Horses and space ships – woohoo

Copenhage, Denmark – November 05, 2017: Group of horse riders at the annual Hubrertus fox hunt event

When we talk about Science Fiction – at least when I do – I immediately think of space ships. Having established (for me) that given, SF seems to be a comfortable home for just about anything else. Romance, shape-shifters like werewolves, vampires, weird creepy things. As long as whatever it is can be explained scientifically (even if the science is beyond our current comprehension) it’s okay in SF. Vampires and shape-shifters could be aliens, weird creepy things could be alien weird creepy things – as long as it’s not magic or fantasy.

I guess one of the last things I expected to find in a space ships book was a strong story arc about a woman riding in fox hunts, much as depicted in the phtot at the head of this post. But I have, and I thoroughly enjoyed Elizabeth Moon’s Hunting Party.

For Heris Serrano, nothing gave her life as much meaning as serving the ruling Familias Regnant in the Regular Space Service. But after defying a vindictive superior officer in order to save the lives of her men—she’s cast off from the crew and finds herself struggling to retain her sense of purpose.

Now, she finds herself in the civilian world and at the helm of the ‘Sweet Delight’—an opulent interstellar space yacht owned by the wealthy, powerful and irascible matriarch Lady Cecilia de Marktos. After a disciplined life in the Service, Heris doesn’t anticipate having many problems captaining a flying pleasure palace.

But she didn’t count on her crew comprising some of the most incompetent degenerates she’s ever had the displeasure of commanding. Or that her predecessor had been using the ‘Sweet Delight’ for criminal enterprises…or that their final destination will bring Heris face-to-face with the man who ended her career.

This isn’t an action-packed story with danger at every turn – although the danger does happen further down the track. There’s no space battle. It’s very much character driven, with lots of extra interest as we wonder why Heris resigned from the Regular Space Service. She’s a member of a powerful military family, often referred to as the Serrano Admiralty and whatever she did has finished her career. She certainly hadn’t seen herself ending up captaining a rich old lady’s yacht.

Cecelia Marktos, having sacked her previous captain for making her late, isn’t one to accept Heris’s rules and regs approach to captaincy lying down. It’s fascinating to watch Heris and Cecelia move from mutual disdain through to respect and even friendship. Having lost a wager, Heris agrees to learn how to ride a horse using Lady Cecelia’s simulator and later ride in a hunt with her. In return, Cecelia learns about her ship, how it works, and how her previous captain and crew had taken advantage of her hands-off approach.

There’s lots of technical detail as Heris checks out the ship’s hydroponics and environmental systems, which have been allowed to deteriorate to a dangerous condition. Her investigations lead to animosity with some of the crew. Her insistence on holding emergency drills which involve Lady Cecelia and her four spoiled rich kid passengers creates animosity with the twenty-something lads and lasses – though not with Cecelia, who has been lumbered with them against her will. Ronnie, in particular, decides to pit himself against Cecelia’s ‘little captain’. There’s also lots of technical detail as Heris learns to ride, first on Cecelia’s very realistic simulator, then on real horses at Lord Thornbuckle’s property. The hunt is very much copied from traditional hunts held at aristocratic properties on Old Earth, which gives a hint at the politics of the Familias Regnant world,s dominated by well-bred, wealthy families.

Not being keen on hunting, Ronnie, George, Bubbles and Raffa sneak off in one of Lord Thornbuckle’s flitters for a jaunt to the islands where they used to camp as children. Things don’t go as planned and the four young people are forced to grow up – fast.

What makes this a compelling read is the characters and the unanswered questions. Why did Heris resign? The explanation comes out in dribs and drabs, in realistic discussions as the two senior women get to know each other. We learn more about Cecelia, too, an unmarried aristocrat who decided to make her own way against her family’s wishes. She’s the crazy, eccentric aunt who used to be a champion horsewoman and is now facing old age.

The four spoiled rich kids go on a journey, too. At first it’s easy to despise them. What is there to say about a young man whose favourite expression appears to be, “it’s not fair”? How can anyone take a girl with the name ‘Bubbles’ seriously? How can they survive when there’s no one to help them?

The story comes to a satisfying conclusion and the promise of a second book about Heris and Cecelia. Following the vaguely horsey tone, it’s called Sporting Chance’.

I’m off for a re-read.

 

Notre Dame will rise again

When I first saw the news about the fire destroying the spire of Notre Dame de Paris I was sickened, appalled, and ultimately grief-stricken. My post on Facebook said it all – “Notre Dame. Oh no, oh no, how tragic”.

Although I was raised in a Christian (Protestant) household, I have been for many years an atheist, so my response might seem a little odd, so let me explain.

I had always been interested in history when I was at high school, but the history teacher inflicted upon my class in my final year did his level best to beat that out of me. Even so, when I enrolled for my first year at Uni, I decided to take one unit of history, in an area we hardly learned anything about in school – Medieval Europe. That is, the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the Renaissance. The lecturer was one of those rare academics who could make the subject come alive. It wasn’t just a string of dates and dynasties, she talked about the people and their lives in those very different times. The world was divided into nobles, artisans, and peasants. Jobs and skills were handed on from father to son, mother to daughter. The only tall structures were castles – and they weren’t very tall, either, once you’d walked up the hill on which they were built. Everybody believed in God and the Devil, and the Catholic church, having survived some turbulent times, was wealthy and powerful. It was in this context that the great Gothic cathedrals were built.

I was entranced. Our lecturer showed as slides of the great cathedrals, the soaring vaults, the wonderful flying buttresses to keeps those walls upright, the wonderful gargoyles spilling rainwater from the roof to the ground, the statues of saints and nobles carved into the stone above the entrances, the magnificent carvings around the pulpit, the choir, the organ. And the statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the Apostles, all decorated with gold leaf and bright paint. Just being inside these places with their towering arches three and four storeys tall is a humbling experience, even to a non-believer like me.

Notre Dame is much more than ‘just’ a Catholic cathedral, it’s a monument to the ingenuity of mankind.

It was built by humans equipped with nothing but hand tools, building on the foundations of structures that had stood there before, combining two earlier basilicas into one. Think about it. The two bell towers are sixty-eight metres tall, and the roof is thirty-five metres high. The work was carried out without cranes or hydraulic lifts, each stone and oak beam put into place by hand. And it’s not just a matter of placing blocks of stone on top of each other. Figures are carved into doorways and windows – saints and kings and characters from the scriptures. The incredible rose windows were put in place high above the ground, each piece lovingly created before it was fitted into the whole. Women wove tapestries. Artists painted murals and paintings. Generations of craftsmen worked on this project. Some of their skills we’ve never been able to reproduce – at least not the way they did things then.

I’ve been to Notre Dame many decades ago when cameras had film. I’m sure the pictures are somewhere, but it’s easy enough to find photos of this French icon, as I’ve shown on the post. However, I recall the wonderful rose windows which still (and thankfully even now) have their 13th century glass. We’ve lost the art, you see. Crafts were handed down from father to son. Nothing was written down. And when many of the lower windows of the cathedral were damaged during the French Revolution and the 20th century wars, they were replaced with modern glass. Compared to the original glass, the new glass lacks… something. An inner glow, a lustre.

Now, a few days after the fire, we know the organ has survived relatively intact, as have the irreplaceable rose windows. The main structure has survived and many of the statues and holy relics were removed to keep them safe while the main spire was renovated. So there’s much that has been saved.

I have no doubt that Notre Dame will rise again. After world war II many buildings in Europe were resurrected, including cathedrals. That was because the people thought they were worth the effort. The ruins of the Frauenkirche in Dresden – not much more than one wall and a pile of rubble – were carefully guarded by the citizens of Dresden until after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when they could finally rebuild.

There are those who point fingers at wealthy firms and billionaires who pledged hundreds of millions to a restoration fund within days of the fire, asking why the money didn’t go to feeding the hungry and other worthy causes. This IS a worthy cause. The cathedral is part of the soul of Paris. And remember, those donations will pay artisans, purchase raw materials, put factories to work. Those donations will make their way through the city, the country, all of Europe – and bring a community closer together. And that has to be good.

 

 

Children’s books aren’t necessarily just for children

Some books are without a doubt aimed only at children. They’re short, the printing is often larger, the language is simple, and they’re not full of sex and violence. But even books like the immortal Winnie the Pooh can be enjoyed by adults. Winnie the Pooh is full of humour that would zip over a lot of kids’ heads. There are plenty of books aimed at younger readers that are just as attractive to older readers in the same way that quite young kids can enjoy books meant for an older audience.

Many adults don’t care that much about labels. I believe one of the biggest audiences for Twilight, a book about a senior high school student being stalked by a hundred-year-old fellow student vampire, was middle-aged women. It’s an excellent example of ‘whatever floats your boat’.

Now before anybody thinks I’m acting all superior and flounces off in a huff, rest assured I’m not being judgmental. I have several confessions of my own to make. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan – and let’s face it, the first book (HP and the Philosopher’s Stone) was a kid’s book aimed at eleven or twelve-year-olds.

Enough has been said about Mister Potter, though, so this post is about a wonderful mash of fantasy and science fiction, all mixed up in a ‘children’s’ book. Mind you, it was written by Sir T. Prachett and I’d read a shopping list if he wrote it.

Three books – Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, together make up the Bromeliad trilogy. Sir Terry is famous for his many Discworld novels but this story is set right here on Earth in fairly recent England. Imagine a large department store like Marks & Spencers in a country town. It’s been around for years but it’s out of date and management have other plans for the site, which will impact a community they don’t even know about.

In a world whose seasons are defined by Christmas sales and Spring Fashions, hundreds of tiny nomes live in the corners and crannies of a human-run department store. They have made their homes beneath the floorboards for generations and no longer remember — or even believe in — life beyond the Store walls.

Until the day a small band of nomes arrives at the Store from the Outside. Led by a young nome named Masklin, the Outsiders carry a mysterious black box (called the Thing), and they deliver devastating news: In twenty-one days, the Store will be destroyed.

Now all the nomes must learn to work together, and they must learn to think — and to think BIG.

Part satire, part parable, and part adventure story par excellence, master storyteller Terry Pratchett’s engaging trilogy traces the nomes’ flight and search for safety, a search that leads them to discover their own astonishing origins and takes them beyond their wildest dreams.

Please understand that ‘nomes’ is not a typo. The nomes are not the gnomes of human fantasy although there is a superficial resemblance. They are about four inches high, very fast and very strong. Humans for them are vast and slow and unintelligible, much like one of the larger herbivore dinosaurs would be to us. The humans don’t see them, don’t know the tiny nomes exist, so they live their lives quite separately, even having minor wars between the inhabitants of various store departments.

When Masklin and his small band arrive in the Store it’s hard to know who is more surprised – the store nomes or the ‘wild’ nomes. There’s much consternation and suspicion about the refugees but eventually Masklin and some of the younger nomes come up with a remarkable plan to escape the Store before it is destroyed.

In the first book, Truckers:

Imagine that all around you, hidden from sight, there are thousands of tiny people.
They are four inches tall, brave, stubborn and resourceful.
They are the nomes.

The nomes in this story live under the floorboards of a large Department Store and have never been Outside. In fact, they don’t even believe in Outside. But new nomes arrive, from – where else? – and they bring with them terrifying news: the Store is closing down and Everything Must Go . . .

And the adventure carries on from there. Although the nomes manage to escape and setup house in a quarry, they’re still not safe. That story is the plot of Diggers.

This is the story of Jekub, the Dragon in the Hill with great big teeth and a great loud voice.

(Well, that’s according to the nomes, but they are only four inches tall.)

When humans threaten their new home in the quarry, the natural thing would be to run and hide. But the nomes have got the wild idea that they should fight back. After all, everyone knows that nomes are faster and smarter than humans, and now they have a secret weapon . . .

Of course the nomes survive but they’re getting sick of running, so we move on to the last book, Wings.

When you’re four inches high in a world full of giant people, things never go very well for long.

After running into trouble at the quarry, the nomes want to go home. The problem is, ‘home’ is somewhere up in the stars, in some sort of Ship.

Masklin must find a way to get to the ‘launch’ of a ‘communications satellite’ (whatever that is).

And so begins an incredible journey, filled with peril, planes, honking geese . . . and a walking sandwich.

I can imagine some of you wondering what bromeliads have to do with it? Well, in the stories you’ll hear about a tiny, tiny frog that lives in the little pool of water inside a bromeliad perched high on a tree in the Amazonian rain forest. The little frog’s entire galaxy is inside that pool. But if the little frog wants to know if there’s a wider universe out there, it will have to leave its safe pool.

Hey gosh! It sounds like us humans and Mars! Maybe.

By the way, that’s a photo of a small native toad sitting in one of my bromeliads, just to give you a taste for what I’m talking about. The frog in the Amazon is much smaller and the bromeliad is much larger.

The three books are full of delightful jokes and snide parallels. Here’s a quote from Truckers. The store nomes have taken surnames based on which department they live in and the text is taken from The Book of Nome (there’s always a Holy Book).

“I. Woe unto you, Ironmongri and Haberdasheri; woe unto you, Millineri and Del Icatessen; woe unto you, Young Fashions, and unto you, you the bandits of Corsetry. And even unto you, Stationeri.
II. For the Store is but a Place inside the Outside.
III. Woe unto you, for Arnold Bros (est. 1905) has opened the Last Sale. Everything Must Go.
IV. But they mocked him and said, You are an Outsider, You don’t even Exist.

From The Book of Nome, Goods Inward v.I-IV”
― Terry Pratchett, Truckers

Yes, it’s a book for younger readers – as well as for older ones with a sense of humour. The nomes are forced out of their comfort zone and have to learn to live in a hostile world – so hostile it doesn’t even know they exist. And you know, maybe aliens aren’t necessarily human-sized creatures with bulbous heads, huge eyes and no hair…

There’s a thought.

 

 

 

Why I’m not giving up on Facebook

Everybody who uses the internet has heard about how Facebook collects private information and uses it to target advertising. Nobody likes it, especially when email addresses and telephone numbers are sold off to other parties. I’m with you – something needs to be done to prevent this abuse but if it’s a choice between giving up some of my privacy and giving up Facebook (FB) – I’ll stick with FB.

My Facebook profile provides as little personal information about me as I can get away with. Facebook’s goblins know my date of birth (although I could have fudged that) and nothing else. No address, no phone number, no interests, no religious views etc. I use FB Purity to remove sponsored posts and advertising. This doesn’t mean FB knows nothing about me. Of course they know I’m an author and an amateur photographer, and that I’m interested in science. I’m okay with that. The system collects data from what I post and my reaction to what others post. For instance, I mentioned that Billy Dee Williams is to appear in the next Star Wars movie, so he’s listed as somebody I’m interested in. Frank Oz is another – because I quite often refer to Australia as ‘Oz’ so the goblins got that wrong. You can find all this stuff by digging through your FB settings and clear it if you wish. They use it to target ads. Before I got onto FB Purity I used to get ads for older men wanting to meet women, weight-loss options, beauty treatments and the like. Everything an elderly woman might want from life.

I use FB because it gives me a whole new, real and vibrant, social world. I wasn’t an early user. I guess I started using the app regularly after the writer website Authonomy became a snake pit. Quite a few of us retired hurt and joined up again on Facebook, so it’s no surprise to know that many of my friends are fellow scribes. Pretty soon I connected with family members I hadn’t seen for years, old friends from the Palaeolithic I’d lost touch with decades ago, people I worked with in Perth and Melbourne and a few (a very few) locals. They were joined by extended family in the Netherlands and then, over time, people we met on holiday.

I don’t accept every ‘friend’ request I get. For a while I got a whole slew of American military officers (generals and such) and medical doctors. They were all older gents, either widowed or divorced. I was flattered, of course I was, but none of them had any other friends (poor souls) or if they did, they seemed to be either all women, or African. Somehow I wasn’t convinced they were genuinely interested in ME.

In some cases I met people before we became FB friends. In others, I got to meet FB friends in real life. In each of the latter cases, it was as though we already knew each other – because we did – through Facebook.

Through FB I learned what it was like for people affected by the floods in Townsville and cyclone Veronica which hit the Karratha area, or the effects of the Californian fires and the American floods and hurricanes. I’m hearing all about Brexit from the people who will be impacted, and from both sides. I hear opinions about Trump, Bernie Sanders, Pence, Mitch McConnell (and in the past Obama et al). I discuss writing and publishing with my author groups and recipes and cooking with quite a few, especially those getting great results from the keto diet.

And just like any other community, I hear about births, deaths, and marriages. I’m sure MM Bennetts, who was invaluable to me when I was writing To Die a Dry Death, was ill for a long time but that was never shared with the FB community until she died. The outpouring of grief when we heard of her passing was remarkable. At the moment we’ve all been watching one of our colleagues as he undergoes a heart transplant. This very healthy man in his late fifties had a pacemaker fitted a year ago. When it failed about a month ago doctors diagnosed him with a very rare, incurable heart condition. His only option was a transplant – although, this being America, his name wasn’t added to the transplant list until his insurance company undertook to pay the bills. He was lucky he had insurance. Many Americans don’t. He discussed his situation with humour, sharing the tribulations of being in an intensive care unit as he waited for a donor. He endured endless tests, IV tubes, providing stool samples, blood samples etc at all hours of the day and night. A suitable donor heart became available remarkably quickly and our patient shared the ordeal of waiting for surgery. Then his wife took over and kept us up to date while she sat in a waiting room for hours on end. The doctors had him sitting in a chair not much more than a few hours after the transplant. And we’re all thinking of him – and the nineteen-year-old whose heart is now beating in another chest.

Some people died suddenly, or without fanfare. I knew two ladies who were struck down with cancer and blogged about their treatment. They both used FB as a place to connect with people and share their stories. At the end, surrounded by family, one of them shared posts with her online friends (I guess one of the family did the actual typing). The other woman was someone I met online because of a shared interest in gardening. At the time she lived in Victoria but by then we had moved to Queensland. She later moved to Maryborough, 40km from Hervey Bay, so we finally got to meet. After she was diagnosed with cancer and sent home for the last stages, I visited her in Hervey Bay hospital. She wrote a last blog post, which her husband posted to FB after her death.

I hear about new pets and the loss of much-loved pets. I see pictures of people when they were young and fit. One lady’s husband passed away, another lost her daughter, aged in her late twenties, to cancer. I’ve known three men who decided to become women, had the operation and everything. They’re still the same nice people they were before. I’m friends with men who are married to other men and women in relationships with women. I know people suffering from depression, anxiety, and fibromyalgia among others, and know people who have Asperger’s or who are autistic.

Sure, I’ve removed a few ‘friends’ who turned out to be not the sort of people I want to share my thoughts with but not very many. And I’ve run the occasional ‘purge’ where I removed people whose names I don’t recognize because I’ve had nothing to do with them.

But all in all, for a confirmed introvert Facebook has been a great way of staying out in the people world. In fact, that incredible mix of people from all walks of life would be impossible for me in the real world.

So I won’t be giving up Facebook anytime soon.

 

Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

Last week I talked about covers and their importance in selling a book. I shied away from discussing the elements used in a cover except to mention that romance covers using images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. That’s a reader expectation which will attract some potential buyers and repel others. If you have animals on the cover with humans, and your book is listed under ‘paranormal’, people will expect a shifter novel. My own White Tiger is an example.  And if you’ve written in a certain category before you’ll earn a label as that sort of author. I’ve made that mistake myself, picking up an Elizabeth Moon novel expecting military space opera and finding (to my disappointment) that it was nothing of the kind.

One of my favourite authors is Nya Rawlyns who writes in a variety of genres which often overlap. Several of her more recent books seem to be classified as gay romance even if they’re not listed in the romance category. Which is sad, because often it isn’t true. Take The Eagle and the Fox. At first glance you might think it’s about an eagle and a fox and in a way it is. Let’s read the blurb.

TEaTFJosiah Foxglove is given a second chance when he takes over his family’s spread in the shadow of the Snowy Range. A veteran of the Gulf War, he came back broken in body and spirit.

Marcus Colton buried his long-time lover and best friend three years ago. Lonely and still grieving, Marcus finds solace in protecting Petilune, a girl with learning difficulties, who will surely become a victim of abuse and neglect without his help. But that doesn’t help him get through the long, dark nights.

When violence wracks the small community of Centurion, WY, it’s easy to place blame on Petilune’s mysterious new boyfriend, Ojibwe teen Kit Golden Eagle. It looks open and shut, but for Josiah and Marcus the facts simply don’t add up.

Something’s rotten in Centurion, something that smacks of a hate crime…

Unfortunately, this excellent book is diminished by reader expectations. Some look at the cover and expect a paranormal with shape shifters. (The eagle and the fox, you see.) Others will read the blurb and realise Kit Golden Eagle and Josiah Foxglove might be the eagle and the fox. That, and the fact no mention is made of shape-shifting and the book isn’t listed as paranormal. Heck, it’s not even listed as a romance, yet it has been judged as one.

Expectations, you see.

If it’s listed in gay literature, it has to be a romance, it has to be steamy. Except it’s not. Sure, there’s a romance arc – with sex, even. Life tends to be like that – love will find a way. But it’s a loooong way short of the whole story.

What this book is is a slice of life in a small American town, where the drought hits hard and despair hits harder. Foxglove is a war vet with PTSD. Marcus is an in-the-closet gay man who has lost his partner. Petilune is a vulnerable young girl with a learning disability and Kit Golden Eagle is an embittered Native American kid making his way in the world as best he can. And, as the blurb says, something’s rotten in Centurion which will enmesh the whole community.

The relationship between Marcus and Josiah develops slowly, helped by the mystery surrounding Petilune and Kit which brings them together in other ways. But it’s not a romance. By definition, a story can only be called a romance if the romance is the centre of the story. In this case, it’s not. Like it says in the sub-title, it’s ‘A Snowy Range Mystery’, with murder, kidnapping and violence.

I love the way Rawlyns brings the tiny town of Centurion, overshadowed by Wyoming’s Snowy Range, to life. You don’t have to be American to relate. Transfer the story to a dusty wheat belt town in Western Australia and it’ll still make sense. Because it’s about the characters, you see. It isn’t a boiler plate, paint by numbers romance, it’s a slice of life with all the complexity that involves. Nothing like the nasty, fantasy world of Christian Grey or the one-hundred-year-old vampire who’s re-enroled in high school.

This book is very difficult to slot into a box. I’ve spent some time considering where I’d put it on a bookshelf. Let’s see now… a slice of life starring a range of disadvantaged, damaged people. A small town mystery, hope and despair, starting again, love and loss… <Sigh> I guess it’s just going to have to go into Literature.

Oh – and for those to whom these things matter, it’s beautifully written. Go on, give it a try. There’s a link on the cover.

Baby Boomer Bashing

It seems it’s baby boomer bashing time again. Apparently us old farts are increasingly a drain on the national purse. We don’t pay tax and we want pensions and healthcare. All those poor young people earning wages and paying tax right now are forking out for us. We’re an undeserving burden. And we shouldn’t come out with all that rubbish about how hard it was for us. These days it costs half a million to a million to buy a decent house in a reasonable location. Both parents have to work to pay the mortgage, too.

Look, I get it. I feel sorry for young people saddling up to a mortgage with eye-watering numbers like $650,000, even with interest rates at an all-time low. And if both parents work and they have children, half their income goes on childcare. For many, they’re better off if the wife doesn’t work. And then, if you went to university you’ll have to pay back your HEX debt as well.

But let’s get all this into perspective.

My first fulltime job was as a graduate clerk in Canberra where I worked in the Archives office. It’s one of the few salaries I actually remember because it seemed like such a lot of money to a kid from a poor family. It was a little over $5,000pa, around one hundred bucks a week. Back in Perth a few years later, as a clerk in the public service I earned a bit over $8,000, which was around the median wage of the day. [1] Most married women didn’t work. Although women were no longer obliged to resign from Public Service jobs when they married, that was a recent change.[3] Around the same time (1976) the median house price in Perth was $33,000, which was roughly four times the median salary.[2] Sounds cheap, doesn’t it?

Let’s look at what that house was. Around then 7-800 sqm blocks were common. The house would have been fibro or increasingly, double brick because that’s what they build in Perth. It would have had two or three bedrooms, one bathroom, a laundry, kitchen, lounge, maybe a family area. No games room, ensuite, reverse cycle air conditioning, outdoor kitchen, theatre room, swimming pool etc etc. Maybe not even a garage or car port. And a new house would be out in the sticks with no gardens, no schools, and very little public transport. These days those little houses which used to be out in the sticks are coveted inner city properties worth near on a million because of their location. In Manning, where I grew up in the fifties’ and sixties in a little State Housing Commission (these days Homes West) house, home units are being sold for $700k and up. Home units!

Interest rates in the mid-seventies were around 9%, soaring in the eighties to over 18%. [4] Actually getting a loan was hard, and near on impossible if you were a single woman. And a lot of things today’s generation take for granted didn’t exist. For instance the only financial assistance the Government offered families was a tax deduction for a child.

The ageing workforce is not something we’ve only just recognised. Paul Keating as treasurer in the Hawke government saw the writing on the wall. He introduced a compulsory superannuation scheme for all tax-payers, with contributions taken from their salary. The rhetoric said the employer paid but at the end of the day it was part of employee remuneration. Keating intended that as far as possible, tax payers would pay for their own retirement. We tax payers were encouraged to contribute extra to our super fund and many of us did just that because there were tax breaks. In fact, we were encouraged to retire to make room for the next generation needing jobs. My mum didn’t want to retire at 65 but she had to. Those were the rules. In the mid-nineties a lady I knew at Australia Post went to the tribunal because she didn’t want to retire at 65. Like most women, she didn’t have much superannuation so she would have had to survive on the old age pension. Nevertheless. She was forced to give up her job. Those were the rules. As an aside, women aged over 55 are the fastest growing group among the homeless in Australia.

Australia’s big super funds are very, very wealthy. The Government has been eyeing off these riches and trying to devise ways of getting access to some of that money. Bear in mind that the super funds derive income from tax payers (our money) and then invest those funds to grow the profits for us. The super funds pay tax on monies earned. Some people with private funds derive income from dividends paid by companies in which they own shares. Some of these are franked credits which can be used to offset tax payable – because the company has already paid the tax.

Because the big funds expect significant fees from their members, people were allowed to set up their own, self-managed super funds (SMSF). There were rules and regulations that had to be followed, of course, like any other business, and at first it was a great idea. I had my own fund, associated with my consulting business.

Pete and I made our plans, worked out how much we’d need to have on retirement day to enjoy a reasonable lifestyle, and put those plans into action.

And then the Government started moving the goal posts.

Pensions in Australia are means tested. If you’ve accumulated too much wealth, you don’t get a pension although you are entitled to medical benefits (so far, anyway). The Government has (so far) refused to include the family home as part of the asset test. But there’s pressure on to change that. The argument is that a couple of old farts living in a house in Manning or Morley that’s now worth a million bucks should sell up and use the proceeds to fund their retirement. It’s the same little house they bought back then, maybe with an extension and an air conditioner. They’d have to leave the neighbourhood they know and relocate – somewhere. A nursing home? Some place on the outskirts of town a cut lunch and a compass from anywhere? If that’s brought in, just about anybody who saved enough to buy a house will be struggling to be entitled to any pension. There’s also pressure on to tax franking credits, because it’s income. But if it’s taxed, what it really means is the government will be receiving tax twice at the expense of retired people generating an income from those funds.

Over time the rules governing SMSFs became more and more draconian and the costs of maintaining a SMSF were such that it wasn’t finacially viable unless you had a LOT of money. It actually cost more to pay for accounting, reporting, and auditing than the profits generated from the investments.

When we first retired, Peter and I received a miniscule pension from the Government. But because of that, we were entitled to claim for discounts for council rates and car registration. Then the Government changed the way the asset test was calculated and reduced the amount above which claimants were not entitled to a pension. Since we no longer qualified for a pension, we  lost the other benefits. The financial impact of the change was much larger than anybody had anticipated. As usual, the bureaucrats had a good idea but didn’t carry out any proper analysis. (Some of those benefits have now been widened to cover all retirees.)

What’s so unfair about these changes is that they are effectively retrospective. The plans we made in the past no longer fit because the rules we worked under no longer apply.

There are considerable financial pressures on the Government to provide benefits for many people. Payments to help families pay for qualified childcare so mothers can work, payments for disabled people, increasing health care costs etc etc. And us old farts live so much longer these days. Instead of encouraging people to retire early, now the age at which people will be able to claim a pension has been raised and we’re all encouraged to work longer. Needless to say, the cost of living goes up for retirees as it does for everyone. The difference is we have a fixed income and even if we wanted to find work, if you think being over fifty is a disincentive to potential employers, try being over sixty-five.

I’ll admit I wouldn’t like to be saddled up with a half a million dollar home loan to go on top of HEX repayments to pay back the thousands I might owe the Government for financing my education. But then again, young couples don’t need to buy a first home at City Beach or Peppermint Grove. House and land packages on the edge of cities or (heaven forbid) in larger towns outside the main capitals are much more affordable. Visit the display homes at new housing estates on the fringes of the big capitals and you’ll find two-storey houses with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a theatre room, a family room, and an outdoor kitchen on a tiny block. What’s wrong with a small, older-style house until you can raise enough equity for something grander? Or perhaps move elsewhere, where there’s more room and less traffic. Here in Hervey Bay you can buy decent-sized homes for $300k+. All you need is a skill for a job so you can get work. Trades people are always welcome. That’s what we had to do back in the day.

I’m too old to expect ‘fair’. But we Baby Boomers worked and planned for a comfortable retirement – paying tax all the way. Hang in for another decade or so and we’ll have shuffled off. Then you can all look forward to getting similar complaints from your own offspring.

 

Covers are important – in more ways than one

I used to haunt bookshops. I loved them, aiming invariably for the fantasy and science fiction aisles and maybe the crime aisles. Oh, and the cookbooks. And anything else that took my fancy. I’d pick up anything that attracted my interest and read the blurb, then maybe a few pages before I decided whether to spend my hard-earned readies on that particular book.

How did I decide whether to pick up a book and look more closely?

The first thing was often the author’s name. If I’d read their work before and enjoyed it, I’d certainly look for other titles. Terry Pratchett (may he rest in piece) was an auto-buy for me. Another factor might be that I’d seen an ad that looked interesting, or had a book recommended. Those aside, I’d look at covers.

My process for buying an e-book is no different. Except that maybe the cover is even more important. In a bookshop most of the books are arranged spine out because there isn’t room to do anything else. In an e-book store, it’s covers all the way. The covers have to attract the right sort of readers and tell a little story in their own right. For example, if you’re looking at Romance books in any sub-genre, images displaying a heap of ripped abs and powerful pecs are likely to be at least steamy. If that’s not your reading taste, move on. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule. Fifty Shades of Grey et al didn’t have steamy covers but if you didn’t know that was what you were buying, you must have just lifted that rock off your head.

But this post isn’t about what elements you should use in your covers, it’s more about how they’re portrayed. I’ve recently discovered a website called Covervault. The owner has created some great free templates that people familiar with Photoshop CC can use to create 3D book cover images and posters. I’ve had a wonderful time messing about with them, pretending it was ‘work’.

3D images are very important for boxed sets because they show the customer what they’ll get for their money.

Here’s an example. The 2D version tells you you’ll get three stories – but the 3D version shows you and gives the names. It’s a classic example of ‘show don’t tell’.

 

When I publish my books I deal direct with Amazon, but distribute to Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks through Draft to Digital (D2D). After I’d created my nifty 3D boxed set covers I loaded them up to Amazon and D2D. A day later I got a message from D2D saying that Apple would not accept a 3D cover. Frankly, I thought that was crazy. Amazon was happy with the 3D version. I wrote to D2D asking if the other stores would not accept a 3D cover, and if there was a way of submitting both versions of a cover.

D2D offers great support. I received a response that only Apple will not use 3D covers. I was asked to provide 2D versions for the boxed sets which D2D would manually switch for the listing at iBooks. That’s great customer service and a large raspberry for Apple. You’d think they’d be interested in giving their customers the best information available.

Here are some of the posters I’ve created. I hope they tell you a bit more about the books, which is, of course, the idea. If you’d like to know more, click on the poster.

The rain has (finally) come

I’m delighted to be able to report that we have been rained upon – nice, gentle, soaking rain which can continue on for longer if it wants. Encouraged by the 30mm or so we’d had before, I planted a cutting that I’d had under shelter, developing roots. The plant had a good root ball – but the ground where I planted it was only damp for about 3mm. The water had simply run off. I was surprised but that’s what you get after a prolonged dry period. I’m hopeful this time will be better.

All the plants in all the gardens in town have heaved a huge sigh of relief and started to develop new growth. This was, of course, particularly true of the weeds, which always take advantage of any opportunity. The big task now is to keep the weeds under control and give the grass a chance. The callistemons (see above) are flush with new growth and even flowers, which have pleased the resident honey eaters. The one at the top is an Australian noisy miner feasting on a flower. That’s great to see.

The weather has had other consequences. Pete and I, like quite a few other people in town, have contracted a kind of fluey virus that makes us lethargic, hot and sweaty, and achy. The doctor has assured us we’ll get the runny nose and coughs in due course. Something to look forward to.

I’ve been amusing myself by re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books. In the first one, Wee Free Men, Tiffany is nine years old. It won an award for children’s books and I suppose an older child could read it. But I was nine about… let’s see… sixty years ago and I’ve enjoyed the book several times already. Like all Terry’s stories, it’s a mix of hilarity, mythology, and life lessons. Oh, and it breaks that Rule of Writing that states you should use dialect sparingly in novels, just enough to get the flavour. The Wee Free Men are Feegles, fairy folk six inches tall who could easily be mistaken for Scots, right down to the kilts, the swords, and the wode. They speak in broad Scottish accents. All the time. Here’s a wee example. “Rob Anybody looked offended.  ‘We ne’er get lost!’ he said.  ‘We always ken where we are!  It’s just sometimes mebbe we aren’t sure where everything else is, but it’s no’ our fault if everything else gets lost! The Nac Mac Feegle are never lost!’ ”

If you’re bored with Brexit or Orange Don, have a look. Wee Free Men.

Apart from that, I’ve had some fun creating posters for my books in Photoshop. Here are a few examples.

To find out more about the books just click on the picture.

The Rules of Writing

Facebook has a fun little feature called ‘memories’ which shows people posts they made years ago on that day of the year. I go through mine because it’s fun to look at stuff that was important enough to post about in the past. This morning I came across a note I was tagged in by a writer friend nine years ago.

Toby Neal, a very successful author of mysteries set in Hawaii, posted this article by Elmore Leonard which first appeared in The Guardian newspaper. (I’d never heard of him, either. Read his bio here.) (BTW, if you like crime stories, do look at Toby’s work. They’re good. Click on the link on her name.)

Leonard Elmore

Using adverbs is a mortal sin (ME: I don’t know why this was on its own, I suppose because it is a MORTAL sin, whereas the other rules will only send you to purgatory.)

1 Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2 Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks.”

3 Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

4 Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said” . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs”.

5 Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6 Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7 Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8 Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”, what do the “Ameri­can and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story.

9 Don’t go into great detail describing places and things, unless you’re ­Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

ME:

It all sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes? The general consensus was that as guidelines, Leonard’s ‘rules’ are worth considering. But not everybody agreed. Especially the late MM Bennets, who was a historian, author, and professional literary critic among many other things. She was a great help to me when I wrote To Die a Dry Death. I’ve condensed the comments on the post to make a more coherent narrative but I’ve not changed the words.

MM Bennets: Those are tremendous if and only if you wish to write like Elmore Leonard. I don’t. At all.

Whenever I read daft rules like Leonard’s, I think of the Sayer’s novel, The Nine Tailors, where she uses the weather of the fens as a metaphor for the roiling shared guilt that has destroyed this small community. It’s a monumental book…or think how Conrad used it as metaphor and almost as a character in some of his work…

I have to say this. Why are writers are desperately keen to subscribe to some fellow’s Rules of Writing. Why? Why won’t they read what they like, analyse those authors, or even the work of authors whose styles they don’t like, and then come up with what works for them? All of these rules by other writers are little more than literary straight jackets that don’t even fit right. It’s the literary equivalent of putting a straight-jacket made for Hagrid on Frankie Dettori.

I’ve just been thinking about this post while I made more tea. And Leonard’s advice contains some fundamental flaws. We all, when we go about our daily lives, are constantly taking in our surroundings. And the weather. This is a constant feed to our brains. If we desire to write books so that the reader is inside the head of a character or at the very least in the room with them, some of this information is essential. So that the reader is seeing what the character sees, and therefore can empathise. (If you want to be Albert Camus when you grow up–obviously, this is not the method for you.) The thing about the weather–that has to be dated. Because if you look at the most popular and fascinating of police work today, that’s the forensic work and a lot of that, much of it very detailed, is about weather conditions or the where it happened determining how it happened. So setting has become if anything more important.

Just read rule nine. Which is complete crock. What would Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights be without the moors? How well would Doctor Zhivago work without the snow? And I don’t even want to contemplate A Tale of Two Cities without the taverns, the guillotine, the prison…Or Miss Garnet’s Angel without Venice? Please…

Before Toby sends me to stand in the corner, I just want to ask why are writers setting their sights so low? Why are they not looking to Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Zola, Tolstoi, Cather, Twain, Wodehouse…these are the authors whose work has lasted, so why aren’t we asking ourselves how did they do it? What were their rules?

Judith Kinghorn is another successful author. She said:  There are a few obvious rules included here, but if we try to adhere to each and every list of writing rules – and get too hung up on them – what becomes of our voice?

I think prologues can and often do work: it depends on the story and how well the prologue is written! The weather: some of the very best and most evocative writing in the English language opens with the a description of the weather.

Almost everthing is a cliche, because almost everything has been said before…our struggle is to try and say it differently, and in the context of a new story. My advice is – read these lists of rules, but don’t necessarily adhere to all they say. Writers should, I think, break rules and create new boundaries all the time.

Garalt Canton, (yes, another author) came up with his own set or sules based upon Elmore Leonard’s.

Gary Canton’s 10 Rules…er..guidelines of Writing in response to Elmore Leonard’s stab.

1 – Opening a book is a physical act and a leap of faith. ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ spoken in Highland Scots will only close that book again and quickly. Weather is relevant only if it is relevant to the character you are writing about or to the narrative you are writing.

2 – Prologues: If it is back story I’d advise splitting up the back story over the entire novel but if you are setting the scene or creating the world of the novel you might like to keep it short and relevant to the story.

3 – People talk to one another and so they say things. However, unless your novel is populated by speak and spell machines and Stephen Hawking you might like to include tones of voice – a warning – try to keep your actors keeping it real and not shouting, wailing, declaring and hissing at one another (unless you’re PG Woodhouse, that is). ‘Said’ works most of the time if you have a gift for dialogue but if not, and you have no plans to write in iambic pentameter, you may need to inject some tone of voice into your dialogue.

4 – Avoid tautologies in adverbs after speech actions”he shouted loudly”, “she whispered softly”. “I cooed cooingly” – You get it. In fact, avoid tautologies in all verbs: “He stabbed violently”, “she screamed hysterically”, “they ran quickly” etc.

5 – Kids love excalmation marks – ‘Nuff said.

6 – Actually what does all hell breaking loose look like, feel like, smell like, sound like? We’d like to know. – Suddenly – actually delays the action by three syllables so its not that sudden is it?

7 – Patois: regional accents or in my case translated Occitan: If both characters are speaking the same patois, English is fine. If one character is speaking unintelligible gibberish to another, why spend hours and hours spelling that out – just say it’s largely gibberish and pick out the important bits for the reader. Otherwise, think about writing poetry instead.

8 – The Dan Brown Trap! He is handsome and intelligent, she is beautiful and smart, even sassy. They both look like Hollywood stars and their vital statistics are as follows….Yawn Your characters lose audience the more definite they have been described. Proof? Where in the bible is Jesus described physically? Exactly!

9 – This is contentious – Are you Sir Peter Hall or are you Franco Zeferelli? Dogme works if you have done a LOT of work on your characters. Detail works if you have strong characters that stand out from the backdrop. The prisoner sat a cell. The prisoner shivered from the damp halflight that drifted down from the sole crack in the lichen covered walls. Both work. Describe that which we have never seen before.
But no need to focus on the intricacies of the traffic light – we’ve all seen one.

10 – Read a book – where did you feel longueurs? Did you feel naughty and skip forward to see how much more of this guff you need to wade through? Does anything change in the next three paragraphs? No? You can cut them if you like. The story won’t suffer. Do we learn something more about the character from the next three paragraphs? No? Red pen.

Oh – by the way, enjoy what you’re writing and write YOUR story.

ME: I’ve just finished re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Wee Free Men and I’m now reading the next book, A Hat Full of Sky. Pratchett doesn’t respect anybody’s rules and he completely ignores Leonard’s Rule 7. The Feegles always, always, always speak in broad, essentially Scots, dialect which does sometimes require a re-read. And he uses footnotes, such a basic no-no in fiction that Elmore doesn’t even mention it. As they say, ‘rules are meant to be broken’.

Or, to put it another way, make up your own damn rules.

Autumn has arrived

Autumn in the botanic gardens in Christchurch, I haven of serenity in this beleaguered city

The world’s been a pretty awful place lately, what with drought, floods, and terrorism. But I’ve said enough about that stuff, so I thought I’d talk about the weather.

Here in Australia our weather woes are continuing. Two large cyclones are active in the northern parts of the continent – TC Veronica on the west coast and TC Trevor on the east coast. Veronica is set to hit Whim Creek, between Karratha and Port Hedland. Trevor has crossed Cape York into the Gulf of Carpentaria, and is going to make landfall in the Northern Territory. Both storms will wreak havoc – and bring much-needed rain to the interior. If we’re lucky, Trevor will start to move south-east and we might get something from its tail. We have had some rain here, enough to revitalise our garden, but we’d like a bit more.

Majestically ignoring the concerns of its inhabitants, the world has continued its dance around the sun. The equinox has passed, so now the days in Australia are becoming shorter. Autumn, or Fall as many call it, is my favourite time of the year. In cooler climates the trees put on a spectacular show. In warmer places like ours the temperatures are warm and calm. So here are some of my favourite Autumn photos taken over the years.

I’ll start with the botanic garden at Christchurch, a beautiful haven in that beleaguered  city.

I took this in Christchurch’s botanic garden when I visited the city last year

One of my favourite Autmn photos. Autumn finery reflected in the Rhine

Autumn in the Wachau Valley October 2015

Autumn colours and sunrise tints at Durnstein on the Danube

Autumn from the deck at our house in Greendale. The evergreen eucalyptus forest is behind our exotic deciduous trees

Silver birches preparing for the winter chill at Greendale

Golden light and calm seas are what Autumn’s all about

The sun’s just up and the rupples sparkle like silver paper

Calm seas, clear skies, bright ripples