A New Cover for Winter Glory

When I was getting ready to publish my novella Winter Glory, and was contemplating its cover, I longed to feature the illustration by Kay Nielsen captioned with: “So the man gave him a pair of snow-shoes.”

The skier depicted was tall and lean, just like my protagonist Ivvar. He even had grayish hair! (Also like Ivvar.) The landscape he skied through was the snowy arctic of the far north of my North-lands. And the illustration was beautiful.

I tried to convince myself that I could build my cover around it.

But the other two books in the series featured pen-and-ink illustrations – black-and-white, not color – and I really felt that I should keep the branding homogeneous. I started to sigh and resign myself. And then I had what seemed to me a wonderful idea.

I could put the color art on my light table and trace it with a drawing pen, thus creating a black-and-white version of the color piece that I loved so much.

I’ll admit that I was really pleased with the result. So much so that I did not regret leaving the color illustration in my wake. I still find that black-and-white cover beautiful.

But as you may realize from my post about the new cover for Sarvet’s Wanderyar, I eventually realized that beautiful as the pen-and-ink work of Kay Nielsen is, it’s not the right art for my books and my readers. I’m replacing all of those black-and-white covers. Which meant I needed to revisit the cover for Winter Glory.

My first thought was to search the works of John William Waterhouse. I’d found something perfect for Sarvet’s Wanderyar amongst his portfolio. Maybe there would be something equally good for Winter Glory. But there wasn’t. Waterhouse seems to have painted mostly women. The few men in his paintings were decked out in ornate plate armor, and all of them were young.

Ivvar is in his eighties, and while he is a skilled hunter, he does not sally forth as a knight of medieval times. He wears wool and leather.

My next thought was to look through the works of the Pre-Raphaelites who influenced Waterhouse. There I encountered the same problem: mostly women, the few men presented as knights in shining armor. So, no. I would have to come up with another idea.

And it was only then that I remembered that, back at the vry beginning, I’d wanted to use the color piece by Kay Nielsen. Could I use it after all?

When I re-visited the image, I grew enthusiastic. I loved it as much as ever, and a vision sprang into my mind as to how I could marry it to the new trade dress I’d evolved when I worked on the new cover for Sarvet’s Wanderyar.

I set to work!

I must confess that I reveled in Photoshop, having more fun than seems really fair.

And, here it is…

In the cold, forested North-lands – redolent with the aroma of pine, shrouded in snow, and prowled by ice tigers and trolls – Ivvar seeks only to meet his newborn great granddaughter.

Someone else has the same plan.

Traversing the wilderness toward the infant’s home camp, Ivvar must face the woman he once cherished and an ancient scourge of the chilly woodlands in a complicated dance of love and death.

Ivvar’s second chance at happiness – and his life – hang in the balance.

* * *

The new cover is available on the ebook editions at most online bookstores, although (as I type this) it is still wending its way through the distribution chain to Scribd and OverDrive.

Winter Glory as an ebook:
Amazon I B&N I Inktera I iTunes I Kobo I OverDrive I Scribd I Smashwords I 24Symbols

PRAISE FOR WINTER GLORY

“A little atmospheric gem of a novella… interesting, beautifully written, and worth re-reading.” – Amazon review

“In the starkly beautiful North-lands – a place that Ney-Grimm conveys so clearly it’s like watching a movie on the inside of your skull – two people who once knew and loved each other meet up again. This is their story…” – Amazon review

“The descriptive language is nothing short of gorgeous… I love that the protagonists are older… and they stuck with me long after I had finished reading.” – Amazon review

“The writing is lucid, elegant, smooth. Ney-Grimm creates a fantasy world of Norse legends, but with real people…” – Amazon review

“…in the midst of this excellent adventure story comes an insight so brilliant…”
Amazon review

EXCERPT FROM WINTER GLORY

His gaze stopped on a woman sitting alone in the booth at the far left corner.

She wore Hammarleeding garb – wool tunic and leggings like his – hers drab in subdued ecru decorated by patterns of gray and white. She was bony, rangy, likely quite tall when she stood. And old, like him. She’d pinned her long iron-gray braid around her head like a coronet, and she held herself like a queen, straight and graceful as she sipped her cup of tea.

The frontiersmen began a rollicking ballad about bears dancing in the woods, and the Hammarleeding woman turned her face toward them.

Ivvar felt all the air punch out of his lungs.

She wasn’t beautiful, but she drew him. Lightly tanned skin like his own; straight nose, a little on the long side; flat cheeks. Laugh lines framed her firm mouth. Crow’s feet bordered her level hazel eyes. He suspected she’d reached that calm place where life was just interesting, neither a tragedy to be resisted, nor a passion to be exalted. But what was it about her . . . ? She looked genuine and . . . appealing.

The flutter in his innards grew.

Then lagging memory brought another face before his mind’s eye.

Like to the one across the room from him in the here-and-now. So like. But younger; fifty or more years younger. Jaw clenched, hazel eyes hot, and lips tight with anger. His linking-sister – what these lowlanders would call his wife. His former wife. Paiam.

The last time he’d seen her, angry at life itself more than at him, but telling him their linking – their marriage – must end.

How had she grown into this serene old grandmother?

* * *

The ebook links again for Winter Glory (I’m hard at work on a trade paperback edition that will feature the new cover):
Amazon I B&N I Inktera I iTunes I Kobo I OverDrive I Scribd I Smashwords I 24Symbols

 

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A New Cover for Sarvet’s Wanderyar

All the work I’ve been doing on the new cover for Fate’s Door has me seeing my covers through fresh eyes. And, much as I love Kay Nielsen’s art, much as I love the covers made with his art, I’ve been forced to see that the covers probably aren’t right for my stories.

The art is elegant and unusual. I really do adore it. But it is also melancholy, a little dark, and enters the so-called “uncanny valley” that occurs when human figures are very human, but also possess some features that are decidedly not human. Like clowns. Or like the attenuated sculptures of Alberto Giacometti.

I like to believe that my stories partake of some degree of elegance. And I’ve been told many times that they are unique (thus unusual). But my characters are as human as I can make them, not uncanny. And my themes are all about inspiration and hope and finding strength in unexpected places. They are not melancholy.

Once I’d progressed that far in my thinking, it occurred to me that of the readers who’ve expressed admiration for the covers of Troll-magic and Sarvet’s Wanderyar and Livli’s Gift, the majority have been those who eventually decided my work isn’t really to their tastes.

I’d been hanging onto their admiration for those covers as a reason not to change them. But elegance and uniqueness are not enough in a cover. It also must speak to the readers who will enjoy the book. And these weren’t.

(Looking at the Kay Nielsen cover for Sarvet’s Wanderyar, my husband – who likes the Kay Nielsen art and considers himself a fan of my stories – said: “You know…it really looks sort of like post-apocolyptic horror.” Eek! No!)

So, as my new cover for Fate’s Door moved toward its completion (I’m not quite there yet), I knew I needed to create new covers for more of my backlist, specifically those books featuring Kay Nielsen art.

Now, I would love to commission new covers from DDD. But the same financial constraints that prevented me from buying a DDD cover for Fate’s Door remain in play here. I don’t have the money for a DDD cover for both WIP and a backlist book.

Luckily, I’ve discovered that the art of John William Waterhouse (which is in the public domain) works really well on my book covers! So I returned to that well to find cover art for Sarvet’s Wanderyar.

The painting titled Windflowers caught my eye as being really right. The model could easily be a teenage girl, which Sarvet is. The setting is windswept, very much in keeping with the mountain meadows where Sarvet dwells. And the overall composition has a lot of energy, the terrain at a slant, the girl’s hair and gown whipped by the wind. It’s easy to imagine that she is taking a long walk, something related to the more extensive wanderyar that Sarvet craves.

I’m really pleased with the cover I created featuring Windflowers, so much so that I plan to create a paperback edition to match the new ebook edition.

Running away leads right back home—or does it?

Sarvet walks with a grinding limp, and her mountain culture keeps girls close to home. Worse, her mother emphasizes all the things Sarvet can’t do.

No matter how gutsy her spirit or bold her defiance, staying put means growing weaker. But only boys get wanderyars. Lacking their supplies and training, how can Sarvet escape?

Can dreams—even big dreams—and inner certainty transform impossible barricades into a way out?

The new ebook edition of Sarvet’s Wanderyar has the new cover.
Amazon I B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Universal Link*

(The new paperback is in production.)
 

PRAISE FOR SARVET’S WANDERYAR

“…it’s an entrancing story with a character you care about, and desperately want to succeed… At first I saw Paiam as the clear antagonist, but I came to sympathize with her. This makes for a complex interaction between the two characters that rages almost completely in the subtext–very clever on Ney-Grimm’s part, and very effective… On a side note, one of my favourite things about Ney-Grimm’s work is her treatment of fantastical creatures…the pegasi seem ethereal…creatures of light and gauze that are somehow the most real things in the world.” — Speaking to the Eyes review

“J.M. Ney-Grimm has woven a beautiful, multi-layered tapestry… All the characters, human and otherwise, in her world are well-rounded and believable.” — Barbara Karp, Readers’ Favorite review
 

EXCERPT FROM SARVET’S WANDERYAR

Tense and furious, Sarvet shook her mother’s angry grip from her forearm. “I’ll petition the lodge-meet for filial severance,” she snapped, and then wished she’d swallowed the words, so hateful, too hateful to speak. And yet she’d spoken them.

The breeze swirling on the mountain slope picked up, nudging the springy branches of the three great pines at Sarvet’s back and purring among their needles. Their scent infused the moving air.

Paiam’s narrowed eyes widened an instant—in hurt?—flicked up to encompass the swaying tree tops behind her daughter, then went flat.

“You dare!” she breathed. “You’re my daughter. Mine alone. And I’ll see to it that you and every other mother in the lodge knows it too. You’ll stay under my aegis till you’re grown, young sister, even if I must declare you careless and remiss to do it!”

Oh!

Sarvet only thought she’d been mad before. “You never wanted me!” she accused.

Was it true? Or was she just aiming for Paiam’s greatest vulnerability, aiming to hurt? Because under her own rage lay . . . desperation. Something needed to change. She just didn’t know what, didn’t know how. And didn’t want to be facing it right now, facing her mother right now.

* * *

Here’re the links again:
Amazon I B&N I iTunes I Kobo I Smashwords I Universal Link*

*Books2Read provides a link that leads to nearly everywhere an ebook is in stock. More and more online bookstores will appear on Sarvet’s “universal” page at this link as the ebook makes its way through the distribution chain.
 

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A New Cover for Fate’s Door

I remember how nervous I was when I commissioned the cover for The Tally Master from Deranged Doctor Design. Their portfolio of work looked wonderful. But would my cover match that excellence? Would they be able to find compelling images that worked with my Bronze Age setting? Would they really be able to compose art for a story that they’d never read?

I could make a long list of my worries. But I won’t. Suffice it to say that I had them. Plenty of them.

Then the day arrived when the preliminary draft landed in my inbox, and I loved it. In the words of a fellow author, it was magnificent!

And now, nearly 4 months after the book’s release, I can report that the book sold more copies at its debut than any of my other titles and continues to sell well. Clearly that sublime cover is having an effect.

It also got me thinking about all the covers on my backlist. I suspect all those books would sell more copies if only they possessed covers by DDD. I’d love to replace them. But in order to do so, I’d need to accumulate some big piles of cash. And cash is v-e-r-y tight at Casa Ney-Grimm, with some big medical bills to pay and two high schoolers approaching college. Yikes!

Which means that if my backlist is going to get “new clothes” any time in the next decade…well, let’s just say I’m not going to be shelling out $4,300 to re-cover 18 books! It would undoubtedly be worth the investment, if I had the money. But I don’t.

Now clearly some of my old covers are fine. Crossing the Naiad sells as though it were a novel, even though it is a short story, and that is probably due to the cover. I probably shouldn’t replace that cover at all, because…why monkey with success?

On the other hand, my novel Fate’s Door sells as though it were a short story, and that really bugs me, because I think it is a very fine work. If I could replace only one cover from my backlist, it would be Fate’s Door.

I’ll admit that I’ve been tempted. But I am determined that all new releases get DDD covers. And if I buy a DDD cover for Fate’s Door, then I won’t be able to provide WIP with a DDD cover when it releases. That’s not a good trade off.

But…I don’t think I must relegate Fate’s Door to a cover that isn’t speaking to my readers.

I’ve been thinking about the elements in the cover for The Tally Master and comparing them to existing cover for Fate’s Door. They are really almost visual opposites.

Tally has great depth of field. Fate’s depth of field is compressed, creating almost a flat effect.

The art for Tally dominates the image, with the title and byline playing a complementary role. Whereas the title and byline for Fate are ornate and large, forming an important element in the image as a whole.

Tally’s art is painterly, moody, and evocative. Fate’s art is photographic and straight forward.

Now Fate’s Door and The Tally Master are very different stories. Fate’s Door is brighter, about a young sea nymph growing up and confronting a challenge that is in part self-made, while Tally transpires in a darker milieu. The covers on the books shouldn’t have identical values.

But although the stories are different, they’re both what I would call “typical Ney-Grimm”: lush, exotic settings; depthful characters; flashes of insight into the human experience; and paeans to the strength of hope. The feeling conveyed by their covers should be more similar than not. And I think think the cover for Tally got it mostly right, while the cover for Fate gets it mostly wrong.

So my idea…you knew I had an idea, right?

Actually I had several. You probably knew that, too. 😀

My first idea was that I could try to give my existing Fate cover a more painterly effect. I could try running the image through the watercolor filter in Photoshop. Or the oil painting filter. Or even try the software FilterForge, of which I’ve heard good things.

Well, that first idea didn’t work out very well. The watercolor filter is attractive (right), but it doesn’t really make the image look like a painting. To my eye, it’s really not all that different from the unfiltered version. I couldn’t imagine that the watercolor version would appeal to my readers any more than the original image.

Time for a plan B.

I tried the oil painting filter. The pastel filter. The sponge filter. In fact, I tried nearly every filter that yielded a result in color, even the plastic wrap filter! (Which really does make Nerine look like she has plastic wrap over her face. Ugh!)

Just to give you some idea of how wrong those filters can go, I’m showing you the result of the fresco filter. It looks like something from the mod-70s to me, as did many of the other filters.

I had to conclude that running the existing image through a filter simply wasn’t going to generate the painterly effect I could see in my mind’s eye.

By now, I had the bit between my teeth. Time for a plan C. 😀

With my mind on painterly effects, I contemplated a trip into the past to solve my cover puzzle. Art by Kay Neilsen graces the covers of 4 of my books. His work fits with my North-lands, but wouldn’t be so suitable for a story set in our own Mediterranean (with some divergences north) in the Hellenistic period.

What about the works of other artists from the past?

It turns out that featuring art from the past on a cover is not quite so simple as I’d imagined. The key question is whether or not the art has been published. If it ever appeared on a postcard, a poster, in a book, or in some other way reproduced for public distribution, then it has been published.

Appearing at a public exhibition to be viewed by thousands does not constitute publication. That’s where things get dicey.

If it was created before 1923, published before 1978, and its creator died more than 70 years ago, then the image is in the public domain and I am free to use it.

If the art was created before 1923, published after 2002, and it’s creator died more than 70 years ago, it is in the public domain.

BUT if that old painting from the 1500s was first published between 1978 and 2002, then there is a chance that the publisher may own the copyright, as crazy as that seems.

I love the artwork of the nineteenth-century Pre-Raphaelites, and I had in mind specifically the work of John William Waterhouse, not a Pre-Raphaelit himself, but strongly influenced by them. He lived from 1849 to 1917, and his paintings were created between the 1870s and 1916. They were certainly candidates for the public domain. But it took me 9 hours of research to determine that they truly are in the public domain.

I wrote a blog post about Mother Holle (a goddess figure with roots in the Bronze Age) that featured Waterhouse art, and one of those paintings depicted Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott at her loom.

Because my heroine, the sea nymph Nerine, serves as a handmaiden to the three fates who weave the life of the world on their great loom, a beautiful painting focusing on a weaver seemed ideal.

Now Nerine is blonde and slightly younger than the weaver in the painting, but covers don’t always depict the protagonist of the story. I viewed the weaver as Mother Holle herself, in whose footsteps Nerine is following. And the mood of the painting is rich and lush. It has the right feeling for Fate’s Door, especially when compared to the cover on the first edition.

It was fun working with the painting, to create my cover. I used a more subdued treatment for the title and byline, following the trail blazed by The Tally Master. I’ll admit that I love what I developed.

But, but, but!

Of course, there’s a but!

I think the story of the cover for this book is nothing but a big long series of buts! (You may recall that I waged a heroic struggle with the color and texture of the title and byline when I was approaching the release of the paperback. I blogged about it here.)

When I showed the new cover with the loom to a friend, she said, “But what about the painting of Miranda?”

I didn’t immediately know what she was talking about. When I returned to the Wikipedia gallery of Waterhouse works, the painting in question jumped out at me as being perfect: a blond in Grecian garb gazing out at the sea. Nerine’s hair has greeny-gold highlights, but aside from that “Miranda” could be Nerine.

I was so utterly beguiled by the image that I just had to work with it.

So I did!

But now I’m in a quandary, because I love both versions. Which one should I use?

That is my decision to make, of course, but I’d love to know what you think. Loom? Sea?

Believe it or not, I’m considering making two versions of a new paperback, one with the loom image, one with the sea image. I can do that with paper. But I’ll have to chose one or the other for the ebook. 😀

Your opinion, s’il vous plaît?


 

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Book Bundle Bonanza

Book bundles are something new brought in by the advent of the ebook.

If you’ve not encountered them yet, here’s the way they work. One author selects a bunch of stories (often novels or novellas, sometimes shorts) that share a common theme and bundles them together as one massive ebook, so that readers who enjoy that particular theme – dragons, ancient gods, fairy tales, etc. – can conveniently and inexpensively try the works of new-to-them writers.

For a long time, the only organized bundlers out there were the StoryBundle folks. Fine people, but they didn’t release that many bundles and they approached only well-known names to curate those bundles. Which meant you had to know someone (and be lucky) to have one of your stories chosen.

Some writers organized on their own, but without the support of a platform like StoryBundle, the logistics were complex, involving an accountant and who knows what more besides.

This spring I learned of another option! BundleRabbit.

BundleRabbit functions more as an open bazaar, where any author can upload his or her work, and those who think they might excel at creating bundles sign up for a curator’s account and then set to work finding good stories for their bundles.

I must admit that I wondered if the site might primarily serve as a home for a group of writer friends who set it up together to smooth out the logistics of making bundles for themselves. Perhaps, as an outsider, I and my stories wouldn’t stand a chance.

Not expecting much, I decided to give it a try. And I was pleasantly surprised to receive an invitation only a month later from fellow fantasy writer A. L. Butcher for my short story Serpent’s Foe.

So, wow! I’m in a bundle! I must admit it’s been fun watching the bundle come together.

Just yesterday I read one of the other stories in the bundle and enjoyed it quite a bit. I’m going to be looking into more works by Alexandra Brandt. Which is exactly the way a bundle is supposed to function.

In the words of its author, let me tell you a little more about the story I read.

As a half-Wyndling, Sky Patel already balances with one foot in her beloved Edinburgh and one in the magical Wynd, a realm just on the other side of any Old Town alley (if you know how to get there).

Now on top of that, Sky must shoulder new responsibilities, protecting the doorways between those two worlds. But past mistakes come back to haunt her, and she begins to question the very man who gave her the role of Protector of Old Town. Can Ram be trusted after all?

Can she protect those most vulnerable to the twisted plots of the Wynd Lords? Can she even protect herself?

An urban fantasy short story.

I already have my eye on the next story I want try. It’s about a dryad. 😀

But instead of going on about every story in the bundle, I’ll share the description of the bundle as a whole.

To save. To guard. To heal.

Beloved people, precious things, and sacred spaces move our hearts and inspire us to defend them.

In these tales of redemption and rescue, more-than-human heroes stand forth as champions to protect all that is worthy of protection.

Walk with these elves, imps, wizards, dryads, gods, and guardians as they subdue demons, free the enslaved, preserve the world, comfort the exiled, and cross swords with the dark. Read and revel in their triumphs and tribulations.

The Shining Citadel – A. L. Butcher
Technological Angel – Barbara G. Tarn
Needle-Green – Debbie Mumford
The Cartographer’s Daughter – Karen L. Abrahamson
Serpent’s Foe – J.M. Ney-Grimm
The Crystal Courtesan – Karen L. Abrahamson
The First Book of Old Mermaids Tales – Kim Antieau
The Guardians – Book 1 – Don Viecelli
Love Apidae (A Recumon Story) – Michael R. E. Adams
The Flat Above the Wynd – Alexandra Brandt
The Kitchen Imps and Other Dark Tales – A. L. Butcher

More than Human is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, or direct from the BundleRabbit site.

 

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Series by J.M. Ney-Grimm: Making Things Clear

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie aback a north-bearThe first ten titles I published as an indie author were set in my North-lands. The world beguiled me, and I was delighted to discover so many stories I wanted to tell about its denizens.

But my eleventh and twelfth stories were set utterly elsewhere.

Devouring Light takes place in our own solar system, although it’s still fantasy, not science fiction. And Serpent’s Foe occurs in the underground duat of the ancient Egyptians.

This departure from my North-lands amplified a concern I’d been weighing for a while.

As a reader, when I encounter a new-to-me author, I have a mixed reaction when I see they have more than four or five books on offer.

On the one hand, if I really liked the book that introduced me to them, I’m delighted that there are more.

On the other hand, I feel a little overwhelmed with deciding which book to read next, especially if there are more than a dozen. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed enough that I can’t choose, and I go on to read someone else altogether.

I worried that readers in my audience might have a similar reaction.

The clear solution was to group my titles into categories or families. Fortunately my stories fell fairly easily into natural clusters.

The two newest – one involving the Greco-Roman pantheon amongst the celestial spheres, the other starring a goddess of ancient Egypt – were Mythic Tales.

The stories about Sarvet and her Hammarleeding family formed the Kaunis Clan Saga.

The stories featuring one of the ancient lodestones of the isle of Navarys became the Lodestone Tales.

And all the rest, set in my North-lands, but lacking any other substantive connection, became simply the North-lands Stories.

I adjusted my list of Titles by J.M. Ney-Grimm accordingly, and it looked a lot more approachable than it had when it was one long string of twelve.

The stories I’ve written since this reorganization have fit comfortably into one of the four categories I established. Hunting Wild was a North-lands Story. Winter Glory belonged in the Kaunis Clan Saga. Caught in Amber and Fate’s Door were perfectly at home in Mythic Tales. The Tally Master was planned from the get-go as a Lodestone Tale. And my current work-in-progress can be considered a Lodestone Tale as well, with the smallest of reaching.

So where’s the problem? (You knew there would be a problem, right?)

The problem was that nowhere on my website (or the websites of the etailers where you can buy my books) was there any explanation of what my “series” names meant. How would potential readers know, if I didn’t tell them?

Well, I put the task on my to-do list – write series intro paragraphs – and dragged my heels. Writing stories was so much more appealing than crafting series descriptions that were clear and explanatory, but also intriguing and brief.

I believe I let that particular task sit undone on my to-do list for nearly 3 years.

Finally, a few months ago, inspiration attacked me – actually woke me in the middle of the night, if I’m remembering right. I jotted down a few notes and went back to sleep.

In the morning, I went to work on those notes and came up with an intro for the Lodestone Tales. Check it out!

 
Lodestone Tale books

The Lodestone Tales

In the years that came before the ancient days of the North-lands, a brilliant inventor fabricated the lodestones – powerful artifacts that concentrate magical force.

And while men and women walk the earth but a short while, the lodestones persist through centuries, even millennia. When they fall into the hands of mortals, history changes.

Follow the lodestones down through the ages as adventure follows adventure, and ordinary folk rise to meet extraordinary challenges.

Skies of Navarys  (1)
The Tally Master  (1.5)
Resonant Bronze  (2)
Rainbow’s Lodestone  (3)
Star-drake  (4)

(Although the Lodestone Tales form a rough history, each story stands alone. You need not read them in order.)

* * *

That broke the ice. With one intro present, it bugged me that the other three were absent. I sensed that the words describing the Kaunis Clan Saga were there for the taking, somewhere in my backbrain, if I only made the effort.

With that kind of encouragement…I made the effort! 😉

 
Kaunis Clan books

Kaunis Clan Saga

The Hammarleeding people dwell in the high mountain valleys of my North-lands. They wield a tribal magic born of dance and song and the flow of sacred waters.

Ritual and tradition hold a special place in Hammarleeding culture. Their rites are beautiful and uplifting, but they underpin a way of life that features many thou-shalt-nots.

In each story of the Kaunis Clan Saga, one woman – or one man – challenges the shibboleths that threaten her – or his – particular bright dream.

1 • Sarvet’s Wanderyar
2 • Crossing the Naiad
3 • Livli’s Gift
4 • Winter Glory

(Each installment presents a unique protagonist from a fresh generation of the family. The stories stand alone and need not be read in order.)

* * *

Then I dragged my heels again. I was fresh out of ideas and inspiration. How could I describe the Mythic Tales, with nothing in common save their origins in ancient mythologies? And how could I create a captivating introduction to the North-land Stories, which seemed almost a catch-all group created for titles that fit in neither the Lodestone Tales nor the Kaunis Clan Saga?

I decided to let it rest. And let it rest, I did. But not for as long as I had the first time. Once again inspiration arrived in the wee small hours.

But when I looked at my notes by the light of day, I wasn’t quite satisfied. The draft was close, but not quite right, and I didn’t know how to fix it.

I let the draft sit for a month. And then I knew, without even reviewing what I had, that the needed revision was there.

I took that draft out, worked it over, and then I had my Mythic Tales intro.

 
Mythic Tales cover banner

Mythic Tales

What if the goddess Bast lay caged in the underground duat of the ancient Egyptians, entrapped and imprisoned there? What if the messenger god Mercury flew between the celestial spheres of our solar system, rather than between Mount Olympus and Mount Helicon? What if the sea nymphs of old Greece ruled underwater kingdoms beneath the warm waves of the Middle Sea?

My mythic tales feature different worlds and characters, but they share the same rich source of inspiration – the vibrant mythologies of our own ancient history.

(Each story stands alone. You can enjoy any one without having read the others.)

* * *

Okay then! With three out of four complete, I just had to manage that fourth. I’ll admit I borrowed a few phrases from the “About” page on my publisher website, but I got the paragraphs written.

 
North-lands covers banner

North-lands Stories

Inspired by the Norse folk tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon, I wrote Troll-magic and thereby created a world, the world of my North-lands.

From the cool, forested reaches of Silmaren to the rich, spice-scented empire of ancient Giralliya, the North-lands feature an epic landscape of forgotten henges, vast wildernesses, charming hamlets, and vivid cities.

Within this ever-evolving realm, ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.

Each story stands alone. You can enjoy any one without having read the others.

Troll-magic, Perilous Chance, and The Troll’s Belt are roughly contemporaneous – taking place during the Steam Age of the North-lands – while Hunting Wild transpires 800 years earlier during its Middle Ages.

* * *

It feels good to have them done. No, it feels great!

But I’d love to hear what you think.

I suspect that my readers have a clearer idea about what my series really are than I do, because I can never read my own work with completely fresh eyes. I always have what I meant to do, as well as what I did do on the revision drafts, jostling in my mind with the final creation.

So what do you think? Did I capture the essence of each series fairly well? Or did I miss?

 

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What Is Curtain Fic?

I’d never heard of the term “curtain fic” until this Monday, when I encountered it in a tweet from M.C.A. Hogarth.

She was giving her fans a head’s up about the first book in her Dreamhealers series. Mindtouch was on sale for 99 cents for the rest of the week, and then it was going back up to its regular price.

In her tweet, she said: “People call it curtainfic with space elves and centaurs.”

I was intrigued. What in heaven was “curtainfic”?

I googled, wondering if I would discover anything at all. Maybe it was so obscure that if you didn’t already know, you wouldn’t be able to find out.

But I was in luck. Google delivered many pages of results, and the first link on the list told me what I wanted to know. Fanlore.org defined the word as describing “fan fiction that focuses on ordinary domestic situations (such as the characters in a romantic pairing shopping for curtains).”

Since fan fiction involves fan writers playing in someone else’s world, strict curtain fic would be something like the story of how Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, made renovations and improvements to their first home at Thornton Lacey.

Or how Allan a Dale and his Fair Ellen – from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood – visited the shops of Nottingham to procure the needle and thread that would allow Fair Ellen to keep her husband’s minstrel’s garb in good repair.

But clearly one need not borrow another writer’s world and characters in order to “focus on ordinary domestic situations.” In fact, the instant I read the definition of curtain fic, I realized that all my favorite authors include at least some elements of curtain fic in their stories.

When Bren Cameron settles in with Jago at his country estate of Najida (C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series), we hear about the beautiful stained glass window that graces the new wing.

At the end of the fourth Sharing Knife book by Lois McMaster Bujold, we get an entire long epilogue in which a few loose ends are tied off and during which we come to understand the domestic arrangements of Fawn and Dag quite thoroughly. (I love this epilogue!)

In Dorothy Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon, we learn every last detail of the wedding preparations, as well as of the ceremony itself.

One of my favorite chapters in Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion is the end-of-summer interlude in which Cazaril teaches Iselle and Betriz how to swim.

It’s always a little startling when I discover something about myself – in this case, my reading tastes – that is fundamental and yet has gone unsuspected by me for years. But the illumination shed by learning the term curtain fic shone further than the books I read.

Because my first thought upon perusing the definition was: “Ah, ha! So this is a thing! People like stories with this quiet, mundane focus. Which means that my longing to write a story with a quiet, non-epic scale is not just a strange oddity possessed only by me. I could gratify my wish to write in this way. And there might even be a few people who would read it and enjoy it. Wow!”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like stories about life-and-death situations. I love stories in which everything of importance lies at risk of being lost, where all is on the line. Both as a reader and as a writer. But my tastes are quite broad. And I’d believed (falsely) that I was only allowed to write about big and sweeping events. Sometimes those momentous happenings are tightly focused on my protagonist. Sometimes they intertwine with the fate of a nation or a people. But the big-and-sweeping-and-momentous must be present.

No doubt I’ll continue to write stories of that character. But I’m also going to allow myself to explore this concept of curtain fic.

Which is fortunate, since I’m realizing that my current work-in-progress has a decidedly domestic slant. Of course, for the protagonist, it’s all pretty momentous. But it’s an interesting mix of the quiet, the internal, and the domestic blended with a change that will turn my protagonist’s life upside down.

In any case…thank you, M.C.A. Hogarth for opening my eyes to a whole new genre. My writing life just got more spacious, and I am grateful.

Speaking of Hogarth…what about her books?

I’d read her Spots the Space Marine and really loved it. Then I read her Blood Ladders trilogy, and enjoyed that as well. Although, the latter starts off with a group of college friends meeting in a coffee shop, and I realized as I read that I’d really wanted the story to be a college story – and it totally wasn’t. It was good, just not what I was in the mood for at the time.

So, when I understood that Mindtouch was about grad students (alien grad students) in grad school, I was ready to click the buy button for that alone.

As it chances, I did click the buy button, and I’ve been happily reading Mindtouch for the last two evenings. It really is curtain fic. But I can also see the story building, slowly showing me exactly how these two unlikely friends came to be friends, and setting the foundation for how they came to accomplish something amazing within the healing disciplines of their civilization. (At least, I’m guessing that’s where it’s going.)

I’m not sure how much longer Mindtouch is on sale, but if you think you might like curtain fic, I urge you to pick up a copy and give it a try. 😀

 

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Courage, Kindness, Youthful Awkwardness & Compassion

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book recommendation. Four years! (I just checked.)

My previous recs were all old favorites, books that I’ve read and re-read, books that I know I’ll re-read yet again in the future.

Today’s rec is a new favorite: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.

I read it first in December 2015, but I’ve already re-read it at least three times in the eighteen months that have passed since. It’s truly wonderful.

Here’s a little bit about it:

Maia awakens in the middle of the night to learn that his father, the emperor of the Elf-lands, is dead in an airship accident, along with all three of Maia’s half-brothers. Now Maia – a half-goblin who grew up in exile, poverty, and neglect – must grapple with governing the vastly complex elvish Ethuveraz.

His father’s chancellor hates him almost as much as his father did. His father’s dowager empress hates him more. And all too many of his father’s courtiers hate him, too. Maia toys with the idea of running away to obscurity, somewhere, somehow.

The Elf-lands have not been kind to the boy-emperors of the past, claiming their lives more often than not. Maia is not a child – he’s eighteen – but he’s nearly as inexperienced as those numerous dead boys whose tombs line the sacred hall in the imperial palace. Failure to grapple with the Ethuveraz – whether through ineptitude or through flight – leads only to another tomb like theirs.

* * *

The world building, characterization, and storytelling in The Goblin Emperor are all superb. And its protagonist, Maia Drazhar, beguiles me afresh each time I re-read the book with his unique blend of courage and kindness, and his struggles to overcome both youthful awkwardness and his (understandable) resentment toward his former guardian.

Here’s a brief excerpt – the very beginning of the story – to introduce you to Maia and The Goblin Emperor.
 
 

Maia woke with his cousin’s cold fingers digging into his shoulder.

“Cousin? What…” He sat up, rubbing his eyes with one hand. “What time is it?”

“Get up!” Setheris snarled. “Hurry!”

Obediently, Maia crawled out of bed, clumsy and sleep-sodden. “What’s toward? Is there a fire?”

“Get they clothes on.” Setheris shoved yesterday’s clothes at him. Maia dropped them, fumbling with the strings of his nightshirt, and Setheris hissed with exasperation as he bent to pick them up. “A messenger from the court. That’s what’s toward.”

“A message from my father?”

“Is’t not what I said? Merciful goddesses, boy, canst do nothing for thyself? Here!” He jerked the nightshirt off, caring neither for the knotted strings nor for Maia’s ears, and shoved his clothes at him again. Maia struggled into drawers, trousers, shirt, and jacket, aware that they were wrinkled and sweat-stained, but unwilling to try Setheris’s ill temper by saying so. Setheris watched grimly by the single candle’s light, his ears flat against his head. Maia could not find his stockings, nor would Setheris give him time to search. “Come along!” he said as soon as Maia had his jacket fastened, and Maia followed him barefoot out of the room, noticing in the stronger light that while Setheris was still properly and fully attired, his face was flushed. So he had not been wakened from sleep by the emperor’s messenger, but only because he had not yet been to bed. Maia hoped uneasily that Setheris had not drunk enough metheglin to mar the glossy perfection of his formal court manners.

Maia ran his hands through his hair, his fingers catching on knots in his heavy curls. It would not be the first time one of his father’s messengers had witnessed him as unkempt as a half-witted ragpickers child, but that did not help with the miserable midnight imaginings: So tell us, how looked our son? He reminded himself it was unlikely his father ever asked after him in the first place and tried to keep his chin and ears up as he followed Setheris into the lodge’s small and shabby receiving room.

* * *

The Goblin Emperor is available in many bookstores. A few links:
Amazon I Apple I B&N I Book Depository I Google Play I Kobo

For more of my book recommendations, see:
The Bastard, Belinda, Blood, & Bewitchery
Gods & Guilt, Scandals & Skeptics
Courtship and Conspiracy, Mayhem and Magic
Mistakes, Missteps, Shady Dealing, & Synchronicity
Duplicity, Diplomacy, Secrets & Ciphers
Beauty, Charm, Cyril & Montmorency

 

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Why Calcium Isn’t Enough to Build Strong Bones (and What You Can Do About It)

Several months ago, when I wrote about my experience of gaining weight while drinking milk, and losing weight while eschewing milk, I promised I’d blog about how to keep your bones strong without the dairy products.

This is that post. 😀

Conventional wisdom – and lots of advertising – tells us that milk is the foundation of healthy bones. But like so many other bits of conventional advice about nutrition, it turns out to be wrong.

Here’s why.

1 • Calcium alone cannot give you strong bones.

Sure, calcium is an important building block for strong bones. You do need it. But you also need all the other building blocks: vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin K, phosphorus, magnesium, and trace amounts of chromium, silica, zinc, manganese, copper, boron, and potassium.

Taking a calcium pill – or drinking extra milk – won’t ensure that you’re getting all the substances that go into strong bones. It might even harm you, since too much calcium can lead to impaired kidney function, kidney stones, high blood pressure, and possibly even an increased risk of heart attack.

Additionally, if you ingest too much calcium, then your body must adjust its stores of other vitamins and minerals in order to process the excess calcium.

2 • Calcium intake is irrelevant, IF your body is not absorbing it and building with it.

People living in the United States ingest far more calcium than those living elsewhere, and yet US residents also suffer more osteoporosis.

What gives?

In addition to having all the building blocks on hand, the environment must also be right for actual building to occur.

Imagine trying to build a house in the midst of a snow storm. You might have all the materials on hand – bricks, mortar, wood framing, nails, etc. – but I doubt you’d get much building done.

Your hormones and your inflammatory status play large roles in determining whether conditions in your body favor the building of strong bones. Or not. High blood sugar and chronic inflammation both speed up the breakdown of bone and slow down the creation of new bone cells.

The foods you eat also influence the building conditions in your body.

Grains possess a lot of phytates (to protect the seed), and legumes possess both phytates and oxalates. Phytates and oxalates chemically bind to the calcium present, both in the grains and legumes themselves, and in other foods present in the digestive tract, carrying the calcium out of the body entirely.

Soaking and sprouting grains and legumes helps to reduce the volume of phytates, but cannot reduce it sufficiently to where its presence ceases to leech calcium (and other minerals) from your body. Additionally, from my previous post on insulin, we know that grains yield high blood sugar for a significant interval after you eat them.

If you don’t eat enough protein, you’ll get the same accelerated bone loss that high blood sugar and inflammation produce.

And if you don’t eat enough healthy fats, you won’t be able to assimilate vitamins D and K, because they are both fat soluble.

Bottom line: in addition to having all the building blocks on hand, conditions within your body must also favor the building and maintenance of strong bones.

3 • There are better sources of calcium than milk.

I remember seeing lists of calcium rich foods several years ago and being skeptical that anything could be better than milk. I was a big milk proponent. Sure, 8 ounces of kale might have 180 milligrams of calcium, but 8 ounces of milk has 300. And I can easily drink 3 glasses of milk every day, but I sure won’t be eating 3 cups of kale every day!

Ah, but!

The key is not how much calcium is present. The key is how much your body assimilates. The reason our RDA for calcium is so inflated is that most of the calcium from milk and pills goes right through. But the calcium from vegetables like kale and mustard greens and others gets absorbed and used. It is more bioavailable.

I went looking for some of the recent studies on calcium from plants versus calcium from milk and landed on the Harvard School of Public Health site with an interesting paragraph that I will quote below, since it occurs in the middle of a hugely long web page.

In particular, these studies suggest that high calcium intake doesn’t actually appear to lower a person’s risk for osteoporosis. For example, in the large Harvard studies of male health professionals and female nurses, individuals who drank one glass of milk (or less) per week were at no greater risk of breaking a hip or forearm than were those who drank two or more glasses per week. When researchers combined the data from the Harvard studies with other large prospective studies, they still found no association between calcium intake and fracture risk. Also, the combined results of randomized trials that compared calcium supplements with a placebo showed that calcium supplements did not protect against fractures of the hip or other bones. Moreover, there was some suggestion that calcium supplements taken without vitamin D might even increase the risk of hip fractures. A 2014 study also showed that higher milk consumption during teenage years was not associated with a lower risk of hip fracture in older adults.

So…if slugging down gallons of milk or dozens of calcium pills is not the answer – and it isn’t – how do we build and maintain strong bones?

I want action points! 😉

First of all, don’t look to bone density drugs such as Fosamax® and Boniva®. These deposit long-lasting compounds (alendronate and ibandronic acid, respectively) within the bone matrix, which give the illusion of greater bone density. But they do not form the normal matrix that actually makes bone strong. In fact, taking biophosphonates leads to bones that are more brittle and more likely to fracture! Talk about irony!

Okay, what does work?

1 • Avoid the foods that result in chronic inflammation, elevated blood sugar, and that remove nutrients from your body.

Highly processed foods and sugar-laden foods are especially bad. Grains and legumes become more and more problematic as we get older.

I hate to start with a “don’t,” but it’s a pretty important don’t. If your bones are currently strong, if your weight is normal, and your health is good, then you might be able to get away with skipping this #1 and leaning hard on #2, #3, and #4.

But I’ve got osteoporosis, I’m still carrying some extra pounds (even after the 23+ that I’ve lost), and I don’t have quite as much pep in my stride as I want. Action point #1 is critically important for me!

2 • Eat meat, seafood, and eggs, cooked with clarified butter, coconut oil, lard, or tallow to get adequate protein and adequate fats.

These are nutrient-dense foods containing many vitamins and minerals, in addition to the protein and fat. They help keep your blood sugar levels within the optimum range. They do not promote inflammation.

3 • Eat kale, mustard greens, turnip greens, collard greens, broccoli rabe, cooked spinach (many of the nutrients are not bioavailable in raw spinach), sea vegetables, bone broth, sardines, anchovies, shrimp, oysters, and canned salmon.

More nutrient dense foods that are high in calcium and the other building blocks for strong bones. You’ll get what you need without having to worry about balancing calcium with magnesium and potassium and all the others, the way you would if you were trying to get it right using pills. Plus the phytonutrients that may be a part of why calcium in plants is more bioavailable than from other sources are present.

4 • Lift weights.

Or do heavy yard work regularly. Or do yoga poses, many of which build strength as much as they increase flexibility. Engage in physical activity that is weight-bearing.

The compression of working against gravity stresses our bones in a healthy way, triggering them to build more of the structural matrix that can support the load.

I’m a swimmer, which is not weight-bearing. It has all kinds of other benefits, but strengthening my bones is not one of them, alas. So I lift weights in additional to swimming.

And there you have it.

Eat meat, seafood, and eggs.
Eat green, leafy vegetables.
Do weight-bearing physical activity.
And avoid foods that produce high blood sugar and inflammation.

I’ve been trying a lot of new-to-me recipes over the last few months, and I plan on sharing them with you as I continue to blog. I’ve also got a few more health hacks to write about. Stay tuned! 😀

For more about health and nutrition, see:
Test first, then conclude!
Let’s Talk Insulin
Milk Is Highly Insulinogenic
Thinner and Healthier
Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!
Why Seed Oils Are Dangerous

 

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Let’s Talk Insulin

Back in March, I mentioned that I’d been doing some new things on the cooking and nutrition front. I imagined telling you all about it when I finished my revisions on The Tally Master and published the novel.

Well…the digital edition of The Tally Master released April 26, and the paperback roughly a month later in May. In fact, I’m now well started on my next book, with over 10,000 words and counting in the manuscript.

I must plead guilty to dragging my heels on blogging about food.

Why?

Because the biology of nutrition is amazingly complex and, at this point, I’ve read so much about it that when I discover new-to-me information, I’m connecting that information to large matrix of facts forming a landscape detailed and variegated enough that it’s challenging to communicate about it clearly and succinctly.

The overall picture has come into better and better focus for me. I really understand what I’m seeing, and it’s very consistent. But conveying what I see is harder than when I saw less, and the picture seemed simpler.

Yet it’s important stuff. Nutrition is one of the foundational elements determining whether a person merely survives…or thrives. So I’m going to make an effort to share the latest things I’ve been learning.

Today I want to talk about insulin.

Insulin is a hormone.

Hormones are the biochemical messengers of the body. Typically they are secreted by one set of cells, then transported in the bloodstream (or, sometimes, the lymphatic system) to another part of the body, where they bond to specific receptors there.

In the case of insulin, it is secreted by the beta cells of the pancreas, moves through the bloodstream, and affects nearly every cell in the body. Insulin is a master hormone. (Many other hormones possess a narrower window of effect.)

Insulin controls:
• energy storage
• cell growth
• cell repair
• reproduction
• and blood sugar levels

It is the last item on that list – blood sugar levels, technically blood glucose levels – that I’m going to focus on.

Let’s see how it works.

When you eat a carbohydrate – bread, pasta, cookies – your digestion breaks the large molecules down into glucose, which transfers through the lining of your small intestine into your bloodstream.

Your blood sugar rises.

If you ate the cookies – or the cake – which has lots of sucrose and which doesn’t require much digesting to be broken into its component parts of fructose and glucose, your blood sugar spikes. Something like this:

If you ate whole grain rye bread instead, your blood sugar rises more gradually, because all the fiber in the rye bread slows down the rate at which the carbohydrate molecules are broken down into glucose. But – and this is key – your blood sugar does rise. Something like this:

Your body is designed to operate within a very narrow range regarding blood sugar level.

Too little, and some critical operations that depend on glucose for their energy source won’t get enough of it.

This would be very bad.

But there are two important things to keep in mind regarding the potential scenario of low blood sugar.

1 • Foods are rarely pure concentrations of the three macro-nutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrate.

All foods are made of a combination of these macro-nutrients, each in varying ratios. Butter is mostly fat, but every tablespoon has approximately .1 gram of protein and .01 gram of carbohydrate in it.

Meats are almost entirely protein and fat, but a 6-ounce serving of liver has 8 grams of carbohydrates. Not much, but some. Of course, vegetables and fruits are composed mostly of carbohydrates, all contained in a hefty fiber matrix along with huge packets of vitamins and minerals. But there’s no need to eat bread and pasta to prevent low blood sugar. You’ll get plenty of glucose without them!

2 • Your body can and will make glucose from certain amino acids.

This is why there is no minimum dietary requirement for carbohydrates, unlike – for example – the dietary requirement for protein or that for the essential fatty acids, linoleic and alpha-linolenic.

(Your body can make many, even most, of the amino acids that are the building blocks of protein. But it cannot make them all. There are 9 amino acids that you must get from food. The same is true for the fatty acids: most can be synthesized by your body, but not the two I named above, which must also be obtained from food.)

While I’m on the subject of what the human body can synthesize versus what it must receive from food, I want to touch on an obscure limitation possessed by people with Scandinavian, Innuit, Northern European, or sea coast ancestry. It has personal interest to me, since I’m half Swedish, and the other half comes from Scotland and England.

People with these northern roots often lack the enzymes that convert alpha-linolenic acid into EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), two omega-3 fatty acids required for the proper functioning of the immune and nervous systems. The reason behind this lack is that their ancestors ate large amounts of cold-water fish, which supplied all the requisite EPA and DHA. Over time and across generations, the bodies of the northerners simply ceased to manufacture the enzymes that do the conversion.

EPA is found only in animal foods. DHA is present in some algae, but in very low amounts, too low to supply enough.

This explains to me why I became more and more chronically fatigued, and caught colds the instant I was exposed them, when I was in my early thirties and following a vegetarian diet. I was eating whole grains and legumes with a vengeance, but my health got worse and worse, until I added meat back into my repertoire.

However, to get back to my topic here: carbohydrates are not like the nine essential amino acids or the two essential fatty acids. Or even like EPA and DHA for northerners. Your body can make glucose, when it needs it. You don’t need to eat it.

Let’s now consider high blood sugar.

High blood sugar levels are nearly as bad for you as low.

High blood sugar acts essentially as a wrecking crew in your body, damaging your liver, your pancreas, your kidneys, your blood vessels, your brain, and your peripheral nerves. Just like a wrecking ball taking down a rickety tenement.

It’s critically important that your blood sugar level stay in the Goldilocks zone: not too low, not too high, but just right.

(Yes, I know that the Goldilocks zone typically refers to a donut of space around a star in which planets can possess water that is liquid. But the term fits here, too.)

I presented a graph representing your blood sugar level after eating dessert. And I presented another representing your blood sugar level after eating some “healthy” whole grain bread. (For the record, white bread made from refined flour spikes your blood sugar just like cake. Beware those crusty loaves of delicious French bread. Just sayin’.)

Let’s consider another scenario: your blood sugar after eating baked carrots drizzled with clarified butter or, perhaps, roasted eggplant drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with some sea salt and freshly grated black pepper. That would look something like this:

Now let’s think about these three eating scenarios.

The first – eating a sugar-laden dessert – yields a sky high level of blood glucose, much like the big kapow of a wrecking ball slamming into a brick building, indeed. Lots of damage. Which your body then repairs. Usually qute well when you are young. Less well, and more slowly, when you are in your forties or older.

The second scenario – eating whole grain bread – also yields blood sugar levels that are quite high, but not quite as high as eating cakes, candy, or soda sweetened with high-fructose con syrup. It’s more like the men in a wrecking crew who are busily dissassembling the framing in a house: unbolting the beams that support the floor, pulling nails in the 2x4s of the thewalls, working hard to take the thing apart.

Again, your body repairs the damage. Almost without a hitch, if you are young. Less easily, when you are older.

In the third scenario – eating a vegetable – your blood sugar barely rises out of the “just right” Goldilocks zone at all. The damage done is minimal, the equivalent of a hinge loosened on a door or a roof tile blown off in the wind. Your body repairs the damage, and need not use much in the way of resources to do so. Your body can support this kind of repair for a long, long time.

So far, I’ve been talking more about blood sugar (which insulin is designed to regulate) than I have about insulin itself.

So let’s move on to insulin.

When you eat a food that causes your blood sugar to rise, those beta cells in your pancreas secrete insulin into your bloodstream. The insulin signals the cells in your body to pull the glucose out of your bloodstream and pack it away into storage.

Where is this storage?

The first storage spots are located in the liver and in the muscles. In both, the glucose is converted into a complex carbohydrate called glycogen.

Glycogen in the liver can easily be converted back into glucose and released back intot the bloodstream to correct low blood sugar when needed.

Glycogen in your muscles stays there to be used by your muscles when they do work. This muscular glygogen cannot be released back into your bloodstream. It stays in storage until your muscles use it up.

But, here’s the thing: your body has limited room for storing glycogen. Between your liver and your muscles, you store enough to allow you to work out hard for about 90 minutes.

What happens if you don’t work out? What if you mostly sit at your desk? And just putter around your house at the end of the day?

Well, some of the glycogen in your liver is probably used up to keep your blood sugar stable between meals. But the glycogen in your muscles simply stays there. Which means that when you eat your next piece of rye toast – or that leftover slice of birthday cake – most of your storage space is already full.

So where does the glucose go, when there’s no room at the inn?

It must not stay in the bloodstream. That would kill you fairly quickly. The muscles are full – they won’t take any more. The liver might have room for a little bit. But what happens to the rest?

Your liver converts the extra glucose into a saturated fat called palmitic acid. Some of the palmitic acid is then bundled together in groups of three to form triglycerides.

The triglycerides and fatty acids are then released into your bloodstream to be taken up by your fat cells. Your fat cells also have a limit to their storage capacity, but they are capable of taking in more than they are designed to hold. Your body doesn’t make more fat cells when you’ve got excess fatty acids and triglycerides to store. (The number of your fat cells is set during childhood and adolescence.) It just packs more into each of the existing fat cells.

Each fat cell stretches to accommodate the overpacking, and it becomes inflamed.

Eventually, the overpacked fat cell simply cannot take anymore. Bloated and inflamed, it puts up a “no vacancy” sign, and the excess triglycerides and fatty acids circulate in your bloodstream. Not good! (High levels of triglycerides in the blood are a known marker for cardiovascular disease.)

I’m going to return to my three scenarios – eating dessert, eating bread, eating vegetables – in a moment, putting insulin in the picture. But before I do that, let me say a few words about inflammation.

Inflammation in our bodies is regulated by the immune system. It is part of the repair cycle that follows an acute injury (a broken bone, a bruising blow, a burn or a cut) or an infection (by bacteria, a virus, or a parasite).

The immune system ramps up to fight and then to repair the damage. When the repair work is complete, the inflammation passes, and the immune system stands down. It’s ready, sure, for the next time. But in between fights, it’s idling. And while it’s idling, it’s doing low-level routine maintenance.

To use analogy: it’s tightening up that loose hinge, driving in an extra nail to that squeaking floorboard, stocking the freezer with chicken soup, painting the shutters and cleaning the windows, washing the dishes.

When your immune system is ramped up and fighting a fire – healing an acute injury or repelling an invader – it does not perform routine maintenance. These small jobs go undone until the next lull.

Chronic inflammation – which is part and parcel of overstretched fat cells – means your immune system is diverting some of its resources to fight a fire. Resources which are needed for routine maintenance. Necessary chores are being left undone as your immune system sends help to the inflamed fat cells.

Chronic inflammation – inflammaton that persists and has no end – is never a good thing. And when we are overweight, we are dealing with chronic inflammation. The more avoirdupois, the higher the level of inflammation.

One more note on inflammation: insulin itself is inflammatory. The longer it hangs out in your bloodstream to clean up glucose, the more it contributes to inflammation.

Okay, now let’s get back my three eating scenarios.

What happens with insulin after you eat cake?

The answer to this question is highly influenced by how insulin resistent your cells are. Typically, when you are young and haven’t been consuming sugar and grains for decades, your cells are not resistant. Which means your pancreas secretes a moderate amount of insulin, your liver and muscles take up glucose in the form of glycogen, and your blood sugar level returns to normal. That would look somoething like this:

That’s a pretty good scenario. Blood sugar isn’t elevated for long, which means the damage done is limited. Insulin didn’t stay in your bloodstream for long, so it didn’t contribute much toward creating inflammation. Your liver and muscles had room for all the glycogen. And then, because were a kid, you went outside and played tag with your friends, emptying much of the glycogen from your muscles and making room for more. Plus, since there was no insulin in your blood, some of the fat in your fat cells was emptied out and converted for energy as well, making room for storage there and ensuring that the cell didn’t become overpacked.

But when you’re 45…or 55…or 65, it doesn’t look like that.

It’s more like this:

Your cells are insulin-resistent from decades of eating sugar and grains, which means it takes more insulin and more time to pack away all that glucose. Your blood sugar is elevated for longer, damaging your body for the entire interval. Your insulin levels are elevated for longer, contributing to inflammation for the entire time. And while your bloodstream is brimming with insulin, your body is unable to withdraw fat from fat cells. (See Test first, then conclude! for more about the one-way door that insulin creates.)

On top of that, you had a stressful day at the office, and when you arrived home you were too exhausted to go to the gym to work out. So there’s not much room in your muscles for any glycogen. Your liver converts it to fatty acids and triglycerides, which are packed away into your fat cells. And these stretched fat cells are, by definition, inflamed fat cells. Which is why the tendonitis in your shoulder (or whatever chronic problem you’re fighting) refuses to heal.

The scenario with whole grain bread or brown rice isn’t much better:

Sure, your blood sugar does not spike as high, but it is still elevated for a long time, doing damage the whole while. Your pancreas must still secrete a lot of insulin, which contributes to inflammation. And while the insulin is present, your cells are forced to run on glucose (glycogen) for energy. No fat can be withdrawn from your fat cells to be processed into ketone bodies, the preferred food of the brain.

Now let’s consider the scenario in which you eat vegetables.

Because your blood sugar barely rises above the optimum level and does not stay there for long, not much damage is done. Furthermore, it does not take much insulin to bring it back down. Which means the insulin has little opportunity to cause inflammation. And, since insulin is not present for long, your body is soon free to withdraw fat from your fat cells and use it for energy.

Withdrawing fat from the fat cells means they get smaller. As they shrink in size, their degree of inflammation reduces. Eventually, if you keep allowing your body to use fat for fuel, the inflammation goes away entirely. Your immune system devotes more and more of its resources to normal repair and maintenance. Your spare tire shrinks. Your knees stop aching.

Let’s consider one more scenario.

Instead of eating just baked carrots drizzled in clarified butter, you also eat seared chicken breasts with a few olives as garnish.

The protein in the chicken and the oil in the olives (plus the fat in the clarified butter and the fiber in the carrots) will cause the carbohydrates in the carrots to be broken down and assimilated even more gradually, so that your blood sugar might never leave the Goldilocks zone at all. Check it out!

I want to visit one more tangent before I conclude: nutrient density.

What does the term mean?

The proportion of nutrients present in a food in comparison to the calories it provides. The nutrients of primary interest are vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and the nine essential amino acids. The more nutrient-dense a food is, the more it supports optimal functioning and health.

At one end of the scale are sugar and white flour. They provide no vitamins, no minerals, and no amino acids at all. They are truly empty calories. Sugar is merely glucose plus fructose, and both of these substances rapidly unhook from one another under digestion, the glucose yielding all the damage I’ve been discussing above.

White flour, when digested, also yields glucose, resulting in damage nearly identical to that produced by sugar, and providing no nutrients.

But whole grains are not much better.

Let’s take a look at the structure of a grain kernel.

The germ and the bran are where you find vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The endosperm provides energy – calories – that allows the seedling plant to grow. (The plant’s nutrients will come from from the soil through its roots or be synthesized by the plant from sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water.)

White flour is made from the endosperm. The bran and the germ are discarded.

Whole grain flour keeps the bran and the germ, but here’s the catch: the bulk of even whole grain flour is provided by the nutrient-free endosperm, and most of the nutrients present in the bran and the germ are not bio-available. That is, they are chemically bound so tightly that digestion cannot unhook them to pass them through the lining of the small intestine and into our bodies where they can be used.

Even worse, the phytates in the bran (present to protect the seed) bind calcium and other minerals from other foods present in the digestive tract and carry these valuable substances out of the body altogether.

Grains are not nutrient-dense.

And every vitamin or mineral that is present in whole grains is present in far larger amounts and with greater bio-availability in vegetables, fruits, eggs, seafood, and meat.

Vegetables, fruits, eggs, seafood, and meat are nutrient dense.

I’ll be posting more of my latest revelations about food and nutrition over the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, if you’d like to delve deeper on your own, I can recommend two books.

It Starts with Food by Dallas and Melissa Hartwig is an excellent resource with solid information presented in a lighthearted, friendly way.

It’s an easy introduction to some key principles, including much of the information I’ve discussed in this post, plus a lot more.

 
The Paleo Approach by Sarah Ballantyne is a dense tome written by a scientist, chronicling in exquisite detail the complex workings of the human gut and how it interfaces with food and nearly every other system in the body.

The information is rock solid, and if you are dealing with any complex and recalcitrant health issues, you may well need the specifics that Ballantyne provides.

The book is written for the layperson, but it is not an easy read. Explanations are comprehensive and extensive and detailed. The author covers every last tiny interaction that takes place in the intricate chain that permits molecules from food to pass through the intestinal membrane, and exactly how certain foods muck up the works for many people, especially the immune system.

I tend to use the index to research specific topics. I read paragraphs, even whole segments within chapters. But I rarely read an entire chapter at once, and I haven’t yet read the entire book from cover to cover.

It’s a great resource, but… 😉

For more from my blog on this topic, see:
Thinner and Healthier
Milk Is Highly Insulinogenic
Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!
Why Seed Oils Are Dangerous
Why Calcium Isn’t Enough

 

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Belzetarn’s Battlements

In The Tally Master, the elite of the citadel possess quarters in the uppermost levels of the tower. Its warlord, Regenen Carbraes, inhabits chambers with an internal stair connecting several lower spaces with others on the upper floor.

Gael, the protagonist of the novel, chooses not to use the official apartments that go with his position of Secretarius, but he pays an unplanned and fateful visit to his empty rooms one evening.

Another turning point in the story occurs on the terrace ringed by the quarters of the elite. Carbraes and the general who commands his legions (the March) are enjoying a rare moment of conversation and leisure under the summer sun, when Gael brings them startling news.

For more about the world of The Tally Master, see:
Belzetarn’s Great Halls
Belzetarn’s Treasures
Belzetarn’s Formidable Entrance Gate
Belzetarn’s Smithies and Cellars
The Dark Tower
The Fortress of Belzetarn
Map of the North-lands in the Bronze Age
What Does the Tally Master Tally?
Mapping Ancient Rome onto Belzetarn
Gael’s Tally Chamber

 

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