Author: DeAnna Knippling Page 1 of 68

Cover of A Shrewdness of Swindlers

New Release: Wild Magic Storybundle, Featuring A Shrewdess of Swindlers

Cover of A Shrewdness of Swindlers

There’s the real world…

…and then there are our worlds, secret, wild, and free.

We can’t remember when we first noticed magic.

Oh, sure. When we were kids, we played pretend and imagined we were powerful sorcerers, clever tricksters, and subtle witches. But then we got older, and we told everyone that we’d grown up and were too old for that stuff now. How much we wanted to be like the adults!

But then the enchantments of adulthood grew thin. We may not like to talk about it, but we know it’s true: all the things we truly needed to learn in our lives, we learned as children, as dreamers. We learned what it was like to be stand up for what we believed in…and what it was like to be punished for it. We learned how to fall in love…and how to be rejected by our first crush. We got up to mischief…and hurt someone we shouldn’t have.

And we knew what it was like to be filled with wonder at the world.

But adulthood doesn’t last forever. As the enchantments of adulthood finally grew as thin as a haze in the sky, we began to see magic again.

Here and there.

In the small things—and sometimes in the big things when we needed it most. We vowed to protect it, to nurture it, and to visit it as often as we can.

The Wild Magic bundle holds ten volumes of the magic. Ten books about what we find after we have passed through the illusion that we can live without wonder in the world, and come out the other side.

Pack your bags, put on your good walking shoes, and make sure you bring plenty of water. We’re going out into the wilderness, and who knows when we’ll be back?

A Shrewdness Of Swindlers

Ten Tales of Fantasy and Falsehood in the Fabulous Roaring Twenties

Dames, detectives, and deception…magic meets the decadence of the Roaring Twenties in ten tales of glitter and jazz.

The year is 1929. It’s two months after the financial collapse on Wall Street, and the world is bating its breath, unsure of what will happen next. Is it the end of an era?

At the Honeybee’s Sting, a speakeasy in the basement of a laundry, a group of unusual figures meets to discuss the past—and perhaps some possible futures: the Detective turned writer, the Dame who’s older than she looks, the Vampire who’s been riding the financial markets for generations, the Spy from across the ocean, the Actress who’s only just learned the truth about Hollywood, and more.

But one of their number is missing, a man connected to the mob, a man who holds the prize for a mysterious storytelling contest—a prize that can give you your heart’s desire.

Ten stories, woven together in the style of The Canterbury Tales, follow the contest along a long, dark night where nothing is what it seems and the best way to tell the truth is to lie.

Pour yourself a cocktail and join us at the liar’s table for the divine, the slapstick, the tragic, the transcendent 1920s today!

Table of Contents:
  • The Liar’s Table
  • When Pigs Fly
  • Myrna and the Thirteen-Year Witch
  • All the Retros at the New Cotton Club
  • The Mysterious Artifact
  • Memento Temporis
  • The Page-Turners
  • The Last Word Cocktail
  • The Man Who Would Sell Fear
  • The Liar’s Table, Part 2


The Honeybee’s Sting was a speakeasy back in Prohibition days, in a big brick Lincoln Park building in Chicago. The main floor was a Chinese laundry. Upstairs was Madame Ixnay’s, a house of what you might call ill repute, with eight working girls.

It was a classy joint, as far as those things went.

The bribes it took to keep that place open flowed like the Chicago River into Lake Michigan—polluted and thick.

The Boss was a big man, broad in the shoulders, with a big bushy mustache and dark hair. He had impeccable taste in suits and a knack for getting supplies of decent liquor, sometimes even with the right labels on the outside. He was connected to at least two crime families but somehow managed to stay independent. Everyone knew the Boss was bringing in the liquor via the laundry carts, but as long as the bottles weren’t sticking out from under the piles of towels and bedsheets, the cops pretended not to notice.

The Honeybee’s Sting was down in the basement. The outside of the building was plain brick, nothing fancy. You’d get there by car. The driver would pull up to a door in the alleyway, a huge double steel door stenciled with the words KNOCK FOR SERVICE.

You’d get out of the car, dressed to the nines, and knock on the door with whatever the secret code was that week, and either the door would open or it wouldn’t.

That door was never wrong. There was a lock on it but we never used it. It was just that the door would open…or it wouldn’t.

Like magic.

You’d go inside through a plain brick landing stacked with empty laundry carts, then down some cement stairs to the basement, where there was another heavy door, oak this time. You’d knock the code on the door again, and someone would have to swing it open to let you in.

Light and sound would come spilling out, and the smell of alcohol and perfume and men in heavy coats sweating like pigs, the sound of Black men playing jazz or an octoroon crooning, voices chattering, the sound of glass smashing, of women laughing.

You stepped inside that door and the temperature went up at least twenty degrees. The door slammed behind you, and you were in.

Back then, speakeasies couldn’t afford to be all that fancy, unless they were run directly by the mob. You had to be ready for the cops to seize whatever they could get their hands on. The patrons weren’t too gentle on things, either.

So the Honeybee’s Sting wasn’t all that much to look at in 1929. After Prohibition ended, we fancied it up, but that was later.

In 1929, the walls were open brickwork and the floors were bare cement. A high oak table served as the bar and there were high, round tables around the edges of the room. One corner was cleared for the musicians, and the center of the room was cleared out for dancing. Silk palm trees stood in pots in the corner, half-hiding the spittoons. Bare bulbs hung from overhead on cords.

Behind the bar was a door that led to a reinforced smuggler’s closet that was hidden behind a second door at the back of a shallow safe—not a place you wanted to get locked up in at night, but it did mean that the cops couldn’t get at the liquor stores during a raid.

Opposite the safe was a door to the back room, which used to be the coal cellar. The coal furnace had been replaced a few years ago with a gas furnace that worked more efficiently, and didn’t require stoking.

At least, that’s what everyone said had happened. But I never saw where that gas furnace was in that basement, or anywhere else for that matter. We had radiators for heat and no end to the amount of hot water for the ladies to wash clothes in, but I never saw a hot-water tank, either. Dom told me not to worry about it.

If the Boss was big, Dom, the bartender, was bigger.

Dom was his own favorite bouncer. If it was busy, the Boss might send one or two guys over to help him, but mostly what they did was answer the door and pour drinks for the girls. I never saw a one of those other guys have to lift a finger against a customer. Dom took it as a point of pride to handle things personally. Word got around. Dom would let loose on some scumbag about once every six months. There was one time Dom cut a guy’s pinky finger off, right in the bar. I put it in a jar of milk to help keep it fresh while he saw if a doctor could sew it back on again.

Dom had an on-again, off-again middle-European accent. He used to talk to the bar itself, and that’s when the accent would come out. “Tair tair,” he’d tell the bar while wiping it. “Is only scratch, noboty means bat. Only scratch.” Then he’d turn around and, in a pure Chicago nasal accent that went straight through your eardrums, would yell, “Hey mister, you gonna get yer fat ass offa that tabletop, or yam I gonna have ta come over and remove it?”

The tables were small, the Black jazz musicians were all right when you could hear them, the girls serving drinks were pretty and had sharpened fingernails, and I washed dishes, mopped floors, swept out spiderwebs, and served as general dogsbody.

They called me Kid. I started working there in 1927 and stayed after Prohibition ended, all the way to 1949 when it closed. Some new folks re-opened the bar in 1993. It wasn’t the same. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, I couldn’t tell you. Just different.

The Honeybee’s Sting had a number of incidents worth telling stories about, but one in particular sticks in my mind.

The date was December 29th. Two nights later, it would be one of the busiest days of the year, with everyone out looking to celebrate the change from one decade to another. But the twenty-ninth was a cold Sunday night, cold enough to freeze your spit before it hit the ground, a night so cold it couldn’t snow. It was windy as hell, though, and what snow there was on the ground whipped around like knives.

In short, it was a slow night, even for the girls upstairs. Nobody wanted to go anywhere. Even the jazz trio, always desperate for tips, hadn’t showed up.

And yet that night, the back room had been reserved for special guests.

The back room was darker and damper than the main room and had a low ceiling, just high enough that I didn’t hit my head. Two walls were nothing but rough brick, and the far wall had an old coal chute that had been rebuilt as a back exit against police raids.

When I had come in for the night, Dom had told me, “The Boss wants you to serve the special guests tonight, so the girls can go home.”

I said I was game, and the girls left gratefully. I even got a kiss on the cheek from one of them. Problem was, I was so shy I could barely stutter out my own name, let alone make witty banter. I hoped I wouldn’t have to say much. Maybe the whole thing would be cancelled due to weather.

I finished up my chores early, then sat at a table, reading an old back issue of Black Mask that I had in my back pocket. I reread one of the Continental Op stories, and waited…

The Grandiosity of the Grandhotel Pupp

Grandhotel Pupp 1912
(Above: The Grandhotel Pupp in 1912.)

The history of the Grandhotel Pupp has stretched from the dawn of the eighteenth century all the way to modern times. You can see it in movies symbolizing the epitome of wealth and elegance; it is one of the inspirations for the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. The James Bond movie Casino Royale was filmed there, as was the Queen Latifa movie The Last Holiday. Its current appearance is designed to evoke a sort of worship for excess and status, via a style inherited from the Roman Catholics thumbing their noses at Protestant austerity. It was once a hospital for German officers during World War II, then helped lure tourist dollars into Czechoslovakia during Communist rule. Movie stars flock there in July to attend a famous European film festival. And during the COVID-19 epidemic, it has been forced to close, holding its breath in anticipation of its clientele’s return.

Our story begins under a different name. The earliest part of the hotel began in 1701 as Saxony Hall, built by the mayor of Karlovy Vary, also known as Carlsbad, as part of the Duchy of Bohemia, a part of the Holy Roman Empire (which was formally dissolved in 1806). The Saxony Hall served a ballroom for nobility. Later, in 1708, another mayor build a second hall, the Czech Hall, at right angles to the Saxony Hall, as a competitor for the noblemen’s trade. Descendants of the first mayor’s family built another building at the corner of the two halls in 1730, calling the corner-shaped building “The House of God’s Eye.”

In 1775, a Czech named Jan Ji?í Pop (or Johann Georg Pupp in German), a confectioner by trade, married his employer’s daughter, Františka. With her dowry, she purchased a third of Czech Hall from the widow of the second mayor. All the best people in town being German rather than Czech at the time, the family stopped using the Czech form of Pop‘s name and switched to the German, or Pupp. The Pupps, husband and wife, each bought another third of the hotel by 1778, their success in managing the hall completely overshadowing that of the Saxony Hall next door.

In 1821, there was a flood that ruined the ground floors of both halls; in 1828, a legal dispute meant the Pupp family had to sell Czech Hall to other members of the family; in 1868, Saxony Hall came back into the Pupp family’s hands again, and began buying up all the houses around it, recreating them in 1877 as the Parkhotel, which was so successful that they bought up more property, and built another wing.

In 1890, the Pupp family finally got their hands on the Saxony Hall, with plans to rebuild the entire complex of hotels in a Neo-Baroque style.

The original Baroque style comes from the Seventeenth century, pushed by the Jesuits as a means for the Catholic Church to combat the Reformation and the spread of the Protestant faith, by creating impressive, highly decorated buildings designed to impress a sense of power, wealth, and tradition upon everyone around it, by taking the ideals of Renaissance architecture and exaggerating them: taller, bigger, more heavily decorated, and more dramatic, with a lot of optical illusions, or trompe-l’oil painting, to create the illusion of even more space to create even higher heavens.

The Neo-Baroque style comes from one of the heirs of Napoléon Bonaparte, Emperor Napoléon Bonoparte III, trying to impress upon the French people that an empire was exactly what they wanted—enough of that republic nonsense! One of the main principles of the Neo-Baroque style has been stated as “leave no space undecorated,” and

The style was so effective, architecturally speaking, that it was copied by most of Europe whenever buildings speaking to wealth, power, and tradition were required: government buildings, churches, universities, and…grand hotels.

The rest of Karlovy Vary seemed to follow suit after the Grandhotel Pupp—although the Municipal Theater may have preceded and inspired it—with different types of fanciful, even gaudy, architecture filling up the town, replacing older buildings and helping turn Karlovy Vary into one of the most luxurious spa towns in Europe.

That luxury did not last forever, although at the Grandhotel Pupp it certainly extended to private bathrooms and hot and cold running water by 1923.

During World War II, the area was annexed by German as Sudentenland, or the part of Czechoslovakia populated mainly by ethnic Germans—an irony for a hotel run by the Pupp family, originally ethnically Czech. Karlovy Vary, long used to catering to the health of its many patrons, became a hospital town, with Grandhotel Pupp (of course) housing injured officers.

By 1950, however, the hotel had been nationalized and the name changed to the Hotel Moskava, while the Pupp family being expelled, along with most of the population of the town, as the Communist-controlled government of Czechoslovakia pushed out ethnic Germans. Once again, the Pupp family was caught by their assumed ethnic identity. The International Film Festival for which Karlovy Vary was famous was started during the Communist years, with the festival eventually switching back and forth between Moscow and Karlovy Vary. The hotel became run down under the communists, but was refurbished in 1968 in order to attract more tourist dollars.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution overturned the Communist government, the hotel was re-privatized, and the name was restored—although the Pupp family no longer owns it. It is now owned by a joint stock company who made an agreement with the family in order to keep the name, a name that was Germanized in order to appeal to a higher clientele, a name that has been treated as a sort of chameleon, changing from Czech to German, from welcomed to exiled, from ownership to an element of tradition, a way to change a complex history into the illusion of a simpler one: a single name, a single building, a grand hotel.

Karlovy Vary served (and serves) as a quiet retreat a short distance from Prague, the town presenting itself as both isolated and exclusive, even though for the most part, it was neither. Its hot springs and (often smelly) mineral water were touted as having health benefits: purifying the blood, curing illnesses, restoring youth, and melting away excess weight. And fully half of the current Grandhotel Pupp’s rooms are, while expensive, simple, small, and unassuming, small enough and cheap enough to serve as an affordable luxury, one that I know has been more or less created by a façade of stories.

The truth is, Karlovy Vary and the Grandhotel Pupp are not centers of wealth and power. Even today, Karlovy Vary only has a population of 48,000—about the size of Grand Island, Nebraska…Castle Rock, Colorado…or San Jacinto, California. The average income is around US $16,000 a year. It’s a tourist town, a lot like every other, with little industry other than the Moser glass factory and other porcelain, glass, and textile factories. Once you leave the main thoroughfares through the town, it’s a lot of rooming houses and apartment blocks that look too new to be from the Communist era, but were definitely inspired by it.

And yet…

I grew up around tourist towns, vacationed in tourist towns, like tourist towns. There’s a sense of possibility: anything might happen, even being able to pay the rent, or falling in love with a stranger who’s only there for the season, or learning all the stories that happen behind the scenes, from dark rumors to secret dance parties, to hidden caves just off the beaten trail, in the mountains.

I love the fabulous white marble frontside of tourist towns, and the peeled-paint plaster of the backside, too. And to me, the town of Karlovy Vary seems to embody the most romantic, purest form of tourist town possible—and the Grandhotel Pupp, for all its grandiosity, the purest form of luxury hotel to be found in that town.

It’s closed now due to the Covid pandemic. But I’ll keep my fingers crossed that someday fate will take me there, to see both the front and back sides of the house.

(Below: The Grandhotel Pupp in modern times. By ????? ???????, CC BY 3.0,

See other entertaining curiosities here!

The Folly of Whitaker Wright

Statue of Neptune at Whitaker Wright's Witley Park
A view of the statue of Neptune above the underwater ballroom at Whitaker Wright’s Whitley Park

(I’m going to be developing some neat stuff about Whitaker Wright later! Research!!)

The tale of Whitaker Wright begins in Stafford, England, and ends in Surrey about a hundred and fifty miles away. But this is not a small tale. While Whitaker Wright was born the eldest child of a humble clergyman, he rose to fame and became a wealthy man in the Americas, then once again in the United Kingdom. He died a ruined man, sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude, but left behind a country house worth (at the time) over $50 million in today’s US dollars.

Wright started out in business running a printing press, and briefly served as a Methodist preacher before starting another printing business with his brother, John Joseph Wright, inventor of the reversible trolley pole—the pole that transfers electricity from the overhead live wires to trolley cars.

That business failed as well; following the death of their father, the entire family packed up and moved to Canada, which perhaps speaks of the financial straits they were in, or of a reputation that needed to be left behind. Wright also left behind his attempts at running a profitable printing press per se, and instead began hustling business for silver-mining companies for the Denver City mine in Leadville, Colorado, and then again in Lake Valley, New Mexico, where he picked up knowledge about mining and engineering.

The companies he promoted made him a lot of money, but suspiciously, none for the shareholders.

In 1878, he married Anna Edith Weightman, age seventeen, when he was thirty-two.

By the 1890s, he was back in England, promoting American and Canadian mines to English stock and bond purchasers, apparently supported by titled men like the Marquess of Dufferin, a man who had served as the Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India. Some of these mining companies were not, and would never have been profitable; others tapped rich veins but were run more to drive up the value of the stock than to profit the shareholders.

Wright might not have been able to run an honest business, but he had no trouble extracting profits from the shareholders. In 1890, he purchased Lea Park (later known as Whitley Park) and began excavating an entire hillside to “improve the view” and establish three lakes, as well as expanding the exiting Tudor-style house to a 32-bedrom mansion.

The country house included a theater, ballroom, glass-roofed conservatory, velodrome, fifty-horse stable, several lodges and farms, and other modest amenities.

But is Whitaker Wright’s folly for which the house is known.

In architectural terms, a folly is an ornamental building or structure constructed primarily as a conversation piece or to add ambiance. Other follies include fake “ruined” castles, a pineapple-shaped roof in Scotland, and even the modern-day Bishop’s Castle in Custer County, Colorado.

Whitaker Wright’s folly was an underground smoking lounge or “ballroom,” so called because the underwater dome looked like the upper half of a ball! It was built at the bottom of the largest of the three lakes, with an underwater path leading from the house to the entrance of the folly.

To get to the folly, visitors take a spiral staircase from the surface downward to a sunken, curved metal doorway; below that, another forty feet of steps take visitors to a tunnel, then to the underwater conservatory itself, made of metal framework and thick panes of glass.

Outside, in daylight, the light that reaches the bottom of the small lake is somewhat green and murky; the lake was been stocked with carp that liked to goggle in through the windows at the guests whenever the inner lights were on. The floor was covered with mosaic tilework, held a potted palm tree in the center, and was lined with long, curved velvet benches along the walls—an elegant retreat.

To top the folly, a statue of Neptune was added, one that remains today, appearing to stand effortlessly atop the surface of the water.

Wright’s fame and fortune seemed impressive, but they didn’t last for long. In 1900, he tried to issue a bond to build a rail line in London, the Baker Street and Waterloo Railway (now called the Bakerloo Line). The project was plagued by construction issues, and no one wanted to buy the bond. (Once again, Wright struggled as he attempted to pull off a project that was intended to do more than look impressive on paper.)

When the bond flopped, Whitaker began moving money between his different companies in an attempt to prop up his fortune. However, the money he was moving around was the money intended to pay customer dividends.

When no dividends appeared in December of 1890s, shareholders began to become suspicious and eventually called for an investigation into his finances.

It is said that at the exact moment that Whitaker Wright’s finances failed, one of the stones of Stonehenge toppled. The collapse of his companies certainly caused a panic at the stock exchange, and many of his wealthy investors lost large sums of money.

The Government declined to pursue the matter, not believing they would be able to bring charges to bear on the man (the fact that a few high-ranking members of Parliament were caught up in the scheme might have had something to do with that). However, a civil suit was brought against Wright by his stockholders; he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years of penal servitude.

Having been sentenced, he stepped out of the court to an antechamber with his lawyer, asked for a glass of whiskey and a cigar, then excused himself to the restroom, where he took a cyanide capsule. He was not searched upon being brought into the courtroom, as he was in a civil court; he also had a silver revolver in his pocket, just in case the cyanide didn’t work.

He had a few sips of whiskey, took a few drags from the cigar—then fell down dead.

After Wright’s death, Lea Park was sold to Viscount William Pirrie, the man who helped build the RMS Titanic, and who famously said that the new Olympic-Class ships were unsinkable and the lifeboats were only there to save the survivors of other wrecks they might encounter. The viscount eventually sold Lea Park in 1950 to a butcher who had risen from a humble background to wealth; this new owner, Ronald Hugget, was always just about to move into his mansion, but never did; the construction necessary to make the building habitable still hadn’t been completed.

Hugget mainly lived with his wife in one of the lodge houses at the edge of the property, selling off furnishings and other materials from the house, until one day in 1952 a fire began (or was set) in the aboveground ballroom of the main house and burned it to the ground.

The larger property, originally thousands of acres, has been split up, part of it becoming an event center and other parts becoming farms and apartment houses. Still, the lodge houses, the folly, and several other original buildings remain.

Recently, a stately new country house has been built on the property by the new owners, who are very private, and don’t take kindly to “urban explorers” coming onto the property to explore it—or even flying drones over it. The grounds are overgrown, a wilderness of trees and rhododendrons. Construction is ongoing as, once again, the house is being expanded, the grounds landscaped, and the older lodge houses restored.

The folly remains locked, however, and not even a drone can get inside.

A collection of images of the original house exterior and interior.

Images of the new house, designed by architect Robert Adam.

Daily Mail article with lots of great photos of the folly.

Heinlein’s 5 Rules of Business

(Please note! This is a fictional list! Heinlein didn’t write five rules of business–see explanation below. You can find Heinlein’s actual five rules of writing here:

Robert A. Heinlein is one of my science fiction “mentors,” a writer I never met but whose works influenced me greatly as a reader and budding writer.

I didn’t always agree with the opinions in his books, and I wouldn’t say that he’s the only writer who influenced me this way, but he has taken a kind of position in my inner landscape, the role of calling out bullshit.

I’m a recovering Catholic, so I tend to think of those folks as saints, so sometimes he gets called “Saint Heinlein” when I’m writing smartassed journal entries, as in: “I’m facing a difficult situation with a client today and could use some perspective about all the drama. Saint Heinlein, pray for us.”

Recently, I did a journaling assignment where I’m supposed to be writing to one of the (dead) people I look up to, and write a letter where they give me their good advice. This was in no way a supernatural experience; I didn’t cough up ectoplasm or anything. It was just me, channeling my inner Heinlein.

Well, I hadn’t let my inner Heinlein out for a while, so instead of writing a letter of advice to myself, he proceeded to yell at me for trying to take it easy on the client (“What has he done for you lately? If a man’s acting like a wet blanket, he ought to be hung out to dry. Just because a man’s exchanged the coin of the land for your services doesn’t mean he deserves an ounce of your pity…not once he’s stopped paying you”), then decided to take over the rest of the journal entry to come up with the following (fictional!) list:

Heinlein’s Five Rules of Business

There are three types in business–four.

The first type is the fellow who owns the cow.

The second type is the cow.

The third type is worse off than the other two, and spends all day cleaning up manure without taking home the cream.

And the fourth type?

Is an “expert” who knows just what you “must” do with your cow…and will charge you an arm and a leg to tell you all about it.

If you happen to find yourself in a postition where you have a cow or two to milk, remember these rules:

  1. Don’t give the milk away for free.
  2. Milk the cow, don’t slaughter it–or sell it!
  3. Make sure the cat only gets the cream if it kills mice–no matter how nice it purrs.
  4. Every cow needs her fun if she’s going to produce. But watch the bull!
  5. Clean, contented cows always–always!–give the best milk.

Those people who call themselves writers are in a funny position, being both cow and farmer. Watch out for “experts” who just want to “help” your career–but never themselves made any milk!

Notes: I seem to remember Heinlein writing something about milking the cow rather than killing it at some point, but I can’t track it down anywhere.

Also, Heinlein was a bit of a sexist, and tended to think that most people were suckers who deserved what they got.

And finally, I tried to post this without trying to sell you something, but my inner Heinlein yelled at me again. So why not check out my new website, I’m studying marketing, SEO, and business currently, and that’s where most of my business posts are going to go, if you’re interested in that kind of thing. There’s not much there yet, but you can sign up for the newsletter to get notified when there is.

The Saga of the Spice Cabinet

I grew up in a household with a lot of spices in the spice cabinet, eating some of the blandest food you could ever find it your misfortune to eat. I used to joke that our family (European-ancestry, white, Catholic people from the Great Plains) didn’t spice our food, we blessed it. As in, whoever was cooking would take a spice jar out of the cabinet, hold it over the food, and make the sign of the cross.

Without opening the jar.

There were reasons for this. For all that we lived in farm country, we also lived in a food desert, where the food selection was more or less limited to iceberg lettuce, bland sliced black olives in a can, and whatever you grew or raised yourself. Not many people could afford to invest in good, fresh spices back then, so a cabinet full of spices was a sort of status item, to be admired more than used. 

Looking back now, it seems weird.

Until…I open my spice cabinet.

Right now, I’m reading SALT FAT ACID HEAT by Samin Nosrat. It’s excellent, and I recommend it. What she says is simple, but easy to forget. For example, one of the points she keeps bringing up is that good cooks taste food as it cooks.

I find myself making dishes asking myself, “Did I taste this yet? Nope. Is it salty enough? Nope. I could add a little lemon juice here, couldn’t I?” And my cooking turns out a little better—consistently.

And all of that is great, but…

Let’s talk about my spice cabinet.

Frankly, it is full of cute jars of spices that I don’t use.

Here are the recommendations that I guiltily have not been following:

  • Ground spices: replace once a year.
  • Whole spices: two to five years.

If I had to throw out everything that didn’t meet these standards, what I would have left is:

  • A giant box of cumin
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Dill (two small jars, because I have ADD)Peppercorns
  • Cocoa powder
  • S&B curry powder (I know, not the most authentic thing ever but I got hooked on it in college)
  • Chipotle powder
  • Szechuan peppercorns
  • Chinese five-spice powder
  • Smoked paprika
  • Bavarian seasoning from Penzey’s.

Technically, I’d have to throw out my nutmegs, because I had them when I moved to this house a little over five years ago, but I use them all the time. A little goes a long way with those suckers.

Spices that should be gone:

  • Basil
  • Oregano
  • Marjoram
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Chives (I use the ones in my garden)
  • Cinnamon—regular and Ceylon
  • Allspice
  • lot of spice mixes that I only vaguely remember
  • White pepper
  • Tarragon
  • Ginger
  • Rosemary
  • Turmeric
  • Dried garlic and dried onion
  • Sesame seeds (I put these in the one-year-or-less category)
  • Pumpkin pie spice
  • Ground mustard
  • Garlic bread powder
  • “BBQ Seasoning”
  • Anise
  • Cardamom
  • Caraway
  • Powdered cloves

And let’s not get into the gritty and embarrassing details about condiments. At least I did a massive condiments purge this past February. Salad dressing should not be five years old.

I tossed out a few spices, decided I wasn’t strong enough to do the rest, and did a mental experiment with my spices, herbs, and condiments instead:

If the house burned down and I had to start all over again, what would I replace?

I went through several iterations and got it down to the absolute minimum:

  • Fine sea salt ($2.40 for 24 oz)
  • Black peppercorns, whole ($2 for 1 oz, with attached grinder)
  • Extra-virgin olive oil (California Olive Ranch, $11, a splurge because I like that brand)
  • Red wine vinegar ($2.30 for 16 oz)
  • Red pepper flakes ($2.60 for 1.5 oz)
  • Fresh garlic ($.80 for a head of garlic)

Total: $21.10. Prices were what I looked up at Target, because if my house burned down and I had to get all the things, I’d go to Target first. This morning, I tossed out at least that much in expired spices.

The other thing that struck me is how often I’ll turn to fresh herbs when I can get them. I planted a boatload of basil this summer, and have been happily eating salads made of nothing but basil and some balsamic dressing. I invested in some cloth grow bags and dirt that wasn’t mostly gravel (I currently live in a very rocky development in Colorado), and have been nagging myself about the cost, because I grew up cheap in the Great Plains and have trouble allowing myself to have nice things.

But, again, if I run the math, what I spent on grow bags, dirt, and seeds is less than the value of the spices that I threw out this morning. 

So here’s the plan:

  • Gradually toss the herbs and spices that are out of date, as I can stand to do so.
  • Toss expired condiments and the rest of the old spices in February (I spring clean in February).
  • Splurge on good, but not frou-frou, olive oil.
  • Plant a window garden for this fall and winter (mostly basil and chives).
  • Replace whatever I tossed but want to use again with a very small amount. No buying the big jar of spices because “it’s cheaper per ounce.”
  • When I run out of something, replace it with the good stuff.
  • Stop buying every spice mix I pass like it’s gonna cure my cooking blues. It won’t.

I should end up saving money, having better spices that I use more often, and not having to go through Operation Heartbreak again, a.k.a., cleaning out the spice cabinet.

This brings me to one final point of spice cabinet shame: the chai box.

Maybe you don’t have one. A chai box is a cookie tin that has all the whole, unground spices that you need to make chai: cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, star anise, allspice, whole cloves. Peppercorns and  nutmegs get used too often to stay inside the box for long, but those count, too. At the bottom of a chai box, you can often find one or more vanilla beans that have been sitting there for at least a decade, waiting for a special occasion that never comes.

Everything in that box is at least five years old. But, dear reader, I cannot make myself throw it out. I have sworn to make chai concentrate all fall and winter long, so I can use everything up and buy new spices.

My recipe for chai concentrate:

  • Half a long cinnamon stick
  • Six cups of water—begin bringing to a boil

In a mortar and pestle, smash up:

  • 10-12 cardamom pods
  • 10-12 peppercorns
  • 4-5 whole cloves
  • 2 star anise
  • A piece of ginger (peel and all) about the size of your thumb.
  • Maybe some orange peel.

Add to water with 1/4c sugar. This is an excellent excuse to use up your dried out brown sugar that’s hard to measure. Just eyeball a chunk and drop it in.

Bring to a boil and simmer for fifteen minutes with a lid on. Then turn off the heat, add 1/4c loose leaf tea leaves, and steep for five minutes, no longer. Strain the concentrate through a fine-mesh strainer. You don’t want to use ground spices for this, by the way, because they slip through the filter and can upset your stomach.

Mix half and half concentrate with warm milk, smug in the knowledge that you knew there was a reason you bought all this stuff.

Just stop buying tea bags, by the way. They’re expensive and wasteful, and cover up the fact that you’re overpaying for cheap-ass tea.

I used Stash English Breakfast to make chai last time, and that turned out really well. Cost per cup: $14.51 per pound of tea, or $.08/cup—the equivalent of a small 20-bag box of tea at $1.60, with higher-quality tea.

(Need to figure out how much bulk tea costs per cup? Try the tea calculator here:

I’m not going to calculate my chai spice cost, because they’re FIVE YEARS OLD I just need to focus on using them up!

Originally, I wrote the above post in September 2020 for my newsletter. You may be pleased to note that I have disposed of most of my out-of-date spices. I kept the Cardamom and Ceylon cinnamon, and ended up replacing the box of cocoa.

I have been faithfully making brewed chai mix every week, but have doubled the amount of water. Now I can pour it straight out of a pitcher and drink it cold with half and half, or nuke it in the microwave. I finally just decided that I liked half and half better than milk (or cream, for that matter) in my tea, and no outdated fear of fat was going to harsh my teatime!

Book Review: Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier

Book review: Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier

Wonderland by Jennifer Hillier

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A decaying theme park…a cop looking for a second chance…a right-hand man whose loyalties have already been tested…and the wrong murder.

Okay, this wasn’t the most shocking thriller, but it was perfectly put together. I saw it coming, but had no regrets. Your every expectation is expertly calculated and used against you, from the opening scene to the chapter points of view.

My only question is,

Where’s the movie? It’s perfect Hitchcock material. On

Recommended if you liked Knives Out.

View all my reviews on Goodreads, on my blog, or sign up for my newsletter.

Five Excellent Weird Fiction Novels in Translation

Now You're One of Us, from Five Weird Fiction Novels in Translation
Now You’re One of Us, by Asa Nonami, translated by Mitsuko Volek

Tired of reading the same plots by the same types of authors? Need a palate cleanser? Want to interject new life into a reading group that thinks The Help is a controversial title?

Looking for an author that can really describe the unsettling, creepy feeling of not knowing whether the people around you mean well or not? Of not knowing whether the things your soul craves most are good for you or not? Of not knowing whether your craving to belong will help you—or hurt you?

If so, I have some lovely, dark, and wonderful weird fiction novels in translation for you!

I tried to organize this list in order of shorter, easier reads that might lead to book club discussion, to more complex reads that require time to unfold.

1. Now You’re One of Us, by Asa Nonami (Japan), translated by Michael Volek.

Now You’re One of Us is the tale of an upper-class Japanese family gone wrong. So wrong. This book is like a combination of Liane Moriarty (Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret) and an instruction novel on how to run a profitable family cult. While other books on this list are weird and surreal, this book is weird and juicy, scratching the itch for scandal in a way that’s so over the top that it becomes almost a satire.

2. The Vegetarian, by Han Kang (South Korea), translated by Deborah Smith.

The Vegetarian is the tale of a woman who, against her family’s wishes, decides to stop eating meat, after a series of sensual nightmares leads her to worry about the darker side of her nature. The strongly feminist story feels like a combination of Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf. It’s short, and written in a clear, direct style that lends itself to book club mischief.

3. Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck (Sweden), translated by the author.

A marketing researcher in personal hygiene products travels to a farming community, Amatka, to see whether any of the products they make can be used in her home town. However, Amatka mainly farms fungus products that turn into goop if they aren’t properly cared for. Another short book that is clearly and directly written—deliberately so, in a way that becomes horrifying as the story progresses. The story reads like a combination of 1984 and Stanislaw Lem’s alien novel Solaris.

4. The Memory Police, by Y?ko Ogawa (Japan), translated by Stephen Snyder.

Unlike a lot of weird fiction, which can be skimpy on descriptions, this book is invested in incredible details. It feels like the difference between a concrete bunker and a Miyazaki movie like Spirited Away. However, because this is a book about how remembering the wrong things can cost you, the details serve to increase the tension of the book. I recommend this one if you liked Japanese classics by filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. It feels like his kind of story, zooming in on the small details and exploring conflicting points of view.

5. Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was, by Angélica Gorodisher (Argentina), translated by Ursula K. LeGuin

This book is more challenging than the previous two, more complex, and less direct and clear in its writing (and translation). It’s also more of a mouthful, something to savor and consider, and enjoy reading just for the pleasure of seeing the author and translator turn a phrase. The book is the history of an unnamed empire over its various ages, seen from after its fall, and from another country. (“Kalpa” means “aeon” in Sanskrit; the title loosely translates to “The time between the creation and recreation of an empire.”) I don’t recommend this one for your book club; it’s book more meant for leisure reading. There’s a twist to the book that slowly becomes apparent toward the end. Read this if you like Ursula K. LeGuin’s books or Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle.

Bonus Book:  The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Mexico), translated by Katherine Talbot, Anthony Kerrigan, and Marina Warner.

Leonora Carrington was a surrealist writer and painter who wrote short fable-like stories for adults and children as strange as anything Salvador Dalí ever painted (or wrote). Each story seems, at first glance, to have been sloppily tossed together, but in a way that makes perfect sense and never wastes a word. I found myself reading these tales not so much for their meaning (there is meaning!), but as a sort of brain-refresher, clearing out the daily dust that had gathered in my brain. Read these if you like Dalí or Frieda Kahlo.

If you’re interested in weird fiction written by yours truly, check out The House Without a Summer, describing what happens when an asshole gets his hands on the spacetime continuum. It’s set in England in the year 1816, the real-life year without a summer (and the year that Frankenstein was written). It has not yet been translated out of English, but I promise you it’s off the beaten path! I recommend it if you liked Black Tom by Victor Lavalle or The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. You can find out more about it here.

And now you must excuse me; it’s time for me to read the next book on my weird fiction novels in translation list, Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan. I’ll let you know if it’s good.

New Short Horror Story Release: Trick or Treat (Tenebrosities #4)

Short horror story: Trick or Treat

Universal Sales Link | Goodreads

Release #4 in the short horror story, Twilight-Zone-esque Tenebrosities series, “Trick or Treat,” is available now. I originally wrote this in 2012, but rewrote it this month to rescue it–I just liked the story and characters too much to completely blow it off 🙂

You can find it here:

What’s the matter, Jake? Chicken?

It’s Halloween. Just over a month ago, Jake’s brother Dave died in Afghanistan, killed by an IED bomb. Now Jake is going trick or treating, dressed like a solder. Dressed like his brother.

He decides to take the same route that he and his brother took, cutting through a junkyard, walking down a big hill, and scoring candy at the kind of neighborhood where the neighbors actually leave the lights on and don’t pretend not to be home.

But something is waiting for him in the graveyard.

Is it the ghost of Jake’s dead brother?

A creepy horror tale about what finds us when we’re vulnerable, on Halloween.

Trick or Treat

Jake stood at the edge of the junkyard, dressed as a soldier and holding a fake rifle on a strap over his shoulder. The rifle had an orange tip in case anyone was stupid enough to think it was real. The sun had set and the dark sky was covered in low clouds, turned orange from the streetlights. Lone flakes of snow descended here and there. Did that really count as “snowing” or not? The air smelled like rust. A ton of sirens were going off on the far side of the junkyard, more of them every second, like they were headed toward a fire or a big accident.

This morning—Halloween—he’d decided to cut through the junkyard on his way to go trick-or-treating at the bottom of Cliff Avenue. Now he wasn’t sure.

Stuff had changed at the junkyard since the last time he had been there.

The fence had a new line of barbed wire at the top, one that hadn’t been there before, and there was a new sign up on the fence.

Beware of dog.

Jake had cut through the junkyard once before with his older brother Dave, when he was ten. But that was two years ago.

Last year Dave had graduated early, joined the Army and gone to Afghanistan. And then in September he had died from some stupid homemade bomb buried under the road. Mom had told the Government to cremate Dave’s ashes. They were in a memorial building that looked like a post office, with Dave’s name on a brass plate.

Nobody was okay at Jake’s house. Not Jake, who was always in trouble at school, and not his mom, who was an EMT and had a pretty good excuse, and not his older sister Amy, who was fourteen and just plain mean anyway.

Tonight she had yelled at him that he was too old to go trick-or-treating, and he had to stay home and pass out candy so she could hang out with her friends.

He had screamed back at her that she didn’t have friends and run out the front door, slamming it behind him.

Then realized he had forgotten his trick or treat bag.

He wasn’t going back. And he wasn’t going trick-or-treating in his own neighborhood, either. Too many people who locked their doors and turned off all their lights, except for the TV flickering in the living room.

A mocking voice seemed to whisper in his ear:

What’s the matter, Jake?


Before Jake could think too much about it, he threw his fake rifle over the fence.

It turned around and around through the air, the orange tip flashing under the streetlight, and crashed on top of a car before skidding out of sight.

No alarms went off, no dogs barked.

He was going in.


A Leap Back in Time: Interview with Lisa Silverthorne

When I asked my da how ye knew which was the right woman, he told me when the time came, I’d have no doubt. And I didn’t. When I woke in the dark under that tree on the road to Leoch, with you sitting on my chest, cursing me for bleeding to death, I said to myself ‘Jamie Fraser, for all ye canna see what she looks like, and for all she weights as much as a good draft horse, this is the woman.? Diana Gabaldon

Welcome to the Big Time StoryBundle, where you can find ten books on time travel and all things weird and timey wimey. Pay $5 for four ebooks, or a minimum of $15 to unlock all 10 ebooks. Once you purchase, you will be sent download links for your ebooks. More info about this StoryBundle is here.

This StoryBundle helps send money toward the Oregon Food Bank, which has been hit particularly hard due to the Oregon wildfires in the area, as well as the increased need from COVID-19.

But unless you’re a time traveler, don’t wait! Because from time to time…it’s a good time to save on ebooks!

A Leap Back in Time: Interview with Lisa Silverthorne

Lisa Silverthorne is a prolific short story writer, with over a hundred of her stories published across multiple genres. We’re lucky to have her new novella exclusive to our StoryBundle! She is also included in the Fiction River Presents: Time Travelers collection!

1. Tell us about your book. What’s it about, and how does time travel or other timey wimey weirdness fit into your book?

Hi DeAnna, my time-travel novella is about a lonely ghost hunter, Jackson Mayfield, who is obsessed with the strange portrait of a beautiful opera star that leaped to her death in 1896 and the local Port Townsend, WA, legend about a portal in the old, abandoned opera house. According to the legend, a portal will open for forty-eight hours, until leap day ends.

Jackson and his ghost hunting group test out the legend, and he steps back in time to meet this mysterious opera star. Never expecting to fall in love.

But the abandoned opera house holds secrets. And protects those willing to do anything to keep them. Until Jackson challenges them all—to save the woman he loves.

This novella is the first of three novellas I’m calling the Haunted Portraits series. Beauty: Captured and Framed is the first one, followed by Monster: Loose and Unhinged and Harmony: Recaptured and Under Glass.

My story in Fiction River Presents: Time Travelers is called “Christmas, Interrupted.” This novelette is the story of a young woman’s tragically missed love connection that turns ghostly when a lost cat shows up at her apartment and helps her go back in time to try and stop a Christmas murder.

2. What is one of your favorite time-related works? (Fiction, non-fiction, games, etc. all count!)

Gotta go with a couple of classics and a couple of moderns: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (in the literal sense) and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (in the figurative sense) started it all for me. And for modern books: Doomsday Book by Connie Willis (in the literal sense) was amazing like most of Connie Willis’ novels. But Passage by Connie Willis (in the figurative sense) just blew me away. Dandelion Wine and Passage are probably my two favorite books in the whole world. And if I could only take three books with me in that time machine, two of them would be Dandelion Wine and Passage. The third one would be a reference book.

3. What is one of your favorite songs featuring time? Or, if you used a theme song/playlist for your work, what was it?

One of my favorite time travel movies is The Lakehouse. The soundtrack for this movie has some great music on it and I’ve listened to it many times while writing. Not for this particular novella. I love listening to atmospheric music when I write, so when I wrote both of these stories, I listened to music by October Project, Enya, Grey Eye Glances, 2002, and the CD Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins.


Lisa Silverthorne has published over a hundred short stories in the fantasy, science fiction, romance, and mystery genres. Her short fiction has appeared in dozens of professional publications including: DAW Books, Roc Books, Prime Books, Pulphouse Magazine, and WMG Publishing.Lisa’s novels and many of her shorter works are available online. For more information, please visit


Leap via hyperlink portal to find Lisa Silverthorne’s Beauty: Captured and Framed and other tales at StoryBundle!

Beyond Space and Time: Interview with DeAnna Knippling

A wanderer in darkness, she followed an eccentric orbit, each new disturbance angling her closer to some long-awaited rendezvous. She could only hope that when the moment came, she’d be wise enough to know it, and brave enough to act.–Matt Ruff

Welcome to the Big Time StoryBundle, where you can find ten books on time travel and all things weird and timey wimey. Pay $5 for four ebooks, or a minimum of $15 to unlock all 10 ebooks. Once you purchase, you will be sent download links for your ebooks. More info about this StoryBundle is here.

This StoryBundle helps send money toward the Oregon Food Bank, which has been hit particularly hard due to the Oregon wildfires in the area, as well as the increased need from COVID-19.

But unless you’re a time traveler, don’t wait! Because a stitch in time…saves on ten excellent ebooks!

Beyond Space and Time: An Interview with DeAnna Knippling

DeAnna Knippling is me 🙂 I almost forgot to post my own interview!

1. Tell us about your book. What’s it about, and how does time travel or other timey wimey weirdness fit into your book?

The House Without a Summer is my version of how a collapse of space and time might work, or not work, in a multiverse. It’s what happens when the wealthiest man in all of Britain decides he’s going to cordon off his own private bubble in time, damn the cost, and might be a little influenced by certain recent events. 1816 really didn’t have a summer; a volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora the previous year dumped so much volcanic ash in the skies that the entire world suffered.

2. What is one of your favorite time-related works? (Fiction, non-fiction, games, etc. all count!)

My favorite is the Bioshock series, particularly Bioshock Infinite.

There’s always a lighthouse. There’s always a man. There’s always a city.

3. What is one of your favorite songs featuring time? Or, if you used a theme song/playlist for your work, what was it?

I normally have a playlist, that is, a list of multiple songs. But this entire book was writte to one song, “Cascade,” by Peter Murphy.

My favorite song about time, though, is “Time in a Bottle,” by Jim Croce.


DeAnna Knippling has a browser history full of murder, gore, and Victorian street maps. She has ambitions to have that house, the one where people laugh nervously and say, “It’s not real, is it?” and spread rumors of a secret room in the basement. She loves crows, cheese, chokecherry jam, and hot sauce, but not all at once. She has been published in Black Static, Three-Lobed Burning Eye, AliterateCrossed GenresCast Macabre, The Fog HornPenumbraBig PulpHorror Without Victims, and more. You can find her in Colorado, on her website at, or on Facebook.


Give space and time a shake with DeAnna Knippling’s The House Without a Summer and other tales at StoryBundle!

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