 10/02/15. Image: Fran Wilde

A mix of spirituals, rock, soul-searing solos, and powerful choruses and harmonies, Reagon’s Parable of the Sower is nothing short of transformative. At the Annenberg Center for Performing Arts, where I saw the concert, performers wove the intimacy of the setting and the power of connection through the audience with voice, movement, light and darkness, and eye contact. The music is exquisite. The voices linger long after the theater is quiet.

Reagon said during the performance that Parable of the Sower will be a full opera. Should it, or the work-in-progress concert come to a venue near you? Go.

Concert photo by Fran Wilde.

Geekomancer: You’ll Totally Want This Power

Michael R. Underwood (aka: Mike) has traveled the world, knows why Tybalt cancels out Capo Ferro, and rolls a mean d20. He was raised in no small part at his local hobby game store, and he spent so much time helping out they eventually had to put him on staff.

He is the author the several series: the comedic fantasy Ree Reyes series (Geekomancy, Celebromancy, Attack the Geek, Hexomancy), fantasy superhero novel Shield and Crocus, supernatural thriller The Younger Gods, and the forthcoming Genrenauts, a science fiction series in novellas. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiancée and their ever-growing library. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he plays video games, geeks out on TV, and makes pizzas from scratch. He is a co-host on the Hugo-nominated Skiffy and Fanty Show. Visit him at michaelrunderwood.com and on Twitter.

Last year, Fran had me on GeekMom for a special Cooking The Books/GeekMom crossover, where I talked about Attack the Geek, a novella in the Ree Reyes world. Now I’m very happy to talk about Hexomancy, which follows directly after the events of the novella.

cover courtesy Mike Underwood
cover courtesy Mike Underwood

The Ree Reyes series is about geeking out – Ree, the lead, is a Geekomancer, which means that when she geeks out, she can do extraordinary things – watching a favorite film or TV show lets her emulate the power of its heroes (watch The Matrix and do wire-fu, watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier and get Cap’s strength and speed, as well as a dose of old-timey righteousness), channeling the collective nostalgia for props to bring them to life (while emulating Captain America, she uses a prop shield and it comes to life as an actual vibranium shield), or using collectible cards like spell scrolls – tearing up a Green Lantern card to make a one-shot lantern construct to help her while chasing an enemy. Continue reading Geekomancer: You’ll Totally Want This Power

Geek Speaks… Fiction! With Fran Wilde

Image: Melanie R. Meadors

Hi! It’s so strange to be in the hot seat instead of asking the interview questions… but here I am. Your intrepid GeekMom correspondent is ready to dish on what I geeked out about most when writing my first novel, Updraft, which comes out (::checks watch::) today (!) from Tor/Macmillan.

A little bit about me: I’ve been blogging for GeekMom for almost two years. I’m a book geek, a travel geek, a tech and nautical geek, a technology consultant, and my geek co-star venn diagram merge point is somewhere on the Spike-10th Doctor-Stacker Pentecost-Lucy Liu-Mal Reynolds axis.

I’m first and foremost an author, with short fiction in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Tor.com, and Nature Magazine.

Updraft is the first of three novels I’m writing for Tor. Here’s the short pitch:

A city of living bone rises high above the clouds, its past lost to legend. Danger hides in the wind. Laws have been broken. A great secret must be exposed.

Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Essentially, Updraft is the story of Kirit Densira, her friend Nat, her mother Ezarit, and how the consequences of a broken law change their world. There are monsters too, free of charge, and plenty of action. But there’s a deeper layer, about society and environment, economics, politics, and freedom. About being heard, and listening. And about what society values and what it throws away.

Also, there a lot of man-made wings.

So what did I geek out about when writing Updraft?

image courtesy Tor Books
Image courtesy Tor Books | Buy at Amazon
Wind: I consulted with cloud and weather experts, read everything I could about the way winds behave at high altitude, and threw myself into the research—literally. I went indoor skydiving to get a sense of how it felt to fly. I also spoke with friends who hang-glide, and pulled on my own experiences as a sailor. One friend pointed out that the taller a natural feature is, the stronger the updraft winds can be—and that was when so many things slid home.
Wings: The wings I wanted for Updraft had to be made from the supplies at hand: bone, silk, and tendon. I looked through plans for various wing designs over the centuries. I researched the history of solo flight attempts. And I grabbed several engineers to whom I’m related and made them check things over too. I also developed a small obsession with wingsuit flyers like Jeb Corliss.
Bridges: I love them, and have since long car trips as a kid. From a distance, they look like creatures rising out of the hills, or over the ocean, all metal spine and cables. I love the story of the Roebling family, who built the Brooklyn Bridge. And just about any rope bridge over a river is an irresistible force. So when it came time to talk about the city’s bridges, which are built of sinew and fiber, I wanted to make sure they really felt as if they could bear weight, as well as be obvious control paths throughout the city. I wrote about the process over at GeekDad yesterday.
Singing & Memory: Those who live in the towers above the clouds have constructed ways to avoid carrying too much with them as they rise higher. They pass on many important details, like laws and cultural history, through singing. While some members of their culture do keep bone tablets (mostly small and light) with information on them that’s too complicated to pass on in a song, most of the citizens sing what they need to know—and display that knowledge at various points in their lives during tests and rituals at Allsuns and Allmoons. Singing and memory are twined for me—when I hear something, I can remember it, almost word for word, especially if it’s set to music. I geeked out over pre-printing press cultures and singing histories, as well as the way information is passed through history.
[redacted]: There are other things I geeked out about for the book—one that left my shins bruised while I researched it—but they’re spoilers. You’ll have to read Updraft to find out.

Philly Geek Awards – Best. Party. Ever.

The Annual Philadelphia Geek Awards were this weekend, and they lived up to their reputation as one of the best parties in Philadelphia.

The Philly Geek Awards Team. Photo by Nathaniel Dobson, permission courtesy of Geekadelphia & Eric Smith.
The Philly Geek Awards Team. Photo by Nathaniel Dobson, permission courtesy of Geekadelphia & Eric Smith.

Hosted by the venerable Geekadelphia, the Philadelphia Geek Awards honor projects in thirteen categories, including: comics, film, artists, games, science, social media, startups, web, events, and more. They culminate with the Geek of the Year award, which this year went to Ather Sharif, founder of the accessibility research lab EvoX.

Read more about the Philly Geek Awards 2015 winners and nominees.

“Planning for the Philly Geek Awards kicks off in the beginning of the year,” says Eric Smith, co-founder of the event, who also announced a $2,000 grant for geeky activities in conjunction with the City of Philadelphia that night. “There’s a lot to plot out. Who will we talk to about sponsors? How many presenters? When do we want to announce nominees? Media partners? Design for the awards? Theme? The list goes on. A lot of time goes into a 4 hour event, but we love it.”

This year’s theme was Back to the Future, and the awards featured a countdown timer, an internal light show, and a hoverboard logo.

Fran Wilde and William Stallwell present the Games Award. Photo Credit Fran Wilde
Fran Wilde and William Stallwell present the Games Award. Photo Credit Fran Wilde

I was honored to be asked to co-present the Games Award with William Stallwood, founder of Cipher Prime. We weren’t as cool as Joel Hodgson (squeeee MST3K4EVA) and his lovely assistant Jason from the Black Tribbles, and we didn’t sing the nominees like the operatic Karina Kacala (seriously, following her was HARD), but we made it through and got to celebrate three great games developed in Philadelphia, including the winner: social meta-card game, Pretense, the mass-transit LARP, Soulfill, and the really-hard-to-say-on-stage-in-public without cursing (and also really fun) ClusterPuck99.

Here are some more photos from the event, brilliantly hosted by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia! (If you’re in town next year, be sure to get a ticket to next year’s party.)

Geek Speaks… Fiction! by Aliette de Bodard


Today’s guest on Geek Speaks… Fiction is author Aliette de Bodard.

house of shattered
Order on Amazon image courtesy Ace/Roc

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she works as a System Engineer and herds a toddler nicknamed “Snakelet”. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: She has won two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Her novel The House of Shattered Wings is out from Roc/Gollancz this month. 

Manga, anime, and my writing

My writerly influences tend to the eclectic: I have a tendency to read everything (including the back of the toothpaste package if I get bored), and my childhood was filled with a mix of books in all genres, bandes dessineés, movies—and manga, which I sneak-read because my parents weren’t overly keen on it (they’d caught a bit of the Ken the Survivor anime on TV and decided they didn’t want me exposed to that kind of graphical violence, so I couldn’t have any manga or watch any anime). Needless to say, I felt like trying both anyway!

Below are my five influential manga/anime and how they impacted my writing and my most recent novel The House of Shattered Wings (out August 18th from Roc in the US, August 20th from Gollancz in the UK).

  1. Black Jack (manga): It’s probably a good thing that my parents never actually opened the Black Jack mangas I was so fond of, since they might have had quite a few surprises about graphically explicit… Featuring the adventures of a blackmarket surgeon and his precocious adopted daughter, and hovering between body horror, black humour, and serious ethical dilemmas, this has had a lot of influence on me—notably teaching me a lot about creepiness and unease and how effective they are when deployed against the background of everyday life; and there’s plenty of dark and creepy in The House of Shattered Wings, from people drinking the blood of angels to shadows that slither just out of sight, just out of reach…
  1. Sailor Moon (manga): Another manga I found when young—one of the few carried by my (small) local bookshop. I actually had a period of feeling ashamed about having read it because it felt so girly to me, but I came back to it years later, when Takeuchi Naoko released the new editions, and was genuinely surprised to still find it excellent. It’s about magical girls, reincarnation, and time travel, and I loved the mythic undertones to the whole saga (also, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus are the best). It’s taught me quite a few things about merging science fiction and fantasy in my own fiction—The House of Shattered Wings mixes a post-apocalyptic setting (a devastated Paris with nuked monuments where people struggle to survive) with the presence of Fallen angels and magic, and I think the merge of genres makes it a much stronger one than the pure urban fantasy it started out as.
  1. Cowboy Bebop (anime/movie): To the best of my recollection, I actually watched the movie of this first, and was so struck with the aesthetic that we decided to watch the rest of the series. And I wasn’t disappointed: I love the run-down atmosphere of the series, and most of all the soundtrack, which is unusual for an SF series but just brilliant. It made for great listening when I’m writing!
  1. Revolutionary Girl Utena (manga/anime/movie): I watched this one on the recommendation of Yoon Ha Lee, and it blew my mind away. It’s a freaking effective deconstruction of tropes, rpm fairy tales to gender roles to power dynamics. And the ending still makes me weep every time I get to it. The quality isn’t great (lots of recycled animations for scenes); the plot meanders a bit and can get repetitive, and there are a few triggery bits, and yet… and yet for all its flaws it’s got a freshness and an energy that drags me along every single time. It’s an object lesson that a thing doesn’t have to be technically perfect to grab the imagination of the audience (though of course as a writer I still angst over reaching perfection every single time—guess I can’t help it!)

(And in case you’re wondering: Yes, I own the movie and the manga too :) )

  1. Full Metal Alchemist (anime/manga/anime): It’s hard to encompass the impact Full Metal Alchemist had on my life. I watched the first anime, which I found a bit disappointing; checked out the manga and then the second anime—and now own all volumes of the manga (a pretty hefty space investment for my small house). It’s a meld of wonderful worldbuilding with an original magic system (alchemy and the principle of equivalence), a wonderful cast of memorable characters from naive Al to ambivalent Greed (and badass general Olivia Armstrong will always have a special place in my heart :) ), and an ending that delivers both on an epic scale and on a personal one (Ed’s final choice is inevitable but wonderfully done). I learnt a lot from it about entwining plot lines, and doing badass characters: My Fallen angels and my heads of magical factions in The House Of Shattered Wings owe more than a passing debt to Arakawa Hiromu.
Aliette de Bodard | Image courtesy of the author.

And I was very struck with the redefinition of alchemy into a non-potion-based magical system, and re-used the word in my book as a homage to the series: In my world, alchemists are specialized in re-using the breath and body parts of Fallen angels to provide magical energy to practitioners so they can cast spells—so not FMA‘s alchemists, but definitely at the centre of things.

Those are my top five, but it was hard to limit myself to just these. (I wanted to mention Le Chevalier d’Eon, Ergo Proxy, Black Butler, Haibane Renmei, and so many others that I vividly remember!)

Visit http://www.aliettedebodard.com for book geekery, fiction, and Franco-Vietnamese recipes. Follow Aliette on Twitter.

10 Questions with Mehgan Heaney-Grier of ‘Treasure Quest: Snake Island’

Are you ready to meet the mother of all Indiana Joneses?

Image courtesy Discovery Channel
Image courtesy of Discovery Channel.

Mehgan Heaney-Grier holds a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology, as well as anthropology. She established the first U.S. freedive record for both men and women in 1996, with a dive to an astonishing 165 feet on a single breath of air. She carries a dive belt instead of a bullwhip. She’s a mom, not a professor-in-disguise with Sean Connery for a dad. No word on whether she hates snakes as much as Indy did, but we’re getting the idea that she doesn’t love them in quantity.

And she’s the sole woman on Discovery Channel’s Treasure Quest: Snake Island, which premiers tonight at 10:00 p.m. ET/9:00 p.m. CT. When Discovery offered GeekMom the opportunity to talk with her, plus exclusive sneak peeks? We jumped at the chance. So grab your snake-spray and your treasure map and come meet Mehgan!

GeekMom: You’re dive-master for the expedition on Snake Island. What does that involve? How long are the dives? 

Mehgan Heaney-Grier: It entails a little of everything, from rallying up gear and tanks, to planning the dives and working the sites. I was brought onto the team in large part for my dive expertise and water experience working on marine crews for various projects, productions, and field work—as well as my degree in anthropology and studies in archeology. I really enjoy working with a team and this expedition was no exception! Captain Keith, who is also on the team, and I worked closely together on planing the dives and dive safety throughout the expedition. He also has a background in marine archeology, so we did most of the site dives and documentation together as well… it was really amazing in the waters off of Brazil, a perfect opportunity to totally dork out on all of the historical components that were involved! Dive length would vary depending on the site and depth of course, but it is always a good day when spent underwater.

Image courtesy Discovery Channel
Image courtesy of Discovery Channel.

GM: Did you watch/read adventure stories as a kid? What kinds? 

MHG: I did! I was a big fan of adventure books when I was a kid. My all time favorite was Island of the Blue Dolphins. I also loved adventure movies and shows too, like reruns of Sea Hunt and all nature shows—I couldn’t get enough!

GM: You use a lot of math and science in your planning for the expeditions. Can you elaborate?

MHG:  That is true, but I will be the first to admit that math is really not my department. I am more of the science and water buff! We did use a lot of new technology while on our expedition, which was a true advantage, as well as science and mathematics. There was a code to be cracked and we all worked very hard… I can’t disclose much more than that though! 

[GeekMom Sidebar: We are intrigued.]

GM: When did you first realize that pushing extreme envelopes was your “geekpoint”—if it is? Do you have other things you love to do? 

MHG: I have always loved the personal challenge, so it is safe to say it is what I “geek out on.” I love to get out there, in nature, on the road, on the water… wherever! I love to explore new places, paddle board, backpack, camp, road trip, breathe in salty air, and most things that have to do with water… and sharks. Lastly, I will say that little brings me more joy than sharing adventure and the ocean environment with my kids!

GM: You’re a mom as well as an adventurer. What advice would you give your kids about following in your footsteps, or not?

MHG: I would say go for it—all of it! Not to say that I haven’t really, really stressed my poor mom out with all of my adventures. However, my husband, Silas, and I really value following your dreams and living life to the fullest—and we figure that the best way to instill that in our kids is to lead by example.

Image courtesy Discovery Channel
Image courtesy of Discovery Channel.

GM: What advice would they give you?

MHG: My kids would probably tell me to slow down a bit—and to play and laugh more!  Life can get awfully busy, and who better to remind you to play than kids!

GM: What’s been your scariest moment on Snake Island?

MHGWhew! There were a lot of hair-raising moments out there… but the days when the sun wasn’t out the snakes were literally everywhere! On sunny days, you could anticipate where they were based on the time of day and whether they would be in direct sun warming up when it is cooler out, or in the shadows cooling off during the heat of the day. When the clouds came, it was incredibly snake-y!

GM: What life experiences prepared you for this adventure?

MHGI would say that the sum of my adventures leading up to this one helped me keep my cool and work effectively with the team under extremely difficult conditions. Especially my competitive freediving though, where it is just you and the never-ending ocean. The ocean is so grand and powerful, it is humbling and demands respect—it has a way of reminding you how small you are. I think that all of these things are good reminders and can come in really handy when dealing with dangerous natural places and deadly snakes.

GM: Do you consider yourself a geek or a nerd?

MHGAbsolutely a geek. Once I get going on the topic of sharks or the ocean environment… or anything I am passionate about, I enter geek-land!

GM:  Your plan is to use the adventure, and possibly your share of the treasure, to support environmental awareness and marine conservation? How so? 

MHG: Education and understanding are key to protecting anything on this planet. If I can shine some light on and raise awareness about the issues I am passionate about—like the health of the ocean—it’s what I can do to try to be part of the solution.

Many thanks to Mehgan for sharing her time with GeekMom, and to Discovery Channel for providing the sneak peeks below for Treasure Quest: Snake Island.

Snakes! Treasure! And Adventure! Treasure Quest: Snake Island premieres July 17, on Discovery Channel! 

Behind the Scenes at ‘Geek Knits’ – Plus a Book Giveaway!

Geek Knits image courtesy of Kyle Cassidy.
Geek Knits image courtesy of Kyle Cassidy.

Two weeks ago, GeekMom premiered the gloriously geektastic knitting book, Geek Knits: Over 30 Projects for Fantasy Fanatics, Science Fiction Fiends, and Knitting Nerds by Joan of Dark, with photographs by Kyle Cassidy.

Currently hanging out around the top 50 most popular knitting books on Amazon, Geek Knits features actors, authors, and celebrities from across the geek pantheon. (Yes, I went there. Hush.)

We love behind-the-scenes exclusives at GeekMom, and Kyle and Joan were happy to oblige with the following stories.

Plus, know what makes exclusives even better? The wonderful folks at St. Martins’ Press do: a giveaway. You’ll find your own chance to win a copy of Geek Knits: Over 30 Projects for Fantasy Fanatics, Science Fiction Fiends, and Knitting Nerds at the bottom of this post.

Read on, crafty friends:

Geek Knits Behind the Scenes 1: George R.R. Martin – From Kyle Cassidy
“Fun fact: I spent nearly a week in George R. R. Martin’s guest house, waiting to take the photo for Geek Knits of George and the knitted Dire Wolf. George would stick his head in and ask if anybody wanted to go out for tacos (and of course, I’d say yes). Then he’d say he felt like writing and I wasn’t about to be the guy on the internet who told George R. R. Martin to not write, so I read books and took photos of rollergirls out in the desert and went running and I’d check back periodically and he’d invite me to dinner and I’d go and then it would be late and everybody would go to bed. One day, he suggested we go to a movie at his theater. It was a South Korean western called The Good, the Bad, and the Weird—a bunch of the authors from Wild Cards were there. Finally, one evening his assistant called and said, ‘Can you do it now before the football game?’ and I raced over and did the photos in his office in about 15 minutes. He was loads of fun to be around and I had a great time hanging out there.”

Kyle says, “The good news is I’m finally photographing GRRM. The bad news is I’m about to be attacked by a giant robot.” Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

Geek Knits Behind the Scenes 2: Adam Savage – From Kyle Cassidy
(Or how Kyle ran a marathon, set up the perfect shot, and hung out with stormtroopers and a shark.)

“The shot of Adam Savage with the dragon is probably my favorite one in the book. It wasn’t difficult to set up, but it was still the most difficult.

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

I’d been planning on taking a weekend of vacation, meaning that I’d fly from Philadelphia to Chicago, run a half marathon with Peter Sagal, do his photo for Geek Knits, then jump on a plane and come back to Philly the next day. That’s ‘vacation’ in my mind. Joan called and said that Adam Savage from Mythbusters was available for a photo shoot, but only in the middle of my vacation (after I ran the race, but before I came home) and could I go from Chicago to California and then back to Philly instead of sleeping after the race?

I had my photo gear, but no props and nothing in mind for Adam’s shoot. I didn’t even know where it was going to be. It turned out to be backstage at a concert hall—Adam was doing a performance and I had the run of the backstage area to figure something out and when Adam came off stage, we could do the photo.

I wanted to do something in the Mythbusters tradition, meaning some sort of construction and Adam was modeling a dragon. What would Adam do with a dragon? Melt something? Fire, there should probably be fire. Joan’s husband, (Dill Hero) was totally on board with the idea of setting something on fire in the theater. Somehow cooler heads prevailed and the fire idea was nixed. Maybe Adam would set a trap for a dragon and catch it. So Dill and I started scouring the backstage looking for things to make a Rube Goldberg trap out of and a place to set it up.

This is our proof of concept.

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

What remains is how to light it. Here’s one light behind an umbrella. It lights everything up. Nice maybe, but not dramatic enough for a dragon.

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

I went with two lights, a soft box above the dragon , and a second light straight on the trapper. The dragon is being lured into the trap with a little pile of gold coins. Because that’s how you catch a dragon. Photo geekery: Because I was ostensibly ‘on vacation’ and thought I was only taking one photo of Peter Sagal, I packed a small camera kit consisting of a Panasonic Lumix GX7 and a 20mm f 1.7 lens. The Lumix is very small and very capable and it’s become a go-to for a lot of my work that involves traveling. I had two flashes triggered by Pocket Wizard radio flash triggers. I also brought one light stand and the umbrella was a Photek Softlighter II, which converts into a soft box, a shoot through, or a reflective umbrella. It’s very useful. The umbrella and the light stand both fit in my suitcase; everything else in a small camera bag.

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

That looks appropriately dramatic! So we waited for Adam, he came off stage, I did like four photos, which was kind of pointless because we nailed it on the first one. I love how the dragon looks happily and innocently inquisitive and Adam looks delightedly triumphant—his trap is working! Click! And now with my job done, I could go lay down in a hotel and sleep for five hours before my red-eye back to philly! Glorious sleep!

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

Then Adam said: ‘Do you want to come back to my place and hang out for a while?’

Wot wot?! Anyone who says ‘no’ to that does not deserve to be working on a book called Geek Knits.

So we went. You can see in this selfie, I’m still wearing my running shirt from the half marathon.

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

Adam has a shark. He found it in a dumpster and brought it home and hung it up by himself. Because when he’s not building things on Mythbusters, he’s building things. He’s the least lazy person I’ve ever met in my life. So I figured, ‘suck it up and sleep some other time.’ And we went on into the evening. Adam showed us the most powerful flashlight ever invented, the prop gun from The Bourne Identity, we had tacos. I got on an airplane at midnight and flew back to Philadelphia. The plane landed and I went off to the next thing, still in two-day-old clothes without unpacking my bags. Tired didn’t mean anything, so much had happened. We made great stuff, we had an adventure; that’s all I really remember.”

Photo courtesy Kyle Cassidy.

Joan adds: “The dragon was designed by Noel Margaret (www.noelmargaret.com). I asked several designers about making a plush dragon and Noel nailed it, hands down. I love how the texture makes it look like the dragon has scales! Instead of doing the obvious green, she wanted to do a bright red, which I was absolutely on board with. It came out so cute and cuddly instead of creepy or scary!

Also Adam not only had The Bourne Identity gun, he had the red bag and trash can! (Bourne Identity is one of those movies that I can watch once a week and never get tired of it. I was having a major geek out!)

It’s really, really hard for me to pick a favorite photo from Geek Knits, but this one is up there! I was so paranoid about it getting in since it’s um, sideways. (Kyle what’s the fancy photo term for sideways???) Most photos in knitting books are vertical. As soon as I turned these photos in to the publisher I was like, ‘This photo. This photo has to be in the book!’

As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. The publisher and art department saw that photo and were instantly in love with it!”

Thanks so much to Joan of Dark and Kyle Cassidy for providing behind-the-scenes stories from Geek Knits, as well as great tips on how best to light a dinosaur trap for posterity!

Even better, the fabulous folks from St. Martin’s Press have authorized GeekMom to do a giveaway. Sign up on our rafflecopter for your chance to win your very own copy of Geek Knits: Over 30 Projects for Fantasy Fanatics, Science Fiction Fiends, and Knitting Nerds.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Terms: US/Canada only. Contest runs Tuesday, June 30, through Monday, July 6.

Knit One, Geek Two: Joan of Dark’s ‘Geek Knits’

Cover image courtesy of St. Martins Press. Available for order now!

Featuring “over 30 projects for fantasy fanatics, science fiction fiends, and knitting nerds,” along with gorgeous photos by Kyle Cassidy, Geek Knits (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015) will help you to knit one, geek two to complete your next great geek project.

But wait, there’s more: The models for each project include geek favorites Neil Gaiman, René Auberjonois of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Whitney Avalon, George R. R. Martin (with a knit Dire Wolf), and several familiar faces from Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Author Joan of Dark (Toni Carr) says: “There are patterns in here for all levels of knitters. People who just know how to knit and purl can make the Baker Street Scarf and the really advanced can tackle the Muggle Artifact sweater!”

When GeekMom asked Joan about her geek roots, she shared:

As for my “geekeries,” I’m all over the place! I grew up going to sci-fi cons with my parents (family cosplay in next generation uniforms and all!) and I read everything I can get my hands on. I love Harry Potter, Star Trek, Sherlock Holmes, and Game of Thrones. I think the only thing I’m not into are video games. I get too mad at the controller!

Check out the gorgeous images from the book below, kindly shared by photographer Kyle Cassidy.  Then grab your own copy of Geek Knits: Over 30 Projects for Fantasy Fanatics, Science Fiction Fiends, and Knitting Nerds and… hey, maybe share your projects with GeekMom on Pinterest!

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10 Questions & Giveaway With Award-winning Author Ann Leckie

Ann Leckie  (image courtesy Ann Leckie)
Ann Leckie
(image courtesy Ann Leckie)

Author Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice (2014, Orbit), won Hugo, Nebula, Locus, British Science Fiction Award, and Arthur C. Clarke awards in 2014. Her second novel in the same Radch empire series, Ancillary Sword, won the BSFA and is on the ballots for the 2015 Nebulas and Hugos. And the third, Ancillary Mercy, is on the launch pad. Recently, Leckie signed with Orbit to write more books within the Radch empire as well. Meanwhile, her short stories have appeared (and several can be read for free) at Subterranean magazineStrange Horizons, and Realms of Fantasy. Her story “Hesperia and Glory” was reprinted in Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition, edited by Rich Horton. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, with her family.

Leckie recently took a moment away from writing to speak with GeekMom Fran Wilde and answer 10 questions.

Breaking News: Leckie and her publisher—Orbit Books—have generously offered to give away a set of two Ancillary books (U.S./Canada only), as well as personally selected teas. Read to the end of the interview for more information on how to win!

Ancillary Justice (Orbit, 2013) - Hugo, Nebula, Locus, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke, Kitschies winner
Ancillary Justice (Orbit, 2013), the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke, and Kitschies winner.

GeekMom: Your books have struck a chord for many readers—the voice and characters in Ancillary Justice, the sweeping arc of Ancillary Sword. What can we expect from Ancillary Mercy?

Ann Leckie: Ancillary Mercy is, like Ancillary Sword, not exactly the same sort of book as the one before it. Expect outside events to begin filtering into Athoek—or more specifically, expect the Presger and Anaander Mianaai to show up.

GM: You are a big science fiction and fantasy fan. Do you have other fandoms besides SF/F?

AL: SF/F is certainly my primary fandom! It’s a pretty broad one, actually, since you can say “fandom” and mean something as specific as a particular book or movie. But, the only other thing that I might classify as a (non-SF/F) fandom would be my participation in what was at the time called Gabeweb—that is, three or four websites dedicated to following and discussing Peter Gabriel, back in the, what, the late nineties, early 2000s? I’d decided to learn HTML, and thought for a while about what sort of website I might build—what was there that I knew about, or was sufficiently enthusiastic about, that I might actually make some sort of contribution to? And I discovered a small community of PG fans. It was a good bunch of folks and I had a good time. We were mostly just being kind of silly, and I think the folks running Gabriel’s website at the time had a pretty tolerant attitude towards us, which was nice.

GM: What would you like to tell someone new to your work about the Imperial Radch universe? What would you tell longtime fans who are snapping up Awn Elming memorial pins and debating what various teas from the Radch might taste like?

AL: Hmm. Aside from what’s already on the back covers, and what they might have seen mentioned around here and there, really the universe is meant to be a more or less classic space opera universe. My intention was to tell stories that were fun and gripping or affecting. And, something I’d say to any reader at all, if you give it a few chapters (or less, or more) and you find it’s not doing it for you, by all means put the book down with a clear conscience and my blessing. Thanks for giving it a try and I hope your next read is more your thing. Although, of course, I hope it does do it for you, and you don’t put it down!

To the fans? Hah, you’re awesome. Seriously, having people make fan art and fanfic, and really getting into speculating about details (whether it’s tea or what various passive-aggressive tortures Justice of Toren One Esk used on Seivarden back in the day) is right up there with winning awards, in my opinion.

Ancillary Sword (Orbit, 2014) BFSA winner, Hugo & Nebula nominee (as of publication)
Ancillary Sword (Orbit, 2014), the BFSA winner, Hugo and Nebula nominee (as of publication).

GM: What one piece of advice would you give a parent who wanted to return to writing or to begin writing?

AL: Do it. Just do it. Make whatever time you can—obviously, particularly when your kids are small, your available time will be small, or even when you have time it’s in circumstances that make it difficult to concentrate on your writing. That’s okay. Do what you can. Eventually, kids get older, and more able to safely amuse themselves for longish periods. And even if you’re in a situation where that doesn’t happen—if there are health or disability issues that prevent that, for instance—whatever time you can take, use it. It’s worth it. It all adds up eventually. The longest novel ever written was written one word at a time, one sentence at a time. There’s no due date, no time limit, no prizes for finishing sooner, or fines for taking a long time. Just put one word after the other, whenever you get a chance.

GM: Do you have any thoughts about the media’s need to modify the word “writer” with adjectives like “lady” or “female?”

AL: I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I feel like women writing science fiction have been repeatedly invisible. It feels to me like every 10 years or so, someone looks around and sees women in SF and goes, “Wow, look at all these women! It’s sure not like the old days, when it was all guys!” And then 10 years later, “Wow, look at all these women!” So from that perspective, I think it’s maybe a good idea to draw attention to the fact that, no, there are and have been women in the field for quite some time, and still are now, so that 10 years from now maybe people won’t suddenly be surprised to find women SF writers, like fish suddenly surprised to discover that water has materialized around them.

On the other hand, those labels have the potential to rope off women writers and their writing as a sort of “other” to unmarked, “regular” science fiction. And honestly, though this is probably particular to me and my history, I really dislike “lady” as a label. I could probably spend an entire blog post going into why, but to keep it short, there are not only class issues involved, but also a weird “good women/bad women” thing going on with it, particularly with constructions like “ladylike” or “she’s a real lady.” I almost never use it unless I’m asking where a public restroom is. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

GM: What advice have your kids given you that’s really stuck with you?

AL: I’ve only gotten one piece of advice, or what might pass for it, from my son. He was about 12, and I had sent Ancillary Justice out to agents and was waiting for replies, and you know that emotional state when you’ve sent something out and you really, really want to not get rejections back, but you know of course that’s what’s most likely, and I’d been working and working on writing the query letter and the synopses and all that and I was explaining to my husband about what I’d done and what I hoped to accomplish, (he had already heard all of it before, but because he’s awesome he was patiently listening), and my son, who had only been half listening, pipes up, “Mom! I have an idea! You should get an agent!”

It was good advice! The state I was in, I almost snapped at him, “Don’t toy with me!” But instead, I took a breath and said, “That’s what I’m trying to do, honey. That’s what all this is about.” And he said, “Oh.” And went back to his computer game.

GM: Who are you reading these days?

AL: Mostly people whose editors send me mss for possible blurbs! And lots of nonfiction. Whenever I’m in the planning stages of a project, I read large amounts of nearly random nonfiction. And whenever I get stuck. Often I feel like, if I’m stuck, I just need to find the right nonfiction to supply me with some idea or detail that will get things back on track.

It’s weirdly ironic, though of course it makes sense, that one of the reasons I wanted to write was because I love so much to read. But now that I’ve been quite successful writing, I have hardly any time to read, and often when I do, I find my brain sliding off SF/F. I gather I’m not the only writer to have this happen.

GM: What are you crafting these days? (Note: Leckie is a great maker-of-things across the board. She has an Etsy shop to prove it, which occasionally stocks the aforementioned Awn Elming memorial pins. If you don’t know what those are, read more Ancillary.)

AL: I have ambitions to reduce my yarn stash—it’s a very tiny stash by hardcore knitter/crocheter standards, but it would still probably make someone blink, who didn’t do either of those. But I haven’t made much progress, because I haven’t really been in yarn mode for a while.

Lately I’ve been beading. I started out crocheting beaded necklaces and I sold a few on Etsy, and then I discovered the local bead shop and next thing I knew, I was taking classes and doing beadweaving. As a consequence, I have a stash of beads that’s more impressive than my yarn stash, and several UFOs. For possibly obvious reasons, my focus has been on pins lately, which basically means beading up various small things and sticking a pin finding on the back, which has the advantage of not taking as long as, say, the ginormous free-form netted bracelet I’m in the middle of, or the even ginormouser free-form necklace I started a year or so ago. (I am a professional writer, therefore “ginormouser” is now a real word.)

GM: Geek or nerd?

AL: Yes!

GM: You are an award-winning novelist, an editor of short fiction, a supportive voice in the community, and a lifelong fan of genre fiction. What do you wish for the future of the field?

AL: I wish for a genuinely wide range of voices, and a recognition that when someone says “most people” they often actually mean “most people like me” or “people who fit into certain default categories.” And similarly, generalizations about what “readers” want is nearly always a shorthand for a particular subgroup of readers. And it’s perfectly cromulent to talk about what that a subgroup wants, or what people in one or another category mostly respond to, default categories included, but just realizing that you’re not actually talking about everyone, that the default categories aren’t the center and other groups of people aren’t just weird exceptions, just making that step in thinking about things is, in my opinion, an essential first step to having that range of voices.

Thanks so much to Ann Leckie for joining us!

From May 13-18, 2015, you can enter our GeekMom Rafflecopter giveaway to win two of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books—Justice and Sword—or tea selected personally by her. To enter, log into Rafflecopter and follow the directions!

Ann Leckie Rafflecopter giveaway

Mid-Atlantic Geeks Assemble! ‘Asimov’s’ Magazine Comes to Philadelphia

image via Fran Wilde
Image via Fran Wilde

Asimov’s Magazine comes to Philadelphia on March 28 at 1pm at the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble!

If you’re near Philadelphia on Saturday, March 28, stop by the Rittenhouse Square Barnes & Noble from 1pm to 3pm to meet Asimov’s Magazine editor Sheila Williams (who visited GeekMom last year), and Philadelphia-area science fiction writers Gregory Frost, Michael Swanwick, Tom Purdom, and intrepid GeekMom Fran Wilde*.

More information and RSVP here.

(*yup, that’s me. INTREPID. Hope to see you there.)

10 Questions With Emily Riedel From ‘Bering Sea Gold’

image courtesy Discovery Channel
Image courtesy Discovery Channel

Today, the fourth season of Discovery Channel’s Bering Sea Gold premieres, and 26-year-old dredge captain Emily Riedel has much to prove. She’s trying to find 400 ounces of gold on the Bering Sea floor to pay off her debts and continue her education as an opera singer.

Emily took the time to sit down with GeekMom and talk about her adventures in Nome.

Discovery Channel has given us an exclusive clip of the premiere—stay tuned at the end. And if you have your own questions for Emily, let us know in the comments.

GeekMom: This looks like fun what you’re doing. Can you tell us about your boat?

Emily: Gold mining is a lot of things and fun is one of them! The Eroica is an aluminum pontoon, catamaran style about 40 feet long. I’ve had it in 25 knot winds coming out of the southwest. The waves are very aggressive in the Bering Sea. I have had to worry if I was going to be dealing with a capsized boat and swimming around in cold water, trying to stay alive. All that fun stuff.

GM: How far offshore do you go? What are the waves like? (Yup, I’m a boat geek.)

Emily: Well your handle IS Geek Mom.

Generally I don’t go that far offshore—furthest is seven miles away from harbor and about a mile offshore. Gold mining is not like Alaskan crabbing—on Deadliest Catch, which you may have heard of, the crab fishermen in on the Bering Sea stay out in all sorts of wave heights, and they’re fine and whistling. Because of what we do, we need the most stable platform possible. A wave height of three feet is kind of my limit.

image courtesy Discovery Channel
Bering Sea Gold, image courtesy: Discovery Channel

GM: What kind of tools are you using? I know you dropped a lot of money on on your dredge system last season.

Emily: That’s what you do when you’re mining for gold. It’s a lot more of spending money than making money somehow. My boat is one big massive black hole of money-sucking energy.

We do different sorts of setups—summertime mining operations and wintertime mining operations. Both are terribly expensive in their own right.

Before this fourth season premiere, which is about summertime mining, I had to buy a new pump and pump motor, a lot of outboard maintenance. I had to do a lot of re-welding on the pontoons, had to hire people to help me build a new deck for it, and a new cabin. When I first bought the dredge, it needed a complete overhaul to be remotely functional. I had to fix the pontoons, the welds were coming apart, the deck was rotting and unstable in places. The outboards have been a constant source of grief for me—it’s more like a prayer every morning hoping the outboards will stay functional. Especially when the weather gets bad.

There’s a range of different ideas and approaches that people take to mining. My philosophy is more power and less finesse. So I take a 40-foot long dredging hose to the bottom of the ocean and suck up rocks and minerals and dirt and try to find the more dense deposits of plaster gold. So the beauty behind my operation is I can process a lot of material at once. So more material, more chance at finding consistent gold, more profit. That is the idea behind 10-inch dredges. It doesn’t always work out this way, but I’ve had some relative success.

So we have a water pump that produces output into a sluice box, suction on the other end of the hold. Gold’s heavier than water and gathers at the top of the sluice box. Sand and the less dense materials are rushed out of the box. So we have left iron sands, the gold, and a lot of garnet. All of that stays in the top of the box. If you’re around good gold, you can see it gathering within the first three feet, actually. And given the amount of water, hundreds of gallons per minute flowing through, it’s incredible the gold stays put there. It likes to stay in one spot.

This plaster gold—glacial deposit and stream runoff over many years. It is a natural feature in the bottom of the Bering Sea.

We work in a bay that is quite shallow up to a mile and a half offshore, so we’re able to access gold deposits with our dredging equipment. Most other places in the world would be impossible to get to. The beaches in Nome are constantly shifting and the shallow water and overburden we’re able to access the pockets of plaster gold.

That’s a long, geeky explanation.

image courtesy Discovery Channel
Emily Riedel, image courtesy: Discovery Channel

GM: Hey, we’re down with that. Can you talk about the environmental impact of this kind of gold mining?

Emily: There’s a range of operations offshore and I can only speak for what I’ve done. I’ve run 6-inch dredges and 8s and now my 10-inch dredge, and the environmental impact is very minimal. We do cloud the water up, for instance—we create a turbidity cloud with our mining of sand and the offput from the sluice box. We have a plume. The plume from my dredge is about 20 ft by 4 ft wide. And some people say that might confuse the fish. But the fish love turbidity, they swarm in it. As far as the impact on the ocean floor, one storm creates far more impact than we can ever do.

Personally, I’m an advocate for the environment and respect the EPA and all that they do.

GM: So when did the gold bug bite?

Emily: I originally went to Nome four years ago—I have a degree in music. I wanted to be an opera singer and was raised in Alaska and I would always go back to Alaska to fund my operatic expeditions. It’s how I paid my way through school, for my Bachelor’s degree.

I was just out of college and broke and I had a friend up there mining for gold. It wasn’t so much the gold that was drawing me. He said it was easy to make a large amount of money in a short amount of time—kind of a risk-free adventure—which is just a hilarious concept to me now, four years later.

So I just showed up in Nome with $300 to my name and lived in a beach shack five miles outside of town and was just kind of squatting there in a sleeping bag. Then Discovery Channel thought they wanted to do a show here and they found out about us. We were this quirky bunch of people and they were like, “We can’t miss this opportunity.”

I kind of waltzed into this crazy situation and I’ve been waltzing ever since, sometimes with two left feet.

GM: Geek, Nerd, or Neither?

Emily: I can’t speak for my geeky science knowledge… I’m trying to understand astrophysics right now. I’m trying to get through Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time right now. But I can talk about classical music for ages and I have a very geeky love of it. A lot of geeky tendencies. And I like Beethoven.

Anne McCaffrey’s Crystal Singer trilogy

GM: A music geek who named her boat the Eroica. Were you ever a big reader as a kid? Because there’s a character in an early 1980s book who’s an opera singer who hunts for rare crystals across the galaxy.* I was wondering if you’d ever heard of The Crystal Singer books by Anne McCaffrey? Most every book she wrote has singing in it. They’ve got great action and adventure and really (sorry folks) bad romance.

Emily: No! I’ve never heard of them! I’ll have to find them and order them! I’m always looking for good fantasy. I used to read a lot of fantasy when I was little but kind of fell out of the habit when I went to college.

My life is a little weird that way too—wanting to sing classically and figuring that gold mining would be a good way to pay for it is rather an odd thing, but I don’t see my life in the future being any less weird.

GM: What’s the worst gold-hunting pun you’ve heard?

Emily: I get called a gold digger a lot. People get a really big kick out of that.

I can also say that gold mining in general is full of double entendres. One time in an interview I innocently went on this 20-minute montage about how 6-inch dredges compared to 10-inch dredges. And everyone made fun of me for it later.

The whole thing—suction, nozzles, depth… it’s endless.

GM: … I imagine being the only woman out on the water, it does get pretty endless.

Emily: Eh, I like to fit in with the boys. My voice gets an octave lower when I’m out there. It’s an exercise of how to maintain my femininity and also not rub it in. It’s a job. I’m a lady and I’m doing it and there aren’t that many women up there doing this, but I feel like I should be judged on my merit as a producing gold miner.

GM: What’s it like working your job while there are cameras all over your boat?

Emily: It makes going to the bathroom very hard. Sometimes I have to talk to about ten people if I want to go pee. I’m just not comfortable peeing in public.

Cameras and crew are very much present in our lives. It is a television show. That being said, Original Productions—our producer, who also produces Deadliest Catch—tries very hard to hang back and observe the drama that’s unfolding and not influence it. It’s impressive because the stuff that happens in Nome is so absurd you just can’t write it.

At the same time I have a difficult time with all the cameras. There are seven to eight permanently mounted cameras and one or two producers on board trying to keep track of the story. And all that happens on board, being scared, angry, frustrated, and triumphant—having all that observed and reported on, is something you have to work hard to understand that anything you say or do is subject to going out on international television. You end up becoming desensitized to it.

At this point, they’ve seen every angle of me. The things I freak out about, the things I’m happiest about. My breakups, my almost-drowning experiences. My fears. All of that has been captured. There’s nothing more of that to capture. I have no caution because they’ve already seen it all, I guess.

image: Discovery Channel
Image: Discovery Channel

GeekMom: What are the risks and potential payoffs going into this season?

Emily: I’m running this dredge by myself. No one’s helping and supporting me. I’m trying to run a crew and keep a crew stable. And no one’s going to do that but me. This season is my fourth year in Nome and I need to make my operation work. At the same time, I’m struggling with my own demons with regards to diving and owning a dredge, and I’m still learning so much about being a boat captain. Every day is a huge learning curve—how to run crew, how to run the boat.

On top of all that, I’m a 26-year-old single female in Nome, Alaska, and it’s a lonely, desolate place. It’s a lonely position being a captain in one of the more lonely places in the world.

But… when the weather’s good (as it rarely is) the hours are constant. Fifteen-eighteen hours. Whatever it takes.

Many thanks to Emily for sharing her time with GeekMom (she’s really amazing, you guys) before she returns to Nome. And thanks to Discovery Channel for providing the *exclusive clip*, below, for Bering Sea Gold.

Summertime gold mining and Bering Sea Gold, Season Four premieres tonight, March 13, on Discovery Channel! 

[PS * None of you are surprised I asked the Killashandra Ree question, right? Good, just checking.]


10 Questions With Amelia Smith From Big Giant Swords

Amelia Smith, image courtesy Discovery Channel
Amelia Smith, image courtesy Discovery Channel

As the Discovery Channel’s Big Giant Swords heads into its season finale, GeekMom asked Amelia Smith, whose husband, blacksmith “Irish” Mike, is the show’s star, 10 questions about herself, and about Big Giant Swords.

Discovery Channel has given us an exclusive clip of the finale—so stay tuned at the end. And if you have your own questions for Amelia, let us know in the comments.

GeekMom: You met Irish Mike at a con? Which one? 

Amelia: We met at Boskone in 2007, at the back of the filksinging audience. We were both a little skeptical of filking, which neither of us had seen before.

GM: When did you realize your life was going to be so very metal?

Amelia: Soon after I met Mike it became clear that our relationship was moving into semi-permanent status. I went to visit him in Ireland and his bedroom was full of swords. It’s been an ongoing adventure.

GM: What’s it like raising a family around a giant swords workshop?

Amelia: Oh, fine. Kids will find dangerous things everywhere, and the workshop is a hundred yards or so away from the house. Things do drift in, but the kids get into the knife drawer or climb up the refrigerator far more often than they get into Mike’s work stuff.

GM: Mike’s a fantastic dad and you’re an amazing mom (I know because I’ve seen you guys in action). What do you hope your kids will be fanatic about when they get older?

Amelia: Aw, thanks. I don’t know what they will like. So far, Nova is taking after Mike in her tastes for bland food and comic books, while Christopher is more of an explorer of physical space and might yet become a bit of a foodie. I don’t have any set ideas about what they’ll be most interested in, but I’m hoping it will be something I haven’t even heard of yet!

GM: You’re a writer as well. Is it tough finding time to create?

Amelia: Finding time is only part of the challenge. Energy and mental focus are also in short supply as I try to keep track of who’s where and what everyone needs to be doing, plus the groceries, bill-paying, etc. When the kids were younger, they napped for a couple of hours in the early afternoon and that was usually my best writing time. I found that if I tried to get up more than an hour early, I just got too tired to think. Sleep is essential.

Nowadays, I try to get in my big blocks of writing time when they’re at school. I try to do the cleaning and grocery shopping when they’re around, both because I can and because I don’t think those things should happen off-screen. I mean, the dinner doesn’t magically cook itself, right? They should know that.

GM: Do you favor fantasy or science fiction? Why or why not?

Amelia: I read mostly fantasy and historical fiction, but I read occasional science fiction, too. The preference probably has a lot to do with aesthetics (liking tapestries and castles more than sleek metal and plastic spaceships), but it’s probably also about the ideas. I’m very interested in religions, which seem to be more often explored in fantasy.

GM: What can you tell us about what it’s like to be on a Discovery Channel show?

Amelia: It’s been an interesting experience. The filming was hectic and I found not knowing the schedules very stressful, but I don’t mind being on camera. Now that the show is on the air, I often have people come up to me when I’m out doing errands and say how much they like the show, which is actually kind of nice.

I feel a bit of distance from it, too, because although I’m involved, it’s not my project, it’s Mike’s project and I’m just helping out a bit. In my head, my career is my writing, even if it’s not profitable at the moment!

big giant swords

GM: What’s your favorite episode of Big Giant Swords

Amelia: I still haven’t seen the season finale, but so far I have two vying for the top spot. For the first episode, I had no idea what to expect, what the production company had done in editing. I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

Since then, I like the episode with Sarah Robles best, although I don’t enjoy being the nagging practical person all the time.

GM: Geek or Nerd?

Amelia: I still don’t understand this question. I’m old, and when I was in high school yes, nerds played D&D and read speculative fiction, but mostly nerds were not-jocks, not-popular, not-stoners, got good grades and/or cared about their classes. I’m not up to speed on TV and movie trivia, which cuts me out of a lot of token nerd/geekiness. I say a bit of one, a bit of the other, maybe a little more towards geekery. I’m also neither an introvert nor an extrovert, I come out right on the line.

GM: What would your kids say is the best piece of advice you’ve given them? What would they say for Mike?

Amelia: They are still pretty young for appreciating advice. I’ve been working on getting Christopher to take deep breaths when he’s upset or frustrated, and I think that’s been useful to him. Nova is quite independent and social and doesn’t need much advice, though I do boss her around plenty. So far she has not taken my advice to clean her room more regularly.

Mike is good at play and has been very encouraging to the kids in their art projects. He told Nova, “You can do art any time,” which I hope will stick with her.

Many thanks to Amelia for sharing her time with GeekMom. And thanks to Discovery Channel for providing the *exclusive clip*, below, for Big Giant Swords.

Big Giant Swords season finale airs Tuesday night, February 17th at 10pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel.

Truly Everlasting: Tuck Everlasting‘s 40th Anniversary

Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit - Macmillan
Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt (Macmillan, 2015)

I was ten when I first met the characters in Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting. Winnie, the Tuck family, and one very particular frog, linger in my mind. When I go for walks, I still look down sun-dappled paths, hoping to get a glimpse of what Winnie saw when she stepped beyond the wrought-iron fence of her Victorian home.

What’s amazing now about this book about life and death and living forever is how it’s achieved a kind of immortality of its own. A 40th anniversary edition is something writers dream about (trust me, I know of what I speak), and it signifies that the book has struck deep into public consciousness and touched the heart of things.

Tuck Everlasting is one of those books that I keep extras of on hand for sharing. That’s how it came to me, too: When I was ten, the copy given to me was worn enough to fall open at the part where…

Well, that will ruin it if you haven’t read the book yet. Let me say instead that reading Tuck Everlasting for the first time, then sharing it over the years with friends and family, is an experience I treasure.  It’s new every time.

Wicked author Gregory McGuire speaks to that renewal in his new introduction for the 40th Anniversary edition of Tuck Everlasting, out from Macmillan today.

The new edition also contains bonus materials—I’m very happy to add it to my collection. I might even share it with you, if you ask nicely. But you will probably want to pick up one or two of your own.

How about you? What are your Tuck Everlasting memories? When did you come across it?

Tuck Everlasting’s 40th Anniversary edition is distributed by Macmillan.

GeekMom received a promotional copy for review purposes.

How to Keep Social Media from Eating Your Life

Image: Fran Wilde
Image: Fran Wilde

Let me be the first to say it: This is kind of a horse-has-left-the-barn post for me. My day looks like I ran smack into the opening credits for The Matrix. That’s in part because what social media sites do is incredibly powerful: They unite communities across great gaps of space.

For those of you who still have a life to save from the ever-present pings of social media, I’ve got five quick tips for keeping the information onslaught at bay.

Here’s why doing so is important: Your time and presence are valuable to the folks at Twitter, Facebook, GooglePlus, Instagram, Goodreads, and all of the rest. They need that time and they think they need it more than *you* need it. That’s why they’re set up to email you about every change and update. They’re lonely. They need you. Please write.

Truth is, they’re not lonely. They just wouldn’t exist without you. (Well, Twitter might devolve to a bunch of Oscar Wilde* bots sending messages back and forth.)

But guess what? They’re all programs, designed to do one thing beyond all others: Whenever you get out, they try to pull you back in.

So here are a few ways to keep them from eating your life (some of which you may already be familiar with, but they’re worth revisiting)–allowing you to enjoy social media sites when you’re ready, but don’t feel the need to come running every time they call.

  1. Digests. Digests are your BFF. Every chance you get, whether it’s on a message board for a favorite interest or group, or a book site, go into your profile and find where they’ve stuck the “send me updates every:” followed by radio buttons with increments like “five minutes,” “daily,” and “weekly.” (this is usually in “notifications” or “emails”.) Checking a desired time frame will keep messages from coming to your inbox every time your nephew updates his status; instead, you’ll get a collected, shortened version, in one handy packet.

    Sample settings. Image: Fran Wilde
  2. Never.  Along with the daily and weekly updates, there’s another choice for how often you are notified about new things: never. You can elect to only see updates for certain sites when you choose to visit them. This is totally freeing, though you may miss out on some news because of the next thing.
  3. Filters. Facebook infamously filters what you see when you’re on the site, based on some mystery algorithm that brings you cat photos while hiding birth announcements and posts about your best friend who moved away coming back for a visit. But you, too, can play the filter game on most social media sites–you can select to always see items from “family” or “inner circle” members that you designate.

    Sample settings. Image: Fran Wilde
  4. Social Fixer, HootSuite, etc. Tools like Social Fixer and HootSuite allow you even greater control over what you see. You can plug in a number of filters on Social Fixer (donations welcome); you can manage multiple social media accounts on HootSuite (for a fee). It feels funny that we’re using overlays to control rampant problems in information flow on sites that are supposedly all about us… but that’s for another post.
    This saves me. Daily. Image: Fran Wilde


  5. A babysitter for your eyeballs. Can’t keep yourself from checking twitfaceboogle while you’re supposed to be writing that article on Social Media management? (ahem.) Or your next book? (COUGH.) Check out Anti-Social 1.0. Once you’ve downloaded it, put in a list of sites, set a timer, push start, and whammo, those sites aren’t available for the length of time you set. Don’t think you need this? Give it a try and see how many times in an hour you actually try to “just check what’s going on.” Better, realize the power of taking back control over when you do check. I’m going to go set mine for an hour right now.

*no relation

Fast, Eco-Friendly Ghost Lanterns

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photo credit: Fran Wilde

Looking for a new Halloween decoration? With a few items you probably already have, you can make ghost lanterns that are re-usable, recyclable, and eco-friendly.

You’ll need:

  • Plastic milk jugs, stripped of labels and rinsed thoroughly
  • Sharpie marker, black
  • Scissors
  • Sand (for weight)
  • Battery operated candles if placing out of the rain; glow-sticks if using in exposed locations

After rinsing each milk jug, cut the screw-top off to make putting the sand and light inside easier.

Use a Sharpie marker to draw faces on each lantern.

Fill the base with enough sand to keep the lanterns from blowing away and add your light.

** Don’t use regular candles or anything with an open flame, because Plastic + Fire = Bad. **

Place in groups along a pathway or on stairs.

(A version of this project on Pinterest also suggests using Christmas lights.)


5 Ways to Geek London with London Pass, Part 2

Heading to Platform 9 3/4 in full Gryffindor. Photo: Fran Wilde
Taking the tube to Platform 9 3/4 in full Gryffindor, with wand. Photo: Fran Wilde.

When we traveled to London for August’s World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, our family hoped to satisfy all of our geek-level travel interests: nautical tech, history, theater, literary London, and time(-travel). We discovered that the London Pass covered much—though not all—of what we wanted to see, providing the means to save on admission, transit, and gifts at many stops. Our 3-day passes* (£81 adult / £53 child) paid for themselves and then some (costs marked Included indicate London Pass admission). With our savings, we purchased access to two of our favorite exhibits: the Longitude exhibit at the National Maritime Museum and Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory.

In my last post, we explored things to see for Theater, History, and Nautical Geeks. This time, it’s Literary and Time Geek adventures in London. Onwards!

Literary Geek
• Shakespeare’s Globe: (Also seen in part 1 of Five Ways to Geek London with London Pass. Worth it for pure literary value, too.) We picked up a kids’ version of Anthony & Cleopatra in the gift shop when we thought we’d be able to get tickets to a performance.(Cost: £13.50 Included. Gift shop discount with pass.)

Dickens’ desk, Charles Dickens House. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

• The Charles Dickens House: Initially planned as a quick stop, we stayed for hours. Our daughter was fascinated, both with the treasure hunt the museum has wisely organized (bonus hedgehog in the scullery) and the quotes from Dickens’ novels in the children’s rooms. We spent a lot of time talking about different ways kids experience childhood as a result. She bought a copy of Oliver Twist to take home and was halfway through it before we left London. (Cost: £8 Included.)
• Poet’s Corner, Westminster: A visit with old friends, really to say thanks for their works. Those buried here include Chaucer, Tennyson, and Dickens, with memorials to many others. (Cost: £18  Included.)
• Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross, Gringotts: Find these stops and more using online guides, or take one of many guided tours; if walking, tube to each via the London Pass travelcard. Purchasing photos from the pros at Platform 9 ¾ can be spendy, but they don’t shout too much if you want to take your own. There’s often a long wait at Platform 9 ¾, so it’s best to arrive early.
• The Tower of London for fans of, among other things, Neal Stephenson’s System of the World. The coinage exhibits are of particular interest, as well as the White Tower. Also (primarily) for History Geeks. (Cost: £20 Included. Audio tour discounts with the pass.)

Plaque at the Southwark Cathedral. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

• Walking (free): Throughout London, blue plaques mark points of interest—from George Elliot’s home to where, at separate times, writers and artists lived, including such congruences as HG Wells and Peter Cook.  Literary markers run especially thick in Bloomsbury and Southwark, near the Southwark Cathedral.
National Portrait Gallery Virginia Woolf Exhibit, through October 26, 2014 (free), and The Cartoon Museum (adult ticket  £7  Included).

(For more literary wonders near to London, check out the Story Museum in Oxford profiled by GeekMom Helen Barker, the Roald Dahl Museum, and the Universal Studios Harry Potter Experience.)

Time Geek
• Big Ben: (ie: The Elizabeth Tower and the Great Clock) Not on the London Pass tour, but you can see it from everywhere and if you are a UK resident, you may be able to arrange a tour.
The bells, everywhere. Listen to the bells. Few places ring the changes like London.
• The clocks on exhibit at the British Museum (free) are a must for any time geek’s travel plans… do not miss them as you move through the galleries and eras of the collection.  You may need a time turner to see it all.
• Self-respecting time geeks won’t miss the opportunity to try and spot a Timelord. Visit London has got you covered. (Not on the London Pass.)

Greenwich Royal Observatory. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.
Greenwich Royal Observatory. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.

• The biggest hit by far (and one of the most beautiful views) is the Astronomy Centre at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (transport via Thames River tour, cost:  £18  Included, or train.) Re-enactors discuss various aspects of the establishment of Greenwich Mean Time and lunar transit observations, in particular those of Jupiter’s moons. One of the people you may meet on grounds is a dynamic John Flamsteed, first Royal Astronomical Observator.
• You can take your photo by the Greenwich Meridian marker, but the much less crowded and much more relevant option is to follow the time-line to the historic Airy Transit Circle telescope, housed in the Observatory. As you wander, you’ll also find a working camera obscura, so you can watch the day pass in negative, real-time. So cool.
• Longitude, Punk’d: (Royal Observatory, Greenwich, also Cutty Sark belowdecks) This exhibit, which runs through January 5, 2015, is a time-traveler’s dream, especially if you are a steampunk time traveler. With the assistance of artists including Robert Rankin, Citizen Griffdawg, Lady Raygun, Doctor Geof, Major Thaddeus Tinker, Lady Elsie, Emilly Ladybird, and others, the Royal Observatory galleries have been… adjusted, to allow for alternate history and its required gear and devices. The pictures cannot do it justice. I’d suggest an in-person visit as soon as you can navigate your dirigible to the exhibit. (Cost: £8.50, includes Longitude exhibit at the National Maritime Museum.)

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Make sure to read part one of our London Pass adventure: Theater Geek, Nautical Geek, and History Geek!

The author received a complimentary 3-day London Pass from Leisure Pass Group.

Five Ways to Geek London With London Pass, Part 1

The Tower of London. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.
Tower of London. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

In August, the Wilde family visited London for the World Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention (aka LonCon3), where two of us were panelists. We had a few days to travel before the convention and different ideas about what we wanted to see: I’m a literary geek (shocking, right?), a nautical geek, and a time geek; the husband is a bit of a history geek, with a particular interest in Londinium; and our daughter? She thought most of what she wanted to see in London was Platform 9 3/4.  That changed. Because we were on a budget, we discovered many ways to tour London affordably, taking the tube, walking a lot, and using the London Pass. We were pleased to see that when we visited three attractions or more per day, and took into account additional discounts, last-minute promotions, and the excellent (and free) London Pass app, our 3-day London Passes* (£81 adult / £53 child) did indeed easily pay for themselves, as advertised.

Meantime, we often were able to skip long waiting lines, allowing us more time to walk around London. (And we bought several umbrellas using our London Pass gift shop discounts.) There are so many things to see and do in London (not all of them on the London Pass) that we found ourselves pretty overwhelmed at first. Using the London Pass app, we were able to mark our favorite points of interest, which let us be more organized about where we toured. Because some things we wanted to see and do were not on the pass, we took that into consideration and budgeted for them separately. We still think the London Pass was a great deal. Here’s Part 1 of our favorite five ways to geek out in London that the London Pass puts within easy reach.

Theater Geek

• Leicester Square was our first stop near the National Portrait Gallery to pick up our London Passes, as we didn’t have them mailed to our home. We found the London Pass offices located downstairs in the ticket information booth at the center of the square. While there, we took a long look at upcoming shows, as London Pass holders can get substantial discounts off tickets. (If you’ve had your pass mailed to you, you can order tickets online too.) (Cost: Free, bonus discounts.)

At Shakespeare's Globe Theater. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.
At Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Photo Credit: Fran Wilde.

• Shakespeare’s Globe Theater – We first tried to go late in the afternoon, but found tours had already ended. Not a problem, the next morning was beautiful, and we came back first thing. The Globe is, as the original was, open to the elements. Our guide was eloquent on subjects ranging from how sets were designed to the origin of the term “stinking masses.” One particular Harry Potter fan was delighted to find a brick outside bearing the name of the actress who played Madame Hooch in the movies. To sum up: this is a must go. The rebuilt Globe Theater is exquisite inside and out, and their museum of costumes and sets downstairs was of great interest to the whole family. If you can, take the opportunity to see a performance while you’re in Southwark. The ticket booth is at the end of your tour, although families with small children may balk as we did at the standing-room-only option. (Cost: £13.50 Included. Gift shop discounts with the pass.)

• London Pass holders can also get free backstage tours at the National Theater.

History Geek

• Start with Tower of London, and go early. Even though the London Pass let us skip the ticket line, we took a leisurely walk across the Tower Bridge (also on the pass) and by the time we arrived, the entrance line snaked and weaved across the pavement, despite the sudden downpours. Luckily, the line also moved at a very fast clip, so we didn’t get too wet. Once inside, we used the pass to get discounted audio tours. All three of us chose the kid’s tour. It’s very well done and, according to other members of our party, funnier than the adult audio tour. On our way out, we explored the new coinage exhibit just inside the main gate, and found it excellent, with great interactives and a look at other aspects of the tower’s history. (Cost: £20 Included. Audio tour discounts with the pass.)

A section of Roman Wall, The London Museum. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.
A section of Roman Wall, The London Museum. Photo credit: Fran Wilde.

The London Museum traces the evolution of the city from pre-history through Londinium’s heyday, all the way to modern times. It’s a little museum that packs a huge wallop. We immersed ourselves in Roman culture (Londinium) and saw a piece of the original Roman wall, peered at an Auroch’s skull, and even learned how long each of us would have survived the Black Death. Utterly fun and well done. (Cost: £5 Included.)

Westminster Abbey – Lines form early here as well, but with our London Passes, we were able to skip the ticket office. Once inside, the tombs and memorials of nobles, scientists, musicians, artists, statesmen, and writers (yep, you’ll see Westminster again on the Literary list) grace the outer areas while royal tombs occupy the inner circle. The adults among us were overwhelmed by it. The kids were interested in the details of the tombs because our kids are fairly creepy. (Cost: £18 Included.)

• The Tower Bridge exhibit, Windsor Castle, The Churchill War Rooms, and many other historic buildings are also on the pass.

• Should you spend a day being a Nautical Geek (below), don’t miss the Fan Museum in Greenwich. The small museum has a great collection of vintage fans from all periods, as well as a study of the language of fans. Most important, if you can make reservations, it has an excellent and affordable tea. (Cost: £4 Included. Tea is extra.) [Many thanks to Julia Rios, co-editor of the wonderful YA Science Fiction and Fantasy collection, Kaleidescope, for telling me about this museum!]

• At certain times of year, you may be able to visit Buckingham Palace, which we did with a discount from the London Pass. The best audio tour here is again the kid’s tour, this time conducted by the palace corgis. The artwork and architecture in the palace alone is worth the visit.

Nautical Geek

• Our London Passes got us on Thames riverboat trips all the way to Greenwich. You can take the tube, but believe me, this is the way to go. The city’s naval history is told along the rivers’ banks, and the river cruise makes for a great way to see it all. (Cost: £18 Included.)

The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo Credit, Fran Wilde.
The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Photo Credit, Fran Wilde.

• The National Maritime Museum is free once you arrive in Greenwich using either your riverboat trip or a London Pass travelcard to get around on the tube. The museum contains all aspects of British maritime history, from exploration and maritime battles to modern-day racing. Everyone loved this one.

• Through January 2015, and for additional admission, the National Maritime Museum is celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Longitude Act with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: the Quest for Longitude, a not-to-miss examination of the race to find accurate methods of navigation. We took some of the money we’d saved by using the London Pass and bought tickets to this exhibition and its companion exhibit, Longitude Punk’d (see below). Totally Worth It. (Cost: £8.50.)

The Golden Hinde II, the reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake’s galleon, located in Southwark, is not on the London Pass, nor is the Cutty Sark, but the HMS Belfast is. (Cost: Adult ticket £15 Included.)

Tune in soon for Part 2 of our London Pass adventure: Literary Geek and Time(lord) Geek! *The author received a complimentary 3-day London Pass from Leisure Pass Group.

A Meditation on Heroes: One Mom’s Journey to Artesia, New Mexico

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Photo used with permission.

“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn’t look like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, he’s going to keep digging, he’s going to keep trying to do right and make up for what’s gone before, just because that’s who he is.” ~ Joss Whedon

Stephanie Izaguirre practices immigration law in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She’s worked for the State Department and USCIS (formerly INS) before going into private practice. Stephanie’s also a friend of mine, and we share a longtime love of certain shows, like Buffy and Firefly. When I saw her most recent Facebook updates, I knew GeekMom would want to meet her.

You see, I’ve seen news footage about the growing number of kids and families being housed in detention centers near the U.S. border, and I’ve wished I could do something. Stephanie?

Stephanie got in her car and drove to Artesia, New Mexico, to help.

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Photo courtesy Stephanie Izaguirre.

GeekMom: Why did you decide to travel to Artesia? 

Stephanie Izaguirre: Kids have always been my soft spot.  When Hurricane Katrina happened, my oldest child was just a few weeks old.  I saw pictures and heard stories of moms sending their babies out of New Orleans with family members to keep them safe. At the time, I remember thinking “I would never do that! What’s wrong with those moms? Why didn’t they plan better?” and then over time I realized that all moms love their children. We all make the best decisions with the knowledge and resources we have.

These moms locked up in Artesia—because the detention center in Artesia is just moms and kids—all made the best decision they could with what they had available and what they knew. Because of my work in immigration, I know the kinds of things that happen to immigrants in their journey here and women and children are among the most vulnerable. I have exactly the education and experience needed at this moment, I didn’t have a boss I needed to ask for permission, and the detention center was a day’s drive from my house. I was reading a report from another lawyer down there one evening and I just knew I had to go.

GM: What have you experienced in your time at Artesia?

SI: This is a hard question to answer. The women I met there are all fighters. They took incredible risks and traveled a huge distance with their children in tow in an effort to try to find a safe place for their children. They aren’t just looking for a better life; they are fleeing violence. Almost all of the women I met have a close friend or family member who has been killed. Almost all of them have received death threats—either to themselves or their children. Many of them were threatened by gangs in their country that if they didn’t pay extortion money to the gangs, one of their children would be killed. So they are scared. They don’t really know where they are. Artesia is a barren desert. There are no trees and no grass where they are being held. Most of the kids are sick with some sort of cough and at the moment there is a chicken pox outbreak. Many of the kids, especially the toddlers and younger kids, have diarrhea and aren’t really eating.

Trying to do legal work in this environment is a real challenge. There’s no daycare or school so the kids must be supervised by their moms at all times. This means that women are trying to talk to both lawyers, asylum officers, and judges with their kids in their arms or in the same room. Many women were breast-feeding their children and simultaneously trying to process complicated information that will change their lives. I’m actually a huge advocate of normalizing breastfeeding, but I also think that I might prefer to have someone else watch my infant while trying to explain a complicated story to the man whose decision will determine whether I get deported or not.

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Photo courtesy Stephanie Izaguirre.

Beyond the situation with the kids, things are happening so fast that there is no time to prepare. The lawyers get almost no notice of asylum or court hearings. I think the government is not doing that intentionally, but things are so happening so fast that there is just no time to prepare. Due process is a fancy legal term, but what it really means is fairness. Was the proceeding fair? Did you know what was going on and did you have time to prepare? When the answer is no, then that is a violation of due process, one of the most fundamental aspects of the legal system here.

GM: How do you think individuals can make a difference in the lives of others there and elsewhere?

SI: Sadly, there’s not much opportunity to make donations, either money or items. I think the best thing people can do now is talk about what is going on and make sure people know what is happening. This isn’t really an immigration problem, it’s a refugee problem. Most of these people came here because they know someone here but they left their countries because of violence.

GM: Do you plan to return?

SI: Yes. I don’t know when exactly but I’m already planning on going back.

GM: To me, what you’re doing is one kind of heroic act—stepping outside your life in order to help others, even when that’s not the easiest thing to do. I think everyone wants to be a hero in their own lives, and you’ve up and done it. Does it feel weird that I’m saying that? 

SI: I certainly don’t think of myself as a hero. I had the skill and resources to do it. Having said that, I don’t think anyone ever thinks of themselves as a hero (LOL, Buffy). Sometimes you are just in a particular place and the way forward is clear.

GM: You are a lawyer-warrior with a family—do your kids know how awesome their mom is?

SI: My daughter is 9, and my sons are 6 and 2. I’ve actually never met a child who understands immigration or why we deport people when their families live here. Having said that, my older two know I go to court to try to help people stay with their families. I told them that I was going to be gone for a few days to go help some moms and kids who were running away from people trying to hurt them. I think they understand that part. My kids have a pretty protected and privileged life and it’s important to me that they understand that they have an obligation to give back.

So yeah, I want them to live in a world where they know that they aren’t their things and they aren’t the privilege they have. They, and I, started from a pretty good place in life and that comes with an obligation to give back. It doesn’t have to be in the work of immigration but I want their lives to be about more than just themselves. Having said that, I also want them to live in a world where we don’t arbitrarily separate families because of borders. I’m actually not a policy person—I’m not sure where to draw the line of who we let in and who we keep out. But I do think that parents of U.S. citizens should be allowed to stay with their kids.

GM: Tell us a little about your own heroes (from media and real life).

BtVS, Season 2.

SI: I gotta talk about Buffy here for a moment. I’m about to out myself as a serious geek here. At the end of season 2, there’s a moment where Angel is telling her that she’s all alone—no one is coming to help her (I don’t remember the exact quote and I’m in the middle of nowhere to check), but he asks her what’s left and she takes her hands and stops the sword right in front of her face. What’s left? Me. That’s how I feel a lot in this job. What’s left to stop this person from being deported? Me. I often walk in to court scared and nervous. The stakes are really high and sometimes I wish I’d taken a job as a greeter at Walmart. But the client is depending on me and I take that very seriously. There’s a woman in Artesia now. She barely knows me and can’t really talk to me, but I will do everything I can to make sure she and her children aren’t deported.

Zoe from Firefly is another media hero—she’s a strong woman doesn’t take shit from anyone. And when I was a kid, Batman was my hero because he was just a regular guy who decided to make a difference.

In real life, one of my current heroes is Elizabeth Warren—she speaks the truth in the face of strong opposition and I like that.

GM: Know what else is amazing about Stephanie? Here’s what she says about her office: 

SI: My office is staffed by four amazing moms and myself. I mention that we are all moms because part of the reason I opened my own law firm was to work in a place where the work we did was important but that also respected the important role we as moms have.

The Albuquerque Journal has more information about the lawyers volunteering in Artesia, New Mexico.

Our Totally Unscientific Food Box Experiment

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Screenshot from plated.com, the recipe and food delivery service.

For a few months this spring, our household had trial memberships to two recipe and food delivery services: Plated, the “Chef-designed responsibly-sourced recipe and food delivery service,” and Blue Apron, which features “Fresh ingredients, great recipes, delivered weekly.”

I called it our food box thunderdome experiment.

“Why?” said the spouse. “For science!” said I.  (Also, I was sick of all of our recipes and we were both working late hours. The family was in a cooking rut and time-crunched. And, both Plated and Blue Apron had trial offers that made testing them out fairly affordable. Cheaper than a babysitter + dinner + a movie, at least.)

“Science?” he said. “This isn’t scientific. To be scientific, you’d have to control for date, time, temperature… essentially getting two boxes on the same week and then comparing to groceries on the same week—and no. That is not going to happen.”

“No problem,” I said. “I declare this a totally unscientific food box experiment, all mistakes and impressions are my own doing, and reproduction of this experiment is at your own risk.”

And away we went. We ordered nine different meals from Plated, including their “first two plates free” trial. Plated’s “recommend your friends” option also gave us more free meals. Thank you, friends! Then, we ordered nine meals from Blue Apron, including their “first three meals free” trial.

For both services, there were hits and misses. Here’s the totally unscientific breakdown:

Delivery: Both boxes arrived when they said they would, with thorough insulation.  Box size is nearly identical. All of the produce was fresh and ready-to-cook: Avocados were ripe, fruit was ripe, vegetables were ripe. There were no rock-hard avocados. This was fantastic.

Home Ec 101: A base order is two Plated meals of two plates each or three Blue Apron meals (feeds two to three people each) per delivery.

Selection: We could select meals from an available menu at Plated. We had to list our preferences and a selection was chosen for us by Blue Apron.

Minimum Cost Per Box: (This was per our experience only. YMMV depending on the number of family members and how well you work those refer-a-friend deals.) Blue Apron was $59.95 (three meals, no choices aside from dislikes and allergies). Plated was $48 plus the monthly membership (two  meals/four “plates,” with multiple delivery options).

The Breakdown: Three meals from Plated costs $72, plus membership; three meals from Blue Apron costs $59.50. This is a $12 difference, plus Plated’s membership fee.

Screen Shot 2014-07-07 at 9.46.35 PM
Screenshot from blueapron.com, a recipe and food delivery service.

Membership Fees:

Plated has three options: $10/month billed monthly; $8/month billed annually; and pay-as-you-go (this puts the per-plate cost up to $15/plate). There is no minimum monthly order, although each Plated order must include four plates.

Blue Apron has a minimum three-meal plan, but you have to un-check the calendar when you don’t want a box or else, surprise, a food box will appear on your doorstep. (This totally bit me in the butt a few times.)

A very not-scientific gut feeling: Our feeling was that many of the recipes from each service could be made for much cheaper. That’s obvious with some of the tomato-and-cheese and chicken items. But not all of the recipes were a budget blow-out, especially when we factored in driving around for ingredients and the cost of certain spices. With Plated, we were able to pick the menu items that provided the most bang for our buck. With Blue Apron, we weren’t able to choose. We also found ourselves less motivated to cook the third meal of the week from Blue Apron, especially since we didn’t pick it. That’s pretty expensive apathy.

Allergies: We could stipulate no dairy, meat, fish, etc. on both. Only Plated offered no-gluten-added meals, which was really important for us and led to much less food substituting versus Blue Apron.

While a lot of produce arrived bagged in a group, with a contents labeled, we received wrapped single items from Blue Apron—always carefully tagged. Photo: Fran Wilde.

Packaging: Plated’s packaging seems more environmentally conscious. The items aren’t individually wrapped unless they need to be (sauces, grains). Both Plated and Blue Apron send liquids in bottles that can be re-used. Other packaging can be recycled. There just feels like a lot more of it from Blue Apron. And really, non-scientifically speaking, there’s a lot of packaging in general, from the boxes to the cold packs and on. If you got these meals regularly, you’d be drowning in cold packs.

General Impressions About the Recipes (From Me, My Patient Spouse, and Our Child):


Me: I loved Plated’s recipes. They were beautiful, delicious, and highly intricate to cook. I learned many new techniques.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good.

The Child: Nope. Not for me. Too spicy, too fancy. Too much fish. Nope. nope, nope.

Blue Apron

Me: I also loved many of Blue Apron’s recipes, though it felt like we wasted a lot of food. Three meals a week is more than we wanted, but that was the minimum. We often substituted out the pasta and couscous because of food allergies. And oh my goodness, does Blue Apron love zesting! Lemons, limes. Seemed like every recipe required zesting. We didn’t need that much zest, really.

The Patient Spouse: Was all good. Have you figured out how to stop the boxes from coming yet?

Me: Nope, still trying.

The Child: Some of it was okay. I liked the gnocchi. Can we have more gnocchi? But without those flowers. (There were edible zucchini flowers for one recipe. Those got the nope.)


1. The best part of this unscientific experiment was when we all started cooking a recipe together. In the kitchen, all of us, at one time. That happens sometimes, but not always. There’s something that happens when you all have to figure out a new recipe together. It’s kind of like a puzzle.

2. Another big pro: Never having to go back to the store for a missing item on a complex recipe.

3. And not having to buy a big box or tin of something that we’d only use a bit of unless we wanted to be eating elaborate food for a month.

4. And we can reuse the recipes.


1. Price and selection—and the contents of each box were a bit overwhelming at first.

2. There was a lot of packaging for each, and there’s no way to return the cool packs for reuse.

3. Being stuck with items one or more of us couldn’t eat was annoying (especially when it came to allergens that were not specifically weeded out).

The Upshot: The upshot is that these boxes are spendy, unless you go with their “suggest a friend” option—and for families, it may be way on the fancy side.

I have some friends whose picky kids turned into gourmet chefs once they started getting into the “build-your-dinner” kits. Not mine. Nope.

I’m no food photographer. And this was delicious. Photo: Fran Wilde.

But for an occasional “night-out” dinner in? The fun of cooking together again without having to remember anything at the store? Or having to figure out which recipe? That was so good. That means, for us, Plated would be a better choice.

Both services seem to default to auto-enrollment in regular/weekly food deliveries. Plated’s team helped me work that out pretty quickly. It took me forever to figure out how to stop the boxes from coming on Blue Apron. I unchecked everything on their widget. Twice. They still came.  (Eventually Blue Apron did help me fix this; thanks you guys!)

Our Favorite Recipes: Blue Apron had catfish and jicama slaw with amaranth and watermelon radish. So very good. A hands-down winner. Pan-seared salmon with lima bean and olive relish was also good, but this is one that we had to substitute out the couscous.

Plated had vegetable lasagna, chicken paillard (so much fun smashing the chicken to make paillard, I can’t tell you.), miso rice portabellos, and chicken tikka masala. It was all just completely awesome. (I wish I could link you to these pages at Plated.com, but I can’t.)

So, one family, two food subscription services: Plated and Blue Apron. When we emerged from beneath our pile of boxes (oh so many boxes), we discovered something: We liked cooking again.  I’ll call that a win.

International Scratch Day: Saturday, May 17!

Do your kids Scratch? Nope, this isn’t a medical question.

Scratch is a free programming language developed for kids. From elementary school to college, kids use it to create interactive stories to building animations and games. In the meantime, they’re learning programming principles and collaboration skills—important stuff for the future. Scratch is available in over forty languages, and is in use in one hundred fifty countries.

This Saturday, May 17, is International Scratch Day—and events are popping up everywhere. See if there’s an event near you where you and your kids can learn more about programming!

The MIT Media Lab group Lifelong Kindergarten developed Scratch in 2003 and the project has received grants from the National Science Foundation as well as Intel Foundation, Microsoft, MacArthur Foundation, LEGO Foundation, Code-to-Learn Foundation, Google, Dell, and others.

Cooking the Books: Attack the Geek with Michael R. Underwood & Giveaway!

Since 2011, I’ve hosted an interview series on my own blog called Cooking the Books, which explores the intersection between food and genre fiction. Cooking the Books’ interviews with science-fiction and fantasy authors, agents, and editors have a thing in common: there’s a recipe at the end.

I was all set to post this great interview with Michael R. Underwood, author of Attack the Geek, the new book in the Geekomancy series (more on that in a moment), when I thought, “Waitaminnit, I think the GeekMom audience would love this a lot.” Mike thought it was a great idea too and offered to throw in a worldwide giveaway (more on that in a moment also), in addition to answering random food-related questions about his work and giving us a fabulous pizza recipe.

Book Giveaway! Recipe! Interview with awesome author! This is a brilliant plan. Let’s get rolling…

Michael R. Underwood’s Geekomancy series follows the adventures of Ree, who discovers that some people have the power to bring geek-culture icons to life, for better and worse. From Geekomancy to Celebromancy to Attack the Geek, Underwood keeps the action high and the geekery even higher. Welcome, Michael, to a special edition of Cooking the Books on GeekMom!

Attack the Geek Full
With permission, Angry Robot Books.

Cooking the Books/Geek Mom: The Geekomancy series’ main character, Ree, has worked in several service industry niches—food and sales, with Cafe Xombie (Geekomancy)—as well as getting her break in Hollywood (Celebromancy). Now she’s a barista at Grognard’s. Can you talk a bit about the restaurant/bar culture as it relates to both geeks and geeky writers? 

Michael Underwood: As geekdom ascends in popularity, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen geekdom seep into bars and restaurants. Brooklyn has steampunk/SF-themed bar The Way Station, a group has kickstarted a geek bar, and there are others around the country. Fantasy taverns are the archetypal meeting place of adventurers and bars are frequently the cornerstone of any convention, from small regional conventions to big gaming and SF cons like GenCon.

Restaurants and bars are cruxes of socialization, and geekdom is social—it’s about sharing passion. So there’s really nothing better than some good food and drink to accompany shared enthusiasm and friendly arguments about beloved shows, books, comics, and more.

CtB/GM: Do you feel that you’ve taken the fantasy-style tavern brawl to a whole new level in Attack the Geek? How so?

MU: I honestly hadn’t thought much about Attack the Geek as a fantasy tavern brawl. I was more drawing on bottle episodes of TV shows, where our heroes have to hold out against attackers (like the “Jus in Bello” episode of Supernatural), on siege stories like the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and from “game comes alive” stories like Jumanji. Making the fortress a gamer bar and the gaming gear that comes alive in RPG/strategy games, I mixed up the influences to create something new.

CtB/GM: What are your favorite tavern/bar brawls from TV/film/literature?

MU: It’s hard to beat the bar brawls from Firefly and Serenity—from the pool cue bludgeons wielded by Jayne to people being thrown through holographic windows and Mal’s overly-cocky mugging for Inara to River’s subliminal-advertising-induced-intricately-choreographed ballet of violence that kicks off the plot of the whole film.

What makes these fun for me is how the fights so clearly reveal character: Jayne’s highly tactile approach to life, Mal’s chronic mis-calibration of morality to the situation and his devil-may-care attitude when things go wrong, Wash’s charming bravado as he threatens the locals with the Serenity’s non-existent guns, and River’s graceful, intricate approach to fighting and moving through life.

CtB/GM: If you could have one food item from pop culture, what would it be? 

MU: If it weren’t for the trout-zombie virus included, I’d want to try the energy drink from The Middleman!

I could stand an Ent-draught or two to get a tad taller, or maybe some lembas as emergency survival food. My Whedonite tendencies would lead me to wanting to try the Fruity Oaty Bar from Serenity—or maybe that’s the subliminal programming talking.

CtB/GM: When we discussed your CtB visit, we talked about new business models for publishing. It seems as if the restaurant industry is looking into similar business model changes… do you foresee “book trucks” (like food trucks) on the horizon?

MU: Penguin debuted a book truck at BEA last year, and then they sent it around the country for promotional purposes. We already have bookmobiles run by libraries, so it seems only sensible that someone could start a book truck—especially if they teamed up with food trucks to offer fun reads that would accompany the great eats. Though it seems like they’d probably end up spending a lot on napkins/hand wipes.

Being more serious, I think that book trucks are less of a no-brainer than food trucks, just because technology has already delivered mobile reading devices—phones, tablets, and e-readers. Airports still sell a goodly number of books to a captive audience, but I think that quite a bit of the appeal of book trucks would be the novelty, and it’d take some innovative thinking and business planning to get beyond that initial novelty. Genre-specific trucks with decoration themes are obvious. Fantasy truck with ’70s fantasy mural on the side? Hell yes. Steampunk truck with Victoriana and airship stories galore? For sure. Truck done up like a CSI lab with mystery/crime novels? Go for it.

CtB/GM: What about publishing with Angry Robot do you like best? Are publishers like restaurants?

MU: One of my favorite parts of working with Angry Robot is developing supportive working relationships with authors, each of whom is their own literary chef, bringing their expertise and aesthetic to our big restaurant of food for the mind.

The other part is the innovation mandate. My boss Marc Gascoigne is dedicated to forging ahead, to finding new and cooler ways of connecting with readers, whether that involves trying out print+ebook bundling, partnering with new business models (like Oyster), or another cool and crazy idea.

Publishers are definitely like restaurants in a number of ways: They develop followings based on selection/menu, presentation/packing, and on the personalities. And like restaurants, most publishers aren’t as much in direct competition with one another as you might think. The more restaurants there are that deliver incredible food and a welcoming atmosphere, the more likely customers/readers are to take a chance on another publisher or restaurant, since they’ve already had good luck at least once when they expanded their horizons.

I think there’s also a degree to which individual authors are like restaurants. You still have to cultivate a following, get your work out in front of more people than just your core audience, and that most restaurants/authors become known for one particular feel. You’re a pizza place or an epic fantasy author. Any time an author tries out a new flavor, there’s a risk, but the reward, the upside of finding a new combination, is more than enticing enough to be worth going out on an aesthetic limb.

CtB/GM: What’s next for Ree? What’s next for Michael Underwood? 

MU: I’m currently plotting and am soon to start writing Hexomancy, the third full-length Ree Reyes story. This will roll the plot of Attack the Geek into the overall plot of the series, and will also include some major developments in the characters’ relationships—plus, the usual mix of geeky comedy, superpowered geekdom, and action/adventure.

After Attack the Geek, my next release is Shield and Crocus (June 10), an action fantasy novel about a group of revolutionaries in a city built among the bones of a titan. They strike a bargain with one of the tyrants that rules the city in order to stop the magical storms which transmogrify and/or level entire neighborhoods at once, killing or transforming people along the way. It’s like what would happen if you set Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn in China Mieville’s New Crobuzon.

CtB/GM: Where might we expect to be seeing you this spring and summer?

MU: I’m going to be all over the place this year. Here are my scheduled appearances through the end of the summer:

  • May 23-26, BaltiCon, Baltimore, MD
  • May 28-31, Book Expo America, New York, NY
  • June 5-8, Phoenix Comicon, Phoenix, AZ
  • July 3-6, CONvergence, Minneapolis, MN
  • July 10-13, ReaderCon, Boston, MA
  • August 14-18, WorldCon (LonCon), London, UK

CtB/GM: Would you share a recipe with us?

I’m going to share my recipe for Ree’s favorite pizza from Turbo’s Pizzeria, affectionately known as…

The Pizza of Win 

For the dough:

  • 22 oz. warm water
  • 1 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 30 oz. unbleached bread flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 T medium or dark rye flour
  • 1 ½ tsp wheat germ
  • 1 ½ tsp mild-flavored honey
  • 1 T kosher salt
  • 1 T dried basil
  • 1 T dried oregano
  • Dash of garlic powder.
  • Olive oil for greasing

This is going to take several stages, so I recommend podcasts (like The Skiffy and Fanty Show, or Fran’s own Cooking The Books podcast with Mur Lafferty [coming soon!]) to listen to while you work.

  1. Start by making a sponge with 15 oz. of warm water, the yeast, and a pinch of sugar to help get the yeast get going. Wait a few minutes for science!
  2. Add 13 oz. of bread flour, the rye, and the wheat germ; stir to combine. Wooden spoons are best, because tradition. And flavor.
  3. Cover the bowl and stow it somewhere room temperature warmish. Listen to podcasts.
  4. 90 minutes of podcasts later, add the rest of the water (7oz.), the rest of the bread flour, the barley malt, the garlic powder, the basil, and the oregano. If you have a mixer, use it. If you like being old-school and hardcore, mix with the spoon and then knead the dough yourself. This will also give you the sexy baker look (and the less sexy dough-all-over-your-hands look).
  5. Mix/knead until the dough will pull away from the edge of the bowl. Another rubrick I’ve heard is that you want to mix the dough until it has the consistency of your earlobe (folkways!).
  6. Get your pizza pan and use cornmeal to dust the pan and the dough, so it doesn’t stick. Plus, cornmeal gives the dough a great mix of textures.
  7. Once you’ve got your dough ready, you’ll need the materials to make the pizza into a pizza of win:

Basil Pesto Oregano:

  • Roma tomatoes (sliced)
  • Mild Italian sausage (or soysage)
  • Feta cheese
  • And a standard mozzarella or mozzarella/Parmesan mix
  1. The basil pesto is your sauce and the mozzarella/Parmesan is your cheese base. Then, top it with pre-cooked crumbled Italian sausage, feta cheese, and the Roma tomatoes.
  2. Cook for 12 minutes at 400 degrees.
  3. Raise a glass to Ree Reyes, Turbo’s pizzeria, and the glory of pizza.
  4.  NOM.


Cooking the Books fans and GeekMoms alike, Michael has generously agreed to do a GIVEAWAY!

The details, from Michael himself: “I’ll give away a copy of Geekomancy (get in on the ground floor) or Attack the Geek (get the new book).”

How to enter: Comment below with your favorite food / geekdom pairing for a chance to win. [Forex: Earl Gray / Star Trek]

Michael will randomly pick a winner and announce it here and on Twitter on April 14.The winner will be contacted for mailing information.


photo courtesy of Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of GeekomancyCelebromancy, as well as the forthcoming Attack the GeekShield and Crocus, and The Younger Gods. By day, he’s the North American Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books. Mike grew up devouring stories in all forms, from comics to video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, and books. Always books.

Mike lives in Baltimore with his fiance, an ever-growing library, and a super-team of dinosaur figurines and stuffed animals. In his rapidly-vanishing free time, he studies historical martial arts and makes pizzas from scratch. Visit him at michaelrunderwood.com and on Twitter.

Want to read more Cooking the Books? The updated library of interviews is here.

10 Questions With Award-Winning Science Fiction Editor Sheila Williams

Copyright 2014 by Penny Publications LLC/Dell Magazines.

Sheila Williams is the multiple Hugo-award winning editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. She is also the editor or co-editor of twenty-six anthologies. The most recent of these are Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine: 30th Anniversary Anthology (Tachyon Publications) and Enter A Future: Fantastic Tales from Asimov’s Science Fiction (Dell Magazines). Sheila is the co-founder of the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, which is given out each year in Orlando, Florida, by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.

GeekMom recently asked Sheila questions about growing up in science fiction and fantasy, the ins and outs of the editorial process, and the amazing Dell Magazine Award. Sheila’s daughters joined in, too, contributing their own perspectives and favorite reads. Check it out:

Geek Mom: You came on staff at Asimov’s in the 1980s, and became editor of Asimov’s in 2004. What shifts have been particularly apparent in science fiction over the past three decades?

Sheila Williams: I had the good fortune to work with Shawna McCarthy and Gardner Dozois—two editors who published groundbreaking fiction. They looked for quality writing along with thoughtful extrapolation. The stories I get have continued this tradition. The backgrounds of some of the writers are more diverse now, though, so I am seeing material that explores the future from refreshingly varied perspectives.

Photo by Ché Ryback, courtesy of Sheila Williams.
Photo by Ché Ryback, courtesy of Sheila Williams.

GM: Would you talk a bit about your editorial approach to Asimov’s Magazine

SW: I read for enjoyment. I buy stories that I like to read. Sometimes a story works for me immediately. More often, I have to put it on the back burner for a while. Days later, if I’m still thinking about a story, still amused, haunted, or moved in other ways, I’m probably going to take it. There are my line edits, of course, but some stories need to be revised by the author. Some tales are perfect the first time around. Writers are almost always extremely easy to work with. I can’t promise to buy the revised story, but I usually do, because I only ask for revisions when I’m very serious about a story.

Every issue has to strike a balance. I try not to have more than one time travel or alternate history story in an issue. Try to go easy on parallel universes (though authors are overly fond of this theme). Most stories will qualify as some sort of science fiction, but I might put one fantasy and/or one hard to quantify tale in each issue. Many stories will be serious, but I always shoot for some levity somewhere. Not all stories can be far future, or about teenagers, or Mars, or whatever. Also, there has to be a mix of story lengths.

GM: What challenges and opportunities do you see for women interested in writing for and editing anthologies and magazines with a science fiction focus? 

SW: From the editing side, it was never easy for anyone to break into publishing, but it’s certainly gotten harder to find a full-time salaried position with benefits. On the other hand, with Webzines and Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources, there are a lot more opportunities to engage in the field as a serious sideline editing ones own magazine or anthology. As for writing, I don’t think it’s any more challenging for women to break into SF magazines than it is for men. Breaking in is hard in general. There are a lot more people writing SF then there are story slots, but if the story is good, editors will jump on it. Keep in mind that less than 30 percent of story submissions to Asimov’s are by women. The gender breakdown among the published stories in the magazine is usually about 30 to 33 percent, so women are definitely holding their own. Still, as I say elsewhere, I’d love to see more women reading, writing, and submitting SF.

GM:  Tell us about the Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing.

SW: Rick Wilber and I founded the award in 1993. The award is co-sponsored by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and Dell Magazines. The winner gets an expense paid trip to Florida for the award ceremony at the Conference on the Fantastic. They also get to read their story, usually with two established authors. The winner receives $500 and the story is featured on Asimov’s website. Every finalist gets a private consultation with me. The authors go out of their way to spend time talking with the students and the students usually become fast friends. They form writers groups and generally support each other. We see this as a way of encouraging young writers. Many published authors have been award winners or finalists. I love spending my time with these young writers. They are all smart and interesting. Their interests and career trajectories are wide ranging.

It’s great to have this chance to meet and encourage young authors. During our consultation, I ask a lot of personal questions because I need information for my award presentation (an edited version of which will also become a magazine editorial). This has given me a chance to develop a rapport with dozens of aspiring authors. It’s been highly rewarding work.

GM: Your two daughters are both big readers. What kinds of stories do you wish for them in the future?

SW: When I was in sixth grade, my school reader was crammed full of short stories. All but one story featured a young male protagonist. Although she was a gifted pianist, the plot of the one story with a female protagonist was about how she pined with unrequited love for a boy. I was frustrated and asked my parents to find me books about girls who did things and solved their own problems. On a trip to Bermuda, my parents found a British anthology called Adventure Stories for Girls. I must have read that anthology a dozen times.  Like most younger readers, my girls have no problem finding lots of terrific fantasy novels. They both love Gail Carson Levine, Diana Wynne Jones (they chose our dog’s name, “Waif,” from one of her books), J.K. Rowling, and many others. My older daughter is 20 and she’s also discovered some SF writers—Connie Willis, Paolo Bacigalupi, Scott Westerfeld, to name a few—but it was harder to find good modern SF for the YA crowd when she was a preteen. I was delighted to see how much Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series took off. I like to see my girls reading stories about strong young women who can handle adversity, opt for challenging careers that include the sciences and high tech options, have adventures, and draw on their inner reserves to resolve issues. Other types of stories are fine, too. Life is not all happy endings and a way out doesn’t always exist, but I want them to have the sense that all avenues are open. I’m frustrated by the gender imbalance among science fiction readers.

Girls need to know from an early age that science and technology are cool. Much of our future will be shaped by advances in both, and they should be encouraged to be fifty percent of these industries. Good science fiction with strong and exciting female protagonists can give teens a framework for their dreams and aspirations.

GM: Question for either Juliet or Irene [Sheila’s daughters], or both: What are your favorite books and authors right now?

J: Tuesdays in the Castle and Wednesdays in the Tower by Jessica Day George, the Gregor series by Susan Collins, the Harry Potter books by JK Rowling, and Fairy Lies and Fairy Wings by E.D. Baker.

I: My favorite books are Howl’s Moving Castle, Pump Six, On the Road,  Sorcery and Cecilia, and Fire and Hemlock. Diana Wynne Jones is probably my favorite author but I also love Margo Lanagan, Kij Johnson, and Megan Arkenberg.

Asimov's Science Fiction. Copyright 2014 by Penny Publications LLC/Dell Magazines.
Copyright 2014 by Penny Publications LLC/Dell Magazines.

GM: Question for all three of you: What is it like going to conventions together now that Juliet is old enough to attend panels? I know she sat on a panel at the Austin Worldcon, ‘Should the next Doctor Who be a woman?’ What are your favorite conventions? 

I’ve always taken my kids with me when I go to Worldcon, but since I’m working, they usually spent most of their time being tourists with their dad. As they’ve gotten older and developed their own interests in science fiction and fantasy, I’ve been able to incorporate them into my schedule at conventions. Irene is old enough to take in the convention on her own, and Juliet is on the brink. Last year, Irene and a friend attended ICFA with me because of their interest in Neil Gaiman. Juliet delighted in everything Doctor Who at the 2013 World Con. I’m going to bring her with me to Luna Con in March, without her father as back up. I’m curious to see how this works out but not too worried. I brought Irene to a Philcon when she was only a couple of years older than her sister is now. At Philcon, Irene had no problem making friends and doing crafts, etc. I’m pretty sure Juliet will have a similar experience.

I: My favorite convention is Worldcon because there are so many different things to see and people to meet. The one in Glasgow was really cool.

J: It was fun when I got to answer questions and be the center of attention. And being able to bring up points like Kim and Ron from Kim Possible [being] a lot like Amy and Rory from Dr. Who. My favorite convention was the convention in Montréal.

GW: For all of you – Geek or Nerd? 

SW: To paraphrase the bard, my interests are vast. I can contain both.

J: Geek.

I: Nerd.

GM: A question for Irene and Juliet: Your mom is amazing. Her editing advice has improved so many stories. What’s the best piece of advice she’s given you? What’s the best piece of advice you’ve given her?

J: Don’t follow strangers in to a car if they offer you candy. Stop talking!

I: Oh that’s hard. I think the best piece of advice she ever gave me was not to date two guys at the same time. She also tells me to not overthink things, which can be very useful. I don’t know if I’ve ever given her good advice.

GM: If you could ask your mom one question about her work, what would it be?

I: Why do you love your job so much?

SW: I’ve loved science fiction and science fiction short stories all my life. When I was a teenager, I dreamed of someday working on a science fiction magazine. At that time I imagined myself filing and running errands. It never occurred to my 14-year-old self that I could actually be the editor. To say that my job is a dream come true is to make an understatement. I love reading the stories, working with authors, and doing the physical work of pulling each issue together.

Asimov’s Science Fiction is available in hardcopy from Dell Magazines. It is also available from multiple purveyors of e-magazines, including: Barnes & Noble | Amazon (kindle) |iPad | Kobo | Magzter | Google play.

They Destroyed It! Women Destroy Science Fiction Update

In an amazing 30 days, the Women Destroy Science Fiction kickstarter campaign shattered their original fundraising goal by over 1,000%.


The project hit every stretch goal and has gone on to enact destruction plans for horror AND fantasy with editors Ellen Datlow and Cat Rambo, as well as another special issue, Queers Destroy Science Fiction, with editor Seannan McGuire.

Read our kickoff interview with WDSF editor Christie Yant.

Women Destroy Science Fiction! This Kickstarter Will Wreck Everything!

Courtesy of Lightspeed Magazine.

On January 15, Lightspeed Magazine launched a daring plan: an all-women double issue, to appear online and in e-subscription. To fund the project, guest editor Christie Yant and her team set a Kickstarter goal of $5,000. They came up with great rewards and described their goals:

It could be said that women invented science fiction; after all, Mary Shelley wrote what is considered by many to be the first science fiction novel (Frankenstein). Yet some readers seem to have this funny idea that women don’t—or can’t—write science fiction. Some have even gone so far as to accuse women of destroying science fiction with their girl cooties. So to help prove how silly that notion is, LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE‘s June 2014 issue—our fourth anniversary issue—will be a Women Destroy Science Fiction! special issue.

Then, they pushed the Kickstarter button and waited to hear what the public had to say.

They didn’t have to wait long. Their project, “Women Destroy Science Fiction!,” funded its first level in less than 24 hours. It was faster than I could post the project to GeekMom’s Fund This section.

Now they’ve decided to expand their horizons. Now women will destroy all genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror… the sky’s the limit.  GeekMom asked Christie to talk about the amazing project. Read on, my fellow genre-fiction fans, but be sure to head over and support the Kickstarter—and drive that number into the stratosphere. (Because women not only destroy science fiction, we like to read it too. A lot.)

GeekMom: Hi Christie! Thanks for talking with us. Tell me about the future.

Christie Yant: Well, it’s so bright, I gotta wear sha… no, wait, that’s probably not what you’re asking.

The future of science fiction really is bright, though, because it’s expanding, and with it, its readership—and I think that’s in large part due to the participation and recognition of under-represented groups and genre-blending books and stories that aren’t easily categorized. The internet allows us to find creators and books we might not have heard of before, because they were previously buried under the more-of-the-same that marketing departments are convinced we want.

GM: You said in your editorial declaration for the “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” issue: “They do not get to make me quit.” Can you talk about that a little more? What does that mean for everyone writing today? What does that mean for lovers of science fiction?

CY: Sometimes the amount of “you can’t” and “you shouldn’t” that gets thrown at us just gets overwhelming, and I start to think, “Why bother?” It doesn’t last very long. I’m not very good being told I can’t do something.

And it’s not just writing SF, of course. As women, we’re told constantly that we can’t and we shouldn’t, whether it’s about our choice to marry or not, to have children or not, to have careers or not, to pursue our dreams or not. We’re told in a hundred ways that our priorities are wrong, that we should subsume our own goals in the support of others’, that the inequities we face are just the way it is, and we should be grateful because it used to be much worse.

I am grateful. I think many of us are, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to make it better.

Your readers may already be aware of what’s known as the Russ Challenge, after Joanna Russ, who wrote How to Suppress Women’s Writing. The premise of the Russ Challenge is that we all—all, including women—have been socially conditioned to accept “male” as “default” and “better,” and that this deep bias carries over into our reading choices. So the challenge is to seek out and read only books by women for a year. I had heard of this before, but the need for it didn’t really sink in until I had this unnerving moment while trying to decide which of two collections I was going to read next: Ted Chiang’s or Karen Joy Fowler’s. I had no information about either of them, other than people generally recommending them both. I reached for Chiang, and stopped, and asked myself “Why?” And I realized that the bias existed in me, too.

It’s about changing the “default” by making the work of women visible. So I will not quit. I won’t quit writing science fiction, because every story I write is one more added to the aggregate of SF written by women. And I won’t quit trying to make the work of other women visible. I hope that this special issue will be a good start.

GM: “Women Destroy Science Fiction!” seems like a good step forward in how to *unsuppress* women’s writing. When the project proves popular (and I think it already has), are there plans for the project to clone itself and *devour* science fiction?

CY: We like SF way too much to totally devour it. And there are so many other things to destroy! The legendary Ellen Datlow is anxiously waiting to destroy horror and Cat Rambo, the former editor of Fantasy Magazine, is eager to destroy fantasy as well. We’re close to meeting our first stretch goal, which would put Ellen at the helm of “Women Destroy Horror” (which, as our publisher noted in the announcement, totally has it coming), and we still have plenty of time to reach the next stretch goal and bring Cat back for “Women Destroy Fantasy.” They’re both amazing editors and fantastic human beings. I would love to see what they do with the projects.

GM: What do you see as your editorial philosophy for this project?

CY: Science fiction is vast, and it doesn’t fit in a tidy box. The stories I’m looking for are what I consider strong examples of some of the most far-flung reaches of SF: SF that verges on horror, SF of an alternate past (steampunk), folkloric SF…as well as great examples of more traditional tropes. One of the complaints we’ve heard is that we’re not writing science fiction, we’re writing romance disguised as SF, or fantasy disguised as SF, or…whatever. To that I say no your definition of SF is simply too narrow. I believe that it’s the hugeness of the genre that makes it great. There is something for everybody under the umbrella of SF.

GM: Can you tell me a bit about those folks already involved in “Women Destroy Science Fiction?”

CY: When I was asked to take on the editorial role, I knew immediately who I wanted working on it with me. I emailed them and then refreshed my email obsessively until I got the replies, and then there was a lot of triumphant shouting involved.

Robyn Lupo has been with Lightspeed since 2011 and has been hands-on with the editorial team for all that time. We’ve been counterparts as assistant editors for years and have a great rapport. When we talked about making room for more women by opening to flash fiction for the first time, she jumped at the chance to act as flash fiction editor for the issue. She’s hoping to find stories that are elegant, surprising, and that use the shortest form to make the biggest impact.

I asked Rachel Swirsky—award-winning author and previously an editor herself—to join us as reprint editor because she’s one of the most well-read people I know. She has an educated understanding of the history of the field, and specifically of women in the field. She’s teased me a bit with a few of the stories she’s considering, and they would all be fantastic additions. She’s looking at both the established canon and reprint submissions from newer authors. There is no one I would trust more to find them.

Gabrielle de Cuir is an astonishingly talented, Grammy-nominated voice actor and producer, and I am thrilled to have her producing the podcast for this issue. She keeps coming back with more ideas: Bigger! Better! More stories! More women! Her enthusiasm is boundless and she is going to make this podcast one to remember.

And our podcast will be hosted by Mur Lafferty, who was a pioneer in the field of podcast novels. She’s been podcasting longer than most people have known what a podcast even was. I confess I may have geeked out a tiny bit when she accepted. I listened to her show I Should Be Writing pretty religiously, and was always so impressed by her! I never would have guessed back then that I’d get to work with her on a project like this some day. [Read GeekMom’s profile of Mur.]

And of course, you want to know who our contributors are. We actually haven’t announced any of them yet! Hm…do I tell?

GM: Heck Yes! 

CY: Okay, just one, for now: I have a story in hand from Seanan McGuire (and she seemed only slightly disappointed that I was merely asking her to write a story, and not actually acquire demolition materials).

Maybe one more? Maria Dahvana Headley will have a seriously destructive story in the issue as well.

There are more to come! One of the fun things about this issue, for me anyway, is the combination of getting stories from the women I solicited for the project, as well as finding great things in our open submissions from authors I don’t know.

But there are so many more people involved! Lightspeed‘s new managing editor, Wendy Wagner, for instance. She worked for Fantasy Magazine before it was merged with Lightspeed, and we’re so happy she’s back! She’s behind the blog posts that are going up daily at the Kickstarter. We heard from so many women who just wanted to do something to support the project and many of them offered to blog, so Wendy rounded them up and organized this part of the project. Every day she posts a new essay by a woman in SF. Some of them are heartening and optimistic, some of them make me cry—but it’s so wonderful to hear the voices and experiences of so many, and know that we are not alone.

GM: Please issue a call to arms for GeekMom readers…

CY: I think that this, which with I concluded our formal announcement, says it all:

Photo: Christie Yant.

Women of Science Fiction, don your space suits; set up your lab equipment; fire up your boiler; perform your pre-flight inspection. Spread your girl cooties all over that rocket ship, Mars colony, or deadly bacterial slime. Your sisters are beside you.

Now let’s go wreck some shit.

Christie Yant is a science fiction and fantasy writer and assistant editor for Lightspeed Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies and magazines including Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011 (Horton), Armored, Analog Science Fiction & Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, io9, Wired.com, and China’s Science Fiction World. Her work has received honorable mentions in Year’s Best Science Fiction (Dozois) and Best Horror of the Year (Datlow), and has been long-listed for StorySouth’s Million Writers Award. She lives on the central coast of California with two writers, an editor, and assorted four-legged nuisances. Follow her on Twitter @christieyant.

On Knitting Your Nerdery, Over at Nerds of Color

LaShawn NoC
Website image courtesy of The Nerds of Color.

My friend LaShawn Wanak just posted about her new Totoro hat over at The Nerds of Color, along with a wonderful muse about knitting, anime, meeting cosplayer Briana Lawrence, and seeing herself as part of geek culture.

“When I took that picture of myself, I wasn’t thinking about stereotypes. I just wanted to take a picture of myself that showcased my two loves of anime and knitting. But in doing so, I’m joining the ranks of people of color who take pride showing off their geeky side. In doing so, we are saying, this is who we are. We are gorgeous. We are lovely. We are awesome.”

It’s an amazing post. Go see for yourself!

The Totoro pattern was also featured in GeekMom’s Ten Geeky Knitting Projects & Lightsaber Needles, back in August.

Pinbusted or Pintrusted: DIY Masquerade Mask

I love masks. Friends give them to me as gifts. I’ve made them from paper mache and fabric for various costumes. I covet the lovely artisan-crafted ones on Etsy and at various neighborhood festivals. So when a friend invited me to a 12th Night Fairyland Masque in the East Village, I had Big Plans.

My Board of Good DIY Intentions.

Some of those plans involved spending money I didn’t have. So I turned to Pinterest for inspiration. The “Sprinkles in Springs Chick Masquerade DIY Mask & Template” looked cool.  I ordered the necessaries: black puffy paint, tulle, and ribbon. I already had Saran Wrap, scissors, and tape at home.

Pinbusted or Pintrusted: DIY Masquerade Mask Test Number 1

Setting up was pretty easy. I printed out the template from the website, taped it down, taped saran wrap over that, and then taped a length of tulle down after that. Then I got to work.

DIY Puffy Paint Mask, Attempt 1. Photo: Fran Wilde.

All was going quite well until I touched the saran wrap accidentally and a half-hour’s worth of careful line tracing turned into a puffy-paint puddle.

Disaster Strikes! Photo: Fran Wilde.

But I’d gotten the hang of it by then. Or the bug had bitten. Something. Because I laid out not only two more mask templates, but drew a few of my own. This time, I didn’t mess with the surface after I’d put the paint down.

Pinbusted or Pintrusted: DIY Masquerade Mask Test 2: 

Photo: Fran Wilde.

I turned to Twitter for help.

Never turn to Twitter to be talked out of an obsession.

So I drew the tentacle mask too.

Art & Photo: Fran Wilde.

and it turned out really great.

Photo: Fran Wilde.
One of the masks, before I trimmed the tulle. Photo: Fran Wilde.

The toughest part was waiting for this whole batch to dry.  In four hours, it was dry enough to peel away, but the masks smelled very strongly of paint. I worried they might be intolerable for the party, which, given my careful planning skills, was only about 10 hours hence.

I used craft glue to attach ribbons to the sides and let those dry. Then I trimmed the tulle, making the eyeholes as wide as possible. First tests showed that the masks stayed on well, though I would have loved some fabric starch to add a little body to the tulle.

The real test for the masks was at the party—where they looked great and the smell had completely faded. However, with a lot of talking and movement, my mask shifted a bit too easily. Fabric starch might have helped that, but another guest suggested a dab of theatrical spirit gum would also have solved the problem.

I took my mask off after a while and laid it on a table. It had certainly passed with high marks for a homemade mask. It could also be that my alterations to the pattern left it less sturdy. A friend wore her mask (because I’d made several) all night, and she looked smashing in it.

So? Overall, this is a solid Pintrusted, with a recommendation for spirit gum. The project was a ton of fun.

You can check out other Pinbusted/Pintrusted posts here.

Pintrusted! Photo: Fran Wilde.

Product Review: Wii Fit U and Wii Fit Meter

Image: Nintendo

My family’s first experience with the Nintendo consoles turned out to be a lot of fun. We tested the Wii U, Wii Fit U, and Wii Fit Meter. We loved the included games, and I ended up liking the Wii Fit Meter much more than I thought I would. One concern below, but overall: Yup! it’s a go.

From Wii Newbies…

We weren’t a Nintendo family. Not a single Nintendo platform in the house. We played our (numerous) games on other platforms.

So when I set out to review the Wii Fit U and Wii Fit Meter, I knew, going in, that Wii had a different philosophy, and was prepared for a bumpy transition.

Instead, we all found it pretty easy to figure out, especially the younger testers. The Wii U comes with a step-by-step setup guide that is clear and helpful, and the platform has a sleek profile. It also comes with new GamePad that allows for play and simultaneous TV watching, as well as a few other features I’ll discuss below. There was, in our case, a lengthy software update, but once we got through that, registering for the Wii U shop gave us a lot of download options*—and I’m excited about all the new games listed for 2014. I’m not the only one. Various members of the family are looking forward to playing a lot of Wii games together, from SuperMario World 3D to Legend of Zelda, Wind Walker (recently reviewed by GeekMom Cathe Post).

*NOTE: There’s a limited-time software trial: If you are interested in the Wii Fit U and already have a Wii U and a balance board, Nintendo is offering a free software trial through January 31, 2014. Best part? If you get and register a Wii Fit U Meter by that time, they say you can keep the Wii Fit U software “forever, at no additional charge.”

… To Wii U Converts

Image: Nintendo

More to the point, the multiplayer options of Wii Fit U mean that I can work out with my daughter—though actually, she calls it playing games, and so do I.

But these are games that get us both up and moving, and we’re having a lot of fun doing that together. It also means that I can get a workout even when the weather is horrible outside, or there’s no school or childcare. And I don’t have to join a gym for the winter. I’m looking forward to playing during the holidays, so I won’t have to do so much fitness catch-up once New Years Day rolls around and reminds me of Resolutions Past.

… Possibly More Than Converts

The whole Wii U setup has my imagination working overtime. I want Nintendo to partner with Dark Horse Comics for a River Tam fight workout, with Marvel for a Superhero challenge, and with Nickelodeon for an Avatar: The Last Airbender balance and motion practice. Seriously—Waterbending? Earthbending? TOTALLY perfect for this system. Nintendo- please get on this? I want to fight like River Tam. And to waterbend. Your system is perfect for that. Hook me up!

Highlights of  Wii Fit U

The Controllers – Balance Pad & Tablet:

What was most impressive for me was the interactivity of the balance pad, the tablet, and the Wii U—specifically all the different ways that Nintendo programmers have figured out how to game the balance pad and the controller. I love it. Luge? Fantastic. Yoga, so perfect. The way the balance pad works with step aerobics and Zumba? Really outstanding. So, Wii U? I’m sold. We’ve unlocked advanced features on a number of games so far, after only a few days, you’ve lured me in with your exergaming. A few things will need to change in our house, for instance, because we didn’t have a Wii before, we realized that we need a Wiimote to do some of the boxing and dance games, but those are coming.

Fit Meter:

photo1.jpgI expected to be annoyed with the Fit Meter—in part because it’s a puck roughly the size of an Oreo, and my friends have been showing off their sleek Fitbit wristbands, and in part because I didn’t want to have something clipped to me all the time. But you know what? The Fit Meter did exactly what it was supposed to do. Counted my steps. There were lots of them! The meter’s size wasn’t a problem. And the Fit Meter is much cheaper than a Fitbit wristband.

Syncing the Fit Meter and the Wii Fit U tablet and software is a little complicated. Because both the meter and the tablet transfer data by infrared signal, you must aim the head of the Fit Meter at a very small area at the top of the Wii U controller tablet. This is a little awkward the first few times (also counter-intuitive, as I was expecting to be able to just “dock” the puck to the base of the tablet, or have it sync in proximity). But it is doable, with practice.

The Games:

Our entire test group loves the games that came with the Wii Fit U download. If you have Wii Fit software already, Nintendo says there are nineteen new games in this version, including luge and climbing, plus a new dance mode.

The core building exercises are great—from luge to ski-jump—as are the obstacle courses and hula hooping. And it’s all exercise that gets counts on the Fit Meter.

My family in particular thinks the winter sports mentioned above are great fun. And I totally felt the effects of the core workout the next day.

Image: Nintendo

Then there’s the bit I was most excited about when I first saw the box: Wii U’s Yoga. This is a great video yoga trainer, both for basic moves, broken out into individual practices, and for longer sessions. One of the best parts, for me, is that the balance pad constantly tracks your center of gravity and visually helps you auto-adjust to perfect your balance. More than that, an option to “mirror” and self-assess lets the Wii yoga practitioner place an image of themselves on the screen next to the yoga instructor.  I am finding that tool very helpful for perfecting posture. The mirroring is done using the Wii U tablet’s built-in camera. Mirroring is an option, not a requirement—excellent flexibility on Nintendo’s part.

To sum up: just an all-around great application of software and hardware.

Looking Forward & One Hurdle

I can see where the Wii Fit U tools—the great gameware, the intuitive controls, the low-profile platform—could be amazing for anyone looking to work out at home, either in between tasks, or as a way to start a fitness routine in private. And especially for those looking to recover balance and strength after illness or injury. Back when the Wii first came out, years ago, this was some of the best buzz I heard about it. But I think there’s one item that’s holding Wii U back from becoming the go-to video fitness software of choice for lots of diverse audiences. And it’s a problem that’s been around since 2008.

That’s the in-game fitness assessment.

This is the only major hangup I have with an otherwise great platform-software-interface package. Unfortunately it impacts the usefulness of the Wii for the above groups. It’s not a deal-breaker for my test group, this time, because we’ve figured out a few ways to hack the assessment (below), but it is problematic.

In order to play any of the Wii Fit U games, you must take a fitness assessment. There’s no way to opt out of it. Even if your kid has a friend over who just wants to try a luge run with their own avatar. Fitness Assessment required. That’s problem one.

Problem two is that the algorithm that drives the fitness test is BMI-based. This results in some strange calculations if your weight/height ratio is off due to any number of things, including—amusingly—fitness indicators like muscle mass. Several family members and friends who are in reasonably good shape—including two runners with 5Ks under their belts, a weightlifter, and a weekend basketball player—were told that they fell outside BMI norms. Worse, when they were informed of this, their avatars immediately changed shape onscreen. This kind of body-shaming was not OK with me, and my test group questioned it too.

I know that Wii had some issues with the BMI ratings in the past, and it looks like this part has not changed. For someone who is dipping a toe in the workout waters, or who is getting back into it after an illness or injury, this kind of automated feedback could be discouraging, at the very least. In addition, the proposed optimum weight level for several of my test group members was much lower than what they were comfortable with as an optimum weight for their age and health. I can only hope that Wii uses their software upgrades to make the fitness tests—or at least the assessment responses—optional in the future, at the very minimum.

In addition, accuracy of the balance assessment varies. I fail the balance portion of the fitness assessment regularly, then go on to rack up “perfect posture, perfect balance” points in advanced Yoga. Who knows why.

Since the fitness tests are mandatory, not optional, some friends have helpfully provided suggestions for how to hack this most unfortunate portion of an otherwise great setup.

  • “You can avoid the judgmental bits by telling it you’re 8 feet tall when you make a profile.” (Jess, NYC – who got the trick from a Molly Wood podcast, circa 2008)

  • “You can make your clothing weigh 7lbs.” (R, DC)

  • “Don’t take weight recommendations from a computer. Talk to your doctor about what a healthy fitness level looks like for you.” (Andrea, NYC)

  • “BMI is used as a surrogate for whole-body fitness in many places (USAF, for example). I don’t agree with it. It’s a good first-look indicator, but then that means you should delve deeper and see if the heavier-than-you-like weight is fat or muscle.” (Patricia, CO)

  • “Skip the balance tests. There’s no reason to stick around with the assessor for longer than you have to.” (T – LA)

  • “Hack the scale by placing the balance board on thick carpet.” (Natalie, DE)

So, Overall Recommendation?

Image: Nintendo

An enormous thumbs up from our family and friends for the new Wii U and Wii Fit U. An additional thumbs up for the Wii Fit Meter.  One request that the fitness assessment become, at the very least, optional.

And, oh yes, an ongoing plea for a River Tam Fight Workout. The last one would be supergreat.

Buying Information

Wii U (box set with Legend of Zelda, Wind Walker), other options and prices available: around $300-350

Wii balance board: price varies

Wii Fit U Meter: around $19.99

Rating: E (Everyone) – Mild Cartoon Violence

Developer: Nintendo

*Reminder: If you are interested in the Wii Fit U and already have a Wii U and a balance board, Nintendo is offering a free software trial through January 31, 2014. Best part? If you get and register a Wii Fit U Meter by that time, you can keep the Wii Fit software forever, at no additional charge.

Nintendo plans to offer a Fitness Bundle, coming January 14. More information here.

GeekMom received items for review purposes.

How to Travel to Middle Earth With Kids

Her first trip to Middle Earth, at 11 months. Photo: Fran Wilde.

If someone proposed that you travel to Middle Earth with your kids, would you respond, “Sorry! I don’t want any adventures, thank you. Not Today!”? Or would you assemble your Company?

When my sister moved to New Zealand, the thought of visiting her filled me with glee. No matter getting there involved one of the longest flights in the world. We didn’t make the trip at first, though—never enough time, nor money.  Then I got pregnant and my sister got engaged within a few months of each other. Her wedding was planned for New Zealand when our daughter would be eleven months old. Flying that far with a young child filled my husband and me with trepidation instead of glee, but I wasn’t going to miss my sister’s wedding, and she wanted her niece there. We figured out how to make it work (I’ll tell you some of the tricks we used, below), and everyone had a great trip. (Seriously, everyone. Even our fellow travelers on the plane.)

At that time, filming was underway for the Lord of the Rings, and we visited a few sites in the North Island that were designated Hobbit-friendly (and kid-friendly). Almost a decade later, we returned for a multi-week camper-adventure in the South Island, so that our daughter could get to know her distant aunt and uncle better.

While on that trip, we found many opportunities to walk in Gandalf’s and Bilbo’s footsteps.

So, for those of you contemplating a trip to Middle Earth with your family, I’m here to tell you it’s doable. There are ways to make things slightly more economical too: using airline miles for part of the trip, staying in family campgrounds/holiday parks, and cooking meals rather than dining out.

They’ve decorated the airports for you. And the airplanes too.

Gollum fishes in the Wellington Airport. Photo: Christopher Lake.

As a bonus, Air New Zealand continues to make some of the best themed air-safety and travel videos around. Here’s 2012’s Unexpected Briefing. And this year’s Just Another Day in Middle Earth.

Air New Zealand’s Hobbit-styled safety briefing.

If thirteen-plus hours of flying time isn’t your thing, consider armchair travel. Google has you covered with an interactive map.

Google’s Middle Earth Map

How we got there

The hard way: The first time we traveled as a family to New Zealand (for the wedding), we did so using a lot of airline miles. This meant flying from the east coast U.S. to the midwest, then to Los Angeles, then to Fiji, then, finally, to Auckland. Total travel time, each way: 34 hours. Eight takeoffs and landings, total. Not ideal, but cheaper, and our daughter flew like a pro. A few takeaways:

  • Equalize early and often. Takeoffs and landings are much easier on kids and infants when they have something to sip on. The swallowing mechanism helps them equalize as cabin pressure changes.
  • Boredom is the enemy. Bring a variety of small things to play with (but without too many pieces, as those roll). We packed several small toys she’d never seen before, and wrapped them while she napped between flights. By wrapping, I mean in multiple sheets of wrapping paper and as much tape as we could apply (this is an important step). When boredom struck, we’d pull one out. The unwrapping took a lot of time, as we’d hoped, but she loved it. The play took more time. By then, the boredom funk was broken and she was happy again. We found we could re-wrap things and “gift” them again too. (Don’t try that with older kids.)
  • Plan ahead. When traveling with children under 12 months, book early to get a bassinet row. This means less legroom, but, for a young child, a flat space to stretch out is worth the trade.
  • Trade off. We slept in 2-4 hour shifts, so that one of us was always a little fresher and able to entertain/distract our daughter. We still feel very lucky to have a good flier.

The less hard way: The second time, we spent a night in San Francisco and flew direct to Auckland the next day. We were the better for it. Total travel time (minus overnight): 18 hours. Takeaways:

  • Get Creative. This time, my daughter and I worked together to make a book that would be her trip journal, and a music mix with songs from local New Zealand bands (Anika Moa, Bic Runga, OMC, Opshop, The Aeotera Maori Chorale, Goldenhorse, and yes, The Split Enz. Sue me. If it were now, I’d add Lorde.) and tracks from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. She also took a drawing pad and iPad movies. She wrote in her journal, listened to music, played games with us, watched films, and slept. The plane (Air New Zealand) also had an excellent selection of movies. Great service, too.
  • Pack snacks. On the way home, food service got flipped and kids were served breakfast for dinner (a huge hit) and then dinner for breakfast (not a huge hit). We staved off the inevitable sugar crash with some bars and fruit I’d bought in the airport.

Note: When flying into New Zealand, you may not import food or plants. There’s a place to toss things before entry, but don’t for a second think they’re joking. Imagine angry Ents. Then forget them, because the border guards are actually quite nice, but they will still take you aside if you or your offspring accidentally sneak food in.

When you’re there—Some Middle Earth Highlights

North Island

Waitomo Area. Public Domain Image. Source: Wikipedia

Hamilton & Waitamo – The location of the Shire and the tourist site of Hobbiton. You can book a tour, http://www.hobbitontours.com, and adults can even try the beers at the Green Dragon, a working pub.


Not to miss, nearby: Waitomo Glowworm Caves.

Wellington & Wairapara – Locations for Rivendell, Fords of Isen, and Anduin. Also home of Weta Workshop, the not to miss special effects shop for TLotR and The Hobbit (and many other movies). You can take a movie tour here too.

Other sites to see in the North Island: Bay of Islands, Auckland (the city of sails), The Coromandel (Particularly Cathedral Cove, where the opening beach scenes of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian was filmed, and Hot Water Beach, with its thermal activity), Waitangi Treaty Grounds, and Wai O Tapu.

South Island

Here’s where much of the most gorgeous filming in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit was done.

Central Otago: The Company flees from Orcs and Wargs across the rocky hills and mountains of Central Otago. In New Zealand, this is a region between Christchurch and Dunedin. There are seaside towns along the way that feature penguins and sea lions, instead of Orcs and Wargs. See also: Sheep. Lots of sheep. And a most incredible set of boulders—the Moeraki Boulders—which are hard to get to, but worth the time.

Take a ride down the mountainside, skip the goblins.
Take a luge ride down the mountainside, skip the goblins. Photo: Fran Wilde
The Queenstown mountain luge is steep and fast!

Queenstown: With its airport, you can fly in and begin your journey here. Queenstown is the sport capitol of the south island—opportunities for boating, hiking, and more abound. In Middle Earth, Queenstown, and the small town of Glenorchy a few hours away, are the settings for Isengard and Lothlorien. There are a wide range places to stay in town, including several well-equipped holiday parks for campers, and plenty of places to eat.

Glenorchy: This tiny town is off the beaten path, but well worth your time. It is also the jumping off point for one of New Zealand’s most beautiful multi-day hikes, the Routeburn Track. That’s tough to do with young kids, so we enjoyed the Glenorchy Walkway around the gorgeous lakeside. There is also the Earnslaw Burn Track, a challenging 4-hour hike that goes up over the mountains, with views of the Earnslaw Burn Glacier, where the Company continued their quest after departing Rivendell.

Like Rivendell, South Island has waterfalls everywhere. Photo, Fran Wilde
Like Rivendell, South Island has waterfalls everywhere. Photo: Fran Wilde
Glen Orchy, starting point for many great hikes. Photo, Fran Wilde
Glenorchy, starting point for many great quests. Photo: Fran Wilde

Fjordlands: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’s eagle-assisted escape took place against the mountains of the South Island’s fjordlands. What you won’t see in the movies is the incredible glacier-created sounds and their natural surroundings. Well worth your time, but pack plenty of bug spray—the South Island’s blackflies are something else. An overnight boat trip is a special treat.

Other things to see – Fox Glacier. Abel Tasman National Park (this list could go on)…. One of the best things about New Zealand are the hikes and walks. Make like the Company, and the Fellowship: Walk as much as you can.

How to get around

Once you arrive in Auckland, you have a number of options, including flying Air New Zealand or Jetstar between North and South Islands, or driving. Driving obviously takes longer. Most fly.

Car or camper? We’ve done both, but for the around-the-south-island trip, a camper was absolutely the right decision. You can get any size camper (some are enormous), but we rented the compact and affordable Dart 4 from Wilderness Motorhomes in Christchurch and were delighted with how easy it was to drive, as well as sleep in. Cooking was a bit tight, but having a fridge and all the tools along was certainly a money saver. Accommodations were tight too—the Dart was perfect for three—a little tight for four.

Our small Dart 4 camper was a pop-top. Much easier to maneuver and cheaper on gas than its neighbor.
Our small Dart 4 camper (The red one. We nicknamed it “Spike.”) was a pop-top. Much easier to maneuver and cheaper on gas than its neighbor. Photo: Fran Wilde.
A little crowded on the inside, though.
The camper was NOT bigger on the inside, though. Photo: Fran Wilde













Some camper tips: My friend Lynette from Wilderness Motor Homes says,

“As for material on camper etiquette and Kiwi-style camping, you can’t go past Wilderness Motorhomes’ Road Trip Guide that is packed full of great information for camping in New Zealand.  Also go to ‘Tips for a great New Zealand camping holiday.’

Kiwi-style camping is becoming more sophisticated with all the “mod-cons” available, but the true “dinkum” camping holiday is all about a good tent, fresh air, basic food, real paper books, family games, and starry nights. Most people pack a fishing line or two. … It is a communal activity and a great opportunity to meet other like-minded kiwis, especially good for the kids to connect with other kids. New Zealand has a range of camping grounds [with a range of facilities], but many look to “freedom camp” in idyllic locations, either free or at very low cost. Wilderness Motorhomes has just produced a booklet on “Freedom Camping,” but you might like to also check out Rankers, or Go NewZealand. … The big motto is “Leave the area as you found it.” Kiwis are intolerant of litter and the “open toilet” look. It is all about being responsible.

Lynette has provided a fantastic list of kid-friendly Hobbit-related activities, below.

Where to stay

Campgrounds often feature amazing play areas. Photo: Fran Wilde.
Kiwi Campgrounds often feature amazing play areas. Photo: Fran Wilde.

Finding accommodations and mapping potential trips is easy on the NewZealand.com site. So is losing hours to daydreaming. But the recommendations for all levels of hotels, motels, and family stays are excellent.

Campgrounds, a.k.a. Holiday Parks: One thing the New Zealanders know how to do is provide campground accommodations that are affordable, if a bit rough. Every place we stayed featured great playground equipment too. Here’s where to find them.

More of what to do

Hobbit-themed packages abound at all price ranges. Check with the tour operator to make sure they’re family-friendly.

Lynette from Wilderness Motor Homes adds:


The Wilde family’s advice? Take a copy of The Hobbit, load the movies on your devices, make your own soundtrack, and assemble your Company in a quest to find Middle Earth.

Horse Trekking on Pakiri Beach - In Search of Smaug's Lair ...
Horse Trekking on Pakiri Beach – In Search of Smaug’s Lair … Photo: Fran Wilde

Eagle transport not guaranteed.