MULCH, n. Our friends and neighbors had a big pile of mulch delivered and it has been a subject of fascination for their kid—and me, obviously, since I spent some time looking the word up. What the heck is the word “mulch,” anyway? The stuff is pretty straightforward. By “mulch,” these days we usually mean shredded wood, but it could also be leaves or straw or any organic material you put on top of the dirt in your garden to protect what you planted from getting overgrown by weeds.
But the word is less obvious. It comes from Middle English “molsh,” meaning “soft,” which is from Old English “melsc, milisc,” meaning “mellow, sweet, honeyed.” Thereafter the Online Etymology Dictionary and Wiktionary have a disagreement about whether “melsc, milisc” is from the Proto-Indo-European root for “soft” (mel-) or for “honey” (Proto Germanic “mili,” PIE “melit”)
Either way it’s a weird connection, because mulch does not make me think of honey at all, and I guess it’s soft, compared to the ground, but I’m not exactly dying to roll around in it. So anyway “mulch” is unexpected and a little bit mysterious—who knew?
Another word I looked up this week is quench, v., because it shows up in a Passover song (“then came the water that quenched the fire”) and I was wondering whether you can quench anything other than fire and thirst. The answer is yes, sort of. “Quench” has specific uses in chemistry, physics, and blacksmithing—when you put the newly forged sword into water to cool it down, you’re quenching the sword.
“Quench” is also from Old English and it can be traced back to Proto-Germanic, but not all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. And it doesn’t have any relatives in other Indo-European languages. Those two things together—“quench” and relatives only show up in Germanic languages, and we can’t find any traces elsewhere—might mean “quench” & ancestors originally came from some local language spoken by people who were then conquered by the speakers of Proto-Germanic. We can’t know that for sure, but languages often get reshaped or marked by their neighbors, whether it’s conquest or peaceful cohabitation that brings them together.
There isn’t really a connection here, other than Englishness. It’s just mulch and quench. That’s what rattled around my brain this week, plus a whole bunch of other words that end in a consonant and then [ʧ] (gulch, lurch, lunch, munch, clench, wench, winch, inch). English is so strange, I love it.
I have not had the focus to write fiction this week, or to read anything in a Capital-R Romance language, but I have read a lot of small-r romance novels and many chapters of Moby-Dick.
I would very much like to talk about Moby-Dick—it starts with etymologies for the word “whale” in so many different languages! there’s gay cuddling and accidental marriage! Melville’s portrayal of Black people and Queequeg is profoundly distressing!—but I haven’t worked out what it is I want to say. I am 27 chapters in and the ship has finally set sail. The table of contents tells me I might soon meet Captain Ahab. No whale yet.
I have been enjoying reading Moby-Dick along with some folks on twitter using the hashtag #quarantinemeishmael, which I think was started by Alexis Hall, and also listening to the podcast Moby Dick Energy.
Anyway, other than Melville, here’s what I read:
Get a Life, Chloe Brown (m/f, both cis and het, contemporary) by Talia Hibbert. This is superb. Funny, charming, tender, true. Basically a perfect contemporary romance. List-making indoorswoman Chloe decides to shake up her life after a brush with death; to achieve her goals, she enlists the help of her building’s superintendent, Red, a tattooed motorcycle-riding artist. This book is a sensitive, thoughtful portrayal of life with a chronic illness and of life after emotional abuse, and it culminates in a beautiful idea of what it means to be in a relationship: you fill in each other’s gaps. And I wasn’t kidding about how funny it is. One of Talia Hibbert’s many amazing qualities as a writer is how quickly she gives her supporting characters dimension. It only takes her a few sentences to render someone distinctive and memorable. Chloe’s two sisters and her grandmother are highlights here—as is her grandmother’s yoga instructor. Content warnings: abuse (in the past), a near-miss car accident, chronic illness, sex.
Wicked Intentions (m/f, both cis and het, historical) by Elizabeth Hoyt. I have read a few of the other books in this series out of order and I decided I should go back to the library and start at the beginning. This series is historical, set in 18th-century London, but more importantly—and I mean this in the best way—it’s bonkers. Violent serial killers, secret societies, masked vigilantes. A grand old time. This one stars prim (or is she?) widow Temperance Dews, who works at a foundling home in St. Giles, and the mysterious and super fucking extra Lord Caire, who needs Temperance’s help to solve a murder. He’s basically a sexy anime villain—all black outfits, long white hair—and every supporting character gasps and warns Temperance not to hang around such a notorious perv, which I loved. How does literally everyone in London know about Caire’s ~unusual tastes~ in the bedroom? Never mind, I don’t care. This book is fun, but I think the later books I’ve read, where the sort of comic-book-caper parameters of the world and the overarching story are better established, are even more so. I look forward to revisiting this series. Also worth mentioning: Elizabeth Hoyt can write the hell out of a kiss. Content warnings: Caire is kind of a dick to Temperance in the beginning of the book, (gory) murder, violence, child sex trafficking, parental abuse/neglect of a main character, adultery (in the past), bondage, sex.
Waiting for the Flood (m/m, both cis and gay, contemporary, novella) by Alexis Hall. I’m biased because this novella has a lot of etymology in it, but also I’m right and you should listen to me: this is breathtaking. I think Alexis Hall is one of the best prose stylists in romance. He just loves words so much. And it doesn’t hurt to write a point of view character who also cherishes words, as book conservator Edwin does. Edwin’s attitude toward language is also shaped by being a stutterer, which I thought was handled beautifully. The story here is about living through a flood in Oxford, which is how Edwin meets game-theory- and logic-puzzle-loving civil engineer Adam, who is also a delight. Content warnings: none I can think of.
Glitterland (m/m, both cis and gay, contemporary) by Alexis Hall. Set in the same world as Waiting for the Flood, this novel is about bipolar depressive writer Ash Winters, a posh snob whose life is a huge mess, meeting fake-tanned aspiring model and “glitter pirate” Darian Taylor and falling in love. Its treatment of language is fantastic, and I highly recommend my friend Charlotte’s close reading of the scene where Ash and Darian make up a bunch of words together. I was really impressed with the first-person narration in this. Ash can be difficult to like—he has a lot of self-loathing—but I did sympathize with him and root for him to fix his fuck-ups. The whole thing is beautifully done. Content warnings from the author: Sexual content, character with bipolar depression, past hospitalisation due to suicide attempt, talk of past suicide, suicidal ideation, discussion of self-harm, attempted on page drug use, parental neglect, panic attack, outing of a character’s mental health. (I would also add that body image issues come up in this book and there is some discussion of scars and weight gain.)
Where possible, I am going to start linking to books at bookshop.org, which benefits independent bookstores, many of which are struggling right now. I like to order directly from my local bookstore via email, but bookshop.org is a nice way to browse for books and you can make pretty lists there, such as this list of the books I’ve loved in 2020 so far or this list of books I wrote. Full disclosure: I’m using affiliate links, which means if you buy any books from the site, I get a percentage. But if you have a bookstore in your town that you want to support, calling or emailing them to place your order is still the best way to do that.
In personal news, my novel Thornfruit recently got reviewed at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, and its sequel Nightvine is out in audio now. I’ve also been working on putting my books on Gumroad so it’s possible to buy Kindle versions that don’t come from Amazon.
Okay, that’s all for this week. Next week: more romance novels, more gay whaling, and as always, more words. See you then!